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Directed by William Friedkin, and starring William L. Petersen, Willem Dafoe, and John Pankow, To Live and Die in L.A. is a stylish, sun soaked, gritty crime thriller that follows Secret Service agent Richard Chase (Petersen), as he and his new partner John Vukovich (Pankow) try and take down a counterfeiter (Dafoe) who killed Chance’s last partner and best friend (Michael Greene).

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Right off the bat, To Live and Die in L.A. exhumes an aesthetic brought upon by its setting, direction, and music (written and composed by band Wang Chung). Friedkin’s direction takes us through a bright but seedy city; at times flashy, at other times calculated, often taking time to let the scene linger as we contemplate what’s in front of us on screen, whether it’s a sunrise, a traffic jam, or Dafoe’s face. The film hinges strongly upon its style, from its unique ways of telling the time and date of a scene to the aforementioned soundtrack. However, whereas in a lesser film the style might be compensating for a weak story and characters, the style only enhances the story, characters, and themes featured in To Live and Die in L.A.

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Chase is already a bit unhinged, but when his former partner gets killed, it drives him closer to the edge, and Petersen sells it frighteningly. This is a man who lives for the thrill, and won’t let government bureaucracy get in the way of his revenge. While at first you can see where he’s coming from, it becomes apparent as the film goes on that Chase isn’t very stable, leading to a series of dangerous and deadly events. It also doesn’t help that Chase looks and dresses really cool and pulls of a leather jacket and sunglasses like so few can.

Chase is contrasted by his new partner Vukovich, who’s a much more moral and ethically sound person than him. Not only that, but he seems much more nervous and uptight, causing him and Chase to bicker at times, which only gets worse as the story develops. Pankow is exceptional as Vukovich, providing a foil for Petersen’s Chase, whether it comes to the ethics of their work or if a situation gets too hairy. You can see the despair in his eyes when shit goes from bad to worse, and how it starts to break him as a person. It’s a testament to the performance that I was expecting Vukovich to be just a lame sidekick but ended up completely invested in his character and arc by the film’s end.

And let’s not forget Willem Dafoe as Rick Master. What could have been a straight up bad guy is played with both relish and nuance by Dafoe, providing us with a character who’s much more complex than he himself lets on. Whether he’s gazing at his work (art pieces and counterfeit bills), hanging with his partner in crime (Debra Feuer), or taking care of business, there’s never not a scene that Dafoe doesn’t own. He’s both fun and compelling as a man who’s well known in his field, and if you try to get one over on him, you won’t succeed. His interactions with everyone he comes into contact with vary, but all carry a sinister weight. It also helps that Dafoe can just use his face to intimidate.

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Running throughout the film from start to finish is music by none other then Wang Chung. Aside from a couple other tracks used in the background here and there, this is Wang Chung’s show, whether it’s traditional songs or instrumentals that set the mood. Some motifs are repeated, but it’s all in service to the film’s aesthetic. Whether it’s the title song or an instrumental, the music sets the mood as the camera shows us the City of Angeles in all its sunny glory.

It’s that sun and music that runs in tangent with the narrative, and almost helps offset the things we see on-screen. To Live and Die in L.A. goes to dark places, and the film’s setting seems to almost exist as a way to contrast its characters and their stories with the sunny and bright city they live and die in. But by being such noticeable contrasts, they end up being just as grim as everything else in the film.  To Live and Die in L.A. is not straight forward, and it’s this concoction of music, narrative, and character that results in a thrilling but dower film, one which can be just as fun to watch as it is depressing to experience. Once all is said and done and the end credits are taking you through a tour of the city with Wang Chung accompanying, you’ve only just begun to experience the sensation that the film leaves on you. Because To Live and Die in L.A. doesn’t just cut and run–it hits you like a blistering sun.

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It’s not easy coming out the week after Jurassic Park, but that’s exactly what happened to the John McTiernan directed, Arnold Schwarzenegger starring meta-fantasy-action-comedy-family film Last Action Hero. It tells the story of action movie fan Danny (Austin O’Brien), who gets sucked into a Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger) film via a magic movie ticket. What ensues is a hilariously ridiculous adventure that involves both the exaggerated movie world of Slater’s Los Angeles and the exaggerated real world of Danny’s New York City.

It all starts with the Columbia Pictures logo, which then transitions to the end of Jack Slater III, which is being watched for the who-knows-how-many-th time by Danny at a local movie theater. He’s the type of kid who’d rather skip class to watch an escapist action flick, and even daydreams Schwarzenegger playing the role of the Prince of Denmark in an action packed Hamlet (one of the best sequences in the film). Danny’s also got a chance to see the newest Jack Slater film early, but not before projectionist friend Nick (Robert Prosky) hands him a magic movie ticket that just so happens to get Danny into the film.

From here, the film switches over to the exaggerated movie world of Los Angeles, California, where the police station is big and clean, full of every type of cop imaginable (including a cartoon cat), a police chief who gets so angry he breaks the windows of his office, and where each and every woman is attractive. All the while, Danny’s hanging a lampshade on every thing in sight, including plot details that lead him and Jack to the film’s main villain, Benedict (Charles Dance). And once Benedict gets a hold of the magic ticket, that’s when Jack and Danny’s troubles get real.

If this all sounds a bit silly, rest assured, it’s incredibly silly. It’s also messy. One of Last Action Hero‘s biggest strengths is also one of its biggest weaknesses: it makes fun of action movies while also attempting to be an action film itself. Scenes where Danny recognizes actors in the movie world helps establish that the rules of the real world not only don’t apply, but are broken regularly. There’s many points where things just happen or are the way they are because “it’s a movie,” the sort of excuse many an action film has used in defense of whatever happens on-screen. Due to the insanity that happens, the film could be accused of using that excuse too much or taking advantage of it, which is also part of the film’s charm, as things like a cartoon cat (among other things) are “excusable” because “it’s a movie.” And due to the movie world already being so comically exaggerated, just about anything that transpires on-screen can be excused.

But what about when the film switches gears again and Benedict and Jack fall into the real world of New York City? This is where things get even weirder because now we’re dealing with action movie tropes and cliches differently. For one thing, the action now becomes more grounded, to the point where there’s very little of it, in comparison to the violence and explosions of the movie world. You could excuse a regular movie goer for finding this section of the film very boring, since most of what occurs is Jack interacting with real people, finally realizing he’s a fictional character, and getting upset over the revelation that all the pain and misery he’s received was all for the sake of an audience’s entertainment. Even in the movie world, we see that Jack isn’t just some invincible action hero, that he has feelings and emotions that make him human. So when he enters the real world and sees that he’s played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s devastating.

Benedict, on the other hand, relishes in the fact that he can transport from the movie world to the real world, thanks to the magic ticket. He loves that, in the real world, “the bad guys can win.” It’s Benedict who demonstrates the “realities” and exaggerations of this movie’s real world by witnessing and committing crimes without consequence. While Jack Slater IV is a film-within-a-film, Danny’s real world is just the film’s version of the real world. The key word here is “version”, since Last Action Hero, no matter what’s going on and where, is still all a fictional motion picture. So while the movie’s movie world has rules that are exaggerated, broken, and played with, the movie’s real world has rules that are also exaggerated, broken, and played with. New York City is ridiculously crime ridden, citizens don’t care that someone’s been killed, and it’s constantly raining. Just like in the movie world, the real world has its defining characteristics on full display, as the movie takes full advantage to contrast the two worlds through exaggeration.

While Last Action Hero dabbles in and mixes with meta humour and satire, these elements are extremely subjective and may or may not all come together for everyone. However, if there’s one thing that most can agree on, it’s the film’s soundtrack. The film’s score was composed by Michael Kamen, and features guitarist Buckethead, creating something that’s symphonic but “rocking,” thanks to the combination of orchestral and electric sounds. It blends well with the other (more popular) side of the film’s soundtrack, which is composed of licensed tracks by rock artists. Songs such as AC/DC’s “Big Gun” (a soundtrack exclusive) and Alice in Chain’s “What the Hell Have I?”, work well both in and out of the film, and the other artists featured fit nicely within the film’s soundtrack. My personal favorite is Tesla’s “Last Action Hero,” a love letter to the type of heroes Jack Slater embodies.

The film also does good on the acting front, something that may go unnoticed among all the ridiculous antics that surround the characters themselves. Austin O’Brien does a really great job, whether he’s pointing out movie tropes or explaining to Jack that there’s some things you can do in the movies that you can’t do in real life. Schwarzenegger himself does a great job playing both himself and the character Jack Slater, presenting a fun character who also has depth. What’s great about Slater is that he could have stayed two-dimensional, but it’s to the film’s benefit that it makes Slater more than just a punchline. When serious moments between Danny and Slater occur, they have more weight to them due to their character’s being more than just composites. Danny isn’t just a kid who loves action movies, but someone who so desperately wants out of his real world life and uses the world of the movies as his escape. And Slater isn’t just an action movie character, but a guy who, when he realizes what he is, decides to be better than what he was originally written as. It’s this incidental journey of self-discovery that changes the lives of both the fictional hero and the real-world fan, who both realize that there’s more to their lives than what’s been written for them.

The film’s supporting cast is also excellent, especially Charles Dance as Benedict, who plays deliciously evil both comically and threateningly. There’s also Frank McRae as Lt. Dekker, who often speaks in angrish (complete with steam coming from his ears), F. Murray Abraham as John Practice (which sort of doubles as a cameo), and Bridgette Wilson as Meredith Caprice as Whitney Slater, Jack’s daughter. Then come the copious cameos, some of which exist in the movie world as quick gags, and some of which exist in the real world as quicker gags. In the case of these cameos, one might argue they’re unnecessary, but their needlessness, like many other things in the movie, can be seen as “part of the joke.”

I’ve mentioned how the film’s greatest strength is also its weakness, and much of its dual fantasy-action-parody-meta-film-satire nature is due to the different story and scriptwriters, resulting in a film that isn’t strictly action, isn’t solely parody, isn’t too satirical, but is almost always comedic. Whether any, all, or only some of it comes together is wholly dependent on how accepting or unamused the potential audience member will be. And Last Action Hero can be seen as being ahead of its time, especially since more “family friendly” and PG-13 rated action films have come out in the years since. Yet Last Action Hero also is a film of its time, from its cameos, tropes, cliches, and portrayal of people and places. Even so, it’s wildly entertaining, funny as hell, and ultimately sweet at its core. Last Action Hero may not be for everyone, and may always struggle to find an audience, but just like Jack Slater, it’ll always be there when we need it.

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WARNING: SPOILERS

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is very much just that: a story set in the Star Wars universe. It’s a spin-off, directed by Gareth Edwards and starring Felicity Jones, Rogue One is about a group of rebels who steal the plans for the Death Star. That’s it. Seems straightforward enough, and it mostly is, but as I sat and watched the film, I realized more and more how unnecessary it was. I didn’t need to see how the Death Star plans got shared; I didn’t have to know who the people who got the plans were. But I could have cared and could have found it worthwhile had the film given me a reason to. As it stands, Rogue One doesn’t really justify its existence well enough and ends up being a bland sci-fi action film that just so happens to be set in the Star Wars universe.

It starts with the characters: Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is our protagonist and she never makes an impression. She’s the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the man who helped make the Death Star, and he has a failsafe in place to blow it up. This info is transported by a former Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) who takes it to a guy (Forest Whitaker) who took care of Jyn as a child, before unwillingly abandoning her. They meet, she gets the message, she’s the only person who actually sees the message and knows about the plans, and then her and the rest of the rag tag team of rebels get out of there before the Space Nazis destroy everything. Throughout this film, Jyn is mostly expressionless and barely a character, even when she does seem to be shedding some tears at certain “emotional” moments. Even by the end, whatever feelings or empathy we as an audience should have aren’t there because she never shows enough emotion or empathy to make us care. And she’s the main character!

So what about that “rag tag team” I aforementioned? Well, it consists of a man with a funny accent named Cassian (Diego Luna), the defector pilot (who’s so forgettable that this’ll be the last time he’s mentioned), a blind warrior named Chirrut (Donnie Yen), his best friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and a robot with more personality than any of the characters I just mentioned (Alan Tudyk). The man with the funny accent is pretty bland himself, maybe even more so than Jyn; I forgot he was even a character once the movie ended. Yen’s Chirrut is actually pretty cool, being a spiritual center for the team, as he basically acts like a monk and fights with a stick (for only one scene, unfortunately). Wen’s Baze isn’t big on the spiritual stuff and he carries a big gun; he too is an amusing character and I liked the way both he and Yen played off each other.

Then there’s the robot, K-2SO, who’s clearly the best character in this team of rebels. He’s got charm, personality, and funny moments, though I don’t think all his quips are funny and sometimes he says or does something that’s more cringe inducing than laugh inducing. Still, he’s a good character and I almost always enjoyed him when he was onscreen. He even shows a bit of depth at times, and his death scene, in particular, I think is well done and fairly effective.

Speaking of death, the death scenes for almost all the main characters end up being mostly well done. I found the death scene for Chirrut and Baze to be one of the best scenes in the movie; they may not have had much depth as characters, but I still liked them enough to find the moment sad. And the scene of Cassian and Jyn’s death is also visually well done, though I found it emotionally lacking.

Which brings me to a character who I actually was invested in, a character I actually enjoyed seeing each and every time he was on screen. That’s Ben Mendelsohn’s character Orson Krennic. He makes every single scene he’s in count, whether he’s trying to intimidate someone, speaking to higher ups, or getting outraged. His performance and character kept me engaged, much the same way previous Star Wars villains have.

And speaking of previous Star Wars villains, Grand Moff Tarkin shows up as an actual character, sporting a computer-generated face and head that looks fantastic for one second and terribly stilted and artificial for ten. I’m not sure why they couldn’t have just used an actor who almost looks like Peter Cushing instead, but I was impressed enough with the technology being used that I was more fascinated than distracted.

Speaking of distractions, this film has a lot of fan service, which makes it feel sort of disingenuous as a result. A nod or reference to some of the previous films is okay, but an out-of-place and out-of-nowhere five-second cameo by R2-D2 and C-3PO isn’t charming or amusing, it’s distracting. They have nothing to do with this film’s main plot, yet they randomly show up for a few seconds just because. It was around this time that I became disengaged with and thrown out of the movie, even as the film’s final act was underway.

While this final act contains a great Darth Vader moment, it should have been the only Darth Vader moment. Other than trying to get the plans at the film’s end, Vader has no reason to show up at any point during the film. Krennic does go to visit him at one point, but the entire scene is more unnecessarily awkward than anything else. His voice sounds weird and his costume looks fake, none of which is a problem during Vader’s final scene where he plows through rebel soldiers in an effort to get the stolen plans.

While most of the film’s problems are story based, it does have a few other issues. The film’s cinematography isn’t very good, resulting in a usually bland look that is never complimented by the action or visuals. This also extends to the film’s use of anamorphic widescreen, which is almost completely underutilized, to the point where I felt as if the film should have used a different aspect ratio. One of the very few shots in the film I actually love is when the Death Star’s ray is being tested on a city, showing Krennic and others viewing a glowing explosion. Another scene I love is a quick one where we see soldiers on the ground as they approach the enemy. This few-seconds shot in particular made me wish this was more of a war film, one where we really focus on the soldiers on the ground.

Not to say Rogue One isn’t a war film, or doesn’t have war film elements, but that leads me into what is probably the film’s biggest problem: It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. It isn’t a traditional numbered Star Wars film (the lack of an opening crawl makes that perfectly clear), but it isn’t as unique or different as it thinks. It tries to be its own sort of darker, grittier, less-saturated-colors story that just so happens to take place in the Star Wars universe, but because it does take place in that universe, it never goes all the way with it. It flirts with grit when our heroes are fighting Imperial troops in different locations, but throws random fan service and space battles that leer it towards more familiar Star Wars trappings. And what we’re left with is a sometimes boring, sometimes amusing sci-fi action film that proves that the story of a group of rebels getting the Death Star plans didn’t need to be told. If this film wasn’t about or related to Star Wars, I’d be much more forgiving of it’s shortcomings and think it’s a cool idea. But it isn’t that: It’s a Star Wars spin-off, and as far Star Wars stories go, this one’s just okay.

 

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Based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, and directed by Denis Villeneuve, Arrival is just that: the story of life, the lives we live, the lives we have and will live, and what that means to humanity. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, the film deals with the military acquiring the help of Linguist Louise Banks (Adams), as well as theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner), to communicate with an extra-terrestrial arrival of global proportions.

Mystery is at the core of what makes Arrival so engaging, since no one knows who these extra-terrestrials are or why they’ve come to Earth. The film doesn’t immediately show the aliens or their ships, either, instead choosing to follow Louise as she learns about the arrival, gets contacted by the military, and goes to one of the alien sites. It’s a carefully paced film, often times leaving the camera running on a landscape or using no cuts. It’s a science-fiction drama, one where character takes precedence over visuals or effects. Not to say the visuals or cinematography isn’t impressive, but the story itself and its characters are definitely the focus.

Speaking of the story, while I won’t go into it in much detail, I will say it surprised me with how simple and straight forward it is. While the film can be described as “thinking man’s sci-fi”, it does require one to be thinking as they’re watching. Arrival only works if you brought your brain with you, utilizing it and letting it work as you take in and analyze all that’s happening on screen. The story goes in some interesting places, exploring how we as a people react to an unexpected event or crisis and how we’re supposed to work together, as well as how important language is to our survival as a species.

And speaking of character, Amy Adams does an excellent job as Louise, who is also the film’s clear star. Whitaker and Renner are also great, but this is Adams’ show, and it shows. From the opening moments to the final minutes, she’s the magnet that keeps the film energized, as she showcases curiosity, sadness, determination, and hope. Renner’s character Ian is a bit different, showcasing comic relief and wanting to apply logic to the situation. This makes Louise and Ian an interesting team, as they work together to learn what it is the alien visitors want and have to say.

As previously mentioned, the film goes along at a careful pace, and this includes the way info is distributed to other characters and nations, as we see the ships and how other nations around the world react. However, the focus is always with Louise and the site she’s at, along with the people she has to work with, and this is probably the film’s biggest strength, as it allows the film to stay concentrated on what’s most important. With another story and another director, Arrival could have been a film that divided its focus among so many other nations and locations, characters and situations. Instead, it sticks primarily to one group of characters, their interactions with those other nations, and how they themselves try to makes sense of the extra-terrestrials. It’s this singular focus that makes the film so much more personal than many other films dealing with beings from another world, resulting in an impactful pay off.

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This review was originally published in the March 26th, 2014 edition of the Florida International University newspaper The Beacon.

Directed by American auteur Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel (written by Anderson from a story by Anderson and Hugo Guinness, and inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig) tells the story of Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) telling the story of his life as a hotel bell boy under the command of M. Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes). A story of murder, fascism, dessert, and a valuable painting, it is told to a young writer (Jude Law) thirty-six years later in the very same hotel where Moustafa as a young man (Tony Revolori) worked.

The story jumps through three main time periods, starting in 1985 where the author of The Grand Budapest Hotel (Tom Wilkinson) is telling the audience the story of how, in 1968, he went to the Grand Budapest and came across its owner (Moustafa), who then told him his story regarding the hotel and the incident that lead him to owning it, among other things.

Preservation is a key theme that runs throughout Grand Budapest, as Gustav (Fiennes) and Zero (Revolori) must not only keep the hotel in line but also keep a bequeathed painting out of the hands of dangerous individuals. However, it isn’t just the painting that the characters attempt to preserve. During the course of the film, war is on the brink and a fascist group gets closer to taking over the country. While one could easily link this with actual fascist regimes of the 1930s, it works on its own as a representation of how preservation of anything in life is sometimes impossible. The character of Gustav, for example, wants to not only preserve his hotel and its standing, but his own way of life, one which seems to be in contrast with his contemporary time. Contrast this with Zero, whose way of life before the hotel was abolished by war, so he could only look forward with the understanding that not everything in life can be preserved.

While the painting’s ownership and its importance are what drive the plot along, it also works as a simple McGuffin that allows the filmmaker to take notice of other important things that occur during the on-going chase. We see the relationship that forms between a concierge and his pupil, as Gustav and Zero must help one another in different ways. We also bear witness to the ruthlessness of the villains Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and Jopling (Willem Dafoe) as they go out of their way to silence certain individuals in their quest for the painting. There is also the ever important romance that blooms between Zero and Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), which does in-fact play a large role in the film’s overall story.

Wes Anderson’s writing talents are top notch in Grand Budapest, from showing aforementioned character interactions to playing around with dialogue, ideologies, and parallels in a fictional country. He’s able to come up with many, many characters that are always important to some degree, whether it be someone who can mastermind a break out (Harvey Keitel) to someone who can help our main characters out of a jam (Bill Murray). Even though many of these characters get little screen time (Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton), their importance (as well as their performances) are never undermined or underutilized; it’s their importance to the plot that elevates their statuses from merely being cameos.

On the technical side of things, Anderson uses excellent models and sets (as well as the country of Germany itself) to help create the world of Zubrowka that houses all these characters. This world comes off as colorful and whimsical, like a sort of make-believe country that serves as a microcosm of 1930s Europe. Anderson is also well known for using widescreen and taking advantage of every part the wide frame offers. While a total of three aspect ratios are used in Grand Budapest (1.37 in the ‘30s, 1.78 in the ‘80s, 2.35 in the ‘60s), majority of the film is presented in the Academy Ratio (1.37, essentially 4:3). This can be seen as a drastic change for the filmmaker (and for how his films are typically portrayed), but Anderson uses this ratio for all its worth, never wasting a shot or keeping things unnecessarily hidden. Anderson is able to use this square frame masterfully, and even in the scenes shot in 2.35 (a ratio more commonly associated with his films) he utilizes every frame that the screen allows (one scene in particular of the ‘60s concierge popping into the frame for a sole second is priceless).

The Grand Budapest Hotel triumphs as Wes Anderson’s best written and best directed film yet, with excellent performances that flesh out the characters and the world that surrounds them. At the center of all the colors, the architecture, the eccentrics, and the humor (both light and dark), lies a picture full of warmth, memories, and soul – It stands as Anderson’s most complete portrait.

How do you make a lazy, uninspired, and boring superhero film? You make your characters uninteresting, while also failing to develop them. You shoehorn in a villain that had absolutely no reason to be in the film, at any point, and could have easily been written out. You have a promising first act, a badly paced second act, and a horribly rushed third act, featuring a stupid climax and an even stupider ending. On top of that, you make the entire film unexciting, from the very first opening logo, to the close-on-title credits. You make the Josh Trank directed Fantastic Four.

Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a scientific genius who somehow knew how to make a teleporter in his garage as a kid. Years later, with the help of his good friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), their teleporter has gotten more and more developed, attracting the interest of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Chathey), who has been working on a teleportation program himself. He gives Reed a full scholarship to whatever school he is apparently in charge of. His adoptive daughter Sue (Kate Mara) also attends and works there, as did Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), who has a thing for Sue (or Susan, as he likes to call her) and agrees to come back to work on the teleportation project he started. Reed, Victor, Ben, and Dr. Storm’s son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), try the teleporter for themselves, resulting in a very catastrophic situation. Soon enough, those that were affected by the teleportation and its explosion are being looked over by the government, and after some trials both on and off the field, they have to face a grave threat that could be the end of their world.

These threats, these trials, and these characters would all be so much more interesting if there was motivation and enthusiasm behind them. Without spelling it out, the main villain’s motivations are non-existent and the other characters seem to do things with little enthusiasm. You’d think teleportation would be cool and exciting, but Reed, the most excited guy in the room, seems to barely give a crap. In fact, no one in this film really cares about anything, especially Victor, who’s presence is pointless, so much so that if he had been written out of the film, the end result would be 90% the same. Also, these characters are supposed to be a family, or at least a team, but nowhere is there any comradery and there’s barely any family dysfunction, which are main components of the Fantastic Four.

I’m not sure whether I should blame the actors for anything, but I might as well, since they don’t help this film. Pretty much everyone (save for maybe Cathey) just doesn’t work like they should: Reed is uninteresting, Sue is barely a character, Johnny has few character traits, Ben has no character whatsoever, and Victor might as well be invisible. On top of that, some of the dialogue is so bad and boring, which when combined with phoned in acting, results in either something stupid or something silly. There’s a moment where Reed quickly explains that they have to stop the world from being destroyed, and it comes off as being both silly and stupid, and it lead me to wonder: What movie am I watching?

Another huge issue is the lack of excitement or fun in this movie. I could continue to say it’s boring, but I’m not sure if words can truly express how sleep inducing this film is. When has a superhero movie ever been sleep inducing? Well, having an unexciting montage certainly helps, as does the already mentioned boring characters and acting. But shouldn’t it be at least sort of exciting when they have their powers and do superhuman things? As it turns out, the opposite is true: These characters become even less interesting once they’re able to do things such as look silly by stretching limbs, be on fire, and create force fields. They don’t do anything besides complain, pretend to be concerned, or show that they can do superhuman things. And speaking of things, Ben, who is now a rock monstrosity, is also pretty unexciting; he not only whines and hates himself, but he also doesn’t do a whole lot besides take up space. Ben being an interesting character, showing how he has to deal with his situation, and actually exhibiting emotions of one whose life is forever changed would have helped, but sadly none of this occurs. Also, just as a quick note, the action in this film is not only minimal but lacking in excitement (a scene involving Reed and some soldiers lasts only one minute and ends laughably).

Now, to be fair, the film has some cool concepts, but they’re executed in such a way that implies the want to get things over with. Ironic, considering there’s no urgency throughout the film until the finale, which is in fact too urgent as it comes and goes as quickly as a badly written third act. I’m sure the film would have been at least a little bit better with a longer run time, but as it is, we have not-so developed characters, a villain that is completely one-dimensional, and bad pacing, featuring little to no action, no chemistry between characters, and moments that lack anything fantastic.

Full disclosure: I’m not sure a single review can explain the sensory experience that is Two-Lane Blacktop. What is supposed to be a simple road movie turns into a poetic art piece set to film that transcends its initial set-up to seek deeper and more meaningful questions about wayward individuals and the purpose of existence in a time of disillusionment and self-discovery.

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Two-Lane Blacktop was released in 1971, directed and edited by Monte Hellman, produced by Michael S. Laughlin of Universal Pictures, with a screenplay by Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry (based on a story by Will Corry). The film stars James Taylor as The Driver, Dennis Wilson as The Mechanic, Warren Oates as GTO, and Laurie Bird as The Girl; this is the only film Taylor and Wilson ever acted in.

Now, where to go from here?

Male obsession is a major theme that runs through the film, with The Driver and The Mechanic being the owners of a 1955 Chevrolet which they race amongst other cars as a way of getting money (or “bread” as they call it). These two seem to enjoy racing, and they display their automobile’s power through these races; these races end up being an extension of their love for their vehicle, almost as a way of proving or expressing their passion by way of demonstration and action. Of course, these two also seem to enjoy driving around the country almost as much as they enjoy racing; their aimless trips show how they themselves are a bit aimless, wandering around and essentially being, as one character points out, nomads. However, they seem unaware and apathetic in this regard, driving around, racing, and doing what they want because they can, because they want to, because it’s what they love to do; in essence, this is what they live for. This is where the existential themes kick in. The Driver and The Mechanic know what they like to do, so they do it, never allowing anyone or any peoples to influence their life decisions.

The acting of James Taylor and Dennis Wilson is surprisingly believable for the type of nameless characters they play. The Driver doesn’t show much emotion, appearing very concentrated, focused, and neutral in his facial expressions. What The Driver becomes is an enigma, someone who clearly loves what he does but never explains why. This goes just as equally for The Mechanic, a man who never seems to drive the ’55 Chevy, but, as his name implies, deals with its engine and overall body. The Mechanic is also livelier than The Driver, speaking and interacting with others more often. Both The Driver and The Mechanic represent two types of car lovers: the ones that love the feel and need for speed by way of driving, and the ones who love to take care of the cars they own, never truly needing to take them out for a spin. It’s also important to note that The Driver and The Mechanic never seem to interact with one another as friends; instead, they both seem to act as associates, partners who share the same obsession and interests, but aside from that, have nothing else to talk about. By way of giving our protagonists no names and only characteristics we are presented with a representation of the type of people who live the existence of someone who not only deals with automobiles as an obsession and way of life but is free to do what they want simply because they choose to do what they want.

The character only known as GTO seems to represent the person who doesn’t know much about a specific type of sub-culture but pretends to be a part of it anyway – In other words, a phony.

GTO goes about the film in a 1970 Pontiac, an automobile that The Driver himself says is quite common amongst drivers (we see the vehicle twice before being formally introduced to GTO himself). GTO, of course, thinks his vehicle is good enough to challenge the ’55 Chevy, and decides to suggest a race against The Driver and Mechanic. With the reward being the two vehicle’s pink slips, they set off to Washington D.C., making it a part of their on-going road trips across the United States of America. GTO becomes the victim of picking up every hitchhiker he comes across, which usually doesn’t go well for him; why he picks up every hitchhiker he comes across is up to infinite debate. Through these pick-ups, however, we are able to see that GTO is just a great big phony: When given the chance to speak, GTO tells his passengers how he came into possession of the car he’s driving, what he used to do, and where he plans to go – not one of these tales is ever the same as the last. GTO seems like the kind of person who is either insecure of himself or in need of acceptance; him wanting to prove how cool and fast his GTO Pontiac is could easily be an example of the latter “acceptance” theory. The fact that he is middle aged only supports the idea that GTO represents a type of person who wants to stay hip, who wants to impress people, but who ultimately does not truly understand the Route 66 sub-culture or even the car he drives (he himself flat out admits to one of his first passengers that he doesn’t know every technical aspect of his vehicle).

Then there’s The Girl, the only female that joins The Driver, The Mechanic, and GTO on their road trip. She seems to represent a free spirited, nomadic California girl, one who voluntarily invites herself into the ’55 Chevy and voluntarily rides with GTO whenever she decides upon the action. If anything is clear it’s that The Girl has more freedom and choice than any of the male characters, doing what she wants when she wants, only being limited when in the passenger seat of either the Chevy or the Pontiac. She also brings on the affections of all three of the main male characters in different ways: The Mechanic does it and gets it done efficiently, The Driver does it in the more traditional slow-paced way, and GTO just talks about how crazy he is about her and how they should drive down to Mexico, or Florida, or New York. The Girl is never put into the background, always having a presence amongst the males even if it’s just so they have someone else to talk to. While she may not represent a specific type of person, her broader representation does allow for her character to be the most free and driven by choice, as shown in the scenes where she sometimes abandons the males and does her own thing.

The cinematography and direction in Two-Lane Blacktop is top quality excellence, taking advantage of its widescreen angles to show us everything that surrounds the characters, be it people, plains, establishments, or other vehicles. Even the close-ups are done with elegance, at no time ever making it obnoxious by way of only showing the face, but instead showing us everything that surrounds the characters (sunlight, the car interior, a bar or restaurant). The tracking of the automobiles is also excellent, always seeing where they are and where they’re going, even when they move rapidly or unexpectedly. Something that is also worthy to note is the lack of music: Two-Lane Blacktop has no musical score, only relying on a few licensed tunes that prop up now and again. This lack of film score only helps the film achieve its poetic grace by way of focusing only on what is happening on screen via the visuals and the sounds. Because of the lack of soundtrack, the ambient noise that occurs is very important to the film, allowing us to hear the nuances of an automobile’s engine and the chatter of people at a bar or restaurant.

If there is anything to take from Two-Lane Blacktop it’s this: You can never go fast enough.