Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Machete Kills (2013)

Back in 2007, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez joined forces to pay homage to the gratuitous sex and violence of the grindhouse era of cinema in their double feature theatrical release Grindhouse, combining Rodriquez's Planet Terror and Tarantino's Death Proof. At the time, several fake trailers for non-existent exploitation flicks were produced, to enhance the grindhouse experience of the double feature. One of them, Robert Rodriguez's Machete, starring Danny Trejo as the titular Mexican ex-fed, eventually blossomed into a feature film that was released in 2010. It was spectacularly gratuitous. And in 2013, it got a sequel - Machete Kills.

Machete Kills is every bit as bombastic as Machete was. Danny Trejo returns, with another star-studded ensemble cast. Particularly noteworthy were Mel Gibson's appearance as a tech CEO/cultleader, and Lady Gaga (among others) as a shapeshifting bounty hunter. Charlie Sheen (billed as Carlos Estevez) stars as the President of the United States, and Demian Bichir plays one of the film's most charismatic characters, a Mexican crimelord-turned-revolutionary. As for Machete himself, if this wasn't the case already, his international reputation, fighting prowess, and survivability is growing to superhero levels.

The stakes are high in this installment of the Machete series, with a threat that eventually escalates to the level of nuclear holocaust, giving the film the feeling of a gratuitous Mexican version of a James Bond flick. The sexual innuendo is blatant (if never very explicit), the violence as gore-tastic and over-the-top as ever (I loved the molecular blaster), and the straight-faced humor heavy. In fact, what might have begun as an ode to the grindhouse days seems to be evolving into something of a tongue-in-cheek parody (making comparisons to Austin Powers more and more applicable).

But it is a loving and playful parody. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the film's unselfconscious treatment of its own advertising potential. Since Machete began life as a trailer, it doesn't seem so out of place that Machete Kills plays up a new trailer to its own as-yet-unproduced sequel (which, I'll be honest, if I didn't see it listed as "in production" on IMDb, I would have thought was just a joke) Machete Kills Again... In Space! - which obviously parodies both Star Wars and Jason X (featuring that other popular violent marauder who loves to wield a machete). If you think that's taking even over-the-top to an over the top level, I'd be inclined to agree. But you have to admit, Danny Trejo wielding a light-machete is an image too hilarious not to take advantage of!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

I've never exactly been a Planet of the Apes geek, following the franchise through countless films over the years, but I've always appreciated the original, and its fertile sci-fi premise. I can't imagine this is actually a spoiler anymore, as it's probably on the level of Darth Vader's paternal relationship to Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy, but the big reveal at the end, that the Planet of the Apes was really Earth all along, is perhaps one of the most stunning and emotional twist endings in popular sci-fi history.

Naturally, being a prequel of sorts, Rise of the Planet of the Apes makes no secret of that fact and chooses to explore how modern technology and human civilization as we know it (more or less) today could possibly have led to the passing of the baton from humans to apes, and in the Earth originally becoming the Planet of the Apes. Which is also a fascinating premise, especially given how familiar most people are with the old story. Modern cinema technology, also, has enabled us to tell a convincing and emotive story featuring apes as central characters who are not (yet) evolved "ape-men", and are closer to the "primative" ancestors that live in zoos and jungles today.

I missed Rise of the Planet of the Apes when it played in theaters, but I heard a lot of good things about it, both from the press, and from people I know who had seen it. And with the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, scheduled to hit theaters very soon, I made it a priority to sit down and watch Rise in preparation. And my verdict is that it was as good as everyone says. The story was fantastic, the digital effects impressive, and the characters sympathetic. Especially Caesar, the chimp who changes everything - brought to life by Andy Serkis, the man behind Gollum in the Lord of the Rings.

I also appreciated the little nods to the classic Planet of the Apes - as well as, presumably, the future fate of this story - both in the appropriate placement of the infamous line "get your stinking paw off me, you damn, dirty ape", and in the subtle hints at the manned Mars mission which apparently goes missing. I'm not sure what the plans are for this movie franchise, but I would be excited if they make it into a trilogy, with the final installment tackling the original Planet of the Apes plotline, with all of the precedent and creative talent of the other two titles in the series backing it up.

I am now looking forward even more to the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I'm not sure what story it will tell, but I hope it's some intermediary, further tracking the progress of the ape revolution in taking the planet over from the humans. I thought the plot device of the man-made chemical - developed in the relentless pursuit of science to conquer man's weaknesses - being responsible not only for the intellectual evolution of the apes, but also (spoiler) the ostensible extinction of man via viral pandemic was clever, unexpectedly propitious (from the perspective of the apes' coming revolution), and also reflective of modern fears (I couldn't help thinking of 28 Days Later at various points in this film).

I look forward to the continuation of the story in the sequel.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Maleficent (2014)

I was excited to go out and see Maleficent since it features the darling Elle Fanning as a Disney Princess (Aurora by name), even though the entire concept of the film is a re-envisioning of Sleeping Beauty with the focus not on the princess but on the evil villain Maleficent - played to great fanfare by Angelina Jolie. To prep for the new movie, I watched Disney's original Sleeping Beauty from all the way back in 1959. It suffers from the same singing-animals-and-happily-ever-after tone as your typical Disney movie (unlike, say Dragonslayer), but, the animation looks very nice, and at least as far as Disney movies go, it was pretty good. Maleficent herself makes a very brilliant and terrifying villain, culminating in a climactic scene involving her transformation into a vicious dragon.

This is all the more reason why a new take on Sleeping Beauty with Maleficent at the center of the story was such a good idea. Unfortunately, though, instead of being a chilling portrait of a villain (like, say, Maniac was), this movie goes a little too far in making the character sympathetic, such that it ultimately takes her fangs away to a large extent. It doesn't even work very well as an exploration of how somebody good could ultimately turn so cruel, because in the end, she's never actually that cruel. That's not to say that this version of Maleficent is not a good character - and truly, Angelina Jolie is fantastic in the role - but it just doesn't feel like the terrifyingly sadistic villain everybody loved to hate from the original Sleeping Beauty.

Indeed, one of the prime directives of this movie seems to be to spin a new yarn, revealing the "truth" of how things happened differently from the fairy tale everyone knows and loves, and manages to succeed pretty well on that count, in subverting some of the crucial plot details and playing with fans' expectations. For this reason, I was glad I went back and watched the original Sleeping Beauty first, to be able to appreciate these new twists, although the ultimate determination of which was the better story will be up to the individual fans. Certainly, though the trope of subverting fan's expectations - particularly in fantasy tales - seems to be beginning to verge on the cliché these days, it may not have made much sense to tell the same story that's already been told before. And as much as I have the habit of going into a story I've seen or read before, and wanting things to happen just so, I think I learned with Carrie that it can be problematic if you follow the blueprint too closely.

My main criticism of Maleficent, other than de-villainizing the titular character (and not featuring more of the princess :p), is the abundance of digital effects in use. I think that ultimately it comes down to a matter of taste - because the effects are certainly not poorly done - I just think that too much of them makes the movie look too fake. And it may be ironic to call for realism in a fantasy story, but one of my favorite fantasy movies of all time is Legend; and while it utilized many fantastic elements, even if some of them ultimately looked "costumey", it just felt more real. I fear it may be evidence of me actually losing touch with modern sensibilities, because it's obvious that elaborate digital effects are the soup du jour. I think Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings looked fantastic, but ever since then, it's gotten out of hand (and the new Hobbit movies are victims of this as much as anything else), and every fantasy movie is starting to look the same, with the same ridiculous-looking digital creatures (not the same creatures, but the same stylized look).

All that having been said, despite all of these flaws, Maleficent was not a bad movie, and I enjoyed it, to the extent that I could. For those who like the story, or fans of fairy tales or animated features in general, I still recommend the original Sleeping Beauty from 1959. And a note to Elle Fanning's agents: please, oh please, somebody cast her in the role of an elven maiden. She's got the perfect look for it. Seriously, she could replace Orlando Bloom in the next Hobbit movie, or even play his daughter. It's the perfect match of character to actress, and I will be sad if noone capitalizes on it.

P.S. Juno Temple was completely wasted in a throwaway role as the prettiest of the three bumbling fairies (who, in this version of the story, offer none of the wisdom or pathos of their previous counterparts, and serve instead purely as The-Three Stooges-like comedic release).