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Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Sometimes, a sequel just shouldn’t bother. No matter what the project thinks it has to offer that’s ‘new’ or ‘unique’, no matter what novel twist it wants to put on the same old storylines, it is almost always destined to fail. Of course, there are exceptions (Godfather Part II and Spider-Man 2 instantly come to mind), but more times than not, what we end up with is something dull (Fly II), derivative (Halloween II), or a startlingly sour combination of the two (any of the Jaws follow-ups). And it gets even worse when you start stringing out a flimsy foundation into some kind of series. The more Roman numerals on the end, the more potential for pointlessness. Such is the case with Shrek the Third. This is the kind of sloppy, generic follow-up that will have you wondering why anyone found the first movie the least bit entertaining.


It all begins with our large green hero wrapped in a quandary. He must make a very important decision – accept the throne from the dying frog King Harold, or head out to Worcestershire and find Arthur, the next in line to inherit the empire. As part and parcel of this franchise’s meta-mannerisms, we are of course talking about the legendary owner of the mythic round table here, except he’s depicted as an awkward loser. Even more confusing, our adolescent ruler-to-be attends a Harry Potter like school where magic makes up most of the curriculum. So, while Shrek is off trying to convince Master Pendragon that the land of Far Far Away needs him, and his sweetie Fiona is preparing to bring a few ogre offspring into the world, the disposed Prince Charming – whose been relegated to doing lame dinner theater for a living – plots to retake the crown that the storyline from Shrek II stole from him. Gathering together all the known villains in the fairytale universe (including Capt. Hook and Rupelstiltskin), he plots a full blown fictional character coup.


Though it sounds compelling and intricate, the truth is that Shrek the Third‘s narrative more or less sits there, lifeless and limp, waiting for the already creaky cogs in its comedy machine to make up for the lack of complexity. Indeed, this type of clothesline yarn is ripe for many a hilarious animated set piece, but aside from two stellar moments (Shrek imagines life as a father, and the Gingerbread Man literally sees his life flash before his eyes), the quartet of screenwriters can find very little to do with it. Indeed, jokes that seemed to work the first two times (lame rap lingo, prevalent pop culture references) now come off as amateurish and pat. Even the standard star stunt casting has been lowered a couple of notches, resulting in good but generic voices (Ian McShane as Hook, Justin Timberlake as Arthur) looking to enliven things.


It has to be said though that Eric Idle, who arrives late in the second act as a blithely blitzed out Merlin, does bring a great deal of madcap amusement to his twisted take on the old wizard, and Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas still sparkle as Donkey and Puss in Boots, respectively. But Mike Myers’ Scottish shtick has grown grating and unappealing. Instead of making Shrek sound continental and crafty, the character is now bordering on the ethnically insensitive. He’s like Groundskeeper Willie without Matt Groening and the gang’s sense of satiric edge. But at least he’s still given something to do. Cameron Diaz is delegated to a substrata supporting role, her Fiona required to do little else than pine for her monster-man and remain vigilant. Now that’s some gutbusting cleverness, huh?


Indeed, most of Shrek the Third plays like missed opportunities purposefully planned out that way. It’s a film so afraid of letting down the demographic that it never ventures beyond the safe. Actually, if you could merely jerryrig the first two films into some manner of comic collage, injecting Charming’s take-over bid somewhere in towards the middle, you would have this tre-quel’s entire creative conceit. It’s just shocking that after three years, an open checkbook, and a studio more than willing to let the animators take this franchise wherever they want, the result is this lackadaisical and unfinished. The motivation for our character’s concerns is left unexplored, the events in the story appearing to occur as if part of some planned animation autopilot. Even the big showdown at the end is anticlimactic, playing more like a cop out than a rousing conclusion.


Still, this movie will probably make scads of money. It offers all the standard CGI stereotyping that has come to define the genre. Where once we had a quasi-clever take on fairytales and fantasy archetypes, the twisting of well known characters into anxiety ridden entities with dimensions beyond their pen and ink particulars, now we have expertly rendered stand-up comics, each one waiting for their moment to drop another onerous one liner. We even get the mandatory musical number over the credits, Murphy’s ditzy Donkey going all Sly and the Family Stone on us as Shrek’s stumpy children make goofy “goo-goo” noises. In fact, the real reason this movie feels so familiar isn’t just its debt to the first two films. No, the Shrek schema has been adopted by so many other derivative 3D disasters (Barnyard, Robots, any Ice Age film) that there can’t help but be a little backsplash.


With Shrek 4 already greenlit, and a healthy return at the box office for this latest release, it is clear that audiences don’t mind these increasingly dreary offerings. As long as they stay as true to their past particulars as possible, turnstiles will be spinning. This means we can expect more Puss in Boots suave sensuality, more dizzying Donkey dorkiness, lots more of Arthur’s gee-whiz boy band blandness, and supplementary silliness by the barrelful. Again, this latest installment in the already stale series will give the wee ones something to obsess over once the DVD arrives, and there’s no denying the increase in artistic approach and design. Many of the sequences razzle with plenty of bitrate dazzle. But filmmakers have yet to learn that any animated feature needs something more than pretty pictures to solidify its significance. Shrek the Third is nothing more than a previous pastiche with very little if anything new to add.


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Tuesday, May 15, 2007


If there is such a thing as a successful piecemeal horror film, 28 Weeks Later is it. A sequel in source only to the wildly inventive 2002 Danny Boyle classic, this latest twist on the zombie genre (Okay! Okay! Let’s just call them ‘murderous maniacs’ and be done with it, all right?) suffers from a great many missteps. It gives us protagonists we really don’t care about, follows a very uncomfortable extreme vs. ennui narrative structure, and substitutes gallons of grue for ideas and innovation. And then there are the problems it could not have anticipated. Thanks to last year’s stunning Children of Men, the notion of a devastated UK as a symbol for social decline and war torn terrorism has already been purchased and spent. This makes any attempt at commentary by new director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo feel like a parable without a point.


We get off to a good start, however. It’s been several months since the outbreak of the Rage Virus in Great Britain and the US military has stepped in to start cleaning up the country. London itself is basically quartered off into two main areas – the danger free “Green Zone” (oh, how Iraq War) and everything else. Outside the boundaries of the tough talking, foul mouthed yanks, the countryside is crawling with the infected…as well as a few survivors. Don and Alice are two of the barricaded refugees, eking out a meager life inside a squalid yet secure cottage. They are joined by the home’s original owners, an elderly couple, as well as a pair of unidentified men. There is also a young woman whose boyfriend has gone out looking for help. Conversation naturally turns to this act of desperation, and after much hopeless banter, a knock at the door brings the group the latest in a seemingly neverending list of ‘do or die’ quandaries.


At this point, 28 Weeks Later makes its first minor fumble. The argument over who to let behind the intricate set of locks and barricades itself leads to a massive slaughter spree, and while the terror element is fantastic, the logical aspect is daft. One of the key flaws in this film is the idea that youth trumps everything. It is the reason Don and Alice end up staring into the face of horror yet again, and it will also become the catalyst for the film’s far more devastating plot decision. As stated before, the US military is envisioned as a sex obsessed, by the book battalion of bumblers who are supposed to guarantee the Green Zone’s security. Yet they can’t seem to stop a pair of pretentious kids from crossing over into danger. Backtracking for a moment, these juvenile lawbreakers are Don’s kids, released from a refugee camp in Spain and part of the lucky 15,000 individuals allowed back into London. So naturally, the first thing they want to do upon entering the country is sneak off to their old abode to snag some mementos.


It’s a jarring, unimaginable narrative fumble, the kind of logistical left turn that literally derails the film. In fact, it is so outrageously bad that Fresnadillo must spend the entire rest of the movie making up for it. And just as he almost succeeds, a second sloppy situation stuns the story. At that point, 28 Weeks Later is beyond saving. This is not to suggest what we have here is a horrendous flop. On the contrary, the visual elements employed and the generous amounts of inventive gore do a splendid job of supplementing our incredibly weak internal rationales. Even as more baffling incongruous coincidences occur (the kids found more than just keepsakes during their journey), leading to perhaps the most ludicrous re-infestation ever conceived for a fright film, the way Fresnadillo handles the artistic aspects is absolutely fascinating.


Still, there is a lot of ludicrousness to pardon here. Again, the Americans are looked upon as clueless, reduced to basically two surprisingly simple strategies – preserve order, or nuke everybody. When called to respond to the new epidemic, their carefully plotted out plan is basically this – unload your entire magazine into any crowd you see. Similarly, the lack of crystal clear characterization makes everyone’s motives seem suspect. Take the troublesome adolescent twosome. First they seem happy to be in England. Then they miss their ‘mum’. Then they act like spoiled little brats when they wind up in quarantine, and before long, their whimpering like whelps to be saved and protected. Similarly, our GI Joe hero shifts wildly from cocky to caring, arrogant to altruistic without a clear reason for the massive mood swings. The rest of the cast comes from the one note school of genre performance. They just keep hitting that single stance over and over again until we finally give up and concede the personality point.


There are reasons, however, to really like this scattershot effort. As stated before, Fresnadillo really wants to be a movie macabre innovator. He’s desperate to diffuse the typical dread dynamic by employing filming techniques that draw the audience right into the action. By mixing quick cutting, jagged handheld camerawork, mangled mise-en-scene and any other untested trick he can come up with, he allows us to experience both the fear and the frantic pace of a siege situation. Similarly, he uses this inventive approach to keep as much of the brutality intact as possible. There are sequences of violence in 28 Weeks Later that rival their literal zombie brethren in nastiness and effectiveness. Again, Fresnadillo must be livid that Grindhouse hit theaters first. His clever helicopter gag is actually better than Robert Rodriguez’s splatter session.


In addition, Fresnadillo is not afraid of flaunting convention. There are several moments in this movie where a firm foundation in standard Tinsel Town tendencies are tossed out the window in favor of shocking, sometimes sickening realities. No one is safe, anyone can die at any time, and the typical caveats against killing children, the innocent and the infirmed are almost wholly abandoned. Of course, for every shocking stance like this, we must suffer through a series of unbridled happenstances that are supposed to have some manner of emotional resonance. Instead, we as the audience become keenly aware that somewhere, in a studio bungalow, a group of screenwriters (four are credited here) actually concocted this forced accidental tripe. With an ending that’s uninvolving and kind of flat (never mind the direct rip off of Stephen King’s tunnel sequence from The Stand), and the purposeful placement of facets to form 28 MONTHS Later, what should have been a knock out can barely manage a decision on technical merits.


And yet there is something about 28 Weeks Later that definitely gets under your skin. Perhaps it’s the last remnants of Boyle’s initial inventive conceit. Maybe us horror fans are so sick of lackluster living dead movies that we will accept anything remotely resembling the genre just because it manages to be competently made and expertly manipulated. It could be the amount of bloodshed strewn across the screen, or the expressionistic way the violence is tempered (can’t wait for the UNRATED DVD edition). Whatever the case, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is definitely a filmmaker worth following. His future is very bright indeed. After this unexceptional sequel however, few will be anticipating another return to this fractured franchise.


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Wednesday, May 9, 2007


It’s hard to figure out just what the Spider-Man franchise has left to accomplish. After a record breaking weekend, earning more in three days than any other film in history, and inaugurating the Summer 2007 movie season, it seems the seminal comic book series has more than done its job. That the final installment in this sequence of adventures (Sony has already announced plans for 4, 5 and 6) is also a very good popcorn entertainment should be icing on the commercial cake. And for the most part, it is. While fans have started web board wars over various elements director Sam Raimi and the gang got wrong, the mainstream moviegoer is lining up to plunk down their recreational dosh. And for the most part, they won’t be disappointed.


What they might be is dismayed. Indeed, one of the biggest quandaries that develops in this third trip into human arachnid territory is why the formula that worked so well in Spider-Man 2 fails to properly function this time around. The story more or less stays the same – Peter Parker struggles with his new found role as superhero and champion of the people; his relationship with Mary Jane Watson fluctuates between great and grave; he has moments of sage wisdom from his doddering Aunt May; and he’s still trying to disarm Harry Osborn’s seething personal vendetta over the death of his father. Toss in a villain – or in this case, two – and over the top visual stunt piece spectacles (check!) and you’ve got everything that made the 2004 epic a commercial and critical hit.


Well, not quite. For some reason, Spider-Man 3 is an ‘almost’ success. It ‘almost’ captures the wrenching emotion of the divergent character concerns. It ‘almost’ gets us to care about the plight of Flint Marco (our petty criminal/doting dad who ends up molecularized into Sandman), Peter Brock (more or less the cocky doppelganger for Peter and soon to be Venom), or new hottie Gwen Stacy (basic blonde eye candy). It ‘almost’ succeeds in tying up all the loose ends left over from Spider-Man 1 and 2 (even though Doc Ock earns just one single meaningless mention). And it ‘almost’ has us convinced that this trilogy will transcend its blockbuster necessities to mean something more – either as art, precedent, or simply a great way to spend some time at the Cineplex.


But ‘almost’ works both ways, and there are moments when Spider-Man 3 ‘almost’ falls apart completely. For example, the narrative is so fragmented and jumpy – which one would expect considering that the filmmakers are crafting an attempted trilogy out of various parts of the comic book myth – that it never settles down and sails the way Part 2 does. In addition, there is still some sloppy CGI, especially in the rendering of Brock’s space virus alter ego. Because of the character’s VERY late appearance in the story, and lack of significant screen time, we just don’t know what to expect from this being. When it starts slinging webs and acting all spider-like, we are left contemplating why we need two entities who both basically do the same thing. Aren’t there more interesting enemies in the Spider-man repertoire?


Controversy also surrounds the Second Act sequences where we are introduced to Power Mad (or as some have labeled him, Emo) Peter, including a corny “strut” montage and an equally odd dance number in a jazz club. In fact, most of the anger metered onto this movie comes from those who complain about Mary Jane’s TWO solo song spots, or the constant attention to character over chaos. It’s almost as if critics, appreciative of how Part 2 deepened the dynamic between everyone involved, said, “Enough all ready! Let’s get to the good stuff!” But anyone familiar with Raimi knows that he likes to trip up the tone of his films. As early as The Evil Dead series, he’d mix the serious with the silly, the scary with some slapstick. In preparation for what he feels will be a five handkerchief finale, a gut wrenching test of friendship and love, our director just wants to have a little fun.


Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t deliver the stirring, staggering epiphanies we’ve come to expect. The showdown with both Sandman and Venom is so straightforward (fight, stop, fight, stop) and lacking in the invention of the previous skirmishes (Spidey and the Granular One do have a great tête-à-tête amid a maze of subway cars) that it feels like middle act mayhem, designed to keep us occupied until the real conclusion comes along. Even in the initial sequence where Gwen Stacey (and a rather tall skyscraper) is threatened by an industrial crane gone crazy, there is an urgency and invention that’s lacking come showdown time. Still, you have to give Raimi credit. He certainly understands the acrobatic element of Spidey’s skills. The sequences when our hero swoops and soars across the NYC cityscape are thrilling in their sense of motion and wonder.


Another area where critics have gotten it dead wrong is in the acting department – specifically, the consistent dismissal of Tobey Maguire as nothing more than a whiny little manchild. On the contrary, he carries the entire weight of the film on his character’s post-adolescent shoulders. He is as good here as he was in Part 2, and all his emotional responses are earned honestly and specifically. Because of all the splash and fireworks, it’s hard to remember that Peter is actually inside that suit – not just some stunt or CGI element manipulated and mauled at the whim of the narrative. As a result, Maguire captures that ‘other’ aspect - the burden - allowing it to color and shade everything he does. If anything, it is Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane that deserves some straightening out. She’s gone from supportive to selfish in the blink of an eye, and her downfall seems premeditated and wrong. Besides, she agreed to a relationship with Spider-Man post reveal – shouldn’t she grow up a little?


James Franco also suffers a bit as well. His post-trauma transformation from a seething ball of rage to a dithering amnesiac with a forced smile is a real contrivance. Instead of making Harry a total head case, maneuvering the people around him to earn their trust (before destroying them), he’s just a good guy gone bad who turns into a bad guy gone good. The camaraderie element to this storyline is the film’s strongest facet (it is reminiscent of the bond shared by the Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) but whole portions of the Peter/Harry/MJ triangle seem repetitive and unnecessary.


The rest of the cast is definitely driven to the very edges of the action. J.K. Simmons, so good as J. Jonah Jameson, is reduced to a couple of cameo spots, while James Cromwell (as Police Chief Stacy) is only around to provide Gwen a paternal face. As the villains, Topher Grace is wonderfully smarmy as desperate (and dangerous) Brock, while Thomas Haden Church is more concrete than complexity as Marco. Even when Raimi stops the action cold to give his Sandman room to wax about his sick little girl, the schmaltz seems totally tacked on. Indeed, why did this evildoer have to have a backstory, any way? What happened to the good old days where insane psychopaths wanted to take over the world because…well, because they are insane psychopaths. Had more time been spent on making Sandman/Flint a formidable foe, and not turning up the empathy factor, perhaps his presence as a baddie would have more impact. As a result, he’s sketchy throughout.


Overall, Spider-Man 3 drops down below the previous installment in the hierarchy. It’s shocking how shaky Raimi’s ideals appear this time around. Back at the beginning of this entire series, his storytelling scheme was unique and undeniable. He would push the maudlin and the mawkish as far as he could, then save the psychology structure by making the action supplement and strengthen the sentiment. This made everything feel complementary and complete. The balance he maintained so well over the previous two entries is really out of whack here – so much so that the moments of middling mediocrity compete to overpower the inherent greatness of his vision. In some ways, this is the way Peter Parker’s story was meant to end. As a reluctant hero, he was ill-prepared to take on the challenges of being a champion. As a big screen figure, he appears equally incapable of fully exemplifying the genre’s best aspects. Still, he ‘almost’ gets it – and that’s good enough for now…and Spider-Man 3.


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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2007

Stop with all the spoof talk, already. The latest masterpiece from Brit wits Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the spectacularly anarchic action buddy cop caper Hot Fuzz is more than just a simple-minded lampoon. Such a categorization limits what the amazing movie manages to achieve, bringing it down to a level of creative crassness that the duo manage to transcend time and time again. The truth is, Wright and Pegg have much larger funny business fish to fry than merely taking on the Bruckheimer/Bay gonzo gunplay dynamic. There is more to their satire than flying bullets, fisticuffs and testosterone-laced fireworks. No, this exceptionally talented duo is out to undermine their very own Englishness, to poke fun at a country that still views itself as a bastion of good manners and inbred etiquette.


The storyline is fairly straightforward. Sgt. Nicholas Angel is so good at his job, that his London superiors send him off into a sort of reputation saving exile. Soon lost among the citizens of this out of the way country village, Angel finds himself surrounded by a group of bumbling, doltish deputies. Lead by the impeccably optimistic Inspector Butterman, this subpar stable of inert officers features a bizarre assortment of dimwitted detectives, clueless constables and one particularly oafish officer, Butterman’s bulky son Danny. When it looks like murder may have finally found this tiny burg, Angel is eager for some action. But the local constituency doesn’t believe that such big city crime would visit their town. After all, it’s so calm, peaceful and well mannered –- almost suspiciously so. Of course, dark secrets lurk under such serene settings, and Angel and Danny are out to discover the truth.


When we first see police officer Nicholas Angel (in the person of Pegg), he seems rather cartoonish, almost incapable of becoming a three dimensional character. The many montages used by director Wright to instill the proper authority and focus to the man’s personality become part of a plan. Indeed, all throughout the film, Angel is a symbol that slowly becomes a human. As each layer is carefully peeled back, as we learn why the man is so dedicated to the law and so convinced of his perspective on crime, we begin the process of deconstructing this cinematic champion. Pegg is flawless in the role, doing his best to hide the utter contempt he has for the rest of his fellow policemen while always playing every situation by the book. It’s a brilliant turn in an equally remarkable story.


Similarly, Pegg/Wright regular Nick Frost is an excellent example of the audience stand-in, the inexperienced commoner who only knows the law based on what he’s seen on TV and in movies. He’s not just a flawless foil for Pegg’s procedural prig, but he makes a solid case for himself as a well-meaning copper. Frost may come across as a bumbling klutz, his size instantly giving him the standard jolly fat man vibe, but this is an actor of unlimited skill. All throughout Hot Fuzz, Frost is the face of honesty and truth inside a wonky world of mysterious deaths, countryside conspiracies, and more than a little semi-erotic male bonding. Indeed, when placed alongside Pegg, the pair manage the same filmic feat as they did in Shaun of the Dead –- they create a cinematic figure that you want to champion and root for.


As for the story –- a strange kind of Stepford Wives weirdness going on in the little out of the way alcove of Sandford –- we really don’t make much of it at first. We assume the series of eccentric ‘accidents’ (all of which are realized in a nicely nasty helping of gore) will have a rational explanation, or perhaps just a reason to exist. But since Hot Fuzz isn’t focused on being 100% realistic, at least not plot wise, Wright and Pegg have some over the top fun with their finale. Instead of being a simple case of serial murder, we get healthy doses of civic pride, mass hysteria, crawlspaces loaded with corpses, and a real warping of the whole ‘neighborhood watch’ conceit. It’s kitchen sink comedy at its most uproarious, a movie than makes you laugh consistently, enjoying every moment for its many levels of amusement.


Wright deserves a great deal of credit for combining two of the most misunderstood genres in post-modern moviemaking (comedy and action) into one overwhelmingly inventive and clever combination. Hot Fuzz is willing to do anything for a giggle -– from major malapropism and obvious jokes to little asides and inside digs that only the smartest film fan or trivia expert will understand. He surrounds his leads with several sensational supporting players, UK names like Billie Whitelaw, Edward Woodward, Jim Broadbent and Timothy Dalton. They all add a kind of historical heft to the movie, making the drama seem that much more serious, the wit that much more wicked. Additionally, Wrights got the stuntwork setpiece down pat. Several chase scenes in Hot Fuzz zing with Spielbergian artistry. They play as perfectly planned out and simultaneously caught off the cuff.


If there is a single insignificant flaw in this otherwise outstanding film, a minor facet that could keep audiences from completely connecting with the characters, it’s the very British-ness of the piece. Many outside England won’t understand some of the more biting irony, the sequences where church festivals and local snack shops play backdrop to bigger, more striking social commentary. Indeed, why Sandford would care about the title of Best Village in the UK may seem rather silly to wired Western suburbanites. What’s missing is context, a life or death reason why the town must preserve its perception –- apparently at all costs. It’s an absent ingredient in what is already a heady combination of personalities and pistols.


And there will be others who lament the lack of a love interest here. Even Shaun of the Dead found time in its zombie stomping to give its titular hero a love life. In Hot Fuzz, Angel is seen speaking to his CSI inspector girlfriend (Cate Blanchett in a clever cameo), but once we toss said ex aside, there is not another lady in either his or Frost’s life. It’s as if Sandford doesn’t have an available gal under 50 for either man to make time with (and Police Department trollop Doris Thatcher doesn’t count). Pegg can essay an endearing love struck suitor, and it would have been nice to see him chat up a bird or two while in the line of duty. Frost’s Butterman could also stand with a date. His private stash of action movies is a sad replacement for actual human companionship.


Such quibbles do very little to undermine Hot Fuzz’s power as an entertainment epiphany. In a modern medium which is more than happy to spell everything out in baby step simplicity, where jokes are based in the gross out, not the finely crafted, where acting is often confused with one’s status as an A-list celebrity, this is the kind of film that rekindles the inherent joy of movies. It so effortlessly formed, so wholly its own entity that you consistently find yourself giddy with satisfaction at how good the film makes you feel. In a domain that’s basically forgotten how to satisfy, Hot Fuzz is the very definition of a crowd pleaser. It may be making fun of a hundred varying Tinsel Town conceits, but it takes its desire to delight very, very seriously


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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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