Friday, October 30, 2009

And now, it's time for another installment of: Bad Product Placement Theater!

On tonight's episode: Leonard Part 6 Starring Bill Cosby, Joe Don Baker, and Coca-Cola as "Coke."

So much care for the product placement; so little care for the screenplay. And now if you'll excuse me, I need to go get some soft drinks and spandex.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Briefly: The Wages of Fear (1953)

Just how intense is The Wages of Fear? This movie didn't just make my palms sweat; it made the soles of my feet sweat too. Either I've got a glandular problem or this is one suspenseful movie. Four desperate Europeans living in South America agree to a suicide mission hauling containers of highly combustible nitroglycerin along 300 miles of unpaved road. If they survive the perilous journey of roads that resemble corrugated metal, hairpin mountain passes, decaying bridges, and lakes of oil, they'll each receive $2,000. In 2008 money, two grand inflates to a little under sixteen thousand, not exactly exorbitant pay for a job that can quite literally blow up in your face. Director Henri-Georges Clouzot's message couldn't be clearer: life is precious, short, and depressingly cheap. Not that you'll have much time to ponder the emptiness of human existence once the men begin their journey, as Clouzot throws one obstacle after another at the drivers, which means one harrowing sequence after another for the audience. The trek to the deliver the nitro runs the final 90 breathless minutes of the two-and-a-half hour film. It's some of the most exquisitely sweaty time you'll ever spend at the movies. Make sure you bring your extra-absorbent footwear.


Friday, October 23, 2009

Fast & Furious (2009)

Fast & Furious may be dumb — no, you know what? Fast & Furious is dumb. But it's entertainingly dumb, like a cat who thinks it can stop a laser pointer if it pounces quickly enough. Some might take a movie to task for being this breathtakingly stupid, but let's give credit where credit's due: it cannot be easy to make something entertaining out of material this thoroughly brainless. This is a movie about two men, one cop and one criminal, who put aside a long-standing grudge to take down a drug trafficker through a strict regimen of street racing and looking very intensely at one another. That we invest at all in such a silly narrative is a credit to director Justin Lin, who compensates for his story's stupidity by treating the movie's title like a filmmaking mantra. Keep things moving fast and furious, so the audience doesn't have time to think about anything else.

The tactic works more often than not, and when it doesn't, it's sort of fun to watch it fail. For instance, in one scene, our heroes join the drug traffickers for a high-speed border crossing, sneaking into the United States via an elaborate series of tunnels hidden beneath the fence dividing Mexico and the U.S. Much is made of the fact that the drivers need to sneak into the tunnel's mouth before the are detected by security cameras. But how did someone build an elaborate, snaking, road race ready system of tunnels beneath said border and said fence and said security cameras without anyone noticing?

Maybe it's just me, but I think there's a certain pleasure to be had in a movie this absurd, where a man might leap across rooftops, dive through a window, and tackle a guy off a building and through the hood of a car just to ask him a question. And that there's even more pleasure to be had in the fact that said individual seems completely uninjured and unfazed by his several story fall onto the hood of a car. If you fell from a great height through the windshield of a Geo Metro wouldn't you need, I don't know, at least three or four seconds to collect yourself? And if you did manage to pull of such a ridiculous stunt without injuring yourself, wouldn't take a minute just to observe how absolutely ridiculous it is that you didn't?

FBI Agent Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) wouldn't. That's because he's a cop on the edge. He's a loose cannon! He eats ridiculous leaps off of buildings onto cars for breakfast! A few years earlier, O'Conner went undercover in the Los Angeles street racing scene but, like every undercover cop in every movie about undercover cops, he started to forget which side he was really on. Most of his moral confusion stemmed from his man-crush on the gang's leader, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), a gear-slash-meathead who charmed O'Conner with his large muscles, intense scowl, and penchant for saying things that sound profound but aren't (i.e. "I live my life a quarter mile at a time"). O'Conner couldn't bear to cage such a free spirit, so he let him flee at the end of the first film rather than arrest him. For this fourth Fast & Furious, the first sequel to featuring both Walker and Diesel, bromance fills the air once again when Toretto returns to town to settle a score that conveniently dovetails with O'Conner's latest case.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you Paul Walker and Vin Diesel are good actors because, frankly, that would even more ridiculous an argument than Fast & Furious is a movie. But I will sit here and tell you that something about these two marginal screen presences makes them work well together. I can't really recommend anything either has done separately (unless you count The Iron Giant where Diesel put his robotic delivery to good use playing, what else, a robot) but the two have an undeniable buddy action movie chemistry. Maybe it's the fact that they're both pretty crummy; it isn't a case of one terrific actor blowing away one mediocre one and throwing the power dynamics in scenes out of whack. Walker and Diesel both work at the same level of dudely gruffness, and even if the story's silly, they never play it that way. Neither one ever acts like they're too good or too smart for the material, and given the material that's saying something. If it were up to me, I'd make Diesel and Walker an regular onscreen duo like Martin and Lewis or Hepburn and Tracy. Every three years, they have to make an action movie together. Given their box office track records apart, I don't think they'd put much of a fight.

You could argue that Fast & Furious is a blatant rehash of the first film, and I suspect Lin and his collaborators would agree. After two inferior sequels that tried to spice up the franchise's formula with new locations and new characters, they quite intentionally went back to their roots. But they did more than just recycle the characters and basic storyline, they managed to credibly recreate the dopey charm of the original, which, let's remember, wasn't exactly the most cerebral action movie to begin with. Theater fans welcome a revival of a popular Broadway show. Why can't we look at Fast & Furious the same way? It's the show we previously enjoyed spruced up with some new arrangements and cutting-edge stagecraft that wasn't available to the original. Entertaining, dumb, fast, and furious.

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