Friday, April 06, 2007

Review: Grindhouse

A Dimension films release 2007

Directed by
Robert Rodriguez (segment "Planet Terror") (fake trailer segment "Machete")
Eli Roth (fake trailer segment "Thanksgiving")
Quentin Tarantino (segment "Death Proof")
Edgar Wright (fake trailer segment "Don't Scream")
Rob Zombie (fake trailer segment "Werewolf Women of the S.S.")

Writing credits:
Robert Rodriguez (segment "Planet Terror")
Quentin Tarantino (segment "Death Proof")

Two full length feature horror movies written by Quentin Tarantino & Robert Rodriguez put together as a two film feature. Including fake movie trailers in between both movies.

For a film that's billed as having "uncensored sexuality and untamed thrills", Grindhouse is pretty tame. Sure, the violence is splatter-ific and the girls are scantily clad, but outside that the films offer little in terms of sex or violence. In fact, the visual grain and 'missing reel' effects - added to make the films appear more like one of their 70s counterparts - always kick in strongest when the violence and sex seems to get too overt.

So what's the point? Grindhouse is more tongue-in-cheek homage than actual grind, and plays exactly like what it is - a big budget pretend to be bad movie. Evenly split between Rodriguez's 'Planet Terror' and Tarantino's 'Death Proof', it thankfully doesn't suffer from a lack of consistent tone (a la Four Rooms). However both directors styles are clear in their approach the the grind film, with Rodriguez going for balls-out action and gore and Tarantino taking the slow route. Neither film is perfect, but I definitely preferred Rodriguez's (against most popular critical reception). Mostly because it's at least fun. Rodriguez is the perfect director for these kind of movies; content to tinker with special effects and concocting crazy death sequences, he leaves just enough room for the story be almost convincing (albiet incredibly silly).

Tarantino, on the other hand, bogs down 'Death Proof' with enough bad dialogue to kill everything fun about it. While it's refreshing to hear women speak frankly and with cuss words, one can't help but feel Tarantino's hand magically placing each syllable into his actors mouths. The dialogue is so forced and utterly meaningless that it degrades Kurt Russell's stellar performance and Tarantino's steady camera work, which is actually quite impressive.

It all brings me back to the most frustrating point of Tarantino's work - the man is talented, and could be making great films, if he would just quit wasting his time on this trash. The Rodriguezs and the Eli Roths have it covered, QT, let them handle it. We all know you can write dialogue out your ass, but make it mean something next time.

Grindhouse isn't the worst way to spend three hours - it's bloody and fun, for the most part. But it isn't a step forward for either filmmaker; in fact, it's a step back. It doesn't push the boundaries of good taste, either; you can't find anything in the film that your average videogame doesn't feature.

So, what's the point?

Revisit: Yankee Doodle Dandy

A Warner Brothers picture 1942

Directed by Michael Curtiz

Writing credits:
Robert Buckner
Edmund Joseph

The life and times of American song and dance man George M. Cohan (James Cagney)

Everyone knew Cagney made an excellent gangster, but who knew he could sing? Jimmy won an Oscar for his role as American broadway staple George M. Cohan, an award which was more than deserved; Cagney invests himself completely in the part, displaying his full range of talent. With all the flag-touting, it's surprising this isn't a Busby Berkeley musical. Perhaps only beat by the lessor known Footlight Parade.

Revisit: Now, Voyager

A Warner Brothers picture 1942

Directed by Irving Rapper

Writing Credits:
Olive Higgins Prouty (novel)
Casey Robinson (screenplay)

A Boston spinster blossoms under therapy and finds impossible romance.

Bette Davis successfully transforms from ugly duckling to socialite in this Hollywood equivalent of a Kate Chopin novel. The film capitolizes on Davis' ability to look homely, as well as her acting chops, which were second to none. At the time it was a revelation - how could someone so ugly become so beautiful? - but I can't help but think that this film is directly responsible for standard cinema cliche of the 'glasses' phenomenon that feminist theorist Laura Mulvey once outlined. Happiness is directly linked to beauty, and then male gaze, but can a woman not be happy on her own? Regardless, the film has a superb cast - including Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, and Gladys Cooper - and will probably be remembered as the quintessential woman's picture. Look for the scene in which Paul Henreid places two cigarettes in his mouth, lights them, and then passes one to Bette Davis - truly classic.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Revisit: La Dolce Vita

An Astor Pictures Corporation release 1960

Directed by Federico Fellini

Writing credits:
Federico Fellini (story & screenplay)
Ennio Flaiano (story & screenplay)
Tullio Pinelli (story & screenplay)
Brunello Rondi (screenplay)

Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) is a young playboy journalist who spends his days between celebrities and rich people, seeking ephemeral joy in parties and sex.

With its three hour run time and a story that goes nowhere, La Dolce Vita is a film about excess in more ways than one. A master of image, Fellini uses the grandiose architecture of Italy to mirror the empty lives of the bourgeoises that inhabit such elegant spaces. By placing characters within context of such beautiful, but vast, cold stone buildings, he offers spectators a disenchanting glimpse into the ultimately unfufilling lives of Italia's most rich and famous.

Though not as playful as Godard, Fellini employs some interesting sound tricks as well. Characters in groups are presented without background noise, while personal conversations between two people are often suffocated by diagetic sound. A great example of this can be found in the scene when the American actress first arrives; the struggle of the paparazzi as they try to snap her picture is clear, but when she walks away with Marcello, their conversation is deafened by the hum of plane engines. Clearly this fits with the films overall theme - characters can function in a group setting but are blocked from personal communication, just as they can not seem to elevate their material fortunes into spiritual fulfillment.

Ultimately, La Dolce Vita is a film about escape. However, if your eyes aren't glued to the screen, the film might escape you as well. Despite its visual beauty (and the fact that Italian is one of the most lyrical languages around), the films three hour run time is a bit harsh. Not quite the biting satire of Bunuel's Discreet Charms, Fellini's film celebrates excess while simultaneously denouncing it. The films message isn't mixed, but perhaps too blunt; upper class Italians are decadant. Recommended for cinema fans.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Review: The Lookout

A Miramax film 2007

Written & Directed by Scott Frank

Chris (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a once promising high school athlete whose life is turned upside down following a tragic accident. As he tries to maintain a normal life, he takes a job as a janitor at a bank, where he ultimately finds himself caught up in a planned heist.

A character-driven heist film that gets bogged down by its overly blatant redemption theme, The Lookout is perhaps most notable for an excellent performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. In fact, the whole cast, which includes Jeff Daniels, Matthew Goode, Isla Fisher, Bruce McGill, and Carla Gugino, is fantastic. At its best, the film is sharp, funny, and an unsettling; as it moves from Chris trying to accomplish basic, everyday tasks to finding himself being used in a bank heist, it becomes deliciously dark, with just the right amount of disturbing. But the film wears its redemption motiff on its sleeve, repeating images of Chris's tragic accident and too often reminding us that he's a guy who has something to prove. The fine performance from Gordon-Levitt is enough to know that - let the character speak, instead of the film speaking for him. Worth a look.