“Ringling Bros. Circus: the Final Farewell” Documentary Review

“Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages. Feld Entertainment proudly presents Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey! Welcome to the greatest show on earth!” For nearly a century and a half (146yrs), THE circus was an American institution that began with storied entertainer P.T. Barnum and later bought by John Ringling followed by the Feld family, whom would produce the circus for its last 50yrs. Prior to (what would eventually become known as) Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (from hereon out referred to as RBBBC), America did not have a concept of what a traveling live entertainment show was. There was certainly live entertainment prior to RBBBC, but you had to be fortunate enough to live or visit the cities where the shows were. What made the RBBBC unique was the fact it traveled by train to cities nationwide delivering the greatest show on earth to ladies, gentleman, and children of all ages. Much like the US space program indirectly impacted our lives at home, the office, and in the car through the prolific space spinoff technologies, RBBBC’s influences on live and themed entertainment are far reaching. From technical theatre technology to advertising to stunts and beyond. Nearly every live entertainment show can trace elements of its roots back to the circus. Once packing out tents turned arenas, in the last few years of the circus, the numbers began to shrink. And eventually it was decided to make the hard decision to close the circus after its final performance in May 2017. The documentary The Final Farewell chronicles the final performance of the American institution as it invites you to be in awe and wonder of the talent and technology on display that inspired imaginations for nearly 150 years. It airs on AXS-TV on Memorial Day at 8pm EDT. Learn just why this truly was the greatest show on earth, and why the performers and technicians truly felt that it was a community, a town without a zip code that will forever be missed.

Two years ago, RBBBC saw its final performance in Uniondale, NY (NYC area). This was the last time long-standing ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson would say goodbye to the audiences that clapped, cheered, and applauded the experience of being mesmerized by the spectacle of the circus. After nearly 150 years, it was difficult for the cast, crew, and American people to fully comprehend that this was the last time RBBBC’s iconic train would pull into the station to bring the circus to the eager audience. After pioneering the very concept of touring live entertainment, the circus finally came to a close, and with it, the end of an American icon. This documentary, that has been more than two years in the making, provides audiences with an up close and personal look at the timeless magic of the circus through intimate interviews with cast and crew, footage of the final performance, and archival photographs and video.

Documentaries are challenged to make a strong emotional connection with the audience; otherwise, they may fall into talking head or Wikipedia territory. This emotional connection is often accomplished through the use of subtext, a compelling score, artfully crafted images, and a script. A script? Precisely. Perhaps you are under the impression that a documentary is written in post-production, but that is not entirely true. A significant amount of work goes into producing a documentary that will evoke emotion and empathy at will, months or years before the camera shoots the first footage. Much of this work is accomplished through the effective use of a script (or strong outline). The script serves as the map between the idea or origin of the documentary and the destination. I say map because just like a roadmap (even GPS ones), there are opportunities to take an unexpected exit or explore a tourist stop that was not foreseen when the route was first plotted. Unlike the track on the Tomorrowland Speedway, you can veer off course in the event that something catches your eye. Spending a substantive amount of time in the pre-production stage of a doc also allows the director (or producer) to decide what kind of documentary the story should be. There are six types of documentaries: poetic, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive, and performative.

  • Poetic: Focus on experiences, images, and showing the audience the world through a different set of eyes. The ultimate goal is to create a feeling rather than truth.
  • Expository: Closest to what most people consider “documentaries.” These aim to inform and/or persuade — often through omnipresent “Voice of God” narration over footage.
  • Observational: Also known as cinema verite (veritas, Greek for truth), these aim to simply observe the world around them. The style attempts to give voice to all sides of an issue by giving audiences first hand access to some of the subject’s most important (and often private) moments.
  • Participatory: While having elements of Observational and Expository, include the filmmaker within the narrative. The filmmaker directly influences the major actions of the narrative.
  • Reflexive: Often include the filmmaker within the film; however, unlike Participatory, they make no attempts to explore an outside subject.
  • Performative: An experimental combination of styles used to stress subject experience and share an emotional response to the world. Often called the “Michael Moore” style of doc.

Before you begin to think that this article is all about how to make a documentary–don’t worry–but being familiar with the different style of docs will help to understand my critique of The Final Farewell. At the end of the day, this documentary is highly informative, containing some fantastic footage and interviews. Unfortunately, it lacks direction. The doc framing devices oscillate between a focus on the final show and the rich history of the RBBBC. Individually, both of these approaches to the doc work well; but switching between the two, takes away from the full emotional potential. There are times that it is highly expository but then it switches mid-act to observational and even becomes performative at times. It’s important for a documentary to select one type of doc style, and stick to it, otherwise the audience may lose focus and thus mitigates the desired emotional response from the audience. For those whom worked on or with the circus, there is certainly a nostalgic magic at play in this doc, but I think that some of the magic is lost on those whom did not have a personal connection to the greatest show. Had the documentary chosen to focus on the final show and the issues that led to the hard decision to close the circus after 146 years or chosen to focus on the history and evolution of the circus from its earliest days with P.T. Barnum to the Feld Family, by taking the audience on a journey that ended with the final performance, then I feel that there would have been a stronger emotional connection between the doc and the general audience. Whereas most of the interviews are framed in a traditional manner, there are a handful of recurring interviews wherein the interviewee looks directly at the camera. Any first year film student will tell you that this is never how a documentary interview should be shot unless chosen for artistic reasons that advance the plot. All that said, there are quite a few elements that work very well. There is a powerful documentary in there somewhere, but the lack of direction keeps it from reaching its full potential.

If there is one message that The Final Farewell drives home–and effectively so–is the very real community that existed between the cast (both people and animals) and crew while on and off the tracks. As familiar with the circus as I am, I had no idea that entire families traveled together, that there were schools and even a daycare on board the train. Furthermore, there was a commissary, barber/salon, restaurant and more. All that was missing was a post office. Unlike other traveling shows, including Feld Entertainment’s Disney on Ice, Sesame Street Live, and upcoming Jurassic World Live Tour, these performers went home every night as opposed to staying in hotel after hotel. Crazy, right?!? I found it utterly fascinating. Never thought of the RBBBC families literally having the train be their home for most of the year. For kids who grew up in the circus, this is the only home they ever knew. So, having your only home taken away from you, must have been devastating if not traumatizing. THAT is a story that I would have loved to have heard. It’s this very sense of community that the general audience can empathize with because none of us want to think of our livelihoods, let alone, homes being taken away from us. RBBBC was truly a world in and of itself. Not only was it the greatest show on earth, it was also the greatest home and career that these performers ever knew or perhaps will ever know. According to the many interviews, the feeling of community was strong. To be in Ringling Bros. was considered to be the apex of a career in the performing circus arts. And it is clear that everyone associated with this American institution will miss it.

Although there are dozens of acts in the circus, The Final Farewell focusses on Ringmaster Iverson, big cat trainers, dog trainers, motorbike acrobats, trapeze artists, Paolo, and the iconic clowns. The active embrace of diversity was a constant theme through the interviews. From Iverson winning the role of Ringmaster to became the first African-American to hold the coveted spot in 1998 to the attachment of acts from around the globe to highlight different talents, cultures, and people in ways that were positive, uplifting, and impactful, diversity ran strong. Not mentioned in this doc, RBBBC also broke the glass ceiling when the first female Ringmaster was cast for Circus Extreme (co-running at the same time as Out of this World). So many wonderful opportunities were created for a wide range of talented performers and technicians. Lots of firsts associated with the circus. It is clear from the interviews that everyone absolutely loved working for the circus. And that enthusiasm can be felt at times through the doc. In addition to the interviews, there are dozens of minutes of footage of the spectacular performances, dazzling costumes, and the smiling faces of the audience at the arena. But the footage and interviews are not contained to the show itself, there are many moments that take you to Feld Entertainment Studios to meet the costume and set designers that craft the show experience that the performers bring to life.

One of the items of interest conspicuously missing from the documentary, is any time spent exploring why RBBBC closed. The only reference to one of the reasons for the closure is a comment from Iverson asking the audience if the circus is antiquated. And of course, there is a resounding NO from the audience. A well-written documentary should address any elephants in the room. It’s no secret that RBBBC came under increasing scrutiny from PETA and other animal rights groups in recent years, and that the constant propaganda and petitions had an affect on the audience numbers. In terms of the animal treatment, whereas the earliest versions of the circus in the days of P.T. Barnum did not place extreme pride in animal care, RBBBC took great care in providing a rich and full life for the animal performers. Each and every animal was treated like royalty by their trainers, handlers, and owners. But I feel it was a missed opportunity for this documentary to address the issue of the animals (most prominently the elephants) and how outside forces did have an impact on the audience numbers. It would have been a great opportunity to tell this side of the story that the headlines so often neglected.

Prepare yourself for a documentary that is larger than life as you peek inside the final performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey! If you have been a fan of the circus from the time you were a kit to an adult, then you will find so much to like in this doc-film. I don’t foresee any Emmys for this doc next award season, but it’s still a fascinating exploration of the town without a zip code, the greatest show on earth.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“Tolkien” BioPic Movie Review

One of the world’s most engaging authors in one of the world’s most un-engaging biopics. Go behind the prolific fantasy writing, linguistics, and mythology to discover the origins of author J.R.R. Tolkien. From his early childhood as an orphan to his studies and teaching at Oxford, follow the famed author on his own unexpected journey to eventually pen those iconic words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Biopics are often challenged with balancing what the audience wants to see with the reality of what was, both the attractive, inspiring moments and, if applicable, the gruesome or repulsive. And over all, Tolkien does an adequate job of highlighting the personal history of Tolkien (tol-Keen); however, where the biopic does not deliver is evoking a significant emotional response from the audience. If you’ve read that it comes off as a glorified Wikipedia article, then don’t worry, that is not true. But, it isn’t an I, TonyaTheory of Everything, or Amadeus either. As biopics go, it is pretty much middle of the road. Though the story may not be as fascinating or gripping as audiences want, it does deliver command performances by Hoult, Collins, and JRR’s three best friends. In addition to the impeccable casting, the production design is gorgeous and the score is compelling. Sometimes biopics make the mistake of treating the subject with too much reverence, thus overlooking or glossing over low points or decisions that place the subject in a less than favorable light. And, without knowing a detailed history of his life, I am left with the real possibility that this biopic did just that. Perhaps it’s the oversimplification of Tolkien’s quasi-privileged life that predisposes the screenplay to falling short of evoking strong emotion from the audience. If there is one message that is clear from this biopic, it’s that imagination served as an escape from the obstacles and trials of life, especially during WWI.

Years before he would write The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien found himself in a childhood fellowship with three other outcasts at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, England after his mom, who would regale him of stories of dragons and knights, unexpectedly passed away. This close friendship would follow him all the way through to college and even into WWI. These four friends would draw upon one another for courage and artistic expression. Taking inspiration from his own fellowship including the personal/interpersonal challenges Tolkien faced as he and his friends challenged one another and his affections for Edith Bratt, Tolkien reflected on these experiences to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Although the scenes from WWI serve as a framing device for this biopic, it is the formidable years spent at King Edward’s School and Oxford that truly defined Tolkien and set him up for his timeless masterpieces. Had the movie taken a more linear approach, the story may have been much more impactful. As it stands, there is so much oscillation between the “present day” moments and the flash forwards/backwards (yes, there are both in this movie) that it was difficult to focus. The majority of the movie takes place at Oxford, but the number of flashbacks and flashforwards took me out of the story periodically. Flashbacks can be a useful storytelling tool, to provide visual exposition, but they are often misused. Had this movie followed the approach that Fried Green Tomatoes took with the use of present-day and flashbacks, then I think it would have delivered more powerful story. Although as a screenwriting lecturer I recommend that my students not use flashbacks because of how tricky it can be to integrate them in such a way that they advance the plot, if a screenwriter chooses to use flashbacks, then the writer has to make sure that the flashback or flashforward works to move the plot forward–add something of value to the story. With Tolkien, the flashbacks do little more than frame the story. Other than some impressive visuals and opening a window into the world that inspired and shaped Tolkien, these moments do not significantly advance the plot in meaningful ways.

With Tolkien’s infatuation with (future wife) Edith Bratt, there was certainly opportunity to turn this into a romance, shifting focus away from the fellowship Tolkien had with his three close male friends. Thankfully, the romance between Tolkien and Edith was a nice B story to our A story. I say B story instead of subplot because it is a counterpart to the main outside action plot (story A). Furthermore, the romance between the two does heavily influence the and even inspire the romance between future characters Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings. From romantic to close platonic relationships, that is truly what the plot of the biopic is about. Throughout the movie, you will encounter various relationships that Tolkien experienced during his life. Although we don’t spend much time with him and his younger brother, it is well-established that he has a moderately strong relationship with his brother. Furthermore, we see that Tolkien had a strong relationship with his mother, whom helped to shape his imagination in his younger years. It is widely known that Tolkien was a Catholic, but that is not highlighted in the movie (and it isn’t missed) but it’s that element that explains why the family priest is his legal guardian. Tolkien and the priest have a contentious relationship, but it is clear that the priest wants Tolkien to succeed in life. We don’t get to spend much time with his foster mom, but she seems to understand Tolkien and Edith’s relationship. Before getting to focal relationships, Tolkien has a strong relationship with his mentor and professor whom is chiefly responsible for Tolkien pursuing his scholarly studies at Oxford.

The central relationship(s) in the movie is between Tolkien and colleagues Christopher, Geoffrey, and Robert. For most of the movie, they are shown to be as close as brothers, but I appreciate the movie spending some time on the development of the relationships. What starts out as heavy conflict (that even devolves into physical altercations), soon evolves into the kind of friendships that you and I hope to have with close friends that ostensibly become our family. Despite Tolkien not coming from wealthy families like his friends, they share one very important thing in common: a desire to change the world through art. Each of the boys has a different interest, but they each inspire one another to stand up to the obstacles of life and achieve what each deeply desires. Of all his friends, Tolkien was closest to Geoffrey, whom was tragically killed during WWI along with Robert. Christopher is the only survivor out of Tolkien’s three friends. While Christopher’s scares (we are led to believe they are more emotional/psychological than physical) impacted his ability to compose music, Tolkien harnessed the atrocities of war to inspire The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I absolutely love the depiction of close friendship between these young men because we seem to have very few examples of this level of male companionship in cinema, by in large. Many of the closest friendships are often shown between women. The structure of the plot keeps the movie from being as inspirational as it could have been, but there is still a lot to like here.

As biopics go, this one is middle of the road. It is not outstanding nor is it a bore. For fans of the author, I feel that you will get quite a lot out of the movie. The impeccable casting is the strength of this story. Each actor/actress delivers solid performances. Whether you are more familiar with the books or movies, you will find surrogates for notable characters throughout Tolkien’s most famous writing. Interestingly, the late author’s estate released a statement saying that Tolkien’s family members “do not endorse it or its content in any way.” In fact, the estate has yet to see the movie. Perhaps its the exclusion of nuances that the family is aware of in the author’s life, but I am unable to see why any parts of this biopic are controversial in any way. If you enjoy reading his books or watching the movies that were inspired by them, then you should see this biopic. Not because it is an outstanding motion picture, but because it does give you insight into the real world of Tolkien.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

Busch60! Busch Gardens Tampa Bay Celebrates 60 Years

March 2019 marks Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s 60th anniversary! Opening on March 31, 1959 as a free-admission destination with a tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, tropical gardens, and a bird show, this one-time tourist stop offering free beer has become a world-class theme park known for its figure skating and animal shows, train safari, but mostly its exhilarating roller coasters, some of which are regularly ranked amongst the best in the world. Predating the opening of nearby Walt Disney World by more than a decade, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay has undergone name, identity, and leadership changes over the decades to become the theme park that it is today. Surprisingly, there are remnants of the original Tampa Anheuser-Busch park in plain sight. But what is the Busch Gardens story? And just how did it go from a free-admission brewery offering free beer to the word-class destination that it is today? Time for a history lesson. Let’s grab a beer and hop in our time machine to explore the history of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

In 1959, roller coasters were not thought of, but there was certainly a foreshadowing of what was to come. With the opening of the brewery, the Anheuser-Busch property featured a facility tour, free beer, exotic garden, and aviary. In addition to the aforementioned, there was also a “kind of a ride,” As Jurassic Parks‘s John Hammond would put it. This then-attraction was known as the Stairway to the Stars. At 80ft long, it was the longest single escalator in the world at the time. Not seen as a ride per se at the time, looking back, it is clear that Busch Gardens was always concerned about the guest experience and providing more than just the beer it produced. You can liken what Anheuser-Busch was doing with the Tampa brewery to the Coors Brewery tour in Golden, CO (near Denver). Instead of mountains for the guests, the Busch Brewery provided a tropical environment in order to immerse the guests into the world of the Tampa brewery. Although the brewery is no longer in existence, the Hospitality House, where guests exited the tour, is still there! You know it as The Garden Gate Cafe where Guests 21+ can enjoy complementary beer. This hospitality business model would continue until a pivotal change in 1965.

What was to open in 1965 would completely alter the hospitality facility, and set it on the course to become the Busch Gardens we see today–and can still experience. What I am speaking of is the world-famous Serengeti Plain! But before the African animal habitat opened, the 1960s also brought about other changes that paved the way for the still-popular attraction. Now named the Serengeti Overlook Restaurant, the Old Swiss House opened in 1964. In the same vein as today, this restaurant offered a cafe on the main level and a full-service upscale dining restaurant on the upper floor. In fact, it was recognized as one of the finest dining experiences in Tampa. To this day, you can enjoy a quick service restaurant in the pub and an upscale buffet on the top floor.

Years 1965-66 delivered guests attractions that began the transformation from a brewery to a theme park. In 1965 the Serengeti Plain, the first habitat of its kind, opened! Never before had an expansive animal habitat opened providing guests with the opportunity to observe exotic animals in their quasi natural environment. There was no Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Zoo Tampa was still evolving from a municipal animal park to a formal zoo. This unique offering began the transformation from elaborate brewery tour to zoological attraction! To provide guests with an up close and personal view of the African animals, it opened a monorail! That’s right, before Walt Disney World’s famous monorail opened in 1971, the Busch Gardens monorail was transporting guests through its highway in the sky five years prior. The monorail was not included in the brewery tour, but was a nominal $1.50 for adults and $0.75 for children. Think of Busch Gardens at this time as a state park that has a cheap admission with a la carte attraction offerings. The motto for the monorail tour and Serengeti Plain was “where people are caged and animals roam free.” During the 1960s, Busch Gardens was the No.1 tourist attraction in Florida!

The 1970s would introduce major competition just east of the park. What could have possibly opened in the 1970s that would drive up the competition exponentially? You guessed it, the opening of Walt Disney World on October 1, 1971. The 1970s and into the 80s saw massive expansions to keep the guests coming to the park with Disney World being just an hour away. In addition to the monorail experience, Busch Gardens added the Trans-Veldt railway (now the Serengeti Express, and during Christmas Town the Sing-a-long Express) to transport guests around the perimeter of the Serengeti Plain. In addition to the iconic train, Busch Gardens added the Moroccan Village, featuring performers, vendors, and artisans, which now functions as the entryway into the park. Stanleyville was opened to provide a space for additional animal encounters, shows, and gardens. Still, Busch Gardens had no rollercoasters. It had the Stairway to the Stars, monorail, and train, but no thrill rides. That would change in 1976 with the introduction of Python! Python would be the first rollercoaster at Busch Gardens, and it included two inversions (corkscrews). Elsewhere in the park, Skyride, Stanley Falls log flume, and the African Queen boat ride (similar to Magic Kingdom’s Jungle Cruise) were opened.

With all the African-centric animals, attractions, etc being added to the park, Busch Gardens began using the name Dark Continent, later changed to Busch Gardens Africa. During the 1970s, Busch Gardens Dark Continent changed from a free general admission plus a la carte pricing for all the attractions to a similar setup at Magic Kingdom in its early days. The general admission would be nominal and some offerings were included, but there were upgrades for many of the more elaborate attractions. What could have been a decade of setbacks, with the opening of WDW, was actually the most expansive in Busch Garden’s history! In order to support the growth of the theme park, Anheuser-Busch incorporated Busch Entertainment Corporation in 1979. Later that year, Busch Gardens Williamsburg opened, and the one-time brewer was now a theme park conglomerate.

 

The 1980s saw more expansions and attractions. Most notable is the addition of Timbuktu (now Pantopia), the largest (in land area) expansion at Busch Gardens to date. Attractions in Timbuktu included the kiddie coaster Scorpion and the Phoenix. Not far from Timbuktu,  the Congo area was added with the main attraction Congo River Rapids. Over in Stanleyville, Busch Gardens opened the Stanleyville Theatre, which offered a variety show. Between Stanleyville and the Bird Garden, the Dwarf Village, designed for children, opened. Many expansions during this time! And both kids and older guests where thought of in order to give everyone a quality experience.

Located where Sesame Street is now, the Dwarf Village featured a rustic, wood-shingled tree house, equipped with a tube slide, webbed rope for climbing, a miniature car ride, a canoe ride, a “cloud bounce” air mattress made for jumping, a ball crawl, and a tunnel maze, among other attractions. It also contained statues of dwarfs, mushroom houses, and Leprechaun Lane where the little people are busy all day long. Bringing Broadway to a theme park, the Moroccan Palace Theatre opened with the show Kaleidoscope. This show was regarded as the most lavish Broadway style attraction in any theme park in the world, at the time. During this time, the old monorail cars were replaced with newer versions that resemble the monorail at Disney World. The last part of the decade saw the African Queen boat ride close–well, get a refurbishment. It became the former Tidal Wave attraction, which has sense been replaced by the Tigris coaster opening this spring. Closing out the decade, Busch Entertainment acquired the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Park Group that included neighboring SeaWorld and Cypress Gardens (which would eventually become LEGOland Florida). At this time, the Busch Gardens park in Florida was seen as the flagship park.

One of the biggest changes in the 1990s was the remodeling of the Moroccan Palace Theatre. The stage was converted to an ice stage, and Around the World on Ice debuted! To this day, there is a daily figure skating show at this unique venue. Busch Gardens would see–yet–another name change. This time changing to the name it has today Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Coaster fever hit the Busch parks. In 1993, Kumba came roaring in, welcoming thrill seeking guests. Fortunately, this is a coaster that can still be experienced today. And I’m pleased to write that after some refurbishments, Kumba is much smoother than it used to be.

Across the park in Timbuktu, the Dolphin Theatre was added; this was a daily dolphin show similar to the one at SeaWorld. The Moroccan Palace Theatre also saw changes; the Around the World on Ice changed to Hollywood On Ice, a show featuring music and moments from classic Hollywood! The 90s was also a time of closures. The Stanleyville variety show, monorail, and Stairway to the Stars, the park’s very first “ride” closed. Due to leadership changes at Anheuser-Busch after the acquisition by InBev, it was decided to close the Tampa brewery. The last handful of workers punched out for the last time in December 1995. With the closure of the brewery, it seemed the heart of the park stopped beating. Although there was no more brewery to tour, the free beer would continue and guests could still visit the stables where the famous Clydesdales resided. Other closures included The Dwarf Village, which was replaced with The Land of Dragons.

The mid to latter 90s would also see another land expansion. This time, the park was turning to the pharaohs. Opening with the new land of Egypt is a coaster that is still ranked as one of the best in the world–Montu! As Busch Gardens has always had a commitment to education, a replica of King Tuts Tomb opened in the Egypt area. The ice show at the palace would change from Hollywood on Ice to World Rhythms on Ice in 1998. The ride simulator Questor was changed to Akbar’s Adventure Tours starring Martin Short. This attraction took park guests on a wacky tour of Egypt. In the center of the park, Busch Gardens erected a dueling wooden rollercoaster in 1999 that has since closed, but will be reimagined as a new hybrid coaster in 2020. You guessed it, this wooden coater is Gwazi. It was built on the former site of the brewery.

Probably the biggest addition to the park in the early 2000s came in 2000 with the inaugural year of Howl-O-Scream! Busch Gardens’ premiere Halloween seasonal event is still the biggest seasonal offering to date, drawing guests from all across the region and other parts of the country. Other additions in the early 2000s included the comedy safari themed Rhino Rally (an attraction that I sorely miss). If you were to take the Jungle Cruise and Kilimanjaro Safari from WDW, and combine them, this is the attraction that you would get! After a few years run, the Dolphin Theatre was closed and remodeled to be the Timbuktu Theatre.

The first attraction to call the Timbuku Theatre home was the former R.L. Stine’s Haunted Lighthouse 4D, but it was replaced with Pirates 4D early on. Rhythms on Ice closed to make way for Katonga. Coaster fever hit the park again, and the drop coaster Sheikra was opened! Not only was it the tallest coaster in Florida at the time, it was also the first dive coaster to include an inversion. More sad closures hit the park, the park’s very first coaster Python was closed after 30yrs of operation to the day (plus one). Midway through the 2000s decade, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay changes its name to Busch Gardens Africa. In place of the Python coaster, Busch Gardens created the Jungala area, which is home to the tigers and Congo River Rapids, along with smaller attractions for the younger guests at the park. In addition to the rides, Busch Gardens also added a streetmosphere show with characters on stilts in elaborate costumes. Towards the end of the 2000s, Busch Gardens Africa was renamed Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, the name it still holds today. In 2007, Anheuser-Busch (parent company to Busch Entertainment) conducted leadership changes and promotions. As a result, most of the executives were in Orlando as SeaWorld Orlando was now seen as the company’s flagship park, so the company headquarters was relocated to Orlando.

In 2009, InBev (owner of Anheuser-Busch) decided to divest itself of all the Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks. It sold them off to the Blackstone Group. Over the next several months, the park removed the Anheuser-Busch branding, famous clydesdales, and the free beer. The company name changed from Busch Entertainment to SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment. As part of the acquisition, Anheuser-Busch licensed the name Busch Gardens to Blackstone in perpetuity. Other than the Garden Gate Cafe, Crown Colony House, and Skyride, very little of the early park was left. Land of Dragons, which was the Dwarf Village, was once again rethemed. This time, to Sesame Street. Across the park near the Garden Gate Cafe was a new area with Australia theming and animals! Walkabout Way, an area where you can get up close with kangaroos, wallabies, emus and more! Fans of Rhino Rally are going to remember this date development. In order to plan for the next big coaster, part of the former Rhino Rally had to be closed. The area closed was the water features. Using the old monorail building as the guest load and unload area, the launch coaster Cheetah Hunt was opened.

In the Moroccan Village theatre, Busch Gardens created the Motor City Groove show that entertained guests with a’cappella covers of some of the best music out of Detroit. Replacing Katonga at the Moroccan Palace Theatre was IcePloration! A spectacular combination of acrobatics, aerial acts, and of course figure skating that explored different parts of the world! 2012 was the inaugural year for Christmas Town, a hard-ticketed event that celebrated the season with a fabulous mixture of the traditional and contemporary Christmas music, decorations, light, shows and more! Since 2015, Christmas Town has been included in day admission.

From Timbuktu to Egypt, 2013 brought about more closures including the Pirates 4D show and King Tut’s Tomb. Timbuktu would see an identity change as well with the opening of the drop tower attraction Falcon’s Fury. When Falcon’s Fury opened, the land of Timbuktu became Pantopia. With the name change, the Timbuktu Theatre became the Pantopia Theatre. And this theatre would welcome a new show called Opening Night Critters. This show was quite similar to the Critter Castaways show that was in the old Bird Gardens theatre, but a few changes were made in order to freshen the show. After the opening of Pantopia, Rhino Rally closed permanently. The ride that replaced the iconic brewery, would see its own closure in 2015. And remains closed to this day until the newly reimagined Gwazi opens in 2020. The brewery tour lasted 36yrs; Gwazi was around for 10yrs. Just sayin. With the popularity of food and wine festivals increasing exponentially, Busch Gardens started its own festival in the spring of 2015. Back over in Egypt, a new family spinning-style coaster opened–Cobra’s Curse. The queue for the attraction was the park’s first indoor queue and used the old King Tut’s tomb. In fact, the main chamber of the queue is the former burial chamber of King Tut. To make preparations for the park’s next coaster, the Tidal Wave attraction, which was once home of the African Queen boat ride closed permanently.

The Moroccan Palace would once again see the ice show change, this time to a post-modern extravaganza of popular music and award-winning stunts. In May of 2017, the stage was completely renovated to make way for Turn It Up: the Hottest Show on Ice! The beauty of this show is that the music and choreography can be updated every few years without having to completely redo the show. Last year (2018), Busch Gardens brought back the complementary beer and an entire Bier Fest in the late summer to bridge the gap between Summer Nights and Howl-O-Scream. The biggest news lately is the upcoming opening of Tigris, which is being built on the location of the old African Queen boat ride turned Tidal Wave, turned queue for HOS house, now coaster. That land has certainly seen a variety of uses. Fortunately Tigris looks to be one of the most thrilling coasters anywhere around! It’s fast, has launches, drops, and more. Looking forward to experiencing the newest addition to the park this spring.

There you have it, folks! A history of Busch Gardens from 1959 to 2019. Although the park has undergone many changes over the decades, you can still visit places like the Garden Gate Cafe and Serengeti Overlook to walk where the park’s first guests experienced this outstanding park. With so many events going on at Busch Gardens for #Busch60, the 60th Anniversary of the park, you will want to upgrade your day ticket to an annual pass! Every month, there is something new to experience as Busch wants you to help celebrate in the festivities!

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and works in live themed entertainment. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“The Favourite” full film review

A brilliantly entertaining satirical dramedy! Not your history channel biopic. Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is a motion picture inspired by the reign of 18th century Queen Anne of England. Even if Lanthimos has not previously won you over with his renown commitment to auteur filmmaking, The Favourite may just be the film to draw you into his penchant for dark dramedies that mock the absurdities of the world in which the story exists. Personally, I did not care for either Lanthimos’ The Lobster or Killing of a Sacred Dear, nor did I like last year’s highly stylized artistic film Phantom Thread directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. However, I truly enjoyed every second of The Favourite. A screenwriter’s dream, this film is built upon one of the year’s (if not THE) best screenplays, and brought to life by an incredible lead and supporting cast. And the degree to which this outstanding film impresses the audiences does not stop there. The costumes, locations, and set design are incredible. Upon watching this film, I was reminded of another worldclass period drama where each scene felt like it was an oil painting. I am talking about Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Never before have I seen a film come so close to delivering the experience that the Kubrick masterpiece did. Another film of note that this one reminds me of is All About Eve. When you’re comparing a film to some of the best films to ever be made, you know that is a good sign. This no-holds-barred dramedy provides audiences with a story about a twisted love triangle within the royal court of Queen Anne that is anything but prim and proper. You will be instantly sucked into just how bizarre and brilliant this film is because of the seductive visuals and razor-sharp wit.

In the early 18th century, England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne occupies the throne, and her close friend Lady Sarah governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant, Abigail, arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing, and Abigail sees a chance to return to her aristocratic roots. (IMDb)

With so much to love about this film, it is difficult to know precisely where to begin. Visually, this film is stunning. Between the cinematography executed with impeccable precision and the set design lit with a combination of natural lighting and candles, each scene is as if it was a commissioned painting by a Baroque artist. Not quite to the levels of Barry Lyndon but certainly encroaches upon that territory. The use of wide angle and fish eye lenses, the creative use of camera positioning to convey the tone of a scene or a subjective view of a character was masterfully directed. While the palace where we spend most of the time is already immense, the camera makes everything look even larger to convey the relationship between a character and the royal court or the emotion of a scene. Under most circumstances, it’s difficult to pull off a fish eye lens but Lanthimos does so excellently! The unconventional camera placement and angles reflect the emotional beat or warped nature of the scene. While this film is heavy on the dialogue, it is also equally heavy in the visual storytelling. There are moments in the movie that assault the eyes and others that are so hilariously candid that you are glad the camera allows us to get a glimpse into the twisted world of 18th century royal England. More than any other film I’ve seen this year, this one exemplifies the ability for the camera to be an extension of our own eyes to bring us even closer–intimately close–to the narrative.

A screenwriter’s dream! The writing in The Favourite is some of the best that I have seen in a long time. We’ve had many great screenplays this year, but there are usually flaws here and there–something that could have been streamlines, expanded upon, or reworked in order to make better. However, there is literally nothing about this screenplay that I would change. Every scene of a screenplay should begin as close to the end of the scene as possible and every scene needs to point to the realization at the diegetic conclusion. And this screenplay does precisely that. Even the development of the characters can be witnessed through the physical movement and dialogue of the characters. Not that commitment to the guidelines of screenwriting means the screenplay lacks imagination–definitely not. There is plenty of imagination in this story but it delivers every emotional beat, every turning point, every action with a powerful punch. The characters contain multiple layers and each scene reveals something new to add to these multidimensional characters. Sometimes it may be a subtle nuance that we learn about a character or it could be a big reveal that was hinted at earlier in the story. At times, your senses are assaulted with a sequence of actions that are wildly erotic or offensively contemptible. It’s that oscillation between extremes that keeps this drama titillating.

More than a satire on the 18th century British royal court, this film is about the lengths one goes to change one’s life or situation and all the costs associated with that. Screenwriter Tony McNamara worked with Lanthimos to adapt Deborah Davis’ original script into the outstanding script that serves as the foundation for this film. It’s also a grim reminder that you can change your surroundings, title, clothes, and job but you may still be selfish, power-hungry, lonely, and unfulfilled on the inside. Perhaps you think you’ve won one game, but you were completely unaware of all the rules or that you were actually playing a difference game altogether. Perhaps you are trying to rise up in a capitalist company or culture, and when you almost reach the top, you are reminded that you are just a lowly pawn in a greater scheme or plan. So many ways to read this film. There is depth to this film that Phantom Thread did not have (hence why I did not like it). It’s not just pretty to look at and listen to, but there is diegetic depth and dimension to this narrative brought to the screen. One of the most brilliant aspects to the story is how you feel about Abigail, Queen Anne, and Sarah. Because you will definitely change how you feel as the story unfolds. No spoilers, but you will witness a course of events that truly reveal who these characters are, what motivates them, and where allegiances lie. The character whom you think you should be rooting for, may actually be the very one who is the most deceptive of all. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard dialogue that is this vicious and beautiful all at the same time. And yet, nothing ever feels forced, fake, or annoyingly on-the-nose. The subtext of what is being said is rich and intriguing. Not only do these characters do and say some of the very things that we either do or imagine we would do but they execute it with razor sharp precision and in an organic manner. You will see it all and hear it all–that is certain. Be prepared to gasp, laugh, cringe, and more. Never before has cruelty, power, and desire been so delicious.

Yorgos couldn’t have asked for a better cast. The ensemble that makes up The Favourite is stellar. And there is lots of eye candy to go around. Whether we are talking the royal court, parliament, or even the servants, there are lots of pretty guy and gals whom make up this phenomenal cast. Beyond the look of the cast, the talent is breathtakingly good. Delivering figuratively sucker-punches one moment and conveying something seductive through the use of subtlety the next, the breadth of talent on display in this film is remarkable. Heavy dramedies like this one require chemistry levels near perfection. Because it is a character driven story that is supplemented by actions; therefore, it’s imperative that the actors work well together in order to never allow the audience to slip out of the story. Everything about this film works flawlessly.

Now that you’ve watched Bird Box, you need to head to your local cinema to experience one of the most audacious motion pictures of the year. You are certain to be entertained by the witty dialogue, picturesque locations and production design, and magnificent cast. Not your typical Jane Austen-esque period drama; it artistically pushes the envelop and holds nothing back. This film definitely ranks within my Top 10 films of 2018, and look forward to see how well it does at the major award shows coming up.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“First Man” full film review

A solidly good film eclipsed by a star that was born last week. While there have been many movies and documentaries about the space race of the mid 20th century, including the amazing Hidden Figures, this is the first film to truly take us behind NASA and into the very home of the American hero astronaut Neil Armstrong. Damien Chazelle’s First Man is not just another film that tells the story of earth to the moon using familiar events, characters, or archival footage, but instead, it takes us behind the headlines to vicariously experience what it was like for Niel and his family on this and other dangerous missions. This is not a film about the US Apollo mission to the moon nor is it about how NASA had to push through major public negative criticism of its money-sucking endeavors; it is about the hero’s journey. And our hero is Neil Armstrong. As I do not want to spend time on that ridiculous flag controversy, I will summarize that element of the film. The flag IS there at the landing site and there are plenty of flags and references to the United Staes in the film–there–moving on. When it comes to a Chazelle film, I expect a strong screenplay to serve as the foundation upon which the visual elements are build. Unfortunately, Chazelle did not write this film and it shows. It suffers from a weak screenplay that has repercussions felt through the movie. Some critics have been writing about the strong emotional tug in the movie, but I did not feel it. I also feel that Gosling was not at the top of his game, compared to past performances. First Man is all around good, and I hope for nominations for it! It’s just not as strong as I had hoped the next Chazelle film would be. Compared to A Star is BornFirst Man is not as strong and I imagine the popularity of this week’s Halloween will also cast a shadow on this riveting story.

Before Neil Armstrong uttered his now famous words when he stepped foot on the moon, he first had get there. But he had to endure a lot more than just training for the Gemini and Apollo missions in order to be the first man on the moon. More than previous films such as The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 also about critical space missions, this one practically places you in the cockpit for a first person journey from earth to the moon. You will be taken back by the sheer number of personal and professional tragedies to befall Armstrong; and furthermore, you’ll feel the vibrations of the rocket, the out of control spinning, and the moments where you are on the cliff facing death. Follow Neil and his family on this turbulent drama that takes the fascination with and mind-blowing nature of the cockpit and turn it into an image and confinement to dread for it feels more like a death trap than the bridge of forging a new frontier.

This is a drama, not an action movie. So if you are searching for a space adventure, then this is not a film for you. But if you want to learn more about the first man on the moon, what he went through personally and professionally and feel what he felt, then this is a film for you. Incredible opening scene! Hitchcock once stated that a writer or director needs to drop the audience into the middle of the action in order to instantly hook them into the story. One of the cardinal rules of screenwriting is to start each scene as close to the end of the scene as possible in order to write leanly and effectively. That is precisely what awaits you at the beginning of First Man. No ramping up to conflict here; you are in the cockpit with Neil Armstrong as he is testing an aircraft when the ship begins to drift closer to space instead of returning to the ground. This opening scene is one of the most incredible ones that I have seen in a long time. Heart pounding. Demonstrating his mastery of visual storytelling, Chazelle crafts an opening scene that thrusts you into a gritty, visceral journey that will leave you breathless. As intense as this scene is, there are man others in the film that will place you at the brink of death and destruction in an effort to puncture a hole into what is possible with the fledgling space program.

On the heels of that incredibly intense scene, Chazelle takes us to a hospital where Neil daughter Karen is undergoing radiation therapy for her tumor. In an attempt to channel Pixar-like storytelling for the opening of a film, we quickly follow the family from the hospital to a funeral for a fellow pilot, at which his daughter is playing, to Neil battling insurance companies and doctors over the phone to an intimate father-daughter moment to lowering Karen’s casket in the ground. As emotional as this opening sequence is, it falls short of where it needed to be in order to truly evoke the strong emotion for which the film was going. Compared to watching A Star is Born the week prior, I was not feeling as strong an emotional connection to these characters to justify how I was supposed to feel after these scenes. Audiences were not given sufficient time to connect with the characters in order to feel the heartache intended to be felt during and after the funeral. It was sad for sure, but not devastating. That being said, it is entirely possible that audience members who have children may have felt the heart-wrenching moment differently because of knowing what it’s like to have a child. It is evident that Chazelle did not write this film because the screenplay is on the weaker side. Now, I am not suggesting the story is weak compared to most films. On the contrary, it is much stronger than many other films; however, compared to what I expect from Chazelle, it is weaker than Whiplash and La La Land.

The screenplay contains three stories. The A story is Neil Armstrong’s personal journey, the B story is Neil’s relationship with his wife Janet (Claire Foy), and the C story is his career at NASA. There is clearly a desperate attempt to link the tragedy of Neil’s daughter to his hell-bent nature to constantly take himself close to death, putting his family and marriage under immense strain. With the tragedy of Karen not sufficiently setup and rushed through, it is hard to connect it to the rest of the movie. The film wants audiences to believe that dangerous missions are Neil’s coping mechanisms to deal with the death of his daughter, but there just isn’t enough evidence in the film support that. I see Chazelle’s desire to link Karen’s death to Neil’s desire to put himself and his family in physiological and emotional harm’s way. In terms of the character development of Neil, the stoic behavior, monosyllabic responses, countless moments of silence, and machismo become repetitive and boring. Although he certainly battles inner demons and real-world obstacles in order to eventually reach the moon, I don’t witness inner character development throughout the screenplay. Neil, at the end of the story, is pretty much the same Neil we meet at the beginning. While we are witness to the strife in his marriage to Janet, that relationship goes no where as well. There is simply no character arc or growth in this film. And that is what hinders this screenplay from being great.

Perhaps the film was built upon a weak screenplay, but there is quite a lot to like about it! Much like Interstellar was showered with nominations and wins in the technical categories, First Man will likely also see nominations for score, sound, editing, cinematography and more. From a technical achievement perspective, this film is incredible to behold. If you have the opportunity to watch the film in IMAX, then that is definitely what you want to do for the full, immersive experience. When you cannot pick out the score, that is often the park of a brilliantly diegetic score that seamlessly integrates into the film. There is a highly emotional component to the score that enhances the screenplay and picks up where the screenplay felt off in order to evoke that emotional response. I absolutely loved the cinematography. Much like the score, the cinematography felt so incredibly natural, so organic. Whether the camera is providing me with a subjective or objective POV, it frames each shot perfectly to communicate the tension and suspense. All around, Chazelle takes all the elements (except the screenplay) of the film and combines them for a solidly good film.

Some quick notes on the performances, I found that Gosling delivered an above average performance. And that’s above average for him, not compared to the litany of other actors. Obviously, compared to other actors, he is at the top of his game. But I feel that he is stronger in La La Land. And the reason for this performance that just didn’t quite hit the mark for me can be traced back to the screenplay. I’ve no doubt that he will be nominated–and he should–but I’ve little confidence that he will win. Claire Foy’s performance of as Janet Armstrong is fantastic! She will most likely also see a nomination for her role as the wife of the first man on the moon. She was incredibly strong, determined, and loyal. She demonstrates a stronger character growth arc than Gosling. The screenplay appears to have developed her character more effectively than his. Compared to the other performances in the film, hers is the most standout.

Definitely see this film. Just because it suffers from a weak screenplay does not mean that it doesn’t have a lot of offer. I greatly appreciate this film for taking us on an intimate journey with the Armstrong family. This is a story that has not been told on screen before and truly shows us the personal and professional links that Neil Armstrong went to in order to stand on the moon and announce to the world “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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