Thursday, April 26, 2007

Black Book


Prestige projects, big-budget Oscar contenders, studio period pieces—most European auteurs, you pluck em’ out of their homeland and drop em’ into Hollywood, these are the pictures they make. But not Paul Verhoeven. No, he had other, less glamorous aspirations: crossing the pond in the late 80s, the Dutch provocateur eschewed middlebrow melodrama in favor of outrageously violent action blockbusters (like Robocop or Total Recall) and trashy sex thrillers (like Basic Instinct). What’s kept his work interesting all these years—aside from his formidable mastery of film language—is the strain of biting satire evident in even his weakest of efforts. If high-octane set-pieces are the writer-director’s greatest gift, irony is his secret weapon.

Yet Black Book, Verhoeven’s latest and the first movie he’s made overseas in more than two decades, is an irony-free affair—that is, unless you consider the central irony of Verhoeven making what is probably his most Hollywood film outside of Hollywood. Black Book would play well on a double bill with The Lives of Others, and not just because both feature the charismatic Sebastian Koch in key roles. Slick and flatly conventional, both in form and function, this upscale yarn concerns a young Jewish woman (Carice van Houten) who, at the tale end of World War II, joins an organized resistance movement. Seeking to exact revenge on the soldiers who butchered her family, she gets mixed-up in a tangled web of deception, going undercover as the mistress of a prominent Nazi official (Koch) and finding herself (rather dubiously) torn between allegiances.

Like many an American war drama, Black Book is long and convoluted, meticulous in its construction but lacking much in the way of genuine excitement or intrigue. Verhoeven stages the hell out of every scene, putting his action-movie chops to good use and keeping the bloated narrative moving along at a decent clip. Yet with the exception of a few basic moral quandaries, the film is almost entirely devoid of ambiguous subtext—there’s more going on at the fringes of Starship Troopers than there is at the very center of this one. Most surprising, though, is that despite flashes of full-frontal nudity, Black Book is strangely sexless, anti-erotic even. And that’s one complaint I never thought I’d be lobbing against a Paul Verhoeven movie. C+

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Hot Fuzz


Edgar Wright doesn’t do parody like his peers do. Unlike the Wayans and the Zuckers and the National Lampoon-ers of the world, Wright is less interested in mocking his targets than he is in paying sloppy, affectionate tribute to them. He doesn’t spoof, he writes cinematic love letters to his influences—he’s a fan first, a satirist second. Giddy reverence was the driving force behind Wright’s first feature, Shaun of the Dead, a sublimely silly take on George Romero gut-munchers of yore. The key to that film’s success was the way that it worked as both a droll British rom-com and an honest-to-God zombie invasion thriller—a playful homage that scaled back the laughs and became the real deal in its genuinely suspenseful final act.

Hot Fuzz, Wright’s hilarious follow-up, basically employs the same modus operandi: it’s a goof on over-the-top action movies that morphs into a real over-the-top action movie. As with Shaun, co-writer Simon Pegg is the star, though he’s playing a vastly different character this time out. Introduced via an amusing, Departed-style montage, Pegg is a London super-cop who gets transferred to a sleepy, seemingly crime-free hamlet for making his fellow officers look bad. Uptight and humorless, he gets matched up with a doofus partner (Nick Frost, doing a more innocuous variation on his Shaun sidekick), a slovenly but well-meaning buffoon who dreams of Lethal Weapon/Die Hard glory.

Most of the big laughs in Hot Fuzz derive from the tension between Pegg and Frost, and from the natural flow of the film’s fish-out-of-water story. It’s a charming, small-scale comedy—that is, until the last reel, when it becomes a noisy celebration of artless Hollywood action movies. Yet if Wright is a little too spot-on in his recreation of Michael Bay theatrics (the explosive finale blatantly mimics the director’s ultimate filmic atrocity, Bad Boys 2) he’s clever enough to skewer as well as indulge in the brainless excess of these sound and fury spectacles. Anyway, the bad taste of Bay is washed away instantly by the scrumptious flavor of Bigelow—it’s the references to Point Break that earn this winning tribute its action geek stripes. A-

Friday, April 13, 2007

Holy Crap


“What hath God wrought?” scream the ads for The Reaping. A better question might be “What hath The Exorcist wrought?” Stephen Hopkin‘s profoundly stupid religious thriller is little more than the latest tiresome retread of William Friedkin’s seminal shocker. But don’t expect anything as deviously obscene as masturbation with a crucifix in this slow-as-molasses potboiler—its thrills are of a much tamer variety. An uncharacteristically flat Hilary Swank stars as a former Baptist missionary who shunned the cloth when Sudanese tribesmen sacrificed her family to their pagan God. (Oh, those barbaric Africans!) Traveling to one of those creepy, backwoods Southern towns that seem to exist only in the movies, Swank finds her lack of faith tested by an onslaught of successive Biblical plagues. Is it the work of a vengeful God or his fallen-angel rival, that ultimate boogey man of Christian mythology, Lucifer himself? By the end, you’ll scarcely give a damn—an appropriate response, given the filmmakers’ minimal knowledge of or interest in the theological doctrines they exploit. Swank’s spiritual crisis is just a prelude to those plagues, an excuse to indulge in some elaborate CGI mayhem. Yet, with the exception of a skin-crawly swarm of pissed-off locusts, even the special effects fail to impress. The fact that the film can’t even decide where it stands ideologically—its contempt for devout Christians gives way to a blind endorsement of violent, old-school, Divine Intervention—is only slightly less predictable than its string of silly twist endings. The only thing these hacks need more than a year in Sunday school is a semester in Screenwriting 101. D

Monday, April 9, 2007

Down and Dirty Pictures

Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's latest collaboration, finally opened this weekend. I caught an early screening on Thursday and the theatre was packed, so imagine my surprise that it only raked in a paltry $11 million. Go figure-- I guess America prefers their B movies in bite-sized chunks, not 3-hour blocks.

My review of this gonzo double-feature, posted here and below.


They arrived together, renegade auteurs of pop art cinema, screeching into the limelight on a wave of white-hot industry buzz, storming the gates of Hollywood with their respective calling-card debuts. Separately but simultaneously, they exploded onto the indie movie scene, united by a deep-rooted love of low culture, the trash art spectacles of their youth: spaghetti westerns, Italian horror romps, Hong Kong shoot-em’-ups. They were B movie connoisseurs, rebels on the back-lot, best buddies and kindred spirits—not Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but Mr. Brown and the Desperado.

And yet despite the shared interests, the budding partnership, the parallel rises to fame, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are not—repeat, not—cut from the same cloth. A mutual fixation on guns and girls, blood and octane masks the inherent dissimilarities, both in their work and their reputations. Rodriguez is the movie bandit, the do-it-yourself purveyor of low-rent, high-concept pulp entertainment—Howard Hawks with a laptop and a cowboy hat. Tarantino is the art house provocateur, the post-modern pop-culture deconstructionist; he’s a retro-cool hipster who wins Oscars and dates movie stars. Watch a Rodriguez and a Tarantino joint back-to-back and you’re bound to see the vast differences between them—the way that the former tends to mete out cheap thrills early and often, while the latter holds his guns, talks around the action, subverts our expectations. To be sure, both men are die-hard aficionados of violent, lewd, take-no-prisoners underground cinema. Yet only one of them could be said to truly, honestly qualify as an exploitation filmmaker, i.e. the sort of guy who could churn out sinfully enjoyable, unapologetically bad, no-nonsense schlock. Can you guess which one? Here’s a hint: Jack Hill never won an Oscar.

With Grindhouse, Tarantino and Rodriguez have unleashed their most ambitious tag-team effort to date, a ferocious tribute to the down-and-dirty pictures of their formative years. It’s an old-fashioned double feature, two movies for the price of one, with each writer-director contributing a full-length picture to the bill. Aiming to recreate the milieu of the “grind house” experience—beat-up prints of low-budget obscurities, playing at run-down movie palaces in the 70s and early 80s—the dynamic duo load their nearly three-hour throwback with nifty traces of authenticity. They scratch up the prints, write missing reels into the films, stick phony teasers for made-up movies in between the two features. Call it a stunt if you like, but it’s a stunt that the filmmakers staunchly commit to. Directed by the splat pack rookies of modern horror, the faux-trailers are both hysterically funny and completely spot-on—these three-minute blasts of giddy genre parody are easily the best things that Rob Zombie and Eli Roth have ever done. And yet they’re just the icing on the cake, mere appetizers to a greasy, high-calorie, two-course meal. An obscenely enjoyable act of Meta homage, Grindhouse should appeal to any true fan of trash cinema, yet it’s fundamentally lopsided and diametrically uneven. Case in point: strip away the retro-camp trimmings, and only one of these flicks actually delivers the goods. It might not be the one you think.

First on the bill is Planet Terror, Rodriguez’s rip-roaring valentine to Reagan-era action/horror/sci-fi mash-ups. Relentlessly gory and hilariously extreme, it’s the sort of no-holds-barred midnight movie that only an obsessive, dyed-in-the-wool fanboy like Rodriguez could pull off. The largely nonsensical plot concerns a small Texas town overrun by gooey, flesh-eating zombies—like last year’s Slither, it’s a veritable remake of Night of the Creeps, except this one doesn’t just rip-off the content of its seminal predecessor, it mimics the look, sound, and very feel of it. Ignore the spectacular CGI effects and the tossed-off references to Osama bin Laden, and you might be watching a lost genre specimen of the early 80s. Rodriguez doesn’t dance around his influences, he openly exploits them: the lumbering ghouls suggest the best work of George Romero, while the terrific rock-and-synth score draws favorable comparisons to both John Carpenter and Terminator-era James Cameron.

Unquestionably, this is Rodriguez’s finest hour, a propulsive and effortlessly entertaining bit of B movie mayhem. The writer-director keeps throwing new absurdities our way, piling on kinetic thrills and elaborate grotesqueries with the maniacal zeal of a red-blooded huckster—he’s like the P.T. Barnum of splatter epics. The casting is inventive and inspired, with B+ stars of today brushing shoulders with B- character-actors of yesterday. Really, is there anything cooler than Rose McGowan as a saucy go-go dancer with a machine-gun for a leg? How about Aliens/Terminator star Michael Biehn as a grizzled sheriff, or make-up maestro Tom Savini as his destined-to-be-eviscerated deputy? Not even Tarantino, overacting wildly in a misguided cameo, can spoil the good times vibe.

Planet Terror is just a touch too long, but it never stops kicking out the jams—it more or less gives us exactly what we came to see, exactly what we want from it. It was made for us. It takes all but three seconds to realize who Death Proof was made for. The first shot of the film is of a woman’s foot, propped up on the dashboard of a car, and we’re immediately back in Tarantino Land, that funky celluloid kingdom that exists entirely in the writer-director’s movie-addled brain. It’s not just QT’s foot fetish that gets a workout here: all of the man’s obsessions and indulgences are on full display. Jive talking soul sisters spouting vague girl-power epithets? Check. Too-cool-for-school pop-culture references? Check. “Naturalistic” banter that goes on for minutes on end, hi-jacking one scene after scene? That’s a big check there. There’s no denying Tarantino’s exceptional gift for gab, his elegant and electrifying way with words. However, as with his last film—the comedown that was Kill Bill: Volume 2—it’s the filmmaker’s preference for showy, elaborate dialogue over real action that casts his B movie aspirations under serious doubt.

Death Proof is meant to be a rough-and-ready nostalgia trip, a slasher movie that morphs into a drag-racing picture, only to bottom-out as a woman’s revenge flick. Trouble is, other than its grainy, 70s-inspired aesthetic, there’s very little in the film to suggest we’re watching anything other than one of QT’s usual Molotov cocktails—it’s just another cinematic mix-tape, with no real allegiance to any specific genre or tone. There are brief moments of arresting tribute—the first appearance of the villain’s car eerily mirrors Laurie’s first glimpse of Michael Myers in the original Halloween—but Tarantino lacks the focus to keep it together, the single-minded commitment to serving up skuzzy thrills. He’s too in love with his characters, with the rhythmic zing of his own overwritten dialogue.

To be fair, there are at least two spectacular set pieces in Death Proof. One’s a sickeningly brutal car crash, repeated four times in succession; the other’s a wicked chase sequence, a fast and furious bit of automobile bravado, done entirely without digital assistance. And Tarantino’s eye for pitch-perfect casting remains intact: as a psychotic stunt-driver stalking a group of nubile young women, Kurt Russell delivers his best performance in years—a charming and menacing turn, and a salute to every badass he ever played in the Escape From New York days. But these are the fringe benefits of getting on this ride. For the most part, Death Proof fails to excite, and that’s because Tarantino, for all his love of lowbrow cinema, isn’t really that kind of filmmaker. He’s too enamored with wink-wink, buzz-kill irony, too cerebral in his approach to disreputable genre fare. He’s all talk and no action—an arty film geek who’d rather show off his knowledge of grind house movies than make one of his own. He is, in short, too good to make bad movies. Rodriguez, on the other, may never make a masterpiece like Pulp Fiction, but he could spend the rest of his life spitting out first-rate trash art like Planet Terror. Really, it’s like comparing Martin Scorsese to John Carpenter: we have our fair share of Scorseses—it’s the Carpenters that we need more of.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: "Actor of Our Generation"?

That hyperbolic claim was recently made by my close friend and fellow Film Monthly contributor Josh Staman. I'd argue that the jury is still out on that one, but there's no denying Levitt's burgeoning talent. In just the last few years, the former television actor (best remembered as the kid from 3rd Rock From the Sun)has delivered several exceptional performances, most notably in Manic, Brick, and Mysterious Skin.

Add now to that list The Lookout, screenwriter Scott Frank's auspicious directorial debut. It's a sparse, engaging thriller about a young man with brain damage who gets mixed up in a bank heist. The first half deals almost exclusively with the character's condition, his day-to-day struggle to overcome the debilitating side-effects of his head injury. These are the film's best moments; I found myself resenting the action movie plot machinations of the last act. Still, Levitt is dependably terrific as the handicapped hero, as is co-star Jeff Daniels, still grooving on a mid-career renaissance. Minor flaws throughout, but certainly worth seeing.

Next up for "The Actor Of Our Generation"? Killshot, an Elmore Leonard adaptation in which he plays (for the first time, by my estimation) a villain. That is, if the film ever comes out...