Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Drive-Invasion 2013!!

Classic Cars, Alabama Space Surf Rock, Veggie Dogs, A 35mm Print of “The Last Starfighter” and MORE!

There’s usually a lot of stuff going on in Atlanta over Labor Day weekend. Typically, there’s some racing going down at Atlanta Motor Speedway and there’s usually some SEC football of some kind going on at the Georgia Dome. Then, there’s the art festivals at Grant Park, and of course, all of the nerdy tomfoolery present at the Marriot and Hilton. That said, when I think of the Dogwood City and Labor Day festivities, there’s just one thing I can dwell upon: Drive-Invasion.

I wrote about last year’s Drive-Invasion, and I’ve written about the Starlight Six Drive-In explicitly on more than one occasion. That said, I really can’t help but NOT talk about it, because gosh-darn it, venues and events of the like are a dying breed, and whatever I can do to prolong their life expectancies is an utmost priority.

Most young-uns today will never know the joy of visiting a drive-in movie theater. Tis a shame, really, because I am now whole-heartedly convinced that there’s no better way to enjoy a flick than while seated behind the wheel of your ride, with a cup of popcorn in the drink holder and movie audio blasting out of your in-car stereo system. Really, it’s such a comprehensively American experience, an admixture of rugged individualism (technically, you’re not REALLY in an audience while you watch the movie) and full sensorial experientialism. You’re not just watching a movie, you’re experiencing something -- the night wind in your hair, the twinkling stars above, the occasional fistfight on the blacktop. And you can also smoke weed and have sex at a drive-in, which are two prohibited activities that are really, really hard to pull off at your local Mega-Plex.

Drive-Invasion, as such, is really a celebration of that drive-in mentality -- the pseudo-machismo, the not-so-pseudo scumminess, the car exhaust, the greasy hamburgers and of course, the completely unabashed aversion to class and cleanliness altogether. People pee wherever they want, walk around with their shirts off, blast antiquated surf-rock music during features and hoot and holler while watching utter trite in beautifully anachronistic 35mm. It’s a celebration of a dead America, and I for one, cannot help but want to dance on its grave like everybody else.

The festivities at Drive-Invasion 2013 began fairly early -- like, 10 in the morning kind of early -- but you know I’m not waking up that early for anything. This year’s musical set list was decent -- with a decisively awesome main act -- but by and large, I really can’t say I was too excited about seeing the 9,000 rockabilly acts that played over the course of the day. So, as I do every year, I arrived about three or so hours before movie kickoff time. And from there, the exploration doth begun…

Since it’s a drive-in, I suppose it’s not all that surprising that a large contingent of “classic” cars were on display. Maybe I’m lacking a protein strand in my Y chromosomes or something, because despite the perpetual cultural reinforcements (Tim the Toolman likes cars, so I should too, right?),  I’ve never really been what you would call an automotive enthusiast. I mean, don’t get me wrong, games like “Super Monaco GP” and, uh, “Al Unser Jr.’s Turbo Racing” are cool and all, but outside of the brief guffaw, I’m not really sure what the “appeal” of a real-life “shaggin’ wagon” is supposed to be.

As was the case last year, there were also quite a few vendors on display. My favorite was this one tent, that had an absolute hodgepodge of nostalgic nonsense for everyone to peruse through…no matter if your pop-cultural “things” are Ginger Spice action figures, “Happy Days” board games, books about Ed Wood or mini-posters of “Eegah!” which were clearly NOT printed off a computer and sold at the exorbitant price of $10 per art piece. Never.

Give these fellas some credit, though. I mean, in this one picture alone, practically EVERY conceivable pop culture base appears to be covered. Whether you are a fan of Halloween masks, Mad magazine prints, obscure vinyl selections, 1990s X-Men action figures, Elvis memorabilia OR Florida Gators paraphernalia, there was probably something at this booth that at least made you think about reaching for a ten dollar bill or two.

Oh, and if you were a fan of outsider art, devil worship, or "Friendship is Magic?"

There were even some unique folk paintings on display, in case you need to class up your man cave and/or Satanic altar sometime.

My favorite piece of kitsch this year HAD to have been this VHS copy of “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park,” the classic made-for-TV piece of shit starring America’s favorite media creation rock and rollers running around in suspiciously dark environments while family-friendly horror violence surrounds them. I’m not really sure if this here cassette was an authorized copy of the flick or not, but the gloriously awful box art -- which looks like something a Chinese bootlegger’s laptop barfed up -- is so hideously beautiful that I had clench my wallet to keep from tossing $20 at the cashier.

Of course, it really couldn’t be a celebration of all things white trash without some fine eatin’, and this year, we were lucky enough to have a couple of entrepreneurial foodies on site to provide us with some contextually impressive monster-themed comestibles.

You got to give it up to these folks: it's one thing to have a monster-themed food truck, but to have this much of a dedication to the gimmick is pretty damn impressive. I mean, "Wolfman's Nachos?" How could anyone with a soul turn something that awesome-sounding down? Alas, as a sorta' vegetarian, there was precious few I could chew on here, so I instead hit up the iconic snack bar's tofu veggie dogs instead. And if you've never tasted the gustatory joy that is tofu dog, golden brown mustard AND Texas Pete sauce together, you, my friend, really ought to re-evaluate your life plans.

The big musical act appearing at Drive-Invasion 2013 was Man or Astro-Man?, probably the finest sci-fi tinged surf-rock electro-punk-a-billy act to ever rise out of the depths of Auburn, Ala. While I may have preferred the dulcimer tones of prior Drive-Invasion headliners Black Lips and Roky Erickson a bit more, I have to admit, I was quite impressed by Man or Astro-Man? If nothing else, you have to really dig the audio-visual component of their stage show, which not only includes wall-to-wall sci-fi video screen mayhem but even an appearance by a Tesla Coil…which the front man then set on fire. Well, what else are you going to do with one of those things?

The real draw of Drive-Invasion, however, are the movies, and to some extent, I would be lying a bit if I said I wasn’t somewhat disappointed by this year’s crop of movies. For starters, they only screened three movies this year, when in years past, we were able to cram in four movies PLUS some Three Stooges and Bugs Bunny shorts before they told everybody to leave. And hell, one year, they even managed to screen movies for TWO full days! With that knowledge in mind, this year's trifecta of '80s sci-fi flicks had a lot less appeal to me than it would have for most folks -- primarily because I don’t like the 1980s and sci-fi is probably my third least favorite genre, behind high gloss action movies and big budget fantasies. That said, the set list was still fairly entertaining, and if nothing else, very, very nostalgia-inducing. To some degree, it was like camping out AND watching a rather ho-hum episode of “Monstervision” at the same time…it may not have been the BEST possible arrangement, but what you ended up with you really couldn’t complain about too much, either.

Movie Number One:
“The Last Starfighter” (1984)

Now here’s a flick I’ve seen on cable TV probably ten or fifteen times (which is still 30 or 40 less screenings than I’ve caught of such perpetually-aired flicks as “Problem Child 2” or “The Beastmaster.”) And while I’ve never really been a particularly big fan of the film, per se, I can at least enjoy it for its cheesy sincerity.

Having not seen the film in probably 15 or so years, I was a little conflicted about the overall movie. The first part of the flick -- which has our Kirk Cameron look-alike lead actor running around a trailer park and kicking all kinds of ass on an arcade game called, not surprisingly, “Starfighter” -- is actually pretty decent, but as soon as the film makes that great leap to sci-fi fare -- with the hero getting abducted by aliens and learning the ins and outs of piloting his own spaceship -- the movie starts to drag.

For those of you that have never seen “The Last Starfighter,” the premise, I assure you, is much better than the execution. So, there’s this kid, who gets a high score on this arcade game (really, the best scene in the movie, as it features a whole host of co-stars celebrating like it was New Year’s Eve or something -- complete with the stereotypical aged, black, rocking-chair bound sage screaming “he’s about to bust the record!” even though you know the director had to have kept telling him, over and over again, that the appropriate term is actually “break the record”.) Shortly thereafter, the kid is greeted by a dude dressed like a carnival barker and driving a pimped-out ride CLEARLY not at all inspired by “Back to the Future,”  who proceeds to offer the kid a job as an intergalactic space ship pilot. And interestingly, in the world of “Starfighter,” space ships are commonly referred to as “Gunstars,” which, for some reason, reminds me of a certain, iconic Sega Genesis title.

While the lead actor learns how to be “The Last Starfighter” (all of the others had been killed in battle, as it turns out), we’re introduced to the villains of the film, which are your common assortment of weird-haircut-sporting space Romans and crab-faced, laser-gun toting alien warriors. Meanwhile, the lead character has been replaced on Earth by a high-tech robot, which leads to some feeble attempts at comedy and an exploding pick-up truck.

The thing that I found odd about the flick was that, for all intents and purposes, it concludes with about half an hour left in the picture. Seriously, at about the one hour mark, the enemy alien spaceship has been destroyed, so for the next 30 minutes, it’s just the space fighter dude and his raisin-headed alien co-pilot buddy going back to the trailer park and saying goodbye to everybody and trying to convince the dude’s girlfriend to join him in outer space.

Allegedly, the film was among the first to extensively use CGI effects -- which, not surprisingly, look pretty shitty by modern standards. Also, the film was directed by Nick Castle, who played Michael Myers in the first “Halloween” movie. And the movie was supposed to have a corresponding arcade game released by Atari, but it never happened -- even if the game did resurface as a fairly mediocre NES game about five years after the flick was first in theaters.

So yeah, all in all, not really a great movie, by any stretch, but we could -- and have -- done much worse before at the Starlight. Much, much, MUCH worse, actually.

Movie Number Two:
“The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!”

I’ve never seen “Buckaroo Banzai” before, but since the film has such a  vaunted reputation on the Intraweb, I figured it would at least be worth a gander.

For starters, the cast in this one is downright amazing: Peter Weller, Christopher Lloyd, Jeff Goldblum (who, for some reason, wears a cowboy outfit for a majority of the picture) AND John Lithgow, all in the same movie? That’s a recipe for quirky awesomeness if there ever was one.

Overall, I though “Banzai” was a mostly entertaining movie, but damn was it ever unfocused. It was like the producers of the film wanted to make the flick using about six or seven different genre approaches, and at the end of pre-production, they couldn’t settle on which one they wanted to use and just went with all of them. A comedy-sci-fi-romance-musical-satire-action movie? It works in parts, but as a comprehensive film, “Banzai” is mostly a maddening muddle of a motion picture.

The film largely revolves around Robocop, who is some sort of neuroscientist rocket-car driver who’s invented a one-dimensional laser gun that allows him to drive through mountains and enter a different plane of existence. The thing is, that same dimension is home to some nefarious alien beings, whom only Robocop can tell are aliens because he got zapped by extra-terrestrial lightning and can thus see past their Christopher Lloyd Halloween masks. Oh, and John Lithgow is a Russian nuclear scientist that’s working on his own extradimensional ray gun, by hooking his tongue up to a car battery and entering some supra-neural phase where he works with Japanese dudes building a space buggy that really don’t work right. And because there’s not enough shit going on, there’s also some hi-jinks involving Banzai’s new wave funk rock band and fan club and this one girl that was crying at one of their shows and later tries to assassinate him.

I’m not really sure what kind of movie these people were aiming for. It’s a little too focused to be a cornball parody film a’la “Spaceballs,” but at the same time, it’s just too affable to be a legitimate off-the-beaten path sci-fi satire, either -- think, something alike “Repo Man” or even “The Wraith” -- you know, that one movie where Charlie Sheen plays an alien ghost that drag races people out in the desert. Even so, the music in  “Banzai” is good, and it has a decent pace, and for the most part, it’s an enjoyable feature. Still, I think I would’ve enjoyed seeing something like “Critters” instead, but then again, I’d probably watch “Critters” then do most other things, anyway.

Movie Number Three:
“John Carpenter’s The Thing” (1982)

And we conclude our all-night cheese-a-thon with a movie that is rightfully considered one of the best sci-fi horror flicks of the 1980s -- which was made even better because the print of the movie the drive-in used was pretty worn, giving the entire screen this faded, blood-red hue. That would be a major negative for most showings, but considering this is “The Thing,” well…it’s actually an inadvertent stroke of blind fortune.

What more can be said about this movie? It’s well acted, the special effects are terrific (they actually hold up pretty well, even now) and the atmospherics are just grand. The suspense here is just fantastic, and it remains one of the better pictures under Carpenter’s directorial oeuvre. Yes, even better than “Memoirs of an Invisible Man,” if you can believe it.

The characters in the film are pretty flat, but since it’s about a bunch of gruff dudes just hanging out in the South Pole and being drunk most of the time, I guess there’s really no need for anyone to put on a Laurence Olivier-caliber job in this one. Kurt Russell does a rather commendable job of playing the exact same character he plays in every John Carpenter movie, and the rest of the cast -- which includes the black dude from “They Live” and Wilford Brimley in one of his few non-diabetes-mentioning roles -- is pretty good, too. Of course, the real stars of the flick are the ooey-gooey special effects, and as stated earlier, they do hold up surprisingly well all these years later. I guess my favorite bit is the part where the dude’s stomach turns into a set of rock candy teeth and bites that other guy’s arms off, but the poking-everybody’s-blood-with-a-hot-coat-hanger-sequence is pretty high up there, too. In short? It’s not one of my favorite creature feature flicks of the decade, nor do I think it’s as good as some allege it to be, but I ended up enjoying it a bit more than I thought I would. It was clearly the best flick of the night, and if there’s a better way to be sent off into the wee morning hours than with the image of Snake Plisken running around setting stuff ablaze with a flamethrower still dancing in your sleep-deprived noggin, I really don’t want to know about it.

And after all of those shenanigans -- the rock and rolling, the 80s movie watching, the soda chugging and putting down three tofu dogs in secession in less than a minute -- you HAVE to end the ordeal with a sound breakfast, no? As anyone worth a damn will tell you, all adventures worth setting sail for always end with an appearance at the Steak N Shake nearest to your house, and by god, there better be some blueberry pancakes involved, to some capacity.

And also, an order of chocolate chip pancakes, because as we all no doubt know, after 4:30 A.M, calories just stop counting.


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