In Cars

On Twitter, @OTooleFan was talking about some of the worst automotive disasters, like the AMC Pacer- celibacy on wheels- and the Yugo. For more of these, I suggest you read Car Talk’s Worst Cars of All Time. Now, a lot of cars stood out as truly bad, but almost any car you drove from 1973 to 1986 was like a prank an auto exec was playing on you. I had a ’76 Pinto Wagon as my first car, and the only fun I had in it was when it was parked. It was rust brown with fake wood panels, a folding rear seat and a roof rack. It looked like the Family Truckster from National Lampoon’s Vacation.

Come to think of it, the round headlights and grille remind me of my current ride, a Mini Cooper S. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. But anyway, the wagon may not have exploded like the Pinto hatchbacks did, but it was a dung cart of fun to drive. Steered like a cow, but it knocked down a parking meter I hit chasing my girlfriend, with nary a scratch. It wouldn’t go a hair above 55, which is probably why my father picked it. He had used it for lugging his construction tools around, but I recommissioned the folding rear seat for other fumbling teenage endeavors in Lover’s Lane, which for us, was a shady spot over by a railroad trestle. Despite being hindered by a catalytic converter and smog equipment that was probably a pipe filled with Henry Ford’s old sweat socks, this car wasn’t that bad. It had vinyl everywhere, but other than burning more oil than BP barbecuing a sea turtle, it ran okay after months of abuse. I replaced the steering column with a junk yard part, but it did well for a 12 year old car.

My next car was a ’79 Mustang six-banger. While this was a far cry from the horrible Mustang II era, it was put together more cheaply with lots of plastic than that Pinto. The one luxury I remember was a silly light panel that would tell you when your tail lights, head lights, or other light bulbs were out. Nice touch. It ran like a champ, and was my first Mustang. A mere eight years old, it was already rusting through quarter panels. The speedometer only went to 85mph to appease Ralph Nader, but that just made us want to pin the needle. By this point we had the wonders of unibody construction, meant to save us in accidents. My first accident bent the car in half and required $700 of repair for a little fender bender. That would be $3000 today. But it sure beats the days of my favorite car I used to own, the 1965 Mustang convertible. It had no seat belts, and a dashboard made of steel. The steering column pointed at your heart like the sword of a  bloodthirsty Mongol. To steal Jay Leno’s only funny joke, if you crashed it, they’d just hose you off the dash and sell it to somebody else.

I loved that car because it was smoking hot, Silversmoke Gray with a red interior, my first V8 engine- a 289 2 barrel carb auto. Less horsepower than my Mini has today, and awful, awful handling, but what a blast to drive- because you were constantly putting your life in your hands. The master brake cylinder only had one chamber, so any leak in the brake lines put you in a suicidal charge toward the enemy front. Sure, it had an emergency brake but the cable was frozen, so I ended up throwing the car into reverse, bouncing my nose off the horn, and suddenly going backwards. The transmission held up, amazingly enough. I could change the oil by crawling underneath it without a jack. I had to raise the power top manually, there was a rust hole in the passenger door, but I didn’t care. Because it was a blast to drive, and simple to work on. The only problems I had were gas and brake lines older than I was constantly leaking all over the place, a leaky fuel filler cap getting water in my tank, and a complete inability to back out of a parking space if there was more than a sprinkling of snow on the ground. So on second thought, thanks Ralph Nader!

Soon, cars went from simple machines, sort of like tractors, to add with sleek fins and chome bumpers shaped like tits (the infamous ’60 Cadillac and its “Dagmars” named after a Swedish comedienne’s rack). But after the muscle era faded, they became annoying household appliances, like a push-button blender with wheels. This was the era of the K car and the Yugo, when the best-loved car was… the Taurus. Shaped like Mork from Ork’s Eggship, it at least gave a passing nod to the concept of aerodynamics. Everything was made of shoddy plastic that would dry out and crumble like sawdust in too much sun. They gave us automatic seat belts that would try to strangle you, but pop off their rails and let you smash into the windshield. You may complain about daytime running lights and nanny devices, but just try finding the damn headlight switch in a car from the late ’70s. And the high beams? Try the floor, next to the emergency brake pedal. Oops, I was trying to flash my highbeams, and locked up the rear tires! What a calamity! At least nowadays, when someone plows into oncoming traffic it was because they were playing Farmville on their iPhone, and not because they pressed the wrong button.

© 2010 Tommy Salami

A jealous redhead with a big set of headlights

Christine, Carpenter and King’s disturbing tribute to the American mystique with the automobile, came out in the perfect year. In the late 70’s, EPA regulations and piss poor engineering coupled to bring us the most emasculated cars from Detroit, but by ’83 the Mustang and Camaro were nearing 200 horsepower again; there was no official Corvette that year, but in ’84 it came back with a vengeance. The Fury was long gone by then and Plymouth was mostly re-badging other cars, but the 1958 Fury was perhaps their most iconic model, other than the Road Runner Superbird. The early ’80s was also the beginning of ’50s nostalgia, culminating with Michael Mann’s excellent Crime Story TV series. The car was the perfect choice, with its massive shark fins. Only the ’57 Chrysler 300C and the ’59 Cadillacs were more impressive. The chugging hemi engine that rumbles over the credits and serves as the monster’s roar before it crushes its victims is the throaty song of the American muscle car. The car of Christine’s enemy Dennis is a 1968 Dodge Charger, the most memorable of the Dodge-Chrysler-Plymouth muscle cars at the time.
They did an excellent job in making a horror movie about a killer car, with effects that still stand up today, and a classic tale of a nerd who finds brief glory with a devil’s bargain, before it destroys him. Set in 1978, the last production year of the Plymouth Fury, we meet nerdy Arnie as he leaves his domineering parents for a ride to school with football jock and good guy Dennis, his only friend. Everything gets set up in the first few minutes as we meet the New Girl, Leigh, and the Douche Trio of switchblade bully Buddy, and his toadies Fat Fuck and The Pompadour Guy (or Pompadouche for short). Dennis, and later Arnie, have eyes for Leigh while Buddy and crew torment Arnie in auto shop. Dennis comes to the rescue but it’s three on one, and Fat Fuck grabs his nuts in a particularly brutal scene. The shop teacher catches them, and they get expelled… vowing revenge.
Dennis is played by John Stockwell, who’d show up in the underrated ’80s flick My Science Project; he’s kind of a low rent Kevin Bacon, but he’s very likeable. Just a bit bland. Leigh is future “Baywatch” beauty Alexandra Paul, and Keith Gordon, who plays Arnie, would go on to direct Mother Night, A Midnight Clear, and many episodes of the TV series “Dexter.” The real standout is Robert Prosky, who plays Darnell the junkyard owner. In a role completely different from his excellent mobster in Michael Mann’s Thief, he’s a cigar-chewing slobbish force of nature here who practically steals the show.
When Arnie and Dennis are driving home from school, nerdy boy sees a wreck parked in a field with a For Sale sign, and is immediately captivated. It turns out to be a faded red 1958 Plymouth, banged up and in need of serious repair. A scrawny, hunched-over old man like a troll from a fairy tale sits on the porch, staring into the big nothing, as Arnie starts drooling over the car. Dennis tries to talk him out of buying it, but he insists. The man says the car was his brother’s, who bought it new. He tells him the car’s name is Christine, and Arnie takes it home.

“My asshole brother bought her back in September ’57. That’s when you got your new model year, in September. Brand-new, she was. She had the smell of a brand-new car. That’s just about the finest smell in the world, ‘cept maybe for pussy.”

His parents aren’t too happy with his decision, as they make all the decisions for him; but Arnie has finally grown a pair of balls, and drives it to a local junkyard and self repair auto shop, run by Mr. Darnell. In his grimy suit and perpetual scowl, Darnell gets most of the good lines; as Arnie begins work on restoring the banged-up road monster, he mutters, “You can’t polish a turd.” Slowly the restoration project takes all of Arnie’s time; Dennis tries for a date with Leigh and is rebuffed, and spends his time playing football. One night we see Arnie go off in a blue ’76 Eldorado. Who’s driving the blue Cadillac? Does he sell his soul to the Devil? In the novel, he’s smuggling cigarettes with Darnell the auto shop owner. This subplot was left out of the film and for good reason. It’s left a mystery how Arnie first repairs Christine, which would cost a fortune, because when the car first repairs itself after the vandalism, it’s a surprise to him. We later find out it’s Darnell’s Caddy, but it’s mysterious and makes us wonder what’s happening to Arnie as much as Dennis does. I like to think Christine was slowly repairing herself as Arnie bungled his way through the job, until he was fully under her spell.
Arnie talks to the car much like many of us do when confronted with a piece of machinery that’s not working. Whether it’s Han Solo whispering to the Millennium Falcon, or Michael Bolton cursing out the printer in Office Space, we personify machines. He loses his glasses and gains confidence, and attitude. His Mom asks Dennis for help, because he’s obsessed with the car, and he senses something is off. He visits the old man who sold them the car, and finds out that the previous owner had the same obsession.

Probably the only thing my brother ever loved in his whole rotten life was that car. No shitter ever came between him and Christine, if they did… watch out! He had a five-year-old daughter choke to death in her… he wouldn’t get rid of her. He just rode around with the radio blaring, not a care in the world except for Christine.” Even Darnell remembers, “I knew a guy had a car like that once. Fuckin’ bastard killed himself in it. Son of a bitch was so mean, you could’ve poured boiling water down his throat and he would’ve pissed ice cubes!

Before Dennis can do anything, we see him at a football game. Buddy and his crew are in the bleachers, booing the home team. Dennis is running long for a pass when he sees Arnie pull up in a fully restored Christine, with the hot new girl Leigh coming out of the passenger side… and while he’s distracted, he’s slammed by a tackle and put in the hospital. Nearly paralyzed, he’s taken out of commission while Christine cements her hold on Arnie. Buddy and crew decide to get revenge on Arnie by trashing the car, and we see them sneak into Darnell’s that night to smash up Arnie’s baby. Now I’m a car enthusiast, and I tell you it hurt more watching them smash that car than any of the death scenes in this movie; and that’s what King and Carpenter are getting at with this movie. Either you’re a car person or you’re not. If you drive a Toyota, you’re probably not. Though Prius drivers get enthused in their own way. If a car’s just transportation, you won’t ever understand.
When Arnie finds his car vandalized beyond belief- it is mentioned that someone shit on the dashboard- he is of course devastated. All that work, lost. But it’s more than that. He identifies himself through his car, like many young men; it is a personal injury. A car becomes sort of a home on wheels, and invasion of it is unsettling, even if only a thin sheen of safety glass separates the inside from the rest of the world. Keith Gordon’s portrayal in this scene is perhaps the best, as the new hard-ass Arnie crumbles back to his apoplectic geek self. And his soul becomes irrevocably sold later that evening, when he looks at the wreckage with knowing eyes and murmurs, “Show me.” To the haunting sax of “Harlem Nocturne,” Christine rebuilds herself. Fenders reform, the tires inflate, crushed metal pops back to shape. Other than the incredible scenes of the car repairing itself, which were performed with plastic replicas and hydraulic pumps- the most memorable visual has to be the demonic marauding vehicle ablaze at the gas station.
Vengeance is first delivered on Fatty, who runs into a repair bay where the car can’t fit. The windshield is dark, so we don’t know if Arnie is behind the wheel, or if Christine is prowling on her own. Amazingly, the car pushes itself into the narrow alleyway, fenders crumpling as the tires squeal with demonic fury. Later, a detective tells Arnie, “they have to scrape his legs off the wall with a shovel.” But Arnie only replies, “Isn’t that what you do with shit? Scrape it up with a little shovel?” Detective Junkins drives the last year of Fury, the 1978 cop model, a nice touch. He’s played by the always dependable Harry Dean Stanton, but his cop skills aren’t all that great. I know it’s the ’70s, but you could match the paint from Christine’s fender to the corpse. Let’s just assume that possessed demon cars don’t leave forensic evidence.
The best scene is when Christine kills off the last of the two shitters- this time literally, they shit on her dash- by playing a night time game of chicken. Buddy’s driving in his ’67 Camaro when a tailgater is blinding him. He stomps on the brakes, goes in reverse, but can’t touch the car. So he races them to a gas station, pulls over and takes out his tire iron… only to see Christine plow into his ride and T-bone it into scrap metal. Before he can react, the cars, now locked together, are smashing through the service station and crushing his pals. Soon the whole place is ablaze, Christine has real flames on her fenders and is coursing after him like a living inferno.
After Leigh dumps Arnie because she nearly chokes to death in the car at a drive-in (on a sandwich, ya perv), she teams up with Dennis to try to free him from Christine’s clutches. But Arnie’s obsession is complete. As they drive the highway, he plays chicken for no reason, throws beer cans out the window, and has become the mean sonofabitch who can eat lava and piss ice cubes. Dennis lures him to Darnell’s by carving a challenge into Christine’s hood, and going there to hot wire a bulldozer. And the final duel between a demonic land yacht and a Tonka toy is something to behold, with Christine able to repair herself between clashes.
With an absolutely fantastic soundtrack that varies from whimsical to macabre, including the now famous “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers, “Pledging my Love” by Johnny Ace, “Keep a Knockin'” by Little Richard, and especially “Boney Maroni” playing while Christine crushes one of her victims, the movie manages to wink at us just enough so we’ll swallow a killer car from the ’50s. Things to notice. Arnie’s clothes slowly revert to ’50s era, including a red jacket like James Dean wore in Rebel Without a Cause. His hair and manner resemble a “greaser.” And Christine’s mileage counter goes backward through the film, as if it’s sucking the life out of Arnie. It finally rolls over to zeroes during the final battle.

I love this shot which makes it seem like the car is watching this guy.

Is Christine a horror film? Of course, but a different one. I’m eager to read the book. The movie shows the car being “born” on the assembly line, a lone custom Ford Red among the other beige models. She kills a worker who gets cigar ashes on her seats, and chomps her hood closed on someone’s hand, too. I like this addition, because it lends an urban legend feel to it, and makes us wonder if we’ll get one of these “bad luck” or worse, evil cars. Well, perhaps back in the ’80s, when cars were less electronic, and seemed possessed by gremlins. But as the final shot warns, Christine may still be out there, prowling the roads, looking for a new driver.

The Seven-Ups

Producer Philip D’Antoni gave us three kick-ass cop movies with car chases- Bullitt, The French Connection, and the lesser known The Seven-Ups. About a secret squad of elite police so named because the crooks they catch are guaranteed to be up for 7 or more years in prison, it stars Roy Scheider as the de facto leader of the squad. Reprising his role as Buddy Russo from French Connection, this is his turn to shine. And while this movie is not as groundbreaking as the story of Popeye Doyle, and is directed by D’Antoni himself, it is still one of the best cop movies of the ’70s.
The movie begins with a comic touch- Buddy and his crew are undercover at an antique shop that serves as a drug drop. They distract the owner by clumsily destroying half of the store through slapstick and pratfalls, until uniformed cops come to break things up, and find the dope. It’s a bit silly and uncharacteristic from the rest of the film’s gritty realism, so bear with it, it’s over quick. The real plot involves a pair of crooks who rob and kidnap mobsters for ransom- risky business. This puts the mob on edge, and when they find an undercover cop wearing a wire, they beat him up and think he’s one of the crooks, so they bring him in the trunk to try for a trade, but it all goes pear-shaped.
And when you kill one of the Seven-Ups, you’re gonna get hit back hard. Today, we frown upon things like torturing suspects in their hospital beds by squeezing their oxygen tubes, or breaking into a mob boss’s home and holding a shard of glass to his wife’s throat to make him talk. But in the ’70s, that was edgy and innovative police work! It’s a long way from picking your feet in Poughkeepsie, but this movie is all about the action sequences, and you can easily overlook its faults for how good they are.
The hits on the mob are classic- they get one guy as he goes through a car wash, by locking his suicide doors closed with handcuffs so they can crowbar the trunk open and take the cash, without returning the hostage. But once the Seven-Ups get involved these tough crooks have met their match. Scheider gets in a car chase across uptown Manhattan, including a blistering run up Riverside Drive to the George Washington Bridge. They somehow end up across the Tappan Zee again, but we’ll forgive the geography errors. There’s a great sequence where the bad guys hide behind a bus with shotguns ready, and a great crash under a flatbed. The chase is as lively as those of French Connection and Bullitt, but the movie itself isn’t as groundbreaking.

As much as I love Roy Scheider, the script is more of a standard, if gritty thriller. The stunning ending to French Connection and Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, or Steve McQueen’s ultra-cool hip cop and the insane speeds he took that Mustang 390GT too simply overshadow this solid NYPD crime film. I must say that it is a lot better than French Connection II however. Frankenheimer should have stuck to his strengths. If you enjoy ’70s crime films, this is one of the forgotten classics, and is worth hunting down. It’s the only film D’Antoni directed, and while he is a bit indulgent in the opening sequence, once we get to the meat of the story he shows promise. We sould use him today, as car movies are pretty lame these days.

Sex Drive

Every once in a while a movie that looks stupid will surprise you. And boy, did Sex Drive look stupid! But as you can guess, it surprised me with how good it is. It forgoes the sentimental bromance of current comedy for your more typical road trip formula, but still manages to be fresh, funny, and most importantly, fun. The tale of Ian hunting down internet poon in his douchey brother’s “borrowed” GTO Judge, with sleazy pal Lance and “Girl Friday” Felicia in tow sees them in the expected crazy adventures, but the laughs keep it from being stale.

Poster looks like Dukes of Hazzard take a flying fuck at a rolling donut, but it’s good.

Ian (Josh Zuckerman, Feast) is that endangered species known as the high school virgin. His older brother Rex torments him endlessly; James Marsden actually out-Chets Bill Paxton, who perfected this type of character in Weird Science (full review). Ian spends most of his time chatting online with “Ms. Tasty,” who lures him out to Knoxville to lose his virginity. His job is humiliating- he dresses up as a donut and walks around the mall, where kids glue dildos to his costume. It one-ups the pirate outfit Judge Rheinhold had to wear in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but the comparison ends there; this is more of a raunchy teen comedy.

James Marsden is hilarious as a homophobic douche.

Ian’s best friend is Lance, the super-cad who looks like a young Dwight Schrute, but knows how to bed the babes; he’s the jerk all the girls fall for. Ian’s the “nice guy” who’s been just friends with Felicia (Amanda Crew) for years, but can’t seem to pull the trigger. He’s too shy, she’s too cool. Sure, you know they’re gonna end up together from scene one, but the script manages to distract you from its formula with plenty of good character chemistry and gags. Once they hit the road, telling Felicia that Ian is visiting his dying grandmother- the fun starts.

Three newbs to watch for

They stop at a carnival, where Ian hits it off with a girl- and gets dragged into her Abstinence celebration. Lance finds a more willing partner who chains him to her bed in her parents’ doublewide. The car breaks down and they get help from sarcastic Amish brother Ezekiel (Seth Green in a great cameo). They learn the Amish rite of Rumspringa, which sure seems a lot more like Spring Break than I remember from the documentary I saw, but it’s more fun that way. Of course they get hauled off to jail, they have run-ins with crazy boyfriends, rock stars and road weirdos. Sometimes it veers toward skit comedy, but pulls away just in time.

Jebediah don’ play dat.

The three kids are relative newcomers, but all do a fine job- even though James Marsden and Seth Green steal all their scenes. The vets wisely keep a lid on things so we’re not wishing they came along for the rest of the road trip. Sean Anders (of the uber quirky Never Been Thawed) wrote and directed, and Sex Drive isn’t quite as polished or perfect as it could be. Some jokes fall flat, but most work, and this is no cheap cash-in on Superbad‘s raging success, it’s a charming yet raunchy teen comedy more akin to American Pie, but a little sharper. I think it’s definitely worth a rental, and maybe even a purchase.

Rating: Tasty

Le Mans vs. Grand Prix

Part of me rebelled against comparing these two movies. Like Chevy & Ford guys, Porsche and Ferrari guys, car enthusiasts are usually strictly divided on these two movies. But mostly I rebelled because I didn’t want to again watch 3 fucking hours of soap opera bullshit masquerading as a car movie, in John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix. Admittedly the racing footage is some of the best ever filmed- Frankenheimer is one of my favorite directors, and probably the best to ever direct a car chase (before you sputter about the Bourne movies, which I love, there can be no Supremacy without first having Ronin)- but his epic racing movie spends too much time off the track.
James Garner is no McQueen, but he was one of the best actors of his time; he can’t be faulted for his role, and he is one of the most memorable parts of the film. Eva Marie Saint is always good, and this is no exception; Toshiro Mifune can say more with a look than either of them could do with a soliloquoy, and having him on board gives the film class and racing cred, for not ignoring the Japanese. That being said, after watching it for three hours, all I really remember is the racing, some crying, Garner having principles, and a crash where a driver is flung from his vehicle and dies hanging limp in the trees like a rag doll. That was a very powerful image of the dangers of motor sports, and the razor’s edge these enthusiasts live on. But when it comes down to it, it’s an indulgent, bloated ’60s epic in need of serious editing. It must have looked awesome in Cinerama, though.
Le Mans is definitely a creature of the ’70s, reminiscent of Two Lane Blacktop– without dialogue for the first 37 minutes of the movie, we learn the basic story watching McQueen drive up to a section of replaced guard rail on a motorway, and contemplate it. Without a single word, we know a crash occurred here, and he is remembering it. We’re brought back to that day, and follow him as he readies for the race, the tension mounting to a crescendo. Finally all we hear is his quickening heartbeat until the light turns green and the thunder of the engines roar, and they’re off. Sure, a bit gimmicky, but still effective; you can’t say the same about some of the montages in Frankenheimer’s film.

On the other hand, Le Mans is perhaps too laconic and trim. It feels like a documentary, but even a doc gets us a little more engaged in its subjects; one hour into its 106 minutes and you’ve seen a lot of car porn, but maybe we’re a little touchy-feely and want some emotional involvement. This was an exercise in indulgence as well– McQueen drove the original director, John Sturges of The Great Escape fame, away by taking control of so many aspects of the film. TV director Lee Katzin took the helm instead, and the film suffers from McQueen’s excess. There’s less Cooler King here than the dialing-it-in cold-eyed stares of The Hunter, his last and possibly worst film.

The third act, after McQueen’s character is out of the race, drags on until they pull him back in. The drama of Lisa possibly losing two men to Le Mans is captured in a single look, but it’s not as evocative as the film’s quiet beginning. Le Mans has its own spectacular crashes, with its super-powered Porsche and Ferrari battles, but there’s a little too much slo-mo used.
So what’s the answer? Like the eternal Chevy/Ford debate, they’re both flawed but have their fans. A car fan owes it to themselves to see both of these movies and decide on their own. It’s like owning an Alfa Romeo, or a project car. It may not be perfect, but if you love cars, it’s something you just have to do.

Gran Torino

There are great stories, and great characters; the rare times they converge, and you have a classic. Gran Torino has a great character, and a good story; but it just may be a classic. Because Clint has crafted a character we instantly dislike, yet want to spend more and more time with. A character this good can make a minor classic all on his own.

We meet Walt at the funeral of his wife, where he’s smoldering as his grandchildren show up, in football jerseys and bare midriffs. His sons mutter to each other about whose kids will disappoint him more. The stage is set- an irascible old man who no one is good enough for, living alone in “the old neighborhood” where he’s a final holdout who hasn’t sold his house to immigrants. His craggy face is sculpted in a constant sneer; he doesn’t like what he sees. The repast is at his home, where his sons mumble with their wives about whether it’s time for him to sell it, and his pierced granddaughter is eyeing the classic car that gives the film its title, as she sneaks a smoke in the garage.

Naming a movie after a car when it’s not a road movie is an odd choice, but it makes sense. The 1972 Gran Torino is rough, unforgiving relic from a bygone era. Walt treasures his- he helped build it on the Ford assembly line, and keeps it looking brand new in his garage or driveway. We never even see him drive it, or take enjoyment from it. He just sits on his porch with his Lab, Daisy, drinking PBR’s and sneering at the sorry state of disrepair his Asian neighbors keep their homes in. He’s the kind of man who feels great pain at the sight of a patchy lawn. Next door, the family is celebrating the birth of a child. There are two teenagers in the family, a shy, hunched over boy named Thao and a smart and independent girl named Sue.

They are Hmong- the original “boat people” who sided with us in the Vietnam war, and fled here when we retreated. It’s to the film’s credit that they cast unknowns in the parts, let the actors ad-lib in their own language, and portray their customs. Like Walt, we feel like we’re in a foreign country surrounded by them. the infamous “Get off my lawn!” scene, where he aims the M1 Garand he fought with in Korea at some Asian gangbangers ensues when Thao’s cousins begin hassling him to join up with them. They stumble onto his lawn, and he goes outside. When Thao’s family try to thank him for his help, he tells them to get off his lawn too.


The next day they shower him with gifts- flowers and food. He shuns them, but Sue persists. He may call her names, but they seem to connect because she is a polite and courteous person who is sure of herself. She’s not offended or afraid of him. He can’t scare her off. Eventually he makes an unlikely bond with her brother Thao, without giving away too much of the plot. Thao and his family, the upright side, keep banging heads with his criminal cousins. But Walt’s a fixer. He fixes things. Eventually he’s worn down by Sue’s hospitality, and goes to a family party. Good food, free beer, and good company get the better of him. He may call them zips or gooks to their faces, but he doesn’t hate them. It’s apparent that he hates the shabby state of the neighborhood more than anything else.

The n-word is just about the only slur not used in this movie. I was just in a forum discussion about whether Walt is racist or not, which I find beside the point. He’s a misanthrope; he says it plainly that he wants to be left alone, and slurs are an easy way to make that so. As the story unfolds, we don’t get any obvious revelations of why he is the way he is. It’s left to us to piece together. He’s a child of the Depression and a veteran of the forgotten war, the Korean conflict. They didn’t get parades, or monuments, and our troops retreated in shame. The battle was a slaughter, with stacks of Chinese and Korean soldiers used as sandbags.

The local priest sniffs around too- Walt’s wife made him promise to get Walt to give confession, as if she knew the burden he carried. The film eschews the predictable; it is not a revenge tale, and while it is one of redemption, it knows that sometimes we are beyond it. Walt spars verbally with the young pastor, badgers Thao into becoming a man, and faces his own shortcomings- that he never got to know his own sons. The ending is satisfying, but not the one we wanted. Sure, we want to see Dirty Old Man Harry drive around town in his beat-up truck, being a bad-ass and facing down thugs forever. We know he’ll fix the problem with the thugs- but we just don’t know how.

The movie lives and dies on Eastwood’s performance, easily his best in years. Walt is a brick wall; he never blinks, never winks at you. Even his sense of humor is brash. We see him with his barber (Marge’s husband from Fargo) trading insults and ethnic slurs, and telling awful jokes with his drinking buddies. Some have said that the Hmong actors are too amateur, but they felt natural to me. It was a great choice, just as shooting on location in Michigan was. We haven’t seen the gritty streets of Detroit since Four Brothers and 8 Mile. And the story may not be great, but Eastwood knows just what to tell and what to leave us to figure out. He takes a simple story and makes it gripping, and as much as I like his output, I think this is his most enjoyable movie since Unforgiven.

4.5 out of 5 30-06 rounds.

15. The Car

Schlocktoberfest #15: The Car

In the ’70s with the oil embargo, long gas lines made driving in your land yacht a horror movie in itself. Now that gas is eating up more of our monthly budget, we can see the true terror of a 5,000 pound Detroit steel behemoth bent on destroying a small desert town. With a prior generation of Brolin as the hero, this is good cheesy ’70s fun.

Probably best remembered as the movie Futurama spoofed with “The Night of the Werecar,” we visit a lazy southwestern town that gets besieged by a sleek black automobile. James Brolin plays the Sheriff, who slowly realizes they are dealing with something much more sinister than just a psychotic driver… perhaps the car is driven by Satan himself. It’s pure cheese and played completely straight, with the custom-built black shark tearing across the roadways and terrifying the pedestrians. And don’t think hiding inside the house will save you… the best scare of the movie comes when someone thinks just that.

The supernatural angle is not fully explored, and they deal with the problem like any apple pie-loving American- they blow it up. The car, with its chopped top, filled-in suicide doors, and humongous chrome grill and bumpers, is an iconic image from the ’70s and the movie is often gripping when it’s not a nostalgic chucklefest. When the Car corners a bunch of women and children at the gates of a cemetery, the Sheriff’s estranged wife taunts the unseen driver as it performs frustrated donuts of destruction. The best stunt comes when two police cars try to muscle it off the road, and learn too late that this is no mere hot rodder on a joyride.

The Car sees in Hell-o-vision

Much of the rest is pretty predictable and not very chilling, but not too bad either. It spends quite a bit of time with the cops and the rest of the populace hiding indoors, trying to make sense of this machine tormenting their town. The director knows his suspense, and while the demonic roar of its engine and the frenetic honking of its air horn are pretty campy, when the Car corners a squad car at the edge of a cliff, or when James Brolin slowly approaches it as it idles, as if begging him to open the door, there’s some real chills.

The mystery of the Car is never fully explained, but that is part of the charm. If the Devil hopped out and gave a spiel before cackling his way down the Highway to Hell, it just wouldn’t be the same.
So while this may be a relic of the ’70s, and not as good as Duel or Christine when it comes to haunted car movies, it is still an entertaining horror film and decent lazy TV day fare.

Do not taunt evil death car.