Archive for the ‘Film buff’ category

Obi-Wan Kenobi’s “little friend”

8 February 2012
Categories: Film buff, Star Wars

Like many Star Wars fans, when I first saw Episode I – The Phantom Menace, I hated it. For all the usual reasons, of course. But there was one plot point that bugged the hell out of me, made me feel like the newer films were horribly anachronistic and non-canon with respect to the original trilogy. In Episode I, Obi-Wan Kenobi meets up with Artoo Detoo. Later, particularly in Episodes II and III, they go into battle together.

I was appalled. “If they have such a long history together,” I asked no one in particular, “why the heck doesn’t Obi-Wan recognize Artoo when he arrives on Tatooine in Episode IV?” (To quote the Car Talk guys, “Bo-o-o-o-gus!”)

Turns out I was wrong about this. The simple answer: he does.

Imagine it from Obi-Wan’s perspective. He’s been in exile on Tatooine for years, hiding from the Empire and keeping watch over young Skywalker, acting as Luke’s mostly unseen guardian and protector. Some day, he hopes, the Rebel Alliance will gain enough strength for the remaining Jedi to resurface, join the fight and, with any luck, defeat the Empire. Until that time, he’s going to lay low.

Then one day, he hears a ruckus: a landspeeder roaring through the Jundland Wastes, and Tusken Raiders coming after it to attack the driver and loot the speeder. Obi-Wan might already be on his toes, if he spotted the unlikely sight of a space battle just beyond Tatooine’s atmosphere the day before. He arrives on the scene to find his unwitting protégé—and his longtime comrade, companion, and fellow Hero of the Clone Wars, Artoo Detoo.

What’s Obi-Wan to do? Right away he knows the cat’s out of the bag, but he doesn’t yet know just how far out it is. He doesn’t know if Luke knows anything more than his uncle’s lies, and he certainly doesn’t know (though probably suspects) why Artoo is there.

So he plays it cool.

He keeps a straight face, feigning zero recognition of the droid. When he hears Luke say his real name—Obi-Wan, not Ben—he’s a little shocked, and resigns himself to telling Luke that he’s Obi-Wan… and soon Obi-Wan is giving Luke his father’s old light saber, cluing him in on the existence of the Force, and admitting to having fought in the Clone Wars. He takes it as a given that Luke will accompany him to Alderaan. The cat is well and truly out of the bag.

Even his denial of Artoo is not, in itself, a lie. Obi-Wan speaks quite truthfully when he states, “I don’t seem to remember ever owning a droid.” As far as I can tell from extensive online biographies, Obi-Wan Kenobi never did own a droid—and he definitely never owned Artoo Detoo. (I’d also like to think that Obi-Wan considers droid “ownership” to be slavery, and owning a droid to be antithetical to both his nature and theirs.)

So yes, I believe that Obi-Wan recognizes Artoo instantly, and it’s only the fact that we don’t understand what Artoo is saying that this is not revealed in the scene.

Now, had Artoo managed to reach Obi-Wan’s home without Luke catching up to him, the reception might have been different:

Obi-Wan: (Opens the door, looks only slightly surprised, as if he’d been expecting this) Hello there, my little friend. It’s been a long time. Come in, come in! May I offer you a cup of three-in-one oil? What brings you to this quiet corner of the galaxy?
R2-D2: (Beeps once or twice, then rolls Leia’s distress message)
Obi-Wan: (Frowns) Looks like we’re headed to Alderaan.
(Scene.)

(Some time later…)
Luke arrives at Obi-Wan’s home, finds the door locked and no one home.
Luke: Well, we might as well go to Anchorhead and get your memory wiped.
C-3PO: Oh, very good, sir.

 

Get to know the real Artoo Detoo

8 February 2012
Categories: Film buff, Star Wars

Years ago, I came to realize that the real hero of Star Wars is not the guy everyone assumes it is, Luke Skywalker—rather, it’s that plucky little astromech droid, Artoo Detoo. I had some fun writing a revisionist narrative of A New Hope based on that assumption, and have to say that I’m a little surprised never to have seen anyone else come to this realization, even though it’s obvious when you really think about it. Among the hints:

  • Artoo Detoo—and his comic-relief sidekick, See Threepio, because every good action hero needs a comic-relief sidekick—appears in all six Star Wars films.
  • Only the principal bad guy, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, can claim the same. (Obi-Wan Kenobi is a ghost in Episodes V and VI, so I don’t think that counts.)
  • In A New Hope, the droid duo are the very first main characters to appear and to speak. That’s a standard trope of the Saturday-afternoon popcorn serials to which Star Wars is an homage: establish your hero right off the bat, so everyone knows who to root for.

I made some statements in that narrative that might seem a bit far-fetched, and not based in the “reality” of what’s on-screen. In particular: Artoo Detoo is the Death Star Destroyer. However, I can prove it.

1. The plans provided by Leia to Artoo are the Death Star’s original design specs.

When the Corellian transport Tantive IV is attacked and captured by Vader’s Star Destroyer in the opening scene, the Death Star is not yet 100% operational. It is, shall we say, still on its shakedown cruise. The Empire’s still peeling off the shrink-wrap in many parts of the battle station.

We know this because after Leia’s capture, General Tagge mentions that the Death Star is not yet fully operational. Grand Moff Tarkin refers to its use against Alderaan as “a ceremony that will make this battle station operational.” It had to have taken some time for the Rebel spies to acquire the plans and provide them to Leia; therefore, they must be plans from earlier in the construction project—most likely the original design specs, or some portion of them.

2. Artoo steals a complete set of as-built specs while aboard the Death Star.

When they arrive aboard the Death Star, the first thing Artoo does is plug into the main computer. Why? He doesn’t need to find a way to the tractor beam controls so they can get away; presumably he already has this information in the stolen plans. (And no, he doesn’t need a monitor to display the route to Kenobi—he has a freakin’ holographic projector in his dome!)

Artoo patches in because he’s an experienced soldier in enemy territory who wants to maximize his battlefield situational awareness. He immediately starts downloading all the data he can grab, including (but not limited to) construction details, disposition of troops, and the current alert status. How do we know? For this reason: he finds Leia. When last he saw Leia, she was about to be captured by a Star Destroyer near Tatooine, in an entirely different star system light-years away from a Death Star near the remains of Alderaan. Artoo has no reason to think she’d be alive, much less anywhere nearby, and thus has no reason to look for her. Yet he finds her, because a prisoner manifest happens to be among the reams of data he’s absorbing throughout their sojourn aboard the battle station.

3. Without those as-built specs, the Rebels would have had no plan of attack.

It’s highly unlikely that the Death Star’s intended design included a two-meter-wide thermal exhaust port, unshielded against projectile weapons, leading directly to the main reactor. That would be an insane Achilles’ heel.

I believe the original plans as stolen by the Rebel spies would have shown some kind of particle shielding or other defense system—heck, even a simple steel grate—covering that exhaust port. Without the as-built specs, marking that particular piece of the project as “not quite finished,” the Rebels would have thought the Death Star utterly impregnable. (Which it would have been, had it not been rushed into operational status.)

4. Artoo not only devised the plan of attack, he programmed the photon torpedoes to hit the target.

When Artoo and company arrive on Yavin 4, technicians download his massive data trove—and in just a few hours they have their plan of attack ready for dissemination to the flight crews. How did they come up with a solution so quickly? Because Artoo is not some passive hard-drive—he’s a veteran astromech droid. He had several more hours to peruse the specs (and days longer to view the original plans), analysis time that would have allowed him to find a solution on his own.

Moreover, during the attack, if hitting the exhaust port were really as easy as “bullseye[ing] womp rats in my T-16 back home,” why do several shots using the Rebel Alliance’s best targeting computers go astray, just impacting on the surface? And yet a kid with exactly zero time in the cockpit of an Incom T-65 X-wing Starfighter, with his targeting computer disabled, is able to pull the trigger at random, and “blow this thing and go home.”

Why? Because Artoo, unlike every pilot—and every other astromech droid—on the mission, has a complete understanding of the target. He knows the exhaust port’s exact location, appearance, and surroundings. He alone can direct those photon torpedoes to hit it accurately. Fortunately he’s able to do so before Luke’s novice combat-piloting skills put his dome in a TIE fighter’s crosshairs. (An idle thought: perhaps Vader, who shoots Artoo, recognizes him and is aiming for him; maybe Artoo—and not Luke—is the object of Vader’s comment, “The Force is strong with this one.”)

Meanwhile, I suspect that turning his targeting computer off is the one smart thing Luke does, as it prevents the computer from overriding Artoo’s re-programming. But that’s really a wild surmise.

At any rate, now that I’ve further defended the statement that Artoo Detoo is the real hero of Star Wars, I have another revelation about that plucky little droid.

Artoo Detoo is a sarcastic, potty-mouthed wiseacre.

By the time we meet him in ANH he’s been through decades of wars and adventures: seriously kicking ass, seldom taking names, and getting little-to-no credit for his actions. Artoo is getting pretty tired of this shit—if he were capable of anger he’d be called irascible. Plus he’s never had a memory wipe; according to one online source, “Industrial Automation spent a great deal of time in the design of the R2-series astromech droid’s personality matrix. The droid was obliging, quick witted, and sincere. If the droid was not subjected to periodic memory wipes, it could develop a headstrong, self-reliant disposition.”*

Consider this: only Threepio understands everything Artoo says, and being a protocol droid he’s unlikely to repeat anything impolite or impolitic. But I believe that pretty much any time Artoo speaks, with the exception of imparting direct, factual information, he’s emitting scathing one-liners and cheerfully ripping everyone around him a new one. He’s not being a jerk, and he has no ego to be egotistical about it; he’s actually very charismatic and chipper—surprisingly so considering the rough treatment he’s received throughout his service. Besides, he has a diehard steadfastness and loyalty toward humans, even though they rarely hold up their end of the symbiotic relationship between humans and droids.

The empirical fact is that no one—heck, no one army—has done as much to save the Galaxy from the Empire as Artoo Detoo has. He’s earned himself a little snarkiness.

For illustration, here are a few excerpts, with my impressions of possible subtitles in the place of Artoo’s bleeps, bloops, and whistles.

Opening scene

C-3PO: Did you hear that?
R2-D2: [Of course I fucking heard that. I’m not deaf, you know.]
C-3PO: They’ve shut down the main reactor. We’ll be destroyed for sure. This is madness.
R2-D2: [This is war, same as it ever was. Get your bipedal ass moving. And ditch your shitbox silver twin.]

C-3PO: We’re doomed.
R2-D2: [How very helpful, Glass-half-full.]
C-3PO: There’ll be no escape for the princess this time.
R2-D2: [Princess schmincess, as long as she bothers to hand off the secret plans first. Where the fuck is that girl?]

Later, on Tatooine

C-3PO: Just you reconsider playing that message for him!
R2-D2: (In a disingenuous tone, feigning hopefulness) [Why? Doesn't the idiot farm boy like me?]
C-3PO: No, I don’t think he likes you at all.
R2-D2: (Still disingenuously, with added sarcasm) [Et tu, Threepio?]
C-3PO: No, I don’t like you either.
R2-D2: (A descending whistle of pure, distilled sarcasm) [Nuts.]

In Obi-Wan’s home

Obi-Wan: Which reminds me… I have something here for you.
R2-D2: [Hello? Droid with Death Star plans here!]
Obi-Wan: Your father wanted you to have it, when you were old enough, but your uncle wouldn’t allow it. He feared you might follow old Obi-Wan on some damn fool idealistic crusade like your father did.

Luke: What is it?
Obi-Wan: Your father’s light saber.
R2-D2: [Better stand back, old man, before that imbecile waves that thing through your head.]

Obi-Wan: Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force.
Luke: The Force?
Obi-Wan: The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.
R2-D2: [Hey Kenobi, if you’re done bullshitting that kid about who his father really is, maybe you’d like to take a look at the message I’m carrying before a bunch of goddamn stormtroopers show up.]
Obi-Wan: (Pretending not to understand Artoo) Now, let’s see what you are, my little friend…
R2-D2: [’Bout time.]
Obi-Wan:  …and where you come from.

Aboard the Death Star

C-3PO: I would much rather have gone with Master Luke than stay here with you. I don’t know what all this trouble is about, but I’m sure it must be your fault.
R2D2: [Oh, for fuck’s sake! Did you take another motherfucking memory wipe?]
C-3PO: You watch your language!

C-3PO is tangled up in wires after a run-in with TIE fighters

C-3PO: Help! I think I’m melting! This is all your fault!
R2-D2: (Makes a series of beeps that sound like chuckling) [IMDb]

The examples go on and on, and as much as this started out as kind of a joke, there’s an element of truth to it. There are hints throughout the films that Artoo’s not just making random chirrups of sweetness and light, such as when he calls Threepio a “mindless philosopher.”

Just imagine the rant Artoo voices when Luke, after confidently stating he’d like to pilot the X-wing for a while, crashes it into a swamp on Dagobah. “Nice landing, hot shot,” would be the mildest part of it.

 

To the Onion A.V. Club: You’re welcome

28 July 2011

The Onion A.V. Club recently began airing a series of short films titled Pop Pilgrims. Their intro sums up the purpose of Pop Pilgrims better than I could:

“When the A.V. Club travels, we always make time to visit pop culture landmarks. If something memorable happened in the world of film, TV, books, or music, we want to go there. We’re not just tourists, we’re pop pilgrims.”

The series is a lot of fun, and very informative. Yet up to now, I hadn’t really given much thought to how they were getting their information.

Most of the shorts include interviews with local “experts,” people with firsthand (or at least close secondhand) knowledge of the sites: a pastor from the church in the final scene of The Graduate, say, or the former special counsel who helped to bring Animal House to the University of Oregon campus. That’s a great way to add to the pop lore, especially when the interviewees let us in on some lesser-known facts about the site. The short about Friday Night Lights was particularly illustrative on the ingenious use of a single physical location as many different on-screen places.

In their latest installment, the first of three in Chicago, they take on The Blues Brothers. And beyond the location interview at the Music Court bridge in Jackson Park—site of the Nazi rally in the movie—it would appear that a major portion of the three-minute short was put together by someone sitting down with some editing software, a DVD of The Blues Brothers, and a web browser displaying my site: Chicago Filming Locations of The Blues Brothers.

I say this because of the similarities in the captions that accompany several of the locations—not merely addresses, but phrasings that are somewhat distinctive due to my choice of words and their order. A standout example is their “Jackson Park between East Lagoon and 59 Street Harbor, Chicago, IL,” a near-verbatim copy of my notation, plus a typo and minus “South of Museum of Science and Industry.” (For whatever reason, both in their location shots and the caption, the A.V. Club has obfuscated the proximity of the bridge to MSI—just as the movie did.)

I’ll even go so far as to suspect that all of the on-screen captions, even the addresses, were cribbed from my site. Of course it’s impossible to say that for certain, unless the folks at the A.V. Club fess up—which is why, despite my desire for 100% perfect accuracy, I realize now in hindsight that I should have included a few “ringers.”

In the excellent book by Jeopardy über-champ Ken Jennings, Brainiac, he describes how trivia writers will often add ringers: little bits of unique, often incorrect data, used as markers to let the writers know when their work has been borrowed by others. The classic example Jennings cites is that of “Columbo’s first name: Philip,” a falsity inserted by Ken Worth into his Trivia Encyclopedia in the early 1970s—and which subsequently appeared in the first edition of the Trivial Pursuit game.

Worth’s subsequent lawsuit, and its dismissal in court, made clear that factual data, raw information, is not copyrightable. I’m not complaining about infringement or anything like that; that would be silly. I didn’t create the data—I merely compiled it from numerous sources (which I credited) and built on it with quite a bit of legwork (i.e., on-site location scouting).

An offhanded credit by the A.V. Club, for saving them from that same legwork—even just in the accompanying text, not on-screen—would have been the forthright, ingenuous thing to do. No matter, though; I remain their avid reader and fan, and I get pleasure out of knowing their little secret: that they visited my site and found it useful, regardless of how they used it.

You’re welcome, A.V. Club. Sincerely.

[Follow-up: Less than three hours after I posted this, I wound up in a friendly email exchange with A.V. Club general manager Josh Modell, who admitted that he “most definitely” used my site as a resource and offered to add a note and link to the bottom of their piece (now already in place). If you’ll pardon a cliché, I must say this: The Onion A.V. Club—too cool for school.]

What I did during my summer (non-) vacation

24 September 2010
Categories: Chicago, Film buff

It was an eventful summer in downtown Chicago. On a steamy Friday in June, the Blackhawks celebrated their Stanley Cup victory with a midday parade and rally. A few million of their friends and fans showed up, turning the Loop into a scene of mass pandemonium. We had a clear and (relatively) safe vantage point from our office and spent the day looking out over the crowd, allowing random clouds of confetti to drift in through the open windows.

We might have thought that would be the height of excitement this summer, but aside from the sheer volume of people involved, the parade was a mere warm-up for the main event in July and August.

That’s when Transformers 3 came to town.

For several weeks, Michael Bay and company took over several blocks of downtown—in discrete one- and two-block areas at a time, not all at once—to film the climactic scenes of next summer’s blockbuster. Huge chunks of styrofoam faux-concrete littered the streets. Propane mortars fired off giant fireballs. Hydraulic rams tossed and flipped cars around like toys. Helicopters (both as in-scene vehicles and camera platforms) roared up and down the Chicago River. Actors in Special Forces gear ran through the debris, firing automatic weapons at imagined adversaries.

Where my office is located, we were pretty much in the thick of it. Time and again, an ordinary day would be suddenly punctuated with roars of noise and clouds of smoke pouring from the street just half a block away, tantalizingly just out of sight beyond the buildings across the street. As a film buff, I could not resist heading out to the street to try and see some of the action.

That’s when I learned a simple truth about movie-making, especially big-budget action-movie making: going to look when you hear the big noise is the best way to maximize the time you’ll waste waiting around for the next take. Thirty seconds of action are often followed by an hour (or several) of resetting work.

Since I was supposed to be working, and my time was not unlimited, I decided to get serious about watching the production. As a result, I learned a few guidelines that, for me at least, produced some terrific results.


1. Do your homework

Look around online for information related to the production. There are a few decent websites that post notices (and rumours) of locations. In the case of Transformers 3, some of the work was so major—such as the blockage of Wacker Drive from Michigan Avenue to Wabash Avenue—that the newspapers all published the street closures in an attempt to alleviate traffic problems. (This might have actually been counter-productive, since it widely publicized the locations and many people came to town for the sole purpose of watching the spectacle.)

Expect to find temporary signage in the vicinity of a shoot, since the drivers and crew will need guidance to base camp, extras holding, lunch, and the set itself. Often these signs are in code, and not immediately recognisable for their intent. For example, the Transformers 3 signs did not use T or 3, an Autobot logo, etc.

2. Know the terrain

Again, here’s another place where the Internet comes in handy. Knowing that a scene was being filmed at a certain location, I looked at it on Google Street View and was able to scope out potential vantage points outside the cordoned-off perimeter. Another time, I parked in the Trump Tower ramp and stayed put, having a clear view (or as clear as it gets through the exhaust-stained windows) of the action at Wacker and Wabash.

That said, nothing beats first-hand knowledge of the area. At one point I unintentionally stumbled onto the set, deep within the perimeter. Using stairwells, side streets, and an alley, all of which were completely open to the public (but seldom used by pedestrians at any time), I found myself no more than twenty yards from where Michael Bay was rehearsing Patrick Dempsey in what looked to be his big Götterdämmerung scene.

To reiterate, this was unintentional. I wasn’t trying to be particularly sneaky, I was just looking for a clear view of the action. I simply followed a path through an area I knew far better than the film crew, and was never stopped or questioned along the way. I managed to snap a few photos before a production assistant (PA) noticed me and asked me to move on, and I apologised sincerely for the trespass and quickly exited the area. (q.v. point #4, below)

3. Use technology

By far the most useful tool—more than Google Maps, more so even than my camera with its entry-level zoom lens—was my trusty little Yaesu VR-120D handheld receiver. I suppose even small productions use two-way radios to some extent, but on a major job like this—where the set spans a couple of city blocks, action is both outside and inside buildings, and the enormous base camp is several blocks away—they are nothing short of indispensable. Everyone on the crew carried one: producers, directors, location managers, the on-set medic, and all the PAs guarding the perimeter, listening for traffic control instructions, and calling out “fire in the hole” moments before a big, explosive scene was about to start.

It didn’t take long to locate the frequencies in use by the crew, and so I settled into my desk at work and listened to an interesting, often-hilarious, live, unscripted radio show. The star of the show was 1st assistant director Simon Warnock, a logistics wizard who seemed to know every detail of what was happening and what was needed at every given moment. He was the General Officer commanding the troops, leaving Field Marshall Michael Bay to focus on the creative side of the endeavour. (For a while I wondered why Bay didn’t use the radio, until I heard him, just one time. Someone had dropped the ball on something important and he was severely pissed off about it and threatening to fire everybody. I hope the FCC wasn’t listening, because those expletives were anything but fleeting.)

As an aside, most people who see my receiver ask the same question: “can you talk to them?” I always answer no, it’s only a receiver. But the real answer is threefold: unauthorized transmission is 1) illegal, a felony I believe; 2) disruptive, dangerous and potentially life-threatening; and 3) a real dick move. Besides, what on earth would I want to say to them?

In any case, the biggest benefit to listening to the crew was that I had continual updates on how long it would be until the next big event, enabling me to grab my camera (and, in some cases, signal co-workers who had brought their cameras too) and head outside to stake out a good vantage point—just moments before the call to “roll cameras.” I suppose some people around me were puzzled to hear me say “fire in the hole” before the PAs shouted it, and then count down in sync with Warnock’s call as he cued everything to go boom.

4. Above all else, be polite, courteous, and cooperative

I heard and read a lot of grumbling about how “arrogant” and “mean” the film crew was to ordinary citizens, and I have to object vehemently to that aspersion. Over the course of several weeks I had numerous occasions to interact with the PAs working the perimeter and traffic control, and they were, to a man, friendly and polite, and easy-going when they could be, firm when they had to be.

Well, actually, there was one guy who threatened me a little, telling me I was lucky he didn’t smash my camera. But the truth is, that’s the exception that proves the rule, because he had asked me to move along, agreed to let me take one last shot, and said what he did after I took three shots, not one. I abused the leeway he gave me, and he let me know it.

I firmly believe this: attitude is a two-way street. I was friendly, welcoming, and cooperative to them, and got the same respect in return. The people who complained about the crew’s attitude were probably the same people who were inflexible, indignant jerks about the temporary disruption to their normal routines.


All in all, it was great fun to have the film crew in town. Apparently the feeling was mutual: producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura was quoted as saying, “It’s gonna spread like a virus around Hollywood about how great [a time] we had here. All of us felt like this was the best city we’ve ever shot in.”[Chicago Sun-Times, 25 Aug 2010] I really enjoyed seeing first-hand the process of making movie magic. Despite the so-so first and atrociously bad second films in the franchise, I’m actually looking forward to seeing the third installment—if for no other reason than to see how they piece together all the bits I saw them filming into one continuous set-piece of destruction in downtown Chicago.

Sadly, the Chicago leg of the production ended on a down note. On one of their last days in town, a young extra was gravely injured during a stunt. The producers immediately cancelled the remaining schedule, pulled up stakes and left Chicago. It was disappointing to see that it took Paramount Pictures almost two full days to issue a standard, boilerplate statement saying, “Our thoughts and prayers are with [the extra], her family and loved ones. We are looking into what caused the accident.” I would have expected something like that to come out first thing in the morning after the incident, and it gave me the impression that they either didn’t care or had something to hide. An erroneous impression, I must add, for just yesterday a spokesperson for Paramount confirmed that the company was covering all of the extra’s extensive medical bills. Unfortunately, her life will never be the same.

On a brighter note, the Transformers franchise is famed—or notorious—for its pervasive on-screen product placement, and this film is no exception. I was quite entertained to see some of the creative ways in which corporate names appeared in the scenes, and hereby nominate some winners and losers:

  • Vienna Beef – Winner. An abandoned hot dot cart with a bright red-and-yellow Vienna umbrella sat prominently amid the destruction—never mind that a city ordinance prohibits street food vendors in the real world.
  • 7-11 – Loser. The shop at the corner of Wacker and Wabash, at the heart of the action, was disguised and obscured with temporary awnings reading “Dimmsdale Market.”
  • Waste Management – Winner. One exciting sequence of vehicular mayhem took place in a parking lot strewn with WM-logo trash bins. WM even sent along a full-size garbage truck for set dressing. In the photo at right, I count at least six examples.
  • Veolia Environmental Services – Loser. Any other day of the year, trash collection at that parking lot is provided by Veolia, not Waste Management.
  • Hotel 71 – Winner. Following up its appearance in The Dark Knight, the hotel acted as center stage for much of the action, even allowing the producers to replace a row of ventilation grates with windows in order to shoot them out with machine gun fire. Apparently Hotel 71 has received quite a lot of business from tourists who stayed there specifically because Bruce Wayne had a party on its roof—and having Optimus Prime parked next door will likely continue that trend.

Finally, the Grand Prize winner for creative brand-name placement must go to the insurance company Unitrin. In the course of the action, the top of its headquarters building at 1 East Wacker Drive will take a direct hit from something big and destructive. The result: its big blue corporate signage winds up scattered upon the street below. That’s a good one.


For more shots of the action, check out my Transformers 3 filming” photo set on Flickr.

The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy by Robin Moore

10 October 2008

coverThe excellent 1971 film of The French Connection, starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, has been running quite frequently on the Fox Movie Channel of late. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s usually on late at night, so my focus is fuzzy, but there’s a major plot point in it that always had me confused.

The brown Lincoln Continental is brought into the country, loaded with concealed heroin, by the French connection. Then Sal Boca, the American connection, takes the car from a hotel parking ramp and parks it overnight on a seedy waterfront street, where it is nearly stripped by a roving chop shop gang. Popeye has the car impounded, the cops (finally, after hours of searching) discover the drug cache, then they close it back up good as new and return it to—the French connection, who later takes it to a desolate island in the East River for the deal to go down with Sal.

So here lies the confusion: why does Sal take possession of the car, full of drugs, before the deal—and then abandon it in a bad area? Why doesn’t he just off-load the drugs right then?

The answer lies in Robin Moore’s terrific non-fiction tale of, as he hyperbolically puts it, “the most crucial single victory to date in the ceaseless, frustrating war against the import of vicious narcotics into our country.” As Moore explains, the car (in reality a tan 1960 Buick Invicta) was left by the American connection on that waterfront street because at that point it was loaded, not with drugs, but with the cash payoff from a previous import. The car soon disappeared from the street, picked up by an unseen accomplice, and returned to Montréal (and ultimately France) to begin the next, even bigger, drug smuggling operation.

The stake-out scene in the movie is tense and dramatic, and it makes sense that it was included virtually unchanged from the book. But because the filmmakers have conflated two separate deals into one big deal, the chain of events ceases to make any sense at all. I find this ironic, considering that The French Connection is one of the films that is lauded for its gritty realism, a hallmark of American cinema in the 1970s. It’s a great movie—if for nothing else than the classic, nay, iconic chase scene between Popeye in a borrowed Pontiac Le Mans and his intended assassin in a commandeered elevated train—yet its five Academy Awards completely overshadow its excellent, worthy source material: Robin Moore’s 1969 book.