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Up, Up, and An Aquarium

Friday 1 July 2016

So now we are back in YVR (Vancouver B.C.’s airport) to catch our flight to LHR (that’s Heathrow).

If you’ve visited Vancouver and you came from the U.S., you landed at the U.S. part of the airport. YVR is one of those airports where you actually clear U.S. Immigration and Customs before you board; handy when you arrive wherever you’re going, but definitely adds a few minutes to the security process. On the way in to Canada, you get to pass through the rather grand International Arrivals Hall, which has a great native totem at one end. It’s huge! And far more interesting than, say, the arrivals hall at ORD.

But it’s when you head out of Canada to another country that’s not the U.S. that you get a special treat. In this case, you will be passing through the International Departures Hall, which takes all the good stuff from the arrivals hall and amplifies it by about a factor of five. It’s a big mall, with aircraft gates, surrounding these big water features:

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Seriously, there’s a HUGE aquarium in the middle of the airport, with yet another of those cool native-themed carvings above it. This is definitely the airport for that longish layover.

Important safety tip (for your luggage): if you have a long layover, check in with the airline agents at least 90 minutes ahead of departure. We happened to stop at BA’s desk on our way back in, and were cautioned that had we just gone straight to the gate, they might have unloaded our checked luggage, and then when we arrived at the gate, might not have had time to reload it. They won’t take a chance on carrying luggage without the passenger to whom it belongs.

So here’s the plane:

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That’s one freakishly big plane. In case the size isn’t apparent, the A380-800 is 238′ long with a wingspan of 261′. To put that in context, from the middle of the aircraft to the tip of one wing is longer than a whole 737. The top of the vertical stabilizer (the tail) is 79′ above the ground. In BA’s 4-class arrngement, it carries 469 passengers; it is certified to carry up to 853 passengers.

As you can see, it is boarded from two separate skyways, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. The classes are split between the decks: First in the nose on the main deck; Biz at the front of the upper deck and aft of First on the main deck; Premium Econ on both decks behind those, and regular Econ at the aft of each deck. The bathrooms at the very front of the upper deck (reserved for Biz use) are HUGE, like 5’x8′.

Here’s a shot of the upper deck in Biz:

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You can see how the pods face each other in a staggered array; it’s 2-3-2 on the upper deck and 2-4-2 on the lower. Econ is 3-4-3 on the main deck, just for comparison.

The seat area is reasonably roomy, but not huge. The footrest at the end folds down to form part of the “bed”; the tray table is the metal panel to the left, with the IFE screen above it. There’s also a little drawer down at my feet.

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Problems with this seat are covered better elsewhere, but the main ones are: it’s narrow; solo travelers inevitably wind up facing a stranger for potentially long periods across the lowered partition; half the passengers have to step over the legs of the other half to get in and out of the seats; the storage is poor, except in the upper deck windows where there are small bays under the windows; there is a USB charging port and power ports, but no place to stash the device being charged.

But, it still beats the heck out of any Econ service.

This is a cool set of photos. Aside from the time of day, and assuming the aircraft is level in each, what’s the difference?

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It’s the wingtips. The wings flex as much as 4m (that’s over 13′) at take-off. By all measures, this is a crazy big aircraft.

So what else? Not much. We ate (very good food, even by ground restaurant standards), wine, teas (of course), and snacks for the taking all night. Martha’s seat almost wouldn’t go flat, and then almost wouldn’t go back to the required takeoff and landing position. The staff were very friendly. The plane is very quiet at night, especially the upper deck. The flight was very smooth. The IFE was pretty good, with a decent selection of movies.

At the end, sometime before landing, one of the cabin crew introduced herself and asked us a number of questions about how we found the trip, the aircraft, and BA Biz class. I think they are doing this with first-time Biz passengers, as (spoiler alert!) they didn’t do this on the trip back. It was a little odd, being approached that way when most of the passengers were not, but in hindsight it did seem that they were genuinely interested in how we did (or didn’t) enjoy the flight.

Immigration and Customs at Heathrow were uneventful. We disembarked at T3, which is an older terminal; it gave us our first taste of “oh yeah, Europeans don’t believe in lots of air conditioning”. We would get lots more of that in the following weeks. Biz class usually gets you priority lanes through Immigration and Customs, which helps. Baggage retrieval and meeting our driver were uneventful. View of the parking garage:

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Takeaways from this part of the trip:

  • YVR is a great place for a layover, long or short.
  • BA Biz class is ok but not great, especially if you’re paying cash (we weren’t)
  • Confirm that you’re checked in when you return to the airport. Treat every long connection as a fresh flight.
  • Definitely get a car with driver from Heathrow, especially if you have any amount of large luggage. JustAirports.com has been good for us. If you are traveling light, us the Heathrow Express train from T5 to Paddington Station.

London! will have to wait until next time.

But First, A Word From Our Layover

Monday 27 June 2016

Did I mention that we had a really long layover in Vancouver? Yes? Ok, here’s how that went down.

As I had mentioned, we switched our outbound flights from PDX-DFW-LHR (in First, dammit!) to PDX-YVR-LHR (in Biz). This was a big change, first because we went from BA First (which is generally regarded as Super Nice) to BA Biz (which beats a kick in the head, but is nowhere near as nice). We also changed from a 747-400 to an A380-800, either of which would be a first for both of us (I know, really?) For BA, even in Biz on either you at least get a lie-flat seat that really does go fully flat, but the last two feet or so is a big footrest that goes flat and makes up the support under your calves. Also, the seats flip in orientation across the row, so you always are facing someone else through a partition that has to be down for takeoff, landing, and any service, and you usually will have to step over someone else’s legs to get to the aisle if you don’t have an aisle seat, or someone else will be stepping over your legs if you are in the aisle. Naturally, all these have won BA endless accolades for their Biz seating (not.)

The second reason is that, until this trip, Martha was of the opinion that Vancouver wanted us dead.

We had been to Vancouver many times before that, most more or less successfully. Our first trip to Vancouver was, I think, in 1992, the first year we went to Ashland and the year we bought our first house. Alaska Airlines was having a sale on flights to Vancouver that Thanksgiving, so off we went. The dollar was strong, conference organizers and the film industry had not really found Vancouver yet, so even great hotels were very cheap. We ate well, bought stuff at great exchange rates (including the Burberry trench coat that I took on this trip, and a Harris tweed that I didn’t), and generally had a good time. We went back many times, including for the non-apocalyptic 1999 New Year’s Eve, when the hotel gave us a list of all of the backup procedures they had in place and what to do in case of various emergencies (fire, power outage, water outage; no zombies). We went back a couple of more times, always over Thanksgiving, but then slowly fell away from it as the US dollar fell in power against the Canadian dollar.

And then I heard about the fireworks.

Folks, those crazy Canucks are serious about their fireworks. In the middle of summer for the past 26 years, when sane people are headed for the beach or the aircon, something like 300,000 Canadians and visitors come to English Bay on three separate nights for some of the best fireworks you will see anywhere. Three international high-end fireworks teams (this year’s USA team is Disney) light up the water (you thought I would write “light up the skies”, right? Lame) off Vancouver with amazing works of pyrotechnic and musical prowess.

I am, of course, a fireworks junkie. Blame my parents; they have been dragging me (once; then I dragged them) to any and every fireworks display I could find. The Bicentennial under the Gateway Arch; fife and drums and fireworks in Colonial Williamsburg; and of course, many Fourths of July on grass of the Capitol, long before PBS borged that event.

So we went to Vancouver.

It was not our most successful trip. The fireworks were amazing; no letdown there. We made a couple of mistakes; we booked a dinner table during the fireworks for one of the evenings (bad mistake; view partially blocked by a really ugly fence), and we had tickets for Bard on the Beach on another night, which did provide a good but very distant view of the fireworks that night. The performers at the Bard production of Twelfth Night were excellent; they had to deal with an airshow behind them (scheduled for the same time) and a big rock concert nearby; they managed to ad-lib a bit to deflect the disturbances. It was also hot (duh) and humid (duh), which was a shock compared to Vancouver in Thanksgiving, when the atmospheric humidity is usually present as rain. It’s not hot and humid like St. Louis or D.C., but we have lost our tolerance from too many years in the Mediterranean-like West Coast, so it was hot and humid to us.

But we tried again the next year. This time was worse; I had a cold on the flight up, got worse while we were there, and we decide to bail half-way through. Bad idea; two flights in a row burst an eardrum so I couldn’t fly again for a couple of months. We got to one of the fireworks events (USA! USA!), and, being veterans, knew just where to go, so we had a fabulous view and food. But it convinced Martha that Vancouver Wanted Us Dead, so that about wrapped it up for Vancouver.

And then, we were faced with the prospect of a layover in DFW, with only one flight in and one out, and the prospect of coach for nine hours if we missed it. Vancouver, with many flights in, two out, and a long layover to let luggage catch up with us, wasn’t looking so malicious. Nice Vancouver! Sit! Stay! Roll over!

So I rebooked the flights, and we were off to London via Vancouver, in Biz not First, but that was ok.

A nine-hour layover in Vancouver screams for a day-trip into the city. It’s 40 minutes or so on the excellent Canada Line train, easy to get to from the airport and with many stations downtown. Since this was just a layover and not a longer stay, we decided not to push the envelope and to stay with restaurants and activities that would allow time to get around, be pleasant but not too challenging, and generally let us enjoy the city between flights.

Before you set off from the airport, drop off your carry-on bags at the very excellent CDS Baggage service in the airport. We stored two or three bags and the aforementioned trench coat with them for about USD $10.

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For lunch, we chose Homer Street Cafe and Bar in the Yaletown neighborhood of Vancouver. They have excellent roasted chicken, very flavorful and moist, and, as important or more, chicken skin chips, rendered and flattened and allowed to fry in their own fat. Mmm…

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For dinner, we knew we had to be back at the airport by about 7PM, so we planned a very civilized afternoon tea at Urban Tea Merchant. While it’s technically a French-oriented tea shop, they do excellent British-like afternoon tea, with many proper small sandwiches, buttery soft scones, and an assortment of marvelous pastries. If you’re so inclined, they also serve Pacific Northwest and Japanese-inspired dishes, including a very nice miso black cod (butter of the sea!) and of course a HUGE assortment of teas, mostly IWG. Important safety tip: “afternoon tea” is the fancy ladies-with-gloves tea, and “high tea” is the more substantial workingman’s tea. We knew this from the many prior trips to Vancouver.

So that would give us a few hours to wander around, see the city, and generally relax.

Nah!

Remember that I plan obsessively and continuously (really–I dream trip plans). So while Martha was tucked all snug in her bed (I had made the Homer Street and Urban Tea reservation in March), I was scouring the Vancouver event pages for something to occupy that long three hours between lunch and the rather late tea.

And because I also still get emailed notices from Arts Club, Vancouver’s main live theatre production company, on May 18th, 4 days before we left, I got a notice containing this video:

Billy Elliot, which had just closed in London’s West End on April 6th after 4,600 performances (no, really), had just opened in Vancouver (not the same company, but still). And despite sold-out audiences, there were two seats third row center for the matinée of the Sunday of our layover.

Fate. Kismet. Whatever you call it, we had our afternoon.

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I will spare you the further details of the train to town (quick and painless), our lunch (excellent, especially the roast chicken and chicken skin), getting around Vancouver (cabs plentiful, but keep the app Curb handy on your iPhone), or tea (mobbed by Asian birthday parties just leaving, but still excellent).

But if Billy Elliot is performed anywhere near you, or if you can get to somewhere it is being performed, go. I have rarely seen such an excellent combination of social commentary and musical artistry. Definitely a must-see.

Back to the airport, and off to London…

…next time.

 

Planning an Invasion

Sunday 26 June 2016

One of our favorite series of travel guides, The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland, likens planning a trip to Disney as planning an amphibious invasion. I took that to heart many years ago, and because I’m an OCD engineer, of course I was going to plan a long trip to Europe as though we were personally going to re-enact the entire Allied European campaign from Operation Mincemeat through the Liberation of Paris on our own. There would be flights, trains, buses, subways, possibly ferries, certainly taxis as our transport; hotels and maybe apartments; cafés, bistros, tea shops, diners, grand restaurants; and every manner of entertainment for all the hours not spent sleeping, eating, or travelling.

In the original concept for September 2015, we would spend three weeks abroad: start in London and recover our jet lag there (and take in a few sights), take the train to Paris, stash some luggage, then to Vienna, see that, then to Switzerland for a few days, then train to Rome, see that, then back to Paris, then to London, then back home. There was a strategy here; the concept was that we could ditch luggage for each place at a local left luggage company, pick it up as needed, and so have fresh duds no matter where we were, while minimizing how much actual luggage we needed to tote in each location, especially the train over the Swiss Alps.

Please stop laughing.

The plan was solid, from a logistics standpoint, assuming that we wanted to avoid doing bathroom laundry (a requirement for me) and the need to use hotel laundry services. I had wound up doing laundry (coin-op) on prior trips and it was a pain in the a** to have to find the laundry in some foreign city, go there, waste time waiting for the laundry to be done, and go back to the hotel to fold etc. Even laundries with drop-off/pick-up service felt like an intrusion, a loss of time better spent on other activities. I’d also had less than stellar experiences with hotel laundries in the US, who had failed to remove simple spots from shirts. So “no laundry” was high on my list. We already had several large pieces of luggage, and were traveling mostly business class, so checked luggage limits weren’t a huge consideration.

Stop laughing.

Martha was big on hotels and not so much on apartments, AirBnB, VRBO, and other non-traditional housing. London would be our first stop for several days so that we would have time in a country where we mostly understand the language while we un-jet lagged. Sounded like a good plan. After many revisions, the plan was set: fly to London, several days there, Eurostar to Paris, ditch luggage at CDG, fly to Vienna, a few days there, train to Switzerland, then train across the Alps and down to Rome, several days there, fly to Paris, retrieve luggage, a week in Paris, train back to London, a few days there, then fly back to the States. Only the luggage needed for each forward stage would be carried forward, so we would have less and less as we went towards Paris (from Rome) and then start collecting it back up for the return trip.

Stop. F*cking. Laughing.

As I mentioned, real life intruded, so we pushed the trip first to all of May of 2016 (where the trip expanded again a bit; I’ll skip that) and then to three weeks from late May through mid-June. In the process, the available flights (using frequent flyer miles on Alaska Airlines, partnering with British Airways) prevented a clean round-trip through London, and we cut the itinerary to London, Paris, and Rome, so we ditched the store-the-luggage concept and went to the more conventional steamer-trunks-and-sherpas plan (i.e. bring it all and let bellmen and taxi drivers schlep the luggage). This was better and worse all at once.

So now we have a plan: three weeks, nine days in London, 4 in Rome, 7 in Paris. No trains, just flights.

Since this was Martha’s first trip to Europe, I wanted everything to be extra comfortable, so I booked a large suite with an excellent view in London, both for the wow factor of the view and to have an additional retreat in case of jet lag sleeplessness. In Rome (stop two), I went with TripAdvisor and Booking.com ratings and picked a nice-looking place sort of between the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain. For Paris, we found a little hotel in St. Germain near Notre Dame. So that was set.

The change in lodging from September to May/June was not painless; we had a reservation for September through VRBO with what looked like a great apartment in Paris. However, when we tried to cancel (“fully cancellable 30 days in advance”), VRBO completely took a powder on supporting us, claiming that only the owner had the ability to refund the substantial deposit; the owner claimed that she could not figure out the VRBO website and/or that we needed to have VRBO make the refund. After much back-and-forth, I sent a very well-documented claim to my credit card company, who quite promptly refunded the deposit. So we don’t do VRBO (or HomeAway, their parent company) any more.

However.

As the trip got closer, I felt underwhelmed by the Paris hotel. It’s nice, very nice in fact, but I wasn’t feeling the wow factor. So I went online again and looked for apartments, and hit pay dirt.

Back up.

Part of my “image” of being in Paris was finding a small café on Île Saint-Louis, reading a good book and sipping tea (not a coffee drinker) and eating macarons while Martha went to all the perfume shops she could stand. While it wasn’t strictly necessary to stay on Île Saint-Louis, certainly there was an attraction to being there. While looking at the various hotels, I came across a listing for Guest Apartment Services, a rental agency that focuses on apartments on Île Saint-Louis. They are a little spendy, but they have some amazing properties under management, and had great responsiveness during the online (mostly email) reservation process. So we picked a place with a killer location and views. More on that later.

Let’s talk flights. I have been accumulating frequent flyer miles on Alaska Airlines for decades, both through flights and through charges on our Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa card. Alaska partners with British Airways, American Airlines, KLM, and Air France among others. I had been saving them for a cruise, but that’s a different story.

Because we were re-booking well after the 12-month opening of flights (we cancelled September’s trip in June), everything in First was booked, and Biz class was getting harder to find (first world problems, don’t judge, you would do it, too). I found a routing PDX-DFW-LHR and a return CDG-LHR-SEA-PDX, in first on the way out and biz on the way back, so that was good.

Except that Martha was worried about the 3-hour layover at DFW; Alaska has like one flight a day PDX-DFW, so if there were a problem we might be able to get to LHR, but probably in coach, That would not make for a Happy Martha. Back to the computers.

After a few weeks, a couple of tickets in biz PDX-YVR-LHR opened up, same day. Couple of things about this: one, the layover was like 9 hours; two, Martha had been convinced, based on a couple of bad experiences, that Vancouver Wanted Us Dead.

She had a point about VWUD. We had been there many times over (US) Thanksgiving and had a good time, but we had been more recently tried going in summer and it had not gone well. Like, mild pneumonia and a burst eardrum that kept me from flying for a couple of months. Plus generally hot and humid weather, and we have lost all our Midwest-ingrained tolerance for heat and humidity. So getting her to go through YVR was a challenge. However, the long layover (an advantage for getting checked bags correctly transferred), multiple additional chances to get there if our first (early) flight went inop, and removal of the short layover in DFW won her over.

So we had flights (AS/BA PDX-YVR-LHR outbound, BA LHR-FCO, AF FCO-CDG, and AS/BA ORY-LHR-SEA-PDX), lodging, a bunch of restaurant reservations, a few events (Great Dixter, Chelsea Flower Show, a couple of tours in Rome), and a few days off planned. We had test-packed the clothes (two large bags, two roll-aboards, on-board “accessory” bags with iPads, phones, Kindles, etc.) and everything fit. We felt ready to go.

So the post-mortem on the planning stage:

The trip itself–itinerary, flights, hotels, event–was not over-planned. What was over-planned was the luggage and clothing; we found that we could get into the best restaurants (3 Michelin star) anywhere in London, Paris, or Rome with a jacket, smart trousers, and maybe a tie (although I skipped the tie). The hotel laundries (and apartment laundry in Paris) were efficient and not as expensive as even one large piece of luggage (very good hotels, YMMV). We didn’t pack enough spare luggage for souvenirs, which was a problem later. The big camera that I thought I would want for certain situations (better optical zoom) was not as useful as hoped. I would skip the iPads next time, and lean on Kindles (smaller, lighter) and phones. I didn’t use my big trench coat once, and the two suits were almost a total waste of space. Next time, we will bring  less gadgetry and clothes, and rely more heavily on our phones and hotel and apartment laundries.

I think we are both more comfortable with apartment rentals at this point, so we will probably use those more often. We really liked the ability to spread out in a private space. I would (again) read reviews closely and stay away from anyplace that seems even a little shady. It’s likely more expensive that way, but still miles cheaper than equivalent hotels, and no one wants to dread going back to their lodging. We had travel insurance for the Paris apartment, so we felt reasonably comfortable that we could bail on it and not be out everything if the apartment was bad.

That’s it for this post. More to follow.

Update:

I just found this photo, taken at MFR on our way to PDX (we stage long trips out of PDX; it’s just easier). A double rainbow, often believed to be a good omen. Works for me.

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Martha & Steve’s Big Adventure

Saturday 25 June 2016

Paddington bearLast year had numerically-significant birthdays for both of us. Martha, never having been out of North America and being both a gardening and perfuming fanatic, got interested in the idea of going to th UK (for Great Dixter) and Paris (for perfume, duh).

We had planned to go in September 2015, after most of the (other) tourists had gone home and the weather would have cooled a bit. As it turned out, we pushed the trip first to early May of 2016, and then to mid-May through mid-June. Turns out that this was lucky in more than one way, but I’ll get to that later.

Most people (who blog; not really most people) would have written about their trip during the trip, so that the recollections would be fresh. I didn’t want to do it that way: one, because I’m a contrarian; two, because neither of us wanted to take hours (or even minutes) a day to do this. If we weren’t out doing something, we wanted to be recovering from what we had been doing, or planning events for later in the trip (yes, I didn’t plan it all to the minute this time).

So I’m writing this as a kind of expedition post-mortem; with the perfect hindsight of the entire trip, it’s easier to gain perspective on what did and didn’t work, and what we would and wouldn’t do again. Minor spoiler: yes, we would do it again.

I’ll start with the pre-trip planning (which started in September 2014) and continue through the trip proper in subsequent posts. Feel free to skip sections that don’t draw you in; the detail will likely be overwhelming in places.

AIFF15: No Spoilers

Monday 13 April 2015

Usually, I’d be writing about the Ashland Independent Film Festival as it unfolds during each Festival in early April.

I didn’t do that this year.

I don’t have a good reason why, really. Herself wanted to do this year’s AIFF in a more low-key way. We’ve often done 20, 22, even 24 film slots during prior Festivals. For a festival with five slots a day Friday through Monday and four on Thursday, that means films pretty much all day for 15 hours a day, with meals and sleep snatched in between. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also a big time commitment.

This year, we had a warm up at the Seattle Cinerama, which was showing Lawrence of Arabia on their super-big screen on the Saturday before Easter (so, the Saturday before AIFF). That’s a reasonable warm-up for a film festival (or a double-feature at OSF).

The other thing was the list of films this year. We have a way of choosing films that tries to balance what we each want, or are willing, to see. It’s a four-point rating scale: 0 is “no, please no!”, 1 is “eh, if you insist”, 2 is “this could be good”, and 3 is “oh, my, yes!”. Add the scores for each film and you’ve got a plan. Way too many films were coming in at a total score of 2 or less (out of a max of 6), so we picked the few that hit the higher values.

The upside of this is that what we saw was generally excellent; no really stinkers. The downside is that if something was amazing but low on our list, we missed it. Oh well.

Here’s what we saw, and how they stacked up:

Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey  Actor Hal Holbrook has been doing his one-man Mark Twain show on and off for over 60 years: it was his first professional gig, in 1954, and he’s still doing it to this day (we saw it a couple of months ago). He’s performed the show, which changes from day-to-day, over 2,250 times. This movie is a biography that covers a little of his personal life and a lot about how he created and performs as Twain.

I’ve seen the Holbrook/Twain live performance at least a couple of times; it’s a funny and thoughtful reflection on American society and politics. The movie does a good job of blending Holbrook’s personal life and the production of the Twain show.

Highly recommended.

Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation  I had been anticipating this film, as The Nation has always been a favorite publication, and there was the promise of a historical look at the magazine and the stories it had covered.

Sadly, while there was some history of the magazine, and the back story about the interns was interesting, there was way, way too much fluff. I don’t need yet another establishing shot to tell me that we’re back in NYC when the next shot is the interior of the magazine’s offices. Similarly, the closing section about the cruise, and just about all the follow shots of the magazine’s editor were superfluous. Some of the history of the magazine was interesting.

It’s not in the “there’s two hours of my life I’m never getting bad” level of bad, but if someone else wants to watch it while I’m there, I’ll go read the magazine instead.

Wildlike  Here’s another one we had been anticipating: a new feature starring Bruce Greenwood (“Nowhere Man”, Star Trek (2009), Flight) about a “troubled teen” who takes off into the Alaskan wilds.

Mr. Greenwood is a fine actor; his counterpart, played by Ella Purnell (MaleficentTarzan) and the rest of the cast are also no lightweights, so success is not a surprise.

What was a surprise was the extent to which the writer, director and cast avoided any Hollywood-ization of the story. Rene (Mr. Greenwood) is a mature adult, but he is neither all-wise nor tragically flawed; he has his own problems, but they are normal and well within the scope of believability. Similarly, Mackenzie (Ms. Purnell) has problems that are (unfortunately) too possible without being overwhelming; her actions are believable and human without descending into maudlin.

I really loved that all of the actions and reactions were normal. There was no exceptional heroism, nor exceptional villainy. The creators avoid using music to push emotion; the visuals of the Alaskan wilderness were beautiful without pushing into glorious. Comedy was used as it would naturally occur, not forced into the script to elicit a reaction.

One of the best feature films I’ve seen in years. Highly recommended.

Proud Citizen  A Bulgarian playwright wins second place in a playwriting contest; her reward is production of her work in Frankfort, Kentucky.

It’s almost a Mamet-like film; you start in one place, and after a series of twists and turns, all of which are small in individual scope and believable in context, you wind up with the lead character at a place you didn’t expect.

Acting and production are spot on for a film that feels by turns like a feature and a documentary. At one point Herself said she wondered why the cameraman didn’t answer a question, and then remembered oh yeah, it’s not a documentary. None of the actors felt overly polished; the naturalness of the performances was outstanding.

Also highly recommended.

Animation Shorts  This has always been one of our favorite blocks, but it has been slipping in the last few years. This year, all but one of the films were foreign, so not in competition; the one in competition was a Plympton film that I swear we saw at AIFF last year.

The films were good, many very dark and dealing with dark subjects (depression, suicide, loss). But I’m not looking for AIFF to merely re-project films that can be found elsewhere; I want AIFF to show films that are novel and are not just re-runs of what’s been selected by other festivals.

There were a few good films. The best was probably one about a therapy session called Through the Hawthorn. That film is Highly Recommended.

Man from Reno  A weird film. Almost a live-action Japanese anime-like film noir. A pretty and reclusive author, a dead guy, and a local sheriff collide in a weird tale about…well, watch it and find out. It’s a little on the long side (could use some editing), but it’s a weirdly interesting film. Recommended.

Barge  One of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, anywhere. “Real” without being artificially gritty. Individuals whose stories are normal and interesting, without being maudlin or over-dramatic. A situation (life on a river barge) that is an iconic part of the history of the country (c.f. Holbrook/Twain, above). A movie paced in a deliberate and reflective manner that avoids become a snooze-fest, or something only the blue-hairs would enjoy. A team effort, without over-the-top sacrifices (nobody dies, no one is even injured). Ordinary troubles that remind us that everyone can fit in to society. Highly Recommended.

 

That’s it! So few blocks, but such high quality. Now we nap.

 

Four for Four

Thursday 26 February 2015

As of tonight’s Pericles preview, the score is OSF, 4; everyone else in the world, 0.

To recap, we’ve been watching (on a LARGE screen with a really good sound system, to be as fair as possible) what are regarded as some of the best (or only) filmed/taped versions the stories OSF is producing this year: Much AdoGuys and DollsFingersmith, and Pericles.

The filmed versions we’ve seen recently are:

  • Much Ado About Nothing, 1973, 1993, and 2012 film and TV productions;
  • Fingersmith, 2005 BBC production;
  • Guys and Dolls, 1955 film;
  • Pericles, 1984 BBC production

Some of the filmed productions were just awful: totally dry, way to self-important, or just not engaging. Some of the performances were flat, the singing was dull and uninspired, or the staging was amateurish. Some were fine, even good. None made us say “I need to see that again!”

A common trait of all of the OSF productions is that they have a healthy dose of comedy in each. Let’s be real, three hours of straight drama with no action or comedy is a long slog. Drama used only because the director or adapter can’t think of anything better, or because they have beatified Shakespeare in their own mind, or (worse) they have beatified themselves, makes for a dull experience.

Pericles was the show tonight, and was the one that had all of us who had seen the 1984 BBC production wondering how OSF would make it at least marginally palatable.

Two words: musical comedy.

It’s not that the OSF Pericles is a send-up of the original; it’s more that the OSF production team apparently has realized, over many decades of productions (8 and counting) , that it doesn’t matter how relevant, eternal, or otherwise fabulous the central message of a show is; if they can’t keep the audience in their seats, the message will be lost. So when a scene can be played for comedy or drama with no loss to the story, why not let loose the flying monkeys of comedy for a scene or two?

The other factor is music. A song can convey as much emotion as spoken dialogue, and it adds an additional dimension to the work, and, let’s be honest, a long stretch of dialogue can be taxing. Changing a monologue into a song is a two-fer, breaking up the dialogue into easy-to-swallow pieces and adding music to salve the hearing.

OSF’s current productions have all taken this as far as they can: Fingersmith and Much Ado use lots of comedy to relieve the tension inherent in the stories; Pericles adds a generous dose of music and song, and an almost lyrical delivery by Gower; Guys and Dolls already has lots of music and comedy, but uses the right cast members at the right time to maximize the comedic and dramatic effects.

I’m a little concerned about Long Day’s Journey, which is next on the list. It’s a story that seems unsuited to much music or comedy, so it’s a straight-up knife fight between OSF’s production, starring Michael Winters as James Sr., and Stratford’s 1994 production with William Hutt. No matter which way it goes, I think that both productions will be top-notch.

Mr. Acebo’s Wild Ride

Sunday 22 February 2015

So Fingersmith looks destined to become a huge hit for OSF this season. If you’ve seen the BBC version, this is not that; it’s more Sondheim “Sweeney Todd” (without the music) than “String of Pearls” (yeah, I’m torturing the metaphor. Deal.) I’m calling it a dark comedy; Herself is calling it more of a drama with comedic elements. Whatevs. It was a hoot of a show, with enough asides through the fourth wall and slight alterations to the plot to make the ending plausible instead of not so.

The whole cast is super. Sara Bruner and Erica Sullivan are well-cast as the leads, but Kate Mulligan captures the audience every time she’s onstage.

One of the main characters you’ll see is the staging: it’s a bit of Victorian ironmongery with some high-tech additions to round out the scene. But there’s a big mechanical feature that, hand to God, reminded me of nothing so much as part of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland.

Go see it!

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