Saturday, August 15, 2020

Unhinged: back to the movies at Landmark New West


A cruel zinger occurred to me in contemplating how to write about the new film Unhinged: that it is in some regards a remake of Duel, with Russell Crowe in the role of the truck. 

It's a nasty joke, and I hope Mr. Crowe will forgive me for abusing whatever license I may have, as a fellow Man of Girth, in poking a little fun at him. He is no longer the pretty boy of yore, and may even have a few pounds on me. But above and beyond the sophomoric jab at Crowe's heft, the observation does have some truth to it. Like Duel - Stephen Spielberg's fine debut feature, initially made for TV but available (should you have missed it) in a very attractive and affordable widescreen theatrical release blu-ray - the film is a lean and mean tale of a minor bit of conflict on the road that erupts into a life-or-death struggle between a more-or-less innocent motorist and an utter madman in a truck, bent on destruction. Unhinged does offer some framing comments about road rage and contemporary discourtesy, including disturbing and presumably real news footage, but besides this, it doesn't really attempt to draw any overt thematic, moral, or philosophical observations from its story. As with Duel, thematic elements can be teased out if you have a mind to do so - and some of the reviewers who are comparing it to Falling Down obviously have a particular political reading in mind about white folks with grievances - but it's also possible to view this as a pure thriller, a movie where any and all thematic elements are expressed solely through the plot. It's a sort of filmmaking I'm partial to, actually: a shallow movie if you are shallow, to crib from Jodorowsky, but not without depths if you're prepared to do some work.  

Unlike Duel, however, the truck is not a rig but a mere pickup, and we get to know the driver (barely glimpsed in Duel) quite well: a recently divorced white male who has (we discover in the pre-credits sequence) just murdered his ex-wife and her new suitor (?), blown up their home, and fled. Also unlike Duel, the protagonist is a woman (played by Caren Pistorius), and she's not alone in being victimized: her entirely family and even her lawyer become targets of Crowe's wrath, as tools by which he can teach her a lesson. Finally, while in Duel, it is never entirely clear what perceived discourtesy provokes the trucker's wrath, it is made abundantly clear what gets Crowe's character so mad: a really minor rudeness, but one he makes it his mission to correct, initially even attempting to do so civilly (something the trucker in Duel doesn't bother with).

Of course, there is a whole lot to be said, with or without the promptings of this film, about white male privilege and the type of man who is inclined to fly into a rage over minor things that upset him, because he presumes he has a right to do so, maybe even sees it somehow as his responsibility (wannabe Alphas have to maintain social order, after all, and occasionally that involves punishing a transgressor - very much what Crowe is doing, here). I have been that guy in the past (not, like, murdering people over stuff, but, you know, frothing a bit), though have done a reasonably good job for a few years now of keeping my temper in check (there have been maybe three episodes since I got married where I got vocally steamed at someone, and I'm kind of embarrassed by all three). There are at least two men of my acquaintance (also, interestingly, white men of girth, in their late 40's/ early 50's - failed Alphas, the lot of us) whom I have witnessed get in people's faces over minor discourtesies, where their correction of the infraction was in fact the far greater rudeness, and it's helped make me not wanna be that guy. It would be a reasonable takeaway from Unhinged for people, as they leave the theatre, to turn to one another and say, "So what is it about fat, middle-aged white guys, anyhow?" 

But as lean-and-mean thrillers go, I liked Unhinged a fair bit, and like I say, if it does contain material that facilitates that sort of discussion, it hardly beats you over the head with it. It also ends on a surprising cover of the Blue Oyster Cult (who by the by have announced their new album, The Symbol Remains, for October release). 

Alas, that's where the one disappointment comes in, and it's not with the film, but the theatre where I saw it, Landmark New West. I really, really want to support the Landmark chain, who have incredibly comfortable seats, a staff that seem a bit better prepared to do their jobs than that of Cineplex, who have been responsive and courteous when I've had feedback, and who have almost never irritated me in the ways that Cineplex sometimes can do (most recent example: I ducked out of the Train to Busan sequel at Scotiabank last week, to take a fast poop in the men's room in the one stall not closed due to social distancing, only to discover - after I had crapped, alas - that NO ONE HAD BOTHERED TO FILL THE TOILET PAPER DISPENSER. It got messy - but I kept my complaints civil, managed to salvage my underwear, and ultimately got a refund for the ticket, so whatever. I did miss more of the movie than I'd expected to!). Landmark, however, have decided as a COVID safety measure that to avoid overcrowded hallways, they will, on busy days, have announcements from staff telling people which exit to leave from, so as soon as the credits roll and the lights slam on (same as Cineplex, but I guess we have to live with that), they (suddenly and jarringly) drop the volume of the music more or less in half. That meant that my initial delight at the unexpected and ethereal Blue Oyster Cult cover was immediately replaced by irritation that I wasn't being allowed to hear it at full volume. Ironically, this was being done despite a very thin audience and NO announcements about which exit we should leave by, so it wasn't even in aid of anything. I chatted with the manager (also a man of heft, but totally civil with me, and I stayed the same with him) and got his explanation, but I made sure he understood that the sudden volume drop detracted from the experience, for me. I mean, what can I say, I am one of those people who usually stays for the credits, and sometimes can really enjoy the music that accompanies them. It's not like I'm getting to hear loud music in a live setting these days - at least let me enjoy it at the movies! 

Other than that, though, the Landmark experience is in every way nicer than Cineplex's, and rivalled in Vancouver only by the Vancity Theatre (who also have extremely comfortable seats) and the Cinematheque (whose seats are only okay, even after two upgrades in recent memory, but whose programming, as with the Vancity's, is generally exquisite). For first run commercial films, the two Landmarks - there's another right by Guildford Mall - are the nicest experiences in town, overall, and it looks like both are veering back to playing first run features (though New West also had Inception, I guess in preparation for Christopher Nolan's upcoming new SF thriller, Tenet). 

So check out Unhinged at Landmark, if you're of a mind to, and if you too are annoyed by the pointless drop in volume at the end of the movie, leave that feedback on their website. They're pretty responsive (but, like, be polite about it, lest they sic Russell Crowe on you).  

PS, oh, and if you like pasta, you can get a discount movie ticket at the Old Spaghetti Factory and make a meal-and-movie night of it, if that's what you're craving. I am not a man of girth for nothing. 

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