Sunday, October 23, 2011

Love The Beast

Love the Beast should not work as a film because one man’s obsession with his car should not make for compelling filmmaking.  It does work, however, and it exceeds any and all expectations.

Eric Bana directed this documentary, and he is as skilled a director as he is an actor.  The obsession he is documenting is his own and it is with the Beast, a Ford Falcon GT coupe he bought as a teen and worked on with a close group of friends.  Twenty-five years later and nearly as many rebuilds, he still has it, and he wants to race it in the Targa Tasmania, a dangerous rally race through villages and countryside of Tasmania.  That’s the short of it, though.  If the film were merely about that, I’d be bored with it.  Instead, it is probably the best film I’ve ever seen that not only explains the love of racing, but also the realities of passion.

Bana and his friends work together year after year on the Beast.  It is a labor of love, and a bond.  Bana, obviously, becomes a famous actor along the way, but he doesn’t lose his passion or his friends.  And he continues racing even as he receives critical acclaim for his movie roles.  The truth is, racing seems more to his liking than acting.  His friends know it, too, and when people like Jay Leno (whose multiple garages are porn studios for car lovers), Jeremy Clarkson (from the real Top Gear) and Dr. Phil McGraw talk to him about passion, racing, cars and identity, the film starts taking on some real meat.  This meat culminates in Bana’s entrance into the Targa Tasmania.

To get the Beast ready for the rally, Bana and his friends had it rebuilt one more time.  They don’t do this rebuild, which is done to make the car a racing machine, but the finished product is a work of absolute beauty.  It is, at this point, a literal beast.  If you know anything about muscle cars, you understand, as Jeremy Clarkson so candidly points out in a moment of dreadful clarity, that they look good and sound good, but handle like crap.  They are like wild horses on meth.  Even when you have them in control, you are always on the verge of losing it.  Putting a muscle car in a rally race is not courting with disaster -- it is flat out assaulting it with the vague hope you’ll emerge the winner.  The reality of that is different, as witnessed in the in-car footage of crashes at various rallies.  It is scary stuff.  I was in a nasty accident once.  I was running from the police, going close to if not over 100 mph when the driver lost control of the vehicle.  After skidding all over the winding country road, we came to a stop upon hitting a boulder.  The moment I noticed the weeds were growing from where the sky should’ve been was the moment I noticed that at some point we had gone upside down.  Those incidents happen in a flash, and you don’t have time to be terrified.  A rally race is all about knowing that moment can happen at any time and not letting yourself be terrified by the many obstacles (trees, buildings, poles, spectators, cliffs) that surround you.  This film captures that element of insanity, but it is a more serene moment that takes this film from interesting to incredible.

I will not spoil the scene, but I want to point it out, as Bana has, perhaps unwittingly, put a moment on screen that is bigger than the film itself.  It is a simple moment, but one that takes a viewer into an emotional pitfall that guarantees they won’t stop watching.  It comes during the race.  Bana is driving.  His friend is riding shotgun and serving as the navigator.  They are speeding along a country road.  The navigator is rattling off the turns ahead when Bana chooses this moment to include a voice-over of a message he received from his daughter (I believe) on his answering machine.  The few things she says choked me up, and caused me to become so emotionally involved that I could not look away if I tried.

If you like Bana or love racing, this is a film you simply must see.  If you are only interested in one or the other, this will make you a full-fledged fan of both.  If you can’t stand either, you won’t want to watch this (and I’m surprised you’ve read this far).  If you don’t watch it, however, you will not only be missing out on one of the best documentaries I’ve seen, but also on one of the most interesting looks at a celebrity as a real “human” and not some prefabricated media sculpture.  Bana puts himself out there on every level, and he doesn’t care that you are witnessing him at some of his not-so-best times.  When you see him take a swig of beer before going out on the red carpet and calling it “bravery gravy,” you know this is him at his most honest.  His love is four wheels and g forces.  It shows in every scene, and he didn’t need bravery gravy before tackling the Targa.  If you don’t watch this, you will miss that, and you will perhaps never understand what attracts people to racing and the strength passion has over us.  

Mandatory FTC Disclaimer: Yes, I received this for free to review, and yes if you click on a link I may earn a commission.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Thing About The Thing

When I heard that a prequel to John Carpenter's masterpiece, The Thing was coming out, I was hardly thrilled.  Thinking back, though, that was my initial reaction to Carpenter's movie, too.  I know -- blasphemy.  How can one not like The Thing?  It was a perfect movie, untouched by CGI, riddled with paranoia, intelligent and honestly scary.  To think ill of the film is like a Christian saying The Bible isn't all that hot.  It doesn't work, and it isn't said, but I can admit that I was one of the maybe four people on the planet who did not like the movie upon first seeing it.

I saw it on video when it was first released.  I didn't bother going into the theatre to see it.  I liked Carpenter's other films, but this one didn't look great to me, and when I finally saw it my initial reaction was a mere shrug.  I was wrong.

Going back to it years later made me realize how utterly brilliant it is.  If Carpenter only did that film and Halloween he would be more widely worshipped.  Instead, he did bombs like Ghosts of Mars, which did more harm to his career than good.

When I first heard of the new movie, I thought, as did many people, that it was going to be a remake.  That left a really bad taste in my mouth.  Carpenter's film did not need a remake.  I feared that it would be full of CGI and cheap scares.  I vowed to stay away from it.  Then I heard that it wasn't a remake, but more of a prequel.  That seemed more promising.  A prequel actually made sense.  Those who know Carpenter's film (and I believe quite a few more people will be checking it out on Saturday of this week, as the new film opens Friday), know that the beginning of the film picks up right in the middle of some serious action.  Later you learn what has happened to the other camp in that winter wasteland.  There was always a backstory there, and it was one that begged to be told.  That is now happening, but the trailer leaves me a little hesitant to see the film.

My main complaint isn't the one most heard, which seems to be we now know everyone who hosts the Thing.  I don't think that's the case at all.  My complaint is, and this pains me, is that it looks boring.  It doesn't look like it has the same type of spirit as Carpenter's movie, which was, at heart, a drama that revolved around a horror theme.  This looks more like an action film, and not a very exciting one at that.  Admittedly, it would be hard to sell the film the other way, and I have no doubt that everyone involved in this film loves Carpenter's work, so I do hold some hope this Friday's release.  I'm not sure I'll go see it, though.  I'm more interested in The Woman, which looks like it will have a real emotional impact.

I am sure I will see The Thing at some point.  I'm just not sure if I'll go see it in the theatre.  That may be a mistake (such as the one I made with the Carpenter film), but it may also save me a bit of money, which will buffet the possible disappointment.  If I'm wrong -- great.  I'll go catch the inevitable sequel, set after Carpenter's vision, in the theatre a few years from now ... maybe.