Tag Archives: Robert Rodriguez

CAPSULE: FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: George Clooney,  , , , Ernest Liu, Fred Williamson, , Cheech Marin, ,

PLOT: Two vicious criminals take a preacher’s family hostage and head for a rendezvous at a biker bar in Mexico, but it turns out that the establishment is run by the undead.

Still from From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: From Dusk Till Dawn is really two different movies: it starts out as a gritty killers-on-the-lam flick, then turns into a campy horror film once dusk falls. Unfortunately, the first movie really sucks, and the second one has some great set pieces, but is spotty. And, although the collision of these two sensibilities is somewhat weird (though perhaps a better word is “jarring”), neither movie standing alone is bizarre enough for our tastes.

COMMENTS: As the first serious collaboration between two exploitation enfants terribles Robert Rodriguez (who directs here) and Quentin Tarantino (who wrote the screenplay and acts), From Dusk Till Dawn was a hugely anticipated project. You can tell by the lineup of talent eager to work with the duo: big-time star Harvey Keitel was joined by up-and-comers George Clooney, Juliette Lewis and Salma Hayek, with a cool comeback appearance by Fred Williamson and an exotic presence in the person of Cheech Marin (who plays three roles, for no particular reason). The triumph of Pulp Fiction was fresh in everyone’s mind, while Rodriguez was still considered of an indie legend for making El Mariachi for $7,000. The thought of these two collaborating on a vampire movie made hip 1990s cineastes salivate.

I have to say that at the time I was disappointed at the results, however, and in the two decades since my opinion of the film has only softened a little bit. It seems that Tarantino, unquestionably a genius director, envisioned Dusk as his big acting break. Casting himself as a sadistic nerd (so he wouldn’t have to stretch—zing!), QT wrote himself a role that dominates the early half of the film. He plays the live-wire with the itchy trigger finger who complcates the plot by killing everyone in sight, much to the exasperation of cooler-headed Clooney. The problem is, Tarantino is whiny-sounding and even whiny-looking, and rather than fearing him as a dangerously unhinged psychopath, you just want to slap him with the back of your hand (perhaps realizing this would be audience’s natural reaction, Tarantino scripted a scene where Clooney knocks him out with one swift backhand to his impossible-to-miss forehead).

Tarantino does do a good job of making you despise his character, but the problem with the film’s (completely unnecessary) first ten minutes is that it sets you up to despise everyone: Tarantino, Clooney, and most of their victims, including a ranger who goes on a rant about “Mongoloids” in the food service industry. The movie gets better when Harvey Keitel enters, and even better when Tarantino leaves. As a preacher of lapsed faith, Keitel is the first decent person to appear in Dusk—why wait until almost 20 minutes have passed to introduce the first likable character? Although almost half the movie is over at this point, things improve greatly once the killers and their hostages reach the”Titty Twister,” a South-of-the-Border den with enough sin stored up behind its Hellfire-spouting portals to put the entire city of Tijuana out of business. Inside, “Santanico Pandemonium” (how much better of a stripper name is that than “Kandy” or “Neveah”?) puts on a dance that’s so hot, she doesn’t even have to take her bikini off to make Tarantino’s eyes glaze over, and soon sexual tension leads to hot vampire action as a brood of bloodsuckers descend to feed on the assembled truckers and bikers. Unfortunately for the vampires, they decided to locate their lair in a bar with wooden chairs whose breakaway legs make for hundreds of perfect stakes, leading to vampire genocide on a massive scale. I would have gone with Naugahyde booths, but then vampires never ask me for decorating tips.

Williamson and Savini are a treat as a pair of badasses and natural vampire killers. Savini has a crotch gun and kickboxing moves, Williamson has a cigar and the fact that he’s freakin’ Fred Williamson. Unlike Tarantino’s pedophile rapist, they are both exactly the type of characters that a fun B-movie romp needs. It’s great to see the undead meet their doom at the hands of stereotypical macho men—much more fun than it was too see innocent people tormented by a believable sex pervert in the movie’s opening reels. If From Dusk Till Dawn had started soon after Keitel made the scene and progressed more quickly to the Titty Twister, the movie could have earned a recommendation.  As it is, it’s a curious failure that has been surprisingly overrated by people who remember the vampire-stabbing fun of the pre-dawn finale, but forget the  incongruous and unpleasant pre-dusk sequences.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A deliriously trashy, exuberantly vulgar, lavishly appointed exploitation picture, this weird combo of roadkill movie and martial-arts vampire gorefest is made to order for the stimulation of teenage boys.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR (2014)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: , Powers Boothe, , , , , ,

PLOT: Three stories involving gamblers, thugs, private detectives, strippers, corrupt senators, and femme fatales, and other disreputable denizens of the mythical Sin City.

Still from Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It doesn’t do anything new or better to distinguish itself from its Certified Weird predecessor; not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, entertainment wise, but the original represents the Sin City franchise on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies well enough.

COMMENTS: First, the good (or bad) news: this 2014 followup does such a good job recreating the look and feel of the surprise 2005 hit, right down to renovating the rapidly aging faces of Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis to the point where they’re indistinguishable from their decade-younger selves, that you could edit the stories from A Dame to Kill For into the original Sin City and never notice the difference. The tangled timeline—some of the stories here take place before any of the events in the first movie, while others are roughly contemporaneous with it—helps with that sense that Dame is not so much a sequel (or prequel) as it is an organic extension of the original, almost as if we were viewing deleted scenes. Returning from the first film is Rourke’s Marv, that slab of grizzled muscle with a vertical nose and a horizontal chin, who unites the stories and plays a supporting role in two out of three tales; Willis’ romantic cop Hartigan, in what is basically a cameo; and Jessica Alba’s diva stripper Nancy, now an alcoholic wreck. Josh Brolin tackles a younger (yet somehow more bitter and jaded) version of the role played by Clive Owen in the original, while Powers Boothe’s corrupt politico has a greatly expanded part as the new principal antagonist for two of the three characters. There are numerous callbacks to the previous films (e.g., a portrait of Nick Stahl’s Yellow Bastard on his fathers’ wall) and origin stories (we learn how Manute got his stylish gold eye). The real stars here are the new characters, though: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Johnny, a gambler with a golden touch whose boyish looks are a welcome contrast to the craggy male miens that otherwise populate the city, and especially Eva Green’s seductress Ava. Green is frequently nude—in fact, her first appearance naked, on a diving board in front of a digital moon, is itself justification for the movie’s existence—but she is also the first female character in the Sin City universe who is a worthy adversary for a male. Her femme fatale performance is campy, but riveting, and with ruby red lips and turquoise eyes accentuating her classical black and white beauty, she’s a breathtaking update of the archetype. The digital cinematography is as crisp and beautiful as the original film: the whites of characters’ eyes sometimes appear to glow, as does their spurting blood, and there are wonderfully evocative effects like tendrils of steam that hang in midair without dissipating. There are scattered weird visual touches, the most impressive of which is a giant poker hand (you’ll know it when you see it). Overall, fans who loved their first visit should find plenty of reason to go slumming again in this City, while those who had their misgivings about the trip may find themselves depressed by the burg’s seedier aspects, now that it’s really showing its age.

Given that the new Sin City is pretty much of a piece with its predecessor, its lackluster performance with critics and box office patrons requires explanation. The core fanbase seems appeased, based on a decent 7.2 IMDB rating, so we assume that the movie failed to put casual fans’ butts in theater seats. The lesson is that nine years between installments is not exactly striking while the iron is hot, no matter how faithful to the original you make the followup.  On the critical side, Dame bashing may be partly a chance to reappraise the original, which caught reviewers by surprise with its technique. (Nathan Rabin candidly takes this tack in his review for The Dissolve). In 2005 nothing else quite leapt off the screen the way Sin City did, and the glowing visuals, star power and cinematic energy caught critics by surprise and allowed them to overlook the film’s many flaws: its painful faux-Chandler dialogue, pornographic brutality, and adolescent understanding of both masculinity and femininity. Since the visuals are no longer original, today’s reviewers appear to be looking past the screen’s gilded surface and letting their misgivings about the movie’s lack of any worldview beyond appreciation of the awesomeness of violence dictate their opinions.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it was easy to imagine that A Dame to Kill For would try to one-up the original, to push the envelope of perversity in some fresh and jarring (if likely unsuccessful) way. Instead, Rodriguez and Miller have erred in the opposite direction, offering up a movie that feels timid, half-hearted, eager to play it safe. The former path might have been a mistake. This one feels almost like a betrayal.”–Christopher Orr, The Atlantic (contemporaneous)

 

171. SIN CITY (2005)

“It’s pretty damn weird to eat people.”–Marv, Sin City

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , , Quentin Tarantino (“special guest director”)

FEATURING: , , , , Nick Stahl, Jaime King, , , , Brittany Murphy,

PLOT: The movie tells three stories (with some common characters) set in the mythical Basin City: in one, a police detective risks his life to stop a child-killer. In a second, a brutal, mentally ill criminal hunts down the men he believes killed the only woman who ever showed kindness to him. A final strand tells of a suave assassin who attempts to prevent someone else’s accidental killing from turning into an all-out war between the cops, the mafia, and the self-governing prostitutes of Old Town.

Still from Sin City (2005)
BACKGROUND:

  • A fan of Frank Miller’s original series of Sin City comics, Robert Rodriguez wanted to make the movie as true to the book as possible: “a translation, not an adaptation.” The actual comics were used as the storyboards. The stories selected were “The Hard Goodbye,” “The Big Fat Kill,” and “That Yellow Bastard” as well as the short “The Customer is Always Right.”
  • Rodriguez shot the opening segment, “The Customer is Always Right,” in one day as a proof-of-concept to convince Miller that he could do justice to the art style. He then used that clip to convince actors such as Bruce Willis and Benicio Del Toro to sign on to the project.
  • Rodriguez insisted that Miller receive a co-director credit on the film, but the Directors Guild of America objected to the credit (they do not allow co-directing). He then decided to give Miller full credit, but Miller refused. Rodriguez then resigned from the Guild so the co-directing credit could remain.
  • Quentin Tarantino directed a single scene in the movie (a segment from “The Big Fat Kill” involving a conversation between the severed head of Del Toro’s “Jackie-Boy” and Clive Owen’s “Dwight”). Tarantino directed for a salary of $1 as a way to repay Rodriguez for composing music for Kill Bill: Vol. 2 for $1.
  • The movie was entirely shot on Rodriguez’s “digital backlot” (green screen studio) near his home in Austin, Texas.
  • Sin City screened in competition at Cannes and won the Technical Grand Prize.
  • Plans for a sequel (based on Miller’s “A Dame to Kill For“) were announced immediately after the film was completed; the followup feature was delayed until 2014, however.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: From the very first frame—a woman in a blood-red backless cocktail dress on a balcony staring out over a steel-grey city—Sin City‘s pulp Expressionism is consistently startling and poetic. Since we’re fascinated by the weird, we’ll select the first sight of the Yellow Bastard, the bald, satellite dish-eared pedophile killer dyed the color of French’s mustard, as our unforgettable take-home image from the movie.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A marriage between the mythologies of film noir and violent comics, Sin City‘s bloody tales are set in an abstract urban hellscape inhabited by invulnerable tough guys and rough sexy dames. They play like the lost works of Raymond Chandler’s alternate universe grandson, written to scrape up a few bucks for a bottle of booze while he was down and out in Gotham City. With a cast of cannibal serial killers, jaundiced pedophiles and ninja hookers, the adventures of the hard-boiled demigods of Sin City are as fantastical as its random splotches of color in a monochrome landscape are visually unreal.


Original trailer for Sin City

COMMENTS: Sin City earns its “recommended” label almost solely on the basis of its visuals (bolstered by some finely weird touches), and not for its Continue reading 171. SIN CITY (2005)

CAPSULE: THE ADVENTURES OF SHARKBOY AND LAVAGIRL IN 3-D (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Rodriguez

FEATURING: George Lopez, Cayden Boyd, Taylor Lautner, Taylor Dooley

PLOT:  Dreamy young Max invents the imaginary superheroes Sharkboy and Lavagirl from

Still from The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3D (2005)

Planet Drool to brighten his dull existence; when his dream journal is stolen by a schoolyard bully, Planet Drool is taken over by tyrants and his imaginary friends whisk him away to his disintegrating dream world to set things right.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  The childishly imaginative The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3D shows all the evidence of having been taken out of the hands of the original scenarist, 7 year old Racer Max Rodriguez, and script-doctored to fit into a kiddie film format that would be more comfortable for adults.  The tale heads off in weird directions, obliterating the line between fantasy and reality as it meanders down a stream-of-consciousness style from superheroes to roller coasters to electrical plug villains to omniscient floating head robots.  It’s a near-perfect exhibition of the hyperactive schizophrenia of a typical seven-year old.  So far, so good; but then, someone—my money is on director Robert Rodriguez—imposed a standard three-act structure on the story, smoothed out the non-sequiturs, and tossed in a moral about realizing your dreams to placate stern, rational adults.  Had they stuck to Racer’s original vision, Sharkboy and Lavagirl, as the first script actually written by a seven year old, might have turned out as one of the weirdest movies ever made.

COMMENTS:  Sharks are not weird.  Pomegranates are weird.  I base this conclusion on the fact that the Armenian director Sergei Parajanov once chose to make a weird movie about pomegranates, but no one has ever made a weird movie about sharks.  Sharks are b-movie heavies, excuses for bad special effects and senseless gratuitous violence.  They serve the same cinematic purpose as other non-weird bad guy archetypes like giant spiders, psychotic killers in hockey-masks, and Paris Hilton.

Mega-sharks, on the other hand, may be weird, but I thought of them too late.

Robert Rodriguez, who alternates making weirdish adult cult movies like Grindhouse and Sin City with wacky children’s movies like the Spy Kids series, loves sharks, a love affair that began when Steven Spielberg’s Jaws premiered on his 7th birthday.  For recreation, he goes scuba diving in shark-infested waters in a steel cage.  He’s passed down his obsession with sharks to his son Racer, who, between the ages of six and seven, made up the character of Sharkboy in stories he told to amuse himself.  In an attempt to recapture the spirit of youth and create a movie that would appeal to directly to kids with as little adult intervention as possible, the elder Rodriguez took Racer’s ideas, dialogue and plot sketches (as verbatim as he could while still making a reasonably coherent movie), cast professional talent in the key roles, and directed his son’s daydreams in front state of the art green-screen special effects as The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl.
Sharkathalon!
I say this to explain why a weird movie website is covering a semi-weird, shark-lite, non-horror movie for the b-movie roundtable SHARKATHALON!, “week-long tribute to everything that has to do with sharks and horror films” scheduled to coincide with the 35th anniversary of the release of Jaws.  Fans of the toothy marine predators looking for tales of blood in the water, prepare for something completely different.

With those flimsy justifications out of the way, let’s jump into Racer’s kiddie shark pool, where the chum floating in the water isn’t chunks off a great white’s latest victim, but shreds of childhood dreams.

First off, forget 3-D.  Part of the reason this film was originally panned is because the 3-D effects, which came along at the very tail end of the red-blue glasses era and just before the contemporary polarized glasses became standard, just didn’t measure up.  The DVD comes with red-blue glasses and offers viewers the chance to torture themselves with them should they so wish, but most will be happy to stick to the standard flat-viewing experience.

The adventures begin with Sharkboy’s origin story: son of a marine biologist, separated from his father and lost in a CGI sea after a storm, adopted by talking sharks; naturally, his exposure to the sharky lifestyle results in him growing gills, fangs and fins.  Lavagirl, the affirmative-action superheroine added to tap into the lucrative girl market, doesn’t get an origin story; she Continue reading CAPSULE: THE ADVENTURES OF SHARKBOY AND LAVAGIRL IN 3-D (2005)