Monthly Archives: November 2011

Random Movie Round Up #4: The Way of the Gun

After winning an academy award for his work on The Usual Suspects (1995), writer/director Christopher McQuarrie hadn’t expected to run into much trouble getting his next movie made, but soon discovered that the studios weren’t prepared to offer him any projects with much creative control. Not wanting to be pigeonholed as a crime writer for the rest of his career he hoped to work on a story of a different nature. It wasn’t meant to be. In the end, Benicio del Toro (of Suspects fame) managed to convince McQuarrie to make another crime film. The crime angle would grant him at least some degree of over the project’s direction. And, I think del Toro has a thing for characters on the ragged edge of society, so it all works out. In a nutshell, that’s how The Way of the Gun (2000) came to be. Also, everyone seems to hate it. So, it’s up to me to convince you to see the film anyway.

Ryan Phillippe and Benicio del Toro play Mr. Parker and Mr. Longbaugh (pseudonyms, referring to Redford and Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), two small time criminals who are looking for their one shot at making bank. They offer little justification for this, other than Mr. Parker’s opening monologue that explains how the two of them had nothing to give to the world, their options narrowing down to minimum wage or petty crime, ‘so we stepped off the path’. One can relate. That one shot presents itself when they’re down at the fertility clinic, donating ‘a shot of come’ to make ends meet (apparently that nets you three grand). Parker overhears a telephone conversation that informs them of a young girl who’s carrying a wealthy couple’s baby. The young girl, Robin (Juliette Lewis), is to receive one million dollars for her services. Parker and Longbaugh decide it’s time to stop jerking around (sorry) and kidnap the girl. Juliette, as always, is awesome and nobody does the mentally-unstable-trashy-girl-thing better than her. It’s no different here and she’s a joy to watch.

Of course, nothing is ever easy. Robin’s benefactors appear to be the worst variety of bad guys you can imagine, and they have two particularly well trained bodyguards (Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt) watching over their investment. The scene where the first attempt at the kidnapping is made, is markedly different from what you usually see. It’s very civilized, deliberate and strategic. Both parties, kidnappers and bodyguards, are highly trained and leave no margin for error. When it becomes clear that neither party is prepared to give up, they part ways in a very controlled manner (for a short time). The gunfights play out in a similar fashion and are among the most entertaining I’ve ever seen.  Parker always makes sure Longbaugh is covered, there’s lots of suppressing fire, the sound effects are a feast for the ears and Del Toro looks awesome sporting his GALIL. There’s a definite similarity to Michael Mann‘s films, except there aren’t as many grey suits. Most of that strategic nature can be traced to the involvement of McQuarrie’s brother, a former navy seal, who was on board as an adviser. The same deliberate element can be found in the film’s dialogue. There’s logic and reason to The Way of the Gun‘s conversations. It’s well written, which makes sense, considering McQuarrie also wrote The Usual Suspects.

The Way of the Gun

Many of the film’s detractors would have you believe it’s some kind of Tarantino rip-off. But, I think it’s safe to say there’s more to crime films with decent dialogue than just Tarantino, and The Way of the Gun definitely does it’s own thing. It’s a fun modern interpretation of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and like the stars in that film, Del Toro and Phillippe have a great dynamic going on screen. Even though these modern day variants have no morals, they’re just as like-able. Philippe is especially fun to watch as he picked this film in an effort to change the direction his career was going (and who can blame him?). Apart from that, the film just looks good and has that un-quantifiable not-quite-nineties, but-not-quite-two-thousands-either thing going on. Perhaps Sarah Silverman’s getting sucker-punched is part of that aesthetic. The Way of the Gun, look it up.

Bellflower: muscle cars and heartache

Evan Glodell Bellflower

It’s funny how film budgets work. When they get small enough, really amazing things (can) start to happen. It forces the film maker to get creative. For instance, in the final scenes of Cameron’s 1984 Terminator film, they basically made a T101 head out of aluminium foil to crush in the hydraulic press. The finishing touch was provided by one of the crew members blowing cigarette smoke from off camera. Low-tech, but it looked great. Though by comparison, Terminator had a much larger budget than a smaller production like Shane Carruth’s 2004 Primer, which was made on a truly microscopic budget. Just 7000 dollars. The result? Best time-travel film ever made, hands down. As such (along with other vectors like age, studio interference, talent and luck) budget plays an important part in making a great film. I think any sensible person would agree it’s telling how the man who once made the most beautiful neo-noir vision of the future, is now best known for making Dances With Wolves in Space (though Cameron’s not losing any sleep over it). But, enough Cameron talk, we’re here to discuss the latest marvel made with little to no budget: Bellflower. The talented writer, director and star of the film, Evan Glodell, decided to drop everything he was doing to make a film with friends and family. At times, the financial situation was so dire that someone’s mother had to come by with much needed spaghetti to stave off starvation for a few more days. I guess it’s that kind of desperation and dedication that gives this picture the gritty edge money just does not buy.

Bellflower 2011

At its core, Bellflower is a love story. And it’s one that hits hard. It also has unexpected bursts of violence, shotguns, flamethrowers, obsessions for the apocalyptic and a beautifully menacing 1972 Buick Skylark dubbed ‘Medusa’. At first glance the combination doesn’t make much sense, right? Muscle cars and heartache. But somehow, Glodell makes it work. With the exception of a few troubling forward flashes, Bellflower starts out simple enough. Woodrow (Glodell) and his best friend Aiden (Tyler Dawson) discuss the prospect of living in a post apocalyptic wasteland and decide it would be much better if they came prepared with a fire spitting muscle car. A common train of thought for men of a certain disposition. When they’re through daydreaming, Aiden decides it’s high time to help Woodrow get laid. He says ‘Okay, listen. We’re going out tonight and if I even catch you looking at someone – I don’t care if it’s a fucking guy – you’re going to hit on them.’ Which is a great line, it immediately illustrates that this is the kind of friend every man should have. And so, the guys go down to a local bar where Woodrow meets Milly (Jessie Wiseman). Through some of Aiden’s clever maneuvering, Woodrow engages in a cricket eating contest with Milly. The Chromatics play their version of ‘Running up that hill’ as Milly handily beats Woodrow. It takes a couple of days before Woodrow works up the courage to make his move, but he manages to convince Milly to be his girlfriend. Milly already hints at the odds of this lasting for any length of time and sure enough, it doesn’t. The scene that marks the end of their relationship is so shocking that I’m sure Glodell must have drawn on a fair chunk of personal history (misery) to create it. You also have to respect the actors in that scene, they’re really going for it.

It’s only then that Bellflower‘s downward spiral begins in earnest. I can’t be completely sure, but I think much of what we see in the better part of the film is Woodrow’s revenge fueled fantasy. Woodrow experiences a kind of personal apocalypse, thought it’s not nuclear war that’s responsible, but a woman. Which is, of course, worse, since it’s so much more personal. At this point, the film’s aesthetic starts to kick into high gear. Glodell built a one off camera using home made parts, Russian lenses and whatever else he could get his hands on. The camera is unique. Apparently it’s capable of producing tilt-shift and all kinds of weird perspective altering effects with any sort of lens. This aided to Bellflower looking spectacularly different from anything else you’ll see this year and as I’ve said, it’s a perfect fit for the film’s surreal turn for the worse.

Much like in an old Ed, Edd n Eddy episode there are no figures of authority that could disrupt the flow of events. Except, these events are nothing so joyous as a never-ending friday afternoon, it’s a wasteland and I like that. The flamethrower is a great symbol in that sense. It’s so far outside the realm of society that I couldn’t imagine crossing the street with one in any sort of civilized place. Yet, Bellflower is about that unbridled and misguided attempt of reaffirming male pride and has a very original way of showing that. But even if you’re not a fan of Mad Max and flamethrowers, there’s a very good reason to go see this film: it’s one of the greatest depictions of friendship in film since Lethal Weapon or Fight Club. As I was watching the film with a friend of mine he remarked ‘Wow, Aiden really revealed himself to be the hero of this story, huh?’ Yes, it’s a beautiful thing and tough to pull off, but Glodell does it wonderfully.

Forza Motorsport 4 Nip/Tuck

I’ve finally been able to actually sit down and spend some more time with Turn 10‘s latest iteration of Forza Motorsport. Turn 10 released the first Forza game on the original Xbox in 2005, at the very end of that console’s lifecycle. Since then, they’ve managed to release a new Forza game every two years. I wouldn’t say these are huge leaps over each preceding game, but through its consistent improvements, the franchise has surpassed Gran Turismo as king of the racing simulation genre for quite some time now. Especially given that Polyphony delivered a relatively disappointing ‘next-gen’ effort with GT5 after over six years of development (the previous GT game was released on the Playstation 2 way back in 2004). Even though Forza Motorsport 4 is the newly crowned king of the genre, it’s not perfect. A number of crucial things are still missing from the formula.

The most important of which is definitely a decent career mode. A racing game’s career mode used to be rather important, but since the advent of online racing against human opponents on Xbox Live, the career mode is increasingly neglected. Which is a shame, because I’ve always preferred a steady rise through the ranks of sports cars, instead of immediately jumping into a Le Mans prototype to race against superhuman fourteen year-olds. The standard by which all other career modes should be measured, is the ‘Kudos World Series’ found in Project Gotham Racing 2. Ironically, PGR2 was also among the first to boast a complete suite of online capabilities, but that didn’t keep (the now defunct) Bizarre from pouring heart and soul in the game’s single player component. The player progresses through ‘Series’, where you use everything from a Mini Cooper S in the ‘Compact Sports Series’ to a Mercedes CLK-GTR in the ‘Ultimate Series’. The cars were all hand picked and provided a very distinct personality for each new league. Forza Motorsport 4, by contrast, rewards the player with cars from a certain category (whenever a level is gained), but doesn’t tie these together in a specific class. The game offers challenges based on the contents of the player’s garage. There are unique events, of course, but the player simply picks a race from a calendar when he or she owns the required vehicle. Since you can pretty much do whatever you want, it’s very flexible, but lacks the concentrated feeling of having someone ‘write’ a path through car history (or hierarchy).

Mercedes-Benz 190E
Mercedes-Benz 190E (Photo courtesy of Mr Nightman - NeoGAF)

Most critics argue that the game, instead, emulates the ‘sterile’ nature of car brochures. But sports cars should make the hair on the back of your neck stand up! They should be celebrated as living, breathing objects. At least… in my opinion. The intro, narrated by Jeremy Clarkson, does speak of the beauty of fire-breathing V8’s (and the driver as an endangered species). But the game doesn’t quite live up to that initial promise. Clarkson offers his thoughts on a small selection of cars in the ‘Autovista’ mode, but it’s extremely limited (just 25 cars). When you view these games as a car encyclopedia, I much prefer Gran Turismo‘s detailed descriptions for each of its cars (such descriptions are entirely absent in Forza 4).

Nevertheless, in the end, a lot comes down on a racing game’s core driving mechanics. And that’s where FM4 absolutely shines. In an interview with the game’s creative director, Dan Greenawalt elaborates on a collaboration with Pirelli (the best tire manufacturer… in the world):

For Forza 4, we took an entirely new approach to our tire simulation. This time, we threw all of the old data away and asked Pirelli to provide us with all-new data for everything. Pirelli did custom tests on a huge variety of tires to cover all of our cases—including tire width and height, compound, inflation pressure, heat, wear, sidewall height, load, angle, etc. We then changed our system to accept the real-world data directly and without any fix-up from us at all. This means that the tires in Forza 4 behave exactly as the Pirelli test tires did, even in complex situations where multiple parameters are changing rapidly. (source)

After playing Forza 4 for a couple of hours it’s difficult to remember what the previous games felt like, but in the first few moments, this new driving model is tangibly different. It takes some getting used too, especially the game’s simulation mode (the highest difficulty for the steering parameter) is very lifelike and completely unforgivable. For instance, bluntly correcting over-steer will often result in a terrible tank slapper. A racing wheel (instead of a controller) will probably be much better suited to making heroic saves in those situations, but explaining that kind of purchase to a significant other can be gruesome. Just stick to the controller and accept the fact that you’re not going to be topping those leader boards in this lifetime. Still, the new physics are a noticeable improvement over the other Forza games.

Forza Motorsport 4 is the best racing game available right now (on consoles), but if you’re not dying for a racing sim, there’s little reason to run out and buy it. I’m probably going to burn out on this version even faster than the last one, given the ‘nip/tuck’ nature of the game’s updates and the lack of inspiration in the career mode. Writing all this has made me realize that Turn 10 has the basic framework for their franchise locked down pretty tight, now all the game needs is a personality.