(On Cable TV, August 2014) I’m a long-time fan of Robert Rodriguez’s films (all the way back to Desperado on VHS), but it sure looks as if he’s spent the last decade repeating himself with a long series of sequels and spin-offs. Machete Kills is the third film to be spun off from 2007’s Grindhouse, and it suggests that the joke has been played out. Not that the film itself is unpleasant to watch: As you may expect from its neo-grindhouse inspiration, it’s suitably over-the-top, allowing Rodriguez and his ensemble cast to have a lot of fun by sending up an assortment of action movie clichés. Danny Trejo is compelling as usual as the titular Machete, but it’s a toss-up as to whether he’s having as much fun as Mel Gibson (as a Bond-grade villain), Charlie Sheen (as a lecherous President) or Sofia Vergara (using her shrill persona to good effect, for once). Even Lady Gaga gets a role as a shape-shifting assassin. The action gets silly quickly and never lets basic disbelief being an obstacle. It’s all good fun, except that Rodriguez’s low-budget aesthetics (tight framing, cheap special effects, lazy blocking, editing that allows actors to share a scene without ever having been in the same room together) are less satisfying than one would expect… especially once they’re repeated too often. Rodriguez can command bigger budgets than he used to at the beginning of his career –he should use that power for a few money shots. Still, despite the over-the-top action, shameless exploitation (often going straight to comic parody) and self-aware ridiculousness, there’s a sense that Machete Kills is a bit too big for its aw-shucks attitude. By focusing on the comedy, it even loses a bit of the edge that the first Machete had, and the focus on violence while downplaying the nudity is a step in the wrong direction. It’s too long for its own good, and in stretching out some of its duller stretches, invites tiresomeness. It probably doesn’t help that this is Rodriguez’s umpteenth return to the same source: For all of the chuckles and I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this outrageousness, by the time the end credits roll, there’s no need for a third Machete outing. Let’s leave well-enough alone and let’s hope that Rodriguez does something a bit fresher for his next effort.
(On Cable TV, January 2014) Low-budget comedies languishing in the back-catalogue of cable movie channels are a gamble: most of them aren’t very funny to begin with, and when the films themselves are hampered with the constraints of a low (often very low) budget, the best one can hope for is a little charm and a few chuckles. Given this, my expectations for Poolboy: Drowning out the Fury were modest… and they were pleasantly exceeded. There is little doubt that Poolboy labours under the constraints of an ultra-low budget. Unlike other films, though, Poolboy recognizes, embraces and celebrates its lack of resources: It brazenly uses badly-integrated stock footage, re-plays identical sequences, doesn’t care about overacting, badly fakes location shooting and messes with jaded audience expectations. The best thing about the film may be a moderately-witty script that builds an elaborate meta-fictional game of fourth-wall-breaking self-references, loosely structured around a “lost movie” conceit. Poolboy purports to present a 1990 film lost to studio meddling, in which a Vietnam veteran fights the Mexican cartels that have taken over the Los Angeles pool-cleaning industry. Insane levels of racism, sexism, gore, offensiveness and gratuitous nudity abound –although you have to be careful for what you wish for in “gratuitous nudity”. Surrounding the ultra-cheap action film footage are commentaries from the megalomaniacal director St. James St. James (played with panache by Ross Patterson, who also wrote the script), interviews with survivors of the shoot, newspaper clippings and other such elaborate nonsense. It’s silly and juvenile and moronic and surprisingly amusing. The dialogue has its moments, but Poolboy‘s deadpan refusal to slow down is what makes the film so surprisingly enjoyable: It piles up the jokes one atop the other, seldom pausing for laughs or milking its latest gag. As a result, Poolboy feels densely-paced and quite a bit more confident in its own silliness than other similar low-budget efforts. (It’s even… dare I say… clever.) Kevin Sorbo is a good sport as the Ramboesque protagonist, while Danny Trejo seems to have fun incarnating Mexican-criminal stereotypes. Humor is subjective, obviously, and I suspect that there’s something in Patterson’s absurdist script that’s suspiciously like my own kind of funny (He had my attention thirty seconds in the film, with “…and the last three are a lifestyle”), but that’s a reviewer’s prerogative: In the meantime, Poolboy gets my recommendation as a hidden gem, one that will appeal most fiercely to jaded viewers with a taste for self-referential satire and familiarity with low-budget movies. It’s my happy discovery of the month. It’s not just one of those “best worst movies”: à la Black Dynamite, Poolboy is definitely aiming to get its intended laughs. St. James St. James is my new favourite film auteur.
(On DVD, December 2011) I won’t try to hide my disdain for the 2008 film that led to this follow-up, especially given how it establishes my low standards for approaching this film. Can you expect anything good from a Direct-to-Video prequel to a wholly useless remake/prequel? No way. And yet, especially by the rising standards of Direct-to-Video action movie, Death Race 2 actually isn’t too bad. Director Roel Reiné knows how to work with a small $7-million budget, and the film feels just as big as the big-budget 2008 film. Luke Goss makes for a fine stand-in to Jason Statham as an action hero, Lauren Cohan seems to be auditioning for a chunk of Milla Jovovich’s career (similitudes may not be accidental given Paul W.S. Anderson’s presence as a writer/producer), and there are surprisingly big and enjoyable roles for both Danny Trejo and Ving Rhames. The concept of the film has been stolen from the 2008 Death Race, but the dialogue has occasional moments, the story leads straight into the 2008 film, and the direction is quite a bit better than what we could expect with moving cameras, ambitious pyrotechnic stunts and audacious shots –some of them in super-slow-motion. The car chase following the bank robbery looks as if its cost quite a bit, and the film seems to have been able to re-use a bunch of material from the 2008 film. It’s certainly more colourful than its predecessor, taking away one of the main criticism I had of the earlier film. No, there certainly isn’t any more social consciousness here compared to the 1975 film. But it is exactly what it claims to be: a competently-made action film released straight to video. I even enjoyed chunks of it. The DVD extras are far more successful in focusing on the making of the film than trying to glorify it as an entry in an ongoing “franchise”; director Reiné is more interesting in discussing aspects of his approach in low-budget film-making.
(In theaters, December 2011) I’m not sure there’s a more conceptually offensive film out there in theaters at this end of 2011: Whether you’re talking about characters who enjoy the stoner lifestyle, a toddler doing cocaine, graphically-portrayed phalluses, Santa Claus getting shot in the face, nude nuns, angels performing sexual favours on a cracked version of Neil Patrick Harris or a murderous waffle-making robot, a straight-up description of the film’s content reads like a decadent horror show at the end of civilization. And yet, the series’ considerable irreverent charm is intact, and a solid core of moral value underlies the entire film: the story daringly picks up six years later with a grown-up Harold and a arrested-development Kumar, then throws them together in order to come up with a relatively mainstream-friendly conclusion. In-between, though, there’s plenty of refreshing hijinks, quasi-experimental segments (just wait for the Claymation stuff, or the 3D-tableau “plan”) and meta-fictional laughs about the actor’s other careers/roles, 3D gags (I almost regret not seeing this one in 3D) and more irreverence than you’d think possible. It’s still a silly comedy for people who like silly comedies, but it’s hilarious, fast-paced, sweet without being cloying and a perfectly self-aware third installment in a series –for one thing, it doesn’t seem as if it’s simply coasting on recycling its previous gags. Both Kal Penn and John Cho are great in the title role, with Neil Patrick Harris once again stealing the show and Danny Trejo joining the cast as a pitch-perfect father-in-law. If you’re a fan of the series, don’t miss it.
(On DVD, December 2010) I’ll be one of the first to bemoan the increasing cooptation of geeks from social outcasts to lucrative market segment, but even I have to admit that Fanboys is a fun comedy aimed squarely at that audience. The story of four Star-Wars-loving friends racing to steal an early copy of The Phantom Meance from Skywalker ranch, Fanboys gleefully indulges in geek references, inside jokes and enough re-quoted dialogue to qualify as a derivative work. I’m not sure why I was expecting something cheap, because the end result is polished B-movie, low-budget but not necessarily unpleasant to look at. The actors do their best (Jay Baruchel shows up in a decent early role, even showing his maple leaf chest tattoo), but it’s really the geekery of the film that takes center-stage in reflecting in the state of fandom circa winter 1999, still hoping that George Lucas would pull off a new trilogy of classic Star Wars films. (Part of the film’s humour is in the knowing references to the post-1999 reputation of The Phantom Menace, Jar Jar Binks or Harrison Ford) The geek stereotypes are extreme, but good-natured and even endearing when it comes to the five heroes of the story. If nothing else, fans should see Fanboys for the succession of cameos and bit parts for notables such as William Shatner, Danny Trejo, Seth Rogen (in three different roles), Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams and many more. (Only Kevin Smith’s cameo feels rushed and incoherent.) There’s also a snappy pop soundtrack. Fanboys isn’t much of a comedy without the geek references (people without knowledge of the Star Wars universe, in particular, will miss out on much), but it’s good enough to exceed low expectations. [Classification note for metadata nerds: The film was shot in 2007, pushed back numerous times during the film’s troubled production history and eventually released in theaters and DVD in 2009. IMDB thinks it’s a 2008 film, but I’m listing it here as a 2009 release.]
(In theaters, September 2010) When a trailer for then-fake film Machete appeared attached to Grindhouse three years ago, the joke worked pretty well. But would it survive being turned into a feature-length film? As it turns out, Machete the film is what Machete the fake-film trailer had promised: A fully entertaining mixture of exploitation filmmaking, populist indignation and self-aware cinematic winks. Bolstered by one of the most amazing cast in recent memory, Machete finally gives a much-deserved featured role to the mesmerising Danny Trejo, with fun parts for such notables as Robert De Niro, Steven Seagal, Lindsey Lohan, Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez. Everyone looks like they’re having fun, which is in keeping with the film’s mexploitation theme: if you’re going to make a movie that plays to the audience’s bases desires for nudity, action and revenge, why not do it well? Writer/Director/Editor Robert Rodriguez certainly knows what he’s doing: the editing lingers on the nudity, stays long enough on the action and flashes past the goriest violence so that we can enjoy the film’s dark humour without being repulsed by its excesses. (Rodriguez may not have been the film’s sole director, but it’s unmistakably his film.) It’s a terrific piece of grindhouse cinema, but it comes with quite a bit of populist decency. The Latino diaspora is colourfully represented by food, more food, Catholic symbolism and a distinctive aesthetics: Add to that a striking case for respecting immigrant rights, and Machete becomes a film that speaks loudly about basic human rights while still delivering a hefty dose of disreputable entertainment. In short, it’s a film that works on a number of levels, not the least of which is a considerable amount of sheer movie-going pleasure. Knowing Rodriguez’s considerable personal charm and fondness for explaining the movie-making process, I can’t wait until it comes out on video.
(In theaters, July 2010) Given the indefensible mess that were the two Alien vs Predator movies, it doesn’t take much to reboot the Predator franchise with a mean and lean action follow-up to the first film. Anyone complaining about Predators’ thin story, unimaginative extension to the franchise or routine structure may want to step back from keyboard for a moment and acknowledge that this late follow-up isn’t too bad: It certainly doesn’t waste any time dropping us in the thick of the action, with its rapid assembly of human warriors being hunted by aliens on an equally-alien planet. SF fans will be disappointed by the lack of substance of the film’s SF elements (It takes a surprisingly long time for the characters to look up and notice that they’re not on Earth anymore, even after passing through a rocky plain), so it’s better to focus on Predators as an action film with a few fancy trappings. But even there, the film struggles to distinguish itself: a few sequences are badly staged and rely on unbelievable spatial coincidences. (For a film that takes place on an entire alien planet, everything seems to happen within two or three city blocks.) It’s marginally more successful at establishing each characters and giving them even a modicum of respectability: We know they’re going to be picked-off one by one, but at least we can enjoy their presence while they last. Adrian Brody credibly growls his way to a buff action hero, but supporting players such as Danny Trejo and Louis Ozawa Changchien (in a nearly-silent role) also get a few good moments. Nimród Antal’s direction is slightly more ambitious than the usual stock action film, and that’s how the film allows itself a few better moments such as a swordfight seen from overhead. Predators does last a bit too long, muddles into a mid-film lull and can’t really escape the shadow of the first Predator film, but at least it’s clearly in line with the first film, and that’s something that none of the sequels have been able to claim so far. Not a bad result for something that falls into a generic action film slot.