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Sunday, Apr 15, 2007


Dear Weinstein Brothers. We know things aren’t going particularly well for you right now. After severing ties with the notoriously bothersome House of Mouse and striking out on your own, you’ve found nothing but roadblocks in your Neuvo Miramax highway to success. Your recent releases have all underperformed, and now, that 2007 tent pole, the fascinating Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez retrofest Grindhouse is being buried under a bounty of bad press. The entertainment community, desperate to see you fall on your flabby behinds, has come after you like sharks on a wounded whale, and the foreseen flopsweat is ripe with potential failure.  It’s gotten so bad that you’ve even been thinking of taking both movies, expanding their individual running times, and releasing them as separate cinematic experiences.


Guys….guys…guys…calm down. Grab a bottle of Artesian spring water, a couple of prescription sedatives, and rest for a while. The LAST thing you want to do here is split apart this already intriguing return to the drive-in dynamic of three decades ago. Film fans of a certain age and demographic get what you were going for and really appreciate the time, talents, and tenacity you showed in getting it released. This was never going to be an easy sell – for one thing, Tarantino and Rodriguez are Grade-A certified geek meat if ever audiences tasted same. Their projects are propelled from a dork driven place so deep down inside their idiosyncratic ideals that basement dwelling film nerds feel unworthy in their presence. If you thought you were about to make mega-bucks with these oddball directorial dweebs, you must have been smokin’ screener copies of Shakespeare in Love.


Grindhouse was destined to be a tough ticket for numerous, obvious reasons. You’re dealing with horror and other genre elements, facets that most film fans tend to kvetch over, and critics can’t understand or appreciate. Next, you’re dealing with a category of cinema that few comprehend, let alone welcome. Ask someone what they think of exploitation, and you’re likely to get the regurgitated opinion of some overly academic dickweed who doesn’t cotton to any aspect of the raincoat crowd. Add in the uneven tone, the tendency to associate the entire project with the outer fringes of major mainstream motion pictures, and the lack of genuine buzz (thank you so bloody much, 300!), and you’ve got a dead on delivery dud. Even if you gained a 100% “fresh” rating over at Rotten Tomatoes, audience ennui would be enough to give your business plan agita before the Friday estimates were released.


But this doesn’t mean you give up. You shouldn’t conform to a viewing going public too dumb to fathom what you’re doing. As a matter of fact, the failure of the film has nothing to do with what’s up on screen. Grindhouse remains a witty, inventive, highly satiric, and gross as all get out experience that’s practically overpowering in its artistic energy and invention. Tearing it apart and turning it into a crude competition of sorts (and between Rodriguez and Tarantino, one can almost envision where your cash is landing) will destroy everything your filmmakers fashioned. And let’s not forget the fake trailers. Those who participated in making those marvelous mock ads deserve some respect as well. Yet the question becomes, how do you solve this seemingly impossible problem. How do you make audiences interested (or in some cases, re-interested) in a title already tainted by a group of jaded journalists? The answer, oddly enough, is right in front of you.


Like the fabled producers of old, the men who made exploitation the historical hinge for all post-modern cinema, you can’t take failure as the final response. David F. Friedman, Dan Sonny, Harry Novak and Bob Cresse didn’t make mountains of money – and a ballbusting reputation - by moping around the minute the public rejected their efforts. No, they reinvented these projects, using the standard carnival barker approach of bait and switch to change the perception of their problematic productions. Sure, this SOUNDS like what you want to do, but there is a big difference between cutting your losses and trimming the fat. These men made their all important names out of never failing the public, by understanding what the people prefer, and more importantly, what they’d be willing to pay for. If a standard sexless thriller didn’t work, they’d tack on a scandalous ‘square-up’ reel to increase the erotica. If the horror wasn’t high enough, more blood drenched gore was quickly inserted. Entire films were re-edited, sequences reshoot, and plotlines changed to find the right combination of salable shuck and jerryrigged jive.


So, following this pattern, here’s what you should do. First, pull this daring double feature from the theaters before more self-styled pundits can piss all over it. Take stock in what you have already available in cutting room trimmings and existing tweak time, and get your auteurs involved. Make them part of, not the reason for, this process. Don’t dawdle over money or creative control – the ship is sinking and the rats have already ponied up and abandoned you. Look to the future – say the end of August/beginning of September – and get your accessible forces poised for war. It’s going to be a long and involved process, but in the end, you could be looking at 300 style returns at the end of the day.


In the case of Planet Terror, reinsert the “missing reel” sex scene between Rose McGowen and Freddy Rodriguez, turn the Bone Shack into a combination barbeque pit and badass biker bar, let the chopper riding rejects rumble with some good old fashioned fisticuffs, give us more of the stoic stripper storyline (including lots of shots of nubile naked torsos) and then tell Robert Rodriguez to remove a little of the freak show spectacle. Granted, no one enjoys mindless bloodletting as much as this considered critic, but fountains of grue spouting over and over again can get a tad, well, old. Instead, how about more of those amazing moments when deconstructed corpses are examined in nasty, nauseating detail. In a world awash in CGI chum, physical effects can really help you stand out. Besides, nothing will sell the fright flick facets of this production better than more shots of Fergie’s hollowed out head.


As for your main man QT, tell that diva director to turn down the chatter. The dialogue in Death Proof is amazing, the kind of potent palaver that Tarantino carries Oscar gold for. But in a film that’s a self-described “slasher flick”, what we need is more slice and less nice. Listening to girls gossip and give their unique opinions of sex and self within the context of a killer action thriller is like featuring random shots of kittens during a snuff film. Trim a few minutes of their minutia driven confabs, give Kurt Russell more lines (he is an endlessly fascinating character who we need to know more about) and provide another stellar suspense sequence like the one where the car’s characterization is proven on Rose McGowen’s unsuspecting person. Make it lean and mean and you’d have one amazing movie on your hands.


Finally, find a few more famous filmmakers willing to give you some new and novel trailers – perhaps approach members of the referenced and revered like John Carpenter or Herschell Gordon Lewis. And then tell the MPAA to go to Hell. That’s right, thwart convention. Take a stand for all lovers of cinematic extremes. Position yourselves as the artist’s advocate, and let the marketing challenge chips fall where they may. It’s going to take you a good few months to get the interest level back up again, and to purge the perception of failure from almost all elements of this movie. Again, breaking them in two won’t do that. You’ll just double the disgust, making movie fans, in their mind, choose the lesser of two unexceptional evils. To revamp awareness and create curiosity, you have to reposition everything about your concept. 


And the only way you can do that is via education. Time to teach the public what they obviously do not know – that is, that exploitation rewrote the motion picture roadmap. It created a freshness and openness that most filmmakers never even considered. Better yet, when foreign films couldn’t find a footing on American shores, the Grindhouse gang rescued these movies, exaggerated their simplistic sexual freedoms, and turned the arthouse into the cathouse. Recognize that you’re going to have to do a lot of explaining and hire someone happy to oblige – say Something Weird Video’s Mike Vraney, or Psychotronic’s Michael Weldon - and walk the viewers through a short lesson in the genre’s mesmerizing history. Get the remaining members of the 40 Thieves together for a series of interviews, or better yet, have IFC, Sundance, Encore, or any other cable channel that’s willing to work with you do a series of Grindhouse specials. Showing a certain style of movie once a week won’t cut it. You need constant coverage of the category with input from the people who provided the foundation for your post-millennial homage.


Then, create a documentary mini-series. Get QT and Rodriguez to go coast-to-coast, roadshowing their new versions in a day long grindhouse extravaganza. Let them position their films midway through, and then surround them both with a dawn to dusk collection of classics, cult faves and unknown gems. Toss in a few real trailers, a bunch of those clever, kitshy ads from the era, and make it a magnificently misguided marathon. Turn it into the Lollapalooza of b-movies madness, a real event that will proceed the regular theatrical showing. Of course, this is just the suggestion of someone who loves the original double feature and would hate to see it die from what appears to be a predetermined desire to see you fail. You’ve worked your magic on other minor efforts before. Here’s your chance to show the entire world that you can, and do, mean business. You can’t let audience apathy wear you down. Grindhouse is a good movie. Now it’s time to convince everyone else of that fact.


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Saturday, Apr 14, 2007


The world has ended. All that is left behind are individual beauty cults, groups of girls seeking safety and identity in numbers. Basing their bond on hair color and giving themselves strangely evocative gang names, the blond Phayrays (King Kong), the brunette Satanas (Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!), and the wicked, redheaded Tempests (as in Storm, the stripper) are constantly battling the brutish cavemen roaming the afterworld ruins and looking for potential dye job converts. Only one group tries to incorporate all follicle factions. They are the Superstarlets. The dark haired leader Naomi, along with her goldilocks lover Rachel are on a quest: they want to find a link to the past, Naomi’s grandmother’s long lost stag reel which she hopes will provide some insight into who and why she is.


But if it’s up to the fiery leader of the henna honeys, Jezebel, everyone will be dead or have red on their head. When a mysterious vixen named Valentine shows up, she throws a wrench into everyone’s agenda. In this aftermath of austerity, there are no clothes. A reliance on the homosexual fashion industry (which is now extinct) and an inability to sew means that everyone in the brave new world surrounding Femphis is forced to walk around in skimpy lingerie. But Valentine knows where there are dresses to be found. And she is willing to play all sides against each other to see the various factions destroy themselves. It’s bitches against broads, battling with gossip and guns, as we await the fate of those involved in the decidedly dark, self-indulgent society of Superstarlet A.D.


Superstarlet A.D. is a jaw-droppingly bizarre, outrageous exercise in kitsch and camp. It proclaims itself a morbid, deviant comedy but actually plays more like a smart collection of vintage porn magazines come to life. Telling a detailed and intricate sci-fi Judgment Day story of femme fatale fashion victims roaming a desolate landscape in like hair-colored harems, this is gang warfare, Vogue style: a never ending power struggle between Mary Kaye and Maybelline for supremacy over the lipstick lesbian population of power babes. Sexy, sultry, and drenched in a heaving knowledge of smoker/exploitation films of the 1930s thru ‘60s, this ambitious, baffling stag loop for the new millennium creates a private, provocative universe of glam gals with firepower battling each other and bemused de-evolved Neanderthal men in the name of domination and dominatrix.


The dialogue is arch and obtuse. Characters occasionally provide voice-over monologues that sound like Marshall McLuhan meets Penthouse Forum. The production design is wasteland chic. And the women are bountiful, beefy maidens of hot sexy death. But this is not really a trashy take-off on post-apocalyptic action films. Superstarlet A.D. is actually more of a meditation on pop, sexual ambiguity and the role that pornography and fashion photography have played in blurring the lines between genders and lowering feminine self-esteem. On one hand, this is a twisted tawdry treat filled with bodacious broads and blazing artillery. On the other, it’s an insane statement on empowerment gone awry.


Director John Michael McCarthy cannot receive enough praise for the impressive look and visionary style he gives to this film. What he accomplishes with lighting, makeup, location, and a single 16mm camera is a lesson for all would-be auteurs to learn by. Every image is like a long lost still from a smut producer’s press kit, and McCarthy creates comic book compositions (his origins are in comics) that are a feast for the eye and food for thought. He constantly references pop culture, social stigmas, and mainstream mantras to make his cracked commentary as recognizable as it is profound. While it’s true he is treading ground already worked well by similar minded madmen like John Waters (Eat Your Makeup, Female Trouble), Russ Meyer (Faster Pussycat), and Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising), McCarthy has a freshness born of nostalgia, of being a generation removed from the areas he’s exploring which allows him to add a more modern sensibility to his homage.


Not everything works here. The Sappho scenes have a strange staginess to them, the actresses so outrageous that it feels like we’re watching The B-52’s have sex. Also, star Kerine Elkins has a singing style only a crack whore could love (it does work within the confines of the film, but it is a chore to endure). And the movie has one too many endings. Once Naomi’s vintage film is located and its contents revealed, there is a sequence of events that leads to a natural conclusion. But McCarthy just doesn’t leave well enough alone. He lets the movie take yet another mind blowing meandering step into another realm before finally putting on the brakes, and this destroys the near perfect symmetry he had previously created. A little tighter editing and this would have been a startling cinematic revelation. As it stands, it’s a stunning work of art that needs to be seen to be believed


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Friday, Apr 13, 2007


Coca-Colonization


With One, Two, Three, Billy Wilder confirmed what everyone already suspected about business interests abroad: that it’s espionage with fringe benefits. One, Two, Three is a movie that satirizes the great American executive lifestyle - the suited stiff glued to the phone, golf on Saturdays, the 2.5 kids, the luscious secretary.  And it does so in the unlikeliest of places – West Berlin circa 1961. To ease America’s anxieties about the spread of Communism, Hollywood producers realized they needed less stodgy suspense thrillers (The Ipcress Files), and more screwball comedies with hapless Bolshies and thwarted plots (think Boris, Natasha and Fearless Leader). More reassuring was the idea of a US multinational stationed in a dangerous foreign outpost, generously doling out enticing consumer products to the starving masses. Pop culture is the most effective, insidious colonizer. Every hot-blooded anarchist eventually succumbs to its seduction in the form of Marvel comics and Wrigley’s Bubblegum. It was how America won The Cold War.


Wilder must have been thinking along these lines when he and his long-time collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond, penned One, Two, Three in the early ‘60s. Wilder, an Austrian émigré to Hollywood since the late ‘30s, was all too familiar with the hot-air pomposity of totalitarian politics. He wanted to mock Soviet pretentiousness just as his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch, had done deftly in Ninotchka. But rather than mimic Lubitsch’s effervescent style of romantic comedy, Wilder stamped his own brand of cynicism onto this tale of bungled corporate intrigue.


He couldn’t have found a better star than Jimmy Cagney, who imparted all the wiry, bantam energy he brought to his famous criminal roles into this lead.  Wilder, a playful provocateur, in casting Cagney as an executive, was making a bold statement about American business—scratch a businessman, find a gangster, vice versa.  Cagney, who hadn’t made a movie since the late 40s, was called back to cinema to essay C.R. MacNamara (a wry nod to then Machiavellian Secretary of Defense, Robert MacNamara), a fast-talking, scheming executive for the Coca-Cola Corporation stationed in West Berlin. There, he tries to advance Coke to the neighboring Russians in East Berlin in an effort to be promoted to head of European operations, located in the glamorous London office. To MacNamara’s dismay, all headquarters back in Atlanta requires of him is to chaperone the CEO’s daughter, a perky sorority socialite, Scarlett Hazeltine, around Germany on her Grand Tour of Europe. Scarlett, played to broad comic exaggeration by the lovely Pamela Tiffin, comes across as Brittney Spears in pearls and gloves: a boozy, lascivious mess of a woman who can’t control herself around men.


To MacNamara’s worst fears, a few weeks into her stay she elopes with a hot-tempered Communist revolutionary from East Berlin, Otto Piffil. Doing what any decent surrogate father would, he concocts a plan to get Otto arrested by the East German police and away from Scarlett. Once Otto’s motorcycle whirrs through the Brandenburg Gate with large balloons emblazoned “Go Home Russkies,” the poor boy doesn’t have a chance. But before Otto can waste away in prison, Scarlett reveals she’s pregnant, and MacNamara has to not only conceive of a way of bribing the officials to release Otto, but to transform Otto from a unwashed, angry beatnik to a Brooks Brothers-suited Count (there’s nothing an American robber-baron loves more than European minor royalty) charming enough to please Scarlett’s parents.


In a veritable symphony of high-speed commands, MacNamara micro-manages every aspect of Otto’s transformation. He bribes a monocle-wearing, impoverished Count, who works as a valet in the men’s restroom of The Hotel Kempinski, to adopt Otto. He meticulously picks out tube socks and demanding ties straight off of his employees’ necks. MacNamara throws himself at the task with the kind of gusto he should be using every day at work but never gets the chance to because his corporation is such a well-oiled machine it doesn’t really need him in the first place. But he delivers in the end. MacNamara is so successful that Scarlett’s father decides that Otto is the man to head Coca-Cola’s European operations. MacNamara must settle for a vice-presidency in the Atlanta office, a city that he acidly refers to as “Siberia with mint juleps.”


One, Two, Three has never been considered one of Wilder’s best movies and it’s obvious why. It lacks the innovative twisting of genre he showed in Double Indemnity, the romantic gloss of Sabrina, or the sinister, elegiac quality of Sunset Boulevard. As far as Wilder goes, One, Two, Three, is average, with some recycled elements of his peerless screwball masterpiece, Some Like it Hot—a cross-dressing scrawny man and the men who lust after him, a jiggly buxom blond, the riotous confusion that ensues from mistaken identity. But as a political comedy, it is inventive and daring.


It pushes all the sensitive buttons of America’s complacency in foreign affairs, particularly as The Cuban Missile Crisis made everyone uneasy. The New Yorker nervously suggested Wilder had pitched his “circus tent on grounds that threaten to become a cemetery,” and other reviews were notably hostile. Abby Mann, who wrote the screenplay for Judgment at Nuremberg (the year’s other movie about postwar Germany), thought Wilder’s movie so tasteless that he apologized for it at the Moscow Film Festival. The public’s anxiety to Wilder’s farce was not unlike the jumpy nervousness that followed our own brazen political satires, like Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s underrated and quickly hidden, That’s My Bush!  But true to form and genius, Wilder couldn’t have cared less. Comedy comes with no apologies.


One, Two, Three  looks ahead to the two great black comedies of the 60s, the playfully dark and brutal Dr. Strangelove and The Producers maniacal and relentless Nazi baiting. It’s a clever movie that shows that people are seldom loyal, least of all to ideology. And the film works well for all its incessant one-line gags pulled straight from the headlines (when MacNamara cautiously warns his tailor not to tell Otto that the cufflinks he’s wearing are French “with the whole Algeria situation being what it is”). One enjoyably ridiculous moment occurs when the East German police torture Otto into confessing he’s an American spy by playing a high-pitched, squeaky version of “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” over and over again till the young man screams to submission. One, Two, Three is full of shrewd jokes about America’s gift for exploiting its cultural power and of the eagerness of countries willing to be exploited and the futility of those who try to resist.


C.R. MacNamara’s vision of the world isn’t altogether far from the truth. No other American product has had the imperial power enjoyed by Coca-Cola. It’s everywhere. I went backpacking through Malaysia last summer and was reluctantly convinced to go boating through the dense, lush jungles of Sarawalk. It was a haunting, ethereal experience right out of Apocalypse Now.  When my friend, a hardy Peace Corps alum (the sojurn was his idea), needed to go to the bathroom, we stopped at this makeshift rest area, a wooden shack that served as a provisions shop. The shop sold only three items: broken flashlights, cigarettes, and numerous cases of lukewarm Coke. The same situation exists in India, where people who are afraid to drink the local water constantly swill bottles of Coke. Three-fourths of the world’s population suffers from tooth decay and doesn’t seem to care. Coke is the poor man’s nectar, the self-anointed elixir of democracy, and it’s taken over our planet with its rapacious corporate tentacles. Its power is an undeniable fact, and since we can’t control it, we can at least laugh about it.


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Thursday, Apr 12, 2007


Buckle up, brave cinematic souls, it’s going to be a bumpy weekend ride. On the premium pay channels alone we have a brazen battle of extremes – the graceful vs. the graceless, the timely vs. the tacky. The shift between the offerings on HBO and Cinemax alone are enough to cause anyone permanent aesthetic whiplash. Still, at least there are recommendable offerings this time around. Some Fridays it’s near impossible finding something worth suggesting. The pickings are a little slimmer in the Independent and Outsider arena. Once you get past SE&L‘s top choices, the alternates are shaky at best. Still, secure yourself in your home theater saddle and prepare to traverse at least a couple of these movies all the way to beyond the blue horizon – or at least to the end of their running time. And if you wander over to any of the other titles talked about for 14 April – well, at least you were warned:


Premiere Pick
United 93


Some still consider it the best film of 2006 – all lack of Oscar love excluded – a sparse and very authentic recreation of the doomed September 11th flight. Others argue that it remains a difficult if not next to impossible movie to enjoy, an experience that so readily places you in the situations playing out on that fateful day that something akin to “entertainment” can’t be found. But there is no denying the artistic impact this movie has had on the cinematic depiction of this American tragedy. Paul Greengrass set the benchmark for all films to follow, and as Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center proved, it’s a hard standard to fulfill. Whether or not the small screen will lessen any of the narrative’s impact remains to be seen, but one thing is definitely for certain. United 93 will stand in motion picture history as one of the most honest, truest, and most touching films ever made about a horrible act of terrorism. (14 April, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Big Momma’s House 2


Groan…it’s Martin Lawrence doing the cash grab thing again, and audiences are wise to his ruse. There is nothing more outwardly disturbing than an African American comedian, copying another of his ethnic counterparts – in this case, Eddie Murphy – in making fun of their own race. Women of color – especially LARGE women of color – should find these scrawny screw-ups and kick their asses – immediately. (14 April, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Keeping Up with the Steins


Consider it a Jewish My Super Sweet 16 as the title family creates the kind of over the top bar mitzvah that is all too common nowadays. Of course, director Scott Marshall (son of filmmaker Gary) can’t leave well enough alone, having to impart his good natured comedy with as much pathos and pap as possible. He even manages to get his elderly dad to drop trou for the camera. Talk about your unnecessary rites of passage. (14 April, Starz, 9PM EST)


Capote


This is the movie that finally won Phillip Seymour Hoffman his long overdue Oscar. That’s good. It’s also the film that so completely overwhelmed the In Cold Blood zeitgeist that the equally wonderful Infamous got swept under the theatrical table. That’s bad. Offering a sensational chance to compare and contrast, this subtle Oscar bait of an effort is first up on the premium pay cable channels. (14 April, Showtime, 9PM EST)

Indie Pick
The Coffin Joe Trilogy


Jose Mojica Marins is one of the most misunderstood filmmakers in his native Brazil. A deeply religious country, many find his affronts toward the church and God to be outright blasphemy, and he has spent more time defending his work than creating more of it. Thanks to DVD, and a long growing cult of international horror fans, we have a chance to experience what the South American populace finds so scandalous. And indeed, Marins is a man courting controversy every step of the way. The three films being offered here – At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse, and Awakening of the Beast  - are considered by many to be the best of the director’s early works. They definitely do a fascinating job of establishing his onscreen alter ego – the power mad Prince of Darkness Coffin Joe. So grab a bowl of popcorn, dim all the lights, and be prepared to have this Brazilian wonder completely mesmerize you. (19 April, IFC, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
Leaving Normal


Christine Laiti and Meg Tilly play less brash versions of Thelma and Louise in this girl power road pic directed by future epic helmer Edward Zwick. In fact, comparisons between the two films probably killed Normal‘s chances at the box office. Of course, the clunky script (by broad comedy scribe Ed “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” Solomon) didn’t help. Instead of compelling, this films goes cockeyed, crazy, and then cloying. (14 April, Sundance, 12PM EST)

Leaving Las Vegas


Many in his current fanbase may not know that Nicholas Cage was once a serious actor. A decade or so lost in action hero la-la land will create such artistic amnesia. Right before he sold-out for the sake of a paycheck, he provided this devastating turn as an alcoholic, self-destructive man. Planning on drinking himself to death, he brings Elizabeth Shue’s prostitute along on his depressing, downward spiral. The result is acting aces. (15 April, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

Pray


It starts out like your typical kidnapping story – a desperate couple swipes a child and contacts the parents looking for ransom. That’s when they get the shattering news – said hostage has been dead for over a year! Guess its time to bring on the unsettled spirits and ghost gals covered in black stringy, spook show hair. But thanks to some psychological tension, and a nice helping of gore, we survive the stereotyping. (16 April, Sundance, 12AM EST)

Outsider Option
Coffy/Foxy Brown


It needs to be said so let’s just come right out and say it – Pam Grier is FINE! Even today, as she enters a more ‘mature’ phase of life, the lady is a looker in all the right ways. But back when she was the queen of the blaxploitation scene, she was scalding sex incarnate. Not only that, but she could kick some major bad guy booty as well. Featuring two of her most infamous roles, Turner Classic Movie’s Underground series (with or without host Rob Zombie – who knows anymore) will give modern audiences a chance to experience this first lady of fisticuffs, though it will be interesting to see what they do with the whole violence/language/nudity thing. There is a great deal of all in both. Cutting these films would be a crime, especially since their taboo-busting elements were what made them so special in the first place.  (13 April, Turner Movie Classics, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Phantasm II


With Anchor Bay celebrating Don Coscarelli’s life behind the camera in DVD form, here is one movie that won’t be making it onto the digital domain anytime soon – at least, in Region 1. Thanks to rights issues with Universal, this superior sequel to the director’s definitive fright flick remains MIA. And that’s too bad, since it’s a sensationally sick revisit to the world of Reggie and Mike – and that maniacal monster The Tall Man. (14 April, ThrillerMax, 11:50PM EST)

Electra Glide in Blue


Hail Canada! Thanks to their quirky b-movie channel, this amazing Robert Blake vehicle from 1973 is getting another North American release. Playing a motorcycle cop whose desperate to make the Homicide division, we wind up with a taut thriller couched in the old ‘be careful what you wish for’ conceit. Though many know him today as an accused killer, Blake was an amazing actor, and this able actioner more than proves it. (17 April, Drive In Classics, Canada, 11PM EST)

84 Charing Cross Road


Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins are long distance pen pals in this ersatz romance from British filmmaker David Hugh Jones. Based on a true story, this charming case of Trans Atlantic correspondence (between a NY script reader and a UK book shop owner) grows into a real primer of friendship, love and life. Those looking for a sensational “sleeper” will definitely enjoy this effort. (19 April, Indieplex, 7:15PM EST)

 


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Wednesday, Apr 11, 2007


Grindhouse is not a return to the sordid salad days of drive-in b-movies. It is not a careful or accurate recreation of the original raincoat crowd experience. The name is a gimmick, a throwaway cinematic stunt purposely poised to draw in the curious as well as the converted. Sadly, it seems that both will wind up only slightly disappointed. What Grindhouse is, however, is a slam bam smash ‘em up celebration of the freedom given film by the exploitation industry. While the mainstream was sitting back, letting community standards and self-appointed censors determine what could and could not be shown on the nation’s theater screens, producers like those in the notorious business brotherhood, ‘The 40 Thieves’, were blurring the boundaries between the taboo and the marketable. If it weren’t for them, and the outrageous movies they made, the modern film works would be languishing in Eisenhower era conservatism.


You can see the adoration that these filmmakers have for the genre’s expansion of the language of cinema within every frame of this far out double feature. Since directors Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino understand that no one can recapture the actual feel of these fascinating entertainment relics, the next best thing in their mind is to make sure any tribute is terrific. For his infected human holocaust known as Planet Terror, Rodriguez reimagines the zombie film as a combination gorefest and chick flick. We spend so much time with put upon go-go gal Cherry Darling and equally tormented Dr. Dakota Block that the plentiful grue tends to trip up the ample emotional undercurrent. The same thing applies to Quentin Tarantino’s car crash thriller Death Proof. Here, we’re dealing with non-erotic female bonding, with sensational scenes of female empowerment breaking up the otherwise astounding action sequences.


It’s interesting to note that both films feature female heroines and mostly male villains. In the case of Planet Terror, cameos from Bruce Willis and QT himself bring a decidedly paternalist pall over the entire proceedings. Even with Freddy Rodriguez’s machismo man turn as Wray, it’s the girls dealing most of the death blows. Tarantino treads a little more lightly in his film, giving the ladies room to gossip and cruise before turning them against their tormentor. Perhaps even more startling, Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike is a wonderful contradiction in testosterone terms. When he’s able to torment his prey, forcing them to realize the fate that awaits them, he’s all chest-puffing bluster. But the minute he gets injured – or perhaps, a better way to say it is the second someone gets a physical advantage over him – he whines and cries like a sissified stuck pig.


It’s an interesting dynamic to explore, one you’re not used to seeing on the big screen. But this is what Grindhouse is all about – challenging convention, disrupting the status quo and pushing the envelope of acceptable cinematic content. There is a lot of gore here – more than perhaps any dozen so called horror fests could ever hope to achieve. Rodriguez especially loves to pour on the arterial spray, and there are times when torrents of red stuff shoot off across the frame in ridiculous rivers of rot. Credit has to go to all the F/X technicians and stunt people who worked on this project. Tarantino’s first act car wreck has got to be one of the most disturbing destructive images ever captured on film. You feel like you’re looking at one of those driver’s education shockers, the ones that warned you via real dead bodies posed post-catastrophe.


Even more interesting are the performances. Though many critics would have you believe that the cast of both Planet Terror and Death Proof are putting on their purposeful schlock shoes to imitate bad camp acting from the past, this is definitely not the case. Indeed, all throughout Mr. Pulp Fiction‘s flick, we are treated to some of the liveliest work any actress has offered onscreen this year. Rosario Dawson, Jordan Ladd and Vanessa Ferlito are fine in their sly supporting turns. Equally effective are Zöe Bell (Uma Thurman’s stunt double for Kill Bill), Tracie Thomas, and a fierce Sydney Poitier as the main obsession of Russell’s clever creation, Stuntman Mike. From Rodriguez’s end of the spectrum, everyone in his company is banging on ballistic cylinders. It’s great to see Michael Biehn back, as well as Jeff Fahey in a barbequing badass role. But the movie really belongs to Rose McGowen and Marley Shelton as Cherry and Dakota, respectively. They’re the yin and yang of the narrative, the pro and con of a crazy crackpot horror homage.


In fact, the filmmaking here is so stellar that it’s hard to continue referring to these films as Grindhouse features. The exploitation movie had no real artistic aspirations. It didn’t want to be a provider of great action or a bringer of substantial scare. Their movies were all about the bottom line – carefully creating a project and making sure that, even with limited returns realized, a profit would be more or less guaranteed. Here, Rodriguez wants to give you his take on the entire living dead/sci-fi shock genre, while Tarantino is remaking Vanishing Point with vixens. QT is on fire during his film, both his car chases and his conversations crackling with energy and movement. Our Sin City savant is equally adapt at creating onscreen mayhem. The attack on the hospital, and the stand-off at The Bone Shack are astounding (and let’s not even get into the splatter spectacle of the last act helicopter sequence).


And then there are the fake trailers – four in all – and each one is a hilarious joy to behold. First up is the Danny Trejo treasure Machete, a magnificent combination of Charles Bronson badness and Mexicali menace. The shot of our tattooed hero getting hot and heavy with a couple of naked babes is worth the price of admission alone. Then we’ve got Rob Zombie’s ridiculously perfect Werewolf Women of the SS. It’s so much like watching a collection of Ilsa outtakes that it’s frightening. Shaun of the Dead‘s Edgar Wright delivers his brilliant Hammer/Amicus amalgamation, Don’t, and Eli Roth revisits the ‘80s slasher film with the decidedly sick Thanksgiving. Each one of these mini-movies is magnificent, played perfectly by actors perfectly in sync with what the cinematic category demands. With the possibility of a Machete movie going direct to DVD, it appears there will be more to Grindhouse‘s legacy than a pair of amazingly entertaining movies by a couple of maverick filmmakers.


All of which begs the question – why isn’t this superior entertainment more successful? Are people really put off by all the violence? Did the Weinstein’s (the main men behind the movie) make a fatal error in not marketing the movie beyond the film geek demo? Have gals avoided what is probably the most potent girl power proclamation since The Bride battled Bill for reclamation of her life, simply because they think this is some silly slice of jock rock? Whatever the reason, individuals interested in spending three hours under the spell of some significant cinematic art would be well advised to queue up for this masterwork. Unlike the films it fancies, this Grindhouse may have a shorter theatrical engagement than anyone involved initially imaged. The reason for such a showing remains a mystery. But one things for certain – this is a resplendent reminder of why movies are magic – and the forbidden zone trooping talents that created the original pathways to said illusions. 


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