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Our five favorite movie wheelmen

Our five favorite movie wheelmen (photo)

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I don’t know how much real world demand there is for wheelmen, but it’s a burgeoning field in the movies. It seems like there’s someone always in the movies who needs a dangerous package transported or a steady-nerved getaway driver for a heist. That’s certainly true this week, thanks to a movie featuring a new, and excellent movie wheelman: Ryan Gosling‘s Driver from Nicolas Winding Refn‘s “Drive.”

In honor of Gosling’s hammer-wielding, tire-squealing performance, we decided this was the perfect time to pick our five favorite wheelmen in movie history. Our qualifications for potential candidates were simple. They had to make their living as a driver — so car thieves were out. They had to be willing to take dirty or illegal jobs — so professional truckers were gone too. And they couldn’t actually participate in the heists themselves. As Gosling’s Driver says, “I don’t sit in while you’re running it down; I don’t carry a gun. I drive.”

Damn right. And so do these guys.


Lucas Doolin
From “Thunder Road” (1958)

Directed by Arthur Ripley
Preferred Ride: Custom 1950 Ford

“How rough do you want it?” a racketeer asks independent moonshiner Lucas Doolin (Robert Mitchum) as he tries to intimidate him into joining his syndicate. Now, Lucas Doolin is played by Robert Mitchum, so the answer should be obvious: plenty rough. Mitchum’s response? A karate chop to the neck. Doolin is a great wheelman, unflappable and resourceful. When a guy tries to run him off the road, he takes the cigarette dangling ever so suavely from his lips and flicks it in the other driver’s face, blinding him and sending him careening into a canyon. His car’s cool too, a tricked out 1950 Ford with enough gadgets to make James Bond jealous. It’s got detachable bumpers, oil slicks, enough horsepower to plow through roadblocks, and lots of room for moonshine. Things don’t work out too well for Doolin in the end — things rarely do for movie wheelmen — but caught between the racketeers and the revenuers (i.e. the U.S. Treasury Department looking to put a halt to untaxed backwoods’ moonshining) he never yields to the pressure, much less to pedestrians in the crosswalk.


Frank Martin
From “The Transporter” (2002)
Directed by Corey Yuen
Preferred Ride: BMW E38 (Audi A8 in the two sequels)

Professional transporter Frank Martin (Jason Statham) has so many rules. Rule number one: never change the deal. Rule number two: no names. Rule number three: never open the package. Really, the only rules Frank doesn’t acknowledge are the rules of physics; when this guy gets behind the wheel, cars do magical things. Movie wheelmen always seem to have codes to protect them from their own dark impulses. They establish guidelines to live by so they can sleep at night telling themselves they’re not doing anything wrong. The great part about Frank is he has rules, but he always breaks them. For three consecutive movies, Frank opened the package, or learned the names of his employers, and it always ended up getting him into trouble. Awesome, gravity-defying trouble.


The Driver
From “The Driver” (1978)

Directed by Walter Hill
Preferred Ride: Late model Ford LTD

Walter Hill’s “The Driver” is one of the most efficient action movies ever made. Everything about it is stripped down to the bare essentials; Hill is like a chef who’s been dared to make a delicious meal with the fewest ingredients possible. The title seems plain, but it’s the only title that would fit a film in which nothing and no one is named; not the city where it’s set, nor the hero who prowls its streets as the ultimate getaway man. He’s simply called The Driver, and he’s played by Ryan O’Neal. Time and again he slips through the fingers of The Detective (Bruce Dern), who decides to blackmail a couple of crooks into hiring The Driver for a job that’s really a set-up. The Driver is awesome because from almost frame one of the film, he is trapped: by late partners, by crooked cops, and by bad luck. But no matter how bad things get, he never flinches, and he always finds an escape; no wonder he’s the best wheelman in the business. Because there’s so little dialogue, especially from The Driver himself, we’re constantly stuck behind the action, always guessing his next move. But the man never fails to surprise us. Like Gosling’s Driver, he has a reputation for not carrying guns, and in the movie’s best scene we find out why.


Kowalski
From “Vanishing Point” (1971)
Directed by Richard C. Sarafian
Preferred Ride: Dodge Challenger

“Vanishing Point” begins at its story’s chronological end, with a bleary-eyed wheelman named Kowalski (Barrry Newman) driving full-speed toward a police roadblock. The rest of the film takes place in flashback, which is appropriate for the story of a man who can’t stop living in the past. Kowalski delivers cars, and though his latest package, a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T, isn’t due in San Francisco until Monday, he vows to get it there by Saturday afternoon. Exactly what made Kowalski such a determined, zonked out speed-freak is left ambiguous, but the snippets we see of jobs and loves lost point to an accumulation of assorted tragedies that ultimately became too tough to bear. Likewise the accumulation of time since “Vanishing Point”‘s 1971 premiere has only enhanced the impact of Kowalski’s existential plight. Today the image of a world-weary driver running out of road suggests so many things: the end of the myth of the American West, the failure of the political idealism of the 1960s, and the last gasps of the cinema’s New Hollywood years. Plus there’s Kowalski himself, this tragic figure who’s addicted to speed and doesn’t know why. Maybe he’s just trying to stay ahead of the ghosts.


The Bandit
From “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977)
Directed by Hal Needham
Preferred Ride: Pontiac Trans Am

A lot of these wheelmen are strong, silent types. They’re all business because that’s what driving is for them: a business. The Bandit (Burt Reynolds), on the other hand, drives for the thrill, gleefully accepting an impossible bet to haul bootleg beer from Texas to Georgia specifically because it’s impossible. Nothing fazes him, not a hitchhiking runaway bride (Sally Field) who tries to steal his beloved Trans Am, not even a chance lunch counter meeting with the man hot on his tail, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason). As Field puts it, Bandit just has a “lyrical way of cutting through the bullshit.” And not to get too lyrical or bullshitty on you myself, but I do think there’s something almost primordial about the Bandit’s appeal. Cars represents a lot more than a means of transportation in this country: they’re a symbol of freedom. The Bandit, a perfect figure of pure escapist fantasy, is the only guy on this list who really seems to get that. And that’s what the Bandit’s ride and his carefree attitude represent. When he’s behind the wheel of that Trans Am, he’s free.


Who’s your favorite movie wheelman? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

Fred Armisen and Stephen Colbert Sample Foghat Wine

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Fred Armisen and Stephen Colbert Had a Rockin’ Wine Tasting

Catch Fred on the new season of Portlandia Thursdays at 10P on IFC.

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As per The Late Show’s themed gift recommendation this past December, we all spent the holidays delightfully unwrapping various Foghat albums and compilations. And while those cassettes remain in our tape decks, there’s still more ’70s boogie rock to enjoy in the form of fermented grapes. Yes, Foghat has its very own wine, straight from the cellars of drummer and Late Show fan Roger Earl, and Portlandia’s Fred Armisen joined host Stephen Colbert to sample the goods. And thanks to Earl’s watchful eye and drumstick swirl during fermentation, the pinot noir unfolds nicely on the tongue and has the perfect notes to swig directly from the bottle while shrieking, “HELLO, CLEVELAND!”

Watch Fred Armisen and Stephen Colbert don literal “fog hats” and take a slow ride through some tasty spirits below.

The origins of a viral sensation in this exclusive clip from “Shut Up Little Man!”

The origins of a viral sensation in this exclusive clip from “Shut Up Little Man!” (photo)

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How do viral sensations start? That’s one of the intriguing questions posed by the new documentary “Shut Up Little Man!” The film is about the origins and moral implications of ten hours of audio recordings of two old drunks, Peter and Ray, who liked to stay up all night yelling at each other. Their neighbors, Eddie and Mitchell, started taping their fights, then shared the audio with friends. From there, it spread through San Francisco and all sorts of underground culture. Peter and Ray became cult heroes, all without their permission, or even their knowledge.

In this exclusive clip, Eddie and Mitchell recount their first encounter with Peter and Ray. Be careful, though: Peter and Ray weren’t exactly polite public speakers. Their intensely bad language make this video a wee bit NSFW.

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The story continues from there, detailing the steps Eddie and Mitchell took to spread the gospel of Peter and Ray, and then examining the thorny ethical issues involved with turning a regular person into a viral celebrity. It’s a really interesting documentary; you can read my full review here.

“Shut Up Little Man!” opens tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles; as an added bonus for East Coasters, Patton Oswalt will be hosting Q&As with Eddie and Mitchell at the 6:25 & 8:25 screenings at the IFC Center this Saturday. That’s two awesome things for the price of one.

Have you ever heard “Shut Up Little Man!”? How’d you find it? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

The 3D movie revival (2009-2011)

The 3D movie revival (2009-2011) (photo)

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Slate has an article this morning every 3D fan — or 3D hater — should read. It’s called “Who Killed 3D?” by Daniel Engber, and it accuses four main suspects: greedy theater chains, greedy film studios, shrewd consumers, and hack filmmakers. The entire piece, which includes eye-opening graphs on the decline in revenue generated by 3D movies in recent months, is worth reading, but here is one brief excerpt on the subject of moviegoers’ perception of the format:

“While the early movies in the 3D revival relied on outrageous stunts — pickaxes flying off the screen and all that — recent films have tended to use the technology for atmosphere, rarely breaking out of the stereo window. Restraint carries its own risks, however. In June, A. O. Scott called this ‘one of the pitfalls of that format, which is that if the 3D is unobtrusive enough that you don’t really notice it, you may as well forego the disposable glasses and the surcharge that comes with them.’ The vice- chairman of Paramount summed up the case when he told the Times that consumers are ‘tired of sitting in a theater thinking, ‘Wait is this movie in 3D or not?”
It’s a damned-if-you-do problem: 3D effects are either too blatant or too subtle, a novelty or a trifle.”

I’m not sure that there’s one clear assailant here — in the final analysis, the solution to this mystery may be like a game of “Clue” where someone accidentally shoved both Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum’s cards into the little envelope. There may also be one more suspect that Slate missed, one that combines elements of greedy studios, shrewd consumers, and hack filmmakers: let’s call it “glutting the market.”

The 3D revival began with “Avatar,” which became more than a movie, even more than the all-time highest grossing movie in history. It became an event. People who rarely go to the movies — not just “3D movies,” but movies in general — went to see it. Thanks to its association with the “Avatar” brand, 3D felt special, not just some gimmick dredged up to enliven tired genre formula, but an entire new filmic dimension ready to be explored. For a very brief period, it seemed like 3D was the future. That’s how you were going to see the biggest and most important films from now on.

Of course in “Avatar”‘s wake came many, many 3D movies. Even movies that weren’t shot in 3D were converted to 3D in post-production to cash in. At that point, the quality of 3D films was almost irrelevant; it was quantity that mattered. Some have compared the surcharge on 3D movies to the ticket prices at Broadway shows or sporting events. That’s ludicrous; live theater and sports are once-a-year indulgences (if you’re lucky). Perhaps if there was one 3D movie of the year on par with “Avatar,” people would embrace the idea of a surcharge. But we’ve reached a point this summer where there are sometimes one or two new 3D movies every week. Now there’s nothing inherently special about a 3D movie.

“Avatar” and a few other high-end 3D movies suggested that there could be. But I suspect Slate’s article will soon be proven correct: those in charge of the format sacrificed long-term viability for short-term profits, which is too bad. I remain convinced that there are still interesting artistic opportunities in three dimensions. Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg both seem to think so; their upcoming movies “Hugo” and “The Adventures of Tintin” are both in 3D. But even if they explore new dimensional terrain, will anyone notice? As far as most theatergoers are concerned, they’ve already seen enough.

Do you still like going to 3D movies? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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