Jun 28, 2011

Cars 2

As any of the millions of readers of this blog can attest, I am a huge Pixar fan.  I frequently bemoan their lack of respect when it comes to the Oscars.  I consider them some of our greatest modern artists.  I also have raved about their story telling.  I have even ranked all the Pixar movies - just so you can have a handy authoritative guide on Pixar.  Even though I used to go to anys. movie that came out, finances and three kids have made that an impossibility now.  I frequently miss even movies I really want to see.  But, I never miss a Pixar movie.  [The fact that Disney almost pays you go to their movies now through promotional tie-ins certainly doesn't hurt.]

Cars 2 has now entered the Pixar universe.  Obviously, we were going.  I really liked the first movie.  My oldest son was a huge fan of the franchise and owned a bunch of the cars and tracks.  My youngest son has now discovered his older brother's cache of cars and is a fan himself.  All three kids have been waiting for the movie to come out.  And we had two free tickets.  In the words of Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber, "We're there."

I had heard some negative reviews of Cars 2.  That was a shock in and of itself.  Pixar movies don't get negative reviews.  They are bullet proof.  It wasn't going to stop us from going, but I was a big concerned.  Then I read a very interesting article on the Orlando Sentinel, of all places.  And it was written by Roger Moore, of all people.  I have usually felt Moore's movie reviews were useful for lining bird cages and not much else.  (Since I only read the electronic version of his reviews, I obviously meant lining Angry Bird cages.)  But, recently, I have noticed his commenting on the movie industry in general is vastly superior to his movie reviewing.  He talked about the "retroactive movie review."  This is where a critic rips into a movie that becomes a big hit, or overly praising a dog meat movie.  They usually will rectify this by going too far the OTHER way with a sequel.  His example was Siskel and Ebert ripping into Ace Ventura when it came out.  It was a runaway blockbuster.  So, they actually praised the idiotic sequel - even though it really sucked (even when considering it was a Jim Carrey movie).  It is the movie equivalent of basketball's "make up call."

The original Cars movie was overrated.  I was guilty of that.  It was undeniably gorgeous.  But it was a little boring, especially to kids.  And it was not very original.  I commented at the time that its plot was basically a retelling of Michael J Fox's Doc Hollywood - a movie no one is considering rebooting.  When I made my list of Pixar movies, it was last.  Admittedly, that is not necessarily an insult, since the worst Pixar movie is better than the best most other studios have to offer.  It was an adult movie masquerading as a kids' movie.  Kids don't understand the message of "take it slow and enjoy the ride."  They are too busy making life seem like it racing by.  So, according to Moore's theory, this attack by the critics was to make up for lavishing too much praise on the original film.

I don't know if Moore is right or not.  Personally, I think he has some validity.  Cars became a runaway hit NOT because of the movie itself.  Rather, it was because of the merchandise tie-ins.  It was the most licensed movie ever when it came out.  And those licensed toys made a fortune.  The little metal toy versions of the Cars characters were brilliant.  They created a third line of toy cars - right along side Matchbox and Hot Wheels.  And the sheer brilliance of it was that, while a Matchbox car costs 97 cents, a Cars car cost four bucks.  My son had tons of these cars.  You looked for the rare ones.  And they kept bringing them out.  There was regular McQueen, dirt track McQueen, tongue out McQueen, Radiator Springs McQueen, Dinoco McQueen.  They did the same thing with Ramone (available in just about every color) and Mater.  Then they brought out the "World of Cars" line and put the characters in different places.

Disney also realized that kids liked the Mater character way more than the Lightning McQueen character.  They liked the concept of McQueen.  But he was the straight man to the wild and crazy Mater.  You began to see more toys focusing on Mater.  It was a case of the sidekick superseding the star.  Pixar is far from stupid - they know where the money is.  They put out a line of shorts on Disney called Mater's Tall Tales - which spun into its own DVD and toy line.  Kids loved everything about Cars - except Cars itself.

So the second movie had a specific goal.  I know this had to be true.  They wanted to entertain the kids.  This was not going to be the well written, artistic home runs like some Pixar movies.  The last four films all could have earned Best Picture Oscars (Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, Toy Story 3).  This was going to be an action-packed, comedy-filled, fun kids-magnet movie.  And on that front, they nailed it.  I remember taking Josiah to Cars and realizing that he zoned out for vast stretches of the Radiator Springs section.  When he watched the DVD, he would get really into the beginning and end.  Most of the middle he would go back and act out the beginning.  Gabe has been the same way.  He'll watch the first thirty minutes and then wander off or ask to watch Veggie Tales.

Last night, kids were engaged in the movie.  There was action and silliness.  There were four different racing scenes.  There was lots and lots of Mater.  It was everything the kids loved about the Cars universe with little of the adult navel gazing.  The "message" of the movie was even more kid friendly - love your friends just like they are.  Kids don't read movie reviews.  They see toys and cereal boxes and posters.  And so Disney got just what they wanted.  They reinforced a brand that was already very strong.  If possible, they made it even MORE kid friendly.  There are now more characters to spin adventures off from, more licensed products, more money.  And my oldest son walked out of the theater wondering when Cars 3 would be released.

It was far from original.  I think the whole alternative fuel plot may have actually been stolen from Quantum of Solace.  What was original was the amazing visuals.  They were incredible.  The scenes in Europe looks so realistic they were almost like photos.  The rolling waves in the opening were incredibly rendered.  And the way that Pixar worked this action movie around cars was pretty impressive.  I like how they give certain vehicles certain personalities.  The evil submarine/boat looks like sharks.  And I always find it funny how they represent facial hair with fenders and license plates.  (The Russian mobster cars all looked like they had scruffy beards.  The Italian cars had little pencil mustaches.)  And the vocal talent, as usual, was top notch.  My personal favorite was Bruce Campbell popping up as an American spy car - basically playing his Burn Notice "Sam Axe" character in car form.

The movie was fun.  It wasn't ground breaking or Oscar worthy.  But it was fun and exciting.  The kids will want to watch it again on DVD when it comes out.  Gabe and Josiah have already begun asking for the new cars and Lego sets.  It seems like Disney and Pixar accomplished their goals.  When a really respected actor makes some blockbuster movie with little artistic merit (Ben Kingsley in Prince of Persia, for example), they often will say, "I have to pay the bills.  I make these movies so I can make those other movies."  This was a bill paying movie for Pixar.

Jun 13, 2011

Going Home

At the end of the week, we will load our stuff in a truck (shudder) and drive back home. Well, I guess that is what to call it.  I consider Orlando my home.  I was born in West Palm Beach and lived there full time for eighteen years, and during the summer for another year.  So, I suppose people would call that my "hometown."  Honestly, though, I detest West Palm Beach.  I hate South Florida in general.  It was different when my parents still lived there.  But my dad passed away twelve years ago and my mom moved and lives in Tampa.  I still have family down there, but I don't think I've been down there since my Grandma's funeral almost seven year ago.  Hard to call that "home."

I spent four years in Orlando during college.  Heather and I moved our little family back there in 2002 and we stayed there for seven years.  I think that part of the problem is that we moved around so much during our time in Central Florida.  We have lived in Winter Park, Orlando, Oviedo, and now Winter Springs.  In college I lived in six different places.  During our second stint in The City Beautiful, we lived in five different homes.  So, as we begin our third go round there, this will be the twelfth different location I where have resided.  (This not counting the four different addresses in Tampa I had, one in Orange Park, and one in Tallahassee.)  That makes it rough to really connect - when you are constantly having to pick a new Publix, a new pharmacy, a new gas station.

But there is just something about Orlando that resonates with us.  I remember when we lived in Tampa, we used to drive over to Orlando - just for the day.  We didn't go to the parks or anything.  We would go to a Super Target or walk around City Walk or Downtown Disney.  It was our place.  Going back this past week to work on the new house, it just felt familiar.  That is NOT to say that it is the same place we left.  You may think that not much can happen in an area in two years.  But that is very wrong.  As we drove around, we had to take stock of what was still in business and what wasn't.  There is an entirely new massive apartment complex with parking garage across the street from UCF.  Multiple restaurants have changed hands or closed down.  Our hot dog place closed down.  The Beef O'Brady's we used to go on Sundays after church is gone.  The Oviedo Mall is even more of a corpse than it was when we left.  One word that cannot be ascribed to Orlando is "static."  It changes more than any other area I've ever frequented.

Orlando is such an unique city.  It really is three cities.  You have the tourist Orlando on the West side.  That is where you find Disney, Universal Studios, Sea World, International Drive, the Florida Mall.  You have whole communities that have popped up and grown due to their status as support to the tourist areas - Kissimmee, St Cloud, Lake Buena Vista, Celebration.  There are residents out there.  But there is also a constant massive coming and going of tourists.  We like that side of town as a place to visit - but we hardly ever go there.  It's too crazy, too busy, too expensive.  It's humorous - when we talk about moving back to Orlando, people invariably mention Disney.  In the eleven years I've lived in Orlando, I think I have been to Disney a handful of times.  And, I have only paid for tickets myself maybe one or two times.  I had friends who got me in, or someone else bought me tickets.  Those places are just too expensive to go a lot - unless you can manage annual passes.  But we will go over to the surrounding features a couple of times a year:  the Lego store, the giant McDonalds, the big movie theatres.

Heading east, the next area is Downtown Orlando.  You have the big buildings, the government offices, the giant courthouse, the arenas, the performing arts center, museums, SoDo, Baldwin Park.  It is the arts, sports, and cultural center.  This area is similar to many other large, but not massive, cities in our country.  Again, it has its residents and its normal traffic.  And people in the other areas only go there when they have to.  If they have to go to a government outpost, a hospital, a lawyer, a basketball game, a play.  There is a night life, but it is hardly as robust as the city wishes it had.  They are constantly trying to boost the area and renovate areas of it.  I know they have been trying to get more traffic (and fewer homeless people) to Church Street since I got to UCF in 1992.  It is a constant battle against urban decay.  But some people love this area of town - and it certainly has its purpose.

The farthest east is the UCF area.  The University of Central Florida is considered a metropolitan university, since it is housed in a large city and was built after the city was founded.  It is not in a town that grew up with the school - like Gainesville or Athens, GA or Knoxville.  But, in many ways, UCF is actually a college town.  The East side of Orlando was nothing until UCF started.  And as the school has exploded, so has that area of town.  I know that Oviedo bristles at being called part of UCF's reach - but it was a horse farm until UCF boomed.  Now the college is massive.  It is the biggest in Florida and the second largest in the country.  It probably will pass Arizona State before long.  I has an amazing campus with more and more opportunities.  It has a Medical School, a football stadium, new basketball and baseball stadiums, a great concert venue.  They are starting a Dental School.  It is a great place.  And that whole area of town has benefitted from its growth.  This is the area where we have always lived.  And we really like it.  Everything you need is right there.  And if there is anything else you want to do, it isn't hard to get out to it.

[There is a fourth district developing over at Lake Nona - partly due to the new Medical School.  It is called the Medical City - with the school, new hospitals, research facilities, all that stuff.  In a few years, it will deserve its own paragraph.  Right now, it is still in process.]

Lots of people have asked how we liked Tallahassee.  Honestly, we hated it.  I know some people are fiercely defensive of our state capitol.  Those people are called Seminole fans.  Seriously, though, much of what makes people like Tallahassee is exactly why we disliked it.  They talk about the great stuff they did in college.  Exactly.  We are not college kids.  I have told numerous people, if you are a student whose goal is to party and drink and have a great time - Tallahassee is a great place.  If you are a politician who needs to go to the office in between running for re-election and whose goal is to party and drink and have a great time and hit on college girls - Tallahassee is a great place.  For families, it is a rough place.  It was oppressively hot.  There were not a lot of options that didn't cost a ton of money.  It was not a great experience.

That is not to say there are not some great things about Tallahassee - or the last two years.  The city administered recreation facilities put anything Orlando has to shame.  The kids were able to join gymnastics programs, go to water parks, or join sports leagues for minimal money.  Those were great things.  The school the kids attended was a great experience - but that was more due to individual teacher than the school as a whole.  We have had some good things happen.  Heather had a great time at the FSU Med School.  I lost a bunch of weight.  The kids and I have a stronger relationship now.  We return better people, to be sure.  But there were not many tears about leaving the city.

I think one thing we like about Orlando is the potential.  While we probably will not go to Disney or Universal often (or at all), the potential is there.  We could go there, if we wanted.  On a Saturday when there isn't anything to do, we could go to the science center or walk around one of the shopping villages. In reality, our day to day lives are not much different in Orlando and Tallahassee.  But they could be.

The biggest thing about going back to Orlando, though, is the people there.  I think that is what really make Orlando feel like home.  We are going back to people who love us and who we love.  Yes, we have people that fit that bill in every city we have ever lived.  There are friends and family in Jacksonville and Tampa and West Palm Beach and Rock Hill - and even Tallahassee.  But the quantity of people in Orlando who are close to us is so much larger.  That is what hurt so bad about leaving.  It wasn't the Magic or Mickey or Super Target or Del Taco that made leaving Orlando so bad.  It was leaving those people.  It was knowing that for two years that we would rarely be able to see them.

Facebook makes things like that easier.  But it is not a suitable replacement to sitting in their living room and laughing and holding their baby.  It is not the same thing as eating together and watching your kids all run around a play place.  It can't take the place of standing next to them in church, or going to a movie together, or sitting at a table and talking for hours.  I know that on our trips back during the last two years, it was always stressful to try to fit in time for all the people who wanted to see us.  There are friends from Lifepointe Church, First Years Preschool, International Community School, UCF, the Apple Store, First Baptist Oviedo, Defender Ministries.  I think that is what makes the thought of coming back to Orlando so sweet.  It is like they all are standing there with their arms open, waiting to hug us.  That is actually the picture I have in my head as I think about it.  I see hundreds of individual faces smiling and saying, "Welcome Back.  We missed you."

In the back of my head, I know that there is a good chance that this is only a two year return.  When residency comes, we may have to move again.  And that time it may be for good.  I know that.  It lurks back there, haunting the trip back.  For the next few days, though, I am going to ignore that thought.  I am going to dwell on the fact that I finally get to go home.  And I can't wait.