Archive for June, 2014

June 9, 2014

#79) Back in action: Rebooting the world’s most dangerous amusement park

Long-time readers of this blog know that I can be a bit of a roller coaster geek when I want to.  Recently I was doing some geeking out on the subject with a friend of mine who grew up on Long Island and told me about an infamous venue that had somehow been off of my radar: Action Park in Vernon, NJ, which operated from 1978 to 1996.  Of course, I had no choice to Google it when I got home – and I was interested to learn that Action Park is coming back this summer.

Notorious for poorly designed and unmaintained rides, inattentive and sometimes inebriated staff, being its own insurance carrier and at least six confirmed fatalities, Action Park has achieved what might be described a cult status in the years since its closing.  According to a documentary, any who grew up in the area considered visiting–and surviving–the park a rite of passage.  While changes in the amusement park industry will require the park to be more stringent about safety when it re-opens, the idea just might be crazy enough to work.

Though it was badly executed, Action Park’s business model was in fact ahead of its time.  In addition to being often credited as being the first modern water park, Action Park’s concept was to allow the guests more involvement with the ride experience.   In the late 1970s, the various Six Flags, Disney and Sea World franchises were becoming dominant; it’s perfectly understandable that there would have been a market for a rawer, less polished amusement park experience; perhaps a nod to the “Golden Age” of roller coasters such as the Crystal Beach Cyclone, which supposedly had a nurse stationed outside the exit to tend to fainting riders.

Fast forward to 2014.  Disneyland has recently received bad press for running out of Frozen merchandise and for raising its ticket prices to $96 for guests ages 10 and up; Action’s new admission prices are less than half that.  It’s not just about cost, though.  This is the world of “Throwback Thursday” (I’m sorry, #TBT); it’s inevitable that when people find information about a long-lost institution, they’ll geek out over it.  Nostalgia never goes out of style and when one gets a chance to actually revisit a place of their childhood–albeit likely a different version of it–it seems likely that they will take advantage of it.

Perhaps Action Park–the promised safety renovations not withstanding–might also find an audience in parents who feel as if the world has become too safe for their kids.  Michael Follett of UK’s Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) says, “[Kids] need to fall over, they need to cut themselves, they need to have bumps and bruises…if [parents] over-protect, [kids] don’t learn resilience.”  According to an article in Pediatrics, “Fixed playground equipment that meets licensing codes is unchallenging and uninteresting to children.”

There’s also the growing CTFD method of parenting (the C stands for “Calm” and the D for “Down.)  I’m not suggesting that parents should disregard their kid’s safety; I’m just speculating that Action Park might be a venue where parents could practice the CTFD method.  After all, with fewer restrictions, likely shorter wait times for rides than bigger theme parks, kids may be able to burn off more energy, helping incubate a CTFD environment on the ride home.

Will these factors make the new Action Park a success?  We’ll see; perhaps–for better or worse–Action Park will put New Jersey on the map this summer for something other than Pauly D.

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June 4, 2014

#78) Film review: “A Million Ways to Die in the West”

The problem with “A Million Ways to Die in the West”, the new film from “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane isn’t, as many have suggested, the fact that he cast himself in the lead role.  It’s that he didn’t.  Despite a few inspired moments, the lead actor in “Million Ways” shows precious little of the off-color comedic genius that MacFarlane’s fans know and love.

MacFarlane stars as Albert, a sheep-farmer in 1882 Arizona.  He hates living on the frontier and his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) has just left him for Foy (Neil Patrick Harris), a proprietor of a mustache accessory shop.  Albert confides in his friends he’s about to leave for San Francisco when he meets Anna (Charlzie Theron), who happens to be married to the territory’s most notorious gangster, Clinch (Liam Neeson).  Though he’s still in love with Louise, Albert slowly starts warming up to Anna.  When he discovers the truth about her however, things take a turn for the worse.

Just as MacFarlane’s character is timid and negative, the film itself seems to be afraid of its own comedic potential. “Family Guy” often makes viewers cringe, but it makes them laugh harder, whether it’s showing a barbershop quartet singing to a patient that he has AIDS, speculating that Mike Brady’s first marriage ended when he beat his wife to death because she brought him a warm beer or building an episode around a brand-new roller coaster called the Holocaust (“It’s got local Jews up in arms…as they go over the first hill.”)  “Family Guy” may or may not be your thing, but generally it delivers what it’s supposed to.

“Million Ways”, however, doesn’t.  Yes, we get to see N.P.H. defecate into a hat and get up-close views of sheep genitalia, but much of the movie seems as if MacFarlane is just trying to use fifteen years of curse words that he can’t say on “Family Guy”, without being particularly memorable.  Just as he doesn’t live up to his own potential, MacFarlane doesn’t give his talented cast much to work with.  Sarah Silverman – branded the “Westward Ho” in the film’s advertisements – can match MacFarlane’s offensive humor punch for punch, but her part is ultimately little more than the same basic sex jokes recycled.  Liam Neeson is particularly disappointing as the villain Clinch.  Dedicated “Family Guy” fans might remember the cutaway bit describing a situation as being as “hopeless as Liam Neeson playing an American cowboy”; having Neeson actually in the film seemed like a perfect opportunity to develop that joke.  Unfortunately, Neeson’s part is played straight, denying the potential for a great gag while failing to intimidate as a villain.

Another common criticism of this film simply the fact that it is a western, a genre widely believed to be dead.  The movie could have worked as a send-up of westerns, but with sweeping panoramic landscapes, a grandiose musical score and a run time of almost two hours, it seems as if MacFarlane was going for the real thing.  It’s visually impressive and the music fits the aesthetic, but this is a film being sold as a comedy; people don’t watch “Blazing Saddles” for its cinematography.  If MacFarlane was trying to make a real western, he didn’t make it exciting, tense or engaging enough; if he was going for a comedy, the laughs are too sparse.

MacFarlane’s body of work and fan base is likely strong enough that one misfire won’t sink him.  Hopefully he’ll learn from what didn’t work in this film and get back on track the next time around.