That’s right folks! It’s time for another Movie Diary, filled with what I’ve had my eyeballs glued to over the last week or two.
MACHETE/MACHETE KILLS– How does one even begin to review Robert Rodriguez’s Machete films? In a way, they’re made to be critic proof, much like the Grindhouse double-feature they spun off of (especially Rodriguez’s Planet Terror half.) I’m not even sure what to call them. The first is essentially doing little more than grafting Mexican culture onto 70s-style blaxploitation films, especially the kind that promoted the “revolution.” It almost feels like the La Raza charter was simply put into a word processing program. Because really, who doesn’t want to end their film with a good, old-fashioned race war? And then the type of over-the-top, insane action sequences you see in Bollywood film clips on youtube were randomly inserted. It’s not a parody of blaxploitation. Not in the strict sense that Black Dynamite was. But there’s far too many winks at the audience to really qualify as straight homage, either. And as Drew McWeeny over at hitfix.com pointed out last week in his review of Pompeii, because they aren’t taking themselves seriously, they don’t really count as camp.
Really what they end up being are entertaining messes. Especially the second which, while still trying to make political points with the subtlety of a baseball bat to the coconut, is far more focused on simply being as insane as possible for 90 minutes. It holds up surprisingly well considering the first film suffers in comparison to the Grindhouse trailer that preceded it.
Danny Trejo is, of course, pretty much fantastic in his star turn. His acting is terrible and spot-on at the same time. And the inability of beautiful women to keep their hands off him despite his chainsaw sculpture face is a great recurring gag. Michele Rodriguez, meanwhile, does some of the best work of her career in the films, parading around in skimpy clothes and an eyepatch, yet somehow exuding more character than all of her appearances in the Fast and Furious films combined.
In a lot of the secondary roles, it almost seems like these films are serving as actor rehab. Lindsay Lohan shows up in a small part in the first film and when she’s replaced by an obvious double, it’s damned funny. Charlie Sheen as the president is just plain surreal. And while I know we all hate Mel Gibson now, he tears into his role as the bad guy in Machete Kills with gusto. He seems to have just decided to own the crazy thing. Given how bad Hangover II was, he should probably be thanking Zach Galifianakis for getting him booted from that production. This suits him better. (I was going to make a comment doing some compare/contrast with Roman Polanski, but I don’t need that kind of heat right now.)
I’m not sure why it is that these films didn’t completely connect with me. Sure, I enjoyed them a lot despite the flaws. Many of which I am sure were built in. But they are cinematic Taco Bell. In one end and nigh immediately out the other. But, like Iron Sky, I’m simply glad that they exist even if they didn’t manage to be home runs. I’m sure I’ll watch them again when I need to satiate my desire for goofy bloodshed.
ZATOICHI’S PILGRAMMAGE/ZATOICHI’S CANE SWORD– I am now more than halfway through the Zatoichi films produced through the 60s. I think I’m getting to the end of the Daiei films, but I’m not sure, I’ll have to check the book that came with it. In any case, these are two excellent entries in the series.
In Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, our eponymous hero seeks to repent for some of the blood that he’s spilled (last measured as enough to fill a killer whale tank at Sea World) by visiting 88 temples across Japan. Of course this plan immediately goes off the rails because he’s attacked and has to defend himself. He ends up with the assassin’s sister, who takes him in. In the process, he ends up in a classic High Noon situation in which a village won’t defend itself against a gang of criminal hoods making life miserable for them. Ichi is the only one that will take them on, albeit reluctantly. The farmers haven’t seen Seven Samurai, I guess.
The swordplay is good in this one, but not spectacular. The real reason to watch it is simply because it’s a great character piece for Ichi. He doesn’t want to be a hero, but at the same time his sense of honor will not allow him to back out without defending the person he sees himself as having wronged. Regardless of how much he may try to talk himself out of it.
Zatoichi’s Cane Sword, the fifteenth film, is one of the best in the series thus far. It’s got a lot of wit and manages to balance the drama with humor. Something the series can struggle with at times as different films can veer wildly from dour to fluffy. Ichi remains fairly consistent in character through them, which is why even the most mediocre of the films tends to still work on at least a level of basic entertainment. But the best are the ones that manage to be well-rounded.
The story itself is admittedly something that has been done many times within the series. Gangsters and corrupt government officials conspire to oppress the people, they kill the wrong folks to gain power, they tick Zatoichi off and lots of people die. But the power is, as always, in the execution. (Execution often being a key word with these films.) And this one is really well made. It also goes a little bit into the history of his ever-present sword cane, part of what feeds into his iconic persona. Samurai movies often manage to fetishize blades and this one does a great job of showing it done right. It definitely comes across as more rewarding than finding out about Jack’s tattoo on Lost. This wouldn’t be the first Zatoichi film I showed people to get them into the films, but it would be on the short list for people that want to pick a handful of them rather than watch the entire series.
THE CONJURING– Who knew James Wan had it in him? After slumming around in the Saw series, he’s put out what I would say is one of the best straight-up horror flicks in a really long time.
This isn’t just because the film is well-made, however. Though it is. The cinematography, despite being partially dependent on my usually hated documentary style, is great. Shots are given room to breath and while there are definitely jumpcuts, they’re not overused. Part of this is because the film wisely uses a slow-build to the more outrageous and showy stuff towards the end. It starts with creaks and whispers interrupting periods of silence. The sense of dread is palpable.
But one of the real reasons this film is a standout is the job that Patrick WIlson and Vera Farmiga do in portraying real life, married paranormal investigators, The Warrens. It’s hard to believe that using a couple of ghost hunters actually grounds a film, but their personalities are actually believable. They aren’t portrayed as kooks. They are religious and well versed in Catholicism. They are not looking for proof in life after death. They already believe in it because of their religious backgrounds. They don’t blindly accept that everything is caused by the supernatural. They look for proof. They start every case with a healthy dose of skepticism. And they provide heroes to root for against the evil presence haunting a family in 70s Rhode Island that serves as the focus of the film.
It’s supposedly based on a true story, but we all know how far that usually goes when it comes to movies. But because of its structure, it doesn’t immediately drop a bunch of CGI slime on you. And because of that, it feels more believable. (I found the first half scarier than the second, actually.) It’s too bad more films don’t follow this mantra. I mean, Ghostbusters didn’t drop the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in during the first fifteen minutes. The Conjuring takes its time.
I’m sure there will be people that consider themselves above this type of film. Many of them are snide folks that don’t allow themselves to be scared by films or let a story pull them in. I feel sorry for those folks.
I also think the film is a travesty of an R-rating. While I certainly wouldn’t want to show it to a child, the film has very little on-screen violence, minimal gore and almost no real swearing to speak of. It’s only rated R because the people viewing it felt it was too darn effective, which is ridiculous. I would say it is appropriate for any teen that is mature enough to handle it. There are 14-year-olds that will be able to handle the film better than some middle-aged people. It’s just one more example of the fact that the MPAA’s system is flawed with its rigidity and resultant decisions.
THOR: THE DARK WORLD/ALL HAIL THE KING– It’s pretty easy for folks to see what I thought about the sequel to Thor and its post-Avengers leap into deeper mythology.
(To summarize, it’s an extremely fun and confident film, especially for a first time filmmaker, that does a great job expanding on the characters.)
I think I actually enjoyed the film more the second time around. It’s not perfect, but it’s got a great energy and I love some of the weird ideas presented. I do wish they’d managed to work the blue/black designs in for the dark elves, but we can’t get everything we want.
The real thing to point out though is that the video release includes the latest and most ambitious of Marvel Films’ “One-Shot” series and it’s the best one yet. All Hail the King is a sequel to Iron Man 3 and picks up during the incarceration of Trevor Slattery. (I’m kind of assuming the people reading this review have seen IM3 considering about a quarter of the planet was represented in its box-office figures. So you are warned.)
The faux Mandarin is actually enjoying more success behind bars than he ever did during his career and he’s taking full advantage. The fifteen minute short is pretty much hilarious and Ben Kingsley is in fine form. Not only that, but it actually addresses some of the butthurt that myself and other fans of The Mandarin felt when the film universe essentially pooped the bed in his use. While I found Iron Man 3 to be extremely entertaining, I’ll admit that the twist, while funny, meant switching from a very effective villain to little more than a retread of the first two films.
King manages to fix some of that damage. For some it may be too little, too late, but for me it was a welcome semi-apology. While most Marvel cinephiles will most likely already be buying the film to continue their collections, the inclusion of the short really does increase the value of the release. I applaud Marvel for putting so much effort into it and hope for the best in the future.