Marriott’s Willow Ridge Lodge: Branson, Baby! – Our 2019 Spring Break (Part 1)

We just got back from a week in Branson, Missouri, and let me tell you — we loved it!  I’m going to spend the next week really breaking down our trip for you in case you ever want to visit.  From shows to restaurants to attractions to lodging — I want to hit it all.  As you’ll see from my impending posts, I highly recommend the area.

It’s a funny story how we even ended up in Branson.  I was complaining to a friend about how expensive Florida is during spring break, yet I really wanted to go somewhere and do something during the week-long vacation.  As fate would have it, this friend belonged to a vacation club and offered to book a room on our behalf.  After perusing the possibilities, we settled on Marriott’s Willow Ridge Lodge in Branson, Missouri.

I’ve never been to Branson, but I’ve heard good things.  I figured it would be relatively warm, and I knew there was a ton to do in regards to shows and attractions.  We are definitely a show kind of family, so I hoped this would be a winning situation.

I knew right away that we made a great choice as far as lodging was concerned.  Marriott’s Willow Ridge Lodge pleased me from start to finish.

First of all, our suite met our every need.  We had a huge, fully furnished kitchen, a gigantic table, laundry machines in the room, a wonderful walk-out balcony, a master bedroom for my wife and I, and a sofa bed for my kids.  The suite had ample closet space as well as several empty cabinet drawers.  Once we packed our clothes away in drawers and closets, we felt like we were living in an apartment!

The lodge itself had so so many activities that we honestly could have simply stayed there the whole week and been sufficiently entertained.  Though their outdoor pool wasn’t yet open, their indoor pool area was enormous and also offered a large hot tub.  We made a point to wake up and go swimming every morning between eight and nine, and every single time we were the first ones in there.  To have that entire room to ourselves — it was amazing.

They also had a gaming room with board games galore, a full billiards table,  a foosball table, a pinball machine, an arcade machine, a ping-pong table, an air hockey table, and even a claw machine!  The claw machine and arcade games cost fifty-cents to play, but the rest was free.  My oldest daughter would have been quite content to stay in that room the entire time.  My youngest loved the claw machine — we even managed to snag two critters out of it.

Furthermore, the lodge had a small baseball field, a basketball half-court, a tether ball pole, a horseshoe pit, and a shuffleboard court!  These were not old, rundown areas, either.  These spots were kept up and fun to use.

Willow Ridge also made sure to have an activity available for its guest every hour on the hour.  We were given an itinerary when we checked in that basically detailed the entire week’s worth of activities.  Every night they showed a movie on a mammoth big screen TV in their den.  They also organized weenie roasts and s’mores at the fire pit.  At various points during our stay they had Italian soda samplings, local brew tastings, ice cream socials, blackjack games, three-point contests, craft time, home-run derbies, campfire stories, and several other things.  In short, there was always something going on.

I’d also like to mention that every single employee that we bumped into could not have been more friendly.  From the workers at the front desk to the cleaning staff, everyone greeted us with a smile on their face and a positive word to say.  They also made a point to ask us how our stay was going and if they could help with anything.  I’m telling you, from the top down, it was excellent customer service.

Best of all?  The place was quiet.  We learned from our stay at the Wilderness in the Dells to request top floor suites.  But even though we didn’t have anyone above us, we could not hear any of our neighbors at all.  We saw people going into the rooms next to us, and from the parking lot I saw people on their balcony below our room, but I never heard anyone.  In fact, I worried our six-year-old was the local rabble-rouser!

Though it wasn’t an issue for me at all, be aware that the Willow Ridge website makes it look like it’s in the middle of a forest.  This is not the case.  While they have an extensive area of land that is surrounded by trees, they are pretty much smack dab in the middle of everything.  We loved it because we could get anywhere we wanted to go in minutes.  However, from our balcony we could see the touristy areas of Branson, not the depths of a beautiful wilderness.  Like I said, I had no problem with the location whatsoever, especially because we were far enough off the main road that we couldn’t even hear car noise.  It was pretty astounding.

Honestly, I have no idea how you book with the Willow Ridge Lodge if you’re not a member of their vacation club, and I’m not even sure if you can, but because our friend helped us out, we were able to stay there for an entire week for less than five hundred dollars.  Yes, you read that right.  We were able to stay an entire week on what would have cost us a single night in Florida.  You can’t beat that!

If you’d like to visit the Marriott Willow Ridge Lodge website, click HERE.

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Triple Frontier – A Movie Review

Triple Frontier is an action-packed film that kept me both anxious and very entertained.

The premise is that Oscar Isaac’s character is working as a security contractor who trains foreign armies and police.  He’s been after a particular drug lord for quite a while, but can never quite pin him down.  Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, and Pedro Pascal play men who once belonged to Isaac’s unit, a band of brothers.  They are all retired from the military, and they are all down on their luck with little to show for their service.

Isaac’s character propositions them to help  him take down this drug lord by amassing intelligence regarding his stronghold.  They can each make a large sum of money doing so.  What is initially supposed to be a simple recon mission turns into a flat-out burglary.  From there, the unit must try to escape the drug lord’s men through the jungles of Columbia, through Peru, and over the Andes Mountains while carrying very, very large amounts of cash.

While Triple Frontier kept me on the edge of my seat throughout due to action and an ever-present danger, I also thought it said something provocative about soldiers who give everything to their country with nothing to show for it.  Who can blame these warriors for taking desperate actions to try to help their families, their friends, and even themselves?  The ethical dilemmas presented in this movie will make quite an impact, I assure you.

Furthermore, I found the locations beautiful and lush.  Most of the film was shot in Hawaii and Colombia, so these jungles and mountains are authentic.  The scope of the film is magnificent with some truly breathtaking scenes.

Best of all, though, was the cast.  I actually felt like these men had a bond between them.  Affleck, Hedlund, and Hunnam were fine, but Pascal and Isaac were the heart and soul of this movie.  Oscar Isaac gets better with every movie I see him in, and Triple Frontier is no exception.

Though very violent and laden with profanities, Triple Frontier kept me engaged and entertained from start to finish.  If you’re looking for an action movie with some authentic emotional beats, this one won’t disappoint.

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Velvet Buzzsaw – A Movie Review

If you’re looking for a gloriously weird movie that’s a little funny, a little scary, a little tongue-in-cheek, and a little masterful, check out the Netflix original film called Velvet Buzzsaw.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Morf Vandewalt, a prestigious art critic with the world at his feet.  He’s in love with Josephina, played by Zawe Ashton.  Josephina is trying to climb her way to the top of the art gallery industry as she works for Rene Russo’s Rhodora Haze.  Yes, these names are fantastic.

After her neighbor dies, Josephina discovers that the deceased had an apartment full of original art.  Morf declares the man a modern day master and urges Josephina to sell it through Haze’s gallery.

Soon, though, strange things begin to happen involving the departed’s art, and that’s when the scares begin.

Velvet Buzzsaw is a whole lot of things, but it’s also never just one thing.  Well, it is one thing — entertaining.  I have to be honest, this movie kept me engaged from start to finish.  It’s so strange that it’s flat-out unpredictable.  Is it good?  I thought so, but I wouldn’t dare to argue with someone who told me they didn’t like it.  You certainly have to be in the right mood for Velvet Buzzsaw.  It’s definitely one of the more unique films that I’ve seen of late.

I will say this though, Jake Gyllenhaal absolutely disappeared in his role as Morf Vadewalt.  His performance alone made this film worth watching.  With incessant fidgeting, a biting sense of humor, an impeccably odd sense of fashion, and a mesmerizing speech cadence, Morf leaped off the screen.  Though there’s no hero in this movie, Morf is as close as we get (which is not very close).

I also loved seeing Rene Russo again.  Her character, Rhodora Haze, once belonged to a punk rock band called–you guessed it–Velvet Buzzsaw.  Russo got to really strut her stuff playing an entirely unlikable, manipulative, evil businesswoman who gets a thrill in taking no prisoners.

By the way, there are also very fun performances in this movie from John Malkovich, Toni Collette, Daveed Diggs, and Natalia Dryer (from Stranger Things).

In the end, Velvet Buzzsaw seems to exist in a world that has existed for quite some time.  The characters all have history with one another, and other than some fleeting references, the movie is not overly concerned with catching you up.  Nor is the film terribly worried about explaining what the hell is going on.  Once the art starts killing people, it doesn’t follow any particular rules or adhere to any specific logic.  If you buy the dead artist’s work, sell his work, look at his work, or even find yourself near his work … your life is in grave danger.  Heck, sometime’s it’s not even his art that gets in on the act.   (Did anyone else love Hoboman?  He’s the real star of this movie.)

If you’re looking for some inimitable performances, a wondrously quirky plot, and a bizarrely good time, I totally recommend Velvet Buzzsaw.  It’s got to be the best of what it is … I’m just still not sure what it is.

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A Close Call

~The car crossed the center line and headed right for me.  There was nothing I could do but wait and see what happened next.~

I had a close call this morning.  If you live in the Bloomington-Normal area, you’re probably familiar with Linden Street.  It isn’t especially busy, and it’s a straight shot for me to work.  I’ve taken it everyday for pretty much sixteen years.  Most of it is a basic two-lane road, but it widens out to four lanes in the Illinois State University area.

This morning, I’m driving along, listening to WGLT (89.1 FM) like I always do.  Some cars were heading towards me from the opposite direction, but this isn’t an unusual occurrence.  All of a sudden, I noticed one of the oncoming cars start to cross the center line.  Time slowed down as I watched it creep more and more over that line.  Before I knew it, it was three-fourths in my lane and showing no signs of correcting course.  The car crossed the center line and headed right for me.  There was nothing I could do but wait and see what happened next.  I hit my horn, hard, and got over to the edge of my lane as far as I could while applying my brakes.  I continued pressing my horn.  For a moment, I considered jumping the curb.  At the last second, I saw the driver’s head whip up and then they veered back into their lane.  I continued pushing my horn long after they were past me.

I got lucky.

In that moment, I realized that my morning could have gone very differently.  While neither of us were going fast enough to likely cause any serious injury, you never know.  It absolutely would have been a practical head-on collision, though.  My car would have been seriously damaged.  I would have been very late for work.  I could have been hurt–maybe seriously.

My imagination works overtime, one of the perks of being a writer, so naturally my mind raced with all of the possibilities.  I soon felt the adrenaline flowing through my body.  I made myself calm down, told myself all’s well that ends well, but, even ten hours later, it still leaves me a little rattled.

It shook me up because there was literally nothing I could do but wait.  I honked.  I slowed way down, almost to a stop.  Beyond that … nothing.  Powerless.  Accidents can happen that randomly, that quickly, that drastically.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been an accident.  The other driver was clearly looking down at their phone.  The collision would have been due to negligence, recklessness, and very likely a healthy amount of ignorance.

Oh, the other driver?  I’m sure you’re assuming a teenager drove the errant vehicle, but that would be incorrect.  I saw a head full of short, white hair.  I don’t know if it was a man or a woman, but it was certainly an older person.

Please, please, please, whether your are old or young, man or woman, please stay off of your phones while driving. car accident

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The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part – A Movie Review

My kids and I loved the original Lego Movie, but none of us were super excited for the sequel.  I’m not really sure why, to be honest.  We realized yesterday that it may not be in the theaters much longer, so we made our way to the show to catch it before time ran out.

The verdict?

We all loved The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part even better than the original!

This is a streamlined, funny, easy to digest movie with some great one-liners, catchy music, and a message that personally touched my heart.

The most superficial morality lesson is to be true to yourself.  It reminds kids not to let anyone else determine one’s actions–do what you know is right and you’ll always come out on top.  However, there was also an underlining message about growing up.  I’m not sure either of my kids caught it because I tried to talk to them about it and they seemed at a loss.  Because the movie takes place five years later, Will Ferrell’s children from the original, Finn and Bianca, are now further along in age.  Though they both still love Legos, they are in very different places in terms of how they like to play with their Legos.  This is the driving force of the film’s plot, and I absolutely cherished it.  It meant so much to me because I see the same thing happening with my own children.  I see my ten-year-old try to play with my six-year-old, but it can get frustrating for big sister because, well, little sister is only six.  This chasm seems to have been too great for Finn and Bianca, and it’s driving Emmet, Lucy, Batman, Unikitty, MetalBeard, and Benny apart as a result.  Of course, the movie has a happy ending, and it struck a chord with me because my kids continue to play together despite their age differences.

Are you convinced yet?  Is that a little too introspective for you?  Well, rest easy, the movie is also flat-out hilarious.  There are pop culture references galore, especially if you love Will Arnet’s Batman.  Oh, the mom appears in this one too, and you’ll love the actress portraying her.  They even pull a great gag involving Lego bricks that every parent will instantly relate to.

Admittedly, the song Everything Is Awesome catapulted The Lego Movie into everyone’s consciousness last time around.  This second part hasn’t reached mainstream success in terms of music, but the tunes are great nonetheless.  Listen closely to all of the songs’ lyrics–I was rolling!

Again, I’m not sure why we weren’t jazzed to go see this.  Maybe the brand got a little diluted with The Lego Batman Movie quickly followed by The Lego Ninjago Movie?  Those two spin-offs definitely felt repetitious to me in terms of story and theme, but not to worry, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part breaks with those previous themes and creates something totally new.

If you and the kids haven’t seen The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part yet, I urge you to go check it out while it’s still in theaters.  You won’t be disappointed.

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Captain Marvel – A Movie Review

The good news is that my original concern regarding Captain Marvel seems unfounded.

The bad news is that Captain Marvel is a wasted opportunity.

Allow me to elaborate.

I won’t go into too much detail about this movie for fear of spoiling it for you, but I will discuss some broad strokes.

First of all, Captain Marvel has some top-tier talent.  Brie Larson, Samuel Jackson, Annette Bening, and Jude Law all play significant roles in the film.  These are high-caliber actors and actresses.  Yet … they weren’t enough.

The fact is, Captain Marvel delivers a story revolving around the Kree and the Skrulls, two alien races at war with one another.  You’ve seen the Kree before in Guardians Of the Galaxy.  They were a nice little means to an end in that movie.  In Captain Marvel, they are front and center, and I couldn’t have cared less.

That’s the major misstep of Captain Marvel.  The story is predicated upon a war that the audience is neither invested in or familiar with.  It was very hard to follow, and, honestly, I found myself bored through much of it.  The movie focused upon a lot of ambiguity, a lot of chases, a lot of fights, a lot of glowy things, and very little actual story.

Now, that’s not to say I don’t like the character of Captain Marvel.  She’s got a ton of potential in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and, with a different story, I think Brie Larson could have knocked it out of the park.  Unfortunately, though, the movie couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to be.  It had inspiring moments, but it didn’t necessarily deliver an inspirational message.  It had some funny moments as well, but it wasn’t a comedy or even an action-comedy.  It had tons of action, but much of the action seemed pointless.  I’m actually still struggling to concisely say what this movie was even about.

If anything, I would say Captain Marvel suffered from the same ailments most prequels do, and that’s the need to explain why X, Y, and Z happened in the other Marvel movies, and to lay the groundwork for future installments.  In the end, I don’t think Captain Marvel ever got to be its own story.

Oh, there’s also the problem of bad–really bad–dialogue.  The film is just one cliche after another and you can actually predict most of what comes out of Captain Marvel’s mouth.  Along those lines, the Skrulls have Australian accents.  Why not?  An alien race from the depths of space?  Sure.  Australian accent.  You bet.

It’s not all bad, though.  The special effects are great, and when Captain Marvel is at full power, it’s something to really behold.  Unfortunately,  those moments don’t make up for a talented cast who never got the opportunity to make us care about their characters as they raced from one place to another while spouting poorly written lines in a confusing, directionless film.

While I firmly believe Marvel needed a movie with a female lead, I don’t believe the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed Captain Marvel to progress its epic story.

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A Star Is Born – A Movie Review

You may have noticed a trend in which I’ve been watching a lot of movies recently released on DVD that I wanted to see in the theater.

A Star Is Born is yet another example of one such movie.

I should start by mentioning that I haven’t seen any of the previous iterations of this film.  I have no idea how much it stuck to the source material, nor did I have an inkling as to how it would end.

More on that in a minute.

Here’s what I do know: I loved this movie.  I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much I loved this movie.  On paper, I should just like this movie, not love this movie.  The story is not original (I mean that figuratively, but you could also take it literally).  The romance between Jack and Ally is not, on the surface, especially unique.  The ending of the film isn’t even breaking new ground.

So why did a story I’ve seen so many times before mean so much to me?

The answer to that is Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga are absolutely the reason this movie struck such a chord with me.  I believed in their characters’ relationship.  I found myself inextricably emotionally tethered to both of them.  I cared about their health, I cared about their careers, I cared about them.

I generally like both Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, but they are not sure-fire hits with me on any project they release.  This isn’t a blind faith kind of thing.  They had to win me over with A Star Is Born, and they did.  Oh, boy.  Did they ever.

I’m not going to spoil anything for you, but the general plot is that Cooper’s character, Jack, a nationally revered musician, happens across Gaga’s character, Ally, in an unlikely place.  A connection instantly forms, followed by a friendship.  Jack is impressed with Ally’s vocals, so he invites her up on stage with him.  From there, you guessed it–a star is born.  Their friendship quickly (very quickly) becomes romantic, and the case could probably be argued that they both experienced love at first sight.  Ally’s career takes off on its own, Jack suffers some health issues, these two things influence their relationship and, ultimately, bring about the film’s conclusion.

Like I said, I won’t spoil it for you, but the aforementioned conclusion?  It destroyed me.  I’m still rattled by it.

I’ve seen both Bohemian Rhapsody and The Favourite, and, in my opinion, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga gave much stronger performances than the Best Actor and Actress winners–Rami Malek and Oliva Coleman.  Not only did Cooper and Gaga act, sing, and play instruments, but they made me believe in their world in such a way that neither Malek nor Coleman achieved.  They made me forget about Cooper and Gaga and see only Jack and Ally.  Cooper and Gaga made me invest at such a deep level that they provoked a potent emotional response.

My only complaint about A Star Is Born is the pacing of the film.  I realize this can be a little difficult due to time constraints, but I never got a great sense of how much time passed within the duration of the film.  As a result, everything felt like it happened really quickly.  Their relationship, Ally’s rise to fame–it seemed to occur within months.  I realize this can’t possibly be the case, but the film never quite indicated the span of time between important moments.

This small complaint isn’t enough to negatively impact my opinion of the film, though.  In fact, as of right now, I would pick it as the real “Best Picture” winner.  Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Green Book, BlacKkKlansman, Roma, or Vice, so I can’t state that as objectively as I’d like.

It’s probably obvious, but I absolutely recommend you see A Star Is Born.

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