Ground Down

My eyes are up here, QuentinAs promised, here’s a little more on “Grindhouse”, which is very hard to review in 300 words … even though Metro let me stretch the piece out to about 340, risking the very sanctity of the bite-sized newspaper format.

I also took a run at the movie from a different angle in today’s Sympatico/MSN column, which you may or may not find interesting.

Robert Rodriguez’ section of the film, which includes a faux trailer for a Danny Trejo revenge picture called “Machete” (which looks like the lost prequel to the “Spy Kids” films, and was apparently so much fun to shoot that Rodriguez is now actually producing the rest of it) and the feature-length zombie romp “Planet Terror”, is precisely what you want from a movie called “Grindhouse”. It’s got endless affection for the source material, it’s playful and intelligent, and it even features a couple of surprisingly solid performances in the middle of all the splatter.

“Planet Terror” is very similar to Rodriguez and Tarantino’s most recent collaboration, “From Dusk Till Dawn”, in that it sets itself up as a straight-up people-in-a-jam picture — John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” is the most obvious point of reference — and, having established its bona fides, proceeds to go batshit insane in the most enjoyable way.

It’s followed by three more fake trailers, “guest directed” by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth. This is probably the high point of the picture, with note-perfect parodies of three very specific types of exploitation movie (and, though few critics seem to have noted, three very different types of movie marketing) running back to back to back. As with “Machete”, the trailers leave you sorta-kinda wanting to see these movies that never were … well, Zombie’s and Wright’s, anyway.

And then we get to “Death Proof” … which would probably have been a lot more effective if it had just been another fake trailer.

Yes, there’s a really impressive car chase at the end, but to get there you have to sit through two 40-minute stretches of Quentin’s trademark conversations about pop-culture ephemera, and you will not be able to avoid the painful realization that all of his black characters have the same speech pattern as Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules in “Pulp Fiction” now.

I know exactly how this came about. Quentin rationalized that the makers of this imaginary grindhouse picture would have spent 90% of the budget on the two car sequences, and would have had to pad out the rest of the film’s running time. Thus, it makes perfect sense that the characters sit around jawing.

Except that no grindhouse movie would be structured the way “Death Proof” is structured. The shocking act of violence that ends the first half of the picture belongs at the front of the film, possibly even before the credits, the better to grab the audience and keep them waiting for the next big action sequence. Can you think of a single one of these movies where nothing happens in the first two reels?

I will allow that the climax is pretty amazing, as car chases go … though it does go on about three times longer than it should, which gives the viewer plenty of time to wonder why our heroes don’t simply hit the brakes at several pivotal moments. “But then there wouldn’t be a movie,” someone could argue. And we would say: “Sure, there would. It’d just be a lot shorter, and a little less dumb.”

The “Kill Bill” movies were a lot more successful at translating the grindhouse sensibility to the contemporary screen; more to the point, they were grounded in character and peppered with spectacular action sequences. “Death Proof” never quite captures the sleazy tang of cinema’s underbelly; it’s more like a catalogue of how many movies its director has memorized. And you know, he could have rattled off all the references in two and a half minutes, and I’d have been just entertained. Maybe even more so.

Getting Started

I am a delicate flower ... of EVILMetro doesn’t publish on Good Friday or Easter Monday, so you lucky people get to read tomorrow’s reviews … today! Or at least some of them.

These are the reviews that went up on the site, anyway:

Grindhouse“: I’ll get into more detail on this tomorrow, but the skinny is this: Robert Rodriguez nails his half of the picture, sublimating his showier impulses (mostly) to better serve the overall concept … and Quentin Tarantino decidedly does not. Dammit.

La Tourneuse de Pages“: Opening for an exclusive run at the Royal, Denis Dercourt’s very French tale of revenge is a distressingly serene study of psychological violence … and, quite possibly, the missing link between Chabrol and Haneke. (See? I’m cosmopolitan and stuff.)

Young Triffie“: Mary Walsh is a very talented comedian, which makes this absolute atrocity of a directorial debut — revolving around a wacky murder investigation in pre-Confederation Newfoundland — even harder to explain. If this wins a single Genie next winter, we should just dismantle the system.

For reviews of “First Snow”, “The Hoax” and “The Marsh”, check out today’s Metro Toronto — here’s the link to the larger-than-usual PDF. I’ll post links when they become available.

The Dark Time

You know, this basketball has more integrity than either of usThe Easter weekend is upon us, which means families will gather for church services, egg hunts, candy sacrifices and so on. Lotta time to fill, lotta sugar to metabolize.

Which explains why the megaplexes are filling up with family comedies. “Meet the Robinsons” opened Friday, and today we get “Are We Done Yet?” and “Firehouse Dog” … both of which, when you think about it, could not bear more appropriate titles.

Someone needs to tell Bruce Greenwood that he needs to stop making animal movies, by the way. It’s downright bizarre to see him — and his “Thirteen Days” co-star Steven Culp — in a wacky dog movie. They played the Kennedys, and played them well, and now they’re being upstaged by Irish terriers named after characters from “The Lord of the Rings”.

The one good thing about having endured these movies this week? Metro just launched its Edmonton edition, which means my reviews are running in an additional market. Feel free to praise the risen Christ; I’ll be genuflecting in the direction of syndication fees.

I Was Kidding

The poster that launched a thousand fantasiesTwo weeks ago, I wrote a Sympatico/MSN movie column about the Eighties resurgence as embodied by “TMNT.

And because I’m kind of a flippant bastard, I threw out a whole mess of ideas for remakes of as-yet-unexploited properties, like “Adventures in Babysitting”.

Well, you’ll never guess what.

Turns out Disney is indeed developing “Further Adventures in Babysitting“, to star Raven Symone (didn’t there used to be a hyphen in there?) and someone named Miley Cyrus. Title notwithstanding, this is a remake rather than a sequel — I guess Disney doesn’t want to confuse people when the new movie comes out on DVD.

One has to question the necessity of this project. The original film’s charms are very specifically rooted in its era, and Shue’s performance is so singular in its weird comic energy that I fear for anyone who tries to duplicate it. On the other hand, the script is pretty lame, so a reworking couldn’t exactly hurt.

Still … do kids today even know who Thor is? They’ll probably change it to Yu-Gi-Oh, and good luck getting that to pay off.

Just Quickly …

The future is filthy… because the next couple of days are going to be a little nuts, what with accelerated deadlines and the whole short-week thing.

But I did want to let you know that Metro’s finally posted my reviews for “Congorama“, “Meet the Robinsons” and “Radiant City“, so if you were curious, by all means check ’em out.

And while you’re surfing, take a look at this marvelous April Fool’s offering from the reliably mad hatters at IWOOT; let me tell you, I’d buy one in a second. It’s much more appealing than Google’s TiSP service … and I imagine it’s a lot easier to install.

How Did I Miss This?

Even better than the real thing

So, like, six weeks ago Noel Murray filed this amazing post to The Onion AV Club blog about the phenomenon of the “Good” movie — the movie that isn’t objectively great, and doesn’t really satisfy you the first time you see it, but endures for all eternity because it’s comfortable and pleasant when you stumble across it again further down the road, because your guard is down and your expectations are zeroed out.

The example Murray uses is “Music and Lyrics”, which had just opened theatrically; in the comments, readers break down the stuff that worked versus the stuff that didn’t, and dammit if I didn’t find myself thinking fondly back to the moments cited, and agreeing with some of the constructive criticism. (“Galaxy Quest” comes up a few times as an example of another movie that’s evolved into goodness, but I have to say my boy David Mamet is right on that one: It was a perfect movie to begin with, you just weren’t paying attention, sit down and watch it again right now.)

My own theory? Movies like “Music and Lyrics” seem better in retrospect because we’re further away from the experience of watching them go wrong the first time. There’s nothing more disappointing than watching the air go out of a movie that seemed to be working just fine three minutes ago; I am now accustomed to that moment in almost all of Tim Burton’s movies where the film seizes up and dies, because Burton got distracted at some point in the screenwriting process. Remember that scene in “Planet of the Apes” where Tim Roth gets angry and jumps around the set for about a minute? It is that about which I am talking.

And I liked “Grosse Pointe Blank” even more the second time, because I knew it wasn’t going to go off the rails, and I could relax into it. This also explains why people think the “Austin Powers” movies are good, despite every last one of them containing excruciating chunks of time in which nothing funny happens. You watch them now because there’s a good bit coming up later … or at least that’s the way you remember it.

Minor aside: Have you heard about Myers’ latest picture? He’s making a movie about a wacky Indian guru. I understand his follow-up will be a DV documentary in which he dry-humps the disinterred corpse of Peter Sellers for 100 straight minutes.

Perhaps I should sit down and watch “So I Married an Axe Murderer” again. Like, right now.

I’m Not Here

Smile, you son of a ... whatever it is that spawned you… I’m off at a screening of “Grindhouse” this morning, and then there’s this funeral that will, unfortunately, take up most of the afternoon. But oh, am I looking forward to “Grindhouse”.

Yeah, the Tarantino thing’s gonna be all kinds of self-referential fun and Edgar Wright made one of the fake trailers, but Robert Rodriguez has finally made a zombie picture, and that is going to rock, I just know it.

Anyway, that’s not a topic for discussion until next week, so let’s turn the focus back to what you can see right now. Not all reviews were online at press time, but I’ll fill in the links as they go up. UPDATE: Done!

Blades of Glory“: Will Ferrell does another of his arrogant idiots, but pairing him with Jon Heder in a figure-skating movie is a stroke of genius; ditto for casting Will Arnett and Amy Poehler as their evil rivals. If “Dreams are when you’re asleep” doesn’t become a catch-phrase in my lifetime, well, I will have failed this movie.

Congorama“: I was a huge fan of Philippe Falardeau’s first feature, “La Moitie Gauche du Frigo”, but he really missed the mark with this comedy-drama about two men — one Belgian, and one Canadian — who share a life-changing encounter in rural Quebec. Yes, it’s ambitious and convoluted, but it’s ambitious and convoluted in a way that does nothing but serve its own ambition and convolution. Plus, it’s kind of boring.

The Host“: Giant monster terrorizes Seoul, and Bong Joon-ho makes the best movie of the year. It was pretty much the best movie of last year, with the possible exception of “Children of Men” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”. I’ve written about it plenty — and I write plenty more in today’s Sympatico/MSN movie column — but it all amounts to the same thing: You need to see this one as quickly as you can, with the largest crowd possible. This must have been what it felt like to see “Jaws” in the early summer of 1975.

The Lookout“: Scott Frank’s directorial debut (after writing “Dead Again”, “Get Shorty”, “Out of Sight” and some of “Minority Report”) is an intelligent reworking of “After Dark, My Sweet” with a dash of “Memento”, and wouldn’t feel out of place alongside either one of those terrific neo-noir exercises. And this Joseph Gordon-Levitt kid? He’s the real deal.

Meet the Robinsons“: About a third of this Disney CG adventure is a triumph of production design and character work — specifically, anything with chrome on it, and anything involving the Bowler Hat Guy. The rest of the picture is a frenetic jumble of ideas and images, some of which look like they’d be really interesting if the movie could slow down long enough to explore them. On the other hand, if it slowed down too much, we’d all realize it’s just “Back to the Future” told from Doc’s point of view. Anyway. Bowler Hat Guy is awesome.

Radiant City“: Gary Burns and Jim Brown look at the problem of urban sprawl in this fascinating work of cinema, which I think I would have totally enjoyed even if I wasn’t inclined to agree with every one of their conclusions. (Yeah, I know, lawns are fine, but I really like living within walking distance of fourteen coffee shops.)

Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey“: Wanna watch my video of my fantasy baseball league’s trip to Cuba with the legendary Bill Lee? Okay, this documentary about the pitcher-philosopher is a little more polished than that — they interviewed some of his contemporaries, and got a couple of journalists to provide additional context — but not by much. Lee’s going to be at the Bloor tonight for the premiere screening, if you’re a fan.

Well, that was my week, anyway. And now is the time for the zombies.

Aw, Hell

Born to fightSo it’s going to be like this, is it?Sony touts its Blu-ray sales numbers on “Casino Royale”, and Toshiba pops out an “oh, yeah?” press release listing 70-odd new HD-DVD titles coming in the next three months from various studio partners — including such Universal gotta-haves as “Streets of Fire”, “The Bourne Identity” and my beloved “Shaun of the Dead”.

With Toshiba slashing prices on its current players, and a budget-priced Chinese machine hovering not too far in the future, does this mean HD-DVD is rallying for a final stand? Is that even possible?

As the comments on the relevant Engadget post demonstrate, we’re way past respectable debate here, but I honestly have no idea how this will play to the partisans. Too little, too late? Or “plenty”, but still too late? There are a lot of Blu-ray players out there now, even if they do look like gaming machines.

And: Yes, I must own “Streets of Fire”. Let me have my bliss.

Numbers

Sales. Huge sales.Let’s start with “Seven”, which is the number of reviews that are, due to various complications yesterday, still to be written.

And then let’s consider “Ten”, which is roughly the number of hours I have to finish them. Thus, this morning’s very short post.

But here’s another: “Fifty thousand”, which is the number of Blu-ray discs of “Casino Royale” sold in the title’s first two weeks of availability, requiring another fifty thousand to be shipped to stores.

As Engadget HD points out, it took eleven months after the launch of the standard DVD for its first title to ship 100,000 units (“Air Force One”, in January 1998); Blu-ray has crossed that rubicon in only nine.

I don’t have any numbers for top-selling HD-DVD titles, but I suspect that the impending “Matrix Trilogy” sets will tell us how many people remain committed to the format as of May 22nd.

Out of the Ordinary

In the future, everyone will want to see movies this shiny!Slouched out to darkest Mississauga this morning for Disney’s 3D screening of “Meet the Robinsons”, and found myself in an outtake from Gary Burns and Jim Brown’s upcoming suburbia study “Radiant City” — an almost entirely deserted cluster of big-box stores, where people (myself included) wandered through the fog towards the only things that seemed open — the movie theater, a Tim Horton’s, a Starbucks and the theater.

You know the opening reel of the “Dawn of the Dead” remake? Kind of like that, but with fewer filters.

My traveling companion on this one was friend and colleague Adam Nayman, and one of the things we talked about was Peter Bart’s recent Variety piece on how the success of “300” and “Wild Hogs” is proof of the growing chasm between moviegoers and critics — or so Bart thinks.

The whole thing proceeds from a false premise, of course: As Jim Emerson points out in this post to his invaluable Scanners blog, the first-weekend grosses of a movie don’t actually tell you how many people enjoy a movie. They just tell you how many people went to see it. It’s an indicator of interest, not approval.

Here’s an example: Remember when “The Blair Witch Project” laid waste to the box-office in the summer of 1999? Try to find someone who admits to liking it now. (I mean, besides me.) But “The Sixth Sense”, which opened just a couple of weeks later, so thoroughly permeated popular culture that M. Night Shyamalan became a household name.

Large numbers of people saw both films. But only one attracted a return audience. I suppose you could argue that “Blair Witch” doesn’t really demand a second viewing the way “The Sixth Sense” did, but people don’t go back to see a movie they didn’t like.

Anyway, Emerson says it all quite eloquently — and make sure you check out the comments section, too — and I have seven reviews in various stages of unfinishment. Time to get on it.

My other other gig.