Skip to main content

I could suck you right up my tailpipe.

Two-Lane Blacktop
(1971)

(SPOILERS) For a movie with speed as its driving force, at least ostensibly, Two-Lane Blacktop is remarkably meandering. It’s one of those counter-culture classics I never had much urge to investigate, and that reticence appears entirely warranted. It’s a capsule curio, passingly interesting, lightly engaging, but never in danger of earning the praise and attention lavished on it at the time.

Indeed, the picture was at the vanguard of New Hollywood, of short-lived freedoms – carte blanche, even – in the wake of Easy Rider bewildering execs with its unprecedented success. It’s thus expectedly non-conformist in respect of script, character and direction. Lew Wassermen (he of Brazil) hated it and reputedly wouldn’t splash out any advertising dollars (this was the spell that generated the likes of The Last Movie, The Hired Hand and Drive, He Said, all commercial failures).

Monte Hellman’s career was eclectic to say the least, his post-Corman cachet (this and Cockfighter) subsuming into B-exploitation fare and the occasional AD work (Robocop) or producer credit (Reservoir Dogs). Screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer meanwhile, brought in to rework Will Corry’s story, would be similar untutored, with Walker (from the very definition of undisciplined, Alex Cox) and Little Buddha (one of Bertulocci’s bigger busts) on his call sheet. Talking of Cox, his Moviedrome introduction to the picture (in August 1989) referenced Wurlitzer’s overarching theme, that “you can’t escape whatever you’re trying to escape from, and the lesson of the road is that there is no lesson of the road”. Which sounds like something Peter Sellers’ Fellini-spoofing film director would have come up with in After the Fox.

And the cast they assembled, James Taylor’s only movie role proper as The Driver, Dennis Wilson – the Beach Boy who fell in with Manson, then later drowned – as The Mechanic, and Laurie Bird – an ingenue who’d OD on Valium at the other end of the decade – as hitcher The Girl, is offbeat to say the least. They offer a low-key naturalism – often minimalist on the musicians’ part – contrasting with Oates’ flamboyant goofing as GTO, the Pontiac GTO driver who challenges the pair to a race in their Chevrolet 150 (I say that like it means something to me – it doesn’t).

The names Driver, the Mechanic and the Girl – and GTO, really – as well as suggesting a certain Walter Hill movie a few years later, indicate a degree of pared-down iconography, something Ebert was evidently referencing when he claimed GTO was “the only character who is fully occupied with being himself (rather than an instrument of metaphor), and so we get the sense we’ve met somebody”. Which is true enough. Taylor is a presence, but offers no personality, while Wilson barely registers much of the time. Bird’s restless waif offers more vitality than the pair of them together, and she seems to spend half her time napping.

Oates meanwhile, is a jovial yarn spinner. Rather like Heath Ledger and his facial scarring in The Dark Knight, but in respect of an auto, he offers a different account of himself and his motor to every new person he encounters, occasionally meeting resistance (the Driver tells him “I don’t want to hear about it… It’s not my problem"), or outright rejection (“I said stop the car” instructs AJ Solari’s Tennessee Hitchhiker, registering something very off-beam about GTO’s freeform rambling anecdotes). There’s even an instance of GTO being tested, as Harry Dean Stanton’s gay Oklahoma cowboy gets fresh with him.

So it’s a curiosity. As a race (announced as such, to Washington DC), it’s nothing. As a road movie, I’ll take the same year’s Vanishing Point (also very much of its moment) or Duel any day. It’s clearly an influence on later lo-fi movies, as Richard Linklater, a big fan, affirms (“To watch this movie correctly is to become absorbed by it”). Yeah, okay. Well, pardon my incorrectitude, dude.


Popular posts from this blog

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

I’m just the balloon man.

Copshop (2021) (SPOILERS) A consistent problem with Joe Carnahan’s oeuvre is that, no matter how confidently his movies begin, or how strong his premise, or how adept his direction or compelling the performances he extracts, he ends up blowing it. He blows it with Copshop , a ’70s-inspired variant on Assault on Precinct 13 that is pretty damn good during the first hour, before devolving into his standard mode of sado-nihilistic mayhem.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

When we have been subtle, then can I kill him?

The Avengers 6.16. Legacy of Death There’s scarcely any crediting the Terry Nation of Noon-Doomsday as the same Terry Nation that wrote this, let alone the Terry Nation churning out a no-frills Dalek story a season for the latter stages of the Jon Pertwee era. Of course, Nation had started out as a comedy writer (for Hancock), and it may be that the kick Brian Clemens gave him up the pants in reaction to the quality of Noon-Doomsday loosened a whole load of gags. Admittedly, a lot of them are well worn, but they come so thick and fast in Legacy of Death , accompanied by an assuredly giddy pace from director Don Chaffey (of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts ) and a fine ensemble of supporting players, that it would be churlish to complain.

Tippy-toe! Tippy-toe!

Seinfeld 2.7: The Phone Message The Premise George and Jerry both have dates on the same night. Neither goes quite as planned, and in George’s case it results in him leaving an abusive message on his girlfriend’s answerphone. The only solution is to steal the tape before she plays it. Observational Further evidence of the gaping chasm between George and Jerry’s approaches to the world. George neurotically attacks his problems and makes them worse, while Jerry shrugs and lets them go. It’s nice to see the latter’s anal qualities announcing themselves, however; he’s so bothered that his girlfriend likes a terrible TV advert that he’s mostly relieved when she breaks things off (“ To me the dialogue rings true ”). Neither Gretchen German (as Donna, Jerry’s date) nor Tory Polone (as Carol, George’s) make a huge impression, but German has more screen time and better dialogue. The main attraction is Jerry’s reactions, which include trying to impress her with hi