Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Two Dates at the Le Brea Tar Pits

Due mostly to an unfriendly economic and political climate, on-location filming in Los Angeles has virtually disappeared. It's sad, because even the most boring of LA locations can provide interesting sets for films. Case in point, 1989's Miracle Mile opens with Anthony Edward's character romancing Mare Winningham's at the Le Brea tar pits in Los Angeles. And in 2007's The Hammer, another couple of movie characters have a romantic rendezvous at the tar pits. Well, not exactly the tar pits, but the George C Page museum adjacent to the tar pits:

Yes, it's as exciting as it looks. It is after all, a museum that celebrates a pit of tar and old bones. But it is interesting how two completely unrelated films, that couldn't be more different, use a place as mundane as the tar pits extraordinarily well - one comically, one thematically.

The Hammer (2007) 
Like all good romantic comedies, the setting becomes an integral character in the film. Such is the case with LA in The Hammer. An unabashed comedy vehicle for Adam Carolla that belies his usual low brow humor approach in TV shows like The Man Show and Crank Yankers. Carolla plays Jerry Ferro, a carpenter/boxing instructor who unexpectedly gets a second chance for the Olympic tryouts. At the same time, he begins a romantic relationship with one of his boxing students who is a public defender played by Heather Juergensen.

Even though Carolla plays Ferro as a tired, put upon sad-sack, the film is rather upbeat and cheery for the most part. This is due largely to the sunny LA locations, the humorously smart script, the music tracks from bands like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Bad Religion, The Jayhawks and a very nice cast of characters surrounding the lead.

Juergensen is very good as Ferro's smart, but athletically-challenged love interest Lindsay. Castillo is funny as his English-challenged best friend Ozzie, and the great Jane Lynch makes an uncredited but hilarious appearance as a not-to-be-challenged hardware shopper. The scenes between Carolla and Juergensen are the funniest and sweetest in the film, especially the Le Brea tar pit scenes where Jerry constantly complains, and Lindsay happily points out displays like "What it's like to be stuck in tar." There are some genuinely human moments between them that are nicely under-played, one in particular where Jerry is trying to let her out of his damaged pick up.

I only have two problems with the film. One is the low energy emoting that Carolla often brings to his character. His acting feels like a mandated Christmas gift in that it conveys the sentiment, but there seems to be no real emotion behind it. It's like a smile that doesn't quite touch the eyes. The second issue is with the unoriginal boxing story which is fairly standard Rocky/Karate Kid stuff with an ending bout that stretches all credibility in trying to be unique. It is nice to see in Carolla, a real athlete who knows how to box, but it would have been better to put that to some use in the ring instead of showing tired montage-type K.O. scenes. Actually, I wouldn't have missed this story line at all, and would have been happy with a stand alone, lovable loser romance. But for fans of underdog athlete plots, here's another one of those.

Overall, The Hammer is a quickly paced, fairly short film (80+ minutes) with some decent, humorous, believable characters, a nice romance, and an entertaining, if unoriginal, sports story with good use of LA as a backdrop.

Final Score 7/10

Miracle Mile (1989)
Although there are no obvious spoilers in this review, if you've never seen the movie, I advise seeing it completely on the blind for maximum enjoyment. So skip this for now, and fire up the Netflix Instant Watch where the film is currently available. This one is highly recommended.

In Miracle Mile, the film actually opens and closes at the Le Brea tar pits. I'm a complete sucker for the bookend device whether in film or literature, and it works very well here as a thematic statement. The tar pits serve as the perfect symbolic location for the beginning and the end. As in The Hammer, many other real LA locations, mostly around the Wilshire area are used to great effect. The viewer not only gets an idea of how unnecessarily spread out everything is in LA, but also the cockeyed, badly planned, non-sensical beauty of it all.

At the start of the film, Anthony Edward's character spots Mare Winningham's at the tar pits and becomes smitten. The next twenty minutes are right out of an 80's romantic comedy - 'Boy gets girl, boys loses girl'. It's the last hour of 'boy getting girl back' that is an absolute tension-filled thrill ride played out in near real time. It's like a leisurely stroll in the park that turns into an all out terrified sprint for your life. The pacing, which is never slow even in the early part of the film, moves so quickly that the 80+ minute film seems over all to quickly.

One of the smartest story aspects of the movie is the uncertainty of whether an upcoming event is actually happening at all. Has the main character caused mass panic or is an actual calamity approaching? The film does ultimately answer the question, but not knowing just adds another layer of suspense. Also the plot and tone are so cleverly deceptive, that one is left with a horrified smile halfway through, not quite knowing what to feel beyond the exhilaration. 

Steve De Jarnatt wrote and directed the film which stars Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham and a cast of character actor all-stars that include Mykel T Williamson (Forrest Gump's shrimp-loving buddy Bubba), Denise Crobsy (security chief Tasha Yar from Star Trek TNG), Brian Thompson (the alien bounty hunter from The X-Files), Jenette Goldstein (the tough soldier from Aliens and Diamondback from Near Dark), not to mention B-movie HoF icon John Agar. Almost every other cast member is recognizable as well. 

While Edwards is not the world's greatest actor, and Winningham (who is great) gets wasted in a standard girlfriend role, they both give performances that are good enough to buy into and don't distract from the story. Three actors that were particularly good in small roles were Crosby as a no-nonsense business woman, Kurt Fuller as her whiny, ever complaining assistant, and Williamson as a car stereo thief. Fuller has a scene near the end of the film that is absolutely bone chilling.

The Tangerine Dream score for the film is truly sublime and helps set the tone perfectly throughout. I think its the best score they've done for any film including Risky Business. It is undoubtedly the most valuable thing in the film.

On the downside, the film was made in the 80's, and it is readily apparent by the hair, make-up and wardrobe. Narrow lapels, spiky hair and headbands are all grotesquely present. Winningham's hair is a faux punk disaster. Even Williamson's character has some horrifyingly, hard-core jerry curl action going. The outdated fashions unfortunately turn the film into a time capsule which becomes somewhat distracting. However, even this major flaw can be forgiven as the film is so compelling otherwise. 

Overall, Miracle Mile is an excellent, lightening fast paced, gripping film, with some nice LA set locations. Had it been made ten years earlier, or ten years later, I've no doubt the film would have been a classic. However, it does get penalized for being made in the 80's due to the horrible aesthetic of that decade.

Final score 8/10

It's regrettable that Los Angeles has all but ceased being used as a filming location. Even places as dull as the Le Brea tar pits can be effective and integral parts of films. Maybe someday LA will wise up like other international cities, and make it easier to once again make movies there. Until then, at least we have two films like these to serve as a nice postcard from LA.


  1. I LOVE Miracle Mile. Love the bait 'n switch genre and ticking clock that you don't know is real or not. One thing, and it's a minor spoiler:

    Do we know for SURE that the threat existed all along, or was there the chance that Edwards' character ACTUALLY started it? I haven't seen the film in a few years (when my brother stole the VHS from BLockbuster by reporting it damaged, because he couldn't find it for sale anywhere else) but I remember that being a question I had.

    Also, My Girl 2 has some intense tar pit action. Not really, just that Vayda's friend pretends to drop the ring Macauly Culkin gave her into the pits and it's dramatic.

  2. There's a point in the film where a couple of characters point to Edward's character as the source of the rumor, and the look on his face conveys that he's not even sure if its true. Later on, when too much time has seemed to elapse for the event to have occurred, Winningham asks Edwards why people are still panicking, to which he simply replies "Chicken Little" - even he doesn't believe it's happening at that point. A lot of movies try to claim Hitchcock-ian suspense, but this one really does it right.

    No wonder I couldn't rent this film from Blockbuster in the 90's!

    Sorry Emily, I have a medical condition called 'normal testosterone levels' that prevents me from seeing My Girl 2. I'll take your word for the tar pits.