The California State Fair opened with a renewed purpose for 2013 at Cal Expo in Sacramento. With new management, led by CEO Rick Pickering, and the excellent addition of the CALIFORNIA letters straight from Disneyland, the State Fair is back in a big way. Visitors this year will still see many familiar sights, but will enjoy a few new features as well.
California lost an icon too soon this year, when Huell Howser passed away in January. Known most for the PBS show California’s Gold, Huell was a quintessential Californian, and the Fair would have done well to dedicate the entire 2013 edition in his memory. However, a small but enjoyable exhibit is on display to memorialize his valuable contributions in defining what California is and means.
It may seem odd to name this Tennessee born and raised man sporting a heavy native accent as essentially Californian, until you consider that our state is really a fitting microcosm of the whole United States. We are a melting pot—from the world, yes, but more so from the rest of the nation. In the gold rush of the 1850’s, and again in the depression era 1930’s, people flocked to the state from all over the nation looking for the gold at the end of the rainbow, and continue to do so to this day. Just about everything that makes one state or another special, California has too, and in a big way. Kansas and Iowa may be big farming states, but California leads the nation. Colorado has mountains, Florida beaches, New Mexico deserts, Texas oil, New York finance and culture, and on and on. California matches or beats them all. But the perception of California from the rest of the country is that we’re either shallow Hollywood types (brilliantly portrayed in Saturday Night Live’s The Californians) or counterculture San Francisco hippies.
At this year’s fair, appropriately nestled amid the often overlooked California Counties exhibits, the Huell Howser tribute displays photographs, video and memorabilia of Huell doing what he loved—visiting people and places off the beaten path of California, and getting to know who they were and what was going on there. With wide eyed enthusiasm, he was essentially a Mr. Rogers for grown-ups, as viewers got to explore with him the many facets of life in California, and the people that make the state what it is. He demonstrated that the people and places of the Golden State are anything but a match for the stereotype images.
It is appropriate that this exhibit shares space with the Counties exhibits, because who among us really knows anything about Tuolumne County (or that there even is one?) Colusa, Inyo, Butte, Nevada, and many other counties (but sadly not all 58) display what goes on in their neck of the woods, which is just what made Huell Howser tick. From the rocky shores and giant redwoods of the north coast, to Nitt Witt Ridge in Cambria, to the Yosemite Railroad, to the Mexican border town of Calexico, to Farallon Island, to the roses of Wasco and much more, Howser produced over 700 shows for California’s Gold, California’s Golden Parks, California’s Missions, and other programs. His shows were marked by his folksy charm, his sincere interest, and his boyish enthusiasm about where he was and who he was speaking with. “That’s Amazing” and the thumbs up gesture were practically his trademarks.
The exhibit at the fair has photos of Howser through the years, always with a group of people, always smiling. From his earlier days, with darker hair and a slimmer build, to his more familiar white hair, sunglasses, and “California fit” physique, Huell is busy at work and enjoying every minute. Replicas of his office, and some of his memorabilia are there for viewing, along with signed photos from some of his noteworthy friends. Matt Groening of The Simpson’s was a fan, and first brought in “Howell Huser” to the show before the “real” Huell appeared in an episode. Groening marked his passing at the end of an episode with a memorial shot and the words “"In Memory of Huell Howser, Friend of the Simpsons and a friend of California."
Howser was also a big friend of Chapman University in Orange. He left extensive gifts to the University, including the entire archive of his television programs, which are available for viewing at www.HuellHowserArchive.com. He also left his raw footage from the filming, his research papers, photos and correspondence, along with over 1800 books about California, and over 200 items collected or given to him from episodes or from fans over the years. His most unusual gift to the college was his “Volcano House”—a domed building sitting atop an inactive volcanic cone in the desert in Newberry Springs, a town in San Bernardino County. Photos of this extraordinary building are also at the exhibit.
The California State Fair is open every day through July 28, with much more to see and do. But don’t miss this tribute to California’s Golden Boy. He is sorely missed, but his legacy will go on, documenting the real California for the fun and education of generations to come. See BigFun.org for more information about visiting the fair, and all the other special events, exhibits, and entertainment available.
Ken Kiunke 7/15/2013 Originally published in the Gold Country Times. Reprintable with attribution to the Gold Country Times and Ken Kiunke
The author with a cutout of the late Huell Howser
J.J. Abrams’ latest action-packed Star Trek film is now playing in IMAX 3-D at the Esquire IMAX theater in downtown Sacramento.
This is Abrams’ second voyage into Trek territory, after he tackled the “original prequel” to the iconic television and film franchise. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek, written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, used the device of a parallel or alternate universe reality to free the story from being a “pure” prequel, which allows them to carry the characters in directions that don’t exactly follow the storyline already established.
The newest film is an entirely enjoyable mix of action and psychological thriller, which pits Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the familiar crew against a couple of formidable new enemies, including John Harrison, played by Benedict Cumberland. As you may expect, telling the difference between friend and enemy can be a puzzle in the Star Trek world, as it sometimes is in the real world. I won’t give up any secrets here, but suffice it to say the friends and enemies list keeps shifting, with some real surprises that will resonate with Star Trek fans.
It is no surprise after the 2009 film how well the new cast fits into their roles, an especially challenging task given the iconographic characters established in the TV series and six films starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. But this film shows again how well Pine inhabits Kirk, while also making him something of his own, and Quinto could really be mistaken for a young Nimoy. Karl Urban is also spot on as Dr. McCoy, though perhaps a bit less melodramatic than Deforest Kelly played him. But Zoe Saldana, other than being an attractive black woman, doesn’t really have much in common with the original Uhura as played by Nichelle Nichols, and she takes a much bigger role in this story. But the idea that she and Spock have a romantic attachment is a bit odd; since it is several years away from his next “pon farr” episode, what need does he have of a girlfriend? Illogical. I guess it is his human side coming out. In any case, Uhura becomes much more of an action figure in this film, rather than just a smart, caring woman with great legs.
As far as the rest of the main cast goes, Simon Pegg has a Scottish accent like James Doohan (Mr. Scott), John Cho is Asian like George Takei (Mr. Sulu), and Anton Yelchin has a Russian accent like Walter Koenig (Ensign Chekov)—but there the resemblence ends. None match the personalities of the originals, but each does a fine job in the character he plays. Pegg brings some real frantic energy to the young Montgomery Scott that we never saw from Doohan, who was somewhat more stoic (but no less entertaining a character.)
Star Trek Into Darkness has several nods to fans of the original show. The appearance of a Tribble, in something of a crucial “role” was a surprise. Fans will remember “The Trouble With Tribbles” as being one of the goofier, yet most appealing episodes. More subtly, the mention in passing of Christine Chapel, who was Dr. McCoy’s head nurse in several episodes, won’t be missed by Trekkers. In fact, when beautiful, blonde Alice Eve shows up as science officer Carol Wallace, I thought for a second Yeoman Rand had appeared.
While the film is firmly in the Star Trek mode of action and thought, a few of the sequences did echo some Star Wars scenes. The scene of Spock chasing Harrison on top of flying speeders was very much like the Star Wars II scene of Anakin and Obi Wan chasing the bounty hunter on Coruscant. And Kirk’s piloting of the small ship into the Klingon planet was like innumerable similar Star Wars high speed ship chases and battles, and even Disney’s 3-D Captain EO. In fact, all the special effects involving action sequences owe something to George Lucas and his Industrial Light and Magic, which set off the rise in space science fiction effects used in countless other endeavors, such as Battlestar Gallactica, the Alien films, and the older Star Trek films and TV series. Of course, they were all no doubt inspired by Gene Roddenbery’s original Star Trek series, despite its primitive, yet enjoyable visual effects. Who can forget the transporter effect, phasers, the rolling digital counters, and the still photos arrayed across the bridge walls.
So after something of a Star Wars domination for a while, Star Trek is back in front with the two newest films, while Star Wars is regrouping after Lucas dropped out of the process. And seeing this new film in IMAX and 3-D makes it a totally immersive experience. The screen fills the entire wall, and with enhanced stadium seating, the images are completely within your normal field of vision. Plus the resolution is crystal clear, and a step up from regular 3-D. Add the surround sound, and you can get lost in this compelling film. The images and story are intense, and not suitable for the youngest viewers. It is rated PG-13 for violence and some language, but probably fine for mature 10 to 12 year-olds.
Star Trek Into Darkness is currently playing at the Esquire IMAX theater in downtown Sacramento 1211 K Street (adjacent to the Convention Center.) For information and showtimes, see www.imax.com.
Ken Kiunke 5/24/2013 Originally published in the Gold Country Times. Reprintable with attribution to the Gold Country Times and Ken Kiunke
With a musical play or film, you hope both the music and the story will be great, and the 2012 Les Misérables, directed by Tom Hooper, delivers both, but it takes a little while to get there. The first of many segments of the film begins with Jean Valjean, played by Hugh Jackman, and hundreds of prisoners pulling a damaged ship into drydock with ropes. It is an impressive and compelling image, but as I began to hear the music and singing by the cast (almost all of the dialog is sung) I was concerned that the singing wasn’t very good, and the music, rather than joining with the vocals for great songs, just sort of floated along behind the vocals, like background music. Russell Crowe, as Javert, did not inspire great confidence when he joined in either. After Valjean is released on parole, the first act reaches a peak when he finds redemption within himself from an act of kindness by a bishop, which sends him on his path of righteousness.
The quality and feel of the musical picks up dramatically in the next act when we find Jean Valjean now an upstanding businessman, and even mayor of a town, and Fantine, played by Anne Hathaway, joins the story as a working single mother who struggles against her fate. Her voice is accomplished, and the music and vocals begin to work together. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter (who practically reprises her role from Sweeny Todd as a seamy innkeeper) join the cast as the Thénardiers, innkeepers who are caring (sort of) for Fantine’s daughter Cosette. The pair have fun with the song Master Of The House (the one George Costanza from Seinfeld could not get out of his head.) The song provides an over-the-top look at the life of the lower class partyers who, for some reason, keep coming back to their establishment.
The next act brings us to a grown Cosette, played by Amanda Seyfried, who is living with her adopted father Valjean. The pair have somehow spent the past nine years in a wealthy life in Paris without Javert ever noticing, but one encounter with the Thénardiers tips him off, and the hunt is back on, and by now, even Crowe’s singing starts to sound pretty good. Seyfried is also a lovely singer, and the songs continue to build the story as we join a group of students plotting another French revolution after the death of Lamarque, a French General sympathetic to the cause of liberty. The song Do You Hear The People Sing is a highlight of the final act, and a stirring patriotic anthem. Sadly, not many of the French people heard them, and the revolution ended with the seemingly pointless deaths of the students and their allies. (It would probably take a master’s degree in French history to fully understand all the twists and turns of 19th century French revolutions.)
The real tragic story of the Les Misérables is that of Javert, who is so mono-manically obsessed with punishing one man who violated his parole, that his life is not worth living after his failure to bring him in. (No, it was not the stolen bread—Valjean served his 19 years for that already...) Russell Crowe does a fine job portraying this brave but pathetic character, but you do wonder what he is up to during the 17 years Valjean is blending in without being chased by Javert. (Brooding about it I suppose...)
The film is stirring, emotional and uplifting, though at over 2 ½ hours, very long. (You could skip the first 20 minutes without missing much...) It is in wide release this winter and should be available on DVD by summer 2013.
Ken Kiunke 1/7/2013 Originally published in the Gold Country Times. Reprintable with attribution to the Gold Country Times and Ken Kiunke
Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, and Hugh Jackman in the latest adaptation of the Victor Hugo classic.
Thirty-one Bands descended on Placerville the weekend before Halloween to celebrate the season and bring a wide variety to music to fans from all over, many of whom camped out for the three-day festival. A casual glance at the line up made me think this was a Bluegrass festival, with headliners Railroad Earth and the famous Del McCoury Band, along with bands such as Greensky Bluegrass and The Infamous Stringdusters. But the music was wide and varied, and the overall feel of the event was more akin to a jam band fest in the mode of the Grateful Dead, Phish, the String Cheese Incident and others.
My first clue, however, that this wasn’t just bluegrass should have been the inclusion of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe Presents the Beastie Boys Tribute. (I guess I first thought it might be some cool fusion of bluegrass with rap music...) They were one of the headline acts on Saturday night, and opened with Denson and band playing a 30 minute funk rock set, featuring sax, trumpet, guitar, bass, drums and organ. The band is tight, with a powerful sound reminiscent of the JB’s, James Brown’s backing band. The crowd was into it, and when they brought out Slightly Stoopid’s Kyle, DeLa and OG to recreate the Beastie Boys 80’s proto rap sound, the crowd went wild. But the band itself was the driver, with Denson on sax playing in tandem with Chris Littlefield on trumpet with guitarist DJ Williams burning it up, while drummer John Staten kept the whole thing moving.
The Hangtown Halloween Ball, in its second year in Placerville at the El Dorado County Fairgrounds, is a three-day music festival that offers camping on-site as part of the three day pass. Keep in mind, tent camping is a group affair, with tents pitched all over the site, usually right next to another, so privacy is not part of the deal, unless you pay extra to bring an RV. The event is listed as family friendly, and there were quite a few kids in attendance. They provide a Kids Zone area with activities such as glitter tattoos, hula hoops, crafts, and pumpkin carving. Parents planning on bringing kids should keep in mind that this is still a music festival, with plenty of “free spirits” on hand, adult language, and cigarette smoke that sometimes smells a bit “different”. There is a small but varied selection of food choices on hand, and the ones I sampled were very good, including handmade pizza, Mexican food, and Greek Gyros. Vendor booths are also arrayed around the main stage grounds, featuring lots of clothing, jewelry, and other handicrafts.
With 31 bands and three stages, there is always something to listen to, and a pretty good variety of musical styles. On Friday I caught Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers’ blues rock sound, Mojo Green’s funky beat based horn sound, and Tumbleweed Wanderers, a band that was a bit elusive to describe, but held my interest with their modern pop sound that has a foot deep into bluegrass and folk with the inclusion of banjo, acoustic guitar, and tight three part harmonies. They describe their sound as “street folk and indie soul” which sounds about right. Just seeing Jeremy Lyon with his curly red hair is enough to draw your attention, and then the music draws you in. In their Saturday show Lyon fell over after a big finish, and split his lip, but went on to the next song with blood dripping down his chin. But he went on in good spirits, and the band highly amused.
Highlights of Saturday included the Polyrhythmics, a truly poly-rhythmic outfit mixing funk beats with a horns and flute, creating smooth dance grooves and a jazz rock fusion that reminded me of Chicago and Blood Sweat and Tears. Their set brought a lot of dancers to their feet in front of the stage. Meanwhile, Pickwick, a 6-piece Seattle band, creates a full sound rooted in 60’s and 70’s soul music. Singer Galen Disston channels Otis Redding to create what I thought of as “Green-eyed soul”. (6 white guys with dark hair don't exactly fit as blue-eyed soul...)
One of my goals in going to a music festival of any kind is to discover a band I have never heard of that touches my soul and makes me want to hear more. Oregon’s Blind Pilot was that band. They sort of fit into the “Indie Rock” category, a six member band with guitar, banjo, stand up and electric bass, electric vibes, keyboard, drums, trumpet, ukelele, dulcimer, accordion. They create a moving sound reminiscent of Arcade Fire, Belle and Sebastian, the Decemberists, and Glenn Hansard. Lead singer Isreal Nebeker's melodic vocals harmonize with banjo player Kati Claborn and bassist Luke Ydstie, while drummer Ryan Dobrowski, vibraphonist Ian Krist and keyboardist Dave Jorgensen fill out the sound. Then Jorgensen’s trumpet will flow over the whole thing to lift it to another level. I was drawn in and wanted more.
Sunday brought in the real traditional Bluegrass, with the world famous Del McCoury band leading the way. McCoury, once a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, brought together two of his sons and other top musicians to form the Del McCoury Band, an award-winning group, and members of the Grand Ole Opry. They treated the Sunday afternoon crowd to a rousing set of acoustic bluegrass at its best. Then the band, minus Del, came back as Keller Williams with the Travelin’ McCourys, featuring singer/guitarist Keller Williams, for another great set of bluegrass songs featuring guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass, and fiddle, and the distinctive bluegrass harmony singing. One of the many highlights of their set was a version of Pumped Up Kicks, the hit Foster The People song, done in bluegrass style.
Of course headlining Sunday, and every night, was Railroad Earth, the New Jersey band who served as host of this both this year’s and last year’s Ball. I spoke with mandolin player John Skehan about Railroad Earth’s music, which has been variously described as bluegrass, “new grass”, jam band and rock. “I think of us as an amplified string band with traditional and original music. We originally had just traditional bluegrass instruments, but we added drums and electrified instruments, which kind of violates the rules of bluegrass music.” I asked him if they were influenced by the New Jersey sound of Bruce Springsteen and others like him. He said there is a vibrant bluegrass and original music scene there, and all over America. Railroad Earth’s multi instrumentalist Andy Goessling was a big part of the original bluegrass scene in New Jersey.
What has become a sort of tradition in the two year incarnation of the Hangtown Halloween Ball is a Friday night silent horror movie accompanied by music improvised by Railroad Earth. Last year was the early dracula film “Nosferatu”; this year they featured “Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde.” Skelan said that the event was a “wild ride, and a challenge. The idea came from trying to figure out what to do on the first night. They thought of doing an acoustic set, but since it was Halloween, someone thought of doing an old silent horror film, but replacing the traditional organ accompaniment with the band improvising.” Skelan said they approach it by “working up a few themes and ideas, and rolling with it.” Because they are so familiar, they are able to follow each other’s leads to make it work.
I also asked Skelan about the band’s website, which features a page called “the Forecast” culling articles about global warming. He said that particular feature was related to a song on their album “Amen Corner”, and that they partner up with a lot of causes and charities for their shows, including environmental organizations, food banks, and Riverkeeper.org back on the east coast.
Skelan said it was great for them to participate in festivals like this, because they get to reconnect with a lot of old friends, like Greensky Bluegrass, who also appeared Sunday at the festival. Being there for all three days, they do have some opportunities to check out a lot of the other bands playing, many of whom they have known for quite a while.
Railroad Earth finished off the three-day event with a two set show on the main stage, which highlighted the great singing and virtuoso playing of the six member band. Their music is indeed firmly rooted in the bluegrass tradition, with the strong mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and guitar sounds, but adding the power of the drums and electric bass bring them into the “jam band” world, as the crowd eagerly danced and sang along with their favorites. Todd Scheaffer led the band, with Skelan and Goessling on mandolins and various stringed instruments, Tim Carbone on fiddle, Andrew Altman on bass, and Carey Harmon on drums and backing vocals. The group closed out a fun and successful three day celebration of music and Halloween in the Gold Country foothills. For more information see their website http://www.hangtownhalloween.com/ .
Ken Kiunke 10/29/2012 Originally published in the Gold Country Times. Reprintable with attribution to the Gold Country Times and Ken Kiunke
Railroad Earth hosts and headlines the Hangtown Halloween Ball
Tim Burton's new version of Frankenweenie is now playing in IMAX 3-D at the Esquire IMAX theater in downtown Sacramento.
Burton’s original version of Frankenweenie was a 30 minute live action short starring Daniel Stern and Shelly Duvall, produced in 1984 while he was originally under contract to Disney Studios. Unhappy with the results, Disney let Burton go, and of course he went on to gain his fame and fortune creating films like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and the first Batman film in 1989.
Burton has returned to Disney for several films as director or producer, including the animated Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, and his unique version of Alice In Wonderland. He began work on remaking Frankenweenie in 2006, and filming started in 2010. The new version takes the idea and plot from the short film and expands on it, adding more characters and creatures, and making use of the freedom of stop motion puppet animation to expand the creative possibilities within the framework of the story. This film could really be thought of as a companion piece to Burton’s earlier Corpse Bride in style and tone. And though it has echoes to Nightmare Before Christmas, it doesn't have the same level of poetry and exuberance.
The story is basically a boy and dog tale, except the boy happens to be named Victor Frankenstein, and lives in a town populated by a strange mix of fairly ordinary people and characters pulled from horror movies. His new science teacher, a bizarre character himself, finds a class populated by Victor, a hunchbacked Igor lookalike, a Frankenstein’s monster (or is it Herman Munster?) lookalike, a shy goth girl, a larger version of Pugsly Addams, and a girl who listens to the dreams of her cat, Mr. Whiskers, to predict her classmates’ futures. A Japanese boy is also in the mix as a tribute to the 50’s Japanese monster movies. The town is a timeless place, but generally seems to be set somewhere between the 1950's and 1980's. New Holland is a curious name for the town—it was the original name for Australia, but was probably chosen to justify the large town windmill featured in the story.
Like his namesake, Victor discovers how to reanimate the dead after tragically losing his only friend, his dog Sparky. (Despite the title, Sparky is a pit bull, not a “weenie dog”.) Mix in a science fair, competitive classmates, an angry town mob, and some very creative new monsters, and you have a rollicking good spoof of monster and horror movies, all shot in black and white to give it that classic B-movie monster chiller horror movie feel.
Burton makes some unusual choices in this film. A middle class suburban loving and supportive mom and dad, who just happened to be named Frankenstein, name their son Victor, apparently having never heard of the original story. And none of the other parents seem to notice that their kids all look like horror movie characters. In another ironic twist, we see the puppet animated mom and dad watching an actual old movie on TV (real people, not puppets...) And the town has a large pet cemetery, where citizens build monuments to their deceased dogs, cats, bunnies, turtles, goldfish (and I think I saw a squirrel statue as well...)
The voice actors featured a few well known performers, but I was glad not to know who they were until the film was over; that way I did not think of them when hearing the characters speaking. But I could almost place a few of them, and enjoyed the “of course” moments when reading the credits at the end.
Seeing the film in IMAX and 3-D makes it a totally immersive experience. The screen fills the entire wall, so the images are complete within your normal field of vision. Plus the resolution is crystal clear, and a step up from regular 3-D. Add the surround sound, and you can get lost in a compelling film. Danny Elfman’s score adds much to the film without ever particularly standing out, which should be the goal of a film score anyway. The images and story are a bit intense, and probably not suitable for the youngest viewers. It is rated PG, but my 11-year-old companions were not scared, they enjoyed it and felt it would be OK for kids of 8 or 9 years. Of course the timing is perfect (along with “Hotel Transylvania” in current release) for the Halloween season. My son and his friend enjoyed both films, but thought Frankenweenie had the better story.
Frankenweenie is currently playing at the Esquire IMAX theater in downtown Sacramento 1211 K Street (adjacent to the Convention Center.) For information and showtimes, see www.imax.com.
Ken Kiunke 10/7/2012 Originally published in the Gold Country Times. Reprintable with attribution to the Gold Country Times and Ken Kiunke