Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Decembertime Movielist 2005, Part 1

A ranked list of the movies I saw this year. Now we are down to my favorites.

You Knew Where This Was Going, Part One: Movies I Really Liked

1. Batman Begins - I'm not saying I'd choose the Batmobile over Herbie--although, to be honest, I guess Herbie's a bit on the needy side--but if I have to choose between a serviceable interpretation of my favorite character and a rock-solid interpretation of one of my other favorite characters, I have to go with the superior movie. At last, a Batman movie with respect for the character, respect for the comics, and respect for the audience. It's everything Batman always deserved and everything Bat-fans never dared dream they'd actually get, outside of animation.

2. Herbie: Fully Loaded - This one is going to be a bit long-winded, I'm afraid. A flawed movie, to say the least. Some of the CGI is painfully obvious, especially an inaccurately modeled Volkwagen--in numerous close ups!--late in the film. I still believe the "Large Marge" freak-out Herbie was a huge mistake. The relentless pace leaves no room for the characters to breathe. Lindsay Lohan's performance, while decent, is obviously phoned in, and Justin Long sometimes seems lost. It all goes a bit too gooey over NASCAR at the end. And I can't escape the feeling that the movie is kind of clumsily assembled.

This blog makes an interesting argument that Lohan's character reflects the modern obsession with undeserved celebrity. Certainly, it seems unnecessary that her character has a promising, desireable career lined up before she gets into racing--the fact that Dean Jones was a washed-up driver in the original Love Bug was more engaging and sympathetic. It's harder to care when someone has a great job anyway, but just really wants to race. "Pathetic Failure Vs. Realizing Your Dream" is more dramatic than "Glamorous ESPN Job Vs. Even More Glamorous Car Racing Job." So it would have been nice if Lohan's character was ever in danger of actually failing.

Instead all that negative stuff gets passed on to the men in her washed-up racing family, because in Hollywood movies these days, leading ladies have to be perfect and good at everything. She's a great driver, and has a big-time sports journalism career right out of college, and she's a great skateboarder--even though they had to cut down the skateboarding scenes because all the special effects in the world couldn't make Lindsay Lohan look at home on a skateboard. (For an excellent article on the formulaic blandification of movie heroines, check this piece out--it's from the LA Times but the original isn't available on their site anymore.)

Many critics have pointed out that for all the fuss that's made over Lohan being a "great driver," Herbie's magic makes it irrelevant. The movie fudges it by suggesting that it's Lohan and Herbie's connection that fuels the magic, but even so. The point in The Love Bug was that Dean Jones wasn't a particularly good driver, and he had to come to terms with that and appreciate the gift that he'd been given.

I'm not trying to excuse these faults, but I admit that this is more scrutiny than this movie was meant to withstand. As a Herbie fan, a lot of the things that bugged me before, I've gotten used to. I'm pretty much used to the expressive sound effects they've added to Herbie, and even the eyelids and bumper are fairly inoffensive now. I wish they'd used the original decals, but I can tolerate the new ones.

And the movie has its strengths as well. Matt Dillon is the best Herbie villain since David Tomlinson and Keenan Wynn--he nails the tone perfectly and it's a delight whenever he's onscreen. While the climactic NASCAR race is underwhelming, the Demolition Derby scene is quite good, and surprisingly emotional.

The entire sequence starting when Lohan acquires Herbie, and lasting through her street race with Trip, is excellent, as good as the corresponding sequence it rips off from Herbie Rides Again. The actual driving in the street race could stand to be more aggressive, but other aspects of the scene, like Herbie "keying" Trip's car with his mirror, Lohan's horror at being trapped in a race, and the use of "Born to be Wild" are priceless. Plus this race includes Herbie's railslide and his skateboard-esque kick-turn, the best CG effect in the movie.

Eventually, Lohan even reveals some character flaws. When Dillon tempts her into "cheating" on Herbie with his stock car (with all the weird sexual subtext that implies), it's one of the movie's best scenes.

Finally, with its location shooting and modern style, Fully Loaded is the only Herbie movie that actually makes us feel like we're inside a VW--something the originals, with their studio-bound half-cars never quite accomplished.

Ultimately, Herbie: Fully Loaded succeeds as an effective feel-good family movie, easily better than Herbie Goes Bananas, and arguably better even than the dramatically inert fan favorite Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. (Monte Carlo is funnier, though, if only for the presence of Don Knotts.)

Embarrassingly enough, for years I've literally dreamed of discovering a new Herbie movie--seriously, I have dreams where I'm in obscure video stores, and, what's this?--and now it is here. There was the 1997 TV movie, which was a tremendous disappointment and an embarrassing blemish on the resumes of both Herbie and Bruce Campbell--but it does prove that not just any Herbie movie will do. Despite its faults, this one passes muster.

3. Kung Fu Hustle - Madcap cartoon surrealism and imaginative, masterfully choreographed action. Like Shaolin Soccer, distinctively Chinese humor that's somehow mean-spirited without being ugly about it. Goofy and over-the-top ridiculous yet unsettlingly violent. The story is all over the place, but why should you give a shit?

4. The 40-Year-Old Virgin - Heartfelt and sincere, yet raunchy and hilarious. A perfectly realized, authentic geek life packed with details drawn from genuine observation and experience. Deals honestly with sexual anxiety without making the virgin a buffoon--or at least, no more a buffoon than his experienced friends. But yes, it is too long.

5. Initial D - This Hong Kong anime/manga adaptation--the highest grossing movie of the year in Hong Kong!--features lovely drifting action and tons of it. Plus an underdog racer trumping souped-up rivals and the most endearing abusive alcoholic dad since Homer Simpson. Sometimes it's the simple pleasures that matter.

6. Ong-Bak - Brutal and distressing in parts, but the best action movies tend to have violence that skirts the edge of your comfort level. Spectacular.


Zack said...

Some of the CGI is painfully obvious, especially an inaccurately modeled Volkwagen--in numerous close ups!--late in the film.

"Obvious" has never felt so subjective a word.

I thought the movie was alright for filler entertainment, maybe a little less engaging than Wedding Crashers but, hey, whatever. That's how I approached both of those movies, at least.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I have only seen Fully Loaded and have had no other exposure to Herbie stories.

What surprised me about Herbie wasn't the quality of the CG or the acting, but ... how much I disliked Herbie. He's got car superpowers, but he uses them like a little kid who fantasizes about turning invisible so he can trip people. This is like Superman entering the Olympics for an ego booster. That's fine. Not every story about the powerful needs to be a story about responsibility. But if it's going to be a petty revenge fantasy, the character should at least be likeable. In this movie, to me, he wasn't.

I did like the Matt Dillon character. I felt sorry for him and his largely understandable descent into madness, inflicted upon him by a petulant car-god.

lydia said...

I was slightly offended on Herbie's behalf when Zack and I were talking about the movie afterward. I thought he was by far the most likable character in the movie. The movie itself was enjoyable, though I don't feel the need to see it again.

C said...

Of the 3 movies we've seen in common, I saw 2 of them with you.

And thanks Zack for being the only person to agree with me that Herbie is kind of a jerk.

Kenny said...

Interesting. Thank you, Lydia, for taking Herbie's side. But Cynthia proves that Zack is not alone, so this deserves some thought. I was okay with Herbie's behavior in HFL but I can see how it might come off badly, and I believe that it doesn't in the original movies. Here are some thoughts.

Herbie is supposed to be mischievous and impulsive, even sensitive and vindictive. There's a deliberately childlike quality to his behavior. These qualities are normally charming and likeable. There is a certain vicarious fun, especially for kids, of seeing Herbie get the best of people who underestimate Herbie's capabilities, being insulting and abusive. Herbie's got balls, and he takes no shit, and that's fun for kids to see. "You think I'm just an ugly little car? Well, fuck you, here's what I can do." It's a petty way to respond to an insult, but it's how a kid would respond, or at least how a kid wishes they could respond to overbearing adults, and that's why Herbie connects with young audiences. No, a secure, mature person wouldn't react that way (as Marty McFly, so sensitive to the word "chicken," must learn in BTTF II and III), but what fun is it to be sensitive and mature. I don't think you're meant to think of Herbie as super-powerful, or it does seem petty. The misstep in Fully Loaded is perhaps not the pettiness, but in the way it builds up Herbie's abilities to the point where he seems so powerful that he shouldn't have his feelings hurt by people calling him ugly.

Also, Herbie's sensitivity is played for laughs more in earlier films--in Rides Again, when Herbie takes off after Ken Berry calls him stupid looking, Stefanie Powers tells him, "I don't think you should have said that, Herbie's very sensitive about his appearance," and forces him to apologize. Getting laughs out of the situation helps you not take it as seriously--the scene is less about Herbie's pettiness and more about the nuttiness of having to apologize to a car.

Another important quality Herbie displays in the earlier films is perseverance. Herbie stops at nothing to get the job done--He'll chase a small plane (Bananas), recruit an army of fellow VWs (Rides Again), and keep driving even if he's split in two (The Love Bug).

However, Zack's not the only one to feel that Herbie in Fully Loaded crosses the line into unlikeable petulance. I'm pretty sure Herbie does not come across this way in any other movies. Personally, I think it's preferable to the way Herbie was portrayed in the 1997 TV movie, where he was far too passive and lovey-dovey, the better to contrast with the "evil twin" character, Horace the Hate Bug (it was a really bad movie).

There are a few problems with Fully Loaded that I think contribute to Herbie's personality coming across as petty and overbearing.

The first thing, I think, are the facial expressions. When Herbie's poker-faced, his acts of defiance and payback are more subtle, like Herbie's playing it cool. The frowning and the smoking come off like temper tantrums by comparison.

Next, Herbie was never really intended to have "super powers," aside from being uncommonly fast and inhabiting a universe with rather cartoony physics. As a Volkswagen among race cars, Herbie is an underdog, so you root for him. His powers are ballsiness and perseverance. The magical acts are unexpected--Herbie going above and beyond to get out of impossible scrapes. In The Love Bug, Herbie skims across a pond like a stone. In Herbie Rides Again, he drives sideways on a wall and up the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge. In Monte Carlo, he wins the big race by going upside down in a tunnel. Taken alone, these feats don't mean much, but add them all together and the feats in Herbie: Fully Loaded aren't out of the question. But the fact that there are more of them gradually changes your view of Herbie's magical acts. Instead of being surprised at what Herbie can do, you start to feel that there's nothing Herbie can't do. The "Large Marge" moment exacerbates this problem, further suggesting that there are no rules of reality that actually apply to Herbie.

Finally, I think the question of character stakes discussed in the post also affect how we view Herbie. In previous movies, when Herbie is fighting for a good cause, unfair magical acts are easily justified--we are happy for Herbie to strike a blow for justice. Another way to look at it is that his super powers are being used for good, responsibly. When Herbie is fighting jewel thieves, smugglers, or greedy developers, of course you'll take his side. When he's helping out a little old lady or an orphaned Mexican pickpocket, he's helping someone who needs him. Even if he does have superpowers, he's in a situation that calls for a superhero.

One important detail in the Love Bug is that Dean Jones spurns Herbie for another car *before* he comes to believe in Herbie--he's wrapped up in his winning streak, which he believes is due to his own great driving. In Fully Loaded, Lindsay betrays him right after claiming to accept "the mystery that is Herbie." So her betrayal is worse, and more selfish. When Herbie comes to Dean Jones' aid, he's rescuing a driver on a pathetic downward slide--Jones, a former track driver who repeatedly wrecked his cars, has sunk to doing demolition derbies to scrape up cash. He refuses to become a mechanic because he has too much pride to quit driving. Jones is headed for self-destruction and Herbie helps him out of it.

In Fully Loaded, Lohan is headed for great things no matter what. True, Herbie saves her racing family's dynasty, but it's almost an afterthought--he doesn't do it for them, it's just a convenient by-product of helping her get a chance to drive. And if she's really such a great driver, she might have been able to do save the family business without Herbie. If no one really needs a magical car, then using a magical car starts to seem an unfair advantage.

On sympathizing with Trip--Matt Dillon is the best part of the movie, so I don't blame you. He even gets the script's best, meanest line ("I do enough charity work"). But he is rather petty himself. He sets up a whole racing event because he can't let go of his loss to Herbie, even when everyone around him assures him that it doesn't matter. He and Herbie deserve each other. Interestingly, his initial insults against Herbie are set off by Justin Long bumping into him while he signs an autograph. Watching the scene again, Long's delivery of "Oh, sorry," sounds kind of jerky, almost like he bumped Trip on purpose--which might help justify the insults that get Trip on Herbie's bad side. So in a way, maybe Trip is a victim.

Kenny said...

I brought the issue before the Herbie message boards. Didn't get much of a response, but one person did post this:

I cant see Tripp as 'the victim'. The guy was brash, snobbish, obnoxious, mean...dishonest... Some of the scenes where Herbie is smoking and stuff- after Maggie comes back from her drive- Herbie KNOWS she's being played for a sucker- and cant use the Queen's English. He's kinda like Lassie- I dont care what Capt. Blythe thinks. Granted- Herbie is like a kid- but I always see an equal reaction to anything that happens to him- Thorndyke kicks him and punches Jim, Herbie runs him into a turkey yard. Hawk...well, let's see- tears down buildings, displaces people, tried to ruin Mrs. Steiunmetz' home- and got ALL that was coming to him. Tripp...well....Aside from Herbie breaking ALL the laws of physics in 3 seconds of footage- he (Tripp) deserved it. It's been said before- on the Love Bug dvd and other places that Herbie is a child- and somehow has remained as such for the most part. A child who dishes it out in the same amount he gets it. Herbie puts his ALL into everything- be it saving someone, making 2 people fall in love, or chasing the bad guy with a full herd of friends. If Herbie was petty, the heroes of the stories would have ended up being hurt or chased, or even run over when they did him wrong! Herbie could have squashed Jim Douglas as flat as he did that sports car. He could have rolled himself over a good couple dozen times, and broken EVERY bone in Wiiloughby's body at the chicken race. And Lindsay could have been catapulted thru the ragtop and onto the ground during the desert race's end when she mentioned the stock car... and so forth and so on.

Did he? No. THAT would be petty. That would be using his abilities just because he can.

Zack said...

Herbie Fan
Posts: 168

You could have just linked it!