Theatre Thursdays: Movies I wanted to hate but couldn’t

Disney’s’ “Jungle Cruise” movie — why it does not suck ass.

Okay, I do have to admit total disappointment with some flicks I’ve found on Disney+, Cruella and Tomorrowland being two examples, and those were films that I wanted to like. But, recently, Jungle Cruise finally made it to the free part of the service, and I figured, “Let’s take a look at the opening, because I’m sure this is crap.”

And… I was apparently very, very wrong.

It opens with a brisk prologue setting up the obligatory Disney “Mystic Thing that will become important,” then jumps forward to ol’ Walt’s favorite era, the Edwardian age, as an explorer, MacGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall) elaborates on the prologue mythos, trying to convince some stuffy British explorers’ society to finance his expedition.

But it becomes very clear within moments and without the film explicitly saying it that he’s not the one who wrote the speech. Rather, it was his older sister, Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), and it’s also quite clear that women and their ideas are not welcome here.

Cue the rest of the opening during which Lily goes all Indiana Jones on the club itself in order to steal a very important artifact tied to the introductory scene, and she gets away with it, and this alone won me over.

What? An action-adventure film with a smart, resourceful, intelligent lead who just happens to be a woman? Bring it! And it reminded me of a recent trend with Disney.

They’ve totally repurposed their Disney Princess line, especially as they’ve remade things into live action, and now, instead of letting their Princesses sit around waiting for their Princes Charming, the girls are doing it for themselves.

Cruella was an attempt at the same thing, but it suffered the biggest cinematic sin possible of being just boring. So far, Jungle Cruise is anything but, and as Dwayne Johnson’s character of the Jungle Boat tour guide, aka Frank Wolff, is introduced, we realize one thing: Wolff and the Dr. Houghton are forces of nature and equal matches, and when they meet, it’s going to be dynamite.

In fact, Wolff’s entire jungle cruise intro is a tour de force in which he reels off one bad pun after another, tips the audience off to the possibility that the tour he’s giving isn’t as real as he wants his passengers to believe it is, and, in short, just gives us the theme park version of the ride as an intro to what is already promising to be an even greater ride.

Yeah, that’s how you adapt the unadaptable, really. Put us on the ride we know, bring on outside hero and reluctant sidekick — who is our stand-in — and then let-er-rip, blast into hyper-reality, and away we go.

This is why the original Pirates of the Caribbean actually worked. Too bad, then, that Disney tried to flog five films out of it. Everything after the first was, as they would have said in that era, total shite.

Meanwhile… the further along that the story goes, the stronger the two leads get and, bonus points… while Emily Blunt’s younger brother character starts off as a possibly gay stereotype with way too much luggage for a short river tour, midway through the film he explicitly comes out to Wolf, who really doesn’t bat an eye and, after that, Houghton the younger kicks just as much ass as his sister, despite one weak moment in which he seems to fall for the Germanic charms of the villain… or did he?

But, anyway, all in all, this would-be ride adaptation not only did what it needed to, but also went extra inclusive on the way, and turned out to be just a fun romp. If you have Disney+, then give it a look.

And… Happy Thanksgiving! This post was originally supposed to be yesterday, but all things Dune sort of pushed that off. However, starting tomorrow is my regularly pre-scheduled holiday vacation.

That is, from now until New Year’s Day, I’ve auto-scheduled a series of curated holiday-themed posts so that I don’t have to really do much for the next six weeks. Oh, sure, I might pop in a special now and then, if otherwise.

In the meantime, though — happy holidays, and I’ll see you all in 2022!

Talky Tuesday: Un poco Coco

The first time I saw the Spanish version of Coco 4 years ago, I think I got about 60% of it. Watching it a second time now surprised me.

Inspired by Hallowe’en, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day last week, I’d been thinking about watching Coco again, but then seeing it pop up on Disney+ as Coco (In Spanish) just clinched it, so last Friday night I had to give what I consider to be the “real” version a second look.

Of course, for reasons known only to… nobody, maybe?… when I started up the Spanish version on Disney+, I was greeted with a soundtrack in English, which was doubly ridiculous because I knew that a Spanish-language version of the film existed. I’d seen it in a theater, so it was not an hallucination.

It turns out that I had to manually switch the spoken language from English to Spanish, which makes no sense at all. I mean, considering that they have the English and Spanish versions right next to each other as separate choices, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for the Spanish version to not start up in Spanish.

No reason other than, you know — white, Anglo bias.

When the film came out originally four years ago, as soon as I read that Disney/Pixar were going to be releasing a version that had specifically been rescripted and dubbed in Spanish, I knew that it was the one I wanted to see.

Firstly because it seemed like the only appropriate language to tell the story in, but secondly because, as a student of Spanish, it seemed like a good time to take a real-world test.

So I found the Spanish language screening at a theatre in North Hollywood, went to the box office to buy a ticket from the pale, red-headed woman at the counter who looked at my Irish-Nordic ass and immediately said, “This screening is only in Spanish.”

It didn’t sound like it was confirming my decision. Rather it came off as, “You’re not going to understand a word.”

I just smiled, said, “That’s why I’m here,” and gave her my money.

That was almost exactly four years ago. I slipped into the theater, found a seat on the center aisle away from the other audience members — all Hispanic families — and sat down to watch.

I loved the film from the first frames and cried more than a few times during its run time. As for the dialogue, I’d have to say that, at that time, I understood maybe about 60% of what was said, more in some parts and less in others.

Still, I got the basic gist of the story if not the exact relationships between the protagonist Miguel and his deceased family members and couldn’t understand most of what Gael García Bernal’s character Hector said.

The reasons for the latter became evident this time around.

Anyway, it was a turning point in my long, ongoing self-education in Spanish, which I think has been going for about nine years now. Having not really had much opportunity for practicing conversation for complicated reasons, I had at least been working on comprehension, largely through immersion.

My car radio, for example, had been set on a local Spanish language station since I got it in late 2013, and I spent many a commute listening to the morning and evening shows and gradually understanding more and more.

Ironically, since I’ve been told that it’s harder to understand sung lyrics than spoken words, I found the opposite to be true, and at one point had a karaoke collection in my head of at least half a dozen songs in Spanish I could have belted out at a moment’s notice, if only the opportunity had ever come up.

Narrator’s Voice: “But it never did.”

Still… in watching the film in late 2017, I pretty much only got it in broad strokes: Music was banned in Miguel’s family because of something that happened in the past; his great-great grandfather was a famous musician and actor, no doubt modelled on several Mexican movie idols of the 1930s and 40s, Miguel winds up in the Land of the Dead, where he meets up with his defunct ancestors, one of whom — Mamá Imelda — is clearly the matriarch of the deceased members of the Rivera clan, although I was never sure whether she was Miguel’s grandmother, great-grandmother, or however many steps above that, and I certainly had no idea how all of the various tío/as and papás fit into it.

Yeah, terms for specific family members tend to be one of those things terribly specific to any given language and culture and also something that native speakers grow up with, but which learners are rarely exposed to in school because, why?

So, yeah. I had no idea at that time what nieto/a, yerno, suegra, bisabuelo/a, or tatarabuelo/a meant.

Between then and now, I watched the film in the English language version (which I consider to be the dubbed one) and it was still fun, but just seemed somehow off.

Which brings me back to last weekend and my second viewing of the Spanish version, and I really don’t consider it a cheat having watched it twice previously, because I let myself pretty much forget the specifics (that I hadn’t forgotten already) and just go with it and… wow.

What a difference four more years of immersion and practice make. I found myself understanding almost every spoken word this time around, and also getting most of the jokes, which had just flown over my head previously.

Of course, having long since passed the point of translating to English in my head — which hadn’t been the case in 2017 — also made it lightyears easier.

I understood why the Rivera family under Imelda had rejected music long ago to become shoemakers (it’s all in the opening) and followed everything else as Miguel tries to sneak out from his Grandmother and her vengeful chancla to go play guitar in Mariachi Plaza.

Then, when he’s suddenly sucked into the land of the dead, not only was I able to understand the exact relationships as he described them, but I finally knew why Mamá Imelda did not make the trip across the Marigold Bridge with the rest of the family this time.

Her photo was not on the family ofrenda, and it was not there because Miguel had inadvertently taken it. Photos on ofrendas for remembrance, in the film, are basically passports for the dead to visit the living.

Another joke I’d missed originally — one of the dead with amazing teeth gets to come back because his photo is on the ofrenda maintained by his dentist.

So far so good, and I’m following it all, and then we meet Gael García Bernal’s Hector for the second time. Previously, he had tried to run the border disguised as Frida Kahlo, but was caught when he sank into the Marigold Bridge (yes, it’s definitely a visual metaphor for crossing the Rio Grande), and winds up in the office of an emigration official.

And suddenly this scene became very incomprehensible, driven by the kinetic energy of Bernal’s vocal performance combined with the animation in which he keeps disassembling and reassembling his skeleton in order to keep his interviewer off-guard.

He ultimately fails to convince the officer, and I only understood his exit line, as he asked whether he could take his Frida costume with him, only to be told “No.”

—¿Puedo traer mi disfraz?

—No.

Still… everything is clear until Miguel and Hector finally meet up and, yet again, it suddenly gets murky on Hector’s part until he starts calling Miguel “chamaco,” and then it hits me.

My god — Bernal is slanging it up Mexican style, so of course I can’t understand him. And, of course, I don’t know enough to know whether it’s puro chilango (Mexico City slang) or just Mexican slang in general, but it does remind me of a very delightful biopic about another Mexican film icon.

This would be from the Spanish-language film Cantinflas, the biopic of the man who was basically the Charles Chaplin of Mexico and who almost but not quite made it to international superstardom via the epic film Around the World in 80 Days. Anyway, early on in the film, Mario Moreno (Cantinflas) has met his future wife, Valentina Ivanova, a Russian woman who lives in Mexico but who is otherwise fluent in Spanish.

While they’re walking together in Mexico City while he’s on tour, he runs across a friend in the street, and they proceed to have a rapid-fire conversation which, if you weren’t born and raised in Mexico City, you probably won’t get at all. (Dog knows that I didn’t.)

At the end of it, Valentina looks at him and says, “What language was that, Spanish?”

His reply: “No. Puro mexicano.”

And he’s not wrong.

Probably the closest English equivalent to this that I can think of is something like Cockney, which involves obscure rhyming slang, and you just either know it or you don’t.

And the incomprehensibility transcends the cockney accent. Even spoken in British RP or American Newscaster English, it would not make sense without the key.

“Butcher them Bristols, Ken.”

“I know, Mark. Them scotches ain’t bad, neither.”

“Yeah, but boat like a bottle, sadly.”

“You’d have to be right Brahms’d to fire up your orchestras over that one.”

Even if you do speak English, you probably didn’t understand that at all. Now imagine how extra difficult it would be for a non-native English speaker. Here’s the translation from Cockney to real English.

“Look at those tits, Ken!” (Butcher’s hook = “look”; Bristol cities = “titties”.)

“I know, Mark. Those legs aren’t bad, either.” (Scotch eggs = “legs”)

“Yes, but face like an ass, sadly.” (Boat race = “face”; bottle and glass = “ass”)

“You’d have to be really pissed (drunk) to work up your balls over that one.” (Brahms and Liszt = “pissed”; orchestra stalls = “balls”)

Oops. I think I was discussing a family film. The other complication in Cockney slang, of course, is that sometimes they leave both words in and sometimes they only take the first word from the rhyming pair.

Of course, you don’t have to be Cockney or from Mexico City to come up with colorful slang all on your own, and the British author Marjorie Allingham, who wrote a series of detective novels featuring Albert Campion. His assistant, Lugg, once came up with this doozy: “It’s crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide.”

Apparently, it meant, “It’s crazy to bribe a cop with worthless money,” but in the 1950s, a writer for MAD Magazine saw it and all the writers began slipping it into the magazine in various places. Kids saw it and, while they had no idea what it meant either, they started using it, frequently as a nonsense answer to their parents.

Basically, it went viral by word of mouth and a comic popular with teenagers.

But, even though eight out of ten words in the quote are perfectly understandable English, the two that aren’t throw everything off and make the entire thing a mystery.

That was kind of like the first time I saw Coco in Spanish. I knew most of the words in the sentences, but then one or two would pop up and suddenly I wasn’t so sure. This time around, though, a lot of those mystery words are part of my vocabulary, and suddenly there was no mystery.

That’s how language learning works. Be persistent, practice or study a little bit every day, and immerse yourself when possible. You’ll be surprised how your brain will pick up on and retain things.

Just remember: When you first learned your native language before you ever went to school, you just picked it up by listening to the other people around you. You may have just been approximating things at first — “Me, juice now?” — but eventually moved to more complete sentences and chances are, short of developmental challenges, you could at least hold a very simple conversation with an adult by the time you started school.

It’s the same thing learning a language as an adult. Don’t let them lie to you and tell you it’s impossible. It isn’t. You just have to put yourself in the same place you were as a child, listen, repeat, and learn from your mistakes.

Good luck!

Momentous Monday: More movies that don’t suck

Another film worth watching that I missed the first time around but found recently thanks to streaming.

Yet again, a random internet discovery sent me off in search of a film I never saw the first time around, luckily to find it on Disney+.

That discovery was that Rami Malek, something I wasn’t aware of when the film came out because, well, nobody had heard of him at the time. This was his first feature film role after a handful of TV episodes, and it would come nine years before his breakthrough in Mr. Robot.

I made the discovery by running across a short video online of all of his best moments in the film and watched it only to realize that he’s pretty funny in it, as is Ben Stiller, and I was reminded after so many years of how amazing the cast actually was: Ben Stiller, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Ricky Gervais, Paul Rudd, Robin Williams, Steve Coogan, Owen Wilson, and Anne Meara (Ben’s mom) in a cameo that’s even more hilarious if you know they’re related.

So the clips I’d seen and that cast list made me decide to give it a shot. It was short enough and I started early enough that I could pull it off on a work night, after all, and if it sucked, I could always just turn it off.

As the title noted, though, it did not suck and was engaging from its beginning shots of New York City — specifically the borough of Brooklyn — with its opening credits integrated into the scenery as museum-like signs and engravings on buildings that would fade in and out.

The script itself is lean and mean and gets right to the point. Larry Daley (Stiller) is a recently-divorced father of a ten-year-old boy who lives with his mother, Rebecca (Carla Gugino), and her fiancé Don (Rudd).

Larry would love it if his son could live with him, but Rebecca doesn’t think that’s a wise idea, especially after she gets Larry to admit he’s about to be evicted again. His problem is that he’s a dreamer with a very unusual resumé, having gone through a series of spectacularly failed would-be start-up products designed for infomercial sales.

Unfortunately, his first big idea, The Snapper, was not only identical in function to a similarly named and already existing device, but most people found it too hard to snap compared to the rhyming alternative.

His only hope to save his apartment is to find a real job, but the employment agency he goes to tells him there’s nothing. Nothing, that is, except for one odd job, but everyone so far she’s sent out has refused it.

You can probably guess where that job is.

Larry goes to the Natural History Museum where he meets the three current night guards, Cecil (Van Dyke), Gus (Rooney), and Reginald (Cobbs). Cecil offers him the job immediately even as Gus is kind of an asshole toward him.

That evening before closing, they give him a tour of the museum and his guard’s manual, making sure that he has his keys, flashlight, and guard’s manual, then beat a hasty retreat, Cecil leaving with the ominous yet jovially-toned warning, “Don’t let anything in. Or out.”

I don’t feel like I’m giving anything away since it was explained in the trailers and the film is fifteen years old, but the secret of this museum is that at night, everything in it comes to life — and that means everything, starting with the T-Rex skeleton in the lobby.

This was the one thing that Cecil and company failed to explain to Larry, and so he’s discovering it all along with us, although as all hell starts to break loose and various historical figures wander the halls, he winds up frantically phoning Cecil for help.

Cecil’s instructions are short and glib. “Just follow the instructions,” he says before hanging up. Larry finds the guard’s manual, tries instruction number one, and it works, so then proceeds through the museum to follow the rest of them, only getting to the part too late about the key-stealing monkey.

The rest of the evening doesn’t go so well, with rival factions in the miniature dioramas starting wars with each other, the tiny Aztecs attacking Larry with mostly ineffective “poison” darts only strong enough to make parts of him numb, and the wild animals from the taxidermy exhibit running free.

He’s finally rescued by the ever horse-mounted Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), who helps him deal with the problems, explains a few of the rules that Cecil did not and gets things at least in stable shape before morning comes.

Larry almost quits when Cecil and the others come in, but then something outside reminds him of why he took the job, so he tells Cecil he’ll give it another night. Cecil advises him to learn the history of the exhibits in order to be able to handle them, and Larry takes his advice to heart.

You’ll just have to watch the film for yourself to see what happens next, but suffice it to say that it’s a breezy and well-constructed bit of enjoyable fluff that literally follows the classic fairy tale structure of repeating a particular journey — in this case the entire night in the museum — three times, with increasingly disastrous results before the conclusion.

One highlight of the film is watching the reaction of Larry’s boss, Dr. McPhee (Gervais), to the ever-growing state of morning after chaos, reacting in an extremely low-key British manner that still tips off how truly pissed off the man is, although he can never show it emotionally. A different actor could have easily gone over the top in the role, but Gervais proves that less is often more.

The filmmakers also managed to pull off one big surprise leading into the third act that I truly did not see coming, although it made absolute sense once it was revealed.

There were two follow-up films that don’t appear to be on Disney+, although that’s typical of the streamer, which seems to like to only include first films in franchises that are not branded MCU or Star Wars. Then again, I also hear rumor that Disney is remaking the first film (but of course) so that might be another reason to withhold the second and third films. Sigh.

One thing I did not know until after I’d watched the film and looked up the cast and crew is that it was directed by the same guy, Shawn Levy, who directed the 2021 Ryan Reynolds hit Free Guy, and who is an executive producer on Stranger Things, also having directed some episodes.

The Free Guy connection makes total sense, though, because they do live in similar territories of an ordinary guy suddenly discovering something extraordinary in his world and then having to figure it out on his own while trying (and failing) to convince others of his new reality.

They’re also both love stories in a sense, although in Night at the Museum, everything Larry does is for the love of his son, Nick (Jake Cherry).

Night at the Museum is a fun film for a family viewing, cuddling to watch with an SO, streaming with friends, or just watching on your own when you need to unwind. Rated PG for mild action, language and brief rude humor.

Wednesday Wonders: Buy the ticket, take the ride

Have you ever wondered how your favorite amusement park rides work behind the scenes? Here are backstage peeks at a few of them.

Okay, I have to admit that during these “must stay at home” times, I have been watching a lot of behind the scenes videos of amusement park rides, particularly those at Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood, my two favorite parks, although the latter is my super favorite because A) It’s really close to home and I can get there on the L.A. Metro, B) It’s a lot cheaper than that overpriced Disney Shit, and C) It was the first amusement park my parents ever took me to when I was a wee lad.

But the best part of learning about how some of the more elaborate rides work is how simple they really are. And I’m not really counting roller coasters here, because those basically just involve gravity and flinging shit up and down rails. There is one exception, because it hides a big trick, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

There are kind of a couple of eras hiding in here, too — really old school Disney, and really modern tech. Not that Disney also hasn’t embraced the latter, but others may have done it better.

Old School Disney

Disney’s first real foray into high-tech ride design came in the form of audio-animatronics, which were basically robots synced to perform to a pre-recorded soundtrack. They still exist to this day at Disney properties, with the Hall of Presidents being one of the more famous examples,

But they also used very early versions of motion control in their inaugural ride Rocket to the Moon, later rebranded as Mission to Mars. In it, guests sat in a circular amphitheater, which had movie screens mounted in the floor, ceiling, and around the perimeter.

The conceit was that the theatre was a spacecraft designed to fly to either the Moon or Mars, and the trip was simulated thanks to motion control of the seats and theatre. For example, as the ship allegedly reached Zero G, the seats would sink thanks to hydraulics to create the illusion of the riders rising out of them, and the entire theatre would shake as the ship dealt with the forces of escaping Earth’s orbit or returning back to it.

Still… very basic.

I’m not going to get into rollercoasters, though, because those are beyond basic. Cars go up hill, come down hill, done. Well, except, of course, for the exception I already mentioned.

Ghost school

The funny thing about one of the most popular Disney Attractions, The Haunted Mansion, is how simple it all really is. Honestly, a lot of effects on that ride predate its opening by a century, the most famous one being Pepper’s Ghost, which not only creates the ghostly ballroom in The Haunted Mansion, but which has created every single “hologram” show of a dead celebrity that you’ve ever seen. It’s all mirrors, but without the smoke.

That and, of course, how the ride system was designed to focus your POV and keep the music and such in sync with where you were while delivering a quite different experience to the “Doom Buggies” just before and after you, right down to the point that you meet those hitchhiking ghouls in the mirrors at the end.

It wasn’t until computers crept in, of course, that shit got much more complicated.

Universal beats Disney

Nowadays, it’s kind of expected and ubiquitous, at least if you’ve ever seen a movie in 4DX (which you should, if it’s the right one.) But once upon a time, motion control rides were the weird exception, and Disney was not an early embracer of the tech.

Who was? Universal, and it happened when they were trying to develop a Back to the Future ride. Probably not all that surprising, because Robert Zemeckis was a genius at developing new and incredible special effects techniques that advanced the art by lightyears.

Serious, look at any of his movies, and then marvel at how he seamlessly did shit that no one else had figured out how to do at that time.

All of which left Universal with big boots to fill, but they ultimately did because they latched onto an idea that has since become quite common: What if we make a rollercoaster that doesn’t move?

Of course, they didn’t phrase it that way. Instead, they settled on Motion Control and ride design that didn’t rely on long tracks and such but, rather, basically stayed in place while rocking the riders through four degrees of freedom.

Ta-da! The birth of the modern amusement park ride!

And Universal beat Disney to the punch with Back to the Future. The Disney version, Star Tours, which kind of used a less elaborate version of the same effect, came out later. In both cases, the rides took up much smaller spaces than traditional rollercoasters, with more square footage being dedicated to the queuing area than to the ride itself.

The Mummy’s Secret

Speaking of Universal, one of my favorite rollercoasters in the world is there: The Mummy’s Revenge. It occupies the space that was once long ago taken up by the E.T. Adventure ride. The concept is simple. Themed to the Brendan Fraser movie franchise, you board a coaster that takes you through a story set-up at a leisurely pace before it takes off on a fast and twisty dark ride with all kinds of thrills and scares from the movie.

And takes off is the right word. Just as two of the gigantic and menacing skeleton guards from the movie drop from the ceiling and stop inches above your head, it’s blastoff into the dark time.

The cars ride on metal rails and use linear induction motors. That is, a current is shot through those tubular rails and it accelerates the car smoothly and quickly. Of course, it probably uses a few of Space Mountain’s tricks as well, like blowing fans on the cars, which give the perception of moving even faster.

Then the ride comes to a sudden stop as projected scarabs climb down the walls before water jets above you and air jets in the car simulate thousands of them climbing up your legs to eat you. But that’s not the big surprise.

Suddenly, the car blasts off backwards and continues to the station that way. The first time, it can be quite unexpected and for the longest time I wondered whether they only ran one car at a time so it could make that backwards journey.

Except that the trip back always seemed shorter and faster than the trip out. For a long time, I put that down to traveling backwards creating that illusion until I finally noticed something about that room where the car came to an abrupt stop.

While we were being distracted by the threats from above and below, a switcher behind us activates to route the car onto a different track heading back. That way, another train could be heading in while we were returning. If you pay very close attention, you can actually feel the slight difference in direction between your entrance and exit.

Right before the ride ends, the car stops on a turntable, which spins it back right-way around, so the whole thing is self-resetting and the car, now moving forward, merges back into the original line.

Pottering about

You can find another Universal attraction that creates the illusion of much more movement than there really is in Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is stuffed full of tricks, although you probably actually walk farther in the ride queue than you travel in the ride itself.

It’s a very impressive queue, though, full of recreations of all things Hogwarts, including 3D projections of various film cast members who show up to urge you on your way. There’s also one point when you emerge into an outdoor area representing the place where students pot the screaming mandrakes, and this gives an amazing view of Universal and the surrounding Valley.

Sure, it kind of destroys the illusion of being in the far north of England, but it’s still a lovely view.

Eventually, you board a four-passenger vehicle and are strapped in with safety bars, and then you’re off. The ride itself was originally presented in 3D with glasses and I was fortunate enough to experience it that way two times.

Sadly, too many people were getting motion sickness, so they ditched the glasses. Too bad. They should have just warned people, “If you start to feel nauseous, take the glasses off.”

But like the Back to the Future ride, most of the motion is created by what you’re seeing and not what you’re actually feeling. The ride car you’re in is basically dangling on a short crane that follows a single track, and the crane does all the work of lifting, twisting, and turning the car as it passes through the various projections.

These mechanisms are hidden from riders’ view by the lighting, positioning of the passenger seats, and the projection screens that use hemispheres to wrap around each car as it goes through.

You can see video of what it looks like with the lights on and no projections here. Not quite the same thrill ride that way, is it?

Image source: SolarSurfer — Own work, Public Domain.

Sunday Nibble #76: Films colorful and not

Something about finally going back to the movies to see Free Guy the other week just triggered something in me, so I started actually streaming movies again — something I also have done for a long time, plus I went to the theater yet again. It was the same chain but different location, and Thursday seems to be turning into my movie out night.

Why not? I’ve discovered something else: Catch a movie a few weeks after it opens, and you can easily be the only one in the entire theater.

This week’s at-home movies were two classics, one that I’d never seen and the other that I had several times. The premier (for me) movie was Pixar’s Ratatouille, written and directed by Brad Bird, who also did both of the Incredibles films.

In fact, Ratatouille was his next film right after the original Incredibles, and I found it to be very delightful and totally enjoyable. This was still in the earlier days of character animation, but each one of the players, human and rat, was incredibly distinct and full of character.

Again, this isn’t going to be so much of a review, since the film is older, but more my impressions. In case you’ve been living in a cave, this is a 3D animated comedy in which a rat with an incredible sense of smell and taste winds up in Paris, eventually finding a formerly five-star restaurant.

At the same time, Alfredo Linguini, a young man with a letter from the (now dead) former head chef’s mistress arrives, seeking work. The current (still living) head chef takes the letter without reading it and makes Linguini the garbage boy.

Of course the rat, Remy, wants nothing more than to be a chef, inadvertently exposing his talents to Linguini in creating a soup that the customers go nuts over. Skinner is livid, thinking that Linguini went way out of his station to dare cook in Skinner’s kitchen, so challenges him to recreate the recipe.

From there, Linguini and Remy establish a relationship and an understanding. What’s remarkable about this is that although the rats can talk to each other, all the humans ever hear is squeaking, so we don’t get the stereotype of the lovable talking rodent.

The film is all that much stronger for it once Remy figures out how to communicate with Linguini after hiding under his toque.

If you’ve never seen it, it’s worth a watch — not only for the beautiful animation, but the pitch-perfect voice performances. And some of these voices you will not recognize even if you know in advance. Patton Oswalt plays Remy the rat and Janeane Garofalo voices Colette, the only female chef in the establishment who becomes Linguini’s mentor. Peter O’Toole is perfect as the villain of the piece, food critic Anton Ego, and one you probably haven’t heard of as an actor, Lou Romano, voices our lead, Linguini, perfectly.

Romano is more frequently behind the camera as an animator, artistic director, etc.

There are a few surprises in the cast besides Garofalo, though — Ian Holm sounds nothing like himself as Chef Skinner, and neither does Brad Garret as the now dead chef Auguste Gusteau. Will Arnett is also well hidden as the German-accented sous chef.

Again, it’s a delightful romp with plenty for the adults to enjoy but not so complicated that the kids will get bored, and it all comes to a wonderfully happy ending.

The next two films on the list are both colorful in their own way.

The first and other streaming film was Disney’s The Black Hole, which was (gasp!) their first ever PG-rated film. Of course, it came out before the PG-13 rating was created in response to two PG-rated films, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins.

They were classified as too intense for PG but not gory enough for R and wound up in some weird netherworld where they probably were too much for younger children but totally appropriate for teens.

Don’t worry. Disney’s The Black Hole is quite firmly in PG land, despite having some pretty grim elements to it. But despite the laser battles all of the victims are of the non-human kind.

The film itself feels like a combination of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Moby Dick, featuring a brilliant but possibly mad scientist who has lived alone for 20 years on a ship held in stable orbit above a black hole. The film begins as a ship from earth discovers the craft, and everything goes from there.

The whole thing is a surprisingly brisk 98 minutes and the special effects are decidedly old school. The closest we get to anything CGI comes in the opening credits, after the nearly three-minute overture played to a black screen — that should date the film quite nicely. The CGI comes in the form of a green grid that eventually reveals itself to be the very familiar wireframe rendering of the bottomless gravity well created by a black hole.

Computers were also used to solve all the complicated formulae to calculate the motion of the onscreen blackhole although, obviously, they hadn’t quite gotten sophisticated enough to give us the familiar modern image of the black hole a la Interstellar — with the accretion disc around back also being visible in front due to gravitational lensing.

The film used computerized motion-controlled cameras to seamlessly integrate multi-exposure shots of actors, miniatures, and matte paintings, and those effects hold up quite well. Not bad for 1979.

The story itself is rather light and somewhat cheesy, and includes such non-scientist written plonkers as Yvette Mimieux’s character mentioning that her ship’s mission is to find “inhabited life” in the universe (no, really).

On the other hand, Maximilian Schell’s Captain Nemo manque casually tosses off mention of possibly encountering an Einstein-Rosen bridge if they cross the event horizon. That fancy talk is what is more commonly known as a white hole, although they never refer to it as such in the movie or, to their credit, explain it.

Anyway, The Black Hole is more about the whiz-bang of old school filmmakers trying to make something predictive of future filmmaking techniques. The interesting part is watching an all-star, although also old school, cast running through their paces.

Incidentally, getting back to the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea reference, if you’re thinking that it refers to depth beneath the sea you’d be wrong, because that depth beneath the sea would put you 69,047 miles down. This happens to be almost nine times the diameter of Earth, so you’d wind up going into orbit at some point.

But it’s not an error in the title. The 20,000 leagues doesn’t refer to a depth but rather a distance traveled without surfacing, and this is much more reasonable, representing circumnavigating the Earth entirely underwater just over three complete times.

Save that one for trivia night some. You’re welcome.

The final film is a current release, The Green Night, which a friend of mine described as a combination of Excalibur and The Emerald Forest, and I have to agree. I caught up with it rather late into its run so it’s probably leaving theaters soon, but it’s worth seeing on the big screen if you can.

Of course, because it’s so late in the run, I lucked out in having an entire theater to myself, which was great.

Starring the always amazing Dev Patel, The Green Knight tells the story of Gawain (which sounds like it’s always pronounced “Garwen” in the film), and his year-long adventure after the Green Knight shows up at Camelot’s Christmas celebration and Gawain takes up his challenge.

Unfortunately, that challenge means that in a year’s time, Gawain has to trek a six day’s journey north to the Green Chapel to meet the knight again, at which point he will strike the same blow on Gawain that Gawain did on him.

If only Gawain hadn’t lopped the Green Knight’s head off…

The film dives deep into the legend of Gawain, taken from an anonymous 15th Century poem, although one reference to the King having defeated the Saxons puts us at about 500 CE.

What’s nice is that the film never explains anything, but gives us fascinating little clues so that we know immediately that the king and queen are Arthur and Guinevere, and we can also pick out Merlin. We also learn that Gawain is Arthur’s nephew without that word ever being spoken, and that Gawain’s mother is into some very pagan magic — but this is not at all surprising if you know who Arthur’s sister was.

This particular story, though, ignores a certain incestuous offspring and the eventual battle that kills father and son, which was the major focus of the film Excalibur.

Oh yeah — the sword also makes an unnamed appearance.

If you’re an Arthurian Legend nerd, you’re going to love this one. It’s got everything. Headless saints, talking animals, meandering giants, dishonest thieves, seductive wives, and more.

And everything about the production is gorgeous — from the cast through to the sets, design, cinematography, effects, editing, and locations. You’ll believe that you’re in the mid Dark Ages watching legends being born.

Hurry though if you want to catch The Green Knight before he slips out of theatres, because, like I said, you want to see this one on the big screen.

Wednesday Wonders: That’s incredible!

Probably inspired by my trek into the real world to see Free Guy when it opened, I cracked open the ol’ Disney+ over the last weekend and decided to catch up on films I’d missed in the theater in the past.

I settled on The Incredibles 2 (2018), which came out fourteen years after its predecessor The Incredibles (2004). I did see the first film in a theater and loved it.

But this isn’t going to be a review of either film. Rather it was something that struck me during one of the villains speeches, although it didn’t really hit me until after the film.

The plot in a nutshell is that the sequel picks up right where the first film ended, with the Underminer emerging from the ground in a boring machine and wreaking havoc. The Parr family, aka the Incredibles, try to stop it only to make things far, far worse.

Superheroes — called “supers” in this universe — have already been outlawed, and the Parrs are reduced to living in a cheap motel, but they only have two weeks.

Along comes an apparent hero to the heroes, though: Winston Deavor, a huge superhero fan like his father. He and his sister, Evelyn Deavor, inherited their father’s business after he was killed by burglars after no supers showed up — seeing as how they were illegal at the time.

Don’t say the sister’s name too quickly, though.

Anyway, Winston enlists Elastigirl, aka Helen Parr, to take part in a PR campaign to redeem the image of the supers and get them made legal again. Her husband, Bob Parr, is left at home to take care of the kids — although Winston couldn’t stand seeing them living in a motel, so lends them one of his many homes, which is an isolated mid-century modern showplace literally built for a billionaire.

Helen is going to be wearing a miniature camera on her missions in order to give people a super’s POV, but from the first mission she runs into the films villain, Screenslaver, who uses hypnosis via video screen to control people.

And it was one of these speeches, delivered to a TV audience as Elastigirl tracks down said villain that it struck me. It’s another case of the villain not necessarily being wrong.

Here’s selected bits from the monologue:

“Elastigirl doesn’t save the day; she only postpones her defeat. And while she postpones her defeat, you eat chips and watch HER confront problems that you are too lazy to deal with. Superheroes are part of your brainless desire to replace true experience with simulation. You don’t talk, you watch talk SHOWS. You don’t play games, you watch game SHOWS. Travel, relationships, risk; every meaningful experience must be packaged and delivered to you to watch at a distance so that you can remain ever-sheltered, ever-passive, ever-ravenous consumers who can’t bring themselves to rise from their couches, break a sweat, and participate in life.”

The ultimate purpose for all of this, the villain explains is “So that the system can keep stealing from you, smiling at you all the while.”

Hm. Sound familiar?

Again, I can’t say that I disagree with the villain’s monologue at all and, as we know far too well in the 2020s, there are no superheroes to come save us. There are some heroes who stand up all too briefly at particular moments, but no Justice League or Avengers out there fighting crime.

Meanwhile, and especially during the days of COVID and isolation, we have replaced experience with simulation. Ironically, a lot of people didn’t listen to the supers who stepped up at the beginning of the thing — e.g. Dr. Fauci — and so we wound up deep in trouble, which continues to this day.

What I’m not sure of is how much writer-director Brad Bird agreed with the villain or not. On the one hand, it could have been a really subtle F.U. aimed at superhero films in general and Disney and Marvel in particular. The Incredibles are the only two superhero films that he’s written and directed.

The rest of the films he’s both written and directed are The Iron Giant, his 1999 debut, Ratatouille (2007), Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) and Tomorrowland (2015), the latter two being forays into live action.

So you could say that he’s not a fan of superhero films and has only been involved in one franchise that he did not create. On the other hand, he does leave some clues lying around that maybe having supers is not the best thing, or at least not in this particular world.

Oh yeah — The Incredibles has always been stuck in this uncertain era that seems to have both modern gadgets and dated style, but canonically it apparently takes place in 1962, although it could be an alternate universe, given that people being born with superpowers is a thing.

The ending of the film is a big nod to supers possibly being more trouble than they’re worth and (THREE-YEAR-OLD FILM SPOILER ALERT) we get to watch as the entire family, after finally setting up a date between teenager Violet and her total crush Tony, see a passing cop and robber chase and silently agree to pursue. They dump Tony at the theatre with popcorn money, although Violet swears that she’ll be back before the trailers are over.

Okay, another alternate universe bit: in 1962, the trailers actually did come after the feature, which started on time. They came between the feature, intermixed with the cartoon(s) and newsreel and before the B Movie.

This is film history 101, although I’ll let it slip as shorthand to a modern audience. Her saying, “I’ll be back before the end of the first reel” wouldn’t make a bit of sense nowadays.

Still… the family is willing to interrupt their life to get involved with something that really looks like it’s a simple police matter.

There’s also an undercurrent of sexism and toxic masculinity going on. First off, Bob can barely handle that his wife is suddenly getting all of the attention while he has to take care of the kids — a task he can barely handle. Second, Helen Parr is known as… Elastigirl. Not Elastiwoman? Not just SuperStretch?

Even if she started young, she should have given herself the name promotion and rebranding. Hey, Superboy did it and became Superman — at least in the Golden age, although that was retconned away in the modern age.

Supergirl, however, was always just “girl.” Naturally.

These hints carry on to their kids. Violet’s powers are non-destructive: Invisibility and creating protective forcefields. Her brother Dash, though, while only having superspeed also has a pretty destructive streak, best shown when it’s revealed that his dad’s old car, the Incredribile (I think) has been bought at auction by some wealthy man even though it was believed destroyed.

Dad still has the remote, which he digs out, and, surprisingly, it works at whatever distance they are from the location of the car. Dash seizes the remote and wants to fire off the rockets, bot Dad dissuades him.

It does say a lot about an animated film that is ostensibly just a family-oriented action/adventure story when it makes you think about the possibly bigger ideas that the filmmaker may have hidden within the story.

Then again, Brad Bird always puts a lot into his movies. I think my next feature watch is going to be Ratatouille.

A little cure for the Monday Blues

As might be obvious from some of my posts, I do have a day job — in the field of Medicare insurance — and from October 15 to December 7 every year, it’s the annual enrollment period, or what we like to refer to as our tax season.

So… I’ve been working seven days a week, plus overtime most days, and it’s not going to let up for a while, and this can have an effect on keeping up with the regular publishing schedule.

Don’t worry — The Saturday Morning Post installments of The Rêves are written and scheduled well into March, and the Friday Free-for-All questions are actually easy to do because they’re prompted.

But I might be doing more recycling or shorter mid-week posts up to Thanksgiving, at which point I’ll have a special treat as I bring back a month-long feature from last year’s holidays.

Meanwhile, I wanted to give a shout-out and a plug to an incredibly talented young actor, comedian, singer, writer, dancer, improviser, Disney park super-fan, and all-around swell guy I know: Zach Timson.

Some of you might even know him from a little online thing called the Who Was? Show. (In that clip, he shows up briefly as Henry VIII.)

Anyway, I’m fortunate enough to know him IRL through ComedySportz, and his talent, despite his youth, never ceases to blow me away. Here’s just one sample.

His big ambition is to one day be a cast member on SNL, and if it’s still around, I have no doubt that he would be if he makes the right connections. If you liked the clip above, do yourself a favor and go browse around his other videos.

Oh. Did I mention that he is one of the most amazing voice impressionists I have ever heard? If he doesn’t make it on SNL, he could still be the Rich Little, Billy Crystal, (insert famous impressionist here) of his generation.

I was fortunate, in the days before the lockdown, to meet a wide range of people via ComedySportz, from our College League on up to senior members of the company and those I played with in Rec League.

But the most important thing it taught me was that you should never discount someone’s ability to teach you just because of outer appearances like age (lack of or too much), physical ability or disability, or experience or ability in actually doing improv.

That last one might seem paradoxical, but sometimes it takes seeing something done… I don’t want to say “wrong,” so maybe I’ll just say “not well,” in order to make you understand how to do it better.

I certainly learned that one in trying to help beginning writers improve their work over many years. The ones who taught me the most were, again paradoxically, the ones who seemed to learn the least from me.

Of course, when a master of their craft walks into the room and starts teaching, it’s obvious in a second, and I have also learned over the years from many brilliant mentors, like the late Jerry Fey, who guided me from being a novice writer to a produced and award-winning playwright in a very prestigious regional theatre, or Rick Steadman, who got me into and then made me reasonably good at improv.

Which is the long way around of saying that Zach — and all of his teammates on the college league — have taught me a lot (as mentors) about doing improv, how to be funny, how to relax and just have fun on stage. But if I’d ever looked at any of them and thought, “Yeah, they’re just kids. What do they know?” I never would have learned a thing.

Listen always to the generations above and below yours. The elders have experience, while the youth have passion. Unite the two of those in yourself, and oh, the places you’ll go.

Image courtesy of Pixy#Org via CC0 1.0 license.

Christmas Countdown Bonus!

The Boys in Blue Are Back

The latest Christmas Charity single from Out of the Blue Oxford dropped today, so I couldn’t not share it as a bonus track on the countdown, since they’ve been featured before not once but twice. This time around, it’s an unabashedly gay and over-the-top medley of tunes from Disney’s Frozen.

Bonus bonus! Three years ago to the day, they dropped this one, which becomes more joyously gay by the second with the nice conceit of a pretentious director trying to rein them in. Ah, for oh-so-innocent days of late 2016 again!

Meanwhile, please visit their page and donate to Helen & Douglas House and/or buy the charity single that this video is plugging to benefit the same group. And drop a tip in my jar if you’re so inclined. It is the giving season, after all. You’ll be glad you did.

Watch the Christmas Countdown from the beginning!

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