(Second viewing, On TV, May 2016) Even twenty years later, From Dusk Till Dawn still holds up as a reference point. It’s one of the first titles in any “which movie changes genres midway through?” discussion, it still presents a fine collaboration between Quentin Tarantino (who also stars) and Robert Rodriguez, it showcases a prime-era Salma Hayek and it’s completely crazy when it counts. I thought I remembered quite a bit from a first viewing in the mid-nineties, but it turns out that I had forgotten a lot since then. There are more lulls than I remembered (it doesn’t help that the plot is straightforward), the special effects are a bit cheaper than in my mind and I had somehow managed to forget that iconic final shot. I had also forgotten how dark-haired George Clooney carries the picture through sheer charm and energy, and how insufferable Tarantino’s character is. The moment where the true nature of the film is revealed still carries a punch, and the film’s constant succession of gags from that moment on is still enjoyable, much like the dialogue carries quite a bit of the film. (I’m fond of “I don’t … believe in vampires, but I believe in my own two eyes, and what I saw, is … vampires.”) There is a good rock-and-roll rhythm to the film that propels From Dusk Till Dawn forward even today, and I’m glad I got to revisit it with just enough memory blur to make it fun again.
(Netflix Streaming, April 2015) It’s been nine years since the original Sin City, and that’s frankly too long in-between installments. I’m older, wiser and less likely to tolerate the kind of juvenile attitude in which overdone noir can indulge. It really doesn’t help that A Dame to Kill For seems delighted in showcasing brutes and corrupting whatever innocence had escaped the first film intact: Despite toned-down violence (well, ignoring the mid-movie thirty-second marathon of decapitations accompanied by grotesque audible sploshes), it feels like an even more pointless film than the original. It’s not all bad, especially if you can get yourself in a mood receptive to noir style and overdone dialogue: the special effects are well done (albeit inconsistently used), the quasi-parodic script is good for a few laughs and anyone wanting a little bit more of that first film’s style is likely to enjoy it. Director Robert Rodriguez may be repeating himself (it’s about time he directs a film that’s not part of a series), but he’s doing so stylishly. Mickey Rourke seems to have fun playing the brute once again, while Joseph Gordon-Lewitt and Eva Green (in a typical performance, as seductive as she seems insane) are welcome addition to the cast. Plenty of smaller roles are given to big-name actors, leading to a sustained game of spot-the-celebrity. Still, what curdles A Dame to Kill For is the ugly script, which not only has pacing issues but (unlike the original) forgoes the protection of innocence in favor of revenge, revenge and some more revenge: Jessica Alba’s character is corrupted to the point of destruction, more than one sympathetic characters are killed to set up the never-ending avenging and the effect is far more nihilistic than healthy, even for a noir film. (And that’s not even mentioning the troubling glorification of Rourke’s character as an invulnerable killer.) For all of the polish of the film’s style, it doesn’t work if its ideals and plot points leave a sour taste. It’s not a good sign that of the film’s interlocked stories, the worst two are the ones especially written for the sequel. I would still watch A Dame to Kill For again (someday, not any time soon) just to enjoy the visuals and the atmosphere, but I would be wary of recommending it to anyone else, and I sure wish the script had been more upbeat and less self-satisfied by its own pointlessness.
(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, May 2013) As much as I’m favourably predisposed toward writer/director Robert Rodriguez’s work (including his movies aimed at kids), it feels as if I’ve been making more and more excuses in order to enjoy his latest work. The first two Spy Kids movies stand tall as fine examples of adult-friendly kid cinema, but this fourth entry is a bit of a disappointment closer to Shorts or The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D: The script is easy, the themes are close to the surface, the dialogues are often too obvious (the endless puns on time eventually take their toll) and the originality of the previous films seem toned down. It’s still fun to watch on account of pure forward rhythm and interesting visuals, but it does leave viewers a bit unsatisfied by the end of the show. Still, I would call it anything harsher than a disappointment: It’s fun to see Jessica Alba as a spy-mom, Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara and Danny Trejo all make short-but-welcome appearances to tie this fourth installment to the first four films in the series, and the family-positive message of the film shouldn’t be discounted. It does all amount to a thin new film by Robert Rodriguez, though, and looking at the rest of his recent-or-upcoming filmography (filled with Machetes and Sin Citys) it would be nice to see him attempt something more ambitious than spinoffs of his previous films.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) Sketch comedy seldom works in movies, and Four Rooms isn’t much of an exception to the rule. Four stories loosely set on a busy New Year’s Eve at a Los Angeles hotel; it’s a mash-up of four writer/directors with different sensibilities and a long list of actors playing small parts. Only Tim Roth provides a bit of continuity as the bellhop who ends up becoming the unwitting protagonist of the film, but his tendency to play the role at full intensity as a perpetually-manic oddball can be as grating as it is peculiar. The four segments aren’t created equal: From the sex-romp of the opening segment’s coven of witches, we go to a twisted game of role-playing between a married couple, turbulent kids playing while their parents are away, and a small group of rich men having too much fun with a lighter and a butcher’s knife. Robert Rodiguez and Quentin Tarantino, collaborating together years before Grindhouse, each bring their recognizable style to their segments. Interestingly, the film seems to have been shot in TV-style 1:1.33 aspect ratio, perhaps as homage to some of the source material. The humor is definitely quirky, and while some of it feels forced, other gags seem funnier. Tarantino fans will also appreciate a little bit of his motor-mouth dialogue in the last segment. Otherwise, Four Rooms exists as an increasingly-historical curiosity, the kind of intriguing idea that falters in production. Not a disaster, but of primary interests to fans of the directors.
(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, August 2009) Robert Rodriguez’s own brand of low-budget high-creativity filmmaking is always fun, even when it’s aimed squarely at kids: His movies move fast, take chances, show new faces and aren’t afraid to let things slide almost to the brink of anarchy before bringing them back in. So it is that Shorts may be a middle-of-the-pack effort when it comes to his films-for-kids (above Shark Boy and Lava Girl, below the first two Spy Kids, roughly equal to Spy Kids 3D) and yet it warrant quite a bit of interest –especially once it will be available in a DVD edition with filmmaker’s commentary. But in theatres, it still plays pretty well, with a fragmented storyline in five sections that are presented discontinuously: some running gags and set-ups are understood only in retrospect, and the shuffled presentation adds to the wild energy of the story. The story is generally about a wishing rock that delivers on its promises, but it’s really an excuse for Rodriguez to riff on a few concepts (wishes going wrong, giant robots running amuck, small aliens helping out too much), create a bunch of pretty good kid characters and goof off for a while. The manic energy of the film makes it hard to lose interest, and the kids are surprisingly non-annoying. What Shorts lacks is higher artistic ambition and an overall lack of polish, but that’s not much of a problem considering what it does well. But then again, it’s not as if I need to be convinced of Rodriguez’s brilliance.
(In theaters, April 2007) Seen as part of Grindhouse: “Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is by far the most entertaining film of the duo: A self-aware parody of zombie films, it’s crunchy-delicious in its avowed awfulness, and never misses an outlandish beat when it sees one.”
(In theaters, April 2007) For a movie industry that is renowned for not taking risks and always presenting the same thing, American cinema can still be surprising from time to time. Case in point: the wonderful cinematic experience that is Grindhouse, complete with two full-length movies, fake trailers, fake film damage, “missing reels” and intermission cards. (Canadian theatres even got the bonus trailer Hobo With A Shotgun). It’s long, it’s self-indulgent, it’s hyper-violent… but it’s a trip and one of the best prepackaged movie-going experience I ever had in a multiplex. The movies themselves aren’t all that special, but it’s the whole experience that makes the show. Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is by far the most entertaining film of the duo: A self-aware parody of zombie films, it’s crunchy-delicious in its avowed awfulness, and never misses an outlandish beat when it sees one. In comparison, Quentin Tarantino’s subversive Death Proof is far less even: it dawdles along on Tarantino’s usual verbal pyrotechnics, then delivers a jolt of exploitation adrenaline. But then the movie resets to another format, turning the cards and screwing around with audience expectations. It’s a ride and a half, perhaps too conceptually clever for its own sake. Still, the entire package that is Grindhouse is a success and a great big gift to movie geeks. Whatever you do, don’t miss Don’t!
(In theaters, July 2003) As a confirmed aficionado of Robert Rodriguez’s entire oeuvre, you won’t catch me saying anything overly negative about this last instalment of the Spy Kids trilogy. But it’s certainly not a betrayal if I simply state that this is the lesser film of the series and that its interest mostly lies in its 3D gimmick. As someone who wasn’t around in theatres in the early eighties for the previous revival of red-blue 3D glasses, there’s a definite curio factor in seeing such a film. Thanks to modern advances in computer animation technology, Rodriguez can essentially do an ultra-cheap CGI-packed 3D film for the pure fun of it. While the story in interesting enough in its typical Rodriguez hyperactivity, the cool CGI and unbeatable sense of fun are no match for the energy and heart-felt nature of the first two films. Oh, it’s good enough, no doubt about it: Ricardo Montalban and Daryl Sabara turn in good performances, we get to see Salma Hayek in 3D (with pigtails! woo!), Sylvester Stallone doesn’t embarrass himself, there is a great opening sequence with Juni as a private investigator and just about every Spy Kids character of note is back for the finale. The fun is infectious; the movie works rather well, but please, Hollywood, don’t use this as an excuse to make other 3D movies. One each twenty years is more than enough. As a 3D technology, red-blue glasses have to be the cheapest and the muckiest. Unless you’re willing to use polarised glasses, don’t bother.
(Second viewing, On DVD, April 2004) Definitely the lesser of the Spy Kids trilogy, but certainly not an uninteresting film. Hailed more for its single-handed revival of 3D in theatres than its actual plot, Spy Kids 3D is still a great action film in its own right. Sure, the plot (and even the cinematography) is meaningless without the 3D. Or is it? One of the many qualities of the DVD edition is to present a colourful 2D version of the film, and it still holds up as a piece of entertainment without the silly glasses. Aficionados of writer/director/auteur Robert Rodriguez already know that his DVDs contain plenty of supplementary content and this one is no exception, with a consistently interesting audio commentary, plenty of documentaries and yet another amusing “ten-minute film school”. Fun, fun, fun.