Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Twilight Time - USED CARS and WILD AT HEART ""

Monday, April 14, 2014

Twilight Time - USED CARS and WILD AT HEART

USED CARS (1980; Robert Zemeckis)
USED CARS is one of the great comedies of the 1980s. It seems to have gained a bit of traction in this respect over the last decade or so, but it's still not as exalted as it should be. The film opens with a wonderful, almost Welles-ian tracking shot that cranes down to Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell) rolling back the odometer on a car. It's a great shot and a great opening to the film. See, I think that USED CARS is still sometimes seen as a dopey R-rated comedy, but to dismiss it that way is really doing the movie a great disservice. In the past decade or so, I count Edgar Wright's film SHAUN OF THE DEAD as one of the great comedies. This is for a number of reasons, but the script is certainly one of them. It is just so brilliantly constructed. I feel the same way about USED CARS. Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale were one of the great writing duos ever in my opinion. Their script for BACK TO THE FUTURE is just amazing. Talk about construction. There are almost no throw away bits in the movie. Almost everything ties back in somehow. Well you don't get to writing a script like that just out of nowhere. Gale and Zemeckis had done a lot of writing previous to BACK TO THE FUTURE. USED CARS was the pinnacle though. It was the final proving ground for both of them. Sure, you can look at USED CARS as a silly, disposable comedy, but if you start to break it down, you'll begin to see the underlying brilliance. I'm sure the script for USED CARS has been studied at some point in some screenwriting class, but I feel like it should be mandatory, especially for folks trying to write a good comedy. Early on in the film, there's a scene where a character's death is played for a good laugh. Midway through the scene, the tone shifts and the impact of that death is felt. It's a remarkable deftly handled scene, both from a writing and acting standpoint. One thing I think people overlook in this shaggy madcap romp of a film is what I believe to be it's roots in screwball comedy. The dialogue and jokes come careening at us like the climactic car chase set piece climax of the film itself. It feels like an amped up, bigger budgeted throwback to the pre-code era in it all it's raunchy, ragged glory. Zemeckis and Bob Gale have said of this film that it is, "a classic Frank Capra movie, except everybody lies". I love that. Rudy Russo is one of Kurt Russell's great performances without question, and talk about high-speed dialogue delivery! He embodies this charismatic, yet morally questionable fellow with an ease that few other actors could ever have pulled off. Maybe Michael Keaton, but he'd never have outdone Russell. When I see Rudy Russo, I am reminded again of the lovable scamps and hustlers that populated the films of the 1930s. Jack Burton, Snake Plissken, and R.J. Macready are characters that people seem to most strongly associate with Kurt Russell. It's true they are some of my favorite characters in cinema and that Russell's collaborator with John Carpenter was one for the ages. That being said, I do feel like USED CARS gets a little overlooked. Again, maybe because it's a comedy, but regardless it is worthy of re-examination and  I hope this Blu-ray will allow some folks to re-appraise it.
Not to get too nostalgic about it, but I do truly miss the R-rated comedies of this era. USED CARS is right on the cusp of the 80s, but is still in essence a 1970s film. In its time, this film was certainly underappreciated. It was a success only by a small margin financially and I find that rather shocking. It was considered a failure at the time. How could audiences in 1980 not fall in love with this film? It may have had something to do with the fact AIRPLANE had opened the week before. Nonetheless, how could they not fall for that affable scoundrel Rudy Russo? They'd fallen for another affable scoundrel in Han Solo a few years prior and would soon fall for Harrison Ford again in a similarly scoundrel-y adventure role. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK would open just shy of a year later and clean up at the box office. For some reason, USED CARS would have to wait years to slowly build up some true appreciation. 
Quentin Tarantino has cited USED CARS as a favorite film for him. I remember him saying something about it being like a great old record album you can put on and listen to over and over. I'm guessing it got quite a bit of play at Video Archives back when he used to work there. I can totally see it being that kind of "comfort food" kind of film that just gives you a pleasant, familiar feeling whenever you come back to it. It is that way for me for sure.

Included here is a commentary track (which has been ported in from the previous DVD release of the film). It's a pretty great track and features Zemeckis, Bob Gale and Kurt Russell and it is a doozy of a track. So many great stories and fond memories (some of them rather risqué) of bygone era of making movies. Honestly, it's one of the better tracks I've ever heard and it is, like the film, a hoot to listen to. There's just something about commentaries with Kurt Russell. They all tend to be awesome. He just has this remarkable energy and humor about him that is ridiculously infectious (this track even opens with him laughing). Check out any one of his commentaries with John Carpenter as well for further examples of this. Great stuff. Also include here are a gag reel and outtakes (hilarious of course) and a vintage radio interview. On top of that, there's also two isolated score tracks, one featuring the unused score for the film. Oh and the transfer looks quite nice to my eyes.

WILD AT HEART (1990; David Lynch)
This might have been my gateway film into Lynch if I recall. My best friend in high school had an older brother who was big into movies at the time. It was because of his brother's movie collection that I ended up seeing things like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and EVIL DEAD II in high school. I owe him a great deal for turning me into some cool stuff. Lynch was also really big to the older brother and his friends at the time. I remember for his senior quote, one of his friends used, "She's dead. Wrapped in plastic". They were clearly gigantic TWIN PEAKS fans, but loved his films as well. I think the soundtrack to WILD AT HEART was even floating around my best friend's house around that time. I remember specifically cause we used to rock out to the Powermad song "Slaughterhouse" in the car a lot. I think my best friend may have even bought a Powermad album because of that song. But I digress. My later high school years were an extremely fertile and formative period for me in terms of movies and I was happy to stumble onto Lynch. I'm sure I didn't know what to make of his films at first, but he would obsess me a year or two after that. I think WILD AT HEART may have also been my first exposure to Nicolas Cage as well and it certainly left an impression. I wouldn't see RAISING ARIZONA or VALLEY GIRL for some time after that, but I'd never forget him from this. He was quite Elvis Presley-ish at a time when I was sort of just becoming aware of Elvis as a singer, performer and personality.
David Lynch is still one of my favorite filmmakers. His philosophy of not liking to explain his films has always been one I've respected a lot. I just love the idea that he wants each viewer to come away with their own interpretation of his films and that that interpretation is no less valid than anything he'd ever offer up. I think it annoys some people as they prefer their cinema to be more straightforward, but he was truly inspirational to me on a lot of levels. The stuff that comes out of that man's head is truly unique and amazing. In WILD AT HEART, he kind of offers up his own take on a WIZARD OF OZ parable/road movie. It is a fascinating thing to see a much beloved story come creeping into a Lynch film. And speaking of love, WILD AT HEART is a deeply romantic film in that Sailor (Cage) & Lula (Laura Dern) have a powerful, affecting love for each other that is one for the ages. They are both young and quirky characters and that also makes their romance stand out. They convey that passion, desire and vibrance that comes with such a youthful, determined love in such a way as to be the end all be all of existence. I just love these characters. It's very interesting to look at this Nicholas Cage character in the context of his other roles. Most obviously, it's easy to draw a line from H.I. McDunnough (from RAISING ARIZONA) to Sailor. Sailor is like the darker flip side to H.I. who exists in a much darker, more hellish dimension. There's even a kinship between WILD AT HEART and VALLEY GIRL for that matter with the whole star-crossed lovers thing. There's just some great Nic Cage symbiosis happening here. As for Laura Dern, I must say I've always loved that she aligned herself with Lynch early on and that they made multiple films together. She is one of my favorite actresses, equal parts fiercely talented and stunningly beautiful. My wife and I recently watched her HBO show ENLIGHTENED and just adored it. It was such a neat thing to see her acting opposite her real-life mother (Diane Ladd) where they were playing a mother/daughter relationship. They are both such fantastic actresses and somehow I had forgotten that they had worked together in the same capacity on WILD AT HEART. Some big time flip sides in that case too. Lula and Dern's character on ENLIGHTENED were way different from each other and Diane Ladd's two mother characters are on completely different planets. It was a uniquely rewarding experience to see mother and daughter acting together again though after watching that show.
I watched this film with my wife who was seeing it for the first time. We both have a strong connections to Cage (we both love VALLEY GIRL), Dern and Lynch so it was right in our wheelhouse. Lynch is just one of those filmmakers that inspires conversation after watching one of his films and seeing WILD AT HEART may have spurred us to do a mini-Lynch marathon over the next few weeks. As I mentioned above, Lynch was a director I came to when I was pretty young and he was one who made had a deep and lasting influence on me. I was just realizing that he is one of the director's I've loved the longest in my life (something like almost 25 years). He is a filmmaker that I truly cherish with such a unique and powerful vision. 

This WILD AT HEART Blu-ray has a very nice looking transfer and the extra features included here start with , "Love, Death, Elvis & Oz: The Making of WILD AT HEART". This 30 minute featurette has all the principles (Lynch, Cage, Dern, Dafoe etc) recalling the production and their collaboration fondly and entertainingly. It's a cool making of and touches on a lot of different actors and their feelings about the characters and some memorable specific scenes.
Next up, the original 1990 Making of EPK (7 mins) is also included. I always enjoy press materials for a film like this from around the time it came out. It's just neat to see the director talk about it at that time, before the film has found its place in the world.
-"Specific Spontaneity: Focus on Lynch" (7 mins) featurette taking the actors and crew about Lynch and what it it's like to work with him as a director and his involvement in all the details and aspects of filmmaking.
-"David Lynch On the DVD" (3 mins) - Lynch discusses color correcting and visual prepping of the film for its release on DVD.
Also, there are about 10 or so additional interview bits, basically unused pieces from the Making of included here as supplements as well.

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Hal said...

I could go on and on about USED CARS. I have the screenplay, and it is brilliant. One other thing that stands out is the number of Warden's lines that were adlibbed, including all of the "landscaping/Miami" conversation and his reference to the camel walking around his lot during the circus. (Warden was a great adlibber - a couple of key lines from SO FINE (1981) also weren't in the original script).

Such a great movie. I saw it at age 12 on opening weekend in July 1980, and it almost immediately became my all time favorite. All these years later, it still is and only gets better with age.

Rupert Pupkin said...

Hal - yeah just from re-listening to that amazing commentary it was neat to hear how much great stuff Warden adlibbed!