Swiss Army Man shouldn’t work as a movie, and in fact it will only work for a narrow swath of the world’s audience. There were plenty of walkouts during its Sundance premiere. The triumphant riding of a powerfully flatulent corpse in the film’s opening ten minutes should seal the movie’s fate. How does a movie survive such a juvenile, taste-obliterating moment, and one that is meant as an introduction to the film? Amazingly, stupendously, Swiss Army Man delicately walks that narrow tonal path and succeeds wildly, rapturously, and produces the rarest commodity in Hollywood, something daringly different and excitingly new. I fully anticipate that sizeable portions of readers are going to have an immediate and repellent response from just reading the plot synopsis, and I can’t blame them. I will do my best to try and explain why the movie worked so well even if I know this will be a fool’s errand for many, but if I can convince one more human soul to give Swiss Army Man a chance, then I’ve done the Lord’s work.
Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a desert island and about to hang himself when a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore. Unfazed, Hank is still determined to end his life, that is, until he can no longer ignore the farting of the body. That’s when he gets an idea and uses the power of the farting corpse to ride back to the mainland. Hank drags the corpse with him finding unique benefits, like his retention of drinkable rainwater. He’s still stranded and it’s at this point that Manny, the name he gives the corpse, begins speaking and inquiring about the world and what it means to be human.
Swiss Army Man is a disarming buddy comedy that weirdly yet miraculously deepens as it goes, becoming a genuine relationship drama that touches on the profound and philosophical. For the first act, the movie is an unconventional survival drama with Hank finding peculiar yet helpful uses with his savior, the dead corpse. It’s a guy lugging around a dead body at the end of the day. I was wondering if this was really a story that was more suited as a short and didn’t have the substance to merit a feature-length runtime, and that’s when the magic realism steps up and when Manny comes into focus. This is easily one of the most oddball buddy comedies ever. Manny is an innocent, a proverbial babe in the woods, and doesn’t know much about himself and the world, and Hank becomes his teacher. Through this process he’s forced to examine his own life from an altogether different perspective and actually starts to vocalize and come to grips with his own life’s shortcomings, insecurities, and frustrations. It’s through Manny that Hank is able to open up and examine what it means to be human. Their interaction becomes a truly rewarding and emotionally honest buddy film where one of them just happens to be a talking corpse that farts a lot. Manny wants to learn about the world and to feel what it means to be alive, and it’s this new path that emerges that gives the film a new life.
You would expect something this strange to be drenched in irony or pushing the audience to laugh at the characters, but you would be completely wrong. Swiss Army Man is one of the most earnest movies you will ever see. It is completely genuine, heartfelt, sincere in every crazy detail, and it’s what gives the movie its emotional resonance. It treats the relationship between Hank and Manny with credibility. It’s a movie about celebrating and claiming ones weirdness, told from a movie that is proudly offbeat. Hank feels left out by normal social interactions. He’s the typically withdrawn and awkward Dano character we’ve come to expect from his catalogue of films; however, rarely has he seemed this artfully articulated. He’s a man who has some deep-seeded neuroses and fears, including farting aloud in public, and he’s using his ongoing experiences with Manny to exorcise some of these past failings, to become the determined, self-actualized man he wants to be. There’s a touching part where Hank talks about the poor relationship with his father; the two have signed up for one another to get birthday e-cards via email. That’s the extent of their connection at this point, and yet Hank remarks that even if he were to die his father would still get a birthday card from him in perpetuity. It’s a small little thing but it hits and makes one think about the impact and legacy we’ll have after we’re gone for good. Are we more than just an occasional birthday card? The fact that the movie utilizes a climax that incorporates farting in public as an emotional catharsis is amazing, but what’s even more amazing is that this moment is completely earned and gratifying.
Another aspect of Swiss Army Man that kept me specifically amused is the clever use of ambiguity. As the fantastical plays out with even-keeled realism, it’s easy and expected to believe that much of what we are witnessing is all in the mind of Hank. He’s projecting his needs and hopes onto this analogue for a friend that also represents himself. That’s why Hank uses Manny to relive personal experiences and to try and get them right. Then the third act comes along and causes you to question even more, putting the behavior of Hank into a muddier realm that makes you wonder if he’s this innocent wounded heart we had come to know previously. Then there’s Hank’s fixation over the pretty girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he gravitated to on his bus rides. He looks to her as a goal, something he can return to once finally rescued and returned home. As he plays out his brief experiences with her, dressed as her, with Manny in the position of Hank, a faux courtship ensues. Hank, as her, and Manny, as stand-in for Hank, and it’s weird and wonderful and not afraid to accept the homoerotic qualities of its implications. This is a love story ultimately but a unique kind of love, and it’s up to the audience to determine what that means exactly. Is it romantic, bro-mantic, or simply a dude coming to terms with his own life in a very unusual therapeutic manner? The writer/directors The Daniels (Dan Kwan, Dan Scheinert) don’t outright tell you how to think or feel throughout any of this movie, which is a blessing. They present a complicated world with complicated and broken people doing their best to try and make their own sense, and they invite the audience along on this beguiling journey and just ask that they be patient and open-minded and then come to their own conclusions.
The music is a wonderful element that is also another facet of the characters, layering in even more whimsy and character depth. The music is often accompanied by Radcliffe and Dano, their mutterings and ramblings becoming syncopated and layered into a soothing collage of sound. They’re providing their own soundtrack to the movie of their life. Early on Hank describes the music from Jurassic Park as the proper accompaniment for life’s big moments, with a little nestling of nostalgia as well. It’s especially enjoyable to listen to either of the guys break out into their rendition of the majestic Jurassic Park theme. It’s silly and sweet but it also gets at the psychological element of Hank being outside himself, seeing his life as a movie and he as its lead. He also hums what he remembers of “Cotton Eyed Joe,” which reappears throughout with comically incorrect and changing lyrics. The music is another reflection of the characters and it imbues the scenes with an extra sense of whimsy that helps to maintain its magic realism tone.
Radcliffe (Harry Potter and the… everything) and Dano (Love and Mercy) are terrific together and Radcliffe gives a tour de force physical performance. The way he’s able to contort his body, malign his posture, make use of stilted facial expressions is amazing. This goes leagues beyond the simple slapstick of Weekend at Bernie’s. The way he’s able to convey a character and a performance through this crazy decaying prism. Manny wants to help people, is eager to learn, and it makes his character so endearing, and then you remember he’s a corpse who might just be a figment of Hank’s diseased imagination. Radcliffe completely lets go of vanity and delivers one of the best performances of the year. Dano is in more familiar territory but shines again, serving as a dry comic foil for Radcliffe. The two of them form a highly entertaining and winning buddy team.
Swiss Army Man is a unique film experience and one that shouldn’t work. It’s filled with juvenile body humor. Its key supporting role is a dead body. It’s about a guy who may or may not be a stalker living in a fantasy world in his own head. This should not be, and yet like Manny himself, miraculously it has been birthed into existence and we are better for it. Every time it feels like the movie is heading for a more conventional direction that will weigh it down, be it a love triangle or some slapdash “he was dead the whole time” twist ending, it calmly steers away. This is a wonderfully humane, touching, earnest, and emotionally affecting movie, one that, yes, also involves farting. The body humor stuff is a reflection over confronting what we feel uncomfortable with and why that is, what social conventions tell us is in poor taste, tell us to box ourselves in and play by the rules. Here is a movie that gleefully plays by its own rules. It’s not going to be for everyone but if it’s for you, like me, there might not be much else that can rival its cinematic highs. Even if you think you will hate this movie, see it. See it just to have seen one of the strangest and most beguiling movies of the modern era. See it and judge for yourself. I’m still awed at how life affirming and profound a movie with a farting corpse can be. Swiss Army Man is a labor of love, an explosion of feeling, and a declaration to stay weird.
Nate’s Grade: A
The mysterious sequel to the 2008 found footage monster movie sprung from nowhere, surreptitiously filmed without the general public having any idea of its connection to Cloverfield until mere weeks before its release. It’s the equivalent of a modern-day publicity magic act, something that J.J. Abrams is known for with his crusade against spoilers. The biggest surprise about 10 Cloverfield Lane is that the best parts of a slick and suspenseful movie are the parts that have nothing to do with Cloverfield. The majority of the film’s first two acts take place entirely in a bunker with one possibly disturbed individual played by a terrifically unsettled John Goodman. The unease and dread build nicely and the reveals are paced out in a clever manner to make us second-guess and second-guess our second-guesses. There’s a great moment during an awkward game of charades where Goodman’s character can’t conceive of calling a woman by the term “woman,” instead relying upon patronizing terms like “girl” or “princess.” There’s a darkness and a fury under the surface that should remind of Goodman’s expert turn in Barton Fink. This is a finely suspenseful and mysterious chamber piece until we leave the bunker and the movie officially connects into the Cloverfield universe. It’s a little sloppy and makes for a tonally inconsistent finale. It’s not enough to ruin the movie by any means but it certainly lessens the smartly constructed suspense and paranoia. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) makes for an effective survival thriller heroine, and her line reading of “Oh come on” is a divine highlight. As a Cloverfield movie, this opens up the space for a wider variety of humans vs. monsters stories, but as a movie, it plays at peak performance when it follows its own lead.
Nate’s Grade: B
Did you know that our sixteenth president had a rather unorthodox hobby, and it was really the purpose that drove him into politics and later the White House? That’s what the gonzo best-selling book Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter purports. When he was talking about a house divided not being able to stand, he was secretly talking about vampires, you see. The film version, under the tutelage of producer Tim Burton, looks like it’d be an axe-swinging good time. I realize the absurdity of wishing the filmmakers had hewn closer to the source material, a radical reinterpretation of American history, but there it is. I cannot tell a lie.
Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) is a man determined to rid this new country of the scourge of vampires. His mother was murdered by a vampire landlord, Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), when Lincoln was only a little boy. As an adult, Lincoln tries to avenge his mother’s death but Barts is too strong. Henry (Dominic Cooper) saves Lincoln and teaches him all about vampires and, more importantly, how to hunt and kill them. They strike up a partnership: Henry will provide names of vampire targets and Lincoln will dispatch them with extreme prejudice. Lincoln tries to live a solitary life but keeps building attachments; to his co-worker Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), to his childhood friend Will (Anthony Mackie), who needs Lincoln’s help to forge some slave papers, and the enchanting Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Abe realizes the limitations of killing vampires one by one. The vampires are exploiting Southern slavery as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Lincoln realizes the only way to foil the vampires is to eliminate slavery, and to do so he must be in a high government position, and so Lincoln retires his axe to turn to abolitionist politics.
It feels that rather than embrace the courage of its convictions, the movie is trying to please as many mass markets as possible. So many characters and storylines are inserted wholesale without any connection to the book. The film is almost unrecognizable from the book. Now, I’ll quit my bemoaning for the time being because a movie has to exist on its own merits, but Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is just a mess. As far as new characters included only to appeal to broad audiences, there’s the Black Best Friend, long a staple in movies meant to say, “Hey, our lead character is hip and has no problems with race,” but really it’s always been a depressing act of pander and I always feel sympathy for the thousands of black actors who have to compete over the limited best friend parts. Giving Lincoln a black best friend seems to remind the audience that Lincoln was against slavery, you know, in case anyone didn’t know anything about the man nicknamed the Great Emancipator. Then there’s the ascension of Mary Todd Lincoln into a feisty, strong-willed, formidable ally rather than the insular, clinically depressed woman she was in real life and in the book. Mary even gets some grand hero moments taking out a vampire in slow-mo coolness. The transformation of Mary feels just as big a pander as the character of Will. Then there’s the idea that Lincoln and his small inner circle of pals are placed in the center of action, like they alone and their heroic escapades single-handedly turn the tide of war. It’s handled so ham-handedly that it all plays out like they’re the Scooby Doo gang solving the Case of the Vampire Insurrection.
Lincoln’s history is given such shrift attention, just enough to fill out the standard tortured hero’s backstory for the aims of the story. We see Lincoln as a child but just enough to establish his tragedy and hunger for revenge. Then we cut to him as an adult and going to kill Barts. That’s quite a big leap in time with little careful setup. The time before Lincoln’s presidency is just enough to supply him with a stock character posse and a plucky love interest, and then it’s right to the Civil War. So much time in between the main events just gets squeezed out, and so Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter feels like it’s always one scene away from a clumsy montage.
The vampire threat, as presented, also feels too insurmountable. Not only can these vampires walk in the daylight, they’re super strong, super fast, and can make themselves invisible, a neat new trick. When they ally with the South they seem nigh unbeatable. The movie makes the mistake of making the adversary seem too powerful, so the eventual thwarting of the vampire Confederacy feels too easy and far-fetched given the magnitude of the threat. Adam (Rufus Sewell) is hinted at being like the first vampire, but then this idea is never picked up again. Why even hint at something significant if you have no intention of pursuing it? There’s another new wrinkle where vampires are incapable of killing their own kind. If this is the case then why aren’t the vampires turning every single person they can find into vampires? It shores up their side and guarantees less potential people that could kill them. I’m curious how certain swaths of southerners are going to react to seeing their beloved Confederacy teeming with devilish creatures. Then again, I think the romanticism of the Confederacy is hogwash. When insurrections win we call them revolutions of independence, and when they lose we call them treason. Guess what? The South lost.
As much as I enjoyed his book, I have to lay the blame at the hands of Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted his book into the screenplay (he’s 0-2 this summer after his disastrous screenplay for the other vampire movie this summer, Burton’s Dark Shadows). Granted, I’m sure he got intensive notes on how to alter his story for the big screen; the whole projects reeks like it had too many cooks in the kitchen. The interconnection from the book, finding clever ways to marry history and alternative history together, have been ground down to stream line Lincoln into an American super hero. Not only is he handy with an axe, this Honest Abe can leap from racing horse back to racing horse back, and even get clobbered by a horse and keep on going. The coda at the end feels like a missed opportunity to carry on the Lincoln tradition into our modern age. With the clever reworking replaced by blockbuster superficiality, the film merely takes history and has it perform the outrageous rather than finding smart ways to connect all the outrageousness to the established facts.
What the movie has to the credit of director Timur Bekmambetov is a strong visual pulse. Bekmambetov directed 2008’s testosterone-soaked Wanted, so you know you’re going to get some crazy and eye-catching images on display. The action sequences do pack a punch and I’ll admit that seeing an axe utilized as an inventive martial arts weapon is considerably cool. There are two standout set pieces. The first is a fistfight between Abe and Barts in the middle of stampeding horses. You feel right in the thick of the action, horses stampeding all around, the sun setting to offer an eerie yet beautiful glow to the ordeal. It’s one of the more reality-stretching moments, as I noted above, but man if it isn’t thrilling and lovely to watch. The other standout sequence is a climax aboard a speeding locomotive itself atop a large wooden bridge engulfed in flames. Abe and Will stand back to back, swapping the axe to kill vampires, and then hey have to outrun the collapsing train. In these moments, the movie is joltingly alive, bursting with excitement and that rare yet glorious feeling of watching something beautifully different. I just wish this sensation wasn’t so fleeting in the movie.
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a violent historical reworking that isn’t good enough to be properly entertaining and it isn’t bad enough to be considered camp. The film is mostly disappointing because it should feel far more engaging given its whacked-out premise the very cheeky promise of its title, and strong source material, a pulpy, ripsnorter of a read. The movie has some stellar standout moments but I think what ultimately hinders the entertainment value is how dumb everything comes across. This is not dumb in the winking, self-aware, satiric sense, but dumb in more of the blockheaded, Michael Bay, formulaic blockbuster sense. I wouldn’t even classify this movie as an enjoyably dumb, a silly summer slice of escapism like Battleship, which is looking better every week after new, disappointing summer releases (and it’s not even July yet!). The spirit of this movie is missing, the cleverness of the conceit drained, and the fun is bottled up. What this movie reminds me of is the stupid 2003 film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which took classic literary characters and threw them into a genre movie. Both movies figure the exercise alone, seeing classic literary or historical figures in absurd contexts, was enough to justify entertainment. I say that you have to work harder.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Has any modern filmmaker endured more crappy remakes of their films than John Carpenter? The man has suffered through remakes of Halloween, The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13, and now his 1982 creep-fest The Thing, itself a remake of the 1951 Cold War allegory, The Thing From Another World, gets the same awful treatment. This new Thing is some hybrid of remake and prequel, because it’s set before the events of the 1982 film but it pretty much follows the same overall plot. Once again a group of scientists (this time they’re Norwegian!) on a remote Antarctic outpost discovers an alien body buried in the ice. Once again the alien breaks loose and can assume the fleshy form of man. But this new film forgoes the rampant paranoia and rising tension of Carpenter’s film for cheap Boogeyman thrills. The alien monster is introduced early and the rest of the film succumbs to people looking around pensively, afraid it will jump out and attack. This alien creation is an odd quirk of evolution; a species that seems to be made of nothing but gnashing teeth, spindly legs, and vaginal imagery. How these things built and fly spaceships, I have no idea. Some of the gore effects are crafty and stomach-churning, but nothing is as memorable as the practical effects used sparingly and to great effect in the 1982 flick. This Thing is too much of a familiar monster to make an impact.
Nate’s Grade: C
A lot has changed in the world and for Bruce Willis since last we saw John McClane in 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance a.k.a. Die Hard 3: Die Harder-er. Is a post 9/11 anxiety-ridden world, does someone like McClane feel quaint, like the remnant of a bygone era? Live Free or Die Hard, a.k.a. Die Hard 4, is Willis getting back to butt-kicking, wise-cracking basics. The film is a surprising and fun summer entry that could have been much much worse, and for that I am grateful.
McClane (Willis) is a pretty run down man thanks to the rigors of his job the heavy price being labeled a “hero.” He’s divorced, estranged from his teenage daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and retired from the force. He gets called to transport a hacker named Matt (Justin Long) from New Jersey to D.C. and into federal custody. Before he can leave Matt’s apartment, assassins start shooting at McClane and the hacker and the two go on the run for their lives. A former national security leader, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) has planned what is known as a Fire Sale, where the United States’ infrastructure is brought to a standstill by eliminating all power services, communications, and causing the nation to be consumed by chaos. Matt was one of the many that were contracted to unknowingly write code that would assist in Gabirels’ techno takedown. Now Gabriel is cleaning up his tracks and that involves removing an increasingly irritatable John McClane.
The film is nothing short of Bruce Willis trying to reclaim the action movie genre the way he sees it should be. Die Hard 4 is all about how computers and our complete reliance on modern technology put us all at risk if someone ever pulls the plug. Willis and the film are an efficient, and enjoyably retrograde Hollywood action flick that scoffs at kung fu, self-indulgent effects, and the gravity-defying acrobatics that have dominated action cinema since the rise of The Matrix. McClane shrugs and cannot understand this “kung fu shit” and mistrusts computers. Die Hard 4 puts most of its attention on good old-fashioned practical stunt work, not that the film’s sequences are practical, like when McClane is driving an 18-wheeler around a crumbling highway while being fired upon by a fighter jet. Live Free or Die Hard is crammed with gunfights, fistfights, and motor vehicles launched into the sky. People bounce around like pin balls. It pushes the boundaries of PG-13 action; the profanity of the previous films isn’t exactly missed, but it’s regrettable that cinema’s best catch phrase to ever use the term “yippee-ki-yay” has to be partially muffled by a sound effect to keep its more family-friendly rating.
Willis helps keep things grounded with an enjoyable acting style best be described as bemused crankiness. Throughout the long trip foes and intense obstacles beset McClane, and yet he remains the same grumpy Gus that can’t believe his own damn luck. Whenever he defeats a well armed opponent, or does something “so crazy it just might work,” and it does, he laughs to himself like he cannot believe his luck. He informs the bad guys that he is coming, and he will kill them, and they ask him how and even he doesn’t know and he doesn’t care. He’s a one-man wrecking crew, as he always has been, but there’s an added level of fun watching someone with an AARP card (who isn’t Clint Eastwood) kicking ass and taking cyber geek names.
Director Len Wiseman cut his teeth on the terrible Underworld movies (I’m sorry, but if you got a movie about vampires vs. werewolves, you don’t give them leather and guns and call it a night), but he now has won me over with his work on Die Hard 4. His careening, deep-focus visuals are like a mix of Michael Bay with an extra dose of the fetish-loving Wachoswki brothers. There are a handful of visual scrapes that really pop onscreen like some very close encounters with high-speed cars.
But let’s not get too wrapped up in the fun of Live Free or Die Hard. It’s still an out-and-out action movie complete with plot holes, logic gaps, stock characters (the movie loses steam every time we have to cut back to the FBI agents), and some one-liner groaners. The villains are pretty standard, though very tech heavy in their approach. The movie never explains why a good portion of the henchmen are French. McClane’s daughter will obviously get crafty and bullish when under pressure, proving herself a chip off the old block. The banter between Willis and Long is overdone in an attempt to add more frantic feeling to a tale about the end of all reliance on technology.
Live Free or Die Hard is an efficient and satisfying retro, macho action movie. The action is frenetic and focused on hard-nosed stunt work that brings so much more excitement to the film. The movie works, and that in and of itself is something of a miracle. McClane rattles off a monologue about what it means to be a hero, and in the end he says it’s just about you being the guy willing to do his job no matter what. Well, as far as I’m concerned, the John McClane job is about providing solid action-packed crowd pleasers. I don’t care how old the man gets, because under the right direction he delivers.
Nate’s Grade: B
The movie going experience isn’t what it used to be, and Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez want to do something about it. There?s no denying that the joy of seeing a movie has been watered down a bit; there’s soaring ticket prices, floundering product, and let’s not forget the influx of teenagers with cell phones. Rodriguez and Tarantino grew up gorging upon the exploitation films at their neighborhood grindhouse, where they could see kung-fu, blaxploitation, gory Italian zombie movies, and nearly anything that promised to be titillating and shocking. These movies dealt in copious amounts of sex and violence on a shoestring budget and teenagers lapped it up. Grindhouse was designed to be a double feature with Rodriguez and Tarantino each writing and directing an 80-minute movie. This three-hour plus movie is stuffed to the gills with 70s reverence, right down to cheesy retro clips telling us the film rating via an animated cat. If Rodriguez and Tarantino could, they probably would make the floors stickier just to round out the experience. But that’s the marvelous thing about Grindhouse –– it turns the filmgoing experience into an event once again.
First on the bill is Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. An outbreak is about to sweep across a small Texas town. A toxic green gas is causing people to break out in festering wounds that are spreading rapidly. Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) is a go go dancer who runs into an old flame, Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), a badass drifter with a dark past. They get attacked by a group of “sickos” who take Cherry’s leg as a chew toy. At the hospital we’re introduced in rapid succession to Dr. Block (Mary Shelton) and her creepy husband (Josh Brolin) she plans on leaving for the lovingly massive cleavage of Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas (she gets eaten and can, one assumes, be described as being Fergilicious). The sheriff (Michael Biehn) has an unsettled score with Wray and refuses to trust him, even though the town is slowly being overrun by what appear to be zombies. The survivors take refuge at a Bar-B-Q joint, run by the sheriff’s brother J.T. (Jeff Fahey), located only two miles away from the military outpost that released the gas.
Planet Terror is a great blast of fun, a perfect ode to schlocky B-movies. Rodriguez creates action movies closer to cartoons, and the more over-the-top and crazy things get the more joyous his films generally turn out. This is a gonzo world cranked up to a wonderfully weird wavelength, where Cherry can have a machine gun leg without any nagging question on how she even gets it to fire let alone why it would be more accurate. It doesn’t matter because this movie is all about 80-minutes of awesome, twisted, gloriously gory fun. Planet Terror isn’t the first zombie comedy, and its inspirations are quite plain, but the film establishes a wide-range of colorful characters effectively and then ramps up the chaos. Rodriguez amuses with even small touches, like a woman trying to operate a car with a anesthetized hands, a pair of skimpy babysitters who clobber a car with baseball bats, and a bio-chemical scientist (Naveen Andrews) that has a penchant for collecting and bottling the testicles of the men who fail him (hey, we all need hobbies). Even amongst an exaggerated canvas there’s still plenty of humor and adoration for the grindhouse experience, like when the beginning of a sex scene is interrupted with a “reel missing” sign. Rodriguez also intentionally downgrades the look of his film, adding hairs and scratches and pops in the film to look like it had been dragged across the floor. Planet Terror even has a dreadfully dated synth score to compliment the full-tilt celebration of splattery schlock.
Tarantino’s Death Proof is going to sharply divide audiences. The action in Planet Terror is relentlessly paced, which makes the adjustment to Tarantino?s half all the more hard. Rodriguez is all about genre relevance and making a film that would excel in the grindhouse era; Tarantino, on the other hand, is all about taking the genre and catapulting it into something ambitious and different and greater.
Death Proof is Tarantino’s take on the slasher horror genre, with the unique twist being that Tarantino?s roving killer takes out his prey with his car. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) is a stuntman of the old guard. The youth of the day have no idea of the TV shows he worked on or the celebrities he rubbed elbows with. The only lasting visages he has from those removed days are a long scar decorating the side of his face and his stunt car. The vehicle has been outfitted to be death proof, meaning that Stuntman Mike can get into any wreck and come out alive. A group of women are visiting Tennessee for a film shoot. Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) is a makeup artist, Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an actress, and Zoe Bell (herself) and Kim (Tracie Thoms) are professional stuntwomen. The stunt ladies are interested in test-driving a Dodge Charger, the same iconic car used in Vanishing Point. Zoe wants to play a dangerous game known as “Ship’s Mast,” which entails strapping herself to the hood of the car as it speeds along. This is when Stuntman Mike comes roaring with his death proof material and plays an extreme game of chicken.
The narrative structure of Death Proof is deliberately slow. The focus is on a group of Texas girls (including Sydney Poitier’s daughter named, rather unoriginally, Sydney Poitier). They dance to jukebox jams and drink. And they talk, and talk, and talk, and talk. The dialogue is clever but you worry Tarantino has been hypnotized by his own pithy writing. The movie drags a bit but mostly because it follows a film that had the pace of a runaway train. The slow buildup is an intentional correlation to slasher films, which would spend their first half hour setting up characters for the eventual slaughter. I liked how Stuntman Mike was seen playing with his prey and interacting with them. The wait is worth it, though, but then Tarantino turns around and repeats this same setup with a new batch of girls. Many will grow impatient going through the same process all over again and become irritated that they have to endure another round of talky pop culture diatribes in order to get to some more vehicular manslaughter. And at this point, the only character the audience has any affinity for is Stuntman Mike, so it’s a little tough to wait so long for his reappearance. When he does appear, the movie takes some unexpected turns and transforms into a female revenge thriller that left my audience cheering by its conclusion. My wife loved it. I married the right woman.
The makeup work is outstanding. Most of the effect work gets its spotlight during Rodriguez’s half, and Greg Nicotero and KNB have created the most gut churning, sickeningly inventive makeup work since John Carpenter’s The Thing. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is dripping in blood, and the gore is heightened to such an unrealistic, comical degree that it becomes more tolerable and, in the end, another element in the overall outrageous vibe of the film. Some memorable gore work includes makeup pioneer Tom Savini being ripped apart like a child’s jigsaw puzzle, soldiers whose faces undulate and bubble until they look like close relatives of the Elephant Man, and a truck smashing against bodies like they were made of paper and filled to the brim with Kool-Aid. This is the kind of movie where entire hoses of blood explode from single gun shot wounds. It is a gory, gruesome, sticky icky movie but that?s part of the fun.
Whereas the makeup work shines in Planet Terror, the stunt work in Death Proof is stupendous. Bell was Uma Thurman’s stunt double in the Kill Bill tandem, so by writing a part specifically for her Tarantino knew he could get up close and personal during the scary moments. Seeing Bell struggling to stay atop the hood of a car zooming at 80 miles per hour is nerve-racking and exhilarating, and you know there isn’t any computer trickery given how Tarantino’s own characters bemoan how computers have blunted action cinema output. That really is Bell and even though it’s all a movie a part of you does think, “Oh my God, this woman is going to die for real.” This killer bumper-car sequence in Death Proof will have you holding your breath. It takes much longer for Tarantino to rev up his action, but when he does he puts the pedal to the mettle.
But don’t get up for pee breaks once Planet Terror is over, because you may miss some of the best parts of Grindhouse. In between the feature films are three fake trailers directed by friends of Tarantino and Rodriguez, who made a fake trailer himself for Machete, about a Federale (Danny Trejo) out for revenge. The Machete trailer gave me the everlasting gift of a line, “They f***ed with the wrong Mexican.”
The best trailer, hands down, is Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright?s trailer for Don’t, a Dario Argento style horror film where a narrator instructs the audience lots of items not to do (“If you are thinking about turning this door… DON’T! If you think about going into the basement… DON’T!”). What makes Don’t so wonderful is that the trailer builds a thick head of steam, to the point where all wee see are bizarre rapid-fire images and the announcing repeating the message, “DON’T!” The momentum builds to a great comic high that left me giggling.
Eli Roth, who gave us Hostel and Cabin Fever, one of my all-time favorite filmgoing experiences, runs a close second with his slasher trailer for Thanksgiving. The concept is rather straightforward, a person dressed as a Pilgrim picks off residents around Turkey Day, and a great showcase for Roth’s sense of tongue-in-cheek homage and his warped sense of humor. This trailer has some gasp-inducing moments, chiefly among them a topless cheerleader who performs the splits right onto a knife blade. Wow. Then there’s a guy humping a stuffed turkey with a human head attached. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Roth is one sick bastard but he’s my kind of bastard.
Rob Zombie’s trailer for Werewolf Women of the S.S. sounds better on paper than how it turns out. There’s a subgenre of Naziploitation films (did you know you could add “-sploitation” to damn near any word?), most famously popularized by Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. Zombie?s trailer has got hairy wolf boobs, Nazis, shiny fetish outfits and S&M, but it feels too new and doesn’t work on the same vibe of Grindhouse. It feels too polished and too happy with itself; it spends more time telling you who’s in this fake movie than delivering anything juicy. The trailer is saved by a brilliant cameo by an actor whom I will not spoil, but suffice to say that I was left in stitches.
Honestly, I cannot say another movie released this year that provides more bang for your buck than Grindhouse. Tarantino and Rodriguez’s double bill will leave you giddy. This is the fastest 3 hours and 10 minutes of your life, folks. Unfortunately, the film hasn’t been doing as well at the box-office and this has caused the Weinsteins to contemplate splitting the films into two to make the most of their investment. I suppose Grindhouse was never going to have a 300-sized audience, since the idea of making a sloppy three-hour love letter to trashy cinema seems destined for a limited appeal. This is a high-art tribute to high camp, and you really do feel you get more than your money’s worth even if you pay, like I do, 10 bucks a pop for a show. I can’t imagine having a better time at the movies this year than the one I had during Grindhouse.
Nate’s Grade: A
Isn’t the title Final Destination 3 itself problematic? How could it be final if it’s the third? It reminds me of 1998’s terrible I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, which wasn’t even correct with the film’s time setting (it must be stated that a 2006 sequel, and I’m not kidding, will be called I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer). Perhaps the best title comes from the worst movie of all time, Manos: The Hands of Fate, notoriously lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000. “Manos” is actually Spanish for “hands,” so the title is Hands: The Hands of Fate. Titles are fun. Oh yes. Final Destination 3, on the other hand, isn’t really fun.
A senior class is partying and enjoying the thrill rides of an amusement park. There’s an especially menacing looking roller coaster begging to be ridden by teenagers. There’s even a giant devil in front of the ride’s entrance. The ride fills up with your general high school characters (popular snots, Goth kids, cocky jocks, etc.) and then the safety bars become loose, flinging riders this way and that to splatter against broken rails and track. It’s all so horrifying … but it’s just a vision of Wendy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She goes into hysterics and gets off the coaster before it ships out. Other students follow her, including Kevin (Ryan Merriman), the boyfriend of Wendy’s best friend. Sure enough, the coaster crashes, those on it die, and death has been averted. For now. Just like previous installments, death seeks out the souls that escaped its cold clutches. Now death is taking out the survivors in the order they would have died and Wendy and Kevin must try and figure out a plan before it gets to them.
Let’s not mince words, the true star of the Final Destination franchise is death itself. The appeal rests entirely on the fiendish, outlandishly complicated deaths and the misdirection over what will prove deadly. The audience is holding their breath for the next spectacular death. There’s a certain fatalism linked to this, knowing that the entertainment value is witnessing teens eventually get sliced and diced. But the franchise’s appeal also seems to be its downfall. The Final Destination films are stuck trying to out top themselves, and each film opens with a big centerpiece of disaster that inevitably serves as the film’s best moment. The rest of the movies never seem to match the opening melee, and it’s generally not a good idea for a movie to peek in the first reel.
Admirably, Final Destination 3 doesn’t even waste time with having its batch of characters theorize how to outfox the specter of death. We just watch, one after the other, the bloody, clever deaths like an assembly line of carnage. Final Destination 3 knows what its audience wants. Curiously, there’s no parental or police presence at all, even after the mounting coincidental deaths. Seriously, everywhere that Wendy and Kevin go, death is right beside them. Probably the funniest tidbit in Final Destination 3 is that shortly after another failed attempt to warn a doomed teen, Wendy and Kevin are in different, non-bloody clothes as they walk back to their car. They actually brought a change of clothes just in case. That’s hilarious. Little else seems amusing (the 9/11 reference is overwhelmingly tacky).
I once thought that the Final Destination concept could live forever in the annuls of horror, but the seams are definitely starting to show with this franchise. In 2000 it was fresh and unpredictable, and now it just seems exhausted and old hat. I thought the third film regaining the original writers and director would infuse Final Destination 3 with a bit more imagination. I was wrong. Glen Morgan and James Wong seem to go overboard to sate their blood-hungry audience, creating the most gruesome, torturous deaths yet. Seeing people eviscerated is one thing, but tantalizingly lingering on the sight of a busty teen being cooked alive, her skin boiling and exploding from the heat, is too much. It’s like this time death is really pissed, saying, “I gotta go through all this again!” The movie feels too mean-spirited, too vengeful, and a shade too cynical. I think the concept feels spent and even Morgan and Wong realize this, which is why they ratchet up the gore because the suspense is gone. The “gotcha” ending was pitch-perfect in the first Final Destination, but now it’s just another expectation feebly met.
Of course, all the characters (with the possible exception of Kevin) are nitwits, horn dogs, jerks, and just plain unlikable, which make rooting for their demise easier. There’s no subtlety here either. The two shallow, popular girls are incredibly shallow and ridiculously stupid. The idiot pervert has a one-track mind that never takes a break. They’re all stock, they’re all one-note, and there’s even a moment where the token black character says, “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” No wonder death is the star. At least in the previous Final Destination flicks you felt like the kids deserved a fighting chance.
There is one neat addition to the formula. On the night of the accident, Wendy took several pictures and each photograph predicts that person’s demise. This allows the audience to try to decode the clues they’re given and correctly guess the next horrific death. It’s the most fun aspect of the franchise.
Final Destination 3 knows exactly what its audience wants, which is more of the same preposterously complicated deaths. The concept once felt fresh but now it seems worn out. I doubt new blood could revive this franchise because audience expectation has become too demanding. We already know the rules and know the characters can’t really escape death, so the only lasting suspense is what will kill them, and even that is fleeting. The return of creators Glen Morgan and James Wong still can’t infuse the right touches of imagination. It’s more grisly teenage carnage, nothing more, nothing less, nothing special anymore. Fans of the previous Final Destination flicks will likely find some entertainment, but the movie feels creatively spent. It’s probably time for this sadistic peep show to bow out before things get even uglier.
Nate’s Grade: C
The film is pleasant, the acting overall is even pretty good, the humor is really peppy, but it’s not enough to overcome such a formulaic plot. Sky High feels exactly like a Disney afternoon movie; everything is there just fill in the blanks, Mad Libs style. Disney cranks these out like processed hamburgers. This time people have super powers and the budget is slightly bigger. There are some things I’ve seen so many times in teen movies. People still learn big lessons, people still go through social awkwardness, there’s another big house part where everyone is invited and someone has a misunderstanding, the best friend since childhood obviously has a crush on the lead that he cannot see, and the person the moves up the ranks of popularity becomes a self-centered jerk and shuns his true friends from the beginning. The best aspect is its comedic support cast including two members of Kids in the Hall, Bruce Campbell as a gym coach, Kevin Hefferman from the Broken Lizard troupe. This supporting cast should really be the focus of the story. A super hero high school is interesting but the staff of a super hero high school is even more interesting. Still, it has a nice sense of humor and is pleasant enough.
Nate’s Grade: B-