Month: October 2011

King Kong (2005)

2005

Universal Pictures

Produced by Jan Blenkin, Carolynne Cunningham, Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson

Directed by Peter Jackson

Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson

Based on a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace

Friends of mine will often ask me how I feel about remakes of movies.  They’re actually surprised when I say that I honestly don’t mind when movies are remade.  Broadway does remakes all the time.  Except they call them revivals and they’re usually greeted with open arms and much love. They expose a whole new generation of theatergoers to the experience of seeing classic musicals performed live on stage.  So why not do new versions of classic movies?  Either people will go see it or they won’t.  And if the writers, producers, actors and crew treat the source material with respect and stay true to the spirit of the original, that will be apparent to those fans of the original and even though they love the original to death, they will embrace the remake for what it is.

What I do object to however are lousy remakes that do a disservice to the original film or remakes of movies that actually don’t need to be remade.  The classic 1933 “King Kong” is a perfect example of a movie that was done a disservice when it was remade in 1976.  It took Jessica Lange’s career five years to recover from that bomb (she wouldn’t get a decent break until she co-starred with Jack Nicholson in “The Postman Always Rings Twice”) and poor Jeff Bridges fared even worse.  The next five movies in a row he did flopped miserably (including Michael Cimino’s horribly underrated  “Heaven’s Gate”) and he really didn’t bounce back until 1982’s “Tron” As for the director of 1976’s “King Kong”…well, you tell me…when was the last time you went to a movie that was directed by John Guillermin?

However, when it was announced that Peter Jackson was going to direct a new version of “King Kong” just about everybody who is a fan of the original sat back and sighed in relief.  Like Ray Harryhausen, George Lucas, George Romero, and Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson had proven he was able to employ the medium of film in such a way that he created an entire universe on screen and for the running time of his films, he transported us to a completely other reality and made us believe it existed.   And that’s exactly what he does to me with his version of KING KONG.

It’s 1933 and the country is in the grip of The Great Depression.  But even though breadlines are plentiful and work is scarce, people still crave their entertainment.  Either through vaudeville or the movies.  Which is what brings together struggling actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and maverick director Carl Denham (Jack Black) Denham needs an actress quick for his new movie which he’s shooting on location.  Ann’s not too sure as Denham is sorta reluctant to specify where they’re going but he promises riches, adventures and a chance for Ann to work with the writer Jack Driscoll (Adrian Brody) who she idolizes.

It isn’t until Ann and Jack are aboard the tramp steamer Venture, captained by Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschemann) and crewed by a rag-tag gang of sailor/mercenaries that everybody realizes they’ve been conned by Denham into this expedition to an island that may not exist.  Denham insists he has a map.  And the map does lead them to an island.  And what an island it is.   A time-lost island on which a towering stone wall is decorated by skeletons and guarded by a vicious, savage tribe that worships a god they call…Kong.  Ann is kidnapped by these savages and offered up as a sacrifice to Kong who is a 25-foot gorilla.  He takes Ann into the jungle where he is pursued by Jack, a camera-toting Denham, square–jawed leading man and movie idol Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler) and the sailors of the Venture, determined to save her from her fate worse than death.  I give them guys credit.  What they go through on Skull Island would have Indiana Jones pissing in his pants.  Skull Island is a Lost World That Time Forgot of prehistoric creatures that shouldn’t exist.  There are Tyrannosaurus Rexes, Brontosaurus, insects that can eat a case of Raid for dinner and have your head for dessert.  Leeches the size of Buicks.  Vampire bats big enough to bring down fighter jets.  And that’s just the beginning.

Our hardy band of adventurers manages to survive the island’s many dangers, rescue Ann and is barely able to subdue and capture Kong.  They take him back to New York where Carl Denham puts him on exhibition in a Times Square theatre.  You know the rest of the story.

KING KONG is really a superior example of what can be done with such fantastic material when it’s treated with respect for its own reality.  Peter Jackson had the good sense to set the movie in period (1933 was the actual year the original “King Kong” was made) since it’s a lot easier to believe that there could be a Skull Island in 1933. The 1930’s was such a rich period of high adventure that when you see hard-bitten guys stalking through a dinosaur infested jungle with cigars in their clenched teeth, flasks of whiskey in the hip pockets and toting Chicago Typewriters, you just buy it with no reservation.

The performances are stellar.  I’ve never been much of a Jack Black fan but I really enjoyed him in this movie.  He has nowhere near the energy of the original Carl Denham, (the late great Robert Armstrong) but he has a strange look in his eye that I think develops into full-blown madness during the movie’s most frightening scene where Denham, Jack Driscoll and several crewmen are at the bottom of a deep crevice and have to desperately battle for their lives against giant insects.  The choice of Jack Black and Adrian Brody as the movie’s leading men is a good one since both of them look like….well, like regular guys.  They’re not impossibly handsome or pretty (I’m looking at you, Orlando Bloom) and that goes a long way with me to lending realism to their characters.   As Ann Darrow, Naomi Watts has to carry a lot of the movie on her shoulders since she interacts with Kong more than any other character in the movie and she pulls it off superbly.  There’s a terrific scene where she goes into her vaudeville act to amuse Kong and amazingly, the big ape enjoys the show.  And for me the most spectacular action sequence in the movie is the ultimate giant monster smack down where Kong proves exactly why he’s King when he takes on not one, not two, but three Tyrannosaurus Rexes in a truly epic showdown of colossal proportions.

Chances are most of you reading this have already seen KING KONG so I don’t have to sell you on it.  But if by chance you haven’t yet seen it, by all means put this one on your Netflix list or spring for the Blu-Ray.  KING KONG is a rare animal: a remake that is more than worthy to stand shoulder to shoulder with the original.   It’s totally everything that I love about the movies.  Enjoy.

187 minutes

Rated PG-13

Mad Monster Party

1967

Embassy Pictures

Directed by Jules Bass

Produced by Joseph E. Levine

Written by Harvey Kurtzman and Len Koroban

Growing up in Brooklyn during the 70’s we didn’t have all the platforms available that we have now to watch movies whenever we want.  The concept of a DVR or Blu-Ray player/disc was considered science fiction back then. So that meant that if there were certain movies we wanted to see, we had to be home to watch them because if we missed them, it would be a whole year before we could see them again.  While I do greatly appreciate the convenience of being able to go to my DVD collection or turn on Netflix and see just about any movie I want any time I want, I do kinda miss the anticipation of waiting until the Christmas season to see the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials like “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town” or “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” or Halloween to see MAD MONSTER PARTY.  Oh, sure…I’m adult enough to wait until the appropriate time to watch ‘em.  But I dunno…it’s always in the back of my mind that I can watch them any time I want.  Somehow it just seemed more special when I had no choice but to wait to see those specials and this movie we’re going to talk a little about right now.

MAD MONSTER PARTY is a stop-motion animated musical spoof of horror movies with an all-star monster cast: Baron von Frankenstein (voiced by Boris Karloff) his Monster, Dracula, The Mummy, The Werewolf, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, The Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Bride of Frankenstein (voiced by Phyllis Diller).  Baron Frankenstein intends to retire and leave his castle, his experiments and all his secrets to his nerdy nephew Felix Flanken (voiced by Allen Swift) who sounds uncannily like Jimmy Stewart and even more uncannily resembles Rick Moranis.  He calls for a convention of all the monsters to his island in order to announce his decision.

This doesn’t go over well with Francesca (voiced by Gale Garnett) who thinks that as Frankenstein’s faithful assistant for years, she should be the successor to Frankenstein.  Francesca enlists Dracula and The Bride in a scheme to eliminate Felix and get The Baron’s secrets for themselves.  However, that scheme quickly gets scrooched when Francesca falls in love with Felix and is double-crossed by Dracula and The Bride who enlists the rest of the monsters to wipe out Frankenstein, Felix and Francesca and take Frankenstein’s secrets for themselves.

There’s a lot of respectable talent in this movie.  There’s Mr. Karloff, of course.  But Phyllis Diller can get on the last nerve with that trademark, shrill, drawn-out “ha-ha-ha” she feels the need to put on the end of every sentence.  Harvey Kurtzman, who co-wrote the screenplay created MAD Magazine and MAD cartoonist Jack Davis designed most of the characters.  As can be expected with those guys working on it, there’s a lot of dark humor aimed at adults that goes over the heads of most kids.  I was surprised at how many slightly saucy lines and in-jokes I caught when I watched this recently.  I was convinced that the movie wouldn’t be the same now that I’m thirty years older than when I last watched it but I was pleasantly surprised at my own enjoyment of the movie.

I appreciated how the likenesses of Baron Frankenstein and The Bride are designed to look like the actors voicing the characters.  I think it’s really creepy how Felix looks so much like “Ghostbusters”/”Little Shop of Horrors”-era Rick Moranis.  And the character of Francesca was based on Tina Louise who played Ginger Grant on “Gilligan’s Island”.  Francesca is voice by Gale Garnett who won a Grammy for her 60’s folk song hit; “We’ll Sing In The Sunshine” and she lends her distinctive vocal talents to a couple of songs: “It’s Our Time To Shine” and “Never Was A Love Like Mine” both of which are really good.  And even ol’ Boris gets to sing a rousing number; “One Step Ahead”

So should you see MAD MONSTER PARTY?  Some of you won’t no matter what I say because you’re too sophisticated and would sneer at what you perceive to be crude special effects, out-of-date movie making techniques and would find the movie “corny”.  So you can feel free to leave the room.

For the rest of you who stayed; if you’re a fan of Tim Burton’s stop-motion work then by all means, give MAD MONSTER PARTY a viewing.  It’s a movie where you can plainly see the influences on his own work.  And besides, it’s simply a fun little movie whose only purpose to entertain and put a smile on your face for 95 minutes and I can think of no higher recommendation.  And for you parents: if you want to expose your kids to a form of animation other than computer generated, here’s a good one.  MAD MONSTER PARTY gets my recommendation for family viewing on Halloween.  Enjoy.

Saw

2004

Twisted Pictures

Produced by Mark Burg, Gregg Hoffman and Oren Koules

Directed by James Wan

Screenplay by Leigh Whannell

Based on a story by James Wan and Leigh Whannell

Before we get into the review of SAW I guess I should explain my feelings on horror movies so here it is put as bluntly and as honestly as I can: I find most of ‘em absolutely and totally stupid.  Oh, I can sit and watch ‘em on a pure entertainment level and derive a great deal of satisfaction from them but I’m not scared by them and I listen to people who talk about how terrified they were by “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” or “The Amityville Horror” and I have to ask them if they’re serious.  The first time I saw “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” I was shushed by my friends because I was laughing out loud in the theatre as I truly thought the movie was a spoof of the genre since I couldn’t honestly believe anybody would take the material seriously.  People in horror movies act entirely too stupidly to be believable and it’s because of lazy screenwriters who simply see their characters as objects to be used to achieve their ends.

Now that’s not to say that there aren’t horror movies I’ve seen and enjoyed but what I consider real horror movies are movies such as “Night Of The Hunter” “In Cold Blood” “Psycho” “The Out-Of-Towners” “Lady In A Cage” or “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” where the situations are presented in a logical and believable manner.  Real Life doesn’t have to make sense but Fiction does and when you present me with a situation that falls apart when I stop to take five minutes to think about it, you’ve lost me.  And that’s the main problem with SAW.

Two men awake in a filthy bathroom that looks as if it hasn’t been cleaned in twenty years and seems more like a slaughterhouse than anything else.  The two men are chained by their legs to secure pipes at opposite ends of the room and cannot reach each other.  Lying between them is a dead body, gun still in hand and it’s obvious the poor bastard has shot himself in the head.  One the men is Lawrence (Cary Elwes) a surgeon and the other is Adam (Leigh Whannell) a photographer and they are both the captives of a brilliant serial killer known as Jigsaw who plays games with his victims where he sets them up to bring about their own deaths.  The detectives assigned to the case (Danny Glover and Ken Leung) are relentless in their pursuit of the clues but Jigsaw has managed to evade them.  Indeed, Glover’s character believes that Lawrence is Jigsaw and after a terrifying confrontation with the criminal he basically loses his mind and his job but continues to work the case.

Lawrence and Adam have been provided with a number of items: two cassette tapes, a tape recorder, two saws, two cigarettes, a cell phone that can only receive calls and one bullet for the gun they can’t reach and it becomes apparent to them that Jigsaw intends for one of them to kill the other.  Jigsaw considerably amps up the intensity of the game because he’s holding Lawrence’s wife and daughter hostage and he’s imposed a deadline.  Lawrence and Adam have to work together to try and figure out why they’re there and hopefully escape from the trap they’re in.

And after the first thirty minutes I really didn’t care.  You ever heard a commercial on the radio for Geico where there’s this hardcore biker called Smokey who is complaining about the background music playing because as he puts it: “This doesn’t make a lick of sense”?  Well that’s the way I felt watching SAW: this movie doesn’t make a lick of sense and I’m going to give you a perfect example why:

There’s a character we’re presented with who we’re led to believe is the killer but we know that he actually can’t be the killer because we’re shown his face halfway through the movie and we all know that when we’re presented with someone as the killer half way through the movie he just can’t be the killer.  Okay.  This character has a scene where he apparently gets off from showing Lawrence’s daughter his gun (which she’s absolutely terrified of) and listening to her racing heartbeat with a stethoscope.

Now given what we find out about this guy later on why was he getting off of tormenting the daughter?  If indeed he was part of Jigsaw’s game then why didn’t he just throw down his gun when Glover’s character burst into the house and explain what was happening and why he was doing what he was doing?  Better yet, why didn’t he just go the cops when the whole sick game started and tell them what had been done to him and ask for help?

This is all after we’ve been presented with Lawrence and Adam who supposedly are strangers but find out 45 minutes into the movie that they actually do know each other in a really dumb scene where they each take turns saying: “Hey!  I do know you!” and by the time we get to the last half hour of the movie where Lawrence violently mutilates himself but doesn’t pass out from blood loss and shock and apparently is a good enough shot to wound Adam in the shoulder just long enough to knock him out but still leave him in good enough shape to have a  drag-out fight with Jigsaw I was all through with the movie.

That’s not to say that SAW doesn’t have its entertaining moments.  I liked the way the movie is photographed and the performances by Danny Glover and Cary Elwes.  And I liked how it put together the way the characters related to each other and how it was revealed to us.  And the last ten minutes of the movie are simply mindblowing with a final twist that is truly devastating.  But ultimately SAW is just an exercise by the screenwriters and director to just show off how clever they think they are and not to give us a story that makes sense or engage us with the characters.

So should you see SAW? (I just loved typing that) Most of you reading this probably already have so it’s too late.  You probably either love or hate it.  I don’t hate it but I don’t understand why people think this kind of stuff is scary.  I’ve got more of a chance of being killed by a drunk driver while crossing any street in Brooklyn and that scares me more than the thought I’ll be kidnapped by some deranged genius serial killer and forced to play some wildly improbably psychological head game.  But that’s just me.

102 minutes

Rated R

Lost Highway

1997

October Films

Produced by Deepak Nayar, Tom Sternberg and Mary Sweeney

Directed by David Lynch

Written by David Lynch and Barry Gifford

The word genius is thrown around far too often for my taste but in the case of David Lynch I would say it’s used in a legitimate fashion.  If David Lynch had done nothing else except for “Twin Peaks” he’d be a genius in my book.  “Twin Peaks” was a television show so far ahead of its time that it took 20 years for the rest of television programming to catch up to what Lynch was doing.  “Twin Peaks” was a landmark achievement in terms of storytelling, acting and cinematography, as “Twin Peaks” didn’t look like a regular TV show but a weekly feature film.  And it told its story as a season long story arc.  It’s a narrative technique that just about every major hour-long drama on television utilizes now but back in 1990 it was innovative and daring.  It’s a series that is still being debated and argued about today and with good reason: it was just that damn good.

Mr. Lynch’s film career has been just as baffling as his television show.  When he’s good, he’s very good.  Movies such as “The Elephant Man” “Wild At Heart” “Dune” “The Straight Story” and “Blue Velvet” are superior examples of what David Lynch is capable of when he steps on the gas.  And then we have those movies of his that leave you scratching your head and saying; “Okay, so what the hell was that all about?” and that leads us to what is one of the most baffling movies I’ve ever seen: LOST HIGHWAY

Successful jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is awakened one morning by his front door intercom buzzing and answers it.  The message is cryptically horrifying in it’s simplicity: “Dick Laurent is dead.” Fred goes to the window and sees no one.  We’re introduced to his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) and it’s obvious that the Madisons have problems in their marriage that are complicated by Fred’s growing suspicions that his wife may be having an affair with a sleazy underworld type named Andy (Michael Massee).  Even more puzzling are the videotapes being left on their doorstep every morning.  Videotapes of the inside of their house and plainly show that somebody has free access since their mysterious visitor tapes them while they’re sleeping.   Fred and Renee contact the police who don’t seem very interested in the case but who promise to investigate.  The Madisons attend a party at Andy’s house where Fred meets a Mystery Man (Robert Blake).   He’s a bizarre character with a dead white face and jug ears.  Fred and The Mystery Man have a really crazy conversation where The Mystery Man gives Fred his cell phone and tells Fred to dial his own house.  Fred does so and apparently The Mystery Man answers, which is flat out impossible as Fred maintains that a person can’t be in two places at the same time.   Fred and Renee leave the party and go home and the next day Fred finds yet another videotape.  This one shows him in their bedroom sobbing over the dead and dismembered body of Renee.

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Now if LOST HIGHWAY had followed in this vein, we might have really had a truly memorable film.  But wait.  It gets weirder still.  The next time we see Fred he’s on Death Row apparently for the murder of Renee and waiting his turn to Ride The Lightning.  Fred is suffering massively painful headaches, accompanied by seizures and during one of them appears to physically transform him into another man.

In Fred’s place is auto mechanic Peter Drayton (Balthazar Getty) who has no memory of how he got in Fred Madison’s cell.  The police have no choice but to let Peter go since he’s obviously not Fred and Peter resumes his life, living at home with his parents (Gary Busey and Lucy Butler) and working at a garage owned by Arnie (Richard Pryor).  But the police still have a watch on him and they notice that Peter seems to be pretty chummy with a local gangster named Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) but one of the cops points out that his real name is Dick Laurent.  Mr. Eddy has a drop-dead gorgeous blond bombshell of a girlfriend named Alice Wakefield (Patricia Arquette) who immediately is attracted to Peter who returns the attraction many times over in the roadside hotels they meet in for wild and prolonged bouts of hot sex.   The situation becomes more volatile when Mr. Eddy appears to have found out that Peter and Alice are sleeping together and that The Mystery Man knows Mr. Eddy and apparently is helping him.  Alice tells Peter that they have to get away and they need a lot of money to do so.  She cooks up a plan where she’ll seduce a guy she knows…a guy with a lot of money in his house…a sleazy underworld type named Andy who likes sleeping with other men’s wives…. she’ll keep Andy busy with plenty of horizontal exercise while Peter sneaks into the house and they’ll rob Andy.  But the plan doesn’t go the way Alice says it does and if you thought LOST HIGHWAY was bizarre up to this point then hold onto to the top of your skull because it gets even weirder.  “Is such a thing possible?” I hear you ask.  This is a David Lynch film; dear friends and it can always get weirder in a David Lynch film.

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Whether you want to see LOST HIGHWAY or not depends on how much of a David Lynch fan you are.  LOST HIGHWAY explains nothing and only leaves a maddening trail of clues that will either cause you to lose sleep trying to figure it out, kick in your TV screen in frustration or go watch reruns of“Roseanne” just to give your brain a rest.  The most popular theory I’ve heard is that the entire movie takes place in Fred Madison’s mind and he’s got multiple personalities as he’s trying to escape his guilt over murdering his wife but there’s too much evidence that Fred really does transform into a different man who has a different life.  I dunno.  I’ve seen LOST HIGHWAY three times now and it baffled me just as much the third time as the first.  Maybe the best way to watch the movie is to just sit back and watch the performances.  Balthazar Getty barely registers on the screen but Bill Pullman and Robert Blake are absolutely riveting to watch.  Patricia Arquette plays a role that basically requires her to appear nude most of the time and participate in some fairly graphic sex scenes.  Robert Loggia has the most fun with his role as Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent, especially in a scene where he gives a tailgater a profane and violent lesson in the proper rules and etiquette of the road and if you’ve even been tailgated then you’ll probably cheer like I did.  This movie also has Richard Pryor in his last film role but if you turn your head to pour yourself more soda or beer, you’ll miss him as his part comes and goes just that fast.

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So should you see LOST HIGHWAY?  I’d recommend it to David Lynch fans, sure.  It’s his movie all the way, filled with the symbolism and dream-like imagery that Lynch fans love.  There’s a story in here somewhere and if you’re the type who enjoys debating for hours with your friends about a movie’s hidden meanings then LOST HIGHWAY is your huckleberry.  For those of you who enjoy a more straightforward movie with a plot you don’t have to burn up valuable brain cells trying to figure out what it’s all about, I’d stay away.

Rated R

135 minutes

Jaws

1975

Universal Studios

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Produced by David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck

Screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb

Music by John Williams

I headed into the den with a 3 liter of Coca-Cola, a bag of potato chips the size of a Dickensian urchin and a carton of Reese’s Peanut Butter cups.  My wife Patricia knows the signs well and asked me what movie I was going to watch.  “JAWS” I reply.  She shook her head slightly and said; “How many times have you seen that?”  I really couldn’t answer her.  In between its original theatrical run where I first saw it and now, I really couldn’t say.  Maybe eleven or twelve times. Probably more.  But to me it really doesn’t matter.  I don’t keep count.  JAWS is one of those movies that I can cheerfully watch over and over again.  Patricia is like most people, I think: she watches a movie once and then she really can’t be bothered to see it again.  My brain is hardwired a different way.  A movie like JAWS I can see over and over again because for me it’s so rare that elements of horror, high adventure, human conflict, drama and even comedy are married so well to a bedrock solid story and acting so natural that you forget you’re watching a movie and have an out-of-body experience that transports you to another world.  It would happen again two years later when Steven Spielberg’s boy George Lucas conquered the world with “Star Wars” but that’s another review.  Let’s get back to JAWS.

Amity Island is a summer resort town gearing up for its big Fourth of July weekend.  Amity Island residents and merchants depend on the summer tourist dollars to support them through the fall and winter so they’re not happy when the mangled body of a girl is washed up on the beach.  They’re even less happy when Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) determines that the girl was the victim of a shark attack and plans to close the beaches.  Town Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) assures the merchants and residents that everything will be fine.  Mayor Vaughn has a positively brilliant genius for self-delusion because even after a young boy is killed by the shark he still insists that there’s nothing wrong in Amity and they’re going to have a great summer.

Brody isn’t so optimistic and he enlists the help of marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to help him catch and kill the shark.  A shark that Hooper informs both Brody and Vaughn just isn’t any shark: it’s a Great White Shark.  A fish that is the Galactus of all sharks.  Hooper says it best: “It does nothing but swim, eat and make baby Great White Sharks.” But it isn’t until the shark kills another innocent and almost gets Brody’s son that Brody can get the beaches closed and gets the authorization from Mayor Vaughn to hire professional shark killer Quint (Robert Shaw) to kill the shark.  Quint wants $10,000.  Brody says fine as long as he and Hooper can go along.  Quint reluctantly agrees and the three men set off in Quint’s boat ‘The Orca’ to track down and kill the beast.  It’s a quest that takes up the second half of the movie and it’s one of the most nail-biting quests in movie history.  It’s frightening, horrifying and even touching.

JAWS has been called a modern-day “Moby Dick” and there’s a lot of validity in that.  The three men all are obsessed with finding and killing the shark for their own reasons.   Hooper is simply crazy about sharks and has been since one almost ate him when he was a boy.  Brody feels an overwhelming sense of guilt for the death of the young boy.  Quint is a survivor of the World War II sinking of The USS Indianapolis in which a large number of men spent days in the water being attacked by packs of sharks.  The Amity Great White itself exhibits behavior that both Hooper and Quint have never seen in a Great White Shark before, giving the creature an even deeper layer of menace.  In fact, it even seems to be leading the three men further and further out to sea…

Chances are you’ve probably seen JAWS so I don’t have to tell you how great a movie it is.  JAWS works on a lot of levels during the first half of the movie.  I like the politics of how a summer resort island depends on tourist dollars and how that can make otherwise perfectly reasonable human beings turn a blind eye to the fact that they have an eating machine swimming around their island.  I like how Police Chief Brody is almost a comedic character in a lot of scenes.  Roy Scheider brings an amazing amount of humanity and warmth to the character of Brody.  He’s not a superman.  In fact he’s really not all that good a Police Chief.  But he is a good man who wants to do the right thing and he’s willing to put his ass on the line to do it and in the end that’s what really matters.  Richard Dreyfuss is outstanding as Matt Hooper and you really get the sense that the two men forge a solid friendship as they figure out what to do about this situation.  Murray Hamilton has a hard job in this movie but I admire the way he pulls it off.  I’ve discussed JAWS with so-called movie fans who say that they don’t think the movie is realistic because anybody with any common sense would have closed the beaches after the first shark attack (these are the same people who think that “Friday The 13th Part III” is a horror classic) but Hamilton’s character is one that exists in the real world and even though he makes horrendously bad choices we understand why he makes those choices even though we don’t agree with them.  It’s a much underrated performance and among the best in the movie.  In fact, the only performance that I can do without is Lorraine Gary as I don’t think she’s as good an actress as Tanya Roberts and I think Tanya Roberts is the worst actress to have ever lived.

Robert Shaw walks away with the acting honors in this one.  His Quint is a memorable character in every sense of the word in that we get the real sense that this is a character that had a life before this movie started.  Most people cite Roy Scheider’s “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” as the classic scene in JAWS but Robert Shaw had one just as good with Richard Dreyfuss that never fails to crack me up: Hooper is loading a shark cage aboard Quint’s boat…

Quint: What d’ye have there?

Hooper:  Anti-shark cage

Quint: (after a beat) Anti-shark cage.  You go in the cage?

Hooper: Yeah

Quint: Cage goes in the water?

Hooper: Yeah

Quint: Shark’s in the water?

Hooper: Yeah.

Quint then walks away singing “Spanish Ladies” in such a manner that is so well timed you can’t help but bust out laughing.  At least I can’t.  That whole scene between Shaw and Dreyfuss is a wonderfully played comedic bit that The Marx Brothers would have been jealous of.  Shaw and Dreyfuss have another great scene later on where they drunkenly compare battle scars and sing “Show Me The Way To Go Home”

I’ve gone on long enough.  Either you’ve seen JAWS and you agree with me or not.  Or maybe you haven’t seen it.  If you haven’t I strongly recommend that you do so.  It’s a movie that succeeds on the level of sheer entertainment value.  Trust me, 75% of the crap Hollywood throws on the Cineplex screens today doesn’t compare with JAWS in terms of suspense, excitement, characterization and great storytelling.  It was the movie that made Steven Spielberg a major player in Hollywood and it was the first “summer blockbuster” being the first movie to make $100 million dollars in theatrical release.   It’s also a fine example of the talent and professionalism that Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw brought to their work.   Among the many fine and outstanding roles they both played, their work in JAWS will be remembered as among their best.

124 minutes

Rated PG

The Fifth Element

Columbia Pictures

1997

Directed and Written by Luc Besson

Produced by Patrice Ledoux

Is there any doubt that whenever a list of the coolest guys on the planet is compiled, Bruce Willis is somewhere on it?  Right from when he made his big splash on the TV series ‘Moonlighting’ and then hit box office gold with “Die Hard” and it’s sequels, Bruce Willis has been not only one of our most likeable and favorite action heroes he also just comes across a really cool guy.  Bruce Willis has never appeared remote or distant to us.  He’s approachable.  One gets the impression that if you met Bruce Willis on the street and asked him if he wanted to go get a beer he’d say; “sure” and you’d spend the night with him kicking the willy bobo.  Maybe that’s the real charm of his appeal: Bruce acts and feels like one of us: a regular guy who made good and lucked into a brilliant Hollywood career but never forgot his New Jersey roots.  I like him and I like most of his movies.  And one of his best movies is the science fantasy action/satire/romp THE FIFTH ELEMENT.

Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) is a cab driver living and working in 23erd Century New York where vehicles fly along skyways.  He’s a retired Federation Special Forces major who’s just trying to keep his head down and live as quiet a life as possible.  And he’s been doing that until a beautiful red-haired woman named Leeloo (Mila Jovavich) literally drops out of the sky into his cab.

Leeloo is “the perfect being” who has been genetically created to save the human race from a Great Evil that has taken the form of a living planet and is heading straight at Earth.  The only way to stop this Great Evil is to find four stones that embody the characteristics of the Four Elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water.  When combined they will give their power to The Fifth Element which is The Perfect Being and give this entity the power to destroy The Great Evil.  However the problem is to find the four stones.  Especially since they’re being hunted by kazillionaire industrialist/munitions dealer Zorg (Gary Oldman) who has allied himself with The Mangalores, a reptilian warrior race that is hilariously bent on destruction at all costs.  Zorg is an agent of The Great Evil and he’s just as single-minded to find the stones as is Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm) who is the latest in a long line of human priests who have served another alien race, The Mondoshawan who have been the keepers of the stones for millennia.  Korben is recruited by his old boss General Munro (Brion James) on orders of The President (Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister) to secure the stones.  This means that Korben has to agree to a rigged contest to meet his contact: the blue skinned alien opera diva Plavalagunan (Maiwenn Le Besco) who is appearing on the pleasure starliner ‘Fholston Paradise’.  But the Mangalores find out about the meet and they have their own plans for the stones…as does Zorg…

Korben has to secure the stones from The Diva Plavalagunan, save the starliner when The Mangalores hijack it in true ‘Die Hard’ fashion, do an interstellar radio show with the bizarre Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker) and after all that still figure out a way to save the world from The Great Evil.

I love THE FIFTH ELEMENT to death for a number of reasons.  First off, it’s one of the most original and imaginative fictional worlds I’ve ever seen on screen.  There’s an entire universe here that is a visual treat.  The production design of the movie was created by French comic artists/creators Jean Giraud who is more popularly known as ‘Moebius’ and Jean-Claude Mezieries.  The costumes were created by a French fashion designer: Jean-Paul Gaultier.  All of which contributes to the unique look of the movie.  THE FIFTH ELEMENT looks like no other science fiction film you’ve seen.  Unless you’re a fan of the American magazine “Heavy Metal” which in itself reprinted stories from the French magazine “Metal Hurlant” which was a graphic magazine of science fiction and fantasy stories.   There was a “Heavy Metal” movie made in 1981 and a respectable argument could be made that THE FIFTH ELEMENT could be considered as an unofficial remake of the ‘Harry Canyon’ segment of that anthology movie as it has a lot of similarities.   All of which sums up like this: THE FIFTH ELEMENT has a unique flavor to its look, tone and style that is quite refreshingly different from conventional science fiction movies.

Second, I love the humor in this movie.  Most science fiction movies are so deadly serious it’s fun to see one that doesn’t take itself so seriously.  The group that eventually gets together to say the world is so goofy that you figure the world might be better off if they failed.  But they come together as a team in a way I found really charming and surprising. And even the soundtrack is different.  It’s got a decidedly Middle Eastern flavor, especially during a wild car chase where Korben is outrunning the cops.  A car chase with flying cars, remember.  It’s as wild as it sounds.

Third, the performances.  Bruce Willis does something really surprising in THE FIFTH ELEMENT.  He doesn’t play ‘John McClane In Space’ as I think a lot of people expected him to do.  Korben Dallas is a totally different character and some of the best scenes in the movie is how Korben Dallas reacts to the events he’s involved in.  Bruce Willis knows the effectiveness of how a single look can enhance a scene and he does it to great advantage in this movie.   This was Mila Jovavich’s first big role and she does a great job conveying the charm and grace of a “Perfect Being” (whatever that is).  She’s got a lot of terrific scenes with Ian Holm as his character is the only one who can understand her “perfect language”

And now we come to Chris Tucker.  Sigh.  I really don’t understand my brother.  I’ve seen him in interviews and in the remarkable PBS series “African American Lives” and he talks and behaves nothing like the way he does he does in those horribly embarrassing “Rush Hour” movies.  However, I have to say that I can accept his wildly over-the-top performance in THE FIFTH ELEMENT because that’s the nature of the movie.   It’s that kind of movie where you either have to go along with what’s on the screen or not.

I do have to say that as much as I enjoyed Gary Oldman’s hilariously bizarre performance as the intergalactic industrialist/arms dealer Zorg I have no idea why or how he came to be working for The Great Evil or what he hoped to gain from that arraignment.  I mean, The Great Evil is coming to destroy all life on Earth, right?  So wouldn’t that mean Zorg as well?  And for that matter The Great Evil is never really explained.  Why does it want to wipe out Humanity?  Why do The Mondoshawan care so much about why Humanity survives?  Why do they establish a sect of human worshippers on Earth?

Even after all the questions and doubts I still say watch THE FIFTH ELEMENT.  Chances are you’ve seen it already.  Good for you.  It’s not only a great Bruce Willis movie it’s a great fun movie as well.  It’s got terrific visuals, outstanding productions values and special effects that hold up amazingly well 15 years later.  Enjoy.

Rated: PG-13

126 minutes

Robocop

1987

Orion Pictures

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Produced by Arne Schmidt

Written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner

Even if Peter Weller and Paul Verhoeven had never made any movies after they made ROBOCOP they would be assured of a place in Movie Heaven solely on the strength of this one movie alone.  Peter Weller went on to make “Buckaroo Banzai” which is a masterpiece, plain and simple.  He also starred in “Naked Lunch” which in the words of Nelson Muntz is neither about being naked or about lunch.  But it’s still one hell of a head-trip movie that you don’t have to get stoned to watch and you’ll still feel like you’re in an altered state of mind.  Paul Verhoeven went on to direct “Total Recall” the infamous “Showgirls” and “Starship Troopers” a movie that apparently I’m the only one on the planet who enjoyed for what it was instead of what it wasn’t.  But in 1987 they teamed up for ROBOCOP, a movie that I saw during its original theatrical run and enjoyed greatly.  I’ve only seen it once or twice since then in bits and pieces.  Recently I watched it from start to finish and I’m amazed at how well the movie holds up.  The stop-motion animation is a little shaky in spots but otherwise, ROBOCOP could have been made this year.

I think it’s because I had forgotten how truly well made and how multi-layered ROBOCOP is.  It’s an extremely violent action movie.  But it’s also a superhero movie.  It’s a social satire of capitalism, business and the media.  It’s science fiction.  It’s a whole lotta things that work extremely well together and provide an outstandingly entertaining package.  I really was surprised at how much I found myself enjoying ROBOCOP all over again as if I was seeing it for the first time.

The time is the near future.  In Detroit, crime is insanely out of control.  The most horrifically violent acts are commonplace and legitimate government has turned over the problem of policing the city to the multinational Omni Consumer Products Corporation, in effect, privatizing the Police Department.  The Old Man (Daniel O’Herlihy) is more interested in building a new city to replace the old.  A utopia he calls Delta City.  To this end, the massive crime wave plaguing Detroit has to be stopped.  More and more cops are poured into Detroit including hotshot rookie Alex J. Murphy (Peter Weller) who is teamed up with the hardened veteran Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen).  Their first day as partners in the extremely dangerous Metro West Precinct they run across the path of Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith).   This bespectacled crime boss of Detroit   has an intellectual appearance hiding a psychotic personality.  Murphy is brutally shotgunned to death by Boddicker and his gang which includes the sadistic Leon Nash (Ray Wise) and the bloodthirsty Joe Cox (Jesse D. Goins) who has a laugh The Joker would envy.

Murphy is claimed by OCP junior executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) who has deliberately been sending police officers into high risk situations so as to have a dead body for his Robocop Program.  He takes Murphy’s shattered, mangled corpse and turns him into an indestructible cyborg police office that he proclaims as the future of law enforcement.  This doesn’t sit well with Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) the Number Two man at OCP who has his own law enforcement program in the works and doesn’t appreciate a hotshot like Bob Morton trying to slide into his spot.  And the crime wave continues as Clarence Boddicker extends his empire.  Murphy, reborn as Robocop is hailed as the savior of the city as he proves to be a one-cyborg police force.  But Dick Jones has plans in the works to get rid of Robocop as he has his own agenda for Detroit and Delta City.

While cleaning up Detroit and eradicating all crime in the city Robocop meets up again with Anne Lewis who awakens his memories of the man he once was and even though Robocop is supposed to have no mind at all he begins to remember his life as Murphy.  He beings to remember his wife and his son.  And more importantly he begins to remember the faces of the men who murdered him.  And he wants them brought to justice.  But doing so will put Robocop into direct conflict with OCP.  And they don’t take kindly to one of their ‘products’ turning against them…

It’s easy to just sit back and watch ROBOCOP as a mindless action flick but then you’d be robbing yourself.  There’s actually a whole lot of really funny satirical stuff going on that lifts ROBOCOP out of the genre and makes it something really special.  We have the “Newsbreaks” which are spaced throughout the film and presented by two android like news reporters (one of them played by Leeza Gibbons) which gives us a flavor of this near future world much better than any other method.  There’s the wonderfully well done dialog, especially memorable lines given to Kurtwood Smith, Ronny Cox and Miguel Ferrer, all of whom look as if they’re having the time of their lives playing really, really bad guys with relish and diabolical charm.

And how about the star himself?  Peter Weller doesn’t have much time as the human cop Murphy in the movie but he makes the most of it and he wins us over before he’s so brutally killed.  When he’s reborn as Robocop he’s so convincing it’s scary.  He does this thing that seems small but went a long way toward convincing me he was actually a cyborg: He first turns his head and then he turns his body.  Yeah, it doesn’t seem like much but the way Weller does it gives the character a whole new dimension just through the body language.  Nancy Allen is one of my favorite 80’s movie actresses and along with Wendie Jo Sperber starred in one of my all-time favorite movies “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” as well as “Carrie” and she provides solid support for Peter Weller.  Her dad actually was a New York City police officer which probably accounts for why she’s as believable as a tough cop.

The bad guys in ROBOCOP are all memorable, starting with Kurtwood Smith.  Clarence Boddicker is skinny, wears glasses and speaks like a college professor on crack.   Kurtwood Smith turns him into one of the best bad guys in movie history.  Ronny Cox sheds his previous good guy image here and Dick Jones is the perfect incarnation of corporate greed.  Miguel Ferrer easily holds his own with Ronny Cox in their scenes together as their characters are engaged in a behind the scenes struggle to rise up the ladder of success by any means necessary.

I think it’s worth mentioning the violence in this movie.  It’s a bloody superhero revenge adventure with the accent on ‘bloody’.  Like I said earlier, I haven’t seen ROBOCOP in about 10 years and I’d forgotten how marvelously violent the movie is, even by today’s standards.  The shotgunning of Murphy is shown in all its horror and that’s in the first half hour of the movie.  And it goes on from there.  People are getting shot, stabbed, thrown out of windows, bludgeoned, dumped in acid, run over by cars and blown up every five minutes in seems.  The final fight between Robocop and Boddicker is memorable in the sadistic glee the two characters seem to take in trying to kill each other.

So should you see ROBOCOP?  No doubt.  It’s a movie that hasn’t dated at all for me unlike a lot of action movies made in the 1980’s.  And even though the stop motion animation is a bit creaky that adds to the overall charm of the movie.  The acting is top notch, the story is tight and the plight of the human trapped in a robot body fighting to get his humanity back gives it a poignant emotional resonance.

102 minutes

Rated R: For extreme violence and language.  And yeah, for once I think a movie deserves the rating it got.  In fact, ROBOCOP originally got an X rating for its language and violence before Verhoeven trimmed some scenes that were restored to the DVD version.

Cloverfield

Paramount Pictures

2008

Directed by Matt Reeves

Produced by J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk

Written by Drew Goddard

The premise behind CLOVERFIELD is a simple one: what if a giant sized Godzilla or King Kong type monster attacked Manhattan one night and the story was told not through the eyes of the military or scientists but ordinary people just trying to live through that night?  That’s the story in a nutshell and it’s related to us by means of a video camera found after the monster attack.  A group of close friends have gotten together to throw a going away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David) who has landed a lucrative job in Japan.  During the party he argues with Beth (Odette Yustman) a girl he had a brief but passionate love affair with.  The argument, along with everything else at the party is documented on a video camera by Rob’s best friend Hud (T.J. Miller) who really didn’t want the job but was hustled into it by Rob’s brother Jason (Mike Vogel) who really didn’t want to do it either.  Hud makes the most of it and even sees it as a way of trying to get to know Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) better.  Hud’s got the serious whim-whams for the chick.  The fact that Marlena quite obviously doesn’t want to have a thing to do with him is lost on the poor guy but everything is put in its proper perspective when Manhattan is blacked out by what the partygoers think is an earthquake.  They soon find out that much worse has hit The Big Apple.

An honest to Gamera monster has attacked Manhattan and is doing an absolutely bang-up job at tearing shit up.  Panic stricken crowds are fleeing while the military is trying to contain and/or destroy it with little effect.  It’s as if Armageddon times ten has come to town.  Rob and the others try to escape via The Brooklyn Bridge but it’s an attempt that ends in tragedy and spectacular destruction.  Then Rob gets a phone call from Beth who had left the party after their argument.  She’s in her apartment.  She’s hurt and can’t get out.  She begs Rob to help her.  Unfortunately the monster and the United States Army are having their apocalyptic disagreement right between them.  Still, Rob figures that if he uses the subway tunnels he can get to Beth.  Marlena and Hud go along as does Lily (Jessica Lucas) Jason’s girlfriend.  Hud steadfastly records their harrowing night on video as they struggle to rescue Beth and then get off the island of Manhattan alive.

CLOVERFIELD has a lot of good things going for it and number one is the cast of unknowns who go a long way to selling the reality of the situation.  This movie wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if say, Shia LaBeouf and Katherine Heigl were playing the lead roles.  Since these are faces we’ve never seen on the screen before (well, at least I haven’t) it helps to sustain the conceit that these are just ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary situation.  I liked most of the cast, especially Lizzy Caplan who in an amazingly short amount of time creates a real character through her body language and expressive eyes.  T.J. Miller just gets to be annoying about halfway through the movie as his character really doesn’t lend anything to the story and apparently he’s along just to tote the camera.  But the rest of the cast steps up to the plate admirably.  There wasn’t a moment when they didn’t convince me of the reality of what they were experiencing.

What else is good about CLOVERFIELD?  Well, the special effects were better than I thought they would be, what little I saw of them (more on that in a minute: stay tuned) what with the scenes of destruction and panic being a little too realistic at times.  There were some scenes where I thought: “My God, that looks just like 9/11.” Which is okay if that’s what the filmmakers intended.  But it was a little jarring to see it in what I had expected to be a simple monster movie. Which brings me to what you really wanna know.  You probably want me to cut to the chase and tell you if we see the monster at all in the movie.   I won’t keep you in suspense.  Yeah, you do see the monster but to be honest most of the time it’s shown at a distance or in quick cuts.  There’s only one time where we get a really clear shot of it but still, I couldn’t describe to you what it looks like if you put a gun to my head.  Which brings me to my main problem with the movie: the jiggly cam.

I understand that the movie is supposed to be a recording on a video camera and so it has been filmed in nothing resembling a conventional manner.  There are very few moments in the movie when the camera is still.  There are even moments when the characters are talking but the camera is pointed at the floor or at something else.  As I suppose a real person would do with a real camera in such a situation.  During a tense scene in the subway tunnels where Rob and the others have to fight off these spider-like creatures that have apparently dropped off the monster it’s really a chore to have to follow what’s going on as the camera is whipping about wildly.  To give CLOVERFIELD it’s credit: it’s got a solid reason for why the jiggly cam technique is used but halfway through the movie I was wishing I could reach in, grab the cameraman and scream : “Hold the damn thing steady!”

So should you see CLOVERFIELD?  I don’t think it’s going to be known as a classic of the monster movie genre but it is well made and has solid acting and great special effects.  It’s a monster movie that’s not about the monster.  It’s about the destruction and horror the monster leaves in his path and it’s presented in an entertaining manner. I enjoyed CLOVERFIELD and I think you will also.

PG-13

90 minutes

Death Proof

2007

Dimension Films/Rodriguez International Pictures/Troublemaker Studios

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Produced by Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Erica Steinberg

Once upon a time there was this street in Manhattan.  42end Street.  Now before you jump up and say; “It’s still there!” Let me say that no.  It’s not.  Oh, 42end Street is there.  But it’s not there.  Give me a minute to explain.

Back in the 70’s and 80’s you could go to 42end Street between 7th and 8th Avenue and on both sides on the street there were nothing but movie theaters.  Cheap movie theaters that showed double and even triple features.  And when I say cheap I mean $2 or $3 bucks.  That’s right.  You could go see two movies for three lousy dollars and stay in the theater until it closed if you liked.  There was this one theater that showed nothing but a triple bill of kung fu movies.  The theater that was home to “The Lion King” for many years used to be the raunchiest XXX movie theater in Times Square.  These theaters opened early and closed late.  Real late.  If you had $20 bucks in your pocket you could stay on 42end Street all day long and most of the night cruising from one theater to another until you were all movie-ed out.  Of course you shared the theater with potheads, drunks, bottom feeder drug dealers, prostitutes, unemployed men hiding out from the world, teenagers cutting school and their ilk.  But if you didn’t mess with anybody they generally didn’t mess with you.  Back in the day the rule of thumb was: “don’t start no static, there won’t be none”.   The movie theater staff had the same policy.  Folks would light up their joints, pass around 40s of malt liquor, pints of cheap booze, smoke cigarettes openly and put their feet up on the backs of the seat in front of them.  But as long as they were cool, the management was cool.   In short, the environment was as saturated with depravity as the movies shown.

The movies that were shown in these theaters, which we now popularly and affectionately refer to as ‘grindhouses’ were far from Academy Award winning films.  They were Grade B, C, D and more oftentimes than not, Z exploitation flicks.  Blaxplotation.  Kung fu flicks.  Spaghetti westerns.  Horror.  Italian ‘giallo’ thrillers.  Splatter.  Made on the cheap and designed to be nothing more than sensational pulp entertainment most of them you forgot the day after you saw them.  Oh, there were exceptions, to be sure and a lot of those movies transcended the trash and are still highly regarded to this day.  But the 42end Street of those bad old days is gone forever.  I know, I know…people go on and on about it’s ‘safer’ now.  It’s ‘cleaner’.  It’s more ‘family orientated’ and I’m all for that.  I still think it was more fun back then.

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez collaborated on a project called “Grindhouse” where they attempted to give modern day movie goers a taste of what the movie going experience was like back then.  “Grindhouse” was made up of two complete and separate films on a double bill along with a handful of fake trailers for equally fake films.  The two movies, DEATH PROOF and “Planet Terror” were aged and battered to replicate the way films looked back then since those prints were shipped all over the country from theater to theater and not handled with the best of care.   So when they were shown on the screen you had all these scratches and more often than not whole sections of film missing and spliced together.  “Grindhouse” even made use of vintage 70’s/80’s advertisements and theater announcements.   It was all designed to be a Valentine to that entire movie era of gleeful sex, violence and gore.

The problem was that a lot of moviegoers didn’t get the joke.  I remember reading that audience members were confused by the sections of the movie that had ‘missing reels’ and demanded that they see the missing parts or else they wanted their money refunded.  Supposedly there were complaints from theater owners about the 3 hr+ running time of “Grindhouse” Whatever the reason; “Grindhouse” was an ambitious experiment that failed at the box office.  However the two movies have been released on DVD as separate features.

DEATH PROOF begins with three Austin, Texas girls preparing for a weekend of partying to celebrate the birthday of Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) a local disc jockey.  Her two best friends Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) and Shanna (Jordan Ladd) go with her to the Texas Chili Parlor where they’re going to hook up with Julia’s drug connection Lanna (Monica Staggs) and from there it’s on to the lake house owned by Shanna’s rich daddy.  But first the girls have planned a wild night of drinking, dancing and making out with some of the local guys (one of them played by writer/director Eli Roth) They also meet up with Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) who claims to be a professional stuntman although he can only credit television shows thirty years old that he supposedly worked on.  Stuntman Mike flirts with the girls which earns him a highly erotic lap dance from Arlene who is both intrigued and repelled by the scarred but strangely charming man.

Turns out that Stuntman Mike is not only scarred physically but mentally as well since he’s a psychotic sadist who likes killing young woman with his special souped-up 1970 Chevrolet Nova which he proudly boasts is “death proof”.  It’s been tricked out so that Stuntman Mike can do things like ram another car head on at 120 miles an hour and survive.  Whoever is in the other car isn’t so lucky.  Stuntman Mike proceeds to show off just how deadly his “death proof” car is by killing not only the four girls but also a girl he’s tricked into actually riding inside the car (Rose McGowan) in a pair of truly horrific scenes.

Cut to fourteen months later.  Stuntman Mike is in Tennessee and sizing up four new victims.  This time it’s Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) Kim (Traci Toms) and Zoë (Zoë Bell) who are all in the movie business themselves.  Zoë is a stuntwoman and wants to do two things; buy a vintage 1970 Dodge Challenger and play a game called “Ship’s Mast” in which Zoë lies on the hood of the car, hanging onto two belts while Kim drives down the highway at high speed.  Bad time for them to pick to play this game because Stuntman Mike has been stalking them all day and he decides he wants to play as well.  But his idea of a fun game is way different from what the girls have planned.  Before it’s all over, everybody will have gotten their share of playing games.

DEATH PROOF is a way different movie in style and tone from “Planet Terror” in that where “Planet Terror” takes off at Warp Factor Five right from the first five minutes, DEATH PROOF takes it’s time to build up to the wild car chase that takes up the last fifteen minutes or so.  That’s why I advise everybody who plans on seeing these films back-to-back on a single night’s viewing (which is really the way to watch ‘em) to watch DEATH PROOF first, then “Planet Terror” DEATH PROOF takes it’s time telling it’s story and its certainly not boring but Q.T. takes his time in the first half so that we can get to know the first set of girls before the totally terrifying head on collision with Stuntman Mike’s car.  Then we’re introduced to the second set of girls and Q.T. takes another half hour with the characterization before we get down to their desperate 100 mile an hour road war.

It’s a solid movie full of the patented Tarantino dialog we’ve come to expect and there are extended scenes where it’s nothing but people just talking.  But since it’s Tarantino putting the words in their mouths and the actors are so good at what they’re doing I don’t think you’re going to mind a bit.  Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson and Zoë Bell are the acting standouts in this one, especially Zoë Bell.  She’s a real life stuntwoman who doubled for Lucy Lawless in “Xena” and for Uma Thurman in the “Kill Bill” movies and she’s totally charming here.  And that’s really her sliding around on the hood of that Dodge Challenger as it’s roaring down the highway.

Tarantino wanted to film a car chase without using CGI at all and it’s a really excellent car chase.  I’m glad to see that some filmmakers still like doing some things Old School: Tarantino put real stuntmen inside of real cars and let them do what they do best.  Vanessa Ferlito also does terrific work in this movie.  She does a mean lap dance and while doing it all I could think of was that she looks like she could be Rosario Dawson’s younger, sluttier sister.

And like all of Tarantino’s movies, the soundtrack is killer.  I don’t think there’s a director working today except for Martin Scorsese who uses music in his movies better than Tarantino.  The music he uses in his movie isn’t just stuck in there just to fill dead air between dialog scenes.  The songs uncannily fit the mood of a scene and get across exactly what emotion Tarantino wants to convey. And I always hear a couple of songs in his movies that I’ve never heard before from artists I assumed I was fairly familiar with.  Such as The Coasters song he uses for the lap dance sequence.  I’ve been listening to The Coasters since I was knee high to a knee as my father was a huge fan of theirs but I’ve never heard that song before I saw DEATH PROOF.

If I have any complaints with DEATH PROOF it’s this: despite Tarantino’s desire to make a grindhouse flick in the style of “Vanishing Point” and “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” (both of which are referenced several times by the characters) the movie is way too dialog heavy and far too polished to be considered a true grindhouse flick.  In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that while “Planet Terror” is by far way more fun to watch, DEATH PROOF is technically the better movie and the one that will most likely stay with you for days afterwards.  There’s just more meat on the bones of this one.  But that ending is just too abrupt for me.  But then again, “Vanishing Point” and “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” had similar out-of-left-field-what-the-hell endings and I was able to roll with them so I guess I can roll with this one.

So should you see DEATH PROOF?  You bet your ass you should.  It’s not one of Quentin Tarantino’s best movies but still, a minor flick from Q.T. is better than a lot of directors’ major works.  The performances are excellent, that car chase is a doozy and the story is tightly suspenseful.  By all means, Netflix and enjoy.

114 Minutes

Rated R

Planet Terror

2007

Dimension Films/Rodriguez International Pictures/Troublemaker Studios

Written and Directed by Robert Rodriguez

Produced by Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Elizabeth Avellan

Once upon a time there was this street in Manhattan.  42end Street.  Now before you jump up and say; “It’s still there!” Let me say that no.  It’s not.  Oh, 42end Street is there.  But it’s not there.  Give me a minute to explain.

Back in the 70’s and 80’s you could go to 42end Street between 7th and 8th Avenue and on both sides on the street there were nothing but movie theaters.  Cheap movie theaters that showed double and even triple features.  And when I say cheap I mean $2 or $3 bucks.  That’s right.  You could go see two movies for three lousy dollars and stay in the theater until it closed.  There was this one theater that showed nothing but a triple bill of kung fu movies.  The theater that was home to “The Lion King” for many years used to be the raunchiest XXX movie theater in Times Square.  These theaters opened early and closed late.  Real late.  If you had $20 bucks in your pocket you could stay on 42end Street all day long and most of the night cruising from one theater to another until you were all movie-ed out.  Of course you shared the theater with potheads, drunks, bottom feeder drug dealers, prostitutes, unemployed men hiding out from the world, teenagers cutting school and their ilk.  But if you didn’t mess with anybody they generally didn’t mess with you.  Back in the day the rule of thumb was: “don’t start no static, there won’t be none”.   The movie theater staff had the same policy.  Folks would light up their joints, pass around 40s of malt liquor, pints of cheap booze, smoke cigarettes openly and put their feet up on the backs of the seat in front of them.  But as long as they were cool, the management was cool.   In short, the environment was as saturated with depravity as the movies shown.

The movies that were shown in these theaters, which we now popularly and affectionately refer to as ‘grindhouses’ were far from Academy Award winning films.  They were Grade B, C, D and more oftentimes than not, Z exploitation flicks.  Blaxplotation.  Kung fu flicks.  Spaghetti westerns.  Horror.  Italian ‘giallo’ thrillers.  Splatter.  Made on the cheap and designed to be nothing more than sensational pulp entertainment that you forgot the day after you saw them.  Oh, there were exceptions, to be sure and a lot of those movies transcended the trash and are still highly regarded to this day.  But the 42end Street of those bad old days is gone forever.  I know, I know…people go on and on about it’s ‘safer’ now.  It’s ‘cleaner’.  It’s more ‘family orientated’ and I’m all for that.  I still think it was more fun back then.

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez collaborated on a project called “Grindhouse” where they attempted to give modern day movie goers a taste of what the movie going experience was like back then.  “Grindhouse” was made up of two complete and separate films on a double bill along with a handful of fake trailers for equally fake films.  The two movies, “Death Proof” and PLANET TERROR were aged and battered to replicate the way films looked back then since those prints were shipped all over the country from theater to theater and not handled with the best of care.   So when they were shown on the screen you had all these scratches and more often than not whole sections of film missing and spliced together.  “Grindhouse” even made use of vintage 70’s/80’s advertisements and theater announcements.   It was all designed to be a Valentine to that entire movie era of gleeful sex, violence and gore.

The problem was that a lot of moviegoers didn’t get the joke.  I remember reading that audience members were confused by the sections of the movie that had ‘missing reels’ and demanded that they see the missing parts or else they wanted their money refunded.  Supposedly there were complaints from theater owners about the 3 hr+ running time of “Grindhouse” Whatever the reason; “Grindhouse” was an ambitious experiment that failed at the box office.  Too bad.

PLANET TERROR begins with go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) quitting her job and hitting the road to pursue her dream of being a stand-up comedian.  She herself doesn’t think she’s very funny but since everybody she knows says she’s hilarious she figures what the hell.  Cherry literally hits the road when she’s almost run over by a convoy of Army trucks heading for a military base outside of Austin, Texas led by the smirkingly sinister Abby (Naveen Andrews) and Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis) who are looking for canisters of a top secret biological weapon hidden at the base.  In a movie like this it’s almost a given that things go wrong.  They do and the biological weapon is unleashed in the form of a sick-looking green mist that infects the townspeople, turning most of them into flesh-eating mutant zombies and leaving only a handful of desperate characters who must band together to stay alive during the hellish night.

Let me say right off the bat that if you’ve got a sensitive stomach and really don’t enjoy the sight of bodies being Swiss-cheesed by thousands of rounds of machine-gun fire or pulled apart like fried chicken and devoured then this isn’t the movie for you.  Robert Rodriguez doesn’t hold back on anything in this one and the sheer exhilaration of the violence in this movie might freak out some people.  There’s stabbings with hypodermic needles, zombies are doused with gasoline and incinerated, zombies are blown up, run over, decapitated and that’s the light stuff.  After seeing this movie my wife Patricia was speechless.  Seriously.   Depraved souls like myself are going to have a great time with this one.

You really have to throw out everything you thought you knew about movies to appreciate PLANET TERROR especially if you’re someone who’s never seen a movie that’s less than ten years old.  That’s because in terms of acting, cinematography, special effects and story, PLANET TERROR scores as being a successful throwback to the 70’s/80’s style of movie.  It looks, sounds and feels like somebody was rummaging around in a long forgotten storage room somewhere and found a lost John Carpenter flick from the 70’s.

A lot of the fun comes from the eclectic cast, all of whom look as if they’re having an absolute blast because they throw themselves in the ridiculously loopy story with gusto, energy.   While they’re all having fun with the material they respect it and make even the most bizarrely outrageous plots twists seem logical.  Freddy Rodriguez is really good as the mysterious badass El Wray who apparently can do anything and do it with a James Coburn-ish cool I found tremendously appealing.  And it adds to his mystique and badass status that El Wray is an average sized, average looking guy.  He certainly doesn’t look like a cat who can walk through a wall of zombies with nothing but a pair of switchblades and take ‘em all out.  Josh Brolin’s performance was one that struck me as oddly familiar for some reason and I couldn’t put my finger on it until the second time I watched the movie: he’s doing Nick Nolte.  In appearance, voice and mannerisms he’s a dead ringer for Nick Nolte in his younger days.  Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey are a lot of fun as brothers.  Biehn is the local law while Fahey runs the best BBQ shack in Texas.  They brothers have spent years feuding over the family BBQ recipe but put their differences aside to fight zombies.  There’s some nice cameos and small but memorable supporting bits courtesy of Stacy Ferguson (of The Black Eyed Peas) Bruce Willis, Nicky Katt, Tom Savini, the Original El Mariachi himself: Carlos Gallardo, Q.T. and Robert Rodriguez’s patch encrusted leather motorcycle jacket.

But the movie belongs to Rose McGowan and she knows it.  From her opening scene to the closing she owns the movie and strides through it with a confidence and sly smile that seems to be communicating something private to those of us watching it.  She’s beautiful, funny, serious, droll and best of all; she plays Cherry Darling with respect.  It can’t be easy playing a zombie fighting go-go dancer with an M-16 for a leg but she plays it straight enough with just the right shadings of humor that we go along with it.  I’d like to see Meryl Streep or Nicole Kidman try to play the same character half as well.

So should you see PLANET TERROR?  Absolutely.  I applaud Robert Rodriguez for saying “the hell with it” and just going all out crazy with this one.  I mean, if you’re gonna make a movie then dammit make a movie as if you’ll never make another one in your life and that’s how PLANET TERROR plays.  It’s a wonderful homage to a  style of filmmaking we don’t see anymore and it’s done with such brilliant energy and imaginative power that I was truly sorry when it ended and I can’t say that about too many movies I see these days.

But again I have to warn those of you who are sensitive to violence to steer clear of this one.  Especially since there’s a scene involving a little boy and a handgun.  I realize that even though it’s a movie there are those who take such scenes as that one very seriously and would rather not see scenes such as that one even though you don’t actually see anything.   And if you decide to Netflix both PLANET TERROR and “Death Proof” to watch on the same night (which is really the best way to see ‘em) let me make a suggestion: Watch “Death Proof” first then PLANET TERROR.  Even though in the theaters they were shown in the opposite order trust me on this one.  I think you’ll enjoy it a lot more.  Then go email Robert Rodriguez and demand a movie starring The Crazy Babysitter Twins.

105 minutes

Unrated