Boxing Helena for me is the perfect example of potential-wasting, gutless filmmaking. Warning, spoilers follow. Philippe Caland and Jennifer Lynch presented a genuinely interesting and bold plot, that of a masochistic, mother-obsessed doctor (Nick) who desperately latches onto Helena, a beautiful temptress who wants nothing to do with him. Nick, after having inherited his mother’s palatial estate and running into Helena in a bar, decides to throw an impromptu house warming party as cover for inviting Helena into his home where she yet again rebuffs his advances. Nick then lures her back to his house where she is accidentally hit by a car and has her legs horrible crushed. Being a brilliant surgeon, Nick manages to save her life though he amputates both of her legs, and it’s at this point that the film becomes both remarkable and lackluster at the same time.
Jennifer Lynch, daughter of filmmaker David Lynch, seems as if she’s taking a page out of her father’s surreal dream-logic filmmaking book as Nick keeps Helena prisoner and begins to slowly and literally deconstruct Helena limb by limb until she’s truly an object of his desire. Helena, on the other hand, spends her time digging into Nick’s psyche, taunting his manhood and in a very demented twist falling in love with him, I believe based purely on his desire for her, which transcends physical beauty (something she is used to men fawning over.) Unfortunately this second act is severely hampered by pointless complexity (in terms of the number of characters in the film) and some very forced and unconvincing performances (namely by Bill Paxton who’s trying his best to invoke his character Sevren from Near Dark and Sherilyn Fenn who stoicism is almost laughable.)
Though the acting is generally bad and the directing generic the plot would save this otherwise mundane film, but this to is thrashed by a very trite and gutless third act that ends with an ambiguous twist ending, which implies that the entire second act was either a hallucination or a dream. When I rented this film I had very high hopes based on the loose connection to David Lynch and the story in general. I mean who sits down to write a movie about a man so obsessed with a woman that he makes her into a living Venus Di Milo, and then pussies out at the end and implies that it’s either a dream that Helena has had after the accident, or a hallucination that Nick is having in the hospital after he brings her in (instead of keeping her in a psuedo-box on his dining room table.)
I thought I’d talk a bit about the Ewoks DVD today. I don’t hate this cartoon, but I do hate the way Lucasfilm has handled the property. Basically what this release is, is 8 episodes from the first season of the show cobbled together to form two very unbalanced animated films with new adult Wicket voice-overs.
What we don’t get is the opening theme song, original end credits, and I have a feeling original music (though I guess I’ll never know since this will probably be the only release in this format.) At least the “chapters” are labeled with the original episode titles. I know this sounds nit-picky and in the vein of the “complainers” of the ill done reissues of the Original Star Wars trilogy on DVD, but come on. What is the purpose of releasing an old saturday morning cartoon, almost certainly because the fans demanded it for nostalgia purposes, and then heavily editing it so that it has almost no feel of how it originally aired?
I don’t particularly want this in my collection, but I do want episodes of the show, so I bit the bullet and bought it. I outright refuse to buy Droids though as I didn’t care as much for that cartoon and can wait for a better version (though it will probably never come…)
So in the wake of my burgeoning interest in car flicks, post Death Proof, I finally got around to catching Vanishing Point, the 1971 road film that, like Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, is one long car chase. This flick above all else, is the film most mentioned in Death Proof, both by the characters and with the use of the white 1970 Dodge Challenger that the girls are test driving at the end of the flick. Like all the other car flicks I’ve seen lately, I tried to go into this with unspoiled and with an open mind.
Like Two-Lane Blacktop, this flick begins with a slow burn that builds up to become much more than the sum of its parts. The inter-cutting of scenes with the main character Kowalski (played by Barry Newman) with those of DJ Super Soul (played by Cleavon Little) are first unexplained and odd, but soon become weirdly telepathic, where one character becomes the body and the other the voice of a being that is past it’s time on this earth. The films existential leaning, though, isn’t as up front as Two-Lane Blacktop, as the director (Richard C. Sarafian) and the writers (Malcolm Hart & G. Cabrera Infante) very creatively insert some telling flashback sequences that throughout the film bring the audience up to speed with Kowalski and suggest some reasoning behind his long last stand on the road.
Though the film is structured a little more commercially viable than Two-Lane, it’s not quite as much so as Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and not nearly as mundane as most of Gone in 60 seconds, so it’s kind of cool to see a progression of existentialist road movies throughout the 70′s. It’s kind of interesting to note that in TLB speed alienates, in DMCL and VP speed kills, and in GI60S speed titillates because by that point people were becoming so enamored by the action that they were probably looking past the meaning. This is an downward spiral that action movies take throughout the 80s (with films like the Smokey and the Bandit, Cannonball Run, and even to a point Top Gun) and which ends ultimately with films like Days of Thunder or Speed and its utterly pointless sequel, Speed 2: Speedier on a Boat No Less (or what ever the hell it was called.) Car movies are all flash and hardly any substance anymore. Stuff like the Fast and the Furious or the Transporter (though both fun and exciting) are simply eye candy. Honestly, Death Proof isn’t much better, but at least it turns its head back in the direction of the 70s flicks that it pays homage to.
I’m curious is this is one of the first times the where the whole DJ as a confidant/copilot concept makes it’s way onto film. It seems like a very stereotypical idea now, but I’m not sure where it came from. I also really dig its telepathic inference, which reverberates nicely in later cinema like in the scenes between the Forest Whitaker titular character and Raymond (played by Isaach De Bankole) in Ghostdog: Way of the Samurai, where even though neither character can understand each others language, they still hold up their ends of a conversation through some sort of unexplained telepathy.
I also think that this is a pretty tight example of counter culture cinema, in the vein of Easy Rider, so it’s sort of funny to see that there was a made for TV remake in ’97 starring Viggo Mortensen that completely ditches Kowalski’s drug fueled existential ride to the end with a plot about having to get home for the birth of his baby. That just sounds so silly.
Sin City isn’t a perfect film; in fact it isn’t even close. It’s hard to say inclusively that it’s bad or good, because there are a lot of different aspects to the flick. I can say that I loved it, even for its issues.
As far as translation from book to screen, the movie is near flawless. Rodriguez and Miller have managed to recreate Miller’s heavily stylized comics on the big screen without losing an iota of the heavy black or stark white. They also manage to keep the dialogue and internal monologue intact, which are both a merit and a major problem with the film. Most people who’ve read Miller’s Sin City work don’t make the connection to Mickey Spillane and Sam Spade, to Humphrey Bogart and the lingo of the Hard Boiled detective pulp novels. So when they hear the dialogue in the movie delivered in such a manner it’ll probably come off as comic or exaggerated. People today just don’t remember or care for the older genres that so many of today’s writers and directors fell in love with as children. People expect an update not a faithful homage. Yet they complain when they feel a book to film translation isn’t faithful. Simply put, people don’t know what they want.
That being said, I think the theatrical cut of the film also suffers a little in it’s editing. Being so faithful to its graphic novel roots, I feel that Rodriguez failed to treat the three novels as individual stories. The three chapters blur into one another in a slightly uncomfortable manner with only a change in narrator to tip the viewer that we are switching gears. I think the film would benefit from titled chapters (ala Kill Bill) or better yet, a title card utilizing the original Miller artwork for each chapter, which would be in keeping with the source material. Thankfully, in this box set we also get the opportunity to view these stories separately which significantly adds to the experience.
The film is also heavily CG’d, but I think that helps to define baSin city as its own world just outside of our reality. It also makes it easier to swallow the use of bright highlights of color and the exaggerated cartoon violence, though I know that there are a lot of older film fans that think the movie is actually a CG cartoon, so maybe it’s not for everyone.
I also feel the film was superbly cast with Mickey Rourke as a standout and Elijah Wood as a surprisingly creepy Kevin. Though at the end of the day I pretty much enjoy all of the performances, I was a little bummed by both Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba’s Nancy. Willis just didn’t nail the exasperated, at-the-end-of-his-rope Hartigan for me. As for Alba, honestly, if you’ve got a problem with on screen nudity, don’t audition for the role of a stripper. I’m surprised that Miller and Rodriguez decided to leave Nancy dressed through the film seeing that they accurately portrayed the over the top violence and gore. I mean, the silhouette of a half naked Nancy, back lit with lasso in the air is a trademark image of the Sin City books.
All in all I think a lot of people are going to have a problem with aspects of the film that are actually quite faithful to Miller’s graphic novels. The "corny" dialogue, over the top unrealistic violence and action, the slightly cartoonish or simple characterization, all of these are in the Sin City books, and I think a lot of fans forgive this in the comics but won’t in the film. To me this points to unrealistic expectations of the adaptation to the silver screen, or more commonly, be careful for what you wish for, you might just get it.
For the special edition DVD I think that Rodriguez and company outdid themselves. There are two insightful commentaries, tons of making of featurettes including a fast forward view of a large chunk of the film sans CGI overlay, and a second and very fun installment of the 10 Minute Cooking School series, this time focusing on two types of breakfast tacos (including easy-to-make fresh flour tortillas.) Not only is the DVD portion of this box set loaded and awesome, but you also get a complete copy of the first Sin City graphic novel packaged in as well. For around $25, this is a huge bargain and should illustrate the gold standard for special edition box sets. I mean, sure, statues and book ends are nice, but at the end nowhere near as cool as source material. Why aren’t more special editions packaged with a print edition of a film’s script or something, now that would be great.
What can I say about the original 1974 Gone in 60 Seconds that probably hasn’t been said before. The flick is insanity personified. I basically came to this flick after I saw Death Proof in the theater a couple weeks ago. Since Tarantino also made a reference to this in Kill Bill (the scene where Texas Ranger Earl McGraw comes driving up to the wedding chapel massacre and the P.O.V. is from the driver so you see the dashboard and out the window; there is a row of sunglasses, each with different color lenses, this come directly from GISS), I figured it was time to finally sit down and watch it.
This is certainly one of the greatest examples of American cult cinema as it was independently written, produced and directed by H. B. Halicki a self-made businessman/gear-head. Halicki also starred in the film as well as doing all of his own stunt driving, which even includes a unplanned crash into a telephone pole that resulted in halting production as Halicki was badly injured in the wreck. Not only did Halicki write, produce, direct, act in, and do the stunt driving in the film, but he also owned or paid for almost all of the vehicles seen in the movie including the police cars and a garbage truck that he bought at auction for around $200 apiece. To say this guy was 100% behind his film would be a vast understatement.
What kills me though, is that for all of this love, most of it doesn’t shine through unto the screen. The first 50 minutes of the film are horrible, badly acted (mostly because Halicki cast friends and family in most of the roles to keep the production costs down), badly paced, and for the most part badly written, if only because the viewer has no idea what’s going on through most of the film. Much of the initial dialogue is delivered via voice over because 75% of the footage is in long shots, so you really don’t know who is talking half of the time. Even when the plot gets a little clearer later on there are still plenty of plot holes that aren’t explained (like who hired Maindrian in the first place.) It also doesn’t help that all of the car thieves have the same disguise (which I have a sneaking suspicion was a big influence on Spike Jonze for his concept in the video for Sabotage by the Beastie Boys), so the viewer isn’t even sure which character is on screen some of the time. The worst part though, is a 5-10 minute scene where Halicki inter cuts a plodding scene of his character walking through a warehouse looking at all of the cars his crew has stolen with a weird shot of Marion Busia (who plays his associate’s wife) as the camera just slowly arcs around her sad face while she sits in the crew’s office. The scene feels like it’s ten years long and is utterly pointless.
All of this, though, is paid off in the last forty minutes when the film turns into one long car chase that has plenty of interesting gimmicks and gags. Throughout the film Maindrian keeps having problems getting his hands on or keeping "Eleanor" a yellow 1973 Ford Mach 1 Mustang. The film takes a drastic turn after Mandrian steals his back-up Eleanor and is double crossed resulting in a pretty daring police chase. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 cars are wrecked in the ensuing chase including Eleanor, though she’s still able to drive pretty well (thanks to Halicki reinforcing her body for the stunt-work.)
At the end of the day though, this all makes for a pretty mundane film, especially when compared to similar flicks like Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, though it’s staunch independence makes it one heck of a unique viewing experience that will probably never be duplicated. The perfect 3 star flick.
For some odd reason lately I’ve sort of fell into watching a bunch of car and road movies. It started when a friend at work lent me his copy of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and came to a head when I saw Grindhouse in the theater a couple weeks ago. I completely flipped for Death Proof, and in total Kill Bill fashion, I’ve been tracking down the references and homages to get a feel for where he was coming from. Death Proof is really a nod to three styles of film, the slasher flick (which I’m pretty comfortable with so I don’t really need to dig into that stuff), the car/road movie (which I’m getting into now), and chick revenge flicks (which I’m sure will be my next obsession.)
DP mentions a few flicks by name, DMCL, Vanishing Point, Gone in 60 Seconds (the original 1974 flick, not the remake), and when I started doing a little digging I realized that I couldn’t just do these three as there were a few more that sort of fit the bill as well, Bullit, Deathrace 2000, and Two-Lane Blacktop. Well the first thing I realized when I started looking up all the car/road movie references is that a couple of those are out of print. I was lucky enough to have kismittically been introduced to Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, which was out of print, but so was Two-Lane Blacktop, also released by Anchor Bay and also now OOP (**Update** there is now a nice version of the film available through Criterion, just click the picture above.) I did some price comparisons and was bummed by my initial discovery that most sites like Amazon and stuff list it used, but for like $100 or more. No movie is worth that, it’s just stupid extortion. So I hit eBay hoping for bootlegs. Some of the boots were pretty high priced, like in the $40 range, but luckily there was a dude in Australia selling some for $15 a pop. I picked up a copy not expecting it to arrive until like next year since the international postage he was asking for was only $3.85 (very unlikely, but I went with it.)
I was surprised this past week to find it in the mailbox. I chucked it in the player hoping it was a decent bootleg and sighed in relief when I realized it was a perfect port of the Anchor Bay release which meant it was nice quality and widescreen. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the flick as I refused to read the blurb and wanted to go in completely unspoiled. The flick stars a young James Taylor (yeah, that James Taylor, the Fire and Rain, ex-hippie soft rock king), Dennis Wilson (of the Beach Boys), Laurie Bird, and Warren Oates (who I only really knew as Sgt. Hulka from Stripes.) Basically it’s sort of an existentialist gear-head flick that follows two friends, a hitchhiker, and a compulsive liar as they race across the country.
The first thing that surprised me was how much I loved both James Taylor (as The Driver) and Dennis Wilson (as The Mechanic); both perfectly nail that disassociated quietness that comes from truly cool obsessive hobbyists (you know the type, that dude that’s uber knowledgeable and has pretty much seen or experienced every aspect of something and just kind of hangs out mildly interested in the scene (think Chevy Chase in Caddyshack or Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused.) When they’re checking out potential cars to race against, and they’re rattling off engine types and model years it’s with a total stoicism that’s way more realistic and convincing than a more manic method approach (like Nic Cage in the Gone in 60 Seconds remake.) Very early on you get used to the two as a unit, almost inseparable, so later in the film with the introduction of Laurie Bird’s hitchhiker, even though it’s played out very subdued, you can really feel the distance growing between the Driver and the Mechanic. It’s kind of painful to watch (in a good way.)
Overall the film is very slow, plodding along just fast enough with almost no plot that you might actually fall asleep if it weren’t for the occasional engine revving or race. Warren Oates’ character, an older guy with a much nicer looking car (a yellow 1970 Pontiac G.T.O.) than the duo (in their dark gray primer colored ’55 Chevy) ends up adding a lot of unnerving humor and a lightness to the overly brooding film. He’s constantly picking up hitchhikers and coming up with a new spiel about how he ended up with his G.T.O., none of which you can believe by the time he hooks up with the duo. There’s actually a great cameo by Harry Dean Stanton as a gay hitchhiker that manages to be both funny and very disturbing at the same time.
This movie plays out much in the same way that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road feels. What probably helped this along was that the director Monte Hellman only dished out a day’s worth of the script at a time which seemed frustrating to the actors, but which helped to insure very organic performances. He also tried his best to deprive the actors of sleep so that they would be in the same head-space as the characters which were on a non-stop trip.
The flick also has a very abrupt (though interesting), pre-third act resolution, ending which I think says a lot more about the film than I realized when I watched it through the first time. The basic plot is that the duo, after picking up Laurie Bird, are confronted by Warren Oates’ character at a gas station (though they’ve sort of had a couple run-ins with him before where he tries his best to initiate a race and both times they blow him off) and you can tell he’s dying to get these three on the road with him, the two guys in a race, and the girl in his car. After a bit of macho posturing, Taylor and Wilson challenge Oates to a race across the country to D.C. with the two car’s pinks as the trophy. They put their pink slips together and mail them to D.C. care of general delivery and head out.
During the film all three guys make passes at Laurie Bird, who is more than willing, though only Wilson makes contact, however pointless and fleeting it is. At the same time Bird is sort of wary of the guys as it seems that she’s looking for a bit of stability and all she can see in them is their need to race above all else, or in Oates’ case, a little bit on insanity. Eventually she splits from the group and hitches a ride with some dude on his motorcycle, exiting the film and setting the tone for the rest of the picture which is when everyone sort of realizes that nothing is going to change and they all just sort of abandon the race, getting back to where they started the film leaving the bare plot resolution as a mere loose end. The race is really just a MacGuffin.
I never caught Due South when it aired in its regular nighttime slot, but I overdosed on the show when it was playing in reruns on TNT here in the states. There was just something amazing about this show that I have a hard time putting my finger on. It’s the same something that makes shows like Moonlighting and Northern Exposure so great as well. Anyway, I so wanted to be Benton Fraser in high school, but no dice, I wasn’t tall enough, pretty enough, smart enough, or nearly as Mountie enough though I did pick up his "Thank you kindly" affectation for awhile.
When DVDs first started trickling onto the market, this was one of the shows I was dying to have at the time because it was the one most fresh in my mind, not to mention sadly canceled and making it’s way out of syndication at the same time. I didn’t remember seeing the first season until around 2001 or 2002, and even then it was a Canadian only release of the show, which was alright because they’re in the same region coding, but also not so alright because it’s MSRP was around $120. This of course was back before the huge TV on DVD boom that we’re currently living through, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise, but it was disheartening. Between the high price and shipping from Canada, I was thinking I’d never own the show, though I managed to find a much cheaper copy on eBay which made me happy.
When I got the set I was sort of bummed because it both didn’t include the 2 hour pilot movie and was also one of the first times I came across a DVD set that was jam packed into a much smaller case than it needed. It was the first time I’d seen overlapping DVDs, not to mention the fact that they were also double sided, so a six disc series was crammed on three discs and packaged in a double disc case. Not my idea of a set that was asking $120. Add to this the fact that the case was crushed in shipping, and I was just really bummed about the whole thing.
A few years later though, the company that released the series in Canada, Alliance Atlantis, made an agreement with an American company, Platinum Discs, to distribute it here in the states. Once again I was very happy, first because they like 10 times cheaper, then because the first set would include the pilot movie and last because they looked like they would be available in slipcases with one sided discs. Then I bought it and I wanted to cry. These were hands down the worst quality DVDs I’ve ever purchased. Sure, for the price it’s not that big of a deal, but considering the alternative of picking up the remainder of the Canadian releases for something like $240 it just didn’t balance out.
Platinum Discs ended up released the entire series in three very cheap sets (like $15 each) and every possible problem I could have I did. When I picked up the second season the 3rd disc in the set was actually a disc from the first season. Then when I returned it to Best Buy, which luckily had one to replace it, the replacement copy had broken spindles so the discs don’t lock into place. On both sets the slipcases are made of the cheapest, thinnest paper board, that it might as well be made out of lined paper. The video quality is horrible, and every disc had problems with pixilation and grain issues. Then after season three came out (there were four seasons in Canada) I was pissed because there was no word whatsoever on season 4. Little did I know that it was actually included on season 3 while the whole time I was thinking that I was missing a season that I never got a chance to see in syndication.
I ended up chucking the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th discs of the 1st season American release, replacing them with the Canadian versions, so now I have a moderately nice set with both the pilot movie and better quality versions of the shows from the first season. I guess this series of DVD sets wins my prize for worst releases ever, well not quite. That prize would go to the $20 2-episode per release Star Trek the original series DVDs, but they’ve since been replaced with nicer, cheaper (though not all that much) versions.
I would have to hesitate in calling any movie perfect, but if I were forced to pick one example of a flick that was near perfect for me, it would have to be Kill Bill Vol.’s 1&2. These two films (well really one cut in half) embody everything that I love in a movie going experience; it’s amazingly stylistic, there’s a ton of action, there’s plenty of plot and character development, it’s gory and exploitative, yet light and silly at times, it’s story is well versed in the history of cinema, it’s incredibly detailed with so many layers of reference and homage that there’s an entire book dedicated to annotations and references, it’s inventive in it’s form, has great music, and most importantly it’s quick and fun and it knows exactly what it is and makes no pretensions about it.
I saw these flicks in the theater, and literally from the first frame of the old grindhouse feature presentation screen I was in love. Every single frame of this movie is dripping with cinema love, nothing is boring, and no time is wasted. As an example, almost every single scene in the movie has a connection to something else that either in an joke or a reference to another movie, like the sunglasses lined up on the dashboard of Texas Ranger Earl McGraw’s car, these are a reference to the original Gone in 60 Seconds, and then the actor himself is playing a character from another Tarantino movie, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. What I really love about these moments is that even though there is so much to them, none of this is important to the plot, so the average movie goer should be just as entertained as those who do know this stuff. This is done even better with the character of Hatroi Hanzo, the sword maker that forges the Bride’s sword. The actor, Sonny Chiba, is playing a character that he’s played before (in the show Kage No Gundan), yet everything that you need to know is right in the movie. This movie also cements the odd mixture of universes that Tarantino has been slowly establishing in his films. Basically there are two Tarantino universes, the "real world" and the "cinema world". Pulp Fiction takes place in the "real world" and Kill Bill in the "cinema world", so for instance, the character of Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction, who is a failed actress who once did a pilot for a television show about these five girl action-spies (Fox Force Five), is quite possible "playing the role" of the Bride in Kill Bill (not to mention the fact that the DiVAS, Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, in Kill Bill is based on Fox Force Five from Pulp Fiction.) So Kill Bill would effectively be a movie that the characters from films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, or Jackie Brown might go see.
This is the same sort of idea that’s established in Stephen Kings body of work via his spaghetti western influenced fantasy series the Dark Tower, that all things, fiction, literature, movies, and ultimately the real world are all interconnection in a much more drastic way than just existing together. That if one were able to make a tear in reality there would be a possibility that that person could then drift into another world, possibly even a world that was established in a work of fiction. Hell, it goes so far as to suggest that even our "reality" is someone else’s fiction. Kill Bill is the embodiment of this idea.
Because the flicks are so filled with references to other cinema, I took some time out a year or so ago with a friend to explore them as best as we could. I picked up the great annotation book by D.K. Holm, Kill Bill: An Unofficial Casebook, and with the help of the internets, Amazon.com, eBay, Netflix, and even some local video stores, managed to put together a list of most of the films referenced. Here’s what we ended up watching based on our interest in Kill Bill:
Lady Snowblood, Thriller: A Cruel Picture, The Street Fighter, Kage No Gundan (series one, episode one), 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Circle of Iron, Kung Fu (tv series, episode one), Yojimbo, Fistful of Dollars, Death Rides a Horse, Game of Death, Green Hornet Vol. 1, Five Fingers of Death, Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart on the River Styx, Master of the Flying Guillotine, Fists of the White Lotus, Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Black Mama/White Mama, Switchblade Sisters, and Battle Royale.
We also had the Five Deadly Venoms, the One Armed Swordsman, and Samurai Fiction on the list, but the FDV kept arriving from Netflix broken or unplayable, OAS was unavailable in the US, and we didn’t get to Samurai Fiction. Even this list is just the movies that feature prominently in Kill Bill and not stuff like the Gone in 60 Seconds reference. I ended up finding a lot of flicks that I absolutely love though Kill Bill, the Lone Wolf and Cub series, Lady Snowblood, and Death Rides a Horse in particular, so in essence Kill Bill is invaluable in what it opened me up to cinema-wise. How many movies can make that kind of claim.
What’s also beautiful about all of this is what I said before, that none of this homage even matters to the movie itself, so alone, Kill Bill is still amazing. It manages to distill the essence of everything it plays off of into a very perfect version of this type of cinema.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico is one of those very odd movies that I love for a ton of reasons, most of which really have nothing to do with the movie itself. It took me forever to actually sit down and watch this third entry (actually the forth if you count the fact that the third will probably never be filmed) in the Mariachi trilogy after missing it’s initial run in theaters. It had been on the Netflix queue for ages and I’d heard nothing good about it from friends so it actually ended up arriving by accident when I forgot to rearrange the order of the waiting movies.
I’m a pretty big fan of Rodriguez, and the Mariachi flicks in particular because these were some of the first flicks that I watched in high school that opened the door to new and interesting movies I’d never considered watching before. The first two flicks, El Mariachi and Desperado, were also some of the first DVDs I’d ever purchased, not to mention some of my first experiences with DVD special features. After listening to the commentaries on both flicks I was forever spoiled by Rodriguez’s amazing talent for swift, insightful, entertaining and just plain awesome commentary and have since never quite found anything that lives up to it.
El Mariachi is one of those movies that I didn’t realize how much I loved it until it was over. At first it seemed like a very straight forward foreign action film with so-so cinematography and quality and a bunch of novice actors, but as the film progresses and you get used to the comedy and shooting style you begin to see a glimmer of something more interesting on the screen. By the end of the third act when the Mariachi is in pseudo Mad Max mode, after he’s lost the girl he loves, and is going back out into the world much like Joe in a Fistful of Dollars it’s hard not to just smile at what Rodriguez was trying to do. Then once you get into the story behind the filming of the movie, it’s impossible not to love the movie. Filmed for $7,000 that Rodriguez earned while subjecting himself to a sequestered medical testing facility, the film is a marvel of frugality. Practically everything in the film was either free, borrowed or improvised, from the weapons (which were on loan from a Mexican police station) and locations, to the camera and the actors (who were either friends, local newsmen, or other "patients" from the testing facility), and most of the budget was used for film stock and developing. Rodriguez, knowing he was going to be spending a bit of time in the testing facility, made sure to use that time to write the script. The whole story is available in an awesome book he wrote called Rebel Without a Crew, which is pretty much a day by day journal of the time spent filming and then eventually shopping the picture around.
Desperado on the other hand was pure love from the opening of the movie until the ending. Not only did Rodriguez tighten his film making chops as far as cinematography goes, but he also made a giant leap in his writing as well. Add to this a full cast of great actors and a modest but substantially larger budget and it’s just pure fun the whole way through. This is also the film where we begin to see a company of actors gathering around him including Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Danny Trejo, Tito Larriva, and Cheech Marin (who would go on to work with him through films like From Dusk Til Dawn, Spy Kids, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico.)
Getting back to Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the first time I finally sat down and watched it I wasn’t sure what to think. On the one hand, it was visually interesting, one of the prettiest films I’ve seen shot on an HD digital camera, and the acting and character work was awesome (with a particularly great performance from Johnny Depp as Agent Sands, the Pureco Pibil loving, double crossing, crazed CIA agent.) Hell, I even enjoyed Enrique Iglesias. The story on the other hand was so convoluted and confusing that I was lost through most of the film. It doesn’t help that the film is not a direct sequel to Desperado, instead it’s the story that takes place after what would be sequel, and only makes a few flashbacks to the un-filmed third installment. Add to this the fact that the Mariachi, once again portrayed by Antonio Banderas (who replaced Carlos Gallardo from El Mariachi), isn’t the main character. Instead the movie is really more about Depp’s Agent Sands, though there are actually more like two or three different narratives going on all at once. It’s just really confusing as all hell. It’s actually similar to the differences between the first and second films, much like the first two Evil Dead flicks. Desperado is more or less a remake of El Mariachi, though it really isn’t. This is also inspired by the Sergio Leone "man with no name" trilogy in that there are slight differences that don’t quite add up between the films even though they are about the same characters.
It wasn’t until I listened to the commentary and watched the special features that I truly got a feel for how awesome an achievement this movie really is. Much like El Mariachi this film was shot under insane circumstances, done entirely in something like a month with a paltry 45 page script. Add to this the fact that for the first two weeks of filming, since the gun intended for use during filming were delayed at the border, the actors had to use rubber prop guns, which were digitally altered in post production to make them look as if they were firing. There were also scheduling conflicts that forced Rodriguez to film actors separately and then he cut the scenes together to make it appear as if both were on screen together. His use of CGI was also particularly inspired as well, servicing as bullet hits, squib effects, and in otherwise small places where it’s almost unnoticeable.
The film was also shot right before a proposed actor strike, done so quickly that it was written, shot, and cut before the strike deadline. As an example, he had Johnny Depp for only 9 days on the the set and he’s in the majority of the film. When you consider all that went into this film, it’s actually a wonder that it came out as well as it did.
Add to this the very first 10-Minute Cooking School special feature in which Rodriguez teaches the viewers to make Agent Sands favorite Mexican meal Pureco Pibil. I’ve made it based on Rodriguez’s instructions a number of times and it’s now once of my favorite dishes, both to prepare and eat. So it’s very hard for me to not love this movie, and in turn this DVD, as well as the sweet double sided combo disc that contains the first two flicks. This is a trilogy that I can really get behind.
Now if Rodriguez would only find the time to make the missing third movie I’d be in heaven.
X-Men is such a weird film for me. One the one hand it was the last item on my childhood wish fulfillment list where the X-Men are concerned. The Uncanny X-Men was my introduction into comic book collecting in the 80s, and it was the one family of titles that I followed religiously for the next 7 or so years though middle and high school. It was through an issue of Wolverine that I met two of my best friends in middle school, and the characters and stories were rooted in so many facets of our lives through that time. Between learning to draw from copying off of Marc Silvestri & Jim Lee’s artwork and collecting the comics together, to watching and dissecting that horrible 90s cartoon series, we all spent a lot of time thinking about the X-Men. It was also through this comic collecting that led a few of us to begin attending the annual Dragon Con. in Atlanta for the next 10 years.
I remember as a kid, spending hours sifting through my pile of G.I. Joe figures looking for the just the right characters that could mimic the X-Men well enough because there weren’t any official figures at the time. Sure there was the odd Secret Wars Magneto or Wolverine floating around the secondary market, but they were much more expensive than I could afford, and when I got right down to it, Low Light made a good enough Cyclops anyway.
Anyway, even though my comic collecting had begun to peter out by the point that the first movie came out in 2000, I was still very excited by the prospect of finally seeing my favorite comic characters on the big screen. I have a lot of fond memories of that time, as it was around when I met my (soon to be) wife, not to mention that it was my birthday at the same time. As far as the film itself goes, it’s alright though far from a great movie. Bryan Singer and the cast did a pretty great job of bringing the look and feel of the characters to life (Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is pretty darn close to dead on, though I can’t stand both Halle Berry’s portrayal of Storm or Tyler Mane’s Sabertooth), but at the end of the day I found the plot laughable and the entire second half of the film feels very silly to me. Fighting on top of the statue of liberty is the cinematic equivalent of the ending to King Kong, though with none of the power and awe of Kong.
What make me love this film though (and why I’ve bought two versions of it on DVD), is that love it or hate it for this, it’s responsible for redefining the Super Hero genre in cinema and making it possible to consider comics as a proper medium for adaptation. Though it, itself owes a debt of gratitude to the first Blade movie and the Matrix for its more or less realistic take on character design, it really was the first film since Donner’s original Superman flick that captured the wonder and excitement of super powers on film. Its success is what made the slew of super hero flicks that followed possible, not to mention putting studios in the mindset to consider hiring more independent and interesting filmmakers like Sam Raimi or Christopher Nolan.
It’s also the lead in to the much better (though horribly titled film) X2.