Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, January 31, 2019

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Date with an Angel (1987)

In southern France, there's a 30,000 year old cave painting of a human woman and a half-man, half-bison creature getting cozy. In other words: Pretty much from the moment humanity formulated myths, certain people have dreamed about fucking magical creatures. I guess it's just human nature to not be romantically satisfied with other people. This is a proud tradition that carries through most myths and religions in history. The ancient Greeks especially loved it. The concept remains in our pop culture to this day, in material ranging from pornographic novels to a Best Picture winner. In 1984, Ron Howard's “Splash!”  was an especially popular and family friendly riff on this concept. In 1987, “Date with an Angel” would take more-or-less the same premise but trade a fish tail for feathery wings. This film is not especially well regarded or even remembered but, for some reason, I own it.

Jim had dreams of becoming a musician but, now, he's engaged to marry Patty, the daughter of a rich cosmetics company executive. He's not happy with this situation but tells himself he loves Patty. His friends drag him off to a bachelor party and he awakens in a drunken stupor the next morning. That's when a beautiful woman falls from the sky into his pool. She's is quite literally an angel, sent from heaven. Upon setting an eye on her, Patty immediately assumes Jim is cheating on her. The angel, who cannot speak and doesn't understand how the mortal world works, gets involved in lots of shenanigans. Naturally, Jim really does develop feelings for her soon enough.

“Date with an Angel” is a very dumb romantic-comedy. It's one of those films were problems could be resolved if only the characters stopped and talked to each other for a minute. Upon seeing Jim with Angel, Patty jumps to the conclusion that he's having an affair. Never does she actually allow him to explain what happened or let him show her the obvious evidence, like Angel's wings or her heavenly glow. Eventually, Patty's behavior grows more manic and ridiculous, swinging a rifle around and wearing her underwear outside her clothes. Jim's friends perform bizarre and frequently illegal stunts, like dressing up as terrorists to attack Patty's party. Or when they kidnap Angel and attempt to put her on display, an unambiguously criminal act that the film treats as a wacky antic. Most of this shit is in the movie to pad out what's a pretty thin premise.

Writer/director Tom McLoughlin, previously of clever eighties horror flicks like “One Dark Night” and “Friday the 13th: Jason Lives!,” was obviously way more interested in the fish-out-of-water antics an angel landing on Earth presented. Angel doesn't speak, only communicating in high-pitched, bird-like vocalizations. She's baffled by human food but, thanks to some gratuitous product placement from Wendy's, soon discovers a love of french fries. Better are the gags that result from people being shocked by her appearances, her wings and behavior often confusing or shocking people, such as a man in a church. Or how her angelic abilities, like a kinship with animals, gets Jim out of a jam with Patty's dad. This stuff, which also includes a singing telegram dressed as a ladybug, is odd enough that it at least inspires some baffled chuckles.  

The biggest star in “Date with an Angel” is Phoebe Cates as Patty. Cates, an angelic beauty herself, thoroughly embarrasses herself with the increasingly broad and gross slapstick the film insists she partakes in. She's not really the star of the film though. That duty falls to Michael E. Knight, an undistinguished performer best known for a long stint on “All My Children.” Knight has some okay comedic chops, displayed when looking away from a bathing Angel. Yet Jim is mostly a fairly bland character. Emmanuelle Beart plays the Angel. It's easy to see why Beart was cast in the part. She is striking and captures a child-like sense of innocence well enough. She still can't distract from how weird the character is though, with her shrieks and wing-related pratfalls.

Why Do I Own This?: “Date with an Angel” received negative reviews. Roger Ebert compared it unflatteringly to “Teen Wolf Too.” Its box office was even worst, the film barely grossing over a million dollars against a six million dollar budget. Tom McLoughlin hasn't directed a theatrically released film since, though he's become a prolific director of television films. But when I saw the director of two horror movies I liked made a rom-com with a really strange/dumb premise, I decided I had to track it down. This is also one of those movies my dear mother considers “sweet” and she watched it often during my childhood. So that's why I own this totally forgotten, oddball motion picture. I doubt I'll ever watch it again. [5/10]

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2014)

18. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Co-directed by Frank Miller

After “Sin City” was released to critical acclaim and box office success, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller immediately started talking about a sequel. It was quickly announced that the second film would adapt “A Dame to Kill For,” the second “Sin City” yarn, and also feature new material Miller created specifically for the film. Considering much of the material was already written and Rodriguez' tendency for working quickly, sixteen year old me assumed the film would come out soon after the first “Sin City's” 2005 release. Instead, “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” wouldn't hit theaters until 2014, nearly a full decade later. In the intervening nine years, Frank Miller had fully revealed what a nut he is and Robert Rodriguez' work had only gotten more uneven. Though still a cult favorite among nerds and film bros, interest had largely waned in the “Sin City” universe. Yet, due to the Weinsteins' hunger for a box office hit and inertia, the film was pushed through production anyway.

We return to the back allies, dive bars, and ghettos of Basin City. As always, crime, chaos, lust, and desperation are in the air. We are presented with four tales. Affable brute Marv has a violent adventure on a slow Saturday night. Photographer Dwight, who has a violent history with Oldtown, is seduced by ex-girlfriend and millionaire's wife Ava Lord. Dwight realizes too late that the woman has used him, framing him for murder. A mysterious gambler named Johnny hunts down Senator Roark's secret poker night, antagonizing the most corrupt politician in the city. Lastly, Nancy is haunted – metaphorically and literally – by the ghost of John Hartigan. She is soon driven to seek vengeance on Roark, the man she blames for Hartigan's death.

The techniques that the first “Sin City” pioneered where far more common place nine years later. Nevertheless, the sequel carries on the original's hyper-stylized visual approach. There are some cool shots in “A Dame to Kill For.” A neat shot focuses on Dwight as he's thrown from a moving vehicle, his body frozen in mid-flight. Later, his obsession with Ava is illustrated by images of her spinning around his head. Johnny stands on the poker table, sliced apart by the cards the Senator throws at him. Many of these, as in the first movie, are taken directly from Frank Miller's illustrations. Such as Mort, the police officer Ava also seduces, looking out behind white, reflective glasses lens.

While “A Dame to Kill For” is definitely fun to look at, the visual excess eventually wares thin. This is most obvious in the action sequences. Rodrigeuz luxuriates too much in Miho slicing through goons, impossibly spinning through the air in slow motion. Later, a bolt from a crossbow tosses a bad guy high into the air. Simply put, it's silly looking. Of course, the film's ridiculous excess does not end at the visuals. A dead character from the first movie is literally brought back as a ghost, in a world that previously featured no supernatural elements. A random appearance of some bikers provide Marv and Nancy with the guns they need in the last act. Not all of these things can be blamed on Miller's deteriorating discretion. “Just Another Saturday Night,” the opening story, has Marv being brutally assisted by random, unseen people. It's all a little too much.

The first “Sin City” got away with a lot, on account of being an over-the-top, almost comedic pastiche of hard-boiled noir. The sequel is still technically these things but the focus has changed. The trauma of Hartigan's death has made Nancy a revenge-obsessed alcoholic. The attempts Johnny makes to topple Roark's confidence is doomed to fail, brutishly and violently. Marv and Miho dismember and murder without regret, tearing people apart with ease and without thought. There's no love, only seduction and betrayal. There's no catharsis to the violence and excess this time, no grace to the stories. What humor that's left is nasty and cruel. “A Dame to Kill For” is all ugly, all the time.

If “A Dame to Kill For” reveals Frank Miller's hate-filled heart, one hate in particular deserves attention. The first “Sin City” was unquestionably sexist but, again, that could almost be excused due to it being such an over-the-top distillation of noir tropes. “A Dame to Kill For” is far uglier in its distrust and distaste for women. Ava Lord is a venomous woman, who manipulates for greed but because she likes it. While the film makes sure to depict the absolute coldness with which she controls men, it also gets her naked as much as possible. This includes at least two totally gratuitous bath scenes. Yet even that is less unsettling than the brutal but off-handed way a supporting female character is dismembered. It happens off-screen and totally to motivate a man. This macho man misogyny largely manifests by portraying women as either totally evil, helpless victims, or inspiring goddess of righteous fury... All archetypes that are apart from men. 

Honestly, “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” isn't even coherent within its own world. As in the first movie, the timeline shifts back and forth between the stories. All the stories take place before “The Hard Goodbye,” obviously because Marv is still alive. Yet other events, such as the fate of Senator Roark, seem to take place further down the “Sin City” timeline. The titular story takes place before the first movie or anything else that happens in this film, as it functions as Dwight's origin. But even within the movie, things do not flow smoothly. “A Dame to Kill For” is present between two parts of “A Long, Hard Night” and “Nancy's Last Dance,” both of which play out concurrently. So not only does the entire sequel not line up totally with the first film, its own stories don't entirely flow together either.

While the segment actually devoted to adapting “A Dame to Kill For” has many of the same problems as the rest of the movie, it's still pulling from a time before Frank Miller completely lost his mind. So there's some half-decent elements there. As sexist a character as she is, there's something to be said for the way Ava Lord is the apotheosis of every femme fatale character to ever appear in a film noir. The rivalry that quickly forms between Marv and Manute, largely because they are two large dudes and experienced killers, is sort of funny. Especially the typically brutish way that is resolved. Dwight's character arc is too nihilistic to be compelling but you can see, conceptually, how that might've been done better.

Compare this to the two new stories Miller wrote strictly for the screen. If written fifteen years ago, back when Miller hadn't totally disappeared up his own ass, you could imagine “The Long, Bad Night” being a solid yarn. In the hands of modern Miller, it's a horribly unfocused story with outrageous digressions and needlessly sick violence. There's cold-bloodied torture. Christopher Lloyd gets a cameo as a heroin-shooting surgeon, helping fix that torture. The weakest element is that Johnny's unexplained luck allows him to succeed without any struggle some times. When focused on the tense confrontations between the Senator and Johnny, “The Long, Bad Night” works pretty well. Its other moments are when it falters.

The worst is yet to come though. Even when compared to some of the later, shittier comics, “Nancy's Last Dance” is the worst “Sin City” yarn. It's always overheated and ridiculous but especially when Nancy and Hartigan's ghost are having corresponding but one-sided conversations. Nancy's descent into alcoholism is really poorly done. Her supposed darkest moment, an especially lecherous dance, is hard to take seriously considering she's already working as a stripper. Hilariously, Senator Roark keeps photos of his dead son around... But only in the mutated, “Yellow Bastard” form. It's been established that the Roark family is untouchable in their power. Which makes the ease with which Nancy and Marv take their revenge on him seem utterly anti-climatic.

Rodriguez was not able to get every original cast member from “Sin City” back. Devon Aoki as Miho is replaced by Jamie Chung. Dennis Haysbert, with his thunderous voice, steps in for the deceased Michael Clarke Duncan. Michael Madsen is replaced by Jeremy Piven, in the minor part of Bob. The absence that stings the most is Clive Owen. Josh Brolin replaces him as Dwight, who comes off as a totally different character. Most of the other notable new additions amount to cameos. Famous faces like Lloyd, Ray Liotta, Juno Temple, Lady Gaga, and Alexa Vega streak by within minutes. You don't even see Stacy Keach's face, as he's buried under make-up while playing grotesque crime lord Wallenquist.

Ultimately and unsurprisingly, Eva Green steals the show. Green specializes in being the best part of mediocre films. As Ava Lord, she's a smoldering machine of evil seduction. As for the returning cast, not many of them distinguish themselves. Powers Booth is given an expanded role, hamming it up nicely as the vitriolic Senator Roark. Rosario Dawson is similarly hammy as Gail, a largely thankless part. Marv is still the part Mickey Rourke was born to play, even if the facial prosthetics fit him in a notably awkward way now. But Jessica Alba's histrionic overacting, when paired with the sweaty script, makes for an embarrassing part. Bruce Willis is glum, Joseph Gordon Levitt doesn't get much of a chance to express himself, and Jamie King has a glorified cameo.

I can vaguely recall, right after “Sin City” came out, Miller and Rodriguez were planning a trilogy. After “A Dame to Kill For,” a third movie would've adapted “To Hell and Back,” Miller's final and most excessive “Sin City” yarn. (Johnny Depp was being bandied about as a possible star.) If “A Dame to Kill For” had come out a few years after the original, it probably would've done alright and been happily eaten up by passionate fans. Waiting nearly a decade caused the brand to become obsolete. Thus, “A Dame to Kill For” flopped at the theaters and received very negative reviews. Though there was rumblings of a TV series – not the worst idea – it seems likely that we won't be revisiting Basin City any time soon. It's hard to be too disappointed by that, considering the sequel's lackluster quality. [Grade: C-]

Robert Rodriguez is always talking about new projects. Over the years, he's been attached to unrealized films like a new take on Ralph Bakshi's "Fire and Ice," a sci-fi thriller called "Nerveracker," a remake of "Barbarella," a new "Red Sonja" film (Both of which would've starred Rose McGowan), and live action adaptations of "Jonny Quest" and "The Jetsons."

So the dude is always busy. Which makes the five year break he took after his last three features flop unprecedented, if not surprising. But it looks like Rodriguez is coming back in a big way this year. Because James Cameron is busy making "Avatar" sequels nobody demanded, he handed his long simmering adaptation of manga "Battle Angel" over to Rodriguez. It comes out in a few weeks and will probably flop but I think it looks awesome. Beyond that, Rodriguez has also made a seven thousand dollar horror film called "Red 11," co-written by a now teenage Racer Rodriguez and inspired by his dad's days as a guinea pig for medical testing. That premieres at SXSW later this year and could be a return to form. (Oh yeah, he also made a coqnac advertisement that won't be released until 2115. Really ambitious of Rodriguez and his producers to assume Earth won't be a burned out husk by then.)

As for this Director Report Card? It was exhausting. Watching Rodriguez' hyperactive movies back to back was akin to downing eighteen pixie sticks in a row. While a lot of his earlier films are still fun, the quality of the guy's work has definitely become shakier over the last decade. Here's hoping "Battle Angel" and "Red 11" shake things up. But, as always, thank you for reading.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2013)

17. Machete Kills

As previously discussed, Robert Rodriguez had always intended “Machete” to be a franchise. In fact, the director was so confident that the world needed an series of low-budget action films starring Danny Trejo that he ended the first “Machete” by promising two sequels: “Machete Kills” and “Machete Kills Again.” That might have seemed a little presumptuous but Rodriguez was right about the demand. As the prophecy foretold, “Machete Kills” was unleashed on audiences in 2012. I suspect that Rodriguez fully intended to hand the reigns of the series to Ethan Maniquis. You'd think he would have more important things to do than direct a bunch of low budget sequels. Instead, the main guy himself would be flying solo on the follow-up.

After a mission to take down a Mexican drug cartel goes horribly wrong, Machete is left strung up in a Texas prison. He is saved at the last minute by a phone call from the President of the United States. The blade-slinging vigilante is recruited by the government to take out Marcos Mendez, a Mexican revolutionary with a nuclear missile pointed at Washington. But the bomb is wired to Mendez' heart, forcing Machete to take him across the border. There, the honorable warrior realizes that Luthor Voz, an insane weapons manufacturer who believes himself to be psychic, has been manipulating everything. Voz hopes to destroy the world in nuclear hellfire and build a new civilization in space. It's up to Machete to make sure that doesn't happen.

The first “Machete” intentionally went for over-the-top action theatrics. That macho ridiculousness often had it veering towards comedy. “Machete Kills,” however, is far more pleased with its goofy comedy. Before a psychedelic sex scene, there's a prompt to put on 3-D glasses. This is a possible self-jab at Rodriguez making a few 3-D movies. If that's the case, it's not the only reference the director makes to his own movies. The cock gun from “From Dusk Till Dawn” reappears. The El Rey Network is mentioned by name. There's an out-of-place weed joke, a Gatling gun equipped brassiere, a winking Elon Musk cameo, and a random appearances from famous “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” props. The film is so self-satisfied, that it begins and ends with trailers for its own sequel.

That fake trailer promises to send Machete into outer space, in addition to a juvenile Justin Bieber jab. That's the first indication that “Machete Kills” will be making a bizarre shift into science fiction in its second half. While knowingly ridiculous, the first “Machete” was still ostensibly grounded in our reality. After a quasi-realistic first half, the sequel suddenly introduces clones, psychic powers, teleportation, and “Flash Gordon”-style ray guns. The climax features a bunch of zeerust, fake futuristic space outfits and multiple rockets. It's all really out-of-place, seeming like an excessive detour from what we're actually here to see. You wonder if Rodriguez only had a decent idea for a real “Machete” sequel before swerving hard into this goofy space shit.

Machete was already a hyper powerful, male power fantasy. He kills the bad guy and gets the girl, after all. The sequel leans into this even harder, intentionally making Machete a Bond-like figure. He's officially a secret agent now. He gets his share of gadgets and even the exposition to go along with them. (Which helps explain the sci-fi stuff in the second half. I guess Rodriguez is a big “Moonraker” fan...) He also has multiple girls to bed. Which means Jessica Alba's Sartana has to get the axe. She's offhandedly killed in the opening action scene, her death only getting a few passing mentions from there on out. It's another disappointing fridging from Rodriguez, though at this point, I can't say I didn't expect it.

The first “Machete” did have its joys as an utterly ridiculous action flick. There are certainly awesome ideas contained within “Machete Kills.” Machete disembowels a dude and yo-yos him into the rotors of a helicopter with his own intestines. Helicopter blades crop up as weapons again, Machete spinning himself around on one or grappling another goon into some others. There's a three-way car chase involving two vans and an indestructible nitro wagon. Decapitated heads are tossed into the air, switching bodies. As fun as this all sounds, Rodriguez robs some of the action beats of their thrill factor by utilizing too much CGI. The blood looks incredibly fake and so do many of the other stunts, such as when Machete weaponizes an overturned boat propeller. Or uses laser guns to turn some goons inside-out. This means the more down-to-Earth moments are cooler, such as a meat cleaver toss being reversed or a van flipping over.

“Machete Kills” does seem to confirm that the lack of typical Rodriguez action in the first film might've been the work of the co-director. That fast-paced action direction and editing returns hard here. Split-screens seem to be Robbie's new favorite trick. A phone call leaps back and forth between the various participants, multiple faces appearing on-screen. A similar gag appears in the opening trailer, to emphasize the power of Machete's blows. Naturally, there's lots of fast paced editing and swirling camera work in the fight scenes. More than once, we have rough zoom-ins on various discarded guts or back-flip.

While “Machete Kills” is the very definition of excessive, it's surprisingly more restrained as far as plotting goes. Unlike Rodriguez' last few action-fests, he manages to keep the inessential subplots to a fairly reasonable number. Yes, the whole plot point with Mendez ends up being a total misdirect but at least that antagonistic force rolls smoothly into the next. The director can't totally resist himself. After abducting the first villain, a price is put on Machete's head, allowing for more fight scenes and some additional enemies. Lastly, Machete is briefly pursued by an enraged brothel mistress and her machine gun wielding prostitutes. Neither of these plot points are actually resolved, Rodriguez obviously hoping to wrap things up in the next movie. But at least he didn't throw in a dozen different story ideas this time.

In fact, one of the digressions is even sort of fun. Among the bounty hunters going after Machete is El Chameleon. This particular contract killer is constantly changing their face, switching freely between genders and never staying in one guise for too long. This allows Rodriguez to get way more special guest stars into the movie. It's also a genuinely fun gimmick. Walter Goggins is genuinely intense as the first Chameleon, appearing in a tense, bar room exchange that would've worked as its own short. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Antonio Banderas ham it up in their appearances as the second and fourth iterations. Of all people, Lady Gaga shows up as the third Chameleon, though she shows some spark in the part.

Gaga is not the only stunt casting appearing in the film. In fact, the first film's tendency towards shoving recognizable faces into the cast just for the hell of it increases. The most apparent example of this is Charlie Sheen – excuse me, Carlos Estevez – as punningly named President Rathcock. Remember, this was during Sheen's brief re-emergence as an internet meme. He trots out the same hammy nonsense here. Sofia Vergara at least has some fun as the raunchy Madame Desdemona, even if she doesn't expand past her typical choochie-choochie act. Vanessa Hudgens shows up for no other reason than the presumed edginess of a former Disney Channel star showing up in an R-rated flick. Also cast for stunt-y reasons is Mel Gibson, getting his ass fictionally kicked by Danny Trejo as some sort of weird penance for his real life racism. Gibson, scumbag though he may be, is at least entertaining as a sweaty, faux-profound villain.

Granted, not every addition to the cast was done strictly because their mere presence would get a laugh of recognition out of the audience. It's nice to have Michelle Rodriguez back. She attacks some of the genuinely embarrassing dialogue she's given with gusto. The same can be said for Amber Heard, who's bad girl theatrics are at least fun. William Sadler is amusingly campy as the redneck sheriff who attempts to lynch Machete. Marko Zaror has an impressive physicality as the cloned henchman. Demian Bichir plays a villain with multiple personality disorder and makes each manifestation distinct. Tom Savini is brought back for pretty much no reason, playing the same character but acting totally differently. And then there's Alexa Vega, wearing very little clothing, a bit of otherwise welcome exploitation that gets a little weird when you remember Rodriguez quite literally watched her grow-up.

“Machete Kills” is much too silly a motion picture to make any sort of salient political or social point. The first film did have a point, that anti-immigration rhetoric was just a cover for making money off people's racism and foolishness. The sequel makes brief declaration that closed borders are an obviously ridiculous premise. Yet the movie's political side does become weirdly prescient. In this film, a d-bag president that ran on a seemingly conservative platform has built a wall separating America and Mexico. Which is a weirdly specific claim that can't help but come off as an accurate prediction. But then the movie makes that president a swaggering, bro-tastic cool guy, so I don't know what the hell Rodriguez is trying to say here.

Like I said, ”Machete Kills” is so invested in its space-set sequel that it leaves several plot points dangling, hoping to wrap them up in the next installment. This apparently did not entice the public. “Machete Kills” only made 15 million dollars at the box office against a 20 million dollar budget. Despite Danny Trejo occasionally claimingMachete Kills Again in Spaceis definitely happening, I don't think we'll see a resolution to this story any time soon. While I'm generally a fan of Rodriguez' juvenile dumb-assery, even I'll admit that “Machete Kills” goes too far. Some of its over-the-top ideas are fun but the willingness with which it embraces concepts outside the series' appeal is baffling. It's humor and smug sense of irony is also too high, sucking the fun out of much of the antics. Watching Danny Trejo cut folks up is fun but this one feels like a sketch comedy premise stretched way past its breaking point. [Grade: C]

Monday, January 28, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2011)

16. Spy Kids: All the Time in the World

The Weinstein Brothers left Disney and Miramax with big ambitions for their new studio, the Weinstein Company. They were determined to recreate Miramax's success. However, after a few years, the studio was starting to fall on hard times. Desperate for hits, they decided to revive some of their previously popular series, resulting in “Scream 4,” “Scary Movie 5,” and a fourth “Spy Kids” movie. Robert Rodriguez was more than happy to play along, especially after inspiration struck when Jessica Alba brought her newborn baby onto the set of “Machete.” “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World” would hit theaters in 2011, paired with a bizarre scratch-and-sniff “Aroma-Scope” gimmick. Much like the Weinsteins' other attempts to spin box office gold out of their dormant franchises, “Spy Kids 4” would fail to recreate the original's success.

Agent Marissa Wilson, a previously unmentioned aunt of the Cortez family, is one of the trail of Tick Tock, a time-stopping villain who has stolen O.S.S. tech. Marissa does not let the fact that she's nine months pregnant and going into labor stop her. After giving birth to their child, she retires from spying to spend more time with her family. That would be husband Wilbur, a reality TV show hosts, and her two step kids, prankster Rebecca and partially deaf Cecil. Three years later, Tick Tock reappears, teamed-up with a more dangerous villain known as the Time Keeper. He has gotten a hold of a device that is causing time to spin out of control. Soon, Rebecca and Cecil find themselves at O.S.S. headquarters, becoming new Spy Kids in a quest to save the day.

The fourth “Spy Kids” movie has two goals ahead of it. The film has to relaunch a beloved franchise. Obviously, making a new “Spy Kids” movie eight years after the third one necessitates a largely new cast. So, for about half of its run time, “All the Time in the World” revolves around new characters in new situations. This causes it to feel rather disconnected, at times, from the original trilogy. (For example, the lengthy opening action scene, revolving entirely around a Spy Adult.) Yet the kids who grew up watching the “Spy Kids” movies were old enough by 2011 to feel nostalgic for the original trilogy. So the sequel also makes sure to include plenty of throwbacks, such as reoccurring gadgets and the now adult Carmen and Juni becoming major supporting characters. The sequel definitely feels torn between doing something new and reminding viewers of what came before.

In the original “Spy Kids,” Robert Rodriguez managed to give his young heroes problems without ever making them unlikable. Juni was bullied and didn't have many friends, Carmen was skipping school and picking on her brother. Eventually, they got over it and ended up being closer than before. His attempts to create personality flaws for his new Spy Kids are less successful. You see, Rebecca is a brat. She resents her stepmom for not being her deceased mother, which is understandable. How she goes about expressing this, through whiny petulance, is less relatable. The character is also a prankster, inflicting cruel and gross practical jokes on her family members strictly because it amuses her. While Cecil has his hearing aides and a nerdy streak, he isn't as interesting or fleshed out as Juni was either.

So that first act is pretty rough, the audience stuck with two young protagonist that can't help but pale to the former “Spy Kids” heroes. Eventually, you do start to warm up to Rebecca and Cecil, once they get their call to adventure and they stop being so bratty. (Cecil's partial deafness even gives him an advantage, once or twice.) It helps that, unlike in “Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” likable child performers are cast in the lead roles.  Rowan Blanchard and Mason Cook have a similar quality to Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara. They are both kids, with that child-like energy and looseness to them. At the same time, they know how to convincingly deliver a line, can invest their parts with personality, and seem to actually understand acting. So a kid's movie is always easier to stomach when you actually have talented kids starring in it.

Most of the well-known and beloved supporting cast from the previous “Spy Kids” movie are strangely absent this time out. Danny Trejo gets a one scene cameo without any lines. Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino are conspicuous in their absence. Instead, Jessica Alba and Joel McHale fill the parts of Spy Parents. McHale does seem to be having fun, playing a dad that is well-intentioned but utterly clueless about what his wife and kids are actually up to. He even gets an inspired comedic beat to himself, when he yanks a tape apart with his teeth. Alba somehow manages to maintain her dignity, despite how broad some of this material is. And it is nice to see Vega and Sabara again. They haven't lost any of their chemistry during their eight years apart.

The original “Spy Kids” was commended for not relying too much on gross out humor, poop jokes, or other bodily functions to get easy laughs from kids. Unfortunately, this was not a lesson Rodriguez took to heart for the fourth film. “All the Time in the World” has countless fart jokes. In-between the baby and the robot dog, the film deploys quite a lot of flatulence. Later, a stuffed diaper is also used as a weapon against a henchman. This is not the only time the film weaponizes a bodily fluid. Not once or twice but three times, Cecil uses a bag of his own vomit against the bad guys. The film especially revels in this joke, giving us close-ups of the splattering puke. Aside from that, there's lot of food, slime, and gunk getting tossed around. It feels desperate, unnecessary, and mostly just nasty.

Of course, for movies hungry to appeal to young kids, there's nothing more desperate than a talking dog. Argonaut, the Wilson family pet, is actually a high-tech robot dog designed to watch out for the kids. Yes, he cracks dog-related puns. Yes, he participates in the bathroom humor, pooping bombs and peeing oil slicks. Most painfully, he even performs some kung-fu attacks in the last act. Yet, I'll admit, I didn't totally hate the robot dog. Ricky Gervais provides Argonaut's voice. His impish, British accent is a little more dry than you'd probably expect a chatty canine in a PG family flick to be. And at least he doesn't dance to a Top 40 pop song. Let's be thankful for some miracles.

I suspected that “Spy Kids 3” owed much of its box office success to its 3-D gimmick. Obviously hoping to replicate that, “Spy Kids 4” was presented in theaters in four dimensions. The movie is full of shit flying towards the camera, such as laser beams, flying vehicles, cheese doodles, nets, glow-in-the-dark boxing gloves, giant clock hands, and flying gears. It's only slightly less obnoxious about it than “Spy Kids 3,” largely because the movie isn't shot entirely on green screens. As for the 4D gimmick, this was accomplished with a scratch-and-sniff “Aroma-Scope” card given away with the purchase of the movie ticket. Even watching at home, it's obvious where this fits in. Foodstuff appears on screen and the characters make frequent references to the various scents and stenches they encounter. (This was probably a big reason why the movie has so many fart jokes.) Ultimately, both gimmicks have little to do with the movie and add nothing of substance.

Despite all of these flaws and weird decisions, “Spy Kids 4” does get points for containing some decent action sequences. There's a lot of shots of people getting tossed into the air that we've come to expect from Rodriguez. The movie seems to find the idea of children beating up adults hilarious and repeats that several times. However, there are also some kind of cool moments. The Time Keeper's henchmen convert their weapons into flying vehicles, leading to a mildly mid-air chase scene throughout the city, the kids in mini-jets of their own. Later, Rebecca and Cecil infiltrate the Time Keeper's massive clock device. This leads to the kids leaping around and avoiding giant spinning clock arms, a solid action set-piece. CGI has improved a lot since the original films, in general making these kind of theatrics a little more believable.

I have to say, the sequel also cooks up a genuinely interesting bad guy. The Time Keeper commits really hard to his theme and I can respect that. He wears a large clock as a mask. His henchman have similar “clock faces.” His secret hide-out is a watch repair shop. He traps his enemies in giant hour glasses full of “quick” sand. That's some “Batman '66” level wordplay there and I can dig it. In the last act, we learn of the villain's true identity and origins. This is a genuine surprise and I was shocked at how far Rodriguez takes this idea, involving some time travel manipulation. It results in a supervillain origin story that is novel, understandable, and even poignant. I guess what I'm saying is: Though he's stuck in a mediocre kid's flick, the Time Keeper is a genuinely decent comic book supervillain.

As cool as the Time Keeper's backstory it is, it ties into another obvious moral lesson that Rodriguez hammers into the viewer's skull. In fact, “Spy Kids 4” has two separate and obvious messages to give to kids. The first of which is that time is finite and you should appreciate your loved one's while you still can. This message is mostly aimed at parents like Wilbur, who are focusing on working with the hope that he'll have time for his kids later. The second message is that step kids should learn that their new step-moms or dads aren't so bad. While neither of these are bad things to teach kids, the lack of subtly with which “All the Time in the World” imparts this stuff is annoying... Though not horribly unexpected, considering Rodriguez has done this all before in his previous kids' movies.

Much like “Scream 4,” the original plan for “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World” was that it would be launch a new trilogy. The movie ends with the O.S.S. reactivating its Spy Kids section, with Rebecca and Cecil planning on recruiting kids from all over the world into the service. (Which, in a fourth wall leaning gag that raises a lot of questions, includes kids in the audience watching the movie.) Also like “Scream 4,” the underwhelming box office kept those plans from formulating. “Spy Kids” has instead continued as an animated series, something I'm surprised didn't happen sooner. “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World” is not well regarded. It currently sits among IMDb's lowest rated movies. The sequel is definitely a reboot we didn't need. While it's full of some truly lousy elements, it's also not totally worthless either. If nothing else, I'd happily re-watch it before “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” or “Spy Kids 3.” [Grade: C]

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2010)

15. Machete
Co-directed with Ethan Maniquis

From the moment fans first got a taste of “Grindhouse,” they immediately started hoping the fake trailers would be turned into actual movies. Robert Rodriguez obviously shared this desire. The “Machete” fake trailer has an origin story of its own. Upon meeting Danny Trejo back in the nineties, Rodriguez immediately imagined him as the Charles Bronson-like star of a long-running series of “Mexploitation” movies. (Considering how lucrative blaxploitation proved for a while, it is surprising there hadn’t been many prior attempts to similarly capitalize on the Latino audience.) The “Grindhouse” trailer pushed that long simmering idea too close to reality for Rodriguez and Trejo to resist anymore. An actual feature length “Machete” movie would slice onto theater screens in 2010.

Machete Cortez was a Mexican Federale agent. While attempting to take down drug kingpin Torrez, he is betrayed. His wife, daughter, and partner are killed and he’s left for dead. Three years later, he’s crossed the border and is working in Texas as a day laborer. This is were he’s chosen by Michael Booth, who pays him to assassinate anti-immigration Senator John McLaughlin. This is also a set-up, the assassination planned to fail in order to boost McLaughlin’s plummeting approval ratings. On the run from Booth’s, Machete teams up with Agent Rivera, a sympathetic ICE agent, and uncovers an attempt by the drug trade to manipulate border issues for profit.

Robert Rodriguez is not the only director credited on “Machete.” His frequent editor/assistant editor Ethan Manipuis is co-director. (This is, thus far, Manipuis only directorial credit.) Despite that, it’s hard to see another authorial voice at work in “Machete.” At the time, some critics derided “Machete” as Rodriguez totally abandoning the glints of genius seen in “El Mariachi” and “Sin City” and giving into his most juvenile instincts. This is, after all, a movie where a naked woman removes a cell phone from her vagina within the first ten minutes. It’s a film devoted entirely to absurd violence and adolescent titillation. While Rodriguez may very well be wasting his potential with projects like this, I think he’s making exactly the kind of films he wants to make.

The director’s most obvious goal with “Machete” was to make an ideal vehicle for Danny Trejo. I’d say he definitely succeeded in that regard. Trejo doesn’t speak much throughout “Machete.” What dialogue he does have is gruffly delivered, quick one-liners or little bits of information. Mostly, Trejo’s unforgettable face and physicality does the talking. He glares and growls while killing the bad guys, as much pit bull as man. While Trejo is an actor of considerable charm, there’s no doubt that he knows how to make this kind of tough guy part compelling. Being a Bond-like figure of male fan fantasy, Machete is also irresistible to women. The movie even makes that believable, as Trejo’s forceful toughness is certainly rugged and interesting.

Despite obviously being intended as a down-and-dirty exploitation homage, Rodriguez also hoped to squeeze some social commentary into “Machete.” A lot of which comes off as shockingly relevant here in 2019. The primary antagonists of “Machete” is a politician and his team who wants to build a barrier between America and Mexico. Who uses xenophobic and heated language, targeted at illegal immigrants. Who, at the same time, employs numerous illegal immigrants on his property. Rodriguez goes one step further, making these racist policies aligned directly with Mexican drug cartels. All the talk of border control is actually a scheme to make a select few – racist old white guys and criminals – even more rich and powerful than before. It's scarily on-points for our current world, even if Rodriguez has a heroic ICE agent as a primary character.

Yet “Machete” also has the director indulging in a bad habit he's had trouble breaking since at least “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.” Despite being a throwback to simple, down-and-dirty exploitation flicks, “Machete” has a seriously overstuffed plot. The film has about five plot lines, all of them intertwining to varying degrees. There's Machete's quest of vengeance against Torrez. There's the story of ICE Agent Sartana and her attempt to get to the bottom of things. We learn about Senator McLaughlin's involvement with a group of border patrolling vigilantes, which backfires on him. Also in there is Luz and the legendary She, leader of a network that helps illegals cross the border. We're not done yet, as Rodriguez also includes a subplot about Booth and his daughter, who is attempting to launch an internet porn career. The writer/director even includes a tiny subplot about a pair of dishwashers in a Mexican restaurant. That's a lot to keep track of and seems at odds, sometimes, with the modest goals “Machete” sets for itself.

And, sometimes, in his quest to get so much story on screen, Rodriguez just straight-up forgets about stuff. Despite ostensibly being his main motivation, the loss of Machete's wife and daughter never seems to affect him much. When he finally faces down Torrez again, there seems to be little personal about their conflict. This is not the only family Machete looses in the course of the story. His brother, now a priest, is tortured and killed by Booth and another assassin he hires, Osiris Amanpour. Machete comes after Booth but Osiris weirdly escapes his wrath, disappearing from the film abruptly after that point. (We know the real reason this happens: Rodriguez thought Tom Savini was having so much fun in the part, that he decided to keep Osiris around for the sequel. But, within the film, it definitely seems like a major scene or two was hastily cut.)

Then again, maybe I'm overthinking it. Rodriguez orchestrates this convoluted plot mostly so he can create a series of ridiculous action scenes, that escalate in gore and insanity. A lot of this stuff is really fun. The movie starts with a triple decapitation and goes from there. Though his titular weapon is his favorite, Trejo uses items as diverse as weed whackers, hedge clippers, broken glass, and a meat thermometer to off his opponents. (The last of which pays off in an especially amusing way.) Probably my favorite moment involves Machete slicing open a goon, yanking out his intestines, and swinging out of a building with it. That is, admittedly, the kind of thing I've always wanted to see in an action movie.

Like many of Rodriguez' action flicks, “Machete” is basically a love action cartoon. It gets more ridiculous as it goes on. After aligning himself with Luz' Network, Machete and his team embark on all-out war with the bad guys. At that point, Rodriguez begins to push things perhaps too far. Trejo wields a giant sized machete, Michelle Rodriguez firing a gun of Rob Liefeld-ian proportions. Low riders trick out with crazy hydraulics shoot rockets out of their motors and crush people after leaping into the air. It doesn't help matters that “Machete” is full of CGI blood, making the action scenes feel even more unrealistic and exaggerated.

After two decades of making fast-paced action movies, you can sometimes feel like Robert Rodriguez is starting to loose interest a little. Some of the big action scenes mentioned above are shot in a very straight-forward, not-so-flashy way. The final sword fight between Machete and Torrez is shockingly direct. The most interestingly directed moments tend to be a little more small-scale. Cheech Marin's shoot-out with a group of bad guys recalls some of that John Woo-esque operatic quality, what with people shooting and ducking around a church. A really cool scene has Jessica Alba fighting a luchador mask wearing assassin in her home, weaponizing her shoes. Some flashy split-screen shots are employed here and they are fun. Granted, it's entirely possible the less impressive action could be the work of Maniquis or vice versa. It's hard to say.

You can split “Machete's” large supporting cast – primarily made up of notable Latino talent and established cult icons – into its heroes and villains. Rodriguez re-teams with Jessica Alba after “Sin City.” Alba seems more comfortable in this part and, while she's still not totally convincing as a tough action heroine, her interactions with Trejo are cute. Michelle Rodriguez, meanwhile, is very at ease with being a bad ass. She brings conviction to the part of Luz, someone who genuinely wants to help people, before getting transformed into a cartoonish action star. Cheech Marin has fun as a less-than-virtuous priest. For the first time in their many collaborations, Rodriguez has Cheech reference his pot-smoking comedy days, in a gag that's a little too on the nose. He also brings “Spy Kids'” Daryl Sabara back for a brief part, as an exaggerated cholo mechanic.

There's some serious wattage among “Machete's” bad guys. Some might think Hollywood royalty like Robert DeNiro is above an exploitation throwback like this. Yet compared to many of DeNiro's humiliating latter day credits, the scumbag vigor he brings to Senator McLaughlin is pretty good. Don Johnson, amusingly, gets an “introducing” credit as the leader of the vigilantes, exuding a greasiness as the film's hateful character. Jeff Fahey wrings both comedy and a certain coolness out of Booth. Lindsay Lohan, in a clear case of stunt casting, plays his philandering daughter. The character contributes little to the film and Lohan's acting is broad and unconvincing.

Then there's Steven Seagal as Torrez. This was Seagal's first theatrically released film in eight years, a brief respite from his perpetual status as a regular in direct-to-video cheapies. The bloated and increasingly leathery Seagal is a weird choice for an intimidating Mexican drug lord. Aside from his differing race, Seagal naturally brings an affection for samurai swords and martial arts to the character. Presumably, he was cast more for the cool factor, of getting another action icon (no matter how dubious) into the film. Seagal, for what its worth, at least brings a sleazy slither to the part, Torrez being very self-assured in his power. The performer's notorious egotism is on-display. It's rumored that Seagal has it in his contract that his characters can never be killed by someone and, if they must die, Seagal has to do it himself. “Machete” gets around this by having the hero fatally wound Torrez and letting the villain finish himself off. Which is hilarious if you know the back story but rather anticlimactic if you don't.

Despite some serious flaws, “Machete” is an entertaining film. It also reached a largely untapped audience. I worked at a video store in 2010 and can recall several Hispanic people asking when the movie would be coming out on DVD. That same audience would turn out at the theaters, pushing “Machete” to gross four times its modest 10 million dollar budget. Danny Trejo was already a cult favorite before but “Machete’s” success would cause Rodriguez’ vision to come true. Aside from a sequel to “Machete,” Trejo has gone on to star in dozens of low budget action/thriller films. They have fittingly Bronson-esque titles like “Vengeance,” “The Contractor,” or “Bullet.” (A few, like “Bad Ass” and “Dead in Tombstone,” got sequels of their own.) It’s not quite a full-blown “Mexploitation” movement but it’s pretty neat nevertheless. [Grade: B]

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2009)

14. Shorts
The Adventures of the Wishing Rock

You might think that his hyper-violent genre films are his bread-and-butter but Rodriguez clearly enjoys making kids movies. Even after the widely assumed end of the highly profitable “Spy Kids” series, he kept returning to the kiddie genre. “Shorts,” a co-production with an Abu Dhabi-based studio, was released in 2009 to little fanfare. After the highly questionable quality of “Spy Kids 3” and “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” I cynically dismissed it at the time as another shitty kids’ film Rodriguez made to placate his own children. Perhaps these low expectations helped, as I ended up liking “Shorts” much more than expected.

In the small town of Black Falls, Texas, everyone works for Black Box Unlimited, a corporation that produces the Black Box, a gadget that can turn into almost anything. Like the parents of Toby “Toe” Thompson. Toe is a loner with no friends, that's bullied by the children of Carbon Black, the owner of the company. Toe’s life changes when he stumbles upon a rainbow colored rock. The Wishing Rock has the power to grant any wishes. This discovery sets off a chain of events that will invite aliens, a pterodactyl, a giant booger monster, upright crocodiles, giant bugs, a telepathic baby, a huge robot, and utter chaos into town.

Here’s a loaded statement I didn’t expect to make: “Shorts” is kind of like “Pulp Fiction” for kids. As the title indicates, “Shorts” is comprised of various episodes. Though initially they stand alone, they slowly come together for a big finale. As in Tarantino’s crime land masterpiece, these stories are not presented in chronological order. Episode two comes before episode one, for example. Considering the two are buddies, it’s unlikely Rodriguez wasn’t intentionally aping the more famous films. What is likely, I think, is that the director sought to introduce children to the omnibus format and non-linear storytelling. Which is definitely a worthy cause.

The film even begins before the Warner Bros. logo fades on-screen. We start with an “Episode 0,” subtitled “The Blinkers.” It involves a brother and sister having a very fierce staring contest, never blinking and holding each others' attention in the rain, during school and even through bed time. It starts the movie off with a likably zany atmosphere, an element of the absurd that is nevertheless rooted in real life. How this segment concludes gave me a hearty laugh. “The Blinkers” easily could've stood alone as singular short film, showing Rodriguez perhaps longing for his “Bedhead” days.

However, “Shorts” does eventually become a little too manic. The second segment, which happens first in the film’s timeline, relies a little too much on kids running and screaming from CGI critters. These mature eyes of mine got a little exhausted watching three siblings, one of which is played by Rebel Rodriguez, bickering about what to do with the craziness they’ve summoned. I felt similarly during episode three, where the Wishing Stone unintentionally unleashes chaos at a Black Box work party. When people are yelling at each other, fighting with one another, bodies shifting in shape and dimension, you start to feel that this story is pitched exclusively at hyperactive kids.

And, yes, “Shorts” has its share of gross-out, “squishy” humor. Near the end of Episode One, a giant burst of pterodactyl poop splashes on-screen, covering a character. Someone eats food with their toes and another gets splattered with mud. Episode Four – the third chronologically – is all about a giant booger monster rampaging through a home. There are other jokes present as well, mostly playing on the germophobic nature of the family. There’s even some pretty cool practical creature effects, when the booger monster first begins to form. (It’s soon replaced by a CGI creation.) Yet the primary joke in this scene is still that big globs of green snot are funny. 

There are gags that are pretty good too. When the rowdy group of boys in Episode One wish for one of them to become super smart, their infant sister is made telepathic. Rodriguez’ ex-wife, Elizabeth Avellan, provides the baby’s psychic voice, in a dry and wise-sounding fashion. This is a solid gag and well-deployed. When Helvetica receives the Wishing Rock, her rise in power is paired with her name being chanted on the soundtrack, an inspired bit of absurdity. A running joke has Toe’s older sister accidentally making her off-screen boyfriend giant sized. When he appears in the last act, his manner is surprisingly nonchalant. There’s also an inspired bit of absurdity, when Toe’s friend Loogie attempts to woo Toe’s older and disinterested sister. All this stuff is pretty funny, a sort of quick goofiness that represents “Shorts” at its best.

The first proper episode, which is actually the second chronologically, walks the line between fun and too shrill the best. It’s zany and high-energy with an entertainingly Loony Tunes-like tone, which is supported by the title cards that show the characters’ heads floating in front of a colorful background. There’s a good gag involving Toe and Helvetica fighting in the school, a series of far-fetched incidents escalating until both tumble out a window. The little aliens have cute designs and get up to some appropriately whimsical adventures. Rodriguez’ direction is energetic, including fun P.O.V. shots of Toe getting tossed into a garbage can or the inside of his mouth as the aliens cleaning his braces.

As has become customary by now, Robert Rodriguez makes sure to include some sort of moral or object lesson in each episode. Unfortunately, as has also become a habit with his kids’ movies, these lessons are hammered hard enough to make sure even the youngest kid will catch it. Episode two, Toe’s story with the aliens, provides a moral about appreciating the people around you. Episode three, the costume party descending into chaos, is about his parents learning to put their relationship and family above work. Episode one, about the Laser siblings discovering the Wishing Rock, can be summed up as “be careful what you wish for,” which largely applies to the whole movie as well. “Shorts,” as a whole, is attempting to teach kids that great power should be wielded with only the utmost care. Even if the movie overdoes it, these are all good things to teach kids. Except, as in “Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” Rodriguez once again suggests that kids should try and befriend their bullies. It even throws in that old chestnut about the bully – Helvetica, in this case – being in love with their target, suggesting the two will have a romance some day. Please, do not teach your kids this.

The director does break one of his bad habits, at least as it relates to his children’s films. “Shorts” features lots of CGI mayhem. This is a movie, after all, that concludes with a giant robot fighting a giant wasp, a giant dungbeetle also appearing near-by. There’s a booger monster and a grown man being changed into a hot dog. The CGI does look a little better than his last few features, it must be said. Mostly though, I’m thankful “Shorts” wasn’t shot entirely on a green screen. Just being able to see real people interact with each other on real sets is a relief after the cold, plastic nightmares of “Spy Kids 3” and “Sharkboy and Lavegirl.”

Another big improvement “Shorts” makes over Rodriguez’ previous two kid flicks is the young cast. The child actors are actually pretty good here. Jimmy Bennett makes a likable lead as Toe, being on the movie’s manic wavelength but never coming off as annoying or mugging. Trevor Gagnon has a genuinely weird energy as Loogie, being believable as the kind of weird friend a kid like Toe would have. Jolie Vanier is especially good as Helvetica, a young schemer with an uncertain moral compass. Vanier clearly enjoys herself playing such a nasty kid. There are still a few missteps in the cast. Jake Short definitely overdoes it as “Nose,” the in-direct creator of that boogie monster. But it’s still a big step up from “Sharkboy and Lavagirl.”

As is expected by now, Rodriguez fills the supporting cast with quite a few recognizable faces. Jon Cryer and Leslie Mann play Toe’s parents. Cryer has a nice nervous angle, befitting a man who is on the verge of loosing his job. Mann compliments this with a more easy-going feeling. William H. Macy’s similarly neurotic comedic delivery is also well utilized as Nose’s germaphobe father. James Spader is well-cast as Carbon Black. Conceited villains with an air of detached superiority may be Spader’s specialty but few do it as well as him. Lastly, Kat Dennings plays Toe’s older sister, perfect casting for the type of older sibling that resents her hyperactive younger brother.

In theaters, “Shorts” was completely overlooked. It grossed a measly 29 million against its 20 million dollar budget, barely breaking even. While “Spy Kids” and even “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” have developed cult followings of sorts, I haven’t heard anyone talk about “Shorts.” Yet, despite some pretty big flaws, I still enjoyed this one way more than expected. Typically imaginative, the movie has quite a few good jokes, a likable cast, and an interesting narrative structure. If you like the first two “Spy Kids” flicks, I would recommend giving this one a look. You might actually dig it. [Grade: B-]

Friday, January 25, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2007)

13. Grindhouse
Segment: "Planet Terror"

I maintain that “Grindhouse” is one of my favorite ideas for a movie ever. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, two guys who have spent large portions of their careers paying homage to exploitation cinema, got together to make a souped-up double feature in the seventies drive-in/grindhouse tradition. That idea, of making a grindhouse double feature that was actually as cool as its poster, was one the two finished movies couldn't quite live up to. But as one, three hour long cinematic experience, “Grindhouse” sure was a blast. Rodriguez' half, “Planet Terror,” actually predates the “Grindhouse” idea. The director originally conceived of the idea while filming “The Faculty,” correctly assuming zombie movies were headed for a revival. Tarantino's crazy double feature idea was the impetus Rodriguez needed to finally complete this concept.

Some bad shit is about to go down deep in the heart of Texas. An exchange between a deranged biochemist and a group of mysterious soldiers goes horribly wrong. The result is that a deadly air-born gas is released. The exposed turn into bile-spewing zombies, who tear apart everyone they encounter. This occurrence slowly draws together a group of divergent folks. Such as Cherry, a go-go dancer who wants a change in her life, and El Rey, her mysterious ex-boyfriend. Soon, they partner up with the local sheriff, his barbecue cooking brother, a nurse fleeing her abusive husband, and a bunch of other survivors. They attempt to get to the bottom of the outbreak and make it through the night.

At the time, there was much talk about how “Grindhouse” replicated actual grindhouse movies. “Planet Terror” took great pains to duplicate the look and feel of a vintage exploitation flick. Tons of artificial grain was added to the film. Scratches,  distortions, blips and waves decorate the film. The movie certainly looks like a poorly cared for film reel, if you ignore all the digital effects. There's other in-jokes to B-movies of yore. Like the film's biggest star, Bruce Willis, intentionally being shot as if all his scenes were filmed in one day. And, of course, the movie is loaded with outrageous violence and sexiness.

You'll notice I said “sexiness,” not actual sex and nudity. Once again, we have Robert Rodriguez movie featuring a stripper that doesn't strip, lots of titillation but little the way in actual exploitation. This is a good example of how “Planet Terror” sometimes feels more like a parody of exploitation cinema than an honest recreation. Much of its humor is too ironic, overdone in its intentional outrageousness. There are many ways, some of them baffling, that “Planet Terror” deviates from the grindhouse playbook. In a very strange move, “Planet Terror” is set in the modern day. Characters have then-modern cell phones they text each other with. Osama bin Laden and the War on Terror are part of the plot. Why would you do this in a film intended to recall seventies cinema?

Robert Rodriguez' films, no matter how entertaining they may be, can rarely be commended for their writing. In some ways, I'm tempted to say “Planet Terror” is his best written film. As if taking cues from fellow “Grindhouse” participant, Edgar Wright, the director peppers the movie with little story set-ups that pay off later. The loss of Cherry's leg is foreshadowed far in advice. Her long list of so-called useless talents prove very useful later on. However, “Planet Terror” also has some serious writing flaws. Sometimes, it feels like three unrelated movies hastily stitched together. Before the various plot threads converge half-way through, the stories about Cherry and El Wray, Dr. Block and her abusive husband, and the rogue military team feel totally disconnected. While the presentation might make you think “Planet Terror” is a simple exploitation flick, its story is a bit overstuffed and bordering convoluted.

Rodriguez might've conceived of “Planet Terror” in hopes of reviving the zombie genre but, instead, he puts his own spin on things. These are not quite traditional Romero undead. First off, they are technically alive. They tear people apart but don't do much gut-muching. While homicidal, the infected seem to maintain some of their personality. More than anything else, Rodriguez uses the zombie premise as a way to indulge his occasionally seen love of body horror. The infected are covered in postulating sores. Their bodies frequently morph into piles of pulsating tumors. They spread their infection by tossing blood and pus on normal people. It is admittedly a pretty cool riff on the well-worn zombie concept, with KNB providing plenty of cool, gooey effects.

As much as “Planet Terror” wants to be a horror movie, the only attempts at scares it makes are through its gnarly special effects and the occasional jump-scare. Instead, “Planet Terror” mostly functions as an over-the-top action movie. There's lots of creative bloodshed. El Wrey runs up the walls of the hospital, slicing zombies apart with his knives in a fluid, dance-like fashion. Once “Planet Terror” gets to its poster image, of Cherry Darling getting her machine gun leg, things really explode. Though how Cherry operates her machine gun leg is never specified, she manages to dance, shoot, leap through the air, and dodge her way through a horde of mutated freaks. Even Tom Savini gets in on the carnage, combining guns and punching in a clever and amusing way. We all know by now that Rodriguez is damn good at ridiculous action like this, so “Planet Terror” is very entertaining.

The director is having such a good time, that he can't help but get goofy. “Planet Terror” is as much horror/comedy as horror/action. There's a lot of silly comedy in the film, such as sheriff's brother perpetually attempting to figure out his barbecue recipe. Or a pair of foul-mouthed and trigger happy, babysitting twins. I do like a few of the gags here, like an amusingly random deployment of a mini-bike. Or the clever use of the “Missing Reel” gimmick Rodriguez and Tarantino both included in their film. Rodriguez uses the Missing Reel to skip the tedious end of the second act, skipping ahead to the more interesting last third of the movie. The bumpy sight of bringing everyone together and revealing secret truths is just removed altogether, which actually makes things a little easier to watch.

In a nice coincidence, it turns out Rodriguez' hyper visual style suits a throwback sleaze-fest pretty well. His rough pans, fast paced edits, and sudden zooms – all things he's been doing for years – accurately replicate the kind of on-the-fly filmmaking you'd find in vintage, low budget productions. More than any other component, the score suitably captures that seventies score. The director largely composes the music himself. Hot wailing saxophones and throbbing bass pair in a convincing approximation of bump-and-grind jazz. When that's not going on, Rodriguez' score recalls the foreboding synth of John Carpenter's music. This was back before every horror indie had a Carpenter-esque score. In fact, Rodriguez directly samples Carpenter's “Escape from New York” score, making this a more legitimate form of homage.

Rather notoriously, Robert Rodriguez and Rose McGowan were dating during “Planet Terror's” production. McGowan's performance is somewhat odd. She maintains a smart-assed, vaguely Cassandra Peterson-style comedic lilt to almost all of her dialogue. This sarcastic approach sometimes seems at odd with the film's tone. Yet McGowan also attempts some “serious” acting, such as Cherry's reaction to loosing her leg. It's not a bad performance, merely off-beat. Freddy Rodriguez – no relation to the director – is more solid as El Wrey. He nicely handles the gruff, soft-spoken bad-ass role seen in so many action movies. Rodriguez has a good handle on this Eastwoodian style of toughness.

The director, naturally, can't resisting filling the supporting cast out with cameos from cult icons. My favorite of which is Jeff Fahey as J.T., the kind of weirdo hick role that Fahey can make charming and funny. The doe-eyed Marley Shelton is both vulnerable and tough as Dakota Block, honestly making me wish she had starred instead of McGowan. Josh Brolin, featuring a visible paunch, is suitably despicable as her husband. Michael Parks reprises the part of Sheriff McGraw, despite that character dying back in 1996, and makes poetry out of profane dialogue once again. I wish Michael Biehn was given more to do, though it is cool to see him being a zombie-blasting bad-ass. The more stunt-y casting decisions are harder to justify. Tom Savini mugs a little too much in his comic relief role, Fergie is distracting as a special guest victim, and Tarantino furiously hams it up as Rapist #1. (A character you can buy an action figure of, by the way.)

While “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof” stand alone just fine, the entire “Grindhouse” presentation is the one I'd most recommend. The fake trailers, vintage theater bumpers, and advertisements really tie it all together. Each of the trailers work as brilliant short films. I could wax romantically about each of them at length but I'll keep this brief. Rodriguez' “Machete” is also a little too nudge-nudge with its humor and over-the-top action but nevertheless accurately captures the feel of an eighties Cannon extravaganza. Edgar Wright's “Don't” is full of the meticulous details the director specializes in. It also builds with more and more ridiculous gore gags, combined with a brilliantly funny central premise. Rob Zombie's “Werewolf Woman of the S.S.,” like many of Zombie's films, is way too impressed with its own outrageousness. At the same time, the cast is having a blast, the set design is fucking great, and that surprise cameo is brilliant. Lastly, Eli Roth's “Thanksgiving” still might be the best thing the director has ever done. Hilariously vulgar, it takes a Troma sensibilities and adds a deadpan narration and Roth's dedication to accurate period details. (The contest winning “Hobo with a Shotgun” is pretty damn good too.)

Really, my thoughts on “Grindhouse” remain unchanged. “Planet Terror” doesn't quite hold together as a feature, with a few serious flaws. While admirable, “Death Proof” is still probably Tarantino's weakest film. Stick 'em both together with all that glorious extra content and you have an utterly delightful film experience. Rodriguez' half is sillier, funnier, and more action packed. It can't beat “From Dusk Till Dawn” at its own game, as its more self-satisfied and bumpier in its plotting. However, the movie is still an awful lot of fun, with cool monster effects, crazy action, and some notable moments of comedy. If this unfurled across the screen of a dingy, inner city, dive theater in 1979, I would certainly say it gave you your money's worth. [Grade: B]

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2005) Part Two

12. The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D

The “Spy Kids” films prove that Robert Rodriguez is very in-touch with his inner child. This might be because he has five kids of his own. They all have the kind of names you’d expect Robert Rodriguez to give his children: Rebel, Racer, Rogue, and Rocket, with daughter Rhiannon having the sole normal-ish name. Rodriguez seems pretty proud of his offspring, often giving them bit parts in his movies. This creative relationship with his children would become more involved with “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl.” Seven year old Racer has a story credit on the film, his dreams and imagination seemingly inspiring most of it. An obvious attempt to recreate the success of the “Spy Kids” series, the film would not have the same commercial or critical reach.

Max is going through a hard time. His parents are arguing a lot, prompting fears that a separation may come soon. He’s bullied at school, especially by a little prick named Linus. Even his teacher, Mr. Electricidad, enjoys teasing Max. (Probably because his daughter, Marissa, has a crush on him.) Max’s only companion is his vivid imagination. He dreams up Sharkboy and Lavagirl, heroes of the Planet Drool. When Linus steals his dream journal, Max goes into crisis. So does Planet Drool, which is now ruled by the cruel Minus and his robotic henchman, Mr. Electric. Sharkboy and Lavagirl emerge from Max’s dreams, take him to the real Planet Drool, and hope he can save their world.

It’s great that ol’ Rob is such a loving father but there’s a reason seven-year-olds don’t usually get to write fifty million dollar movies. “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” is an unerringly juvenile motion picture experience. There’s no interior logic to the story, Max’s fantasy and waking worlds having uncertain boundaries. The two cross over, despite clearly influencing one another, and no attempt is made to justify this. The characters travel to bizarre lands, like a place made of warm milk and cookies, inhabited by “cookie giants.” Most of all, “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” strikes the viewer as a facile power fantasy for Rodriguez’ son. Racer’s middle name is Max, making the viewer assume this film rose out of a misplaced promise to turn a playtime fantasy into a cinematic reality.

While the humor in the “Spy Kids” series was sometimes crude, it at least showed a manic imagination parents could appreciate. “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” doesn’t have that broad an appeal. Most of the jokes are aimed squarely at the kiddie crowd. Characters belch several times, sometimes right in the viewer’s face. There’s an extended fart joke I really could’ve done without. The Land of Milk and Cookies scene features a lot of squishing, stomping, and falling into wet foodstuff. Even aside from the kind of messy humor young kids favor, the jokes in the film are mostly pedestrian slapstick. Like Max falling crotch first onto a rope or Lavagirl repeatedly burning people by accident. The best humor in the film are puns, like dog-like trackers made of electric plugs called “plug-hounds.” And when puns are the best thing a film has to offer, that’s a bad sign.

While the first “Spy Kids” featured an unintrusive moral about appreciating family, the sequels got more heavy-handed with similar messages. “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” also suffers from this approach. Not more than five minutes past in this movie without the word “dreams” being mentioned. The film wants kids to know the healing power of their own imagination, how they can process real world pain through dreams and stories. It’s a valuable message that the film makes too broad - Max can very literally dream up solutions to his problems - and also repeats ad nauseam, draining it of any power. There’s also an awful moment where Max and Linus become friends, suggesting that the best way to deal with bullies is to befriend them. This is terrible advice to send children, in my opinion, though the film luckily that much.

Further preventing me from enjoying “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” is its protagonist. Max is, in the most simple language possible, a wienie. He spends long stretches of the movie whining. Even though the movie is largely set in his dream world, he doesn’t understand his own powers or abilities until closer to the end. This makes him kind of useless throughout, to the point where the titular characters become very irritated with him. An emotion the viewer can sympathize with. The movie constantly tells us Max is a very special boy but his behavior rarely backs that up. He’s a kid going through pain but his petulant behavior makes it hard to sympathize with him. Eventually, he learns to stop being so selfish but the viewer already dislikes him by that point.

With the “Spy Kids” films, Rodriguez was lucky to discover two child actors that had compelling screen presences and natural acting skills. Lightning does not strike a second time. The kid actors in “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” exhibit all the worst tendencies of child actors. Nobody's delivery is convincing, least of all Cayden Boyd as Max. At one point, he does a fake scream so bad, it gave me flashbacks to recess playtime. Jacob Davich, as Linus, seems like he’s being fed every line through a TelePrompTer while Sasha Pieterse seems visibly uncomfortable as Marissa. Taylor Dooley as Lavagirl almost gets there a few times, showing some emotion, but is undone by the general un-reality of the entire production. Perhaps sticking a bunch of ten-year-olds on a green screen and telling them to use their imagination wasn’t the best idea.

The worst performance, by far, is future “Twilight” heartthrob Taylor Lautner as Sharkboy. Lautner spends the entire film furiously mugging. His face bends in horribly unconvincing manners while he shouts all his dialogue gruffly. But even that isn’t the most painful thing in the movie. About halfway through, Lautner is called upon to sing. The minute or so of cinema that follows is among the most uncomfortable a film has ever made me. Lautner talk-sings in an off-key manner while doing more physical grandstanding at the camera, flipping and punching. It’s not all his fault, as the lyrics he’s given are utterly, painfully inane. The entire chorus is the word “dream” repeated six times. Few film moments have made me cringe as hard as this one.

I know, I’m an adult man ragging on a bunch of literal children. Rodriguez certainly doesn’t do his young performers any favors by building most of the film around them. There’s really only three adult performers in the entire film. Rodriguez once again pairs himself with established Latino talent by casting George Lopez as Mr. Electricidad. In Max’s dream world, his teacher becomes the supervillain Mr. Electric. This means Lopez’ face is stretched across a giant monitor in the center of a big robot body, an effect that wouldn’t be flattering for any actor. But at least the comedian seems to have some fun hamming it up in the exaggerated role. Lopez also voices a few other characters, which is pretty distracting. Rodriguez also got David Arquette and Kristen Davis to appear as Max’s parents, parts that feature a lot of oversized emotion but no truth or heart.

Like “Spy Kids 3,” “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” was largely filmed on green screens and released in 3-D. Also like “Spy Kids 3,” this brings out the worst in its director. Nearly all the film is set on hugely unconvincing digital back lots. The CGI is garish and artificial. Never do the film’s environments feel real while the actors weightlessly float around them. A good example is whenever Lavagirl shoots lava from her hands. It seems effortless for her and has no effect on anything around her. The movie feels like a PlayStation 2 cut scene some times. The 3-D effects are no better, just drawing attention to how fake everything looks. Globs of green slime or cookie crumbs being tossed at the viewer is just exhausting. (I didn’t see the film in theaters but apparently it was post-converted to 3-D, which I’m sure made the effects look even worst.)

So do I have anything positive to say about “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl?” There’s very little practical production design in the film but what is there is pretty good. Sharkboy and Lavagirl’s costumes are neat. Sharkboy’s, in particular, does a good job of suggesting a shark, with a fin in the back and teeth on the front, without overdoing it. I also like the design of his rocket ship. It’s a big silver cartoon shark with rocket fins on the back, the kind of fun and intuitive design you’d expect a kid to come up with. There’s also a tin-can robot named a Tobor, a cute design that is creepily reduced to a floating set of eyeballs and lips through most of the film. (And given a slow, drawl of a voice by Lopez.)

Truthfully, the most interesting thing about the film is not its actual content but how it reflects on the filmmaker’s life. You see, Rodriguez and his wife of 16 years separated about a year after “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” came out. And if Max is an obvious stand-in for Racer, it’s easy to assume his dad is a stand-in for Robert. His parents fight a lot, with his father being beleaguered by his mom. Dad is a dreamer but Mom insist on dragging him back down to Earth, a dynamic that is putting strain on their relationship. During the climax, Mom is sucked into a tornado while Dad begs her to stay. Magically, she’s transported back to him, all their material problems being resolved. It’s a lazy conclusion to the subplot, suggesting feckless hope can overcome irreconcilable differences. Is it too much to assume Rodriguez was venting his resentment at his dissolving marriage while half-heartedly wishing it would stay together here? It’s pretty weird that he put such a personal element into this goofy kids movie, isn’t it? Of course, kids are unlikely to pick up on this particular element of wish fulfillment. Nevertheless, this gossipy conjecture proves way more compelling than the movie around it.

If “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” had remained as Racer Rodriguez’ childish playtimes, that would’ve been fine. A kid thinking up these characters and scenarios is really cute actually. Rodriguez taking inspiration from his kid could’ve been okay as well, if he paired those ideas to decent narrative coherence or pacing. (Look at “Axe Cop,” which had a similar origin with much more entertaining results.) Instead, “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” is like watching a family talent show that goes on for an uncomfortably long time. Once again, the director detached himself far too much from reality with his green screen shenanigans. Then again, I’m obviously not the target audience for this motion picture. Practically flopping in theaters, I’m sure “Sharkboy and Lavagirl” entertained some kids on home video. But it ain’t no “Spy Kids,” that’s for sure. [Grade: D-]