Saturday, September 8, 2007

White Line Fever

White Line Fever is about an idealistic young trucker (Jan-Michael Vincent!) trying to make his way in the cutthroat and corrupt world of trucking. After he refuses to take a load of cigarettes and slot machines, he gets his ribs broken and can't find work anywhere. And then he gets a job by waving a shotgun around. You know, that old chestnut.

See, in this movie the Trucker Uprising is justified by the Evil Police being in the pay of the Evil Cigarette and Slot Machine people.

And then the movie's Roger Corman origins take over and you think the movie's going to become a big old truck chase with trucks trying to stop the Blue Mule (that's the name of the truck) and people on top of trucks with shotguns and every crash shown from multiple angles. Then Dick Miller shows up and you know you're in for a good time. Alas, after a single car crash/explosion (shown from several angles), it degenerates into long, scenic shots that eat up the running time and shocking talk about controversial issues like abortions. And then there's a courtroom scene and the movie starts being about domestic problems because exciting driving scenes cost money.

I don't know why White Line Fever rated an explicit callout in Death Proof, since there really isn't that much driving in it, and none of the stunts really struck me as something you'd feel the need for CGI to recreate. On the plus side, there's a scene where the bad guy tries to kill the hero with a forklift. So that's something.

Convoy

First things first: did you know that Convoy was directed by Sam Peckinpah? Seriously? A movie based on a novelty country song that was written for bread commercials? That's just crazy talk.

Anyway, I watched this as part of my ongoing quest to see all the movies referenced by Grindhouse, and this is one of the driving movies that Death Proof is a tribute to. You know that metal duck on the hood of Kurt Russell's car? It's from Kris Kristofferson's hood in this movie. So there you go.

I do not fully understand the Trucker Genre. This movie in particular relies on an insane cop (played by Ernest Borgnine, looking exactly like Jackie Gleason in Smokey and the Bandit) with an unexplained grudge against Kris Kristofferson in specific and truckers in general. It's not even like in Vanishing Point where the guy's speeding slowly picks up more and more police attention; Borgnine just picks a fight until the truckers punch him out. I think these movies work a little better when the police have a point, like in Cannonball Run. I don't really dig a completely irrational antagonist. Apparently in the Convoy universe, the police routinely arrest truckers for no reason, which seems like it would put a crimp in interstate commerce.

Anyway, then it's a race to the state border! And right past the state border, and now all the truckers in the country are in a big Convoy to Nowhere! And then they all turn around and go back to Texas! And then it's off to Mexico, making me wonder if these guys aren't supposed to be delivering their cargo somewhere. You can talk all you want about the Freedom of the Road, but I'm pretty sure there are schedules to be met. Truckers aren't directionless hoboes. They've got jobs! And what about the pigs in Burt Young's truck? Shouldn't someone feed them or something?

The climactic roadblock scene involves the national guard and tanks and looks more like the last scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid than a lighthearted Revenge of the Truckers flick. I blame Peckinpah. That's what they get for hiring a real director.

The Dirty Dozen

Now that's what I call a manly movie. You know you've got a tough cast when Jim Brown might not be the toughest guy in it. I never get tired of the reaction shots, because the director shares my enjoyment of Charles Bronson's steely glare and Donald Sutherland's squirrely twitchiness. I like to pretend that Sutherland's still playing Hawkeye from M*A*S*H -- I could see Hawkeye being arrested at some point. It's a little tricky, what with M*A*S*H being made three years later than The Dirty Dozen (and being set like seven years later), but I think I can make it work. Even though his character in The Dirty Dozen is a borderline idiot.

Back to the Future (all three movies)

Upon rewatching the three Back to the Future movies, I am pleased to report that I still like them. Although the first movie is clearly better.

It helps that I'm a sucker for time travel stories. I really enjoy the twisted logic involved with multiple timestreams and going back to see a previous scene from a different angle. I approve of a movie that gets out of hand to the point where one of the characters needs to break out a blackboard to explain the plot to everyone. Say, have you seen Primer? Man, that's a complicated movie. Good times.

The way I see it, there are three basic ways time travel gets used in stories. And conveniently enough, the three Back to the Future movies cover the spectrum.

The most basic kind is where you only have time travel at the beginning and the end of the story and the story isn't really about the time travel. Like in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, where the protagonist travels to another time, does some stuff, and (usually) comes back. This is the kind of story you get in Back to the Future 3, which I think is the weakest movie. I mean, I like all that train-robbery stuff, but since they've already resolves Mad Dog Tannen's thread to Doc Brown's life, they could have taken their time a little more. On the other hand, I do approve of the steam-powered time-traveling flying locomotive at the end. So that's pretty cool.

Then you get the most common kind of time travel story, where "History has gone wrong" and the goal is to fix it. That's your basic Time Tunnel or Voyagers or Quantum Leap story, and it's what happens in the first movie. Marty has to make sure his parents end up together and maybe get back home to 1985. Incidentally, one of the reasons this movie holds up is that they do a good job of establishing 1985 accurately; it's got all the goofy hair, fashion, and music that you'd use if you were setting a movie in 1985 now.

Finally, there's the full-on Time Travel Phantasmagoria, where there are multiple time loops and half the scenes end up getting overwritten by the end of the movie. There aren't a lot of movies like that (except for Primer, which more people should see, if only so I have people to talk to about what I think happens in it), but there are some science fiction stories along these lines, like Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps" and "All You Zombies—". This is the second Back to the Future movie, where the plot happens in three different eras (and you get to see the same buildings and people at different times, which is always good fun). These stories are usually pretty complicated; look at this diagram for "All You Zombies—", which is actually harder to follow than just reading the story in the first place.

By the way, the reason I decided to rewatch these movies is that I greatly enjoyed this video, which tries to put the "Enchantment Under the Sea Dance" scenes from the first two movies in context with each other. I heartily endorse this product or service.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Halloween

Last night, Rhias and I travelled down to the Drive-In to see Halloween in its natural habitat. And it was a lot of fun!

Unfortunately, the reason it was fun didn't have much to do with the movie. It's really more about lounging about on a lovely summer night, chatting with the car next to you, and discussing why it was a really bad idea to get food at the snack bar. Also talking freely about which cameo character is Sid Haig and which is Udo Kier. And which ones are Sybil Danning, Danny Trejo, or Ken Foree. That Rob Zombie sure knows his classic exploitation character actors.

(Incidentally, we actually do know the difference between Sybil Danning, Danny Trejo, and Ken Foree. It's not like we were saying, "Is that big Mexican guy Sybil Danning? She's really let herself go!")

As for the movie itself, I had some problems with it on a conceptual level. The first half is prequel material, sort of describing "how Michael Myers got that way". Except that he actually starts the movie already killing animals, so he's already "that way". Okay, no problem. But then it makes a point of surrounding him with horrible people. The first person he kills is a bully, then he offs his mean sister and vicious stepfather. So even though they want him to already be a monster (he's uncommunicative, homicidal, and already wearing a mask), he's only killing people who deserve it. He doesn't really start offing innocents for another seventeen years.

Then there's the second half of the movie. I liked that they used the same locations as the first movie (according to Rhias, who has seen the first movie many times), but unfortunately I have no idea what happened in the last 45 minutes or so, because the screen was so dark. I don't know if it was the drive-in's projector not being bright enough, the sky not being dark enough, or just a complete failure of cinematography, but as soon as night came, we literally could not tell what was going on. Is that a knife? Or a fish? Or a hand?

It wasn't helped by the action scenes all being shot in shakycam (I think), so in the unlikely event that we could make something out on the screen, it would quickly drop out of frame.

We could sort of follow the action by the screams, and by discussing it constantly. "Is she inside a wall?" "I think that's her in the foreground, with Myers in the background destroying something." "Is she under the floorboards?" "Are they in a swimming pool?" It was pretty frustrating.

My reluctant verdict: The new Halloween is not a good movie to see in a Drive-In. It kills me to say that. There was a triple (!) feature of Ratatouille, The Simpsons Movie, and Harry Potter which would have been a lot more fun.