very afraid: (l-r) McGowan and Russell in Grindhouse.
Buckets of Blood
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,
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
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
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
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?
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
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
Deus Ex Machinations
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
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.