Michelle Rodriguez

Machete Kills

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Directed by Robert Rodriguez

Produced by Rick Schwartz and Alexander Rodnyansky

Screenplay by Kyle Ward

By now the story has become legend: 2010’s “Machete” was a full length feature film based on a fake trailer made for 2007’s “Grindhouse” which was a double feature of movies directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. “Grindhouse” was an ambitious experiment to recreate the movie-going experience of the 1970’s when grindhouse theaters showed double features of popular exploitation movies. Five fake trailers were made and of those, two movies actually were made; “Machete” and “Hobo With A Shotgun” starring Rutger Hauer. I’m still holding out for “Werewolf Women of The SS”

“Machete” turned out to be a really damn good movie with Danny Trejo backed up by an all-star supporting cast including Robert DeNiro, Steven Seagal, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson, Lindsey Lohan, Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba. Yeah, the plot was pure pulp absurdity but it was grounded in just enough reality to make the whole thing go down well. And even among all the wild shootouts and Danny Trejo chopping up everything in sight with everything he can get his hands on (one of the enjoyable bits of the movie is how Machete can improvise bladed weapons on the fly) Robert Rodriguez managed to get in some pretty on-point political statements about Mexican-American relations and illegal immigration. It also had Electra and Elise Avellan in nurses uniforms blasting away at rednecks with machine guns, so for me the movie was a major success.

Wish I could say the same about MACHETE KILLS. The initial set-up is just fine and had me sitting up straight to see what was going to happen next but director Rodriguez and his screenwriter Kyle Ward just didn’t know when to leave well enough alone. Be patient just a bit and I’ll tell you where the movie went wrong for me.

Machete Cortez (Danny Trejo) and his girlfriend/partner Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba) are in the middle of breaking up an illegal arms sale on the Texas/Mexico border. Members of the Texas Army Reserve are selling military weapons to a Mexican drug cartel. A third party intervenes, leaving everybody dead except for Machete who is captured by Sheriff Doakes (William Sadler) who intends to give Machete a quick trial and even quicker execution for messing up his arms deal.

Reprieve comes in the form of not the governor but The President of The United States himself; President Rathcock (Carlos Estevez/Charlie Sheen) who has a mission for Machete. He wants Machete to go back down to Mexico to find and assassinate the revolutionary Marcos Mendez aka The Madman (Demian Bichir) who has a nuclear missile pointed at Washington, D.C. Machete agrees and upon finding Mendez discovers that he has three separate personalities: there’s one who is an out and out psychopath and that’s the one who wants to destroy Washington, D.C. There’s the revolutionary who only wants what’s best for Mexico but doesn’t want to slaughter millions to do it. And then there’s the core personality which is that of Mendez, the undercover government agent who started this whole thing simply to get information on the drug cartels and was forced to watch his wife and daughter be killed.

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This is where I wanted Rodriguez to stop. Right there he had way more than enough plot and characters to work with and I’d have been happy with Machete struggling to stop this three-in-one villain. But no…he’s got to throw in Madame Desdemona (Sofia Vergara) and her crew of machine gun toting prostitutes to chase Machete as well as the metamorphing killer El Camaleon (Lady Gaga/Antonio Banderas/Cuba Gooding, Jr./Walton Goggins) This is before we get to the second half of the movie which is, believe it or not, a straight-up riff on “Moonraker” with Mel Gibson as the James Bondian villain Luther Voz who reveals that Mendez’s missile is only one of many he gave to mentally unstable world leaders so that they could fire them off at each other and destroy the world while Voz takes his selected people to his orbiting space station.

Now by the time we’ve gotten to this point of the movie, we’ve abandoned all reason and entered the realm of WTF as Rodriguez throws armies of killer clones at Machete, has him using a raygun that turns people inside out…and it doesn’t stop there. Voz rides around in a replica of Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder. We’ve got people being machine-gunned and then brought back from the dead.  Mexican workers are being teleported off the planet to labor on Voz’s space station and She (Michelle Rodriguez) no longer runs The Network from a dilapidated warehouse. Her new headquarters are as high-tech as the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier. It’s as if Machete/ Danny Trejo has been suddenly transplanted into the middle of a Derek Flint movie.

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Before watching this movie I had listened to the review done by the talented guys over at The Grind Pulp Podcast and they mentioned that they thought one of the things about this movie that was detrimental to it was that it looked “too good” and after having seen it for myself, I understand perfectly what they meant. Rodriguez totally abandons the grindhouse look that MACHETE KILLS cries out for. The movie should have looked aged, beat-up. In fact, the trailer for “Machete Kills Again…In Space!” looks the way this entire movie should have looked. I never thought I’d be complaining that a movie looked absolutely spectacular but in this case I am. MACHETE KILLS has amazing cinematography and it shouldn’t. The cinematography should look like shit. Seriously. You know what I mean.

But I’m glad to say that everybody in this movie looks as if they were having an absolute party making it. Everybody shamelessly steals every scene they get with Sofia Vergara and her gatling gun bra being among the standouts. But I totally loved Amber Heard as a secret agent whose cover is that of a professional beauty pagent contestant.

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The running gag of El Cameleon is the best one in the movie among all the craziness going on. Mel Gibson is totally off the wall as a James Bond supervillain and if you have any further doubts about how loopy everybody else is then lemme just say that when mollyfoggin’ Charlie Sheen is your most restrained cast member, nothing more needs be said.

And I have to mention Alexa Vega. As I said in a post on the Better In The Dark Facebook page, after seeing her in this movie I now have to throw away my “Spy Kids” videos as I fear that I can no longer watch the innocent little girl she was in those movies without having pervy old man thoughts of her as Killjoy infecting my consciousness:

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So should you see MACHETE KILLS? Chances are most of you reading this already have and so my review is irrelevant. For those of you who haven’t I’d recommend you catch a matinee if you really want to see it. Otherwise, wait for Netflix or until you can see it for free somewhere. I gotta say this is actually this first movie Robert Rodriguez made that I felt disappointment when the final credits rolled. I think he had the opportunity to continue to make Machete a truly unique Mexican hero and dropped the ball with this movie.

However we do have Electra and Elise Avellan in tuxedo jackets, stiletto heels and mini-skirts blasting away at clones with machine guns so the movie isn’t a total loss.

107 minutes

Rated R

 

 

Fast & Furious 6

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Directed by Justin Lin

Produced by Neal H. Moritz & Vin Diesel

Written by Chris Morgan

Based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson

If you want me to go into details about how I feel about the earlier entries in the immensely popular THE FAST & THE FURIOUS film series permit me to direct you to the episode of Better In The Dark where Tom Deja and I discussed the previous five films. For the purposes of this review just let me give you snapshots impressions:

The Fast and The Furious: a professionally made thriller that’s more of an urban crime movie about a conflicted undercover cop investigating petty criminals that happen to be street racers than a hyperactive action spectacular like the later movies.

2 Fast 2 Furious: Pretty much an episode of “Miami Vice” on steroids, this entry of the series is notable because it introduces the characters of Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej Parker (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) to the series. I don’t dislike it but I’m not crazy about it, either.

The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift: This is the one movie in the series I can say without reservation that I hate. The only reason to watch it is that it introduces Han (Sung Kang) who like Roman and Tej will play a larger and more interesting role in later movies. It’s also worth noting that even though Han dies in this movie he’s brought back in later ones by the simple explanation that Fast & Furious, Fast Five and FAST & FURIOUS 6 take place before The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift

Fast & Furious: The beginning of moving Dominic Torretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew from a team of petty criminals to a crew of international thieves as the movie begins with him, his girlfriend Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) Han and two new recruits, Leo (Tego Calderon) and Santos (Don Omar) hijacking fuel tankers in the Dominican Republic. I like the two new recruits a lot and this movie spends a lot of time on one of my favorite themes that run throughout all the Fast & Furious movies: Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) is a really shitty cop and both his fellow cops and crooks know it. The only person who doesn’t know it is Brian himself. Even other cops tell him he’d be happier going off the reservation since he’s way better at being a crook than a cop. Also it’s notable that this is the movie where Letty supposedly dies, setting up the motivation for Dominic and the crew to get involved in FAST & FURIOUS 6.

Fast Five: My favorite of the series so far. The movie makes the transition to full-blown heist caper with Dominic and Brian rounding up Han, Roman, Tej, Leo, Santos as well as Vince (Matt Scultze) who appeared in the first movie, ex-Mossad agent Gisele Yashar (Gal Gadot) who was in the last one and Dominic’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster.) Together the crew plans to steal $100 million from a corrupt South American businessman. The plan is complicated because of Dominic, Brian and Mia being blamed for the murders of several DEA agents. They’re being ruthlessly pursued by U.S. Diplomatic Security Service agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and his relentless team of manhunters. The movie plays out like a low-tech version of “Mission: Impossible.” And the plan for stealing the vault containing the money delights me to no end since its pretty much equal to a couple of teenage kids in a pickup truck hooking chains to a ATM standing outside the local bodega and driving off with it.

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Which brings us to FAST & FURIOUS 6. If “Fast Five” was a low-rent riff on “Mission: Impossible” then FAST & FURIOUS 6 is riffing on “The A-Team” as Dominic and Brian once again get the band back together to take on a high-tech team of mercenaries that are so far out of their league that Roman Pearce demands to know just who in the hell thought that they could take on this team in the first place. When a character played by Tyrese Gibson is your voice of reason, then you know the movie’s in trouble.

It’s also Roman Pearce who accurately points out the reason why Luke Hobbs has engaged them for this mission: the team led by Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) are basically evil dopplegangers of Dominic’s crew. But Shaw’s team has one major edge: Letty Ortiz who survived the events of “Fast & Furious” but is now an amnesiac. Shaw found her in the hospital and has indoctrinated her into his team.

Hobbs has tracked down Dominic and shows him a recent picture of Letty. Hobbs wants Dominic and his crew to help him take down Shaw. Shaw is stealing the components of a doomsday device called The Nightshade, a sort of super-EMP weapon that can black out entire cities. Dominic is in it just to get Letty back but Brian is smart enough to make a deal for the whole team: they all get full pardons so that they can return to the United States in peace. Hobbs agrees and our movie goes into full tilt boogie mode.

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FAST & FURIOUS 6 is a movie that I say is truthful in the titling. Is it Fast? Yes. Is it Furious? Yes. I myself think it’s a very smart move for the producers to turn the characters from minor league street racing hijackers to the blue collar version of Ocean’s Eleven. They’ve got just enough skill and nerve to place them a notch above common criminals and we see that Hobbs made a good decision to engage them to help him. It’s even validated by Shaw who tells his team that they’d do well to respect Dominic’s crew. The James Bond-ish MacGuffin is a nice way to kick the series up a further notch into the realm of international action/adventure and indeed, Luke Wilson’s Owen Shaw is a villain who wouldn’t have been out of place in a James Bond movie of the Pierce Brosnan or Timothy Dalton eras. Shaw even drives an Aston Martin which gave me a nice chuckle.

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It’s not a classic action movie by any means and in fact, some may say it has too much action. It’s the first movie I’ve seen in a long time that I actually felt exhausted by the time it got to the end. But it does have some really outstanding sequences including the crew trying to stop a speeding tank going down the wrong way on a highway and an entertaining fight scene on an airplane where Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson pretty much become a wrestling tag team.

I did miss Leo and Santos as they provided much of the humor in the previous movie and without them, the comedy relief falls on Tyrese Gibson and Chris Bridges, neither of them very funny far as I’m concerned but they try their best, I’ll give them that.

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So should you see FAST & FURIOUS 6? Sure, why not? It’s a totally inoffensive and highly entertaining time-waster. By now you know what these movies are all about so you shouldn’t be going to see FAST & FURIOUS 6 and then complaining because it’s nothing but loud, spectacular action sequences held together by just enough plot and characterization to keep things moving, Because that’s exactly what it is. But at the same time it’s not completely brain dead. It takes a considerable amount of time to making Letty’s return from the dead plausible and there’s some real conflict in her feelings for Shaw and her reawakening love for Dominic. And I appreciate that in the final action sequence, there’s something for every member of the team to do. It’s makes for a loud and crowded movie but a fun one.

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And there’s a post-credit scene that is a set-up for the inevitable “Fast & Furious 7” that will have you salivating. Trust me on this. Enjoy.

PG-13

130 Minutes 

Better In The Dark #136

 

 

Episode 136: NITRO COURAGEOUS–THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS SERIES

Just in time for Summer to, well, almost be over, Tom and Derrick kick off The Summer Of Speed with one of the most popular car-nographic film series of the modern era, The Fast and The Furious! Join the Boys Outta Brooklyn as they rev up their engines and race though all five adventures with automobile-loving rogue Dominic Toretto and the worst cop in the world, Brian O’Conner…in addition to the Roger Corman produced car racing melodrama that inspired the series. All this plus listener mail, what we really want to see Michelle Rodriguez do, and the continuing debate over whether Eva Mendes is hot in her own right or a Raquel Welch wannabe! You don’t wanna granny clutch that hoss, so get to clicking!

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Battle: Los Angeles

2011

Columbia Pictures

Directed by Jonathan Liebesman

Produced by Jeffrey Chernov and Neal H. Moritz

Written by Christopher Bertolini

Much of the creative entertainments we enjoy are done according to formula, agreed?  Why is such practiced, especially in movies?  Because there are certain movie formulas that are guaranteed to work no matter if the movie is made in 1959 or 1977 or in 2011.  Criticizing a Western for having gunfights at high noon, horses and buffalos is kinda silly because when you watch a Western you have certain expectations of what you’re going to see.  After all, isn’t that why you’re watching a Western?  Because you know the formula, you just want to see them played out in a different mix, is all.

Now, as my dear Aunt Lottie would put it; I say that to say this: I’ve read reviews criticizing BATTLE: LOS ANGELES for being a cliché war movie.  Not that the reviews are wrong.  In fact, it is a cliché war movie.  This is exactly the same kind of movie John Wayne and Audie Murphy were making back in the 40’s and 50’s except the enemies were German and Japanese soldiers, not aliens.  In fact, this could have been a war movie set in Afghanistan or Iraq as that’s how it’s played out: as a modern day war movie.  The only exceptional thing about the enemy is that they come from Outer Space and not Over There.

Meteors land in the waters off major coastal cities.  And inside the meteors are spacecraft containing hostile alien soldiers that swiftly spread into the cities, killing every human in sight.  They make no effort at communication and are not interested in taking prisoners for anal probing.  They’re simply and efficiently going about the job of exterminating the human race.

Marine Staff Sergeant Nanze (Aaron Eckhart) is forced to put off his retirement as he has to replace a platoon sergeant for an important mission.  The platoon he’s assigned to has to rescue civilians from an LAPD station within three hours.  That’s when the Air Force is going to carpet bomb the area.  The platoon commander, Lt. Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) is kinda leery about Nanze.  The Staff Sergeant is a good Marine, no doubt about that.  But a lot of rumors about Nanze’s last mission have been floating around Camp Pendleton that he doesn’t like.  But orders are orders and so the platoon is off on their mission.  One that swiftly goes wrong as they are ambushed time and again by the relentless alien invaders.

All that you can get just from the TV commercials and the trailers.  BATTLE: LOS ANGELES isn’t trying to make you think it’s going to be one thing, then get you in the theater to find out it’s something else.  It’s about a platoon of Marines trying their best to survive against an enemy they never dreamed they’d be facing.  The movie is as brutally uncomplicated as a cast iron skillet upside the head.  Before the invasion, we get brief vignettes of the various platoon members and they each are a proven War Movie Type: The Green Lieutenant Who Has No Combat Experience.  The Virgin.  The Heroic Black Guy.  The Soldier With A Dark Past.  The Soldier Who Choked Under Fire And Fears He’s A Coward.  And as you watch each one of their vignettes, go ahead and play the game of Who Gets Killed And In Which Order.

So what’s right about the movie?  Aaron Eckhart, who I’m convinced is incapable of turning in a bad performance.  He plays his role as if he’s assuming you’ve never seen a War Movie before.  Michelle Rodriguez surprised me in this one.  Usually she plays one of two roles: The Pissed-Off Latina With Bigger Balls Than Any Man or The Really Pissed-Off Latina With Bigger Balls Than Any Man.  But in this movie she dials her usual anger way back and comes off more as a person and less like a stereotype.

I also liked how we never really get to know the aliens or why they’re here.  Oh, there’s some kind of technobabble about them needing our resources but it’s really not necessary.  They’re The Enemy and that’s all we need to know.  The aliens are tough mollyfoggers but they’re not indestructible.  They’re worthy adversaries for the platoon.

What didn’t I like?  That damn shaky-cam.  The use of it renders the firefights a jumble of meaningless images.  The use of shaky-cam in this movie is so bad that in the first two firefights I could swear that the entire platoon was wiped out and I was honestly surprised when everybody regrouped alive and well.  Once the action starts, the Marines are difficult to tell apart.

So should you see BATTLE: LOS ANGELES?  Definitely.  It’s the very essence of a summer popcorn movie.

116 minutes

PG-13

Avatar

2009

20th Century Fox/Lightstorm Entertainment

Written and Directed by James Cameron

Produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau

I have to be honest and confess that I’m biased when it comes to James Cameron because he hasn’t yet made a movie I haven’t liked.  Which compared to a lot of other filmmakers isn’t a lot.  I mean, counting AVATAR he’s directed eight movies in thirty years.  We’ve got directors who have made thirty movies in eight years.  But James Cameron’s movies are all ‘event’ movies and he’s such a meticulous director/writer that he’s in no rush to make a movie just to make a movie.  He makes movies that are entire worlds that draw us in and engage us totally and completely into what is happening on the screen.  Twenty minutes into AVATAR I completely forgot I was looking at SFX and CGI characters and digital sets.  That’s how immersed into the story and characters I was.  And I attribute that to the genius of James Cameron.  Unlike directors like Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich he knows how to spend half a billion bucks on a movie that makes me feel like I haven’t wasted my money or more importantly, my time.

The planet Pandora is extraordinarily hostile to human beings.  Even the air is toxic and it seems like every animal on the planet is out to eat every other animal.  Pandora also is rich with the mineral unobtanium which is being mined by a corporation that is never named but I’d be willing to bet my ‘Alien’ DVD it’s Weyland-Yutani. The use of unobtanium made me laugh as that fictional element has a very long history in science fiction.  Since seeing this movie I’ve heard from so-called science fiction fans complaining about how corny the name unobtanium is and that a name that sounded more realistic should have been used.  Which immediately told me that these ‘fans’ weren’t as knowledgeable about sci-fi as they thought they were.   The corporation has recruited an army of mercenaries as security to protect the workers from the many dangerous life-forms. Pandora is also inhabited by the Na’vi.  An azure-skinned, humanoid race, nine feet tall that live in a quasi-symbiotic relationship with the animals and the land.

Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has helped develop the Avatar Program. Avatars are Na’vi/Human clones bio-engineered to enable humans to interact with the Na’vi.  Humans are linked to their specific Avatars and control them while their human body sleeps.  This is particularly appealing to paraplegic ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington).  Jake is invited to join The Avatar Program due to his twin brother’s untimely death.  Since his DNA is identical to his brother’s, Jake can link with his Avatar.  This doesn’t sit well with Dr. Augustine but it works out just fine for Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who sees this as an opportunity to get valuable intelligence on the Na’vi.  Quaritch dangles the promise of surgery that will restore the full use of his legs to Jake.  And naturally Jake accepts the deal

Jake’s first time out in the bush in his Avatar ends up with him lost in the jungle which he is woefully unsuited to survive in, despite his Marine training.  Luckily for him he’s rescued by a Na’vi warrior woman, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who takes him back to her clan.  There are a couple of her clansmen who aren’t happy with this.  Her father Eytucan (Wes Studi) the leader of the clan and his heir, the clan’s best warrior Tsu’Tey (Laz Alonso) who’d cheerfully cut Jake’s throat if it wasn’t for the clan’s queen and spiritual leader Mo’at (CCH Pounder) who persuades her husband to let Jake stay and learn their ways while they learn more about him.  Neytiri is charged with teaching the outsider how to be a true Na’vi.  And she does a good job of it.  A really good job.  Maybe too good as it turns out.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way right up front. You’ve probably heard that AVATAR is a big budget remake of “Dances With Wolves” in sci-fi drag and to an extent, it’s correct.  But I’ve seen plenty of other westerns about a white man going ‘native’ and adopting another culture.  There’s elements of “Lord Jim” and “The Last Samurai” and “The Mission” in here as well along with half a dozen other movies.

But AVATAR is told so well and the special effects are so magnificent that all that becomes unimportant.  James Cameron spends a considerable amount of time on the Na’vi way of life as seen through the eyes of Jake and we, along with him soon have a respect and fascination for their world and their relationship.  Sam Worthington really sells the movie, along with Sigourney Weaver; whose Avatar is so realistic and looks so much like her it’s almost creepy.

And any director who can make me like Michelle Rodriguez is okay in my book.  For once she’s not playing the perpetually pissed-off Latina and does some real acting here.  Giovanni Ribisi and Stephen Lang aren’t served as well as the other actors by the screenplay.  Their characters are so one dimensional that right from their first scenes they’re gnashing their teeth, yelling “Crush!  Kill!  Destroy!”and planning to wipe out the Na’vi.  And that’s just about the same note they play through the whole movie.

And AVATAR makes the same mistake “Star Trek: Insurrection” made.  Remember how in that movie Starfleet wanted to remove a relatively small group of natives off their own world in order to exploit the anti-aging properties of the planet?  Now the big flaw in that thinking was this: why couldn’t everybody share the planet?  I mean, it’s a pretty big planet.  Lots of room for all, I should think.   In AVATAR, whenever Giovanni Ribisi started in about there being such a rich deposit of unobtanium under the sacred Hometree I asked myself why couldn’t the corporation find another deposit somewhere on the planet and spare everyone a lot of needless bloodshed and violence.  But James Cameron works so hard at making us hate the corporation and the mercenaries that angle is never explored.  And Cameron pounds the pro-environmental angle into our foreheads at every single opportunity in a not very subtle fashion.

Having said all that is AVATAR worth your time?  Sure it is.  It’s a James Cameron movie and once again he’s presented us a movie full of life, meticulous detail, astounding action sequences and exceptional acting.  Sure the story is pure 50’s science fiction pulp adventure but its 50’s science fiction pulp that makes us care about what we’re watching and that makes all the difference.

162 minutes

PG-13