ReelReviews #15: Grindhouse (2007)

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APRIL 7-11, 2013 SCREENING: “GRINDHOUSE” MOVIES (2007-Present)
I watched a series of five films over two weeks ago, and then spent another week mulling over how the heck I would review five different films that are meant to be seen as a package deal. I’ve put it off until I reached a solution: write one review that its own five segment mini-reviews, just the movies its analyzing. You see, the basic concept from directors Robert Rodriquez and Quintin Tarantino was that they would each do a cheesy, low-budget, trashy movie that resembled the type of schlock you’d get in the ’60s and ’70s, and package the movies together as a “double feature” to watch back-to-back in a theater, complete with fake trailers and commercials between movies, and intentionally grainy, scratchy film to replicate stuff that was thrown together. After the double feature came out, it inspired three movie silly “grindhouse” type movie spinoffs. Did they succeed in this strange little parody/homage? Well, yes and no.

 

PLANET TERROR (2007)
Planet Terror is basically a “zombie movie”. I use the term in quotes because its made to look like a movie from an era where they probably wouldn’t call it a zombie movie (as the George H. Romero variety hadn’t become the definitive image of a zombie yet) and what’s more, the movie is actually about some kind of extremely grotesque mutated humans, rather than undead corpses eating human flesh. They do eat people, though, and it’s a heck a lot of more fun than people find in a lot of “modern” zombie movies like World War Z. The poster image of the girl with a machine gun for a leg is certainly exploited for all its worth in this movie, and even though they use modern CGI, the concept and execution definitely mimics the feel of a old low-budget garbage movie. There’s lot of extreme over-the-top violence as well, and this film certainly brought a smile to my face because it made me think back to the stupidest set of 70s horror movies I watched, like Laserblast (1978), along with some terrible blaxplotation movies of the same era. Where I think the film fell short were two elements where it simply ignored its own premise: 1) The movie was too long for a “Grindhouse” movie, and certainly as one half of a double feature that you’re supposed to watch back-to-back in one sitting. It should have been between 75-85 mins., tops. Second, although intentionally made it to look like it was shot in the 70s, the movie takes place in “modern times” and uses modern technology and so forth. I found that distracting. They went through so much trouble to give us scratchy looking 16mm film, why the cell phones that reminded us that this movie was not made in the era it pretends to be?
**1/2 out of ****

 

DEATH PROOF (2007)
Death Proof is the second half of the original “Grindhouse” experience, and considered the much weaker film of the two. Some people have even gone as far as to say its Tarantino’s weakest movie. But in many ways, I actually enjoyed it more than the first film. Like Planet Terror, the grainy film and ridiculous opening credits immediately make it look like you’re watching some piece of crap made around 1972 or so, but instead of just being an over-the-top splatter film, this one has something completely lacking in the first: atmosphere Apparently the “in-joke” is that it’s supposed to look like two different movies spliced together (which they actually did for really bad MST3k fodder like “They Saved Hitler’s Brain”), but the fact its obviously Kurt Russell in both halves of the movie – playing the same role – ruins this effect. As for me, I loved the first half the movie (where had a very good, creepy “70s stalker movie” vibe like I was watching The Last House on the Left or something), and I was indifferent/bored by the second half, which had a “70s stunt race car movie” feel. To convey that its “Two different movies” the second half was almost grain-free, and that didn’t work for me at all because you could tell it was shot on modern film equipment. Again, the same flaws from the first film were present, and even more apparent: the running time was too long, and it was obvious taking place in 2007. Nevertheless, I consider this film to be its own little modern cult classic, and the lap-dance scene in the movie’s first half is unforgettable
*** out of ****

 
HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN (2011)
Machete is by far the better known and more popular of the Grindhouse spinoffs, but for me there was only one true heir to the original project, and that’s Hobo with a Shotgun. It was based off one of the “fake trailers” from the original 2007 double-feature, and expanded into its own feature length movie. Ironically, its got a completely different director (the little known Jason Eisener) and a different actor from the 2007 fake trailer (in this case, the far better known Rutgar Hauer), but I felt it was the most faithful to the whole grindhouse experience: It looks incredibly low-budget, trashy, over-the-top, gory, and tongue-in-cheek hilarious In many ways, this was actually more faithful to the concept, and really nailed the feel of a movie from another era. For example, the music soundtrack sounds exactly like some MIDI synthesizer score from the early 80s, making it seem like you’re watching a lost John Carpenter movie. I’d say the only jarring part of the this is because the earlier Grindhouse movies looked like they were attempting to copy films from the late 60s/early 70s, whereas Hobo definitely looks and feels like a mid 80s movie. Despite having no sci-fi elements and having a storyline more along the lines of Death Wish, Hobo With a Shotgun is pretty much the spiritual successor of 1987’s Robocop. If you liked Robocop, you’ll love with (complete with the excessive violence and biting satire). In fact, forget about watching the remake of Robocop and watch this instead, as its far more true to what the original Robocop was aiming for. This may be the best of the “Grindhouse” movies. Be prepared to be grossed out, offended, annoyed, and mesmerized by it all.
*** out of ****

 
MACHETE (2010)
I think Machete is probably the most financially successful of the five Grindhouse movies, but it was one of the least creative, in my opinion. I still liked it, but I had a blast with the first three movies and I felt that was missing here. Despite this being directed by Robert Rodriquez, it is not a Grindhouse movie. It based on one of the fake trailers from one of his Grindhouse movies, and the opening credits even continue the same style, but it quickly becomes a very modern Hollywood movie. The only difference between this and a typical action comedy is that the script here is still obviously a satire of the whole genre. The actors play it straight, but Lindsay Lohan is here for one reason and its not to display her acting talent (ironically, she finally gets naked in the movie but you can’t see anything). Robert de Niro even shows up here, playing a buffoonish right-wing politician. There has been much talk about the movie having a liberal agenda, and I would agree that political conservatives will probably not like the film’s storyline or message, but the film is just too silly and frivolous for me to take offense as any kind of preachy liberal sneer It has some genuinely funny laughs, and its quick paced and quick witted, but nowhere near on the level of the three real Grindhouse movies. The “fake” trailer for Machete is better than the real one, because the real one is just another typical Robert Rodriquez movie like Once Upon a Time in Mexico, or Spy Kids. The best scene may be Lindsay Lohan’s slutty character disguising herself as a nun. Oddly enough, it disgusted me, intrigued me, and had me cracking up at the same time.
** out of ****

 

MACHETE KILLS (2013)
The latest, last, and least of the films spawned by the whole Grindhouse concept. Naturally, it’s a sequel to Machete, but the best part of this movie was yet another “Fake trailer” for what eventually could become the real third movie: “Machete Kills Again… In Space” It cracked me up and every scene in the “trailer” was better than the real scenes in this movie, and made me wish that the still unconfirmed third film was the sequel instead of this movie. The actual film has plenty of action and a brisk pace, but goes nowhere and just isn’t very funny or interesting. Instead of de Niro like the first movie, this time we have Mel Gibson showing up in a “major role”, and it actually made me feel kind of sorry for him because his career has been reduced to doing this pathetic movie. Machete Kills is the opposite of the original intent of Grindhouse: rather than be made to intentionally parody the look of low-budget, crappy films, It’s a big budget, slick film that unintentionally looks very crappy. The best part of the movie may be former child actress Alexa Vega now appearing as a smoking hot, bikini-clad voluptuous adult character, but I got so bored with the movie I think I missed that part. I give it points for trying, but its just throwing a lot of crap at me, and thankfully, nothing is sticking.
* 1/2 out of ****

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ReelReviews #5: Jonah Hex (2010)

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MARCH 13, 2014 SCREENING: JONAH HEX (2010)
Having just reviewed a movie based on Marvel comics, its time to give DC their due and take a look at one of the more obscure DC adaptations: 2010’s Jonah Hex. This film was a box office flop when it was released (grossing only $10 million on a $47 million budget), so I think its safe to say that they’re won’t be a sequel. Instead, DC is pressing ahead with ideas like “Superman vs. Batman”. If there’s one problem with the recent trends in comic book movies, its the constant recycling of the same villains and plots in endless Batman and Superman movies. Worse, some “fans” applaud Hollywood for taking the lazy route, and since they make money they keep doing it. Jonah Hex was an example of doing something different, but since it failed, its unlikely DC will take that risk again. Jonah Hex, after all, got terrible reviews. But here’s the most unfortunate thing: Jonah Hex is actually a pretty good movie.

Maybe its lowered expectations, but since I knew critics hated this film, I was a bit wary of screening it, and hoped I wouldn’t be sick of the movie and tune out after 15 minutes. I’ve had similar experiences on many occasions. (Critics hated 2010’s The Nutcracker 3D, but I was willing to give it a chance and thought they were too harsh – as I watched the opening credits, I thought “Hey, this is actually a very nice presentation that sets up the mood nicely!” Unfortunately for me, by the time the “mouse king” showed up 20 mins. later, the movie had worn out its welcome and was a train wreak from that point on). With Jonah Hex, I was pleasantly surprised. There’s a great intro showing how the main character came to have his horrible facial scar, then some very artsy animated opening credits letting you know you’re watching a comic book movie (with strong narration from Josh Brolin as the title character), and then a solid 25-30 minutes that sets up the movie and has a raw, gritty, outlaw feel to the whole thing. Perhaps Jonah Hex would have done better if it had simply been marketed as an old fashioned anti-hero western, instead of a hip “comic book movie” for teens.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the movie is not without flaws. I wasn’t pleased with Megan Fox as the female lead in a 70s Clint Eastwood type film, but she does an adequate job. The film also has an additional plot device that looks cool but didn’t really suit its world or have much relevance to the plot. Jonah is able to communicate with the souls of the dead by touching their corpses, and there’s an additional twist that he only has some much time to speak to them before their bodies begin to turn to ash (only to return to their “normal” dead state when he stops touching them). This supernatural element added a bit of eeriness to the movie, but it has nothing to do with the Jonah Hex comics so I can see why fans of the comic book hated it. Ia also felt the movie simply fell apart at the end, and the last 20 minutes of the film de-evolved into some silly over-the-top CGI fight that was reminiscent of Will Smith in “Wild West West”. The recent trend in Hollywood has been “steampunk” (having stuff in a late 19th century setting presented in a futuristic sci-fi angle). That’s fine, as long as there’s a reasonable technological explaination and it looks believably retro. Giving us slick CGI, frantic editing, and heavy metal and rock themes for the movie’s music soundtrack doesn’t work at all. (and I actually liked the non-modern music used in Jonah Hex, but I hated a “western” with heavy metal songs).

There was a lot of controversy with Thomas Jane being turned down in favor of Josh Brolin as the title character. I could see Thomas Jane in this role (he was solid as The Punisher), but Brolin was awesome as Hex and easily one of the best parts of the movie. The still photos aren’t very impressive, but his presence on screen easily made him a great western anti-hero, and he carries the film in every scene. Considering that his father (James Brolin) and his stepmother (Barbra Streisand) never impressed me as actors, I find that Josh Brolin has consistently proven to be a great character actor and is probably one of the most underrated people in Hollywood today. It’s a shame he won’t get a second chance to play this character again.

Jonah Hex has a brisk 80 min. running time, so its one of the shortest modern super hero movies, and its also one of the most interesting, since its not really a superhero movie at all, but an outlaw bounty hunter telling the audience his life story. (Technically, its not even a “western” either, since most of the action takes place back east in the former Confederate States of America – Virginia, Georgia, etc.) Bottom line, the film has its problems, and the ending was terrible, but it really drew me into its world and I liked it. It’s definitely worth taking a look at.

 
** ½ out of ****

ReelReviews #4: Iron Man 3 (2013)

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 MARCH 12, 2014 SCREENING: IRON MAN 3 (2013)

SPOILER ALERT! IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM YET, PLEASE READ NO FURTHER.
For the last several weeks, I’m been doing “RetroReviews” of classic and obscure fantasy films that I screened last summer. Not only has it started to get old, but I’ve run out of fantasy films that I screened. It’s time for something different. Today is a return to contemporary reviews, and the best way to kick it off was by finally taking a look at last year’s big budget action film Iron Man 3. So what can I say about this film that hasn’t already been said in hundreds of other reviews. Let’s find out.

A lot of my friends saw this film in theaters last May, and the consensus opinion was they thought the plot twist and the ending ruined the movie. Nobody would even tell me what the twist was! I managed to accidentally stumble on it myself last month, before I had even watched the movie to judge it on my own. Simply put, the major “bad guy” in this film, the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) turns out not to be the Mandarin at all. He’s actually a drunken British character actor that was hired to play the Mandarin in order to fool Iron Man and general public into targeting the wrong enemy. This relevant isn’t a shocker at the end of the film, but is actually revealed a little more than halfway through the movie. Did I like this twist? No, I thought it was stupid.

Now, that being said, I didn’t think the silly twist “ruined” the movie, as others have claimed. It was a bit annoying, but the rest of the movie was funny and entertaining. As others have observed, I also thought the “fake” Mandarin was a worthy villain before the twist, and I wish Ben Kingley had just been the real Mandarin instead of the movie trying to give us a “clever” twist. I also had no problems with the real end of the film, which consisted of Iron Man deciding to be with the girl he loves and giving up his Iron Man persona in a flashy climax where he blows up all his armored suits in a fireworks-like spectacle. The only problem here was Marvel’s PR department: we already know Robert Downey Jr. will be returning as Iron Man in Avengers 2 next year, so the ending is pointless. (Had I not known that, it would have been a much more satisfactory ending)

There are good points and bad points throughout the story. Compared to Iron Man 2, the third installment seemed a lot more exciting to me. I hardly remember the second one and just had a collective feeling of “it was okay” when the film finished. The events in Iron Man 3 are much more memorable, but there’s also more cringe-worthy stuff and much of the movie consists of Tony Stark constantly trying on new Iron Man models and comedic situations that arise from this – it seems he doesn’t really go into full superhero mode and heroically spring into action until the last 1/3rd of the movie. A new twist in this film is that Stark creates an Iron Man suit that launches itself to his destination and automatically attaches itself to him piece by piece. The special effects here are very impressive but the whole idea seemed over-the-top to me, and its used way too much for comedic effect when he’s missing some pieces or they attach themselves to the wrong person, etc. etc. The rest of the humor worked well for the movie, and there’s some very witty exchanges throughout the film. There’s also a lot of name dropping about the events of other Marvel movies and the fact this film is set after The Avengers. Those were fine, and serviced this story. However, there’s no surprise cameos from other Marvel characters. I think that’s actually a letdown at this point.

Iron Man hasn’t worn out its welcome, and I always enjoy seeing Robert Downey Jr. in the title role. I’m also looking forward to Avengers 2 – I hope they find something new to do with the character, and I hope its better than Avengers 1 (I must be the minority, because the first one got rave responses from the public, but I just thought it was an average overblown popcorn movie with an awesome premise). All that being said, the conclusion I have to draw is that the first Iron Man movie was the only one that was truly great and pleasantly surprised me. I have no dog in the DC movies vs. Marvel movies fight, but a quick observation is that Marvel movies have been making a lot more money lately, but they’re also starting to get a bit too predictable. I hopeful that Guardians of the Galaxy breaks out of the old pattern. In meantime, here’s to you Tony Stark, we know you’ll be suiting up against next year. But if you ever return for Iron Man 4, let’s hope its worth it.

** ½ out of ****