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Be very afraid: (l-r) McGowan and Russell in Grindhouse.

Two Buckets of Blood

By Shawn Stone

Grindhouse

Directed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez

This is three-plus hours of mostly stupid—but occasionally intelligent—fun from the Weinstein Company’s resident bad boys, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. It’s exhilarating, exasperating and ultimately worth it: You’ll be glad you endured the silly/bad bits for the very, very good, and glad that you got to enjoy the 1970s “grindhouse” experience by way of two filmmakers with so much regard for what they’re, essentially, parodying.

Rodriguez is a hack, but he’s usually better under the direct influence of Tarantino. So, Planet Terror is watchable. Once you get past all the obvious questions—like, why another zombie movie?—it’s as good a film as he can be expected to make. It moves along. There’s tension in the escape-from-the-undead sequences. There’s a modicum of plot.

The inherent problem with Planet Terror, however, is neatly suggested by the fake trailer that precedes it, Rodriguez’ Machete. The trailer is a hoot, with laughably over-the-top dialogue and action, a revenge plot out of 100 other movies (including the current Shooter), and the brilliant comic casting of Cheech Marin as a machine-gun toting padre. It’s so good, in fact, that the actual movie is unnecessary.

Same with Planet Terror. Because however tense it is, however many shocks it delivers, the film still suffers from the kind of suck we’ve come to expect from Rodriguez. There’s a lead (Rose McGowan) who can’t act at all, and supporting performances so embarrassing—especially Tarantino as a would-be rapist—one wonders if the filmmaker knows what a good performance is. (And there are a few in the film, too: Freddy Rodriguez as the hero, Marley Shelton as an unfaithful wife and Josh Brolin as her vengeful hubby.) Planet Terror meanders from explosion to explosion, and ends.

In the context of Grindhouse, its mediocrity is beside the point: Remember, you’re supposed to be taking the good with the bad.

Tarantino’s Death Proof is excellent. The first part is Jackie Brown redux: entertaining people talking about nothing in an entertaining way. Three women, including the beautiful, potty-mouthed DJ Jungle Judy (Sydney Tamila Poitier), spend a sunny Texas afternoon drinking and gabbing. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a smooth, menacing figure in a badass, “death-proof” car, stalks them across Austin and charms the three women at a bar. Another woman (McGowan again, sheesh) enters the picture. Something very bad happens.

Time marches on, and Stuntman Mike is soon stalking a new group of women: stuntwomen Kim and Zoe (motor-mouthed, hilarious Tracie Thoms and real-life stuntwoman Zoë Bell), and actress Abby (Rosario Dawson). This leads to an extended, spectacular car-chase sequence. And Stuntman Mike quickly learns that he’s chosen the wrong women to fuck with.

As expected, Tarantino’s Death Proof overflows with great dialogue and inventive direction. And it ends, quickly and brilliantly.

As has been widely noted, Grindhouse is enhanced by fake trailers by Eli Roth and Rob Zombie. My fave, however, is Don’t Scream, from Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright. It’s as funny and stupid as Roth’s Thanksgiving or Zombie’s She-Werewolves of the SS, with the added bonus of playing like a genuine 1970s movie trailer.

There really is no point to Grindhouse. And that’s the point.

Con Man Confidential

The Hoax

Directed by Lasse Hallstrom

In what is quite possibly the best performance of his career, Richard Gere transforms himself from the smooth, often aloof presence that he’s known for, into the supreme con artist Clifford Irving, a real-life writer of minor repute who convinced the bigwigs at McGraw-Hill that he was writing the authorized bio of the notoriously reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. With a graying wig and a face seemingly devoid of sensuality, Gere is the epitome of a snake-oil salesman. The incredible chutzpah he displays in “retelling” his interviews with Hughes—and the concomitant looks of bedazzlement on the faces of publishing execs like Andrea Tate (Hope Davis)—is both marvelous storytelling and gifted comedy. One can’t help but enjoy the tumultuous, increasingly perilous journey on which the caper takes Irving and his best friend and researcher Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina). It’s one that we ourselves could almost imagine pulling off—if we had the balls.

And, of course, if we weren’t terrified of getting caught.

The fear factor inherent to this plot is what gives The Hoax much of its nervous energy—that, and Molina’s brilliant portrayal of Susskind as a kind of conscience-stricken Jerry Lewis to Gere’s assured Dean Martin. As with that earlier comic duo, it is the patsy, Suskind, who is forced to do the real dirty work, like snapping pictures of government documents and copying unpublished manuscripts containing keys to the hermit’s persona. Whereas Gere is all show and spark—perhaps too much so, to allow us to feel an emotional connection with him—Molina is uncommonly human. We feel his anxiety in the pits of our own stomachs. As in Reign Over Me, the relationship at the heart of the movie is between the two male friends; as in The Prestige and The Illusionist, the driving motivation in the story is the magician’s—or in this case, the storyteller’s—deep need to successfully deceive and bewitch.

The script, by William Wheeler, is crisply paced and chock full of details that bring us back to the images, sounds and issues of the early ’70s. The sense of a world going somewhat topsy-turvy is palpable, and echoes nicely the moving freight train of Irving’s plot. The movie starts to lose focus toward the end, when side issues—real or imagined—involving Hughes’ paranoia begin to muddy the farce. At one point, Hughes himself seems to reach out to Irving, not so much to assist him as to use him as a pawn in his own machinations. The idea that Irving, like the McGraw-Hill people, is being played is perhaps pertinent, but it comes off as too obvious. It also doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding just why Irving went to such lengths to perpetrate a hoax that, without a doubt, he knew would come crashing down upon him. Isn’t it enough to enjoy the sight of a first-rate faker ply his wiles, just to see where the cards fall, without having to comprehend just where Irving went wrong?

—Laura Leon

No Spice

The Namesake

Directed By Mira Nair

It’s a story we’ve seen onscreen many times before: the immigrant experience expressed as a struggle between tradition and opportunity, the desire to be defined and the desire to be free. It’s the story of the hyphenated American. In The Namesake, Mira Nair’s adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the subjects are Indian-American. But, aside from some lovely and lively footage of Calcutta and the depiction of Bengali wedding and funeral rituals, this fact seems almost incidental. For all her obvious feeling for India and for the source material of her movie, Nair has produced a work that is generic and only blandly appealing.

A major part of the problem—and pity the filmmaker—is the inherent difficulty of translating a novel for the screen. The Namesake feels packed, as if Nair could not bear to leave out any plot points. The viewer is hustled through lifetimes of milestone events. Nair’s unwillingness to edit means that each event is treated with equivalent emotional weight: Weddings, births, deaths, new unions, separations and mundane domestic scenes all come at us with the speed and affective force of a family slide show. Click. Click. Click. Nair’s pacing demands much more of her actors than they can muster.

Robbed of the novelistic luxury of transcribed inner lives, the filmic Namesake needs complicated and nuanced performances to work. As Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, Irfan Khan and Tabu do quite well. Khan is immensely likeable as a devoted father hesitant to impose tradition as an obstacle to his children’s happiness, however much that hesitance isolates him. Tabu, too, is engaging and believable as a dutiful wife with quiet, unexplored depth. However, the actors playing their first-generation American children bring little to the movie. Sahira Nair, as daughter Sonia, is a nonpresence with little to do. Kal Penn, as Gogol, the titular namesake, has much more to do—but doesn’t.

Perhaps I’ve just seen too many 30-year-old actors tasked with playing their characters at 18 to do anything other than sigh when they are shown “jamming out” to a period pop song. Maybe I’m tired of character development by haircut (shaggy hair = young; neat hair = less young). But I didn’t really feel for Gogol, and needed to. Gogol is the emotional center of the movie, and without a strong performance in the role, the movie feels emptily episodic.

Nair—who also directed Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala and Monsoon Wedding—is a talented director with a very good eye. Unfortunately, her quick step through Lahiri’s novel hammers all but the most formulaic emotion out of the story.

—John Rodat

Deus Ex Machinations

The Reaping

Directed by Stephen Hopkins

The build-up for The Reaping contains enough scientific revulsion and psychological interest that halfway in, it becomes—surprise—an actually horrifying horror movie. The film’s superior character development isn’t unexpected—director Stephen Hopkins helmed the Emmy- winning biopic The Life and Death of Peter Sellers—but that it would occur in the midst of flesh-corroding micro-toxins, homicidal voodoo priests, and religious zealotry certainly is.

The premise is the reenactment of biblical plagues in a small Louisiana town solidly within the Bible Belt. But that’s not where the film opens. It begins in Chile, where a professional debunker, Katherine (Hilary Swank), investigates a “miracle” at the bottom of a catacomb-like mineshaft. Turns out the religious fervor and supposed miracle cures caused by a long-dead corpse that’s unearthed, intact, by an earthquake, are the result of a biochemical chain reaction caused by the illegal dumping of toxic materials by a callous oil corporation. This stomach- heaving prologue familiarizes the audience with Katherine, a former Catholic-missionary-turned-scrupulous-scientist, along with her (deftly rendered) friendship with her colleague Ben (Idris Elba), a former gang-banger, and her previous, and painful, association with a Catholic priest (Stephen Rea). It doesn’t take long to suss out that Katherine’s intense objectivity is the byproduct of a terrible tragedy in her past, and sure enough, flashbacks to her missionary sojourn in drought-ridden Sudan ratchet the creepy-crawly factor to an impressive degree.

Katherine descends from the ivory tower of her professorial position at a university to Haven, La., in response to a personal appeal by a concerned citizen, Doug (David Morrissey). Haven has had three hurricanes in three years; when the river runs red—presumably with blood—after the mysterious death of a teenage boy, the townspeople turn on the boy’s mother, who is unmarried and the center of the town’s gossip, and her weirdly ethereal 12-year-old daughter, Loren (AnnaSophie Robb). Doug fears for the girl’s life at the hands of his frightened neighbors, who blame the girl’s mysterious parentage and her mother’s unwholesome lifestyle for the visitation of plaguelike maladies upon the town.

While Katherine and Ben stay with Doug at his antebellum mansion, the film contrasts their highly rational, survivor mentalities with unexplainable phenomena such a monsoon of bloated dead frogs and the rotting deaths of herds of cattle. Hopkins mines the material for both jolts (as when bovine horns puncture Katherine’s jeep from out of nowhere) and squirms (a videoscope view of a frog’s intestines). Meanwhile, Loren flits about like a specter, haunting Katherine night and day and provoking her flashbacks to the carnage in the Sudan. Swank rides the suspense with admirable sincerity.

And then, just when it seems The Reaping is going to pull off some really perturbing, provocative, and perhaps semirealistic coup de grace for the town’s diabolically bad luck, the opposite happens, and the film goes over the top and up to the heavens with wrathful special effects, Christian doom-mongering, and a reprehensible pro-Catholic mindset that negates the entire plot. Oh ye psychological-horror buffs, view it and weep.

—Ann Morrow


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