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Photo by Melissa Taylor

This holiday season, Theatre Under The Stars is presenting an eye-popping, spectacular, and wonder-filled production of the Disney classic Mary Poppins. Based on the Disney film and book by P.L. Travers, this brand-new production of the hit musical runs December 6-24 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.

As the cast gathers and rehearsals begin — mere weeks before the first performance — CultureMap sat down with Olivia Hernandez, who plays the practically perfect nanny, to talk flying, family bonding, and finding new ways to approach such an iconic character.

CultureMap: Is this your first time picking up the umbrella and playing Mary Poppins?

Olivia Hernandez: It's not actually — I've played her once before, and I think Mary is the prefect convergence of my skills. Not only is she vocally exciting for me to sing, but I relate to her a lot.

CM: How so?

OH: She's such a complex character. She's fun and imaginative but also firm and determined. I was reading the P.L. Travers book that the musical and movie are based on and had so much to discuss with our director, Julie Kramer. Mary is so unexpected at every turn!

The first adjective the book uses to describe her is "vain," and I had always wondered what that was about. But when you think about it, she is very put together and particular about things, especially the way she looks. She knows how something is supposed to be, and won't settle for anything less. She's not your typical archetype.

CM: What's it like bringing this iconic character to life?

OH: It’s challenging, because first and foremost I want to be a Mary Poppins that people recognize, and not confuse anyone. But since the musical is a little different from the movie that everyone is so familiar with, and incorporates some elements from the book, it gives me the chance to bring myself to the role.

It's a challenge to put all those things together, but hopefully we're coming up with an end result that makes people think more about her than they ever have before.

CM: You said rehearsals just began — have you started flying yet?

OH: Not yet, but I'm so looking forward to it! I've never flown before, but I'm very unafraid of heights so I'm excited to get up there.

CM: What's your personal favorite part of the show?

OH: "Feed the Birds," for sure. It's just such a beautiful song, so haunting and touching, and Susan Koozin is incredibly moving when she sings it. That specific moment in the musical is a very important lesson that Mary is teaching Jane and Michael, and it's a song that sticks with everyone.

CM: Why should Houstonians come see the show this holiday season?

OH: It’s such a great show to bring your whole family to. There are lessons to be learned by everyone in this show, and the whole family learns to reconnect with each other through Mary Poppins. That's a really relevant lesson right now, as a lot of us are disconnecting from each other (especially while connecting more to our phones).

This show helps you remember what’s important, and it's perfect for the holidays for that reason, especially after a really rough two years.

And what’s not to love? Every time we bring up Mary Poppins to someone, people have such warm feelings about it. I get it! I grew up watching the movie and it's my husband's absolute favorite movie. It's special when something has that sort of staying power.

I also think it’s really wonderful to see such a diverse group of people in our cast. In a lot of ways, this cast really reflects what Houston looks like, with people from many different backgrounds and abilities and a lot of young people. It's exciting to see them all and see what we create together.

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TUTS' production of Mary Poppins runs December 6-24, 2022, at the Hobby Center for Performing Arts. Click here to purchase tickets.

Photo by Melissa Taylor

Olivia Hernandez portrays the practically perfect nanny.

Courtesy of Hirsch Vineyards

Wine Guy Chris Shepherd spotlights an acclaimed West Coast vineyard every Houstonian should know

wine guy wednesday

Editor's note: Long before Chris Shepherd became a James Beard Award-winning chef, he developed enough of a passion for wine to work at Brennan's of Houston as a sommelier. He maintains that interest to this day. When Chris expressed interest in writing about wine-related topics for CultureMap, we said yes.

In this week's column, he talks to his friend Jasmine Hirsch about Hirsch Vineyards, a California winery that has supported the Southern Smoke Festival from the beginning. Take it away, Chris.

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I want to talk about a special place that you all should know. When you think of world-class vineyards, people think of sites in Burgundy, Bordeaux, Northern Italy. Hirsch Vineyards should be on this list.

David Hirsch purchased land on the true Sonoma Coast in 1978 and began growing grapes to heal the land after years of overgrazing and deforestation. Once the vineyards were planted, this became one of the best sites for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Some of the sought after producers bought their grapes — wineries like Littorai, Williams Selyem, Kistler and Failla. In 2002, David started making his own wines. His daughter Jasmine returned home to Sonoma in 2008 to work with the family business—first in sales and marketing, then general manager, and became wine maker in 2019.

I’ve known Jasmine since my Catalan days, and we’ve become great friends. She was just in Houston last weekend pouring her wines at the Southern Smoke Festival where we inducted her into the inaugural class of Southern Smoke’s Hall of Flame — people who have supported the organization and its mission since day one.

Just this month, Jasmine was included in a Travel + Leisure article highlighting California’s new generation of female winemakers, and Hirsch Vineyards was named Winery of the Year by Vinepair. She’s kind of a big deal.

We chatted about her path to becoming a wine maker, what she’s excited about for the future of Hirsch, and what she drinks at home.

Chris Shepherd: You didn’t start out in the family business. You left for 10 years and lived all over the world. Why did you decide to come home?

Jasmine Hirsch: I moved to New York in 2006, and I really thought I wanted to work in private banking. I worked really hard to get this great job, and I hated it almost immediately. I loved the non-work aspects of my life in New York, drinking wine, going to restaurants, meeting people. I became friends with Bernie Sun, who was the wine director for Jean-Georges for years. He knew how much I loved wine and restaurants and did not feel the same about banking.

He told me that I should go home and work for my dad. He said, “Your father is doing something important, and you should help him.”

He was able to point out to me that I had a responsibility, and also in a way, it gave me permission to go home.

When I was a kid, we called the vineyard “the ranch.” It was my favorite place. We lived and went to school in Marin with my mom, but in 5th grade, I spent an entire year living on the ranch with my dad, and I was so happy there.

My dad is a classic entrepreneur — a pioneer with a strong personality, doesn’t want to compromise, wants to do things his way. It was so hard when I started working for him! I thought I knew everything, and I had not earned that yet. After a few years, I knew I wanted to take care of this place. My dad wasn’t giving me space, so we fought a lot. It’s a very vulnerable thing to be in business with your family. And you really need to build trust with your business partner. After his accident [he was injured in an accident at the winery in 2014], it was like a master class in trust. He was forced to let go and had to rely on other people.

What is fate? I don’t know but I think a lot of us have these karmic battles or dances that we have to go through in order to find out way to feel right about ourselves and the people we love.

CS: You’ve really stepped into a major role: wine maker. The brand has always been legendary. You’ve just been honored as part of the next generation of female winemakers. That’s pretty special, and that must make your dad proud.

JH: It’s funny because we never talk about that stuff — he and I. It’s meaningful to have your work recognized from the outside. The media attention and the love from our customers enables us to do the work we do, but the important part is the the work we do when nobody’s looking.

There is a deeper reason why we do what we do. It’s to take care of the land.

CS: Your goal is to be a steward of the land.

JH: It was the reason my father planted vineyards. He bought the property in 1978 and realized it needed a tremendous amount of work to bring it back to some kind of ecological health. It was a rainforest, and our land was clear cut long before we bought the land and then it was overgrazed.

My dad needed some sort of cash crop so he could bring the land back, and he looked at redwoods, mushrooms, and he settled on wine grapes.

CS: Imagine how different your life would be if your dad chose mushrooms!

JH: You would have to have a separate section at Southern Smoke just for mushrooms!

Around 2005, my dad started to look around for a different way of farming and became interested in biodynamics. He was interested in it as a framework for how to manage the entire ranch. Our consultant who helped us transition into biodynamics said there is no such thing as a biodynamic vineyard. It’s a biodynamic farm. It encompasses the whole place.

The whole reason my dad built the winery was to produce income so we could heal the land. And I realized, what could be a better purpose than to take care of the land and your people? When we have a purpose in our work that’s bigger than accolades or money, our work is so much more generous to our hearts and spirits.

I’m very lucky that my father gently pointed out to me that there was a bigger goal in this business than just making good wine.

CS: What’s your favorite Hirsch vineyard site? Which one is the most challenging?

JH: The perfect vineyard is Block 8. It achieves its own natural balance in the vineyard and in the cellar. It’s a remarkable vineyard in that way. It has a soil that we don’t have anywhere else at Hirsch.

Block 7 is the heart of the West Ridge has always been my favorite vineyard, and West Ridge has often been my favorite wine. The wines are charming and effortless and very delicate, and yet it’s a very challenging vineyard to farm. It’s a bit of a heartbreaker vineyard because the vines do struggle. As my dad loves to say, every problem is an opportunity. Change your perspective.

CS: What do you see for the future?

JH: Amongst the wines, Raschen Ridge. It’s been interesting because we have been impressed by that section of the vineyard for a long time. We wanted to make sure that specialness wasn’t a flash in the pan but we finally bottled it on its own when the vineyard was 12 years old. Since taking over the winemaking and working with Michael [Jasmine’s partner Michael Cruse is the founder of Ultramarine and Cruse Wine Co] — he comes from outside and is a pragmatist. When he says Raschen Ridge can be better than Block 8, your ears perk up. That’s what I’m excited about.

And we’re planting new vineyards to try new things—new plantings with the goal of climate resilience.

CS: You and Michael are sitting back after a long week. What are you going to open?

JH: When we want to treat ourselves, we open old Barolo. Or I have a gin and tonic, and he’ll have a high ball.

CS: What’s your favorite restaurant in Houston?

JH: Catalan! Come back!

CS: How can people find your wines?

JH: You can go to our website and buy wines. There are always a few wines on our website to purchase. Or you can sign up for the mailing list, and we’ll send you a link to join the wine club.

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Contact our Wine Guy via email at chris@chrisshepherdconcepts.com.

Chris Shepherd won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2014. He recently parted ways with Underbelly Hospitality, a restaurant group that currently operates four Houston restaurants: Wild Oats, GJ Tavern, Underbelly Burger, and Georgia James. The Southern Smoke Foundation, a non-profit he co-founded with his wife Lindsey Brown, has distributed more than $10 million to hospitality workers in crisis through its Emergency Relief Fund.

Graphic courtesy of TUTS

Mary Poppins flies into TUTS for a jolly holiday of music and magic

Practically Perfect

Spend a jolly holiday season with Theatre Under The Stars and its eye-popping, spectacular, and wonder-filled production of the Disney classic Mary Poppins. Based on the Disney film and book by P.L. Travers, this brand-new production of the hit musical runs December 6-24 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.

Though rehearsals have yet to begin, the creative team is already hard at work. CultureMap sat down with director Julie Kramer and choreographer Jessica Hartman — who had both just come from a meeting discussing the show's flying — to talk theater magic, family bonding, and the enduring fascination for this fix-it-all nanny.

CultureMap: Julie, what made you interested in directing this show?

Julie Kramer: I’m so intrigued by Mary Poppins. Her story is almost 100 years old and she's such an unusual heroine, coming in and rescuing everyone. I also love that this show is an expression of community — from the chimney sweeps to the eccentric neighbors to the woman who feeds the birds, everyone is a part of the experience.

Our cast is a mix of actors out of New York and leading lights of the Houston theater community, and together we're composing a love letter to this town and theater in general. Getting to make magic with something that's so beautiful and joyous, especially after the pandemic, feels like a huge gift.

CM: Jessica, why did you want to choreograph this show?

Jessica Hartman: My Virgo personality has never quite understood Mary Poppins but as I've grown older, my perspective has shifted. She changes the way this family is looking at each other and helps them to see each other in a different way, and that's a good challenge for me. How do I take something that I know so well and honor what has existed before while still being creative and take the audience somewhere unexpected?

CM: How do you begin to approach a show with so many “magical” elements?

JK: I already had a fascination with magic and magicians and putting them onstage, so this show encourages that interest. There's flying and things appearing from the magic carpetbag, and I’m looking for every opportunity to find magic in the staging and create unexpected moments that you will probably not have seen in other productions. TUTS has a fantastic props department and we’ll be using them for all they’re worth.

JH: Mary Poppins is magical from the beginning — she makes anything possible — so we want the audience to feel like Jane and Michael discovering all these new wonders. We've really taken a microscope to the script to find those moments.

CM: How do you make a classic that's beloved by so many your own?

JK: It's no secret that PL Travers had some issues with the movie, so we’ve been talking a lot about her and what she thought. The stage musical is more British, grounded in this world of Edwardian London, and the book is by Julian Fellowes, who did Downton Abbey.

But it's also still a Disney show, so there still needs to be that family feel and those truly magical Disney moments. There’s also more music in the musical, which means you get the songs and numbers you know and love but might also discover new favorites. Sadly, there are no dancing penguins ... but don't think I wasn't tempted!

CM: What do you think audiences will like most about this musical?

JH: As a mom during Christmas, the thing I want most for my daughter is experiences. Going to the theater with your family and seeing something so magical — nothing can beat that.

JK: This cast is phenomenal; you're going to see a very high level of performance. But also one of the first things I did after Broadway reopened was take my whole family to see Aladdin. To be able to sit with them and watch genies be real and magic carpets fly, to feel that joy and possibility together as a family was so healing. It reminded me why I do what I do.

I really hope people will take this opportunity to gather their families together and come to the show. It speaks to parents and children and our childhood selves, and it has so much heart. That’s ageless and timeless.

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TUTS' production of Mary Poppins runs December 6-24, 2022, at the Hobby Center for Performing Arts. Click here to purchase tickets.

Memorial Forest: A prime location with storied tradition and tree-lined surrounds

Your Expert Guide

There are so many great places to live in Houston that it helps to have an expert on your side. The Neighborhood Guide presented by Martha Turner Sotheby's International Realty gives you insider access from the agents who live and work there, providing in-the-know info about your possible new community.

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Located in the epicenter of Houston, Memorial Forest is known for its beautiful natural topography, upscale properties, and easy access to major city freeways like the Beltway and I-10.

“Memorial Forest is very much a front-yard neighborhood, surrounded by restaurants and parks and boasting two elementary schools — Bunker Hill and Frostwood — which are within walking distance, as is Memorial Mall,” says Janice Murphy, who is the third generation of a four-generation real estate family.

She lists and sells predominantly in the Memorial neighborhoods, where she has also lived and been an active community member for more than 30 years.

Murphy offered up a few of her personal favorites about life in Memorial Forest. Here's her guide to the area:

Where to eat & drink

"Ciro's Italian Grill not only has great food, there’s a beautiful patio along with an outdoor space for children to run and play, and you can often catch live music there, too,” says Murphy.

She also suggests several other fine restaurants within a five-minute drive, including the coastal flavors of Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette, State Fare Kitchen & Bar’s casual-fun menu (dill pickle dip with house-made barbecue potato chips, anyone?), farm-to-table flair at Dish Society, Southern comfort at Treebeards, and elevated steakhouse fare at Jonathan’s The Rub.

Smoky goodness is served up at Goode Co. Barbeque — and don’t miss sister restaurants Goode Co. Kitchen & Cantina and Goode Co. Seafood, she adds.

For mixing and mingling over drinks, Murphy recommends by Popular Demand (or "bpd," as the locals say).

Where to play
To maximize your downtime in the area, there are parks, movie theaters, shopping, and spas and salons all very close to the Memorial Forest neighborhood.

What to see
Memorial Forest is quite close to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, The Museum of Fine Arts, and the Theater District, where a number of venues host everything from touring Broadway shows to the Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet, along with concerts, bands, comedians, and more.

Where to live
“The average lot size in Memorial Forest is about 10,500 square feet,” advises Murphy. One- and two-story homes range from 2,400 square feet to about 5,600 square feet. “The Architectural Committee ensures that the new builds are styled to fit into the original neighborhood,” she adds.

Murphy highlights the European flair of the stunning 12222 Cobblestone Dr. as representative of the Memorial Forest area, what with its timeless remodel and expansion along with it pool and garage apartment.

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Janice Murphy lives, works, and plays in Memorial Forest. For more information on buying and selling a home in the area, click here, email janice.murphy@sir.com or call 281-236-6853.

Agent Janice Murphy

Photo courtesy of Martha Turner Sotheby's International Realty
Agent Janice Murphy

Kingwood: A livable forest with trails, trees, and kindness

Your Expert Guide

There are so many great places to live in Houston that it helps to have an expert on your side. The Neighborhood Guide presented by Martha Turner Sotheby's International Realty gives you insider access from the agents who live and work there, providing in-the-know info about your possible new community.
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Located in northeast Houston, Kingwood offers a welcoming, suburban lifestyle with traditional homes that have been remodeled as well as new construction nearby.

Kingwood’s proximity to the airport and downtown appeals to commuters as well as frequent fliers, while outdoor enthusiasts gravitate to the area for its natural beauty, 75 miles of greenbelt trails, and its adjacency to Lake Houston for boating and fishing.

For real estate agent Michelle Star, the community feel and the highly rated schools were additional factors that drew her family to Kingwood when relocating from Austin about seven years ago.

“Also, having grown up in the Midwest, all of the trees in Kingwood made me feel more at home,” she says.

Indeed, when Kingwood was first developed in the '70s, it was dubbed the "Livable Forest" — and you’ll see that tagline all around town, adds Star.

As the wife of a U.S. Marine, Star lived in nine other states before calling Texas home and previously worked on Capitol Hill. So she is masterful at planning every step of a move — and is also an International Relocation Specialist. She is passionate about finding the perfect property (and deal!) for her clients.

Star offered up a few of her personal favorites about life in Kingwood. Here's her guide to the area:

Where to eat & drink
"For a celebration or a special night out, Chimichurri's is hands-down my top spot," says Star. "This South American grill has top-notch service and some of the best steaks I've had — and their chimichurri sauce is amazing! You'll be asking for extra. Their executive lunch is always a hit as well for client meetings or a nice lunch with friends."

If Star wants a little something sweet, she hits Taste of Gnome, a boutique bakery. "This place is so delicious; it's dangerous that it's right next to my office!"

Where to play
For Star, East End Park is one of her favorite places to relax and enjoy nature and wildlife. “You’ll often see deer and a variety of birds,” she says. “I have even seen an eagle on an early morning walk. The park is also a beautiful location for sunsets along Lake Houston and family photos.”

But there are so many other ways to enjoy the outdoors in Kingwood, too.

“We have neighborhood pools and parks and a weekly farmers market at Town Center,” Star adds. “There's also Dylan Duncan Memorial Skate Park to brush up on skateboarding skills with a mini half pipe, kicktail, and ramp.”

For those who like to golf, Clubs of Kingwood has five different courses along with recreational and workout facilities.

What to see
“You can't miss the The Bevil Jarrell Memorial Bridge, adjacent to U.S. Highway 59,” says Star. “It's the original bridge crossing the San Jacinto River and is another great spot for photos or just a scenic outlook point for the river.”

Where to live
“Kingwood is a wonderful place to establish a home,” says Star. “There's so much that our community offers.”

She believes that Kingwood homes also appeal to many people because there’s a mix of traditional styles that don’t feel "cookie cutter."

“Many of the homes from the ’70s have been updated inside to showcase their character, and others are ready for a buyer's personal touch,” she adds. “As you travel through Kingwood toward Lake Houston, you'll find homes built throughout the 2000s as well as newer construction in Royal Brook and Royal Shores. Kingwood offers a little bit of something for almost everyone's architectural style.”

Star recently sold a six-bedroom home at 5503 Valley Lark Court that exemplifies all that Kingwood offers.

“This gorgeous property is within close proximity to the lake, trails, and excellent schools,” she says. “It also features a custom-remodeled interior by local Kingwood builder Framestead.”

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Michelle Star works and plays in Kingwood. For more information on buying and selling a home in the area, click here, email michelle.star@sothebys.realty or call 832-779-7827.

Agent Michelle Star.

Photo courtesy of Martha Turner Sotheby's International Realty
Agent Michelle Star.

Towne Lake: Life on the water is made sweeter with custom homes

Your Expert Guide

There are so many great places to live in Houston that it helps to have an expert on your side. The Neighborhood Guide presented by Martha Turner Sotheby's International Realty gives you insider access from the agents who live and work there, providing in-the-know info about your possible new community.
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A Houston-area resident for more than 25 years, Lisa Adams knows her way around town, including the award-winning, master-planned community of Towne Lake.

As the centerpiece of one of the region’s most sought-after areas in Northwest Houston, Towne Lake boasts Texas-sized appeal via its 300-acre lake — the largest private recreational lake in Houston, with 14 miles of shoreline, scenic coves and waterways, boat docks and fishing piers, and a six-mile continuous boat ride.

“I absolutely love outdoor atmosphere and the water feature that Towne Lake offers,” says Adams, whose daughter happens to share her affinity for the water as a two-time Olympic swimmer. “You can waterski, swim, boat, and paddle boat in the lake. And the lazy river pool is awesome for families.”

Bordered by 290, West Road, and Barker Cypress Road, Towne Lake is in the heart of the Cypress-Fairbanks area, surrounded by restaurants, shopping, and educational and recreational opportunities. Zoned to the highly acclaimed Cy-Fair ISD, the community also has three onsite schools.

Adams offered up a few of her personal favorites about the casual-upscale lifestyle of Towne Lake. Here's her guide to the area:

Where to eat and drink
Start the day with fresh, seasonal flavors at First Watch, which has the best brunch around; order an açai bowl at Nektar Juice Bar; or grab a sweet or savory bite at Coco crêpes waffles & coffee.

Later in the day, head to Ambriza for authentic Mexican flavors or check out Taisho, a Japanese grill and sushi bar. Sam’s Boat is the ultimate sports bar — with good Gulf Coast food, too — and you can never go wrong with a pint at World of Beer.

You can also find easy access to fast-casual faves for tacos (Torchy’s), salads (Sweetgreen), and pies (MOD Pizza).

Where to play
Towne Lake is basically a vacation in your backyard, and even has its own 1.5-acre destination island with a beach, swim area, and a dock for boating and fishing.

Outdoor activities aren’t limited to the lake, though. Parks and recreational areas boast tennis courts, splash pads, a community garden, more than 24 miles of connected trails, covered picnic pavilions, and even a slalom ski course.

Where to live
Each Towne Lake neighborhood offers a unique setting, with most homes designed in an open floorplan that resonates with the relaxed, lakeside environment.

There are a number of exclusive, gated enclaves and communities that offer custom homes and waterfront properties in addition to a “55 and better” section.

One of Adams' favorite homes in the neighborhood, which she sold for a homeowner relocating out of the country, is 18211 Dockside Landing, an incredible, modern Mediterranean-style retreat in one of Towne Lake's gated areas.

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Lisa Adams works and plays in Towne Lake. For more information on buying and selling a home in the area, click here, email lisa.adams@sir.com, or call 281-330-4342.

Agent Lisa Adams.

Photo courtesy of Martha Turner Sotheby's International Realty

Agent Lisa Adams.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Iconic Texas 'cowboy-style' BBQ joint's Katy outpost closure leads week's top stories

this week's hot headlines

Editor's note: It's time to recap the top stories on CultureMap from this past week.

1. Iconic Texas 'cowboy-style' barbecue joint's Katy location quietly closes. Sadly, the local outpost couldn't replicate the magic of the original in Llano.

2. Ken Hoffman urges Houston travelers to keep calm and enjoy the trip at the new-look Bush IAH. Our columnist explains why travelers might be in "for a big, pleasant surprise at Houston’s Bush-Intercontinental Airport."

3. Houston's most spectacular winter light shows and events dazzle for the holidays. We rounded up where to see dazzling lights with family, friends, and visitors.

4. Disgraced Theranos CEO and former Houstonian Elizabeth Holmes sentenced to 11 years for fraud. Additionally, Holmes faces a fine of $400 million.

5. Houston's NASA leaders 'giddy' after historic Artemis 1 moon flyby. The spacecraft cruised just 81 miles above the lunar surface.

Disney's Strange World is a visual stunner with too many story ideas

Movie Review

For a studio whose entire reason for being seems to rely on creating and sustaining familiar characters, Walt Disney Animation takes its fair share of risks. In the last 10 years, it has released nine films, seven of which were not based on pre-existing properties (the other two were sequels for two of those seven). That’s a lot of new stuff, most of which has succeeded mightily for the perennially-popular leaders in animation.

They’re at it again with Strange World, which takes place in an unknown country/world known as Avalonia, where Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) is a famous explorer whose only desire is to find a way over, around, or through the imposing mountains surrounding the land. His son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), doesn’t share his enthusiasm, and an early discovery by Searcher of a unique energy source leads to a rift between father and son. Jaeger continues onwards, while Searcher returns home with a plant they call Pando that creates harmony throughout the land.

Years later, when the plant shows signs of failure, Searcher is recruited by Avalonia leader Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) to help in an expedition to find the source of whatever is attacking Pando. What they and others – including Searcher’s wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) – find in their travels certainly lives up to the title.

Co-directed by Don Hall and Qui Nguyen and written by Nguyen, the film is a visual stunner. The quality of animation in Disney movies rarely fails to impress, and Strange World is the latest and greatest example. Whether it’s the humans, the landscape, or the innumerable weird creatures that populate the film, there is almost nothing that doesn’t deserve to be stared at and admired.

It’s odd, then, that the story does not come close to matching the graphics. There are a variety of reasons for this failure. Nguyen is the sole credited writer, and he stuffs the film full of big and small ideas, probably too many for this type of project. Searcher’s family and the world of Avalonia and beyond are diverse in multiple ways, to the point that it feels like Nguyen was trying to include everything he could think of in case he never got another shot.

The bigger sin, though, is how quickly the film advances through its plot, often bringing up new things out of nowhere. While Searcher and his family make for an interesting group, the side characters never make an impact. There are also multiple instances where the story takes a turn that makes no sense, either in the world of the film or a storytelling manner.

This includes the final act of the film, which features a significant twist that is presented and accepted in a way that doesn’t fit with the rest of the film. It adds on yet another message in a movie that contains a lot of them, but in a way that even those inclined to believe in what it’s trying to say may wonder why that part is there at all.

The science fiction element of Strange World is a bonanza for the filmmakers and animators to go as wild as they wanted in the visual department. But all that splendor is in service of a story that just doesn’t measure up, making it one of Disney’s less successful offerings in recent years.

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Strange World is now playing in theaters.

Photo courtesy of Disney

Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal), Jaeger (Dennis Quaid), and Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White) in Strange World

Affluent Houston suburb leads region for highest holiday spending budgets in U.S.

Santa Baby

As the most wonderful time of the year approaches, holiday shopping budgets are in the spotlight, and a study from WalletHub lists Sugar Land as one of the top cities where Santa doesn't need a whole lot of help.

According to the personal finance website, the average holiday budget in Sugar Land is $2,793 per person, the 15th highest in the nation. As CultureMap previously reported, Sugar Land residents here make an average of $123,261; the average home price is $337,600.

Fittingly, Fort Bend, home to Sugar Land, was recently named the second-richest county in Texas.

As for Greater Houston, Santa's bag could be a mixed bag, with three suburbs in the top 100, but the urban center falling far behind:

  • Sugar Land, No. 15, $2,793
  • Pearland, No. 36, $2,172
  • The Woodlands, No. 71, $1,733
  • Houston, No. 366, $890

Each year, WalletHub calculates the maximum holiday budget for over 550 U.S. cities "to help consumers avoid post-holiday regret," the website says. The study factors in income, age of the population, and other financial indicators such as debt-to-income ratio, monthly-income-to monthly-expenses ratio and savings-to-monthly-expenses ratio.

Despite nationwide focus on inflation strains, holiday spending is expected to be healthy, and higher than last year.

"The seeming social upheaval in recent times may lead households to spend more in an attempt to take some control of the environment which they can control," says Robert Wright, University of Illinois, Springfield professor emeritus who was among five experts consulted for advice about holiday shopping.

Elsewhere in Texas, 10 North Texas cities landed in this year's top 100 heftiest holiday budgets:

  • Flower Mound, No. 3, $3,531 (The only Texas city in the top 10)
  • Allen, No. 17 , $2,670
  • Frisco, No. 37, $2,150
  • McKinney, No. 45, $2,070
  • Plano, No. 50, $1,999
  • Carrollton, No. 55, $1,837
  • Richardson, No. 58, $1,823
  • North Richland Hills, No. 81, $1,658
  • Lewisville, No. 90, $1,630
  • Fort Worth, No. 366, $890
  • Dallas, No. 401, $845

Spending in the Austin area won't be ho-hum with the Capitol City's budget of $1,705 ranked at No. 78. Two Austin suburbs, Cedar Park (budget $2,855) and League City (budget $2,541) ranked 14 and 20, respectively.

Things don't look too jolly for San Antonio, ranked at No. 431 with an average budget of $803 or Pharr, which was the lowest ranked city in Texas.

At No. 553 with a budget of $487, the Rio Grande Valley city came in just a few spots ahead of last place Hartford, CT with a budget of only $211.