Friday, April 6, 2007

Grindhouse: Better than Sneaking Downstairs to Watch Skinemax while your parents are sleeping!

It was 1983 and I was on the verge of turning seven years old, 3D was all the rage between going to the 7-11 or Sunoco gas station to get 3D glasses for the local TV screening of Creature from the Black Lagoon, and a crop of films employing this new technology turning up at the theatres. My neighbors were going to the Drive-in and offered to take me with them. It was a double feature of Jaws 3D and Friday the 13th Part 3D. Louis Gosset Jr. was in Iron Eagle and I was just ecstatic at the prospect of him taking on a 3D shark. And I loved it. However, even deep in the heart of a horror fan, 6 years old was a bit young to see Jason killing college kids, so I rolled over and discovered that Return of the Jedi was playing across the lot. But while the film was across the lot, the speaker in our car was still promoting the grisly sounds of college kids dying at the hands of Jason. I would grow up with this rather unique experience that would shape my life for the rest of my days.

It is unfortunate, then, that Drive-ins are a thing of the past, thus negating any hope of future generations talking about that time they watched CGI Ninja Turtles kick monster butt while Kurt Russel kills young women with his car. I think kids and adults, both, need such an experience, and now it is that the generation who grew up with similar, but different and equally unique experiences are making movies. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino are revolutionizing what movies can be, by taking a step into the past with Grindhouse, the throwback double feature that opens nationwide today.

The two rebel filmmakers who are, seemingly, fans above all else, have recreated the magic that once existed at the movies. In both "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof" the filmmakers use all of the dynamics from their favorite exploitation films, but make the stories more relevant, by acknowledging current technology such as cell phones. And it works. "Planet Terror" is absolutely inspired as it wastes little time introducing the characters and jumps headlong into one really bad zombie-filled evening in a small town. There's a loner rebel (Freddy Rodriguez), a restaurant owner who makes the best BBQ in the land (Jeff Fahey), his brother the Sheriff (Michael Biehn), a wayward Go-Go dancer (Rose McGowan), a crazed doctor and his wife the anesthesiologist (Josh Brolin and Marley Shelton), there's machine gun legs, zombies, a crazed military General (Bruce Willis), all of which make for a really fun, fast paced, over-the-top exploration of a lost genre, which is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Death Proof, however, is not as break-neck in its pacing. I had heard rumors of Rodriguez going over budget, delaying the production a bit, and also leaving very little left for Tarantino. It shows. In what is, about, an 80-minute film, at least half of it is filling time with long-winded Tarantino-style dialogue that sounds cool, but does little to effect the plot or story, leaving long moments where there is nothing going on. I also felt a bit let down in seeing Marley Shelton's Dr. Block show up in Death Proof as it almost cheapens the moment. "Death Proof," then, is a tie-in to "Planet Terror," as opposed to being two stand-alone features as part of a double-feature. And not only does this moment take the film somewhere odd, but it just stops and begins the next portion of its story, leaving that particular plot thread hanging. Now, I will say that when he kicks it in the short pants and gives us the car chases, they are brilliant. The climax of the film is amazing and feels so triumphant. Unfortunately, there's a lot of nothing to wade through beforehand. I kind of wish Tarantino's half had run first, thus leaving a more uplifting feeling rather than giving me the film with the most to complain about last.

But I digress, this film is more than worth the price of admission. Not only do you get two films for a single admission, but the icing on the blood splattered cake lies with the faux movie trailers done by the likes of Rodriguez, Edgar Wright, Eli Roth and Rob Zombie. In fact, I really want to see "Machete," "Don't," "Thanksgiving," and "Werewolf Women of the SS." And I've heard rumors that Rob Zombie might even be making his trailer into a feature. This is the stuff that childhood dreams are made of. I don't know that I want kids, but I wish I knew that somewhere children were faking sleep so that they could sneak downstairs to watch "Werewolf Women of the SS" on HBO.

This film is a solid A-, a 9, whatever your preference in scale. What Rodriguez and Tarantino have done is greater than merely making a movie, they have given a lost experience to those that missed it, and dug it up and repackaged it for those that lamented the genre's passing. A movie is one thing, but a lasting impression that changes what you thought movies could be ... that's taking it to a whole new level.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

First Snow: Moments Don't Make a Movie!

It's a slippery slope when a film tells you in the first act that your protagonist is going to die. If I know within the first 15 minutes that my main character isn't making it, then the entire film becomes about the journey, rather than the destination. At the beginning of "American Beauty" we know Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham isn't making it, in fact, he's narrating this fact as we're looking at his dead body in the opening shot. Of course that technique wasn't new, having been lifted directly from "Sunset Boulevard," but the journey is what excites us about both of those films. Hell, "Penn and Teller Get Killed" tells you the ending in the title, but there ending is so damn clever, that the closing of that film, mixed with the journey leaves the viewer feeling fulfilled. The same cannot be said of "First Snow," starring Guy Pearce and written and directed by Mark Fergus (Children of Men).

From our opening scene Fergus uses his camera and script to indicate that our main character, Jimmy Starks, is a fast talker, not to mention rather vain. When Jimmy's car breaks down, the local mechanic can't fix it until nightfall so he needs to fill time by talking to a psychic who just happens to have trailer parked in the parking lot of the gas station/ bar. J.K. Simmons plays our psychic and is brilliant in the role, as always. He is very soft spoken and tells Jimmy of a coming windfall, specifically from Dallas. However, he ends the session quickly when the roads in his visions abruptly stop.

When the windfall of money arrives on the coattails of Dallas, Jimmy panics and needs to know what is coming next. And so we spend our second act with Jimmy trying to draw the lines and find out who would want him dead. He has two suspects, but does one of those suspects become a self-fulfilling prophecy? In a film that talks about fate, and roads travelled, so much of Jimmy's road happens due to his own actions upon finding out about his vague, but looming fate.

Between "The Lookout" and "First Snow" I really feel like neo-noir is more akin to no-noir. In the days of film noir it largely meant dark movie, this had much to do with the lighting as well as the story. But there was story in those films and it was our protagonist, often a detective, who stumbled into the story. What is being put in the theatres now relies heavily on camerawork and taking the single individual protagonist and trying to dig into their psyche with lots of long, slow shots. Perhaps this works for some, but I feel like too much time is being wasted in an attempt to make me feel what the director wants me to feel, rather than telling a story and actually letting me feel that emotion on my own. Ultimately, "First Snow" is too long. Too much time is spent showing us Jimmy's breakdown and fear of his own death. I would prefer setup, then a headlong slide to the conclusion. And it would help if the protagonist was mostly likeable.

Now, I will say that the third act succeeds for the most part. Fergus begins to allow usto settle in and watch Jimmy's destruction instead of shoving it down our throats. And his use of snow in those fleeting scenes feels bleak, yet fearless. I just wish he hadn't force fed us the conclusion and left a little more to the imagination. On a cale of 5, I can offer it little more than a 2. I didn't hate it, it's not a total waste of time, but it wastes too much time.
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