Friday, July 28, 2006

Cars on film

Just finished watching The Birds for the first time (I'll wait for the laughter to subside . . . no, I can wait), and what's still stuck in my craw (not gonna say beak) isn't the gorgeous birds-eye matte painting shot of the town after the explosion or even the perfect ending, it's . . . Tippi Hedren's car. It vaulted to the top of my list of favorite movie cars, which I've been meaning to share for some time.

TVR Tuscan (Swordfish)
One of many reasons to enjoy Swordfish, John Travolta's car fit in perfectly with the odd heist tale. TVR has long made cars that come under the 'no fucking way' category of the U.S. automobile safety regulations. Save for spending thousands on bumper retrofitting, you'll never see one in America. It's a shame, because TVRs always come in erotic shapes of high tech goodness (some of their cars have famously featured no keys, rather a fob that activates the electronics for push-button entry and ignition) that also have a viciously overpowered engine thrown in for good measure. The current Tuscan is even more outrageous than the one you see and will hopefully find its way to Hollywood soon.

Peugeot 406 and Mercedes-Benz 450SEL (Ronin)

Ronin is unabashadly a car movie, with director John Frankenheimer resurrecting the pioneering techniques he used in Grand Prix to create two of the most memorable car chases ever seen. Frankenheimer wisely stayed away from using well-known, pricey cars, instead choosing cars with more personality. The Peugeot 406 is one of these, made by a company wrongly vilified by any American who remembers their unsuccessful run across the Atlantic. The French automaker with the cool logo is known to the rest of the world as a maker of stylish and sporty cars. The 406 is their fast and maneuverable sedan, though if I had the chance my money would gravitate toward the wildly popular 306 GTi-6, its sheep-in-wolf's clothing hatchback complete with a six-speed shifter. Long before Vin Diesel, Frankenheimer's stunt driver threw a 406 into perhaps the most impossible power slide in cinema history. The Mercedes is on the other end of the spectrum, when MB would churn out luxurious muscle cars with hoods of alligator proportions. While DeNiro is busy aiming his rocket launcher at an unsuspecting Citroen, a grandma's trunk-sized 6.9-liter V8 is pumping out over 400 lb.-ft. of torque.

Lamborghini Espada (Auto Focus)
This car is only on-screen for about five seconds, but the fact that Willem Dafoe's character drives one seems so right. The Espada was a very curious and unsuccesful car produced by Lamborghini, some quirky combination between a sports car and a station wagon. You'll never (ever) see one on the road, and they're even rarer to see at a car show, but it was the perfect choice for a smarmy guy like Dafoe's character. The Espada is a favorite of mine, but as far as I can tell, its cousin the Miura has never been featured on film. The Miura was the best car Lamborghini ever made and is No. 1 on my list of sexy autos.

1968 Dodge Charger R/T (Bullitt)
All the attention of Bullitt's famous chase scene seems to fall on McQueen's Mustang GT, but the star of the movie for me (outside of McQueen) is the Charger. In my opinion, the '68 edition is one of the best-looking American cars ever made, and certainly tops among muscle cars. There's something menacing about that front grille, and the rear seems like an American take on Ferrari's look. Most of all, it still has a humbly dignified look about it, which makes it all the more fun when the Charger starts carving up the San Francisco hills while chasing McQueen's Mustang.

Aston Martin DB2 (The Birds)
Luckily I was alone when I saw this car's entrance, because I nearly lost it. You just don't see Aston DB2s, much less someone driving one as Tippie Hedren does in 'The Birds.' At the time of the 'The Birds' release in 1963, Astons were steadily becoming popular in America, probably peaking in 1964 when James Bond introduced the world to the marvelous DB5. But the DB2 was first produced in 1950, and I'm confident hardly any made their way across the Atlantic. According to Wikipedia, only 411 total DB2s were produced from 1950-53 and of those, only about 102 were convertibles like the one in The Birds. But the most amazing part about the one in The Birds is that it's left-hand drive. For a small-time automaker like Aston Martin, making a batch of left-handers for Western Europe and (maybe) North America was a costly luxury, and I would guess that fewer than half the 102 convertibles produced were left-hand drive, and who knows how many of those scant few survive today. An immaculate DB2 like the one portrayed in 'The Birds' would literally be priceless today, in the right market it could command seven figures.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Five Characters You Meet in Hell

There are villains, and there are assholes. There is bad, and there is evil. Film will always be filled with monsters of inumberable size and strength, but sometimes our greatest fear lies with someone just an inch or two taller than us. Someone who can take two years off your life with the right stare. I've always been fascinated with these rare movie characters. In fact, with the final two, I've regularly referred to them as 'the worst person ever' when describing the movie to someone. That thought inspired me, who are the worst people on film? Who are the people you wouldn't even want to share a state with. Keep in mind I'm not referring to the Hannibal Lecters or American Psychos out there, the five in my list inflict the most entertaining torture with their mouths and eyes, and the decisions they make.

5. Max Cady (Cape Fear, 1962)
It's a shame that it's the original Cape Fear which is largely forgotten in the shadow of Scorsese's 1991 remake, even though it's the superior version. This isn't the time to go into it, but let's just say that Nick Nolte carries the Sam Bowden role about as well as Ben Affleck would have portrayed Humphrey Bogart's Rick in the once-rumored Casablanca remake. Though DeNiro's Cady is fine in the remake, he couldn't duplicate what Robert Mitchum brought to the role. Mitchum was rare in that his characters' charm was often just as inviting as their malice was frightening (see: Night of the Hunter). 'Cape Fear' is the best example, as Cady uses his appeal as a weapon, luring women and the community in before showing his teeth. One of Mitchum's trademarks was his smile, which he could flip on to convey either sincerity or absolute terror. It's devilishly on display here, as he makes Gregory Peck's Bowden into a prisoner in his own town.
Hellish moment: "I got somethin' planned for your wife and kid that they ain't nevah gonna forget. They ain't nevah gonna forget it... and neither will you, Counselor! Nevah!"

4. Capt. Hank Quinlan ("Touch of Evil")
Orson Welles' last real Hollywood role and directing job. Basically blacklisted and hardly resembling his former self, Welles was given a gift to direct and star in a Charlton Heston vehicle, which would later be recognized as a masterpiece. Welles gained even more weight to portray the grotesque and reprehensible Quinlan, from which racism and corruption ooze almost as much as his trademark sweat. The head of police in a border town, Quinlan regards Heston's Vargas less than any other Mexican, because he is actually in a position of power, as a visiting narcotics officer. Vargas sees right through Quinlan's good guy act, but can do almost nothing because the locals (including a barely recognizable Joseph Cotten) regard him as a god. In an unforgettable scene, we see through deft direction and writing how Quinlan can easily frame anyone -- and how powerless someone like Vargas is to stop it. Quinlan may as well have been the inspiration for Jabba the Hutt, and his death gives way to the film's final -- and most memorable -- line, delivered by Marlene Deitrich: 'What does it matter what you say about people?' (I realize it doesn't really stand out in print, but on the film it hits you in the gut).
Hellish moment: "That wasn't no miss, Vargas. That was just to turn you 'round, so I don't have to shoot you in the back. Unless you'd rather run for it."

3. Stansfield ("The Professional")
I knew this role had embedded Gary Oldman in movie history when I was taking an acting class in college. On the first day we were asked to say a few things about ourselves, including our favorite actor. I recall about 80% of the men -- including me -- replied 'Gary Oldman,' and I just knew the rest of them were thinking -- like I was -- of this role when we said that name. Though he has been in better films (not named 'Lost in Space') and had more profound roles, it is the ferociously corrupt cop named Stansfield that won Oldman a generation of fans. The Professional is much more about two other characters, but when Stansfield is onscreen, you can't look away. His every move is that of barely subdued volcanic anger and violence, ready to explode if not for his pills and classical music. When a young Natalie Portman unwisely walks into the men's bathroom at the police station and we see Stansfield standing behind the door, it is one of the most 'oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck' moments you'll ever see. And when Stansfield says 'everyone,' he means 'EVERYONE!!!!!!!'
Hellish moment: "What filthy piece of shit did I do now?"

2. Don Logan ("Sexy Beast")
To know Don Logan is to know complete and unfailing misery. Part of me knows he's No. 1 on this list, but another says no one can possibly top who I've got there. Don Logan makes it a good fight. In Jonathan Glazer's unexpected masterpiece, Ben Kingsley gives the performance of his life, of most people's lives. Before we see Logan, we know how awful he is, because the very mention of his name spoils a pleasant evening. But then we see him. In his first shot, Kingsley is only given a suit jacket to hold and the direction to walk through an airport terminal, but in this seemingly simple description comes an unnerving vision of ... the worst person ever. Every nerve ending in Logan's body is cranked up to 12, and the only part of his life he can enjoy is getting his way. Logan must bring 'Gal' back from retirement for one last job, and when told 'no,' Logan almost laughs because he knows now the fun can begin. He uses almost no violence (save for a boot to the face to wake Gal up one morning in his own house), but those around him are in constant pain. Of all the terrible characters here, Logan has by far the best introductory line: 'I'm gonna have to change my shirt, it's sticking to me, I'm sweating like a cunt!'
Hellish moment: "What you think this is the wheel of fortune? You think you can make your dough and fuck off? Leave the table? Thanks Don, see you Don, off to sunny Spain now Don, fuck off Don. Lying in your pool like a fat blob laughing at me, you think I'm gonna have that? You really think I'm gonna have that, ya ponce. All right, I'll make it easy for you. God knows you're fucking trying. Are you gonna do the job? It's not a difficult question, are you gonna do the job, yes or no?"

1. Frank Booth ("Blue Velvet")
No one else can genuinely occupy this spot. In Hell, not even Satan himself would want to walk near Frank. Somehow, David Lynch was able to extract from Dennis Hopper the worst vision of humanity anyone has ever witnessed. Sure, he's given lines which scare on their own, but when Frank says 'let's hit the fucking road!' you know Kyle MacLachlan's character is instore for the worst night of his life, and what a ride it is. The Scene (that's The Scene) at Ben's could consume a whole post for the amount of perfect horror and awkward humor it produces. At Ben's, we see the caliber of psychological mayhem Frank possesses and almost don't want to know what's coming next. It's grotesque, but not in turn-away-grotesque, not even visually grotesque, just in the way Frank seems realistically capable of almost any atrocity imaginable, and that he has his buddies along for the ride. The rare times he's not talking, Frank has a look on his face that may not ever again be seen on film: it's unfathomably intense, yet bitterly believable at the same time. The only other time Hopper even tried to regain the 'glory' of Frank was in Red Rock West, and it didn't come close. There's only one Frank. Only one person can be the worst ever.
Hellish moment: "Don't be a good neighbor anymore to her. I'll have to send you a love letter! Straight from my heart, fucker! You know what a love letter is? It's a bullet from a fucking gun, fucker! You recieve a love letter from me, and you're fucked forever! You understand, fuck? I'll send you straight to hell, fucker!... In dreams... I walk with you. In dreams... I talk to you. In dreams, you're mine... all the time. Forever!"

Friday, July 14, 2006

'This is a world getting progressively worse, can we not agree on that?'

Even though I have not read it, I'm sure it's been said that A Scanner Darkly is an unfilmable book, much like Heart of Darkness once was. But in the hands of the impossibly-talented Richard Linklater, 'Darkly' becomes believable enough to terrify and comes across you at so many different levels that -- like many of Linklater's projects -- you need multiple viewings to appreciate all of them.

To try and write a synopsis of 'Darkly' is an exercise in futility, partly because I'm not sure I understood it entirely, but also because it largely takes a backseat to Linklater's themes of addiction and big government. It's set in the future, but the only advancements we see are the new technologies being used by the government (the scanners) to record seemingly everyone's daily life. A drug called Substance D is taking over the country, but its makers are using the strict drug laws to their advantage. One agency may have found a way to the top of the chain, but only a flawed, illegal plan will allow them a glimpse.

Throughout most of the film, you struggle to understand just where 'Darkly' is going, and only until the last 15 minutes do you really start to grasp what it's all about. But that doesn't detract from the film's enjoyment, because Linklater (as usual) is able to pack his frame with memorable characters and scenarios. There's one sequence in particular which lasts about 20 minutes and ultimately has nothing to do with the main plot, but is a riot nonetheless as the three main characters dissolve into a wreck of mad paranoia.

Although Keanu Reeves is the main character, it's Robert Downey Jr.'s Barris that often carries the film. He manages to constantly come across as both genius and nuts, with some scenes acting as nearly a one man show for his character.

Much has been made about Linklater's use of rotoscoping (or whatever new word he's given it), the exhausting process of layering filmed material with animation pushed the film's release date back over six months, but the result cannot be argued. The technique allows Linklater to manipulate the visuals so they're just beyond reality, and the tricks he uses to illustrate the effects of drug use are something a conventional film could not approach. At the same time it's not distracting, but draws you in even more, never once doubting that you're watching actors performing.

With that said, 'Darkly' never stands on its visuals alone, instead it has a dense, quotable script which keeps the action moving through (at times lengthy) conversation. Despite having almost zero action elements, 'Darkly' remains an entertaining scifi trip because it's packed with ideas and leaves it to the viewers to interpret many of them. Like most of Linklater's projects, 'Darkly' isn't so much a straightforward narrative, as it is a series of connected scenes which could easily stand on their own. We're dropped into the middle of their world as many of the important plot points have already happened, but since the chronology is constantly foggy and we sometimes drift into flashbacks, it's tough to decide just what -- if any -- of the story is reality.

After seeing 'Darkly,' it's hard to imagine how Linklater could take on projects such as Bad News Bears or even School of Rock, but it may be his way of punching a ticket for complete creative freedom on movies that will likely make a studio no money. As much as everyone loves Wes Anderson, he's never produced a box office hit, maybe one day we'll see his name attached to 'Aquaman.'

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Pack a cutless, and a lunch

By now you've no doubt heard the critical wails regarding the running time of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
(more on that later, unfortunately), and while that certainly detracts from enjoying this swashbuckler, this is still a movie you need to see in theaters. Even if you didn't like or see the first one, you must give 'Dead Man's Chest' a chance just for the opportunity to see the new benchmark of digital effects. The achievements on display here are of the caliber which will cause George Lucas to cough and leave the theater early. Literally amazing, and you don't find yourself saying that very often in this CGI world we live in.

The effects are so good that casual viewers will not even realize they're looking at something which took hundreds of silicon hours to create. Director Gore Verbinski has so much confidence in his effects that he fills scenes with extreme close-ups of his digital creations, just so geeks like me can scrutinize every gill, looking for a pixel, and finding none. You have to wonder what the early stages of this film was like, explaining to production designers that the main adversaries were men resembling sharks, mollusks and other invertebrae, and that said characters would be played straight, with no camp value.

Although Verbinski's story-telling techniques need to be questioned, his creative efforts cannot. Davy Jones' ship just drips with eye candy in every corner. The idea of this supernatural pirate is that he offers drowning and near-death sailors a chance: die or pledge 100 years of service to this octopus-faced monstrosity. In exchange for cheating death, Jones and his crew start to meld with the sea, gradually becoming more amphibian than man. There's a great scene where we meet a Jones partner who has actually become a part of the vessel, acting as some kind of candle-holding gargoyle, and it's just magical when he painfully tries to interact with Orlando Bloom. What excites me most about Davy Jones and Co. is that this is just the tip of the iceberg, in regards to the sequel. We never really see what kinds of powers he and his crew have, and we get glimpses of some really messed up crewmembers, such as one guy who appeared to be about 80% shrimp.

Unfortunately, Davey Jones can't save this movie. I've always felt that an action movie shouldn't feel long unless it's adhering to respected source material (i.e. Lord of the Rings), and that's on display here. What we have is a simple story (everyone wants the chest) trying to be much more significant than it is. As a result, 'Dead Man's Chest' is insanely talky and in turn suffers from 'Phantom Menace syndrome,' whereby there's so much exposition to get through that by necessity there are a series of 'meeting' scenes which weigh down the movie. What's worse, all of the characters play these scenes like it's a critical part in a bad 'ER' episode, so the music and their voices are all screaming 'YOU BETTER LISTEN!!'

One of the problems I had with the first one was that the characters were given one note of emotion they had to adhere to. Bloom's character is 100% steadfast, Depp is Depp (but it strangely seems to work even better than the original) and Keira Knightly seemed to get her motivation from this creature, she never thinks to stop shouting at the camera or take that sneer off her face.

It's undoubtedly flawed, but sometimes enjoyable in its vices. Much has been said about the needless cannibal escape scene, but I see it as necessary, since so much of the film is people talking on a ship, you need a good land action scene early, even if it does add another half hour.

One thing to watch for: there's a great device in the first Toratuga (sp?) scene which is directly lifted from the Disneyland ride. Even though I haven't ridden it since 1989 (it was down for repairs last time I was there, goddammit), I instantly recognized it. See if you can catch it.