Monday, June 20, 2011

Doc Hollywood...but with Cars

If I had to think of one piece of modern technology I couldn't live without, my mind tends to wander to my iPhone or my plasma TV first...mostly because they're newer and I use them a lot for my own enjoyment.  But when I think of something absolutely essential in my life, I really have to say that my car is the most useful and necessary thing I own.  I mean, think about it.  I live in America, which is set up as a very sprawling, un-centrally-located, pedestrian unfriendly country (you can't just walk or bike anywhere and everywhere like in Europe) which means I need to drive to most of my daily destinations.  I also have to drive to see any of my close friends...they're spread out all over...and I have to drive to reach places that are more exciting than where I live (like an amusement park...or a shopping mecca).  So my car and I are fairly inseparable when you really think of it, and yet I take it for granted very easily.  If it breaks or needs work, it comes as a shock and suddenly my entire life has to be rearranged so that I can get from point A to point B.  So our cars need a lot more love than we tend to give them on a regular basis...and what I'm getting to in my round-a-bout way is that the Pixar movie Cars is equally taken for granted as a less-remarkable film in their repertoire.  Its unfortunate too, because Cars is still first-class entertainment.

Lightning McQueen is a racing rookie who has taken this year's Piston Cup season by storm.  He is fast, cocky, and looks to be in the running to be the new champion.  However, due to his own overconfidence he blows his easy victory and ends up in a three-way tie with The King, the current and soon to retire champion, and Chick Hicks, the racer who has lived in The King's shadow for years.  Oh, did I mention that they're all talking cars?  Yes, it is a world run and populated by cars and car shaped geography...but that is really beside the point.  Due to the tie, all three hopefuls are called to Hollywood to race in the tie-breaker to end all tie-breakers and McQueen is determined to get there first.  However, due to making his mack truck, Mack, drive all night and the actions of a bunch of punks, McQueen ends up separated from his truck and lost on historic Route 66.  He ends up in a town called Radiator Springs...a ghost town that is barely surviving...and due to driving faster than he can actually think, he tears up the town and the road.  So as punishment, McQueen is forced to repair the road.  At first he is resentful and arrogant towards the small town folks...but soon he finds himself growing to love the townspeople (cars?) and their little town.

So if any of you ever saw that Michael J. Fox movie called Doc Hollywood, you will find that this movie is remarkably similar.  A big time city go-getter ends up stranded in small-town hell after a run in with the law and is trapped into community service.  Suddenly, due to the personal touch of the town and its people, the go-getter has a change of heart and begins to wonder if he really wants what he started off wishing for.  It wasn't even a new story then, but then Pixar has always found their best material from slightly familiar situations that are given unfamiliar twists.  With Cars, it is simply substituting cars for people that makes the tale much more original.  Suddenly, things like 'taking a drive' and 'racing' are given completely different meanings due to the fact that it isn't the operators that we are identifying with, but rather the machines themselves.  These machines that we take so for granted in our lives live to be driven and to fulfill that purpose, and it is from that purpose that they achieve happiness. For some it is racing, for some it is providing gasoline, and for others it is for changing tires.  Perhaps our own cars have these kinds of feelings too...they live only to serve man and to convey him from point A to point B.  They get this right so often, maybe we should give them a little more appreciation than the majority of us do.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Nature vs. Man...but Man started it!

We do love our films where nature tries to wipe us out, don't we.  We have disaster movies, like Earthquake and Volcano which don't really have an antagonist with a mind but rather just mother nature going about her normal everyday business...and going a little nuts.  Then there's the deliciously more exploitative 'when animals attack' movies that at their best (The Birds, Jaws) are genuinely frightening and at their worst (The Swarm, Kingdom of the Spiders) are at least a campy good time.  Then there are the ones that fall somewhere in the middle.  They fall just short of greatness but don't quite descend into all-out 'so bad its good' territory.  These are films like Piranha, Them!, and tonight's early-80s opus which hit the scene as a response to Jaws...ok, I'll say it...a ripoff of Jaws (but that doesn't mean that its bad).  It features some of my favorite horror elements...animals and lesser humans disappearing first, a tough as nails policeman, and the 'what if?' element of a stale urban legend.  It all cooks up into a tasty low brow little bit of entertainment called Alligator.

The films opens with a family of three (mom, dad, and daughter) visiting Gatorworld in Florida and enjoying the gator wrestling.  The daughter enjoys it so much that she decides she simply must have a baby alligator for a pet.  Her father isn't crazy about the idea however and, one day while the girl is at school, he flushes the gator down the toilet.  12 years pass and not only has the alligator survived in the sewer, but he has grown to gargantuan size due to eating the discarded test animal corpses that a pharmaceutical company has been experimenting on with a growth hormone.  Soon people begin disappearing and world-weary detective David Madison is brought in to find out who or what is causing this.  When the gator's presence and size has been confirmed the officials attempt to destroy it...but the gator has other plans.  He breaks up out of the sewer and begins terrorizing the city of Chicago openly.  It is up to him and reptile expert Marisa Kendell, the girl who lost the alligator originally, to stop it before it can kill again....and again...and again.

Alligator is a very simple tale despite its many plot developments.  There is a back story for both creature and scienteist, an evil pharmaceutical president responsible for the chaos, and several others who weave in and out of the story in many ways before it concludes...which makes the film feel bigger and longer than it really is (or has any right to be).  I suppose we can thank writer John Sayles for that.  He took this project relatively seriously, while still having fun with it, and that is what helps it raise itself above being merely a Jaws knock off.  Sure, it was made purely to compete with Bruce the shark, but that doesn't mean it has to stink.  So Sayles, director Lewis Teague (who would go on to do Cujo and Cat's Eye), and their cast take it upon themselves to actually try to make a good movie...and they do succeed.  It isn't ever going to resonate like Jaws did...but it really doesn't have to.  All it needs to be is a quality production about giant animal mayhem...and it succeeds and in some places, exceeds expectations.  See it once, and you'll never think about alligators in the sewers the same way again.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Welcome to Fright Night...

There are but two days left in the school year (one exam day and one teacher work day) and I couldn't be more excited.  It's warm outside, the days are longer, and there will be no more 5:45am wake up times until late August.  It doesn't get better than this, and in celebration I've decided to share one of my favorite scary films to watch in the summer...and ironically enough one that is being released in remake form this August.  I only hope the new version can capture the fun and thrills of this 1980s throwback to what, at that time, was a dead genre...the vampire movie.  Now I can already hear you groaning out there, saying "Oh god more Twilight or True Blood!" but I'm not going there with this one.  This film, from way before vampires were so 'in' that we wanted them 'out' again, doesn't have sexy, sympathetic, and lovable vampires for us to relate to.  No, instead we have a sexy (I guess its just the nature of the beast, pun intended) and wholely evil vampire that we never relate to or feel sorry for.  We only are afraid of him and want him to die.  Throw in a dash of Rear Window witness-next-door action and you have the kind of thrill ride that only the 80s could grow.  So let's sink our teeth into the scariest (and most fun) night of all, Fright Night.

Charley Brewster is "so cool" according to his friend 'Evil' Ed Thompson...yeah right.  He is mediocre in school, shunned by the popular kids, and seems to always be having some kind of klutzy accident.  Plus, his girlfriend is frustrated with him and questions his devotion due to his love of horror films.  So he's pretty much the average kid that we all either were or knew in high school.  However, all of that is about to change when Charley notices his next door neighbor moving in after dark.  Puzzled by this, he watches even closer and sees the movers loading a coffin into the basement.  Certain that there is a reasonable explanation for this, Charley keeps watching his neighbor...who he finds later to be named Jerry Dandridge.  One night, Charley watches Jerry seduce a young woman in the upstairs room of the house and is horrified when he sees him sprout fangs and bite her on the neck.  Yes, it seems that Jerry is a vampire who is intent on feeding on the population of Charley's town...and in order to secure Charley's silence he is willing to menace Charley's friends, family, and even Charley himself.  So Charley does what any self-respecting horror fan would do...he seeks help from horror has-been (and star of Charley's favorite program "Fright Night") Peter Vincent.  Can Charley convince Peter that the situation is real before Dandridge can put the bite on him (I'm so full of puns today)?

Fright Night is the simplist of self-reflexive horror tales (what if a vampire moved in next door to someone who loved horror movies?) and turns it into a tour de'force of entertainment by employing top-shelf talent and an amazing visual effects artist to make sure we're all taking the horror seriously.  The lead teenagers are all better than average actors with William Ragsdale's Charley leading friends Amanda Bearse (girlfriend Amy) and Stephen Geoffreys ('Evil' Ed) against the dangerous vampire.  Each actor is very sincere and 'mistfitty' enough to be believable as an average teen, but also savvy enough to be believable in taking on a challange such as the one presented to them.  However, the veteren actors are what give the film its weight.  Roddy McDowell as Peter Vincent steals every scene he's in with a 'hammy actor' presence that is never so pretentious as to be unlikable, and he manages to give his character a visible arc from coward to brave vampire killer in the limited screen time that is devoted to him before the finale.  Then of course there is Chris Sarandon as Jerry Dandridge who is indeed sexy and dangerous all at the same time.  He's the kind of man that you would say "Don't bite!....hard (winks)" to.  And yet, he is not too vain to allow himself to get made up with some pretty wild prosthetics by the end so that he looks truely horrifying.  This is definately a more dangerous looking vampire than those yahoos from Twilight...and is more in line with something that we've seen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Speaking of those great effects, let's give a hand to Richard Edlund...the man who started with ILM and left to form his own company, completing the effects for Ghostbusters, Alien 3, and numerous others.  His makeup effects and puppetry work are some of the best I've ever seen in an 80s horror film and gives the movie a very high-budget look that mixes well with its more low-budget themes.  All in all, it is a horror classic that deserves a remake that lives up to it (and I hope it does...cause the remake bashing (and the crap remakes that cause the bashing) need to end).  You should definately watch this movie...its not too gory and its got some fun humor that puts it in league with something more like Scream than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.