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‘Two-Lane Blacktop’ is the best of the ‘existential road-trip’ movies

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Two-Lane Blacktop just might be the greatest car movie ever made. This quiet, anti-narrative, masterpiece and bonafide cult classic is the best of the ‘existential road-trip’ movies, and one of the greatest American films made in the early 70’s. As the pinnacle of director Monte Hellman’s career, it ages better with time. As much as Monte Hellman’s 1971 road movie will forever be associated with Easy Rider, it also springs to mind Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and Vanishing Point. But unlike those two films, Hellman is less interested in allegory nor in the race itself. For a movie about a race, it moves incredibly slow. Two-Lane Blacktop instead explores how three men head out to nowhere in particular. Hellman is interested in the process whereby a passion is subtly transformed into an obsession – and as a study in obsession and emotional dislocation, Two-Lane Blacktop is unlike anything you’ve seen.

After Easy Rider came out, the Hollywood studios were looking for other counterculture hits, and Universal’s Two-Lane Blacktop was hyped as the next big thing. The first draft of the script, written by novelist and first-time screenplay writer, Rudy Wurlitzer (who also makes a brief appearance in the film) was published in Esquire magazine, and the film became much-anticipated.

The bare bones plot revolves around a driver and a mechanic played by musicians James Taylor and The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson (starring in their only feature film) who are tired of the California street racing scene, and head east across the Southwestern Desert. The two men are hustlers financing their travels by competing with lesser local street-car drivers they know they can beat. Like a western, these guys are ready to outdraw the quickest gun in town. Only these modern day cowboys don’t have any territory left to explore. Instead, they roam across the country looking for something to do. Unlike Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop isn’t critical of America, it is just about the state of the American frontier.  There is no heavy-handed metaphor here. Along the way, the duo picks up a hitchhiking young Laurie Bird and meet Warren Oates who gives a disturbing portrayal of a man going through a mid-life crisis. Oates challenges them to cross country race, the winner taking the other’s car.

The fact that Taylor and Wilson are non-professional actors only helps reflect the mood of the pic. Both men are practically silent, and when they do speak, it’s usually about the car. The Driver won’t converse when he’s behind the wheel, and the Mechanic won’t talk when he’s busy working on the Chevy, and that is how they spend most of their time. The car is what they relate to, not each other, and the car is the glue that holds them together. Hellman takes advantage of the lack of exterior emotion from his non-professional actors to emphasize each character’s detachment. A deep depression and sense of withdrawal have set in. They come from seemingly nowhere, are headed nowhere, and aren’t quite sure where they are. The duo never has any long meaningful conversations, nor do they share a lot of chemistry, but they remain together because they benefit from the each other’s professional talents. They might travel as a pair but both men are downright loners.

Taylor eventually wrote a song about his experience starring in the film titled “Riding on a Railroad.”

GTO: “Everything is going too fast and not fast enough.”

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Oates, one of the greatest and most memorable character actors in the history of American cinema is fantastic as GTO. This is one of the most well-rounded performances of his career. Taylor and Wilson barely speak but Oates never shuts up. He’s a chatterbox, picking up hitchhikers along the way (including a young Harry Dean Stanton as a gay Oklahoma cowboy), just so he has someone new to share his stories with. What he says isn’t always true, and his stories will change from one scene to the next. He’s cynical, naive, boastful, lonesome and a phony. GTO knows nothing about cars but he can afford to drive around in one of the best. It isn’t even important that he wins the race, although he’ll try to make you believe it is. GTO simply needs to feel like a part of something, and he desperately tries his best to feel young again. Notice how he drives the newest car, so he feels he’s hip and not like a relic of the past. Taylor and Wilson, however, drive an older car romanticizing about a time of yesteryear. Past and present collide, only backwards. In fact, everything in Two Lane Blacktop seems backwards. GTO makes several mentions of a past he is trying to escape, unlike the Chevy duo who don’t seem connected to anyone or anything. Was he really a TV producer who tried and failed to make an outlaw automobile film on his own? Is any one of his stories true? What we do know for sure is that he wants to be noticed and to be recognized, but he hasn’t a clue as to how to impress people because nobody is buying his bullshit. At one point, GTO tells a man (Bill Keller) that he used to be a test pilot and that he flew jets, but switched to cars because he needed something to ground him. He later tells the Girl that he needs to find the end of the road before he goes into orbit. When we last see him, he’s telling a new story to some new hitchhikers he’s picked up along the way. The characters in Two-Lane Blacktop seems stuck in a vicious cycle, even if on the open freeway. We all know the roads eventually have to end, but they seem content in circling back and around. They have no roots, no responsibilities and so they just keep moving.

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Laurie Bird in her first of three films before she sadly took her own life, plays the drifter who one day hops into the Chevy making herself feel right at home. No one questions her and nobody bothers to ask her name. Narratively she serves as sort of cosmic bond for these men. Throughout the race she’ll ride in both the Chevy and the GTO, implying an unspoken competition between the drivers who both take a specific interest in her and seem motivated to impress her. I guess the only thing that can get between a man and his car is a girl. The Driver promises her a trip to Florida and GTO promises a visit to New York; the only time either seem interested in some sort of destination. In the end, she goes off with another driver.

G.T.O.: “Performance and image, that’s what it’s all about”.

The film makes great use of minimal resources, great locals and frequently relies on natural lighting. Hellman makes the most of the many car interior shots as well; Two-Lane Blacktop is composed of patiently composed scenes with a camera perspective that puts you right inside the Chevy and the GTO, delegating the viewer as an additional passenger. The landscapes and the open road are all the more beautiful in Techniscope and the camera captures information in untraditional ways such as a sunrise framed unconventionally from the back seat of the car. Still, Two-Lane Blacktop serves as a nostalgic travelogue. In the end, the roads have more of an identity than the characters and the cars have more personality than both.

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Existential is a word often used to describe the films of the American director. Two-Lane Blacktop is primarily a visual, atmospheric experience. As the race grows increasingly dreamlike, the road itself takes on a real identity, as if it were a place to live and not just a place to pass by. In a strange way, this is Monte Hellman’s ultimate statement about freedom. The film’s famous final shot feels inevitable but it isn’t until the very last frame that you become completely absorbed in the film. It feels like magic and you’ll find yourself wanting to drive down Route 66 all over again. The road goes on forever, but that doesn’t mean there’s anywhere left to go – but the film – it will forever stand the test of time.

In the end, the film just fizzles out as the final shot shows the filmstrip burning up inside the projector, depriving us and the characters a finish. Two-lane Blacktop might not have a destination but it has a direction. This masterfully crafted mood piece is essential viewing for any serious cinephile.

– Ricky D

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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‘Uncut Gems’ Sends Adam Sandler Through the Ringer

The Safdie Brothers have crafted a hectic, abrasive crime thriller that revels in its misery.

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Uncut Gems

The Safdie Brothers have followed up their grimy, abrasive Good Time with a film that never quite reaches those levels of tension, but is nevertheless cut from the same cloth. With Uncut Gems, the directing duo has crafted something so loud and chaotic — led by a perfectly-cast Adam Sandler — that there is no denying it’s a fun ride, even when it is not so fun to watch. Digging through the grit of loan sharks and a dog-eat-dog world, Uncut Gems is another bonafide hit by the Safdie brothers, but one that works when it piles on the misery — which it often does, rather than find a shred of happiness.

Evading debt collectors throughout New York City, Howard (Sandler) runs a jewelry shop in the Diamond District where he sells to many high-profile celebrities. When a new opal arrives at his shop from Ethiopia, he can’t help but show it off to Boston Celtics player Kevin Garnett (who stars as himself in a fun role that never feels out-of-place), who becomes obsessed with the rock and borrows it with the hope of eventually convincing Howard to let him buy it. Of course, Howard has other plans, as the rock is allegedly worth a million dollars if sold at an auction in which he has already purchased a spot. When Garnett doesn’t return the stone, everything starts going horribly awry in Howard’s life as he juggles a failing marriage, his Jewish family ties, and keeping the loan sharks at bay.

Right out of the gate, Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) hits the ground hard with a score that carries the cosmic and reverberating effects of the titular uncut gems. When Garnett stares into the opal, he sees exactly what Howard tells him he’s supposed to see: the universe. In that, Lopatin provides a sonic scape so expansive and yet violently singular in its aesthetic that it provides much of Uncut Gems with a mystical aura. Drenched in gritty camerawork that gets up close to show the blemishes of everyone, there’s no denying the film’s mean and potent intensity.

Where Uncut Gems often stumbles is in its narrative threads. While the Garnett storyline weaves in and out, providing a lot of fun as well as hectic tension, it’s a piece of stunt casting that works, while also highlighting one that very clearly doesn’t involve R&B singer The Weekend. Why he is in the movie is baffling, other than perhaps because he evokes a further sense that Howard is in a very upscale world — something we already know by his clientele, multiple properties, and the wealth he actually wears. The Weekend ends up as a weird diversion that can take viewers out of the experience, even if his presence does lead to a further escalation in problems for Howard.

That all being said, Uncut Gems also brings Adam Sandler back into the fold as an actor who can do more than the drivel he has churned out over the decades. More evocative of his performance in Punch-Drunk Love than The Meyerowitz Stories, Sandler gives a comedic and sympathetic performance to a character for whom everything suddenly goes wrong. Living a manic, fast-paced lifestyle, Howard is impatient, aggressive, and greedy, but Sandler makes it possible to get on board with his plight at least partially (there is no way to be on his side completely). His vices are many, but the performance keeps him down to Earth even when it feels like everything is flying off the hinges.

There will likely be many that can’t get past how dirty this movie feels, as it treats many criminal activities as both simply the way things are and the way they always will be. Beyond that, however, the Safdie Brothers provide a nuanced look at Jewish culture, utilizing one of Hollywood’s most prolific Jewish actors, and treat it is as matter-of-fact. Uncut Gems is a frenetic crime film from a Jewish perspective and delivers on its promise of being a wild ride with a phenomenal Sandler performance. Just don’t expect there to be much hope present, as the Safdies revel in the misery as much as humanly possible, only using hope as a torture device to make the anguish all the more painful.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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The Best Movie Trailers of 2019

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Best Movie Trailers 2019

They exist to sell a product, but there’s also something about movie trailers that inspires certain ticket buyers to get to the theater early: the promise of movie magic. Before we have a chance to be disappointed by their final products, the best trailers are constructed to show off endless potential — the suggestion that audiences are in for an amazing cinematic treat. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way, but there’s nothing better than being seduced — and for a few moments, that’s exactly what the best movie trailers of 2019 do. Below are some of my favorites from the past year.

Smarmy Murder

Knives Out

Rian Johnson’s followup to The Last Jedi seems to have found a safer home for the director’s irreverence (I’m not aware of any diehard murder-mystery fans, at least), and it’s trailers have been free to lean heavily into that twisted playfulness. If you’ve gone to a theater in the last three months, it’s been hard to avoid seeing this one a million times (including at times as an ad before the previews), but the relentlessly snappy pacing, ironic edits, and pervasive shots of actors hamming it up really drive home that Knives Out is looking to be a wickedly fun romp. Whether it succeeds or not, there’s no question that the trailer makes me want it to. 

Ready or Not

This one hits more traditional beats when it comes to unspooling its gleefully barbarous premise, and knows just how to mix the tension with the violence with the cheeky one-liners. But it’s the use of The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” that really pushes this trailer over the top, as the song works brilliantly for both magnifying the drama during the screaming moments, and providing an excellent contrast between its blatant romantic sincerity and the sarcastic amorality of this bizarre predicament. Also, Henry Czerny.

The Hunt

This one’s a bit more subtle about its dark comedy, but there’s no question that there are plenty of smirks lurking just below the surface of this premise. A cabal of elitists hunting a bunch of backwoods yokels for sport is the kind of satiric setup that has potential for real bite (enough to get the film’s release indefinitely delayed, apparently), and this trailer does a great job of playing that element up, suggesting a more brutal and sardonic version of The Hunger Games. The tired look on Betty Gilpin’s face as she moseys down train tracks or calmly drives over someone’s head showcases a low-key humor that hopefully is reflected in the final product. Fingers crossed that The Hunt eventually sees the dark of theaters.

Moody, Mysterious Spooks

Midsommar

There’s always something refreshing about a horror story that takes place in the daylight, and the trailer for Midsommar appeals perfectly to this sentiment. Plucky strings, tribal drum beats, and plenty of off-kilter camera angles help set the creepy stage for a relationship problem that is about to manifest itself in a physical problem, but one that is smartly only hinted at. The bright, lush environment and comforting tradition initially draws you in (like any good cult would hope), but exactly what’s in store for this young woman and her companions? Flashes of gore and deformity near the end are what linger, even after a sunny visual finale. Very enticing.

The Lighthouse

It’s possible that this trailer could have just consisted of nothing but the weather-worn faces of Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe staring back at the audience, punctuated by the droning bellow of the fog horn, and that might have been enough to sell people on this thing. Of course, what follows is a stark, visual feast that also does a masterful job at dropping clues as to the possible supernatural mystery, but layering them in the potential madness. Dark, ominous trappings are slathered on as thick as the sea-faring accents, giving off an old-fashioned horror vibe. Despite a deep dislike for the actual film, I could watch this trailer forever, and dream of what else could have lurked out on that lonely island.

If Only They Lost the Song

1917

Bolstered by gorgeous images courtesy of the great Roger Deakins (whose sumptuous cinematography can only help no matter what it’s in), this trailer does a masterful job at communicating to audiences just what a nail-biter this WWI story promises to be. Starting out with an innocuous shot of two soldiers lazing beneath a tree, and ending with one of them dodging explosions, the tension is meticulously built step by step, gunshot by gunshot…until a sappy, tone-deaf song called “Wayfaring Stranger” cuts in halfway through and tries to ruin everything with hammy emotional telegraphing. It’s a curious choice, as the textured, frank visuals and dialogue don’t otherwise give off a manipulative vibe. Still, there is stirring power in that imagery, enough to make me want to see more. Just…save the song for the end credits, please.

What. The. Hell.

Bird Talk

It’s generally not desirable to feel even slightly repulsed after viewing a movie trailer, but I have to confess that the bizarre images here are cut together in a way that doesn’t quite agree with me. So why is it good? Because that seems to be exactly the sort of note Xawery Zulawski’s film is trying to hit, with its disorienting fish-eye lenswork and indecipherable depictions of what seems like general depravity, even if I can’t point to exactly why. Even the special effect for that weird flaming car looks wonky and nightmarish. Not every film has to be pleasant to work, and neither does a trailer; Bird Talk looks intense and intriguing and indecipherable, and that’s good enough for me.

Pleading For Attention (and Actually Getting It)

Joker

Every year there are trailers for movies that desperately want to be taken seriously as films, and I’m not sure there was a better example of that in 2019 than Joker. With its gritty, scum-on-the-lens look, an early burst of cruelty, and use of Jimmy Durante’s “Smile” to lay the irony on thick, there’s no question of this promo distancing the final product from traditional ‘comic book’ movies. There’s also no question that the trailer does a magnificent job at showcasing the film’s best element: a writhing, tortured, smirking, dancing, on-the-edge Joaqin Phoenix. While it’s debatable whether Joker itself ultimately deserved all the attention, putting Phoenix’s performance front and center in the trailer was the best way to get it.

The Cream of the Trailer Crop

Richard Jewell

This is a fantastic example of how to communicate an overall old-fashioned approach to sharp storytelling, yet break up the standard formula with well-timed asides. The premise and protagonist are firmly established through standard trailer character development, but it’s the interspersing of those chilling interrogation scenes that really drive the point home and solidify the character as supremely sympathetic. The soft piano notes are joined by a growing orchestra, the frequency of these inserts picks up as the blatant railroading intensifies, and by the time the crescendo hits, the trailer has told a story that we want to see a resolution to — and that subtle nod suggests it’s going to be a very, very satisfying one.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Almost a mini-movie in itself, the trailer for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood spans the range of emotional beats found in the film it’s cut from, roughly (and impressively) in the same order, all while cementing the unmistakable tone of the film’s creator. What’s being sold here is exactly what audiences are going to get, and that’s a sprawling Hollywood epic filled with sharp dialogue, offbeat B-movie/TV show asides, and a undercurrent of a looming, horrific incident that will come to a head in the last reel. An aging cowboy, a loyal sidekick, a radiant princess, and a creepily smiling ogre are set in a neon fantasy land full of make believe, where dreams (and sometimes nightmares) come true. It’s a primer for a magical fairy tale, and also the most complete, all-encompassing, masterful trailer of the year.

***

Of course, these are just my picks for the best trailers of 2019 — what are yours?

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70 Best Movie Posters of 2019

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Best Movie Posters of 2019

Deciding the best movie posters is no easy task…

I remember when I was younger, I used to head to the video store and rent movies I’d never heard of based solely on the movie poster art. This was, of course, a different time— sure, the internet was a thing, but we didn’t have countless websites, not to mention social media platforms, promoting new movies online with news stories, movie stills, featurettes, teasers, trailers and so on. Not to say that sort of marketing didn’t exist in the past, because it did, but it wasn’t always in your face. For better or for worse, the internet changed the way studios market movies, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the use of a poster to help build excitement and anticipation for an upcoming film. Most posters continue to be an important marketing tool for filmmakers worldwide and so once again, we’ve decided to collect images of our favourite movie posters revealed over the past twelve months. If you checked out our list of the best movie posters of 2018, you’ll remember it included posters for indie gems, thrillers, horror movies, foreign language films, Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between. This year is no different, although it should be said that some marketing campaigns were so good, we’ve decided to include more than one poster for a few select films. Also worth noting, we didn’t include any fan-made poster art below. That out of the way, here are the best movie posters of 2019.

Click on any one of the images to enlarge the posters.

The Best Movie Posters of 2019

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