#44 - In God We Trust...All Others Pay Cash
1941 - 2007
Hi gang. Before we start, I want to say a few words about this week’s dedicatee, filmmaker Bob Clark.
Bob Clark was not a flashy director. You probably won’t find many video stores with sections devoted to his work or many books dissecting his craft. Just about everyone has seen at least one of his films and most folks’ reaction upon looking over his filmography is, “He directed that, too?” Clark was impossible to pin down over the course of his career, moving from horror to raunchy teen comedy to family fare with ease.
He’s best known for directing not one but two of the best Christmas movies ever made. The one just about everyone has seen, of course, is 1983’s A Christmas Story, one of the few holiday movies that strikes just the right balance of sentiment and cynicism. The movie has suffered a bit recently thanks to being overplayed on TV but put all that aside and you can still be charmed by this virtually flawless yuletide classic. The other, and the one whose poster image you’ll see to the left, is the original 1974 Black Christmas, a proto-slasher movie that remains to this day one of the best of its type. Funny and genuinely creepy, Black Christmas is right up there on my list of favorite horror movies of all time.
Clark made non-Christmas movies too, of course. Horror fans owe it to themselves to check out the disturbing Vietnam vet zombie movie Deathdream. Murder By Decree is a terrific Sherlock Holmes movie with Christopher Plummer as Holmes tracking Jack the Ripper. I also have fond memories of Tribute starring Jack Lemmon and I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Porky’s, one of the first R-rated movies I ever saw in a theatre. I was 12 at the time and somehow managed to convince my aunt and uncle that my cousins and I would be better served by seeing Porky’s instead of Annie. No idea how I pulled that one off.
Bob Clark and his son were killed last week in a tragic car accident. My deepest condolences to his friends and family. I hope they know just how much Mr. Clark’s work meant to so many people. Rest assured that this December, a double feature of A Christmas Story and Black Christmas is planned at Chez Jahnke.
And now, our feature presentations…
NOW IN THEATRES
At long last, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to the glory days of 42nd Street trash cinema has arrived. Seeing as this is a double feature, let’s look at each film individually first. Afterwards, I’ll talk about The Grindhouse Experience and see if the parts add up to any kind of whole.
Rodriguez steps up to the plate first with a goofy, gory tale of military experiments gone awry. A deadly gas is released in Texas that reanimates the dead, turning them into cannibalistic zombies. It also affects some of the living, swelling them up into slimy, pus-oozing monsters. Freddy Rodriguez plays El Wray, owner of a local wrecking company with a shadowy past that makes him an ace shot. He reunites with his stripper ex-girlfriend (sorry, go-go dancer...there's a difference), played by Rose McGowan, who loses a leg to the zombies that’s ultimately replaced by a prosthetic gun. In another part of the story, Josh Brolin plays a doctor out to kill his needle-wielding wife (Marley Shelton) after a lesbian affair. Needless to say, Planet Terror is all over the map, barely bothering to connect its many dots, which is part of its delirious charm. For the most part, Robert Rodriguez nails the tone of the grindhouse sci-fi/horror movie. The biggest difference is that Planet Terror looks a lot better than most of those movies ever could, especially with the addition of some digital effects that would have been impossible back in the day. But it’s a no-win situation for Rodriguez. If he intentionally made his movie look worse, he’d lose some of the audience complaining about the crappy effects. If he didn’t, he’d have to deal with purists like me. More importantly, the movie gets the big stuff right, including the everything including the kitchen sink plot, the overwrought score, the exploitative use of real medical photos, and a sense of free-wheeling, anything-goes enthusiasm. It’s a bit overlong, especially in comparison to the real thing, but for the most part, Planet Terror is great fun. (* * * ½)
Quentin Tarantino’s effort casts Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike, a scarred psycho killer who stalks and kills girls using his reinforced stunt car. For the movie’s first half, he targets a bunch of friends in a local bar. For the second, he sets his sights on some visiting movie folks, including stuntwoman Zoe Bell as stuntwoman Zoe Bell. It’s a simple, effective premise that basically boils down to Vanishing Point (a movie whose name is dropped repeatedly in the dialogue) meets I Spit On Your Grave. And there’s some great stuff in Death Proof, make no mistake. But the movie is sabotaged by some serious flaws, first and foremost of which is page after page of some of Tarantino’s worst, most self-conscious dialogue to date. Every character sounds exactly like Quentin Tarantino at his most pop-culture obsessed. If the point of all this is to make us care less about the characters, mission accomplished. As for the climactic chase sequence, it’s a mixed bag. The sequence with Zoe Bell hanging on for dear life to the hood of the car is a genuinely hair-raising stunt, no doubt about it. But the chase that follows is no better or worse than those seen in the 70s TV shows that Stuntman Mike claims to have worked on. Finally, there’s the women’s revenge on Stuntman Mike. He’s a real bastard that deserves what he gets, sure. But these women don’t know that. As far as they’re concerned, he’s just some jerk who tried to run them off the road. So when they finally get their hands on him, the catharsis Tarantino is aiming for never really comes. Tarantino makes it virtually impossible to not compare Death Proof to its inspirations like Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop. And in a head-to-head contest, Death Proof loses. Those movies, while by no means perfect, at least captured the alienation and loneliness of their time with distinctive and memorable characters. Death Proof, on the other hand, captures nothing so much as Quentin Tarantino’s own obsession with these other movies. (* * ½)
Taken together, Grindhouse is a fun but exhausting night at the movies. Stitched together with fake trailers and ads and complete with digital scratches and “missing reels”, Grindhouse is almost more of a theme park attraction than a movie. I’m surprised Rodriguez and Tarantino didn’t ask theaters to spill sodas on the floor and rip up the seats before every screening. As an experience, they come close to replicating the fun of a 70s-era double feature but with a few missteps. The digital deterioration of the print is a bit overdone in Planet Terror (and if the print was really in such terrible condition, the colors wouldn’t be as vibrant as they are). Death Proof looks more washed out but Tarantino seems to get bored with the scratches and print hiccups about halfway through. The fake trailers are fun with Edgar Wright’s Don’t emerging as my favorite. And not to be a complete sleazebag or anything but both Rodriguez and Tarantino miss the boat when it comes to nudity. There’s more skin in the fake trailers than in the movies themselves. Yeah, it’s a lowest-common-denominator thing to complain about but if you’re gonna set out to make an exploitation movie, you’re gonna have to exploit something. At any rate, I’ll be curious to see how Grindhouse is presented on DVD and how it plays in that format. I suspect home video will not be kind to either one as it’s a lot more fun to see these in a packed theatre with a bunch of like-minded, enthusiastic fans. Whether or not that proves to be true, for now Grindhouse is an amusing if not entirely successful attempt at retro-entertainment, an experiment that probably doesn’t need to be repeated. (* * *)
Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch director responsible for RoboCop, Starship Troopers and Showgirls, may not be the last filmmaker on earth you’d expect to make a gripping WWII epic. But even I, a fan of most (if by no means all) of Verhoeven’s past work wasn’t expecting him to produce something as surprising and audacious as Black Book, his first film in his native language in over twenty years. Carice van Houten delivers a first-rate performance as Rachel, a Jewish singer forced into hiding during the Nazi occupation. After her entire family is murdered during an attempt to cross the border, Rachel dyes her hair blonde, changes her name to Ellis and falls in with a group of resistance fighters. She’s asked to infiltrate the German inner circle, taking a job as secretary to a high-ranking Nazi official (Sebastian Koch) and becoming his lover. Nobody’s more burnt out on WWII movies than I am but Black Book defies expectations at every turn, finding the humanity in Ellis’ Nazi lover and suggesting that not every resistance fighter was a selfless hero. And unlike in most other depictions of the era, things get considerably worse for Ellis after the liberation with a memorable final shot that turns our expectations of a happy resolution on its head. This being a Paul Verhoeven movie, it’s also one of the sexiest and most exciting war movies you’ll see. Black Book ranks among Verhoeven’s very best films and if you’re as much a fan as I am, you’ll know that’s high praise indeed. (* * * ½)
NOW ON DVD
The Pursuit of Happyness
I had virtually no interest in seeing this when it played theatrically last Christmas thanks to its off-putting ad campaign. With the inspirational aspects kicked into overdrive and Will Smith’s son Jayden playing his son here, the whole effort smacked a little too obviously of an Oscar-hungry vanity project. I stand by that assessment of the original promos but the movie itself is thankfully quite a bit better. Smith turns in his best work since Six Degrees of Separation as Chris Gardner, a parent just barely scraping by selling unnecessary medical equipment who tries for a better life as a stockbroker by applying for an internship program at Dean Witter. Director Gabriele Muccino doesn’t skimp on the inspirational aspects of the story but keeps things fairly grounded and by and large treacle-free. The movie isn’t air-tight. When things are at their worst, you may find yourself wondering as I did if this guy has absolutely no friends or family that he can ask for help. He’s a charming guy that people seem to warm to quickly. Surely he knows somebody. That aside, The Pursuit of Happyness is a surprisingly effective movie, worth checking out even if the trailers made you fear the worst. (* * *)
Toni Collette, the chameleon-like actress who enlivens everything she appears in, stars as a geologist stuck playing tour guide to an important Japanese client (nicely played by Gotaro Tsunashima). He insists on pressing deep into the Australian outback, forcing these two people with nothing in common to spend days at a time alone with each other. Collette is great in this quiet drama directed by Sue Brooks from a script by Alison Tilson. It’s a rich, layered story and the closer you get to its heart, the more surprising and moving it becomes. I thought I knew where this movie was headed after the first twenty minutes or so. I was completely wrong. Japanese Story is a thoughtful, intimate movie well worth seeking out. (* * *)
Gold Diggers of 1933
Let’s put on a show! And who better to turn to than Busby Berkeley, the mad genius of ultra-extravagant musical spectaculars? Gold Diggers of 1933 is one of his best productions with a Depression-era theme and a ridiculous dial-a-plot about a Boston blue blood songwriter (Dick Powell) whose stiff brother hatches a scheme to prevent him from marrying a showgirl (Ruby Keeler). This is a perfect combination of visually opulent dance sequences, great music (Ginger Rogers sings “We’re In The Money” in Pig Latin in the opening number) and snappy, hard-boiled dialogue (“Come back when you can’t stay so long!”). The grand finale, a tribute to World War I vets who came back to an economically troubled homefront, is surprisingly downbeat and the whole movie is chock full of sexy pre-Code images and double entendres. If you only ever watch one Busby Berkeley musical, and you should see at least one at some point, flip a coin between 42nd Street and this one. They’re one of a kind. (* * * ½)