Saturday, July 9, 2011

Eight Legs, Two Fangs, and an Attitude

When you ask a group of people what gives them the heebie-jeebies, you're likely to find several staples.  There's usually someone who's afraid of the dark (a category I fall in, and if you make fun of me I'll cut you), someone who fears death, a person who can't stand public speaking, and then there are always a handful of folk who get the willies from creepy crawlies.  Insects, snakes, and rodents are top runners in that category, but most people tend to dislike one group of crawlies in particular...the spider.  Despite the fact that spiders do nothing but rid the world of surplus insects and tend to regard us as big, scary bipeds...thanks to our own natural fears of things that are low to the ground and multi-legged and the help of the media, we tend to think that spiders are always up to no good.  Then in 1990, long-time producer turned director Frank Marshall gave us a new reason to hate spiders.  So ignore that crawling sensation on your leg for a second and stick with me as we explore the fear of Arachnophobia.

In a remote portion of Venezuela, photographer Jerry Manley gets a very brief introduction to Dr. James Atherton before being bustled into a helicopter and whisked off to a sink hole in an unexplored tepui of the rainforest. He has arrived to help photograph potentially new species of insects and spiders that Atherton hopes to find in this sinkhole where geography has left the area unchanged for millions of years.  Upon arrival they discover spiders that aren't like any spiders ever seen before though, with innards more like worker bees or soldier ants (spiders are highly solitary and cannibalistic and to find a colony-like mindset is highly unusual).  One of the male mating capable spiders doesn't take kindly to his brethren being taken captive and he stows away in Manley's napsack where he proceeds to bite and kill Manley (with a fast acting and highly toxic venom).  The body is sent back to Manley's hometown of Canima, California with the spider hidden in the crate (they don't notice it at all) and it manages to get dropped by a bird near the barn and home of Dr. Ross Jennings, the new young doctor of the town who happens to have arachnophobia.  Soon the spider mates with a domestic house spider and produces a brood of large house spiders who act like worker bees and are just as deadly as their father.  As people begin dying around the town, Ross finds himself wondering if the thing that gives him the most fear is actually causing these deaths.

Like Jaws before it, Arachnophobia takes a slightly over-the-top 'what if?' scenario and fashions it into a thrilling man vs. nature yarn that is equal parts terrifying and witty.  Indeed, part of what makes Arachnophobia fun to watch today is its incredible sense of humor.  It understands that it is ever so slightly ridiculous (what are the chances of a spider this deadly existing, surviving, and breeding here?) and so it allows itself to joke a bit at itself and its type of movie (the 'small town besieged by a monster' movie).  However, like Jaws, its premise is based largely in fact.  There are actually great white sharks that are 25 feet long, and they have been known to attack people (though not in that volume)...likewise, species of spider, animal, and insect are introduced into American environments all the time from overseas shipping and have a nasty habit of messing up the surrounding ecosystem (such as the gypsy moth that has decimated parts of the Ohio forest, or the Burmese pythons that are thriving and eating prey in Florida).  Marshall takes a very realistic approach to the whole film (nothing looks stylised or artificial) and that lends the premise a surprising amount of realism.  Afterall, there is a reason people are still terrified by this film.  The comedy is also special, when Jeff Daniels as Ross Jennings quips "Respect is good, but I'd rather be feared" is a classic, and all of the scenes with John Goodman as Delbert McClintock, the town exterminator, are hilarious (with at least one showing his versatility...when he gets very realistically frightened going into the climax).  It simply is an all-around good thriller and if you haven't watched it in a while, its time to pick it up again.  And if you're squeamish of spiders and creepy crawlies...this film may end up being what Ross calls "Therapy."

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Most Dangerous Game...

I can remember some of my first experiences playing board games.  Often, my sister would ask me to play with her when she had nothing to do...and she was fond of cheating.  I used to be terrified to play Clue because I thought you could be killed any second of sister was playing two-player Clue with me once and when she got bored with it she told me she had killed me in the Billiard Room.  It wasn't until much later that I was able to actually read the rules and find out that not only could I not kill people in the game, but that you couldn't really play the game with less than three people.  We also enjoyed playing Rings on Your Fingers (which no one remembers) and Ghosts (which some people remember) and they were great ways to waste time.  I even remember my imagination getting away from me at times and actually believing in the consequences that the games sometimes dished out.  Of course, that fascination with the fantasy world of board games wears off after a while and as you grow you tend to become more interesting in games of skill or trivia rather than ones that take you back a space for falling into a dark pit.  But what if a board game really offered consequences for every role of the dice?  What if moving five spaces put you in mortal peril?  That was a question that author and illustrator Chris Van Allisburg decided to answer in his picture book, Jumanji.  In it, a bored brother and sister find a jungle themed game in the park and take it home only to find that when they play it, the jungle dangers described in it actually manifest themselves in the room where they're playing.  With a premise like this, it should be no surprise that Hollywood would eventually come a-callin.  Then in 1995, the film version of Allisburg's book hit theaters with an expanded plot and an unlikely lead.  Would the adventure be worth it?  Let's roll the dice and find out...

The film opens in 1869 with two young boys trying to quickly bury a large chest in the ground.  As they drop the chest in the ground, jungle drums begin to pound and both boys quickly cover the box and hurry off into the night.  Flash forward to 1969.  The town of Brantford, New Hampshire has sprung up around the woods where the chest was buried.  Alan Parrish, the only son of the richest man in town, is on his way home from school when the local bullies chase him to the site of his father's new factory extension.  There, he hears the same drums that scared the boys 100 years ago and he digs out the chest.  Inside he finds an ornate, carved board game called Jumanji.  He takes it home and begins playing it with his friend, Sarah Whittle.  They soon find that this is not a normal game as they are attacked by bats and Alan is actually pulled into the game.  Sarah runs away, frightened beyond her wits, and we flash forward again to 1995 where Peter and Judy Shephard have moved into the old Parrish mansion with their Aunt Nora, who plans to turn it into a bed and breakfast.  Soon however, Peter and Judy are hearing Jumanji's drums and it is not long before they begin unleashing the game's dangers on the unsuspecting town.  They also release Alan from his imprisonment inside the game and together, with Alan's old friend Sarah, they must finish the game to end its destruction.

There have been many mixed reviews of Jumanji, the film, largely due to its stylized effects and the choice of its male lead, Robin Williams, who was largely known as a comic actor and not an action-adventure man.  In hindsight, however, this shows Williams at the beginning of a run of several more 'serious' films for the versatile actor and would get him more dramatic exposure akin to his turn in Moscow on the Hudson several years before.  Here he plays someone who has spent many years of his life trapped in the deepest, darkest jungle fighting for his life and raising himself and that natural caution and fear comes through brilliantly from Williams.  He also has the markings of someone who never fully grew up and who still has the mind of a child, and who could argue that Williams can't play that?  It was really a stroke of genius in casting Williams as the older Alan Parrish, despite what little experience he'd had in the genre before.  On the side of the effects, I do have to concede a little to the naysayers.  The CGI jungle animals do not look nearly as sophisticated as the rampaging dinosaurs from Jurassic Park only two years before, but I think the effects designers deserve a little more credit than they got.  No one had ever tried to do realisic looking CGI animal fur before, and so the programing shows its limitations there.  As for the scaled or skin textrued animals, like rhinos and elephants, those look much better.  However, another aspect of the design is often over-looked.  These animals are supposed to come from a vision of the jungle where everything is out to kill you and therefore should look stylized and from a really old comic book or serial.  I've always felt that Jumanji's creatures were meant to reflect an illustration coming to life, rather than real animals you'd see in a zoo.  Yes, we should be able to tell that monkeys are still monkeys, but they need to have a look of intent and malice on their faces that real monkeys simply don't get.  So cut the movie some slack there.  As for the other performers, Bonnie Hunt's turn as the older Sarah Whittle is one of my favorite parts of the whole movie and Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Cooper as Judy and Peter are also extremely sincere in their performances.  These four are the core of the film and they carry it and give it a human soul amongst all the effects-driven chaos.  It is that reason that the film still works for me as a solid adventure story, because you care what happens to the people.