Marathon Maker: What the Hell Am I Doing Driving in LA?

With glamorous lifestyles, beautiful beaches, and the home of Hollywood itself, Los Angeles is the setting of some film’s all-time greats. From action greats like Die Hard and Speed to Hollywood love letters in the form of Singin’ in the Rain and The Artist, the LA landscape has been given the spotlight in ever-changing ways ever since becoming the backdrop for film noir.

For this marathon, we’ll be looking at a very particular facet of LA: its night-life. Which, of course, is full of terrible people doing terrible things. Because LA is a living dream by day and a cesspool by night. The following movies trawl the streets finding everything from neon clubs to murder and drugs. Let’s see how each one tours the city, and see if I can make it so you never trust a stranger trying to lend you a ride ever again.

Collateral (2004)

Collateral

Let’s start with Michael Mann’s Collateral, the second of his own LA two-punch, with Heat. While the latter is a brooding crime thriller that saw De Niro and Pacino finally meet, the former is a more intimate affair that offers almost the exact opposite. Cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) is toyed with by hitman Vincent (Tom Cruise), who share the bulk of the movie together as Max unknowingly ferries Vincent from job to job. Often forgotten are surprising offerings from Mark Ruffalo, a detective trying to catch up with Vincent’s devastation, and a pre-No Country breakout Javier Bardem, the crime lord who hires Vincent. Everything is captured with typical Mann flair, though the true joy is Vincent’s calm control mixed with Max’s civilian panic. the further into the city the two go, the more things start spiralling out of control, as things oddly reflect the binary level of success one can obtain in LA. Vincent is the star, with (in a twisted sense) a glamours job and a wealth of success. Max is the nobody, shuffling while dreaming of something more and, when terrible circumstances thrust him into the limelight, he’s given a chance to shine by stopping the carnage Vincent brings to the streets.

Drive (2011)

Drive 2

Let’s flip the script on the LA civilian, from Jamie Foxx’s Max to Ryan Gosling’s unnamed driver in Nicolas Winding Refn’s gorgeously rendered Drive. The driver is, strangely, the ultimate nobody – capable and trustworthy but extremely isolated. He drives getaway cars, he performs stunts for Hollywood, he works in a garage. Cars are this man’s life, and there really is little else. Giant, sweeping shots of LA show his vehicle in a sea of others, but we know he’s far from ordinary. There are two perceptions of the driver in the course of the film. One is the ‘white knight’ who falls in love with a waitress (Carey Mulligan’s Irene) and wants to protect her and her son. The other is a psychopath willing to do whatever it takes to set things straight. These two men are only ever shown together in a breathtaking elevator scene that sees both the extreme passion and violence possible and we’re left to make what we want of him. By the film’s close, the city has chewed him up and spat him out, though we’re unsure if there’s anywhere else for him to run to.

Nightcrawler (2014)

Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler is, in many ways, an unsettling film. Pioneered by some of Jake Gyllenhaal’s best work, it turns a critical eye on the media landscape that Los Angeles epitomises, as well as the unfortunate job culture that many young people are thrust into. Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom can’t stop talking – or, rather, legitimising everything else he says and does. He is an always-on job interviewee, with answers that cover all possible bases and an irritating diplomacy only found in those that want, in no uncertain terms, for things to turn out their way. And for things to go Bloom’s way, more accident need to happen on the roads and in the homes of the public, and he needs to capture it all on film. Everything from LA is here, in one perverted way or another. Bloom’s video technology grows, though he’s capturing human tragedy to earn his keep. The camera-work of Hollywood is twisted into a peeping tom, seeking out wounds, bones and blood under the belief of ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. Fame is there to be had, in the form of the welcoming smiles of morning news reporters who comfort their audience while showing images of brutality. And the brutality is everywhere. Highways and mountain trails. Neighbourhoods of both scarcity and affluence. No-one is safe, especially when Bloom takes it upon himself to start making the news just so he can get a good shot.

Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner

Now, I don’t think it’s strange to admit that I’m one of those people that doesn’t need much of an excuse to talk about Blade Runner. Everyone, whether they agree with it or not, knows the legacy that it has left behind for the science fiction genre, but I promise not to gush too much. Fresh out of scaring the hell out of us with Alien, Ridley Scott brought his retro-fitted technological landscape back down to earth as Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) seeks out to retire a rogue batch of replicant androids. And thank goodness he did. So much of Blade Runner is focussed on discerning what is real. Replicants believe themselves to be human, until there are confronted by their terrifying limitations and seek to extend their lives. J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) creates life-like toys, animals are artificially created and seen as exotic commodities and advertisements dominate the streets and skyscrapers all around the city. Is there any way this story couldn’t be told in Los Angeles?

Marathon Schedule

Run-time:
Collateral – 2 hours
Drive – 1 hour 40 mins
Nightcrawler – 1 hour 57 mins
Blade Runner – 1 hour 57 mins

Total – 7 hours 34 mins

With our marathon focus of Los Angeles after dark, there’s no way you’re starting this one with daylight outside. Prepare this one for a Winter month, ideally, or be prepared to take it in the early hours. Either way, you’re grabbing takeout. Because there’s no way you’re not watching psychopaths and hitmen drive around town without trusting someone to drive by to deliver your food. Just make sure to tip the guy. He does knows where you live.

Let me know if you try out What the Hell Am I Doing Driving in LA? in the comment section below!

Treasure Planet (2002)

Treasure Planet

“spirit of adventure”

Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brian Murray, Emma Thompsons and David Hyde Pierce

The space pirate landscape of Treasure Planet makes for a grand adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale. Everything has a touch of futuristic-old-fashioned and the scale is naturally massive. Buried treasure pales in comparison to an entire planet worth of riches and galaxies sparkle like glistening oceans to portray an environment well-travelled yet difficult to traverse. Besides aesthetically, it doesn’t venture too far from other retellings and a mid-movie sidekick addition is occasionally grating. Overpowering everything, however, is a contagious sense of wide-eyed ambition. I can only wonder what grand adventures we could have seen if this wasn’t an adaptation.

John Silver: Look at you! Glowing like a solar fire. You’re something special, Jim. You’re gonna rattle the stars, you are!

Further Reading:
Tom Robinson et al. “The portrayal of older characters in Disney animated films.” Journal of aging studies 21.3 (2007): 203-213. available from Research Gate here

Chris Pallant “Neo-Disney: Recent developments in Disney feature animation.” New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 8.2 (2010): 103-117 available here

What do you think of Treasure Planet? Leave a comment below!

Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)

Hobo with a Shotgun

“neon nightmare”

Directed by Jason Eisener
Starring: Rutger Hauer, Molly Dunsworth, Brian Downey and Gregory Smith

Hobo with a Shotgun is far from my usual tastes. Low-budget and large violence seldom grips me and characters feel like rag dolls being messily flung around. However, what is undebatable is the film’s wonderful 80’s vibe, topped with an angry but not uncontrollable performance from Hauer. Music is electronic, colours are over-saturated and it does a damn fine job of replicating a style that many other movies fail to pass off as authentic. It’s clearly a movie made with care and of surprising heart, even if that heart ends up getting ripped out and set on fire.

Drake: When life gives you razor blades, you make a baseball bat… covered in razor blades.

Further Reading:
Film School Rejects’ SXSW review available here

Clark Collis’ article for Entertainment Weekly ‘Hobo With a Shotgun: How a $150 fake trailer became the year’s maddest movie’ available here

What do you think of Hobo with a Shotgun? Leave a comment below!

Lost In Translation (2003)

Lost in Translation

“moment of weakness”

Directed by Sophia Coppola
Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi and Anna Faris

There’s a very special kind of love on display in Lost in Translation. Tokyo transforms into a bizarre version of Rick and Ilsa’s Paris, where landmarks stir no emotion and translations remove detail from the world. It’s a movie concerned with trying to understand the unknown as Charlotte (Johansson) is paralysed by her future and Bob (Murray) is broken by his past. Though there’s a fair share of moping, between them, in Tokyo (and perhaps only for a week or so) they help tell each other that everything’s going to be okay. And that moment trumps any soppy, grandiose gesture.

Charlotte: Let’s never come here again because it would never be as much fun.

Further Reading:
Eduardo Urios-Aparisi’s ‘Dramatizing Intercultural Communication: Metaphors of City and Identity in Film‘ from Intercultural Communication Studies XXII: 3 (2013) available here

Tessa Dwyer’s ‘Universally speaking: Lost in Translation and polyglot cinema’ from Linguistica Antverpiensia, New Series–Themes in Translation Studies 4 (2005) available here

What do you think of Lost in Translation? Leave a comment below!

Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (2015)

Tomorrowland pin

“counter-counter-culture”

Directed by Brad Bird
Starring: Britt Robertson, George Clooney, Raffey Cassidy and Hugh Laurie

With vibrant colours, globe-trotting chases and brilliant visual effects, Tomorrowland is a healthy injection of optimism ready to reinvigorate a generation of young people in the information age. Resting in the middle of this light-hearted, family romp is a legitimate, critical jab at our apocalyptic media landscape. Tomorrowland is not somewhere our characters can escape to; instead a call for bygone ingenuity. The perfect analogy is found in Frank’s (Clooney) childhood makeshift jetpack. Does it do anything revolutionary? No, but the sheer excitement and spirit raised by its sights and sounds are too captivating for that to matter.

Jenny Newton: It’ll take a long time. A real long time. What if you get all the way up there and there’s nothing?

Casey Newton: What if there’s everything?

Further Reading:
Michael Goldman’s ‘Picturing Tomorrow’ available from The American Society of Cinematographers here

Tomorrowland Analysis: There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow, Just a Dream Away post from TheLovePirate.net, available here

What do you think of Tomorrowland: A World Beyond? Leave a comment below!

Episode 9: Stream If You Want To Go Faster

ELM Ep 9 Title

Story and Ben return in a new ELM episode, this time looking at the impact of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have on our movie watching habits. Does streaming change the way we buy movies? How much stock do we still put in physical media? And how does original content from streaming services change we way we look at long-form storytelling? There’s only one way to find out, give us a listen!

Other highlights include looking into the WWE Network, how streaming service catalogues rotate and Story’s incorrect opinion of Batman films.

Click the player to give us a listen and get in touch at elmshow@hotmail.com!

Download this episode (right click and save)

Storytelling, Scale and Spectacle: Deliberations on Fury Road

Mad Max Header

Much discussion has been made of Mad Max: Fury Road and its visual style, which lead to (some would say) surprising nominations from award bodies. The fact that BAFTA and the Academy Awards are nominating the film and its director, George Miller, is tremendous news for its fans and I don’t think anyone can come away from Fury Road without saying that it looks fantastic. However, I find myself frequently (though far less fervently) siding with some of the film’s detractors. The detractors I’m referring to observe Fury Road’s story as an incredibly simple one, and this has the consequential effect of minimising the impact of the action on display. Put in crude terms: I, and many others, wonder if enough actually goes on in the film for it to warrant being seen as a great one.

The ‘Priorities’ of Film

Now I’m not saying I feel the need to like the film more than I do. In the end, sometimes all it comes down to just how warm and fuzzy something makes you feel. But what interested me was that many of the film’s fans replied to narrative criticisms from the approach that Fury Road excels past its minimal story because “film is a visual medium”. This phrase is factually true, of course, but in terms of how you can view and observe film, I’ve found myself over the last few years valuing story and character portrayal over the visual aspects. The vast majority of my favourite scenes are conversations between small numbers of characters. I have a great interest in crime and courtroom dramas, wherein the gradual reveal of information and the changing attitudes and actions of characters as these reveals unfold takes centre stage. Film is, to me, a storytelling medium first and foremost. Then a theatrical one (as a vehicle to deliver powerful acting performances and allow fictional characters to be brought to life), followed by a visual one.

Perhaps the clearest way of me illustrating this is my reaction to the ending of The Usual Suspects (which, for the record, nails all three of these factors).

Throughout this sequence, what tops everything, for me, is the realisation that an entire story has been fabricated and a cop was fooled by an unsuspecting man that was in control the entire time. Second is Kevin Spacey’s transformation from a frail suspect leaving the police station to the criminal mastermind getting away with his plan, simply through facial expression and changing the way he walks. Finally, the masterful editing recalls quicker than your own mind the lies you were fed and their true sources. It hijacks your train of thought and illustrates the scrambling mind of Agent Kujon. I appreciate all three aspects, but time after time, I find myself prioritising a film’s efforts in the aforementioned order.

I thought Dredd did a riveting job at delivering a simple story with exciting visuals and backed by highly enjoyable performances from Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby. So why does Dredd complete the trifecta whereas Fury Road falls short? It’s a matter of scale.

The Effects on Story when Scale Changes

Dredd takes place in Mega City One, a bustling metropolis with sky-high crime. We see Dredd ride through the city, take out some hoodlums and then move on to Peach Trees, the tower block which must be stormed to arrest the villainous Mama. It’s a simple story told on a small scale, and its works as a way of keeping the character’s goals clear (they should always be moving up the tower block) and evolving Thirlby’s Judge Anderson, who toughens and smartens up the further into the journey she goes as Dredd is teaching her. Contrast this with Fury Road, in which we start with Max who is captured on the wastelands and taken to the Citadel. He becomes mixed up in the plot of Furiosa wanting to liberate and escape with Immortan Joe’s wives. From a structural standpoint the films are similar, but the details of the universe around them are very different.

Mega City One landscape from Dredd

While Dredd’s world shrinks to deal with Mama’s cronies and civilians kept in fear from her rule, Max and Furiosa’s world stretches out. They’re pursued not just by Immortan Joe (ruler of the Citadel, the source of the area’s water supply), but also his allies The People Eater (mayor of Gas Town) and Major Kalashnikov (ruler of The Bullet Farm). With three warlords all controlling their own supplies and caring for the citizens of their respective areas, surely we should’ve been able to learn more about their relationship with each other, and if Furiosa can manipulate it in some way. Furiosa drives her war-rig out past a swamp and she learns that ‘the Green Place’ she was pursuing is gone. The grand trek out into the wastelands of Mad Max has been for nought. It’s a powerful moment, but when the band of misfits feels almost hopeless, why does Max feel the best course of action is to attempt to beat Immortan Joe back to the Citadel, rather than seeking out help elsewhere?

It seems a shame for us to see the hive of activity that is the Citadel and the beautiful and chaotic wastelands that surround it and, when it becomes do-or-die for Furiosa and her friends, simply retrace their steps back when we know there are other camps to be found close by (illustrated by People Eater and Kalashnikov responding so quickly to Joe’s call for help). To me, the lesson of taking a stand and not running away from your problems isn’t as interesting for Furiosa than nurturing her diplomatic skills between the other warlords and creating a more harmonious landscape would have been.

I will always respect film’s roots in visually conveying information. That’s how it started, way back in the 1890s, with film being used scientifically to document life around us. But relatively quickly, filmmakers began to tell stories with their films. People on-screen moved from boarding trains and leaving factories to visiting the moon and diving underwater. With tremendous creativity, pioneering special effects and aesthetics that still hold an almost dream-like quality to them, directors started to tell stories. Basic ones at first, with the visual spectacle at the forefront, but stories none-the-less. It’s this era of filmmaking that I’m reminded of by Fury Road, as its action and world are rendered with vibrant colours and titanic music. There’s a primal aspect of film that action, dance and apocalyptic movies display on a regular basis but I’ve noticed that this regularly falls by the wayside if the story and characters fail to grip me. Fury Road’s characters didn’t completely fail, but they held my hand rather than had me by the throat, and considering that’s how asserting its visual style was, I can’t help but think it’s something of a missed opportunity.

The Visual and the Physical

Returning to the statement that ‘film is a visual medium’, this would seem to suggest that the techniques used to display Fury Road’s story more than make up for (and are ultimately more imprtant than) the story being told, itself. Much attention, quite rightly, has been given to Fury Road’s practical effects, stunts and costumes. The most effective way to bring a world to life on film is to actually create as much of it as possible, as audiences generally appreciate genuine interaction between objects and actors much more than artificially created ones.

Interestingly, this is not a statement that I have heard being used to defend the narrative shortcomings of another incredibly visual film released in the past year: The Revenant. Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant has garnered a general reputation of being a well constructed but hollow film. Many have found the story to be lacking, and it can be described as an endurance test that fails to illustrate emotional connections between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass and his family, meaning the loss of his family is not emotionally earned. However, it can be argued that a theme for The Revenant as a whole is for emphasis to be placed on the physical, rather than spiritual. Glass isn’t vindicated when he finally reaches Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald (the man who abondoned him and killed his son), and he passively sends Fitzgerald on to be killed by Indians rather than exacting his own vengeance. When he sees a vision of his deceased wife, there’s nothing left for him to drive towards. His quest is nullified when Fitzgerald takes a bloody beating, but reminds Glass that nothing will bring his family back.

For the entire film, Fitzgerald displays a constant devotion to the physical world. He wants to keep the animal pelts saved from the initial Indian attack so that he can be paid. His callousness towards Glass comes from wanting to do what he feels none of the other men can, put Glass out of his misery and get home safely. Fitzgerald’s method of survival is based only on what he can see and touch, rather than Glass’ inspiration drawing from memories of his family. Both achieve some level of success, but at the end of the day, Fitzgerald can always earn more money whereas Glass will always lament his family’s loss. Glass’ family pushes him towards survival, but once he achieves it against the elements, everything feels empty. As empty as we do at the start of the film, when we’re introduced to tragic characters without enough time to care for them. There isn’t anything left for him to do but gaze through the screen, at the audience, in an attempt to affix himself to something physical.

Even looking into the film’s much-reported production, as much as possible things were kept authentically physical. It was shot with natural lighting, in extreme temperatures, with a wealth of long takes and we’ve all heard of what Leonardo DiCaprio put himself through. His performance is largely being praised for the physical stress he placed on his body, rather than how well the character Hugh Glass was realised. Obviously, the bear attack isn’t authentic (which would have brought a new wave of publicity to the film) but so much attention from The Revenant (both behind the scenes and on-screen) is placed on the physical and visual, rather than the emotional and spiritual, why do many describe it is a movie that ‘is trying to impress you’, opposed to Fury Road which simply does?

The Expected Payoff

Furiosa desert shot from Fury Road

Could the difference in consensus opinion between these two films be a matter of expected emotional payoff? Are we supposed to demand less from Fury Road’s spectacle due to its position as a blockbuster, than The Revenant’s spectacle of a man overcoming nature while seeking vengeance in an award-season released drama? If so, this would explain the support for Fury Road that is not seen for The Revenant despite both films utilising different visual possibilities to great effect. Fury Road is loaded with beautiful colours. The oranges and reds from sand and explosives bounce off of the blue and white of the sky and Joe’s ‘war boys’. Shots are accelerated and decelerated with frantic editing to emphasise both uncontrollable speed and pin-point marksmanship during its cataclysmic chase scenes. The Revenant, on the other hand, sticks with natural lighting, and the greens, greys and browns of the mountains, with long, sweeping takes establishing several camera set-ups without cutting. A slower, laborious approach rather than Fury Road’s ‘shot in the arm’ excitement.

Is Fury Road less demanding, prioritising an audience’s visceral drive for entertainment and fulfilling it with the same visual flair as The Revenant, and should therefore be seen as something of an ‘over-achiever’? Is its visual success elevated as it brings to life a fictional, sci-fi world rather than fantastically photographing the real one? Or perhaps it has started a call for a greater level of artistry from modern-day action films; a blueprint to be built on to show that from a typically ‘popcorn’ foundation, greatness can be achieved. Thankfully, trying to decide means watching George Miller’s film all over again.