This was the second Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper Film Festival at Sea.
Ebert and Roeper are the movie critic-hosts for the syndicated television show. For the second year, they chose the Disney Wonder as the venue for a three-day cruise/film festival.
It was really a wonderful and special opportunity to see some new films, interact with our nationally known hosts and enjoy a few days with Disney and the gang at sea. The films and film companions were great; the weather unfortunately was not so hot. In fact, our cruise began about 10 hours after a space shuttle launch was canceled because it was so cold early that morning - between 30 and 35 degrees. By the time we left it was around 55 to 60, but the winds whipping across the deck made our sailaway cocktail reception chilly. The winds were a problem for the ship for the rest of the cruise.
Disney Cruise Lines had asked us to be at the terminal by 11 for a special lunch to follow on board just for our group, which numbered about 225. We boarded first as a group about 12:15 and walked directly to lunch at Parrot Cay restaurant, where a buffet lunch awaited. Our rooms were not yet ready, so everyone dragged their carry-on luggage to lunch. (Kind of like what happens during the farewell breakfast on a cruise.) It was quite good; the same buffet lunch is open to everyone arriving at that time. Or, you can eat lunch up in the topside buffet. It was nice to get acquainted with some of my film cruisers over lunch, but other than that I saw nothing special about having arrived early, except it made a very short cruise a few hours longer!
Dinner that night was at 6 p.m. in the Animators Palate, the black-and-white room that changes colors and features a Disney cartoon musical on screens embedded in the walls. The best thing about dinner was my salmon with maple-glaze coating. Absolutely superb. In fact, the dining room food on this cruise was top-notch in my opinion, compared with the previous year.
Ebert and Roeper opened the film cruise promptly at 8 p.m. that night with "One Hour Photo", a Robin Williams film that is NOT a comedy. This film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and it's quite good. Williams stars as a photo clerk who over the years develops (ha!) a strange obsession with one of the families that brings in film. It's quite a good thriller; scary yet without any gore or violence. Supposedly, this film will not be out until the fall in hopes of Oscar consideration when the 2002 awards are presented in March 2003. No one who sees this will ever look at one of those one-hour film places ever again! So, what did we do after seeing and discussing the film? We went for a group photo in the atrium lobby! In a nice touch, the 8 by 10 photos were delivered to our cabins on the last night of the cruise, complements of the film cruise. (Unlike last year, though, we never got an Ebert and Roeper Film Festival at Sea T-shirt or ball cap.)
So, the first day, a long one, finally ended. Even I was tired, and all I had to do was drive to the ship from Orlando. Some people had flown in from California and Arizona for this cruise, and they were bushed.
Friday morning, the ship docked in Nassau, but we had a screening of "Monsters, Inc." to see at 9:30 a.m. Some people skipped this one, either because they had seen it, or were sleeping in, or wanted to see Nassau. I had not seen Monsters Inc. and was glad I had the opportunity to do so here. It's quite inventive and original. To entice people to see the film, the only "Disney" film in the film cruise, Ebert and Roeper enticed the director, Pete Doctor, to give a talk afterward. He explained the origins of the story (every child fears a monster behind the closet door) and used a video to show how the characters evolved in the way they looked and talked, and how the voices were recorded and fitted into the film.
At 3 p.m., another film was ready for us: "Stolen Summer", a new film whose creation was shown in the HBO series Project Greenlight, which featured a screenplay contest. This film was the winner of the contest. The film itself, apparently to the surprise of most, turned out well. Roeper called it "sweet," and noted that the conflicts shown on the HBO series dealt with the shooting of the film. The post-production editing where the film really comes together is really the second part of any film's creation, he said. The film is set in Chicago of 1976, and features an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family. Aiden Quinn, Bonnie Hunt and Kevin Pollak are quite good in this, as are the child actors for the most part. Hey, they're only kids. This film is opening slowly in March-April of 2002. It's worth checking out. It's better than at least 80 percent of the rest of the stuff that is out there, in my opinion.
Dinner proceeded at 6 p.m., this time in the aforementioned Parrot Cay, where my selection was the Cuban-style rib steak, which had some sort of ginger sauce concoction that was really, really, good. It was good enough to make me want to seek out some Cuban restaurants in my area and see whether they have the same dish. Disney's waiters and bus people danced to Hot, Hot, Hot, and a fine time of hand-clapping was had by all.
That evening, I met friends at the cinema for a regular showing of a current film, a Disney family comedy called "Snow Dogs" starring Cuba Gooding as a Miami dentist who inherits a team of race dogs in Alaska. I was curious to see this, if only to try to discern why the critics hated it and audiences have liked it. Needless to say, this was your mainstream Hollywood production: Formulaic and entertaining, nothing more. None of it was believable but it was cute nevertheless. I enjoyed seeing Alaska in the film. Hey, and Miami, too. But the contrast between "Snow Dogs" and your typical film-festival film is like that between cotton candy and a real meal like, oh, say, a Cuban-style rib steak. Everything has its place, but "Snow Dogs" helps one understand how the art of true filmmaking serves a greater purpose than sugary, fast-food entertainment.
Various events were available during the evening as the ship stayed at the Nassau pier. A deck party was held from 10 p.m. to midnight, there was "Krazy Karaoke" in the WaveBands bar at 11:30 p.m., etc. etc. For me personally, I was in bed by 11 p.m. to get a nice long sleep for our island visit the next day.
.... which never happened. I'm lying in bed between 8:30 and 9 a.m. Saturday, listening to the ship's thrusters going on and on. Finally, they stopped. Disney's audio pixie dust, a brief tinkling sound, came on the in-room speaker, and the captain apologized that the Disney Gods were being cruel today. Chairman Michael Eisner, he said, and all his billions of dollars and stock options could not get the winds to die down enough for the ship to approach the pier safely. (He didn't actually mention Eisner. I am making that up.) The wind was blowing at 40 knots, which was outside the ship's envelope of safety for maneuvering. (Disney's Castaway Cay has a pier, unlike most cruise lines' private islands where passengers must tender ashore while the ship anchors at sea.) The captain apologized profusely, then signed off to the sound of the audio pixie dust.
The ship's plan was to steam to Freeport, Bahamas, where tugboats could help maneuver the ship to the pier, and we would have an impromptu port call there. The ship stops there on its four-day cruises, so this was not anything out of the ordinary. The ship offered a special showing of a new Disney film, "Return to Neverland," as we made our way to Freeport. After two or three hours, we were off Freeport. But, again, neither the Disney Gods nor the tugboats were of any help. The wind was too strong, the captain said, and again he apologized profusely. He said the various snorkeling and boating trips usually offered to passengers were not running because of the wind.
This was not Disney's day: I heard later from a frustrated parent that the projector broke down three times during the Neverland movie, and the kiddies never did see the complete movie. The cruise director and staff were forced to print up a list of alternate activities for our unexpected day at sea. I don't know how often the Disney ships miss their port calls at Castaway Cay, but when they do it leaves a big hole in the cruise experience because most people really, really enjoy their day at a Bahamian beach. The island itself has been developed beautifully by Disney. I saw it a year ago on the first film cruise, and was looking forward to going back, if only for lunch.
As the ship chugged listlessly back toward Florida, the film cruise cranked up again. When we gathered at 2:30 p.m., Roeper joked that he had overheard some passengers on the ship complaining. He said they had "Ebert and Roeper envy" because we had our afternoon all planned with something worthwhile to do. Roeper then introduced Ebert by calling him "the best writer about the movies in America today." Said Ebert, who had undergone surgery to remove a tumor on his thyroid, "I don't have the strength to disagree with you." Those two bantered back and forth like that throughout the trip. It's difficult to put the humor in words. You had to be there.
So, we settled in to see the most obscure selection of the event: A full-length documentary called "The Kid Stays in the Picture," based on a mid-1990s book by the same name, an autobiography of famed Paramount producer Robert Evans. Evans was originally an actor in the late 1950s and 1960s, but became chief of production at Paramount in 1966. He kept Paramount from going under with hits such as "Rosemary's Baby," "Love Story," "The Godfather" and "Chinatown." Then Evans was married to Ali McGraw, who later married Steven McQueen. Then he had many ups and downs with drugs, women, financial backers and so on.
Ebert and Roeper showed us the film, I think, for two reasons: Because of the subject matter and the fact that Evans narrated the documentary himself, and because of the advanced filmmaking techniques of the documentary. Those included computer manipulation of old still photos, the colorization of old black-and-white photos in an artsy way, and lots of music-video-style quick cuts and flashes of this and that, evoking of the flashiness and hipness of Hollywood. There were also archival clips of Evans' appearances on TV and whatnot. Ebert noted that the documentary was done in the genre of a fan magazine biography, only elevated. It was all quite interesting but best intended for die-hard film buffs. I guess you could say, very roughly, that content-wise it was sort of like those "Behind the Music" episodes on VH1, except much, much better. It's well worth seeing if you're so motivated, and if the darn thing is ever shown commercially. You might have to see it on video, eventually.
Our third and last dinner rolled around at 6 p.m., tonight in the most formal of the three dining rooms on the Disney Wonder, Triton's, which has an under-the-sea theme. Dinner was beef tenderloin, which was indeed tender and delicious.
At 9 p.m., a long line started forming for a book signing with our two hosts. Roger Ebert has a new book out, called "The Great Movies," which was available for sale. The place was swamped with autograph seekers, which included everyone on the ship and not just our film group. What a zoo, although everyone got through it OK.
Finally, at 10:30 p.m., our fifth film was ready, with a sexy-sounding title: "Real Women Have Curves." This film, also family drama as was "Stolen Summer," won the Audience Award for dramatic film at Sundance. America Ferrera and Lupe Ontiveros, who play the heroine and her mother, were given a special jury prize for acting. Richard Roeper called it "a real crowd pleaser at Sundance." Before the film, Ebert and Roeper held a final question and answer session that touched on several topics. A few points: Ebert said a top film festival for the public to attend is the Toronto Film Festival, held every September. Ebert said he prefers traditional film projection to digital projection, although digital systems are good for smaller venues. Ebert said he also thought his show's success was based, in part, on its attitude of telling audiences a movie stinks if it really does, and not just glossing over things. Even if it's a Disney film. After Gene Siskel's death in 1999, Ebert and the producers still thought the show was worth continuing. He also described the process by which Roeper was selected as Siskel's replacement.
"Real Women Have Curves" is a female empowerment, coming-of-age story about recent high-school graduate who wants to go to college and not work in her mother's and sister's dress-making factory. The acting is quite good, the story is good, and it's all quite well done. Once again, not a great film, but a very, very good film that would be worth seeing in the theaters, on HBO or on video later.
Sunday morning, Disney had a new disembarkation procedure that I really liked. If you had less than $600 in purchases, Customs did not require you to fill out a Customs card. This made leaving even easier and quicker than any other cruise I have ever been on. I walked off the ship at 8 a.m. and was home by 9 a.m.
All in all, it was a short, busy, delicious, worthwhile cruise. It's always a great opportunity when you can enjoy a cruise with nationally known celebrity types. Ebert's surgery did not keep him down, although he had a bandage on his neck. The producers, who also were along for the cruise, were coy on whether they will do it a third time. "That's up to you," one of them told me. "Tell us what you think on the evaluation forms in your cabin." Needless to say, I'll be ready to go again in 2003.
Until then, the balcony cabin is closed.