Saw the movie Vanishing Point last night. Verdict: not bad. It tells the story Kowalski, a delivery driver who picks up a car in Denver for delivery to San Francisco. He decides to make the trip in 15 hours, basically for the hell of it. You may read that it was for a bet, but the bet is small potatoes and Kowalski was already itching to roll.
So he takes off down Colorado roads at high speed. The cops weren’t happy about that and did their best to encourage him to slow down. This didn’t have the desired effect, as Kowalski left them trying to call for backup as they choked on his dust.
The first hour or so of the film was essentially a series of chases, cut with brief flashbacks to Kowalski’s previous life as a race driver and a cop. DJ Super Soul, listening in on a police-band radio at his small town radio station, serves as Kowalski’s main cheerleader and contact with the real world.
The second hour is a lot more interesting. Kowalski takes off into the Nevada desert to evade the highway patrol and ends up lost, with a flat tire. Soon he encounters an old man who is hunting for snakes for a fundamentalist Christian sect. This begins a series of encounters for Kowalski, who also runs into some gay (maybe?) hitchhikers and an easy rider who gives him a hand (and his girlfriend, who’d also like to help Kowalski out).
All this doesn’t seem like it would add up to much, but it’s actually a pretty good movie. If nothing else it’s a snapshot of the odd and unique character of America at the beginning of the Seventies. It’s like the whole country reverted to childhood for a decade beginning around 1966.
The movie has a strong “Stick it to the man!” undercurrent, which I had a hard time sympathizing with. Besides, Kowalski isn’t trying to stick it to anybody. He just wants to drive the car.
One thing I didn’t notice until later: as the movie begins, Kowalski is trying to run a blockade into California. As he approaches the roadblock, he passes a black sedan going the other way, and a flashback begins that makes up the rest of the movie.
The black sedan is the car he delivers to Denver. It’s like the entire movie is a huge loop, with Kowalski unable to do more than drive. Which, as it happens, is all he seems to want to do – stay in motion.
Barry Newman, who plays Kowalski, has been in a ton of stuff, and was very good in a movie I enjoyed a few years ago, 1999’s The Limey. Here he’s aloof but likeable, and comes across as a really decent guy. Vanishing Point is worth checking out if you have some time.
I finally saw all of Fight Club last night, maybe 5 years after I saw the first half. The verdict: From the start through 90 minutes, it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. From there until the end, well, it’s still pretty good. The last hour or so just sufferes by comparison with the tremedous beginning.
For those who haven’t seen it, a corporate drone (Ed Norton) is having difficulty sleeping, which is easily solved by attending support groups for maladies he doesn’t actually have. Unfortunately he spots another tourist, Marla, which sends him back to The Land of the Half-Awake.
Where he meets Tyler Durden, who does what he wants, says what he wants, and doesn’t give a crap about the consequences. After his apartment is blown up, the narrator ends up bunking with Tyler. And they start beating each other up for fun. Pretty soon they find some others who need a good fight, and the Fight Club is born.
Then things get weird. And goes off the rails.
The whole “Project Mayhem” thing just takes the story too far from where it starts – although it does spawn some pretty funny scenes (“You said you would definitely say that!”). But there’s not enough Tyler and especially not enough Marla, who seems to have lost much of her bitchy malevolence.
Plus I hated the ending.
Still, it has to be one of the top five movies of the last 20 years or so. Four stars and a stick of celery.
I was talking about the new Star Wars movies (episodes I, II, and III) with a friend of mine at work today, and why they were never as good as the originals (IV, V, VI). Almost by accident I mentioned how the new episodes had more going on in the background than the foreground. What I meant was, if you watch almost any of the scenes, you’ll see people, vehicles, and all sorts of business going on behind the main action.
Then it occurred to me that this was the problem with the movies themselves in a nutshell: the background had become more important than the foreground. Lucas was more interested in filling in the blank spots in his grand galactic history than he was in telling a story about these people at this time.
But all that really did was diffuse the story and distract from the main characters. If Lucas had resisted the geek’s desire to be complete, to fill in every single detail, he might have been able to see where the drama really lay, and to make us see it, too.
Instead we got a cartoonish reflection of the earlier, better movies.
There’s a school of thought that every new crime novel needs to hit the ground running. You need a gun on page 1, a shot on page 2, and a body on page 3. I don’t subscribe to this theory.
But DAMN!! I just finished reading Warrant for X, a book by Philip Macdonald featuring his sleuth Anthony Gethryn. It’s a veddy veddy British book and was published back in 1938, when the world was a slower place – but 50 pages before the book gets going? Almost a hundred before anything interesting happens? Come on, man, hop to it!
Actually I’ve been reading a lot of “Golden Age” mysteries lately. Don’t really know why – I guess I just enjoy the whodunit form. For the past year or two I have had an almost pathological aversion to reading new stuff and as a result I’ve spent most of my money in used bookstores lately.
Not all on British aristocrats, though. I just bought a batch of “Hardman” books by Ralph Dennis. The first one? Pimp For The Dead. I say, sir.
Speaking of tedious. So I finally got around to seeing Children of Men. I am a fan of Clive Owen’s work, and I really wanted to like this movie – but I really, really didn’t. The action scenes, which were generally not amped up but were presented in a “you are there fashion”, were extremely well done, but they were islands in a sea of dullness. Widely seperated islands.
I think the biggest problem was I didn’t have any sympathy for the future world presented. There was never a point when I could say to myself, “Yeah, the world could turn out like that.” Unlike something as far out as Blade Runner.
On the other hand, I also saw Ocean’s 13 not long ago, and it was a terrific movie, as much a comedy as a heist picture. The plot was really irrelevant – in fact, I think you could cut up the first three movies, assemble the scenes at random, and no one could tell the difference – but the style, the music, the energy of this movie was infectious. It was immensely entertaining, not self-important or indulgent. It rocked.
I finally saw Terry Gilliams Brazil the other day, only 20-odd years after it came out. One of the best movies I’ve seen in a while – as evidence, I’m still thinking about it three days later.
Brazil tells the story of Sam Lowry, by day a lowly clerk in the department of records, a cog in the massive machine of state. But when he sleeps Lowry dreams of being a knight, a rebel who fights for what’s good and true. And he dreams of an angel. It’s when he finally meets this dream woman that his life goes off the rails.
This movie draws obvious inspiration from Orwell’s 1984, but where the state in that book was all-knowing and all-powerful, in Brazil the state is just as efficient as in real life.
Unlike 1984, there’s a happy ending of sorts. In Orwell’s book, Winston Smith decides that the only free land that the state can’t control is the space between his ears – his mind is his own. But he’s wrong. In the end Big Brother owns even that.
But the superstate in Brazil is like 1984‘s bumbling little brother, and when Sam realizes that he’s wrecked his life and several others, when he realizes that his quest to be himself and to rebel against the state will cost him all he has, he flees to the only place he has left.
He flees into his own mind.
And lives happily ever after.
POSTSCRIPT: I was watching a Tivo’ed episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation last night, and fast forwarding through the commercials, when for some reason I stopped to watch one. It was a new Visa commercial, where shoppers spin and twirl in perfect synchronicity – until one of them pays with a check, and the whole clockwork procession grinds to a halt.
The original commercial was set in a diner to the song “Powerhouse”. This new commercial is set at the florist’s. As I listened to the music, I realized it sounded familiar. A few more notes and I thought “Holy CRAP!” – the song was “Brazil”.
So, as a melody for a commercial that showed people happily acting as cogs in a machine, they chose the theme song from a movie about the dehumanizing effects of modern life. I suspect someone at their ad agency has a subversive sense of humor.