Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Time To Take Out The Trash

Once, what feels like an age ago, I asked a like minded-fan of sleaze, smut, blood and/or guts why it was that modern filmmakers had such a hard time getting trash right these days. Why is that despite remakes of every sleazy-ass backwoods horror film, no one manages to create anything that gets the balance of lovably shitty filmmaking and irredeemable yet somehow endearingly tasteless subject matter right? Why couldn't you even really improve over shit like Last House on the Left? The golden age (the 70s, ending I like to think, with Dawn of the Dead ringing the bell on high) produced horror movies with just the right sensibilitiy. Mark of the Devil, Axe, Alucarda, The Big Bird Cage, Clan of the Forgotten Eight, Blood on Satan's Claw...these guys knew what they were doing. But for whatever reason a great throwback is hard to find. Stuck!, The Human Centipede, 2001 Maniacs...they just don't do it for me. They either lack the strength of their convictions or are far too enthusiastic for their own good, running into a troubling dearth of funds or a criminal lack of understanding. They don't know what it was that made the movies they idolize so great, they just hone in on one aspect and then max it out. It rarely works and it's usually painful to watch. The House of the Devil and Black Dynamite work because they pay attention to enough period details while still finding plenty of time to tell compelling/funny stories. Recent history is littered with the corpses of movies that tried and failed to recapture the glory days. What killed them this time? Pointless dialogue and an excess of winking in the case of today's double feature. There was so much dialogue and so much winking in one of these damn films that Quentin Tarantino decided that his throwback was too good to be part of a double-bill with the much more interesting, game and entertaining Planet Terror and that his contribution needed to be a whole extra forty minutes longer to accommodate all his winking and talking.

Death Proof
by Quentin Tarantino
Three attractive girls get together and talk in their apartment, then they get into one of their cars and talk, then they get to a convenience store and talk, then they go to a bar and talk, then three boys show up and they talk, then another girl arrives having been stood up and they talk, then the bartender walks over and they talk, then three of their girlfriends show up and they talk, then Kurt Russell shows up and they talk some more and then one of them gives Kurt a lap dance, but first they talk about it, then when it's done they talk. Then Kurt kills most of them in his car, then the police arrive and they talk, then it's a year later in another town and four other attractive girls get together and talk in a parking lot, another parking lot, a diner, then they go talk to a guy about buying his car, explaining why to each other through the very helpful narrative device of talking, then they drive the car away and then talk about what they're going to do, then one of them climbs on top of the car because Tarantino could find literally no better cause for a carchase with a woman on the hood of the car than because she's a stunt woman who simply does this sort of thing for fun. and that's what they call screenwriting. Anyway Kurt shows up and the rest of the movie is a pretty predictable car chase that's exciting for the first five minutes before it's interrupted by more talking and then the rest of it happens but all the tension's gone when the girls are no longer in any real danger and the cars are destroyed so it's not really fun anymore anyway. Oh and before it's over, the girls talk some more.

This movie's problem is simple but unfortunately it pervades literally ever aspect of the production from the music to the casting to the cinematography to the hood ornaments: MASTURBATION!!! Death Proof has the dubious honor of being the film that perfectly captures what goes on in its director's head before he fouls up his boxers. Yes despite the film's initially scratched-look, its constantly name-dropping better movies, its music cues lifted from Italian horror films, its comparatively low-budget, its car-based murders, Death Proof is not the throwback it wants you to believe it is. It is the single most masturbatory movie ever made (note, this was true until I saw Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch). Quentin Tarantino used to be world-renowned for his dialogue, a sly blend of pop-culture references and an absurd amount of never-too-much swearing. Tarantino was cool and to be cool meant trying to be like Tarantino. The dialogue in Death Proof sounds like a man in his forties trying and failing to imagine what hot girls sound like when they're alone. Everytime someone speaks I missed the point of what they were saying because all I could hear anyone saying was "hello I'm the writer of this movie and I have concocted a clever manner of speech that all the characters engage in. It's great, you see they're all dropping the names of tv shows and movies that none of them could possibly know about ("You know that show The Virginian?" HAHA! Cause no one under 45 has seen that fucking shit! Or Convoy! Or Vanishing Point!) and then they typically make amazingly unsubtle sexual references that come off insanely mean-spirited and out-of-touch even though they're delivered with neck-swaying casualty." With that being shouted at me the whole time I had a hard time paying attention to just what the fuck anyone said in and around the car chases. It wasn't that I wasn't trying, it was just that I realized that absolutely, positively nothing said over the course of Death Proof's inexcusably baggy 114 minutes amounts to anything other than padding. A torturous second visit just reinforced my original assessment with a vengeance and made me want to throw myself down a flight of stairs because rankly it's not even fun to hear. It's all this constantly repeated, endlessly impressed-with-itself double talk that goes nowhere. Lines like: "Now there is one thing every girl in the whole world whose name is Shanna has in common with each other - we all hate the name Shawna. And we really hate when people call us Shawna," "What about "kinda cute, kinda hot, kinda sexy, hysterically funny, but not funny-looking guy who you could fuck" did you not understand?" and "how does one become a stuntman, stuntman mike?" are all insanely, monomaniacally unwieldy, especially when leaving the mouths of perpetually bored-looking actresses. Tarantino dialogue used to be the icing on the cake. Here it's a plate of lukewarm leftover tv-dinner masquerading as Bisteca Florentine and Baked Alaska; it's a metaphor drowning in another metaphor! Nearly half the screenplay shows up in the IMDB Quotes page and none of it is as clever as that implies. It's a movie filled with one-liners that resolutely fail to come alive in the mouths of a generation Tarantino didn't bother to figure out.

I realize I sound like the world's most bitter man but I wouldn't be so furious but for the fact that until I saw Death Proof I was one of the biggest fans Quentin had on planet earth. I bought the script for Pulp Fiction in the seventh grade from my high school bookstore and had the thing memorized by the eighth grade. I watched Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction on a nearly endless loop until Kill Bill, Vol. 1 hit theatres. I liked it, but it seemed kinda long and like maybe there weren't enough solid ideas to keep the movie exciting for its almost two hour running time. Vol. 2 was even longer and gave me an even stronger sense that he was just killing time, that he didn't have an ending, that he and everyone in the seats around me were just happy to be hearing his voice. I would have liked it if the movie actually felt like a cohesive unit instead of a collection of references. The climax of his two-part revenge cycle is twenty minutes of talk. Was I the only one who felt cheated? The whole movie was set-up and not a second of sword-play or kung-fu or Jackass-style trailer fighting between these two epic nemeses? Just fucking babbling on about comic books and dead fish and abortion. David Carradine's career wasn't the only thing that died when that film ended. Tarantino had stated that his intention with Pulp Fiction was to create something that you could start watching and leave at any moment and still get something out of it. Its references were myriad but they were quiet and unflashy, they helped construct a world of cheaters and bastards who can't help but collide with one another. It was trashy, it was lurid, it was fun, but most importantly it was incredibly well-made. After Jackie Brown showed him that audiences weren't interested in new ideas with an old coat of paint, he gave them what he thought they wanted after four or five years of reading and believing every thing ever written about him on then-new chatrooms and damningly subservient  fad-books with titles like Cinema of Cool. They wanted cool? He'd give it to them! So began Quentin's turning his back on what he made his name on (taut but patient direction, incendiary screenwriting) and his films became games of expired Celebrity Taboo played with audiences who had no idea they were being sold second-hand ideas. This reached it's apex in Inglourious Basterds where he actually showed clips from other movies in order to explain what was happening in his own movie! He named his characters after obscure character actors seventeen people knew about and spent minute after minute rambling about the importance of G.W. Pabst, King Kong and Joseph Goebbels Vs. David O. Selznick despite these things never for even a second having a thing to do with the plot! Death Proof deviates from this only slightly in that it doesn't have a plot to deviate from. Everything that leaves the character's mouths is just one too-clever/not-clever-enough line that separates audiences from the car chases and lap dances that save this movie from total listlessness.
My friend Tucker was one of the lucky few (and I do mean few) who actually saw Death Proof when it was just one half of the promising double feature Grindhouse. Tucker remembers vividly the feeling of watching the amazing, funny and lightning-fast Planet Terror, watching a slew of hysterical bite-sized fake trailers, and then settling in for a post-Kill Bill, Tarantino car-chase movie, his hands rubbing together like a bandit about to look in the safe he's just cracked. Then that anticipation turned quickly to confusion, then boredom and finally anger. Quentin intended the whole endeavor to be a tribute to New World double features, but those films had one key ingredient that Grindhouse didn't: a producer breathing down its neck demanding cuts and a runtime people could stomach. Quentin was calling the shots and perversely when Grindhouse failed to perform at the box office he actually put footage back in and released it on its own, premiering it at the Cannes film festival. Which I have to say pisses me off more and more as I think about it. What Grindhouse was supposed to be was something your average gorehound would love (it's called motherfucking Grindhouse!!!) and instead Quentin decided his part was really an art film and not the sleazy, scratchy trash movie it was touted as in trailers. Not that I disagree with that particular point: it absolutely doesn't work as an exploitation film. There's nothing here being exploited except my desire to see an exploitation movie. On that end all I got was the music from Tentacles. Thanks Q! But Death Proof sure ain't no fucking art film, either. Its biggest issue are all those gorgeous women lining up to do whatever their odd creator wishes. The first scene sets the tone. After pornographic shots of the leads' feet, we're treated to a close-up of Vanessa Ferlito holding her crotch as she runs like a little girl to the bathroom. The humiliation continues as he pits an especially horrifying Eli Roth and friends against the girls, trying hideously to date rape them while spitting out just so much stilted, pointless, esoteric dialogue you can't make out a word of (Also, I'd like to point out that the line "hey Bj, where's the bear?" is not only stupid in the mouth of anyone who isn't Quentin Tarantino, it's also not funny in any context). And I'd like to reiterate that none of it matters anyway. The girls then pout when boys don't like them, do exactly what boys ask of them, then get their faces ground off and their legs removed by a guy three times their age. That the film is dull as sin would get it a low enough grade without the added bonus of being sexually regressive. Quentin reportedly cut out a scene of Kurt Russell masturbating in his wrecked car following the first crash. I get why he cut it; it's redundant. Anyone uncertain that someone was jerking off all over this movie wasn't paying enough attention anyway. His solution, to have some cracker sheriff spell it out in black and white, is an appallingly stupid compromise (To quote MST3K, "this is a Motion picture", we can show as well as tell!). On the plus side it's just as wordy and boring as the rest of the movie, so at least there's continuity! Nevermind that there isn't a shred of evidence to suggest that the car accident was anything other than a car accident. All the same it feels like a major copout not to have Russell's character in a compromising position after watching girls in hot pants doing impressions of girls in hot pants for a fuckin' hour. And not ever is it established why any of these girls talk to each other/are friends/have atrocious fake southern accents or say things like "Dick Department" with all the ease of swallowing a fistful of super bowl rings. To say that nothing works is to put it both nicer and milder than Death Proof deserves. Watching this again made me pine for a movie that at least got around to doing something, ANYTHING, just so long as it wasn't self-indulgent and misogynist. As it turns out, I could have searched a little harder but I will give my pallet-cleanser one thing: I wasn't bored.

Drive Angry 3D
by Patrick Lussier

In a voiceover that explains nothing, we're told that hell just can't hold some people ("Bad ass motherfuckers", to be precise). And among those people is Nicholas Cage playing a character called John Milton, because Patrick Lussier and co-writer Todd Farmer took freshman english, I guess. Anyway, Milton has escaped from hell and he winds up in a generic vision of the American south (the same one we wound up killing time in in Death Proof) that's too clean to be as frightening or trashy as Lussier wishes it was. After fucking up two satanists and issuing a not-at-all cryptic warning (to tell "him" that he's coming for him) he meets about-to-be-cheated-on Amber Heard who has just enough reason to leave home and just little enough in her head to follow Cage as he cuts a path across the south looking for "him." "Him" turns out to a Satanist (Billy Burke in what I'm going to say is his second-worst performance, which is a shame because he's a good actor) who killed Cage's daughter and is going to sacrifice his granddaughter in order to bring about Hell on Earth. And we'd be more worried as an audience if Satan's personal Accountant weren't also on Cage's tail, trying to bring him back (albeit not very determinedly). And so begins a two-tiered chase involving cars flipping, old waitress banging, dumb cop shooting, and Tom Atkins swearing and looking as apoplectic as the most apathetic man on earth can look.

There are a lot of things stopping Drive Angry from being either as good or as wonderfully shitty as it should have been but the biggest problem with Drive Angry is that Lussier is too afraid to embrace the truly sleazy nature of his concept. A film like this doesn't need slow-motion unless it's the kind of slow-mo Sam Peckinpah used to use. It doesn't need music that isn't played by shit-kicking bar bands. It doesn't need super-cool car flipping or too-contained fight scenes or slick editing and cinematography or a reigned in, self-conscious performance from Nic Cage. It doesn't need someone like David Morse classing up the joint, or Amber Heard as the lead girl. In other words it's too 'cool' for it's own good. The idea of Cage fucking a waitress during a gunfight on paper sounds like the kind of Hal Needham or Peckinpah would have done with a straight face. Lussier on the other hand puts it in slow motion and plays The Raveonettes. Doesn't quite work; in fact none of his soundtrack choices work. Peaches and UNKLE aren't the soundtrack to a shitty car chase movie, they're the contents of a Canadian hipster's ipod. See the difference? The film's loaded with mistakes like that Heard's presence is too calculated and safe for a movie like this. Katy Mixon's cameo was more in keeping with the spirit of something like this (but not this), but frankly she's not even what you need. You need the kind of girl who you'd buy in a bar fight. Amber Heard puts on white trash for the duration, but you want the female equivalent of Strother Martin, someone who can match Cage's nutso charisma. And Cage is waaaaaay too calm for this movie. Where's the Cage of Bad Lieutenant? That's the crazy bastard I want escaping from Hell in a Challenger! Not the mildly respectable Cage we're stuck with here. In fact the only person who seems to fit the scenery is William Fitchner and he doesn't get nearly enough screentime. His performance as the Accountant is perfect and I wouldn't change it, I just want more of it.

I guess if you want to look at the problem in microcosm, let's examine the name of this beast. Drive Angry in 3D. It's no good. "Drive Angry" is a Groundhog Day reference. Already aiming way too high. "in 3D" sounds cheap and stupid, but really the 3D we're given is more in keeping with the trends of today rather than say the boneheaded audience baiting of Jaws 3D. This movie is too modern to be interesting simply because it claims the swagger of an old-fashioned drive-in movie. This is too self-aware and pretty to be the Race With The Devil remake it aches to be. What it needed was the kind of gimmicky shit that Tarantino tried to distract his audience with in the opening minutes of Death Proof. He once said that he'd "over-tweaked" Death Proof (on the list of things wrong with that film, that isn't even in the top twenty-five). The whole point of Death Proof (indeed the whole Grindhouse endeavor) was that it was supposed to look like it fell off the back of a truck on its way to the Capri in Cold Water, Michigan. If anything, when the movie stops doing the scratched-print and bad edits halfway through I just got more furious. No! Bring that shit on, says I! Otherwise, what the fuck is the point of the exercise!!!! It's just that kind of gimmickry that Drive Angry is missing. So while it was a perfectly enjoyable if regrettably stupid hour and a half, it wasn't the film I was promised. It was too cool to be filthy, too bad to be good, too good to be bad and so it's just kinda stupid; it didn't live up to its potential. What Drive Angry needed was someone who could have chipped the new paint and antiqued it a bit, who really understood the pantheon of shitty movies it was trying to enter. Just as what Death Proof needed was someone who could breathe some life into a DOA script and boring set-pieces.
There's a scene in Death Proof where one of the two wasted muscle cars drives through a marquee advertising Wolf Creek. Personally how Quentin gets off flipping the bird to anyone is totally beyond me considering he's apparently forgotten how to write and direct coherently/concisely, but that he's pissing on Wolf Creek of all things makes me especially furious. Wolf Creek is an art film that made it into an exclusive canon where the likes of Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Axe sit happily sharing pictures of their deformed grandkids. A place that with no limitations imposed on them neither Patrick Lussier's big budget spectacle nor Tarantino's wordy ouroboros touched by a mile. It's not enough to pay lip service to the greats; it helps to have something worth saying. Otherwise, save your breath and let someone else get a word in. Oh, one last thing, minor, but I'm going for it anyway. I'd like to thank Tarantino for permanently associating dumbness with Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. Shouldn't it be some kind of hint when your actresses can't even pronounce the name of the band that perhaps it has no place in the movie? Why can't anyone get this stuff right?

1 comment:

Claire said...

You have an informative blog. I’ve learned something from it. I do have mine too www.claire-fernandez.blogspot.com... thanks