Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Film Appreciation - I Reckon Heaven Is a Place: In Memory of Paul Walker


Cody Hamman and Priscilla Tuboly show Film Appreciation for Joy Ride (2001) in tribute to Paul Walker.

Directed by John Dahl (Red Rock West, The Last Seduction, Rounders) from a screenplay by Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams, who was then best known for creating the show Felicity and years away from Tom Cruise hiring him to direct Mission: Impossible III and setting him on the path to becoming one of the top filmmakers in Hollywood, Joy Ride stars Paul Walker as Lewis Thomas, a young college student attending the University of California, Berkeley.

Since childhood, Lewis has been friends with a girl named Venna, and though Venna is going to school at the University of Colorado at Denver, the two have stayed in contact through regular phone calls. Lewis has always had a crush on Venna, but his feelings are unrequited - she's always been with other guys. Until now. With their freshman years over and summer break about to commence, Venna tells Lewis that she has broken up with her boyfriend. This might finally be his chance.

Lewis has a plane ticket booked to fly back to their New Jersey hometown, but when he gets this news and hears that Venna would be up for taking a road trip home, he gets a refund, uses the money to buy a 1971 Chrysler Newport, and hits the road to go pick Venna up.

A call home on the way reveals that, unfortunately for everybody, Lewis's troubled older brother Fuller has ended up in jail again, this time getting locked up in Salt Lake City. Lewis feels obligated to bail him out, going out of his way to pick his brother up, even though it messes with the plans he has for the ride with Venna. Because of Fuller, things only go downhill from there.

Fuller is the typical "careless, free" character. Doesn't seem to stay in the same place for too long, doesn't seem to think before he acts. He is very persuasive and gets away with things, but not always. Loves being the coolest guy in the room. Never takes responsibility and would rather blame everyone else for whatever goes wrong. Being in jail doesn't seem like an unusual thing for him, and from what it sounds like when his mother is talking to Lewis on the phone, it's trouble after trouble.

During a pitstop, Fuller randomly has Lewis's new used car outfitted with a CB radio, which he jokingly refers to as "a prehistoric internet". As they head for Colorado, Fuller starts using the CB to interact with truck drivers, giving himself and Lewis the handles Black Sheep and Mama's Boy. When he comes across an awkward-sounding trucker called Rusty Nail, he badgers Lewis into joining in on the fun and messing with Rusty Nail as a woman called Candy Cane.

Lewis shouldn't go along with this prank, he knows better. But he hasn't seen his older brother in years and despite their issues, he seems desperate to reconnect with his sibling, maybe even hungry for his approval. And he is very amused by Fuller's antics. So he grabs the CB and plays along... until they lose Rusty Nail's signal just as they were tricking him into starting to engage in some CB sex.

Rusty Nail comes back into range when the brothers stop at a motel for the night, just as Fuller has an encounter with a short-tempered, racist traveller staying in the room beside theirs. Fuller witnesses the guy complaining to the night manager about housekeepers always knocking on his door, so when he hears that Rusty Nail is back on the radio, he makes Lewis take their joke even further. Even though he knows it's a mean thing to do, Lewis again acquiesces to his brother, puts the Candy Cane voice back on, and arranges for Rusty Nail to meet the fictitious woman at the motel. Rusty Nail will soon be knocking on the door of the angry traveller, a bottle of pink champagne in hand.

Fuller is absolutely giddy when they hear a truck pull into the motel parking lot and he spots a shadowy figure approaching the door to the next room over. When Rusty Nail knocks on the traveller's door, the man reacts in a completely over-the-top manner, as expected. What Lewis and Fuller didn't expect is the sound of a brief physical altercation that they hear through the wall... They didn't expect that the traveller would be found tossed out on the road the next morning, near death, his bottom jaw ripped off.

As it turns out, Rusty Nail is a very dangerous, violent man, not someone to be messed with, and now that he knows that Lewis and Fuller were pulling a prank on him, that they toyed with his emotions, caused him to lash out and nearly kill someone, he begins chasing them along the roads of America and playing cat and mouse games with them, seeking revenge.

And he won't stop. Even when the brothers think they've gotten free of the situation and go ahead and pick up Venna, her presence just causes more problems for them - both with Rusty Nail and with each other, as Fuller attempts to make a move on the girl his brother is smitten with...

Fuller's character is questionable, because after a night of drinking at a bar, even though he knows Lewis is into Venna, he still jumps at the chance and goes to her room, trying to get her even more drunk while Lewis is passed out asleep. But maybe there was hope for him, because earlier in the evening, things could've gone really bad at the bar if he didn't pull one of his stunts, keeping a big fight from happening... so maybe he was learning, or was it just a rare case of common sense hitting him? Guess we'll never know.

Venna is the sweet girl next door type of character. But not really. She probably knew Lewis had a crush on her since they were kids and she kept him in the "just friends" zone, still telling him about boyfriends, but making sure he'd still be interested enough. She's the type of girl who likes the attention, and it appears that if Lewis hadn't walked in on her and Fuller the way he does, things would've gone further.

Lewis is really the most pure character of the bunch, the opposite of his brother. Responsible, good guy, in college, always doing the right thing, keeps in touch with the family. Goes out of his way to accomodate a friend (there was something in it for him though). He's still so young, shaping up his character, which is partly why he lets the situation go as far as it did with the CB and Rusty Nail. There's the need to bond with his older brother, definitely... but if he was a few years older, he probably wouldn't have felt the need to impress Fuller at all costs like he did. But even then, when things start to get serious, he comes clean and tells the cops about Rusty Nail and the prank, and also comes clean to Rusty Nail himself, admitting that there was no Candy Cane... even though that doesn't help much.

Joy Ride is very much in the tradition of horror/thriller road pictures like Steven Spielberg's Duel, Road Games, and The Hitcher (1986), and for that reason, plus the fact that I come from a family truck drivers, as mentioned in articles like the ones on Licence to Kill and Over the Top, the concept had me hooked as soon as I first heard about this movie in 1999, before it started production, at which time it was going by the title Squelch - which I still prefer to Joy Ride, and to its UK title Roadkill. Evoke those movies, promise me a story about a homicidal truck driver, and you'll have me paying for admission. I was there to see Joy Ride on opening weekend, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The movie is great. I've liked it since the first time I saw it. It has just the right amount of fun, light, funny moments and tense, serious, suspenseful ones. The chase scenes are really vigorous, especially the one on the "Dead End" road and the one in the cornfield. I love the feeling of desolation that we get from them being out on the road with nowhere to hide. They don't know where to go and they feel vulnerable, out in the open, knowing Rusty Nail is watching their every move.

Director John Dahl did an awesome job handling the chase and suspense sequences, and with cinematographer Jeffrey Jur captured some great images. There are wonderful nature shots of the Newport making its way through the countryside, and car lights and the neons and sickly fluorescents of some locations are used to splash interesting colors across certain scenes.

The cinematography really works. The countryside shots are great and I love all the gas stops, I could swear one of them was the same as one in the 1993 movie The Vanishing, starring Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges. I usually don't like the use of red and green lights too much, but it's nice here.

My favorite shot in the film comes when Lewis and Fuller are in their hotel room, which is bathed in green lighting, listening in on the confrontation between Rusty Nail and the traveller in the room next to theirs. On opposite ends of a painting showing a sailboat at sea, they press their ears up against the wall. The camera starts across the room and, as we listen to the sounds coming from next door, starts pushing in on a point in between the two - which happens to be this sailboat painting. Soon the image of the sailboat in the water completely fills the frame. Lightning flashes outside the hotel room, flashing on the painting, and since that's what we're looking at up close, it looks like the lightning is actually happening within the painting itself.

That is one of my favorite shots, for sure. When it's completely zoomed in and all we can see is that painting, you can almost see the water and the sailboat move, because there's the noise from the rain, so it feels like it's really happening. It's very nice.

The screenplay by Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams is really good, even if the ending wasn't quite there when production started. Several endings for this movie were shot, different outcomes for characters were considered, in the DVD special features there's even a 28 minute long alternate ending, an entirely different third act for the film. The one that finally reached screens was definitely the best possible option, even if the original ending did have a nice sort of Jaws callback, with Rusty Nail's semi truck instead of a shark.


One weak spot in the script and the finished film is how the female characters are presented. While Venna seems fun, there's signs that she can be headstrong, she displays some depth, she's largely there to be objectified. When we first see her, she's lounging in her underwear. When Fuller is re-introduced to her, her nipples are showing through her shirt. Both brothers want her as if she's a prize instead of a person. Ultimately, she's only along for the ride so she can get kidnapped and become a damsel in distress, along with her college friend Charlotte, the only other female of note in the film. It's sort of strange how the movie treats its female characters... I wonder if the fact that Rusty Nail forces Lewis and Fuller to walk into a truck stop restaurant completely nude balances the sexism issue out?

You know what? I think it does balance the issue out. It's way more common to see women being objectified in movies in general, and there's usually nothing for the female crowd. At least in this one, we get to see Steve Zahn and Paul Walker butt naked for a fair amount of time, and like my mom said when I watched the movie with her, they sure have a couple of really cute butts... Good eye candy for the ladies.

The cast all do very well in their roles. Paul Walker is the heart of the film as our more serious-minded hero. Steve Zahn is very funny as Fuller, and always likeable despite all the trouble he causes. Leelee Sobieski doesn't have all that much to do as Venna, but does have one great scene in particular when she is trying to reason with Rusty Nail over the CB and a tear spills down her cheek. She was one of my favorite upcoming actresses at this time, I wish she was a bigger star now. Multiple actors were considered to provide the voice of Rusty Nail, and there are clips of two other possibilities on the DVD - Eric Roberts, who played it a little too amused and theatrical, and Stephen Shennell, who was pretty good, but sounded a bit too much like a regular guy. The perfect Rusty Nail was found in the unique voice of Ted Levine, The Silence of the Lamb's Jame "Was she a great big fat person?" Gumb himself.

Steve Zahn and Paul Walker dominate the screen time and they do an amazing job. They have good chemistry and one balances the other one out very well, the dynamic between the two brothers is interesting and believable.

Leelee Sobieski is pretty good, Ted Levine doesn't need more than his voice to creep me out every time. One thing I didn't remember was that Jim Beaver is in it. He's only there for a brief moment, playing Sheriff Ritter, but as a Supernatural fan, I'm always happy to see Mr. Bobby Singer himself.

While we're both fans of Joy Ride, the reason we've chosen to write about it now is so we could pay tribute to Paul Walker, who died in a shocking and tragic accident on November 30th, at the much too young age of 40.

I was talking to Cody when I first saw the news about Paul Walker being killed in a car accident. I had just opened Yahoo, and Cody said that there was awful news on there. When I saw the news, I couldn't believe it, I actually needed a moment to grasp it. I know... I never met Paul Walker, I've never been in the same room with him, but it hit me really hard. It's not often that a celebrity death really has an effect on me, but it happens sometimes. Lately, more often than not, when we hear about an artist passing away, there are drugs involved, and that's always sad, and sometimes disappointing. But knowing it was a car accident and the circumstances surrounding it... it just broke my heart. For his daughter, his family, and his friends. I'm aware that after someone is killed like that, people only have good things to say about them, but with me it's always been true. People who know me know that he was always my favorite from the Fast & Furious movies. When the first movie came out, one of my best friends was always "Vin Diesel, Vin Diesel!" and I was the "Paul Walker, Paul Walker!" girl. I've always liked him. Yes, he was very handsome, but it was more than that. He just had something so special about him.

Unlike Priscilla, I was resistant to Paul Walker when I first started noticing him in movies. Although he had been acting since he was a child (starting off in 1986's Monster in the Closet), he didn't really catch my attention until the late '90s, at which time I immediately wrote him off as a California pretty boy. I didn't expect I'd be seeing him in many movies. But then the film choices he made drew me in to his career. He won me over. 2001 brought both Joy Ride and the release of the first Fast & Furious, and I loved both of them. (Ted Levine is in both of them as well.) Being a huge fan of the movie Point Break, it was natural that I would be highly entertained by The Fast and the Furious, since it was essentially a remake set in the street racing world. I continued following that series, I still maintain that the Walker-centric 2 Fast 2 Furious is the most fun of the bunch, and I saw most of his other movies in between the franchise entries, like the cult favorite Running Scared (2006).

I'm a big fan of the Fast & Furious movies, but he's in a lot of other movies that I really like, and I never understood why some people think he didn't have range, because he was always believable to me as either the good or the bad guy. I remember watching Running Scared a few months ago and going, "He's so good in this, how can people not praise him for it?" And now this happens. When you love movies as much as I do, you can't help but develop some sort of "relationship" with actors, directors, writers. You open your wallet, your heart, your door to them and some really stick and become part of your life... they touch us in ways that are hard to describe, and when you see them go, it affects you, even though you know you'd probably never get to meet them and tell them how much they meant to you. That's how I felt about him... and he looked like a genuinely nice guy. I didn't even know he was such a humanitarian, which makes it even sadder.

I hadn't heard about his charitable, humanitarian works until the reports on his death, either. This further shows how wrong I had been to intially regard him as just some surfer dude. The more that comes out about his offscreen life, the more it sounds like he was a really great person, the more my respect for him grows. I'm sure that's the case for a lot of other people, and it's a shame that Walker is only now achieving this level of open admiration.

In Joy Ride the car hits a tree and catches on fire in two separate occasions, and Paul Walker's character survived both... Really makes me wish he could have survived those things in real life, too... Actually, I just wish the accident never happened. Unfortunately it did, and the best way to keep him alive in our hearts is to celebrate his life through his movies. So, it seemed fitting that we wrote about Joy Ride, like Cody suggested.

Paul Walker
1973 - 2013

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