Thursday, April 12, 2007

Welcome to the "Grindhouse"


directed by Robert Rodriguez (“Planet Terror”), Quentin Tarantino (“Death Proof”)
starring Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Marley Shelton, Josh Brolin, Michael Biehn, Naveen Andrews; Kurt Russell, Sydney Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Rosario Dawson, Traci Thoms, Zoe Bell, many others I’m forgetting; cameos by Bruce Willis, Nicolas Cage, QT himself, others

What, really, is left for me to say about “Grindhouse”? The Tarantino-Rodriguez double feature just hit theaters this past weekend, but there’s been so much lead-up coverage in the media I read regularly, so much anticipation among Hollywood watchers and my fellow movie-lovers, and so much discussion already by those who flocked to see it on opening weekend, I feel saturated in a way that I know isn’t reflected in the box office numbers or the general public consciousness. The movie debuted a disappointing and distant fourth, and in the new, shaky house that Harvey built there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Does that mean it’s a flop? Well, yes and no. Personally, I always thought “Grindhouse” was more likely to end up a cult film, and was dubious that the Weinsteins’ marketing blitz was really going to change that. Fanboys, cinephiles, and critics (especially those who grew up in the ’70s) have been licking their chops for months now over this movie, and their reaction has been almost uniformly enthusiastic. Everyone else, I suspect, greeted the early promos with a shrug and a “looks really bad,” “gross,” “cheesy,” or “not my thing,” and stayed away. So, gentle reader, whichever group you belong to, I realize that whatever I write will likely have little impact on the odds of your going to see this particular movie.

That said, should you go see it? Yes, as long as you know what you’re in for. “Grindhouse” is a wildly entertaining experience, all 3+ hours of it, and it is most definitely a movie that should be seen in a theater—preferably a crummy, dingy one. Yes, it is gross and cheesy, rife with lame dialogue, indifferent plotting, leaden acting, scantily clad chicks (though surprisingly little nudity), and truly revolting images of bodily dismemberment and decomposition. No, it doesn’t deserve a free pass merely because these were all characteristics of the original “grindhouse” flicks—seamy B-movies that played continuously in seamy, run-down theaters throughout the ’70s. Let’s face it, a parody of schlock can still be (and often is) schlock.

“Grindhouse,” however, is no parody; it’s a celebration. In fact what’s brilliant, if arguably a little prodigal, about it is that it flaunts all the flaws that marked those low-rent exploitation extravaganzas—right down to scratches on the “print” and missing “reels”(nev’ mind that the whole film was shot in digital on a very generous budget)—and at the same time captures the visceral appeal and energy that made them such good trashy fun. Neither director shows a whiff of condescension towards their material or any intimation that they’ve risen above it. Quite the contrary, they’re eager to evoke the exhilaration they found in the ol’ grindhouses and to show how it influenced their own filmmaking styles.

Of course, those styles being quite different, they go about doing this in very different ways. Rodriguez leads off with a hilarious fake preview for a Mexican revenge movie called “Machete” (I guarantee you’ll remember the punchline), followed by a zombierama entitled “Planet Terror.” The premise of “Planet Terror” doesn’t get much more basic: toxic green gas inadvertently released at a military base turns normal human beings into ravening, rotting cannibals who threaten to take over a small Texas town. This is the one that features Rose McGowan with a machine gun for a leg, although she doesn’t acquire that prosthetic until fairly late in the game. She plays Cherry, a go-go dancer who loses a leg to the zombies, hooks up with an old flame (Freddie Rodriguez) with a mysterious past and a talent for gunslinging, and joins a ragtag band of stock-character survivors, including a skeptical sheriff (Michael Biehn, welcome back), a creepy barbeque restaurant owner (Jeff Fahey), and a sexy blond female doctor (Marley Shelton, who’s a riot) on the run from a scary doctor husband (Josh Brolin) who’s just discovered that she’s been having an affair with another woman (Fergie – yep, that’s right, Fergie). Much mayhem ensues, at a breakneck pace that never lets up until the final frame.

I haven’t seen any of the movies Rodriguez invokes, but his is about as perfect an imitation as I ever could have imagined. Which is not, you know, all that easy to do. The trick is the tone, which he gets exactly right. It has just the right level of tongue-in-cheekiness, enough to be playful, not so much as to be haugh-haugh annoying. Rodriguez has a sense of humor about this stuff, but he’s also clearly loving it and having a blast. And his enthusiasm is infectious: “Planet Terror” brims with a gleeful, can-you-top-this quality that finds expression in ample effusions of bullets, blood and guts. (Suffice to say the makeup artists, one of whom plays a minor character in the movie, obviously had a field day here. I can just hear Rodriguez calling exuberantly, “MORE blood! MORE popping pustules! MORE melting flesh! Yeah!”) It’s all so over-the-top that the overall effect is more grotesque than sadistic, though be forewarned that the first shock effect is the appearance of a freshly severed testicle rolling into the foreground. If you can’t deal with that, you may have a hard time sitting through the rest. (As a naturally ultra-squeamish viewer who eschews horror movies and can’t even watch “CSI” without flinching, I can tell you it helps greatly to watch with an appreciative audience. Also, for what it’s worth, there are very few close-ups of actual acts of violence, as opposed to their effects; this ain’t no “Saw” or “Hostel.”)

There’s a short break between the end of “Planet Terror” and the beginning of Tarantino’s contribution, “Death Proof.” But don’t get up to use the bathroom or you’ll miss the three fake horror movie trailers, which alone are worth the price of admission and which I won’t spoil by describing except to say they continue the trend of loving spoofery that Rodriguez established. There’s a sharp tonal shift, however, when QT takes the helm.

“Death Proof” itself is divided into two halves, both of them about a serial killer named Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) who uses his “deathproof” car—a car rigged specifically for old-school crash-and-smash stunt driving—as a weapon to both stalk and mow down unsuspecting young women. The first and far stronger half begins on a lazy, leisurely morning in Austin, Texas, and centers on the lazy, leisurely day of a posse of young women headed by the comely Jungle Julia (Sidney Poitier—yes, the daughter of that Poitier), a local radio show host. They have a visitor from out of town (Vanessa Ferlito), a more retiring chick who goes by the name Butterfly. (McGowan also pops up again, as a much more annoying character this time.) The first half hour or so just shows the girls hanging out and shooting the shit, making plans for the weekend—but it also shows them being stalked quietly by the ex-stuntman. Tarantino does a superb job building the tension; a shadow falls whenever Butterfly glimpses Stuntman Mike’s car, and in a masterful scene when the man himself approaches her, Russell is at once chilling and charming, which makes the final moment of reckoning all the more brutal and terrifying. The first part of “Death Proof” illustrates all the virtues of restraint, which is not what I’d call a QT trademark.

Tarantino allows himself quite a bit more self-indulgence in the second half, which suffers as a result. Once again, he focuses on a group of girls on their day off, once again they have a friend visiting from out of town, and once again they become the target of Stuntman Mike. This time, though, two of the girls (played by Tracie Thoms and Zoe Bell) turn out to be stuntwomen themselves, and they proceed to turn the tables on their enemy over the course of a white-knuckle car chase. It’s basically a rewrite of the stalker flick into a QT female revenge flick. Unfortunately, apart from the neato stunts performed by the charismatic Bell (a real-life stuntwoman who stood in for Uma Thurman in the “Kill Bill” movies), the rewrite isn’t particularly well written. The girls engage in long-winded dialogue that is pretty identifiably Tarantino dialogue, but not in a good way: they basically become little more than his mouthpieces for everything QT loves about car chase movies from the 1970s. And Russell’s conversion from scary killer to whimpering victim doesn’t feel credible, which makes the climax feel more like a letdown than a payoff.

Still, to give credit where credit’s due, “Death Proof” as a whole provides a nice counterpoint to the excesses of “Planet Terror.” Like Rodriguez’s film, it’s an affectionate tribute to a bygone genre, but it’s a much subtler one. Paradoxically, it’s also not an entirely successful one—more interesting in theory than in execution. “Planet Terror” is just the reverse. Of the two, “Planet Terror” is more fun to watch; “Death Proof” more fun to mull over and talk about afterwards. Put the two of them together, and you get your full money’s worth.

DEATH PROOF Part 1: A-, Part 2: B-; net: B+

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

"Lookout" for Mr. Gordon-Levitt


written and directed by Scott Frank
starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels, Matthew Goode, Isla Fisher, others

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is hot right now, and I don’t mean in the he’s so sexy! sense. No, most of the attention he’s drawing is from the critics and the indie-film crowd, who have been taking notice ever since his buzz-generating turns in film festival darlings like “Mysterious Skin” and “Brick.” At 26, he’s come a long way since his kiddie days on “3rd Rock from the Sun,” and his latest role in “The Lookout” confirms his status as an actor to be reckoned with. Whether he can translate critical plaudits into commercial success still remains to be seen, though it’s doubtful he’ll ever go the matinee idol route. He’s a little too withdrawn and, to be honest, a little too intelligent to be a conventional heartthrob, though some have him pegged as the next Johnny Depp.

Be that as it may, “The Lookout” leaves no doubt that young Gordon-Levitt is the real deal. In itself, the film is competent and smartly crafted without being brilliant, structured as a fairly conventional heist flick but layered over with a deep-cutting psychological portrait of an angry and damaged young man. Set against the bleak winter landscapes of Kansas City, the story, scripted by veteran screenwriter but first-time director Scott Frank, is simple enough in its rough outlines. JGL stars as Chris Pratt, a high school hero whose charmed existence comes to a crashing halt when a night of joy-riding with friends leads to a horrific accident that leaves him with a serious brain injury. Though he looks outwardly normal—apart from a slight limp and some ugly scarring on his body—he’s mentally crippled. He has trouble sequencing, i.e., putting his thoughts and memories in the proper order, and is prone to involuntary fits of tears and unprovoked, wildly inappropriate remarks, usually of a sexual nature. In his new life, he takes classes in basic life skills, works nights as a janitor in a bank, and shares an apartment with a fellow handicappee, a blind man named Lewis (Jeff Daniels) whose hilariously tart tongue doesn’t disguise his genuine affection and concern for Chris.

Chris pines for his golden-boy past, even as he struggles to get through the simple day-to-day challenges of his present. This leaves him easy prey to the machinations of Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), a guy who the audience knows is trouble as soon as he shows up, despite—or perhaps because of—his surface charm. Gary approaches Chris in a bar, tells him they went to high school together, and introduces him to a bodacious redhead (Isla Fisher) who calls herself—I kid you not—Luvlee Lemons. Seduced by Luvlee’s sexual attentions and Gary’s smooth talk, Chris finds himself ensnared in the latter’s plot to rob the very bank where he works.

The complications that ensue when the heist doesn’t go quite as planned are predictable enough; what isn’t predictable is the characters’ reactions to them. It’s no surprise that “The Lookout” derives most of its power from the performances of its cast. The excellent Daniels is a quiet riot with his one-line zingers, but he’s also unexpectedly moving in the moments where he steps in as Chris’s self-appointed guardian—sometimes against Chris’s own family, who, swathed in a mantle of privilege, fail to understand the root of his problems. In the opposite corner, Goode is, well, damn good as the plotter who plays on Chris’s basic desires and deepest sense of loss. Fisher (best known as Vince Vaughn’s crazy love interest in “The Wedding Crashers” and as the real-life fiancée of Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Borat) may initially come across as a bit too cute to be a convincing femme fatale, yet ultimately it’s her very cuteness, even a certain motherliness about her, that makes her appeal to Chris believable.

In the end, though, it’s JGL who makes the movie. I haven’t seen “Mysterious Skin,” but I’m willing to wager that his performance in “The Lookout” is his best yet. He effectively conveys both Chris’s mental struggle to catch up with those around him and his deep-lying frustration at the seeming futility and waste of it all, as well as the guilt that haunts him for the life-derailing accident that was completely his fault. But at his core, he’s also just a forlornly lost little boy trying to grow up, yearning for that which he threw away even as he knows he can never get it back. It’s his gradual acceptance of this truth, and his attempts to piece together an alternative, that throw off the villains’ best-laid plans—and that make “The Lookout” compelling viewing.


Sunday, April 01, 2007

Nair stays true to "Namesake"; Godzilla meets comedy in "The Host"

Sorry for the long absence - I took time off in March to do a lot of reassessment of everything. And although I saw "The Namesake" a while ago, it took me some time to write a review. The ones that are closer to my heart are always the hardest ones to write. But anyway, I'm back, and here is...


directed by Mira Nair
starring Kal Penn, Irfan Khan, Tabu, Jacinda Barrett, Zuleikha Robinson
based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri

I almost wish I hadn’t read The Namesake before seeing the film. Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter; it’s actually quite good. But it’s hard for me to see any literary adaptation as a film first and foremost, rather than as an adaptation, especially if I have any attachment to the book—notwithstanding my firm belief that an overly literal-minded attachment to a book can kill any chance a film has of standing on its own. The key is to remain absolutely faithful to the spirit of the book, which requires a certain amount of fidelity—but not too much—to its letter. The correct balance varies widely from one book to the next.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake isn’t the most difficult novel to adapt in this respect, though it certainly isn’t the easiest, either, given that most of its narrative is conveyed through the internalized perspectives of its central characters. By most measures, the film gets the balance admirably right. To be sure, in its broad brushstrokes the story is one we’ve seen before, though that doesn’t rob it of its basic resonance. It’s a tale of displacement and diaspora, at once universal and particular, both global and peculiarly American. It details the struggle of immigrants to adapt to an alien society without losing their original cultural identity and the struggle of their offspring to reconcile their fractured inheritance of that identity with their own desire to fit in among their peers, free of conflicting cultural baggage.

“The Namesake” begins by tracing the journey of displaced Bengalis Ashok and Ashima Ganguli (beautifully played by veteran Indian actors Irfan Khan and Tabu), a couple linked through an arranged marriage who only come to know each other once they move to the United States. There Ashok becomes a successful professor of engineering, and he and Ashima have a son, Gogol (Kal Penn), named for Ashok’s favorite author, and a daughter, Sonia (Sahira Nair). As the children grow up, the narrative shifts focus largely to Gogol, who changes his name and gradually distances himself from his family by, among other things, becoming romantically involved with an upper-middle-class WASP (Jacinda Barrett in a hideously unflattering blond wig) and embracing her serenely privileged lifestyle—if not her casual, unselfconscious sense of entitlement. Tragic events pull him back to the heart of his family and cause him to reevaluate his attitude towards his Indian roots. Yet as he comes closer to accepting his compound heritage—even pursuing a romance with a fellow first-generation Bengali American (Zuleikha Robinson)—he learns there are no easy answers to the conundrum of being, to borrow an academic phrase quoted in the book, an “ABCD” (American-born confused deshi).

Though the screenplay is on the whole remarkably faithful to Lahiri’s novel, it obviously had to make some compressions and omissions to fit within standard movie length. Most of these were judiciously chosen, though I was a bit startled (more at the time than in retrospect) to see Gogol’s entire college experience entirely elided. However, there were also some changes that I do not think were necessary and that do alter the flavor of the narrative. In the novel, Ashok and Ashima come to the United States in the late 1960s and settle in the greater Boston area. The movie pushes the time frame to roughly a decade later and places the Gangulis in New York.

Why is that such a big deal, you may ask. I’ll admit part of my grievance is purely subjective. I have a deep personal connection to the book, in large part because the story of the parents Ganguli in so many ways tracks the life-story of my own parents—even though my parents are Korean, not Indian, and their marriage wasn’t arranged. Like Ashok and Ashima, my parents were part of the great wave of Asian scientists and professionals (and their accompanying families) who settled permanently in this country following the change in U.S. immigration laws in 1965. They came to Cambridge, Mass, so my dad, like Ashok, could get a Ph.D in engineering. (Gogol and I were even born in the same hospital in Cambridge, though my parents waited much longer than the Gangulis to have a child; interestingly, by bumping the story up a decade, the movie makes Gogol more of my peer, born in exactly the same year as me.) Much of the early part of The Namesake brought to mind my parents’ stories of grad student life in Cambridge circa 1970, while Gogol’s college years at Yale recalled my own memories of the place when I was a grad student there. New York in the 1980s and ’90s strikes no such chord with me. To be fair, the movie isn’t interested in evoking the sense of a particular locale or period so much as the more broadly recognizable experience of new immigrants in a foreign (and not particularly hospitable) land.

Still, something does seem to be lost that goes beyond a mere personal nostalgia factor. The quality of Lahiri’s writing that distinguishes her from others who have tackled similar subject matter is her attention to detail—from the names of particular books, foods, songs, or trips that shape her characters’ daily lives, to something as passing as Ashok’s concern that Gogol’s girlfriend Maxine park her car in their driveway rather than in the street because it’s safer. (“I’ll do it,” Gogol says, “irritated by his parents’ perpetual fear of disaster”—a wonderful line that encapsulates the stark difference Gogol feels, without analyzing, between his own parents and Maxine’s, who never seem to worry about anything.) It’s these details that ground Lahiri’s fiction and make her account of the immigrant experience ring so true. And it’s these kinds of details that inevitably get glossed over, modified, or rearranged in a film. Characterization becomes a little thinner as a result, especially for the supporting characters; Gogol’s second major love interest, Moushumi, is given particularly short shrift, her complex inner conflicts and back history flattened into an overly simplistic and unsatisfying explanation for her actions.

Not that Nair doesn’t have a savvy eye of her own for the finer details of the Indian immigrant experience, as she’s shown in her previous films. “The Namesake” is, in its own way, as sensitively observed a depiction of that experience as any that’s come along in a long while. It benefits from wonderfully nuanced and sympathetic performances by Khan and Tabu, as the parents who negotiate their displacement with a grace and dignity that successfully captures Lahiri’s palpable respect for that generation. The sequence in which Gogol reluctantly brings Maxine home to meet his parents—a pleasant and polite enough encounter on the surface, but fraught with undercurrents of cross-cultural tension—is simply perfect, owing in large part to Khan and Tabu. Their demeanor and expressions as Max makes her friendly overtures to them are so telling and yet so subtle, they made me cringe in my seat.

Penn’s Gogol, by contrast, is initially much more overtly petulant and tiresomely rebellious than my impression of his character from the book, but as Gogol matures the actor tries gamely to add shadings and layers to the sulky, disaffected first generationer. Maybe a little too hard; his performance on the whole is more workmanlike than inspired, though his earnestness does succeed in dispelling the lingering ghosts of Kumar and Van Wilder. Ultimately, what emerges is a convincing, if somewhat overly edited portrait of a family suspended between cultures, with each member doing his or her best to develop as integrated an identity as possible. As such, the film bears the stamp of a director and a writer who understand this experience firsthand—and who thus understand that it can be both rich and bittersweet.


Also saw:


directed and written by Bong Joon-ho
starring Song Kang-ho, Byeon Hie-bong, Bae Du-na, Park Hae-il, Ko Ah-sung

As movies go, this one is campy as all hell, but that’s what makes it fun. The premise is classic monster sci-fi, though it’s also inspired by a real-life incident: At the direction of an American supervisor, a Korean lab technician empties gallons of highly toxic chemicals down a drain that empties into the Han River. In due course an amphibious monster (in Korean, a gwaemul, the original title of the movie) emerges from the river to feed on the ample supply of humans on its shores. Some it gobbles up right away (the scene of its first rampage is a hoot); others it carries off to its lair, located deep underground in the Seoul sewer systems, to save for later consumption. One of the latter unfortunates is a plucky and resourceful thirteen-year-old schoolgirl named Hyun-seo Park (Ko Ah-sung). Her abduction inspires her family of misfits—a dim-witted father Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), a grandfather (Byeon Hie-bong) who owns a food stand by the river, an aunt (Bae Du-na) who happens to be a championship archer with a bad habit of hesitation, and a university-educated but perpetually drunk and unemployed uncle (Park Hae-il)—to sail to her rescue. Along the way, they’re impeded as much by the incompetence of the South Korean government and the political maneuvering of the overbearing U.S. as they are by the creature’s own speed and ferocity.

Notwithstanding its scattershot social and political satire, “The Host” is not a movie you’re supposed to take seriously. It certainly doesn’t take itself seriously, and some audiences may not know what to make of its frequently tongue-in-cheek tone and its random comic yuks, like the family’s exaggerated grief when they initially assume Hyun-seo is dead, or the random shot of a homeless man picking his nose as wildly dramatic events unfold before him. (One particularly hilarious scene that takes a not-so-subtle jab at the SARS scare plays absolutely no part in advancing the overall plot.) If you can appreciate the filmmakers' brand of humor, you’ll find it makes the genuine thrills and chills that much more enjoyable.