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Wednesday, 29 September 2010

New-View: And finally...

As a child growing up in a UK low-income family during the '80s, I was quite limited in my options for entertainment.  Don't get me wrong, my parents provided the best they could; however, I didn't have a console (Super Nintendo) till the early 90s and television only provided four pretty basic channels.  I visited the local library pretty often and read books voraciously, but ultimately it was film that allowed me the greatest escape from a pretty miserable reality.  Most adults can recall the times in their childhood when they achieved in sports; for me, I remember the first time I saw 'Rocky' (age 4), 'The Terminator' (age 7), 'Enter the Dragon' (age 8) and so on.  At that time, films were not as readily accessible, so more often than not I would watch whatever aired on the basic TV channels.  Such was the frugal nature of these stations, that there was a high proportion of grindhouse style movies-both imported and home-made.  Late nights were regularly devoted to the original Japanese Godzilla marathons on Channel 4; terrible no-name action movies from the 70s; the glut of Kung-Fu films that followed Bruce Lee's death but traded on his name and fame; a million and one Christopher Lee as 'Dracula' debacles; and ridiculous mash-ups between genres that truly beggared belief.  

Through the years, my tastes diversified (thank God) and genuine quality became ever the more attainable through television, DVD and the internet.  That being said, I always looked fondly upon that era-never truly having an option about what you could watch and having to find enjoyment in poorly produced fare.

It is partly due to this that I find myself envious of the Tarantino/Rodriguez relationship-they clearly have similar views regarding these old movies and as a result, created the 'Grindhouse' films-Planet Terror and Death Proof.  I can understand why many disliked the combo, as they are effectively tantamount to a film insider's joke.  Even the faux trailers (with celebrity directors, no less) serve to contribute to recreating that Grindhouse experience.  My own personal favourite had to be 'Machete': the Rodriguez directed, Danny Trejo starring, revenge tale of a Mexican Federale double crossed and left for dead.

When news surfaced on the IMDB that Rodriguez intended on actually filming 'Machete', I was a little wary-while I enjoy his films, his renowned excesses can sometimes hamper enjoyment simply because he doesn't seem aware that moderation can, in fact, strengthen his work.  Further to this, dialogue tends to be a bit of a stumbling block for him in the writing process (Sin City doesn't count as it was more or less a straight to screen adaptation).  Even while his work will never be considered on par with legendary film-makers, if you're willing to suspend your disbelief for the duration of his films, they can be relatively entertaining.

Having now seen the film, I walk away somewhat disappointed, but not for the reasons that I've listed above.  The writing is perfunctory (though lacking the bite that a quick Tarantino rewrite could have provided), the excesses are predictable (though not distracting) and the direction is solid.  So what could have ruined a half decent premise for a long-awaited Danny Trejo vehicle?  Let me provide a hint: money.

"So," says you, "what's the problem with that?  More bang for my buck, as far as I'm concerned."  Well, the glory of Grindhouse lies in its ability to glorify violence and exploit sexuality, albeit with exceptionally low production values.  'Machete', on the other hand, positively reeks of money.  Granted, it is believed to have only cost $20 million to make-a paltry sum by Hollywood standards-but when you consider that Paranormal Activity only cost $11,000, the highly polished nature of 'Machete' starts to become incongruous with the subject matter.  At the very outset of the film, there was a glimpse of what could have been.  The scratches and false film-grain combined with no-name actors (with the exception of Seagal rearing his fat-necked face) in a dilapidated Mexican setting successfully recreated some of that charm.  Alas, after the opening credits, Rodriguez firmly rooted the action in a pristinely filmed, modern-day America.  Even the delightful news-network name reference to Pulp Fiction doesn't help to save 'Machete' from being another wasted opportunity.

Wasted opportunity wields a machete.
Also, the cast line up reads like a day at the local cineplex: Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Steven Seagal, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson, Lindsay Lohan and Shea Whigham.  With the exception of Fahey (who, for the record, steals the show) every one of those actors/actresses are high profile and command considerable media attention.  De Niro-my God, that legend; Jessica Alba-my God, that body; Steven Seagal-my God, that pony tail; Lindsay Lohan-my God, that train wreck; Michelle Rodriguez-my God, that lack of discernible acting talent.  Even the name that you may be less familiar with-Shea Whigham-has a relatively successful acting career (recently starring as Buscemi's corrupt sheriff brother in the new series I've been raving about).   

Having a cast that are so instantly recognisable detracts from the film itself: not once do you ever catch De Niro mid-sentence and think, "he's genuinely trying to nail this character."  Instead, you know that he's not taking the role seriously.  And this goes for every member of the cast.  Why should this matter?  The fundamental difference with films from the Grindhouse genre is that the actors are actually acting.  Poor acting, yes, but it's taken seriously and this is what contributes to the film's essential charm.  An example I would use to illustrate this: Planet Terror was amusing for the most part, but fell into the same trap, whereas Death Proof did not.  The difference?  The cast of Death Proof treated it as a real film and while they still seem to be having fantastic fun ("he's Stuntman-Mike!), it never gets in the way of the narrative.  

In retrospect, I think that my expectations were probably too high-that my deep and sincere love for the trailer would never easily transfer to a longer big-screen adaptation (fir if the trailer was perfect, how could they better it?); however, one can't help but think that if Tarantino had been in the writer/director's chair, this probably wouldn't have happened.

Catch this only if you're a devout Rodriguez fan.

Check back soon for a Retroview on another David Lean masterpiece: "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

*Also just want to say-thank you for everyone's continued support-if anyone has a specific film review they would like to request, just ask in the comments and I'll see what I can do.*


  1. I strongly dislike these movies. Yes, I get it that its an homage to the old ones, but i never liked the old ones either. It's trash for me. Artful trash, maybe, respectful trash, possibly, but in the end, still trash.

  2. ^^agreed

    ps. I love awesome-o =)

  3. Gosh I loved the opening scene in Machete, I need to find out who that slut was, cause she was FINE! it was so funny how Lindsey Lohan played a crack wh0re haha! but I was not expecting to see her tits! that movie was so win!

  4. Never seen it, so i can't have an opinion. looks interesting, though!