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A man like Neil Marshall makes Doomsday because he thought a futuristic soldier facing down a knight would be cool. A man like Neil Marshall makes two critically acclaimed horror movies and then obliterates expectations with his third.

A man like Neil Marshall is one the last great champions of genre cinema.

Though he’s in a league with Edgar Wright and Robert Rodriguez — the modern day John Carpenters of our world — he fell down with Doomsday, such that his next film, Centurion, went seemingly unnoticed, leaving his future in uncertain terms. It’s hard to believe, really, because the philosophy behind Doomsday was so genuine, though some might say naive. He wanted to make a movie so absurd you’d be compelled to laugh, but also find yourself enjoying some of the best R-rated sci-fi action in years — nobody makes movies quite like this anymore.

Dog Soldiers

I don’t think this is technically his feature debut, but it’s a strong start for a career nonetheless. Making use of minimalist settings and a creepy atmosphere, Marshall managed to make one of the few cool werewolf movies in existence. And certainly the last, though I’m sure a few movies made in direct answer to Twilight will challenge Dog Soldiers.

As one critic put it so well, this is like Alien, Predator, and Jaws all rolled up into one — but with werewolves. It feels derivative, but in that good way. It’s familiarity done with enough style and care that it feels fresh. There’s some gore, some ooh-rah soldier stuff, way too much foreshadowing, and a lame twist at the end. A formula for success, often necessary with such formulaic subject matter.

Right, there’s a lot of dog and wolf jokes/puns at the start of the movie. It feels like a beginner’s screenplay in that regard, but it isn’t quite enough to push it over the edge, into absurdity. Leave that for the one after next…

The Descent

I don’t care for this movie. It’s drawn out and the monsters are not scary or that well-designed. Visually, that is. In other regards, there’s implied history to them, and it’s pretty creepy, but I actually prefer the nonsense lizards from The Cave, or whatever the fuck. The Descent was white-knuckling in its first half, with these women being claustrophobic in caves, and getting stuck and running high tension. I can’t imagine a better place to set a horror movie. Cave-diving is not escapism, James Cameron.

The flaws of this movie, like the aloof narrative and out-of-the-blue moments could at the time be excused, or even appreciated, as horror movie unpredictableness, but the next movie would paint them in a new light.

Doomsday

When Doomsday was announced and the trailer was released, people whined. They said, “It’s 28 Days Later meets Mad Max meets Escape from New York.” Now, I don’t know what fucking planet these people live on, because no way does the combination of Mad Max and Escape from New York equal anything but Yeah. Was it just the derivative nature of the project that got people so frazzled? Perhaps it was an insult to their intelligence, because they perceived the movie to think it was being original, on the grounds that, well, most movies tend to do that. But of course the rip-offs were so glaring that it seemed to taunt the audience.

Doomsday, rather, the reaction to Doomsday, is proof that we live in a cynical movie-watching world. As soon as one watches the film, they’ll realize that the director was not only paying homage to these earlier movies, but having a complete blast with them. It’s the same principle, but on a much different level, as what Peter Jackson did with King Kong. Marshall wanted to introduce this genre to a wider audience, though he may not realize just how inventive the film actually is.

Yes, it uses the structure of Escape from New York as a base, but that’s fine because just like how Waterworld is a perfect Mad Max 3, this is a great sequel to Escape from L.A., following in the same conventions that that film set up — that being, this premise of crazy people clustered together is going to breed some batshit insane obstacles for the hero to meet. This post-apocalypse movie isn’t just about zombies or cannibals or viruses — Rhona Mitra’s character Maj. Eden Sinclair (awesome name) is going to fight medieval knights in an arena and get into car chases with barbarians who tape their beheaded girlfriends to one piece so they can drive together.

Doomsday in this regard recalls Total Recall, another gory 80s movie that didn’t come out in the 1980s. And much like Total Recall, Doomsday in its day was not well understood. There’s a joy in novelty and invention in Doomsday, and a lot of these scenarios and things are born out of sources we’ve all enjoyed, but kicked up to a new extreme. It’s not only one of the best sci-fi movies of the decade, but one of the goriest and most fun action movies too. This rabbit will be blown up by sentry turrets for — well, for absolutely no reason.

Marshall also introduces two things here that carry over into his next picture: a strong female character, and an impressive ability to have the audience invest in characters they know nothing about. For the latter, we have these two soldiers who survive by Sinclair’s side longer than they have any right to. I assumed they’d die at every encounter, because truly this is her show, and these guys have no characterization. What they do have, and this was seen in Dog Soldiers, is solid chemistry. Despite the carnage and the macabre setting, these two have a laugh as they take out cannibals with axes, and by goofing around — and even just surviving up to a late point — I didn’t want to see them die. For an action movie, this is a preferable, on-the-fly alternative to actual characterization. Good on you, Neil.

Then of course we have the tough girl, played by the woman who looks like a tough girl despite the beauty — Rhona Mitra. While she may not be as compelling to watch as the next female character to be discussed, Maj. Eden Sinclair is one cool chick, with a fake eye and a knack for killing gladiators. She’s a badass, but she’s a believable badass. Not only does Rhona Mitra look like an athletically capable woman (rather than Milly from Hard Revenge Milly, to use a recent example, who looks like a pretty normal person you’d see walking around), she isn’t the action hero god that trounces everyone. She gets beat up and tossed around, and this puts her on an equal playing field with the villains.

Last post I lamented the fact that Milly wasn’t the action hero god. That’s because I want a movie like hers to be a slasher flick, but with Doomsday, it’s more appropriate that Sinclair is a realistic badass. It heightens her moments of victory, and adds tension to hand-to-hand fight scenes with spears in swords… in the future.

Doomsday will keep you guessing, and Neil Marshall leaves you in good hands with Eden Sinclair, who’s got the tacit nature of her most obvious inspiration — Snake Plissken — with an all-soldier, no fucking around attitude that’s pretty rare, even for dude action heroes. It’s confidence without the one-liners, and the badassery to back it up.

Neil Marshall is also ballsy enough to take an unbelievably beautiful South African stunt woman and paint her face beyond recognition, and then behead her… and then reattach the head in vain. I am so ashamed that I skipped this movie when it came out in theatres. It’s right up there with Slither and so many others…

Centurion

Doomsday was a sci-fi movie that wanted to be a sword-and-sandals movie, so let’s just make a sword-and-sandals movie. While this one lacks the wacky nature and imagination of its predecessor, it has the same level of bloodshed and action. If you’re in town for a straightforward, bruising actioner, Marshall is your man. Centurion stars Michael Fassbender and Jimmy McNulty himself as soldiers of the Ninth Legion, which went missing during the expansion into Pict territory. This is that story, though historical accuracy is not something we come to a movie like this for.

We come because we know it’s going to be a ride, one with plenty of blood and running around in beautiful Scotland scenery. There’s also a lovely Olga Kurylenko all done up to look like a barbarian, whose Etain is savage as hell but still manages to look sexy. Indeed she is the greatest draw, and plays a great part in the film. Centurion, despite the violence and overall intensity (“I AM A SOLDIER OF ROME! I WILL NOT YAAYLD!”), borders on generic, and requires that iconic image of deadly Etain with her facepaint to stand out.

There was a moment in Centurion where I felt the story could’ve capitalized on the L.L. Cool J mentality from Deep Blue Sea, that of having two stories interwoven, where one is basically irrelevant and all the better for it, but the two soldier who get separated don’t have much screentime as such, and leads to an anti-climax within the narrative. I really thought that dude was gonna kill those wolves and make it back, which would’ve made no sense and been more Marshallian.

There’s kid killing and CG blood explosions — that which we adore from Doomsday, but none of the same elements that make you say ‘wow’ and sit up, save for a particularly nasty eye-trauma. Good, but not great. Memorable certainly for Etain, a performance that’s subtely animal, though we get the feeling that a great deal is blasting through that bloodthirsty brain of hers, maybe even some humanity.

Conclusion

Neil Marshall is a complicated thing. We’re not used to filmmakers who make movies because that’s their interest, and they want to make movies. Odd as it is to say. He’s not interested in the business or in making money, but having fun, which produces some of the most unpredictable and lively entertainment in movies today. Whatever his next movie will be, I can’t guess at subject matter, certainly, I can only hope that it arrives soon.

Four Brothers was a faulty sign of things to come. While Baby Boy (2001) proved to be Singleton’s last filmed screenplay, 2 Fast 2 Furious and Abduction reach into realms I’m not entirely comfortable exploring. This revenge drama, while not his original screenplay, held promise. It tells the story of the titular four brothers, who return home to figure out and deal with those responsible for the shooting death of the kindest old lady on the block, she who took them all in off the streets. With the death scene, I was immediately reminded of a similar revenge movie I saw recently, Death Sentence, which took a lot longer to get to this same moment, the convenience store catalyst. Right away Four Brothers was doing things right, but it what it became wasn’t what I anticipated.

When the credits rolled I thought, “Okay.” I recognized that I had enjoyed it throughout the 100-minute or so run, but the movie limps to a pretty unsatisfying conclusion, much unlike other classic revenge tales like Oldboy or Death Sentence, or Death Wish III, or even the bad ones like The Punisher (2004). The violence level was really off the charts, but in a bad way. Singleton isn’t exactly known for being gratuitous with brutality, but I’d wholeheartedly hoped this would be a good time to try it out. Not a lot of action really happens here, which is a disappointment because not a lot else happens either…

The four brothers go around gathering information, and fighting amongst themselves, and their chemistry is ultimately what sells the movie, because a lot that happens is uneventful. Sofia Vergara raises a fit, Mark Wahlberg and Garret Hedlund sulk around, and every now and again there’ll be a chase scene, or one very dull shootout. Character interactions between these four actors is great, and makes the movie very watchable. I suppose it’d be up to you to decide if that’s a good enough reason to watch this movie, because it might just be the only one. It’s a fun script — a relief, and a great cast.

One of the actors in this movie I’m particularly enamored of is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who’s played sympathetic villains in two of the best science-fiction movies of the decade, and returns here for quite the opposite. He’s straightforwardly evil, which is fine, but it’s that he’s essentially a blaxploitation villain is maybe a little tonally inconsistent. It’s very nearly Punisher (2004) syndrome, where John Travolta plays a text-book bad villain, but we’re only laughing with Ejiofor, and not at him. Either way, he’s not really filling the role — Garret Hedlund in Death Sentence was more effective, and I guess he’s also pretty good here as well, on the opposite side of the vengeance.

I think I’ve been negative so far about Four Brothers, and that’s wrong, because I did think it was good, and at times, especially toward the beginning, fairly effective. Singleton is not only a great director of actors, but a solid storyteller. He knows how emotions translate through the camera, and he’s got a great, and unpretentious, eye for composition. The prevailing issue to me is that Four Brothers goes in directions in the second act. I sort of like the idea that a lot of unresolved thematic areas happen here, because it gives the movie larger scope than it had, but midway through the movie you figure everything out and think, that’s pretty good, only to have it not be the case later on.

The car chase is what I’m referring to. Marky Mark and Tyrese manage to run their enemies off the road, or the car flips over, and they rush out to go after the suspected killers. Hedlund is told to wait, and the two guys drag the murderers out, start beating on them, and shoot them. Hedlund’s expression here and the camerwork give us the idea that Four Brothers would be a Nietzschean fable akin to Death Sentence, but with that hood film twist. It’d be something about how these thugs were redeemed by this woman, but in attempting to avenge her, they began to return to where they started — you can never get out of the game. I think that’s what Singleton was going for in this scene, but… it was only a scene. The story continued on in its blaxploitation fun n games.

It felt more interested in the involved story, which dealt with a conspiracy of sorts, and organized crime, and even city government. This is fine, but it’s only fine, where Four Brothers could’ve been poigniant and maybe disturbing. Basically if it were injected with Singleton DNA — the same criticism I had for Rosewood — it would’ve taken that necessary step and been great. As it is, Four Brothers is good.

Like Ridley Scott, Mamoru Oshii is an unsung hero of science-fiction in film. He became a name among nerds in America in 1995 with the global release of Ghost in the Shell, a film that touted itself as the next Akira, as I suppose every anime movie does or should. It was based on a manga by Masamune Shirow, but having read quite a bit of the source material myself (ten pages?), I can tell you that the movie is definitively a product of Oshii.

We can also see this as true because another Shirow flick, Appleseed, is child’s fare intellectually compared to Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell. The man has a style, he has obnoxious signatures, but above all, he’s willing to use the medium of film to do what so few other science-fiction filmmakers dare to do – explore. Whether it’s ideas of personal or metaphysical philosophy or new and profound imagery, Oshii always has something fascinating to say, and an equally fascinating way to say it.

I think I’ll paraphrase a quote used to compliment The Fountain – something like it’s a film that’s as deeply felt as it is imagined. That’s a beautiful criticism, and for a cerebral, thoughtful science-fiction film, I can think of no higher accolade. Such an accolade can easily be applied to movies like Ghost in the Shell, Innocence, Avalon, Patlabor 2 (though I really didn’t like that one), and even Jin-Roh, though he didn’t direct that one (it’ll still be covered here). Sure, his movies lack the emotional depth of The Fountain, but they make up for it in science-fiction themes generally unique to the director.

His visuals are matched by their ideas, and in this was he’s a director who fills out what I believe to be the height of science-fiction film. If the greatest, most important sci-fi flick is Blade Runner, this is because it makes us think, maybe it scares us into thinking but I like to think it moves us to do it as well, and dazzles us with visuals that spark our imaginations.

That is what I ask of sci-fi filmmakers to do, because I personally find that to be the best, most engaging experience I can have watching a movie. The images and thoughts of Oshii linger in my head long after the Major’s joined the Sea of Information, long after Ash has joined the Sea of Information, long after Batou has… walked off with a dog.

I also got some of his older stuff in the mail, two of which I haven’t even seen. Hopefully they’re good, because that’s what we’re starting with…

 

It took me two and a half viewings to realize that after all, I did enjoy the Inglourious Basterds; the experience was just muddled by some requisite qualifications. This is not the QT’s finest hour, though it does follow the path he’s always followed, which was made most obvious in his most finest hour with the first half of Kill Bill. Indeed what worked so beautifully in the Kill Bill saga begins to fall apart here, so this is one of those cases where it’s a swing and a miss, but it’s a hefty swing.

The genre filmmakers to look out for nowadays seem to dabble in making movies paying homage to the flicks they grew up with – you know, your Eli Roths and Robert Rodriguez’s, even Edgar Wright and Takashi Miike – and leading them is Tarantino. By this time we could judge what Tarantino’s favorite genres are by just reviewing his small but impressive filmography, and note that western is high up there. There are moments in Basterds that feel downright Leone (or possibly Corbucci, but I suppose we’ll see that in Django Unchained), and these are the moments that work the best.

 

Otherwise you can break the movie down into a few pieces: tense dialogues, lighthearted dialogues, and really boring bits that seem to do nothing. Practically every moment with the character Shoshanna was unmemorable and really rather dull to me; I didn’t care for this character when she’s so obviously standing in the shadow of a tried and true archetype – the squad. The titular Basterds are The Dirty Dozen, are the Inglorious Bastards, are every men-on-a-mission movie men on a mission we’ve ever seen. When they’re on-screen, the movie actually comes across as more of a western, and this is hugely entertaining. When Shoshanna is on-screen, she’s usually just plotting, and this is so goddamn boring.

The best that this movie can be is entertaining, and I suppose that’s just what Tarantino set out to do with this one. Whereas legitimate themes could be extrapolated out of Death Proof, I feel that Tarantino wasn’t trying to say much here. Rather, he crafts an intricate escapist fantasy where Hitler was brutally murdered by Jewish soldiers, and everything is just like it was in the movies.

 

 

The genre-mixing and film-within-a-film are what pay homage to earlier movies, and it sets up this fantasy world where the one goal is entertainment. And it is entertaining – people don’t make movies like this, QT is one of a kind and I’m thankful for his cinematic contributions. When the movie slows down and gets involved with its characters, who by purpose must be archetypes, I too slow down and check my watch.

Unfortunately for Inglourious Basterds the movie also just made me wish Tarantino had done a straight western, and nix the war setting altogether. Even if he didn’t, he really should’ve called the movie Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France. Bit of a mouthful, but the joke would’ve landed better.

 

Quentin Tarantino. At this point I’d say he’s infamous – after his involvement with Grindhouse and the completion of his two-part magnum opus, people began to look back on his older stuff and realize that he’s been doing the same thing the whole time; he never changed. Reservoir Dogs was an homage to movies of its ilk, and Pulp Fiction was a melting pot of just about everything. Maybe people think he’s a one trick pony because this is all he does, on top of writing cute dialogue, but hey as long as he’s the only one doing it – or the only getting it right – I’ll eagerly await the releases of his future projects.

Major Spoilers for Death Proof

Grindhouse is a strange entity. Its two halves are Planet Terror, as directed by Dreck Fiction favorite Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. Both are homages to an earlier time, earlier genres, and earlier attitudes. It’s critical consensus that while Planet Terror is the truer half, as it’s fun and creatively gory, Death Proof is the better film. In my opinion, they’re both surpassed by the film from years earlier, From Dusk Till Dawn, which was the spiritual predecessor to Grindhouse (just check out every review of the movie ever written, and you’ll find people jumping all over it for being two movies in one). I do think that on the whole Planet Terror is more fun, and that’s the one that I chose to have on the Blu-ray Disc. I guess you can only have one.

That’s another problem with Grindhouse; because one of the major criticisms of fans was that it was too long, which seems rather imbecilic, the home release was split up into two movies. Rather than having Grindhouse on DVD and PSP we have Grindhouse Presents Planet Terror and Grindhouse Presents Death Proof, I believe. Nowhere except for on the Internet can the fake trailers be located. At least, they aren’t on Planet Terror‘s disc, aside from Machete, which remains better than the expanded version by ten miles.

Death Proof, just like its parent in Grindhouse, is a strange entity. It too is split up into two movies, or at least, we have two major groups of characters in two separate plotlines. The first, which drags, follows around potential victims of serial killer Stuntman Mike. Most of the action takes place in the bar, and invariably, these characters – four girls – are overshadowed and outdone by the surprise faces in the bar like Eli Roth and of course, Quentin Tarantino. QT is found playing the one role he always plays, perhaps the role he was meant to play – some scheezy guy.

Once this segment is out of the way we’re introduced immediately to a group of girls that are most interesting in every way. Among them is Rosario Dawson, who I’ve always been enamored of, and who’s kind of a cult favorite after movies like Sin City and Clerks 2. We also see Mary Elizabeth Winstead, mentioned earlier in the Scott Pilgrim vs. The World review. She plays a much different character here.

In Scott Pilgrim vs. The World she plays a darker, more broken character. Yet she is in a comedy film. Here, in this horror/comedy, she is the comic relief. We’re supposed to laugh at her because she’s too damn happy, too dumb, too girly. The disparity between Lee in Death Proof and Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World really speaks to a subtle acting prowess – she’s entirely convincing in both roles, yet one appears very distracted and sunny, and the other is serious and more complex.

Lee plays a significant role, just as all the other girls in the film do. This is a movie about females, about female empowerment and film postmodernism. Death Proof overall is about Quentin Tarantino, and his DJ stylings – he takes characters from the mythology of film and mixes and matches. Here we find a serial killer from a Wes Craven slasher movie – but the twist is that he’s out of place. We have a commentary on the passing of time in film as enhanced by the theme of female progression. The ultimate triumph in the story is of girls over the slasher, and this happens only after the slasher’s been taken out of his 70’s environment, where he has the power to kill Rose McGowan and all the other girls of the first group.

In order to arrive at that point we need to experience the various female cliches and archetypes established by earlier movies. Lee’s character is summarized in her appearance – despite being an actor playing an actor, she’s the cheerleader. She is nothing other than the cheerleader, thus she’s happy, dumb, and girly. Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms are the adrenaline junkies – sort of the idealized strong woman in Quentin Tarantino’s eye. Zoe Bell plays herself, and was a real surprise. When we first see her she’s this Australian chick with the cute accent and a sunny face, but as it turns out, she’s the biggest adrenaline freak of them all; she’s the one who gets on top of the speeding Dodge Challenger to duel Stuntman Mike’s death proof car.

The cheerleader gets left behind, which is an uncomfortable moment in the movie (not as uncomfortable as the lap dance however, which is retained in full for the DVD release [allegedly in theatres Tarantino slipped in the ‘missing reel’ gag over it]), and we only have the strong women to overcome the slasher.

The other group of girls were manipulative and got drunk all the time – really the opposite of role models. As we learned in that YouTube video, something like “Tarantino PWNS some woman named Jane,” QT believes that the girls he depicts on screen are women that little girls should not only be watching (all of his movies have been hard-Rs) but taking after. That’s what Kill Bill was all about. These girls however, don’t have it in them to overcome the baddy.

And what a badguy; Stuntman Mike was perfectly cast here, and it follows the theme of postmodern filmmaking. What do we remember Kurt Russell for? We remember him for two movies – Escape from New York, and Big Trouble in Little China, two of the most iconic Carpenter flicks around, in a filmography filled with icons of cinema. The characters of Snake Plissken and Jack Burton reinvented the hero by being A-grade badass and A-grade clumsy respectively.

Stuntman Mike, twenty or so years later, is purely evil. The badass still remains, but it’s a new take on a familiar face; not something we’re used to. This shake-and-bake* approach to genre filmmaking is rare and it’s something that if overdone would get old, like the documentary approach for District 9 (fingers crossed Elysium will be different), but that’s why Quentin Tarantino is one-of-a-kind, and this is a good thing.

Tarantino rip-offs are usually always a bad idea; The Boondock Saints for example stands out, which needed to take more cues from Rodriguez than QT, and he makes these glorified B movies with the artistry and skill of a master. No, he’s not one of the A-list directors like the Spielbergs and Jacksons of the world, but he’s a niche filmmaker who can do niche things that have only really recently taken on wide popularity, as we’ll see next.

Death Proof is the deeper half of Grindhouse, which itself is a great movie. Watch Planet Terror to see Rodriguez go nuts with an excellent cast and extreme effects, and watch Death Proof for what is truly the truer grindhouse flick.

Planet Terror plays it safe in terms of its homage; it’s a cheapo exploitative movie with a budget (like the equally brainless Sin City and From Dusk Till Dawn), so it’s something new, but retains the staples of what we think of when we think of exploitation: nudity, guns, blood, and visual quality that appears to tear at the seams. It celebrates the feel of grindhouse cinema, which can’t be pegged for a specific genre but a range – certain kung fu movies are considered grindhouse, as were blaxploitation and sci-fi movies and of course, those infamous women in chains movies.

On the other hand Death Proof celebrates the chase movies and slasher movies by reinventing them, by combining them and seeing what fits. It may not be a perfect movie – like I said the first half drags like the knuckles of Cro-Magnon Man [sigh] but the noted chase scene at the end was really rather exhilarating, and meant something. The final shot of the movie is just perfect, and the second group of girls really embody the strong-woman archetype that Tarantino began to observe with his magnum opus, continued through Death Proof, and stopped with Inglourious Basterds. I really didn’t give a fuck about Shoshanna, but we’ll get there.

Celebration was the goal here, to pay homage to an earlier age in film. As only Quentin Tarantino can however, he also pushed forward.

*Is that gay?
Yes.

Major spoiler for Cowboy Bebop

Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker whose greatest asset and most obvious flaw is his writing. The film I’d use to illustrate this point is definitely Kill Bill Vol. 2, where we can find a huge disparity between the beginning areas and ending of the movie.

Overall, the movie is a masterful celebration of the mythical heroes, fabulous archetypes, wacky styles, and diverse music of world cinema over the years. Whereas the first volume was to the creator considered to be the eastern homage (with western undercurrents), where in one scene the young girl straight out of Battle Royale defends Lady Snowblood from the warrior clad in iconic Bruce Lee costume, Kill Bill Vol. 2 is the western (with eastern undercurrents). It’s a logical prgression in terms of genre; just as Fistful of Dollars borrowed from Yojimbo, so too did their respective genres. The gunslinger in the spaghetti western is just like the samurai in the jidaigeki film, and something like this is very, very base knowledge for a film freak like Tarantino, whose entire career has been a love letter to film.

Kill Bill Vol. 2 is postmodern and it’s a semi sequel. It embraces the confines of the medium while defying it, and there’s nothing else orthodox about it. It is slightly less ‘fun’ than the first volume, where there is no anime segment (it wouldn’t have been appropriate) and the timeline seems more straightforward and internally logical. For example, the past for two characters is tied together by Pai Mei, and the Brides training sets up part of her fight with Daryl Hannah. That being said, it’s possible that we might simply be getting used to the scattered timeline.

Indeed we’ve seen other Tarantino films. And three of the four before Vol. 2 have had nonlinear timelines. We’re becoming familar with the Tarantino way, and were becoming familiar with these characters. This is important because Kill Bill Vol. 2 is a film about culmination, bringing everything together for entertainment with a sense of gravity. I mean Christ – the movie’s called Kill Bill; it’d be like if we called the Star Wars saga “The Showdown Between Luke and Darth Vader,” or the series Cowboy Bebop “Spike Dies.” We’re always looking forward, and so the climax of the movie has incredible weight placed upon it. It’s with tremendous thought that Tarantino has arrived at this point without falling flat.

And yet, some areas feel weak. The ending of the movie, and by extension of course, the saga, the mythic revenge narrative, is handled excellently. The conftrontation between the Bride and Bill is just as exciting as that between she and Lucy Liu. Yet there is little action, which would throw it into huge juxtaposition with the aforementioned sequence – the Crazy 88 scene rivals the Oldboy hallway fight and the never-ending shot from The Protector in terms of craziest action scene of the decade. Instead, each word packs the punch required to support the weight of an entire preceding feature length setup. Contrast this with a minor scene between Bud and the Bride, where Bud threatens her with a can of mace, offering the choice of mace or flashlight.

The scene goes on and on and we can infer that it precedes an escape scene. We want to get the guys setting up the escape by burying the Bride in a coffin over with so that we can see how she escapes, a classic setup. But this bit of dialogue, which is one sided and meant to be darkly tongue-in-cheek and mildly villainous, even comes before the setup to the escape! Once it takes too long, it becomes boring and we’re witness to Tarantino seemingly indulging in himself and overwriting in the sense of writing too much. And then it goes on longer.

As great a movie Kill Bill Vol. 2 is, as much as it heralds a more blatant and more celebratory era of Tarantino’s filmography-de-homage, it does suffer from Tarantinoisms. If you like Tarantino – this doesn’t present a problem. But strangely, that number is dwindling, even after the rather successful Inglourious Basterds.

The end scene in the diner, according to the final draft of the screenplay, at one point found Jules shooting ‘Pumpkin’ through the table and killing Honey Bunny as well. He then wakes up, so to speak, to find Pumpkin still there, barking the same orders at him as we see in the completed film. This would serve to reinforce the idea that Jules could be headed down two paths, the one he’s always been on, and the one where he’s a sheperd battling the tyranny of evil men. The daydream where he shoots the young couple would naturally be Tarantino-violent, and we’d see that this isn’t what he wants to do, as he says later in the conversation he has with Pumpkin.

While this would have certainly been interesting to see, I’ve decided that he made the right decision to leave it out, if it was his decision. This reflects upon the characters in the movie, and what they mean in the scope of the narrative, and in all narratives. Seeing into Jules’ mind at that moment would have been detrimental to his character, because he isn’t really human. The characters that Quentin Tarantino creates here and has always created up until Inglourious Basterds, are larger than life, possess that mythical quality cribbed from the films of Sergio Leone and Martin Scorsese. Jules is compelling not because of his sordid past or his complex relationship problems, but because he’s so damn cool.

That is his character, and that’s what Pulp Fiction is all about. Indeed, something I have a lot of trouble with is critical perception of characters such as Vincent, Jules, Butch, and Marsellus. They are intriguing but they aren’t complex; I can accept that but haven’t found that everyone can. What Tarantino did in the 90’s revolutionized the cinematic tale, as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were adverse to everything ever. Pulp Fiction was revisionist noir, where your classic pulp adventures were stripped of all their noir elements, and modernized into a pop culturally adept, hip, shocking experience. Of course, that’s common knowledge and in fact I am quite late to the party, having seen Pulp Fiction only a few days ago.

Something that I have trouble with in terms of Tarantino as a writer is what his movies are about, the themes and ideas he explores in writing. Indeed his methods are so postmodern and unconventional that they baffle me, and I do my best to see things like this. My problem, if it can even be called that, is that he never says anything in these movies, and so insight on the filmmaker stops at cinemaphile. His genre literacy is above most other filmmakers, and his movies have always reflected that, most significantly in the Kill Bill movies. Messing around with genre conventions, tropes, characters, themes, and visuals, displacing them and reimagining them is always interesting, and sometimes profound, but I don’t see much beyond that.

It’s more an issue of confusion than frustration – I like QT’s movies just the way they are, and his next movie, Django Unchained, is just so awesome based on title alone, and you know exactly what it’s going to be, but I wonder if he’ll ever speak to some higher or more universal idea, and I’m immediately reminded of something I heard awhile ago related to my favorite filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. A friend of mine was explaining that when Machete was coming out, his father was complaining that this was a guy who kept making goofball movies (echoing an old Ebert criticism as far back as Desperado), and here was yet another one.

Machete and the Mexico Trilogy are just the movies that Rodriguez sets out to make – films akin to the action movies of Carpenter. Comical, over-the-top, 80’s movies, no doubt about it. And these are just the movies that Tarantino makes, and as we’ll find out later, some of his movies are pretty deep. Pulp Fiction isn’t necessarily such a movie, but it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be entertaining as all hell, and it is.

 

Tarantino is famous for cool dialogue and infamous for his passion for cinema. His next movie, Django Unleashed, just seems so obvious that I face-palmed when I read the title – it might seem he’s been on an homage kick as of late, and this just falls in line, but no, appreciating the history of film has been a constant in the filmmaker’s career. Those two elements, dialogue and cinemaphilia, are what make the writer/director great in my eyes, and often intermix, whether it’s Samuel L. Jackson talking about John Woo movies or the girls in Death Proof arguing over Vanishing Point/Pretty in Pink, it’s all great stuff, and it seems to come so naturally to the guy.

Part of what makes his dialogue so good is not what typically makes writing great. Tarantino dropped out of high school halfway through, so I imagine his literary background is relatively small in comparison with other writers of his kind. He also said “hell no” to film school, but I don’t know what they teach in film school. So his diction and syntax and all that conventional mechanical stuff isn’t what makes Tarantino’s writing, what makes his writing is his talent to create cool characters. Jules in Pulp Fiction, The Bride in Kill Bill, Jackie Brown, Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds, and of course Zoe Bell as Zoe Bell in Death Proof all have mythological depth in terms of cinematic and genre language.

That, and they’re just really cool characters, and once Tarantino takes the massive effort to construct a very cool character, it becomes easy for him to make them say things that are equally cool, which is the part that translates directly to the screen – and it seems effortless. For the audience, these guys are just fun to watch.

However.

As of late, Tarantino has caught a lot of flack I feel, and I’m beginning to notice that each successive film he makes gets worse and worse paced. Reservoir Dogs ran at a fairly brisk pace, but Inglourious Basterds and Death Proof were bizarre with their unbalanced chapters. I feel like as Tarantino delves deeper and deeper into genre revisionism, he alienates certain audiences (not so many ‘got’ Death Proof, but Inglourious had general appeal for the most part) and it doesn’t help that the movies drag, and some of the dialogue bits are just too much.

So I’ll start this with what some consider to be his greatest movie, Pulp Fiction, and work my way up to Inglourious Basterds, which I just watched back-to-back with… Ponyo?

I liked Ponyo.

As a not so avid viewer of the films of Hayao Miyazaki, I haven't quite been desensitized to his message, so I ended up enjoying this quite a bit

We’ve demonstrated that Cronenberg is a filmmaker who has to show what’s going on in his mind because what’s going on in his mind… is so damn strange. Then we’ve shown that he can draw true emotion out of a situation between a woman and a big fly monster. Is A History of Violence telling us that Cronenberg can remain Cronenbergian while working in a mainstream environment? Well, that’s complicated. I will say that the film is not Cronenberg in the traditional sense, yet it is very Cronenberg.

It’s a script by Josh Olson, and based on a graphic novel, something that was passed onto Cronenberg for his creative filter. He was not the source, but in 2004, he has a hell of a say in the final product. This translates into a solid visual style, shocking violence, and an accentuation of theme. Often times you’ll see a movie where there are ideas under the surface, but they never quite come out in full. Pandorum, a movie reviewed here, is an example of this. So the execution is Cronenbergian because it is uncharacteristic of most modern American movies. The ideas themselves are a bit of an evolution for our director, where we have the same questions and psychological probing, but from a different source.

What’s being examined here is human nature and American culture/society, but we’re seeing it on a familiar plane of existence – violence – rather than an alien one – New Flesh. Cronenberg and crew tap into something very recognizeable here, and we share what the characters feel, which can be frightening.

Something interesting is the character of Jack, whose increasingly violent tendencies are unlocked by his father, and not unjustified. We are led to believe that standing up to the bully was correct, as he was being harassed for some time. A degree of violence is only measured in our perception of it, our moral standing. Killing in self-defense is acceptable in the case of Fogerty’s death, because our hero was in danger. Isn’t that what Tom was doing when he went to Philadelphia? Isn’t that what he’s been doing since he left Philadelphia? He’s been fighting to protect his family, yet the violence in his history creeps back doubly.

It returns in the form of old nemeses like Fogerty, and then in the slower, more animalistic (though some would say human) method demostrated in the second sex scene. The violence makes Tom’s wife question herself, and we learn that there is some in all of us. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do what Tom did at the start of the film? On a thematic level, it’s intriguing that the catalyst sequence in Tom Stall’s diner at closing comes out of an act that’s interpreted as heroism.

Is the killing here justified? That’s inconsequential; what’s important is that it’s violent. Either way it’s brutally heroic, but even heroism rooted in violence is still enough to destroy the family. What’s being said here is that the eponymous history of violence has devastating effects, and it’s so important that we see visually the immediate effects of that violence, thanks to twisted Cronenberg invention, in order to understand the long term psychological effects. Just like the Wes Craven principle that anti-violence can only be effectively approximated in brutal cinema violence. Can our hero Joey overcome the history and continue the family? Even after he’s cut off entirely his history of violence by killing his brother… It’s left ambiguous, which seemingly does not connect entirely the thematic ties.

The question at the end of the film is ‘can this small-town family continue, even with a killer in its midst?’ I think that A History of Violence was more about examining violence and its effects, which for the filmmakers means asking questions and not answering them. The examination is what makes the movie in terms of premise unique – the displacement of violent men of Philadelphia into this tight-knit community, which brings to light culture shock and other various lesser ideas. This may be an instance where the ambiguous ending actually relates thematically to a greater, more external theme of examination, which sounds strange, but essentially we don’t arrive at an answer because we aren’t supposed to. The movie would not be defeated if we did, but perhaps here attention is drawn to the journey if the journey’s end is not known.

Cronenberg is still exploring here, and like all the great SF authors, that’s what he does best. No, he doesn’t have to do that thing where he shows Max Renn shoving a pistol up his vagina-stomach because he can’t just allude to it in dialogue, but it in essence is still the same Cronenberg at the core, but not in appearance. My question is, why does this equate to evolution for so many people? Of course, it’s more complicated than that: straightforward drama is always going to be taken more seriously than a science-fiction drama, and since that’s the development our filmmaker has taken these past three or four films (and certainly comparing his near-bookending Rabid and Eastern Promises doesn’t lend credence to the SF/horror genre as literarily equivalent to film drama), we just seem to elevate our perception of Cronenberg and then say, “hey – now he’s doing drama, which is smarter than SF,” when in fact, no – it was merely Cronenberg dabbling for once in the mainstream.

Major spoilers for The Fly

I never could fully appreciate, as an audience member, just how frightening Cronenberg’s The Fly was until I watched it with someone else. By myself, I could acknowledge it as a classic 80’s gorefest, but with a difference, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with John Carpenter’s The Thing. The dead monkey, the nail scene, the silencing of Brundle – these are all great shocks. I think I was just too swept along by the climax of the movie to really recall all of these moments. Then I watched the film with the director’s commentary, and hearing the director explain how each trick was done certainly took some of the punch away, but that’s expected of director’s commentaries.

Finally I watched The Fly with Podcast Co-Host, who I’ve been able to spring one or two effectively gruesome movies on in the past – I think Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was pretty striking to him (as it should be to any sane person), and Crank 2: High Voltage definitely twisted him. I mean, the guy cuts his own nipples off. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to watch the scene in its entirety without turning away. But no reaction I’ve beheld of this guy has matched his reaction to Cronenberg’s masterful genre-mix of horror, science-fiction, drama, and comedy.

Geena Davis’ character, Veronica, goes to visit the abortion clinic with Stathis. They’re talking with the guy from Videodrome and he’s like “Are you sure?” and she’s like “I need this thing out of my body!” and he’s like “Okay.” Then we cut and the three are just standing in the next room, a very awkward cut that kind of pulls you out of the movie. I, in the audience, said something to the effect of ‘God, that was an awkward shot.’ Of course, I was expecting it, as I had just seen the film with commentary days earlier. Andy responds with, “yeah the filmmaking could use some spicing up.”

And there he sat, the critic, when Brundlefly crashes through the window and BAM! He jolted upright in an instant, releasing a quick “Oh my God!” before jumping out of his seat and towards the exit. He caught himself, and eased back. I laughed my ass off. I knew there was a shocking scene coming up, but damn, I didn’t expect that reaction. Such perfect timing. It was almost as if Cronenberg had inserted a kind of technically awkward scene to take you out of the movie, and then scare you right back in. In that moment, Andy went from critic to audience member.

It’s a strange beast, The Fly. When I watch it, I’m totally into it. As soon as it’s over, I’m kind of like, ‘well, it was pretty good.’ It exceeds in doing things that are amazingly effective during the film, but aren’t particularly memorable, like small character moments and disgusting horror sequences. I wouldn’t reflect back on The Fly like I would The Matrix or the Alien movies, just thinking to myself, damn those are good. And yet, this is one of my favorite movies. It’s really strange.

In terms of horror movies, I can name a few that would make a personal top twenty list – Jacob’s Ladder, Alien, The Thing, The Mist, and The Fly. Jacob’s Ladder is the philosophical and intense thriller, one of those quieting experiences that I would consider The Fountain to be akin to. The Thing is a classic, absolute craziness with Kurt Russell and Keith David. But The Fly works not for what it leaves you with, but what it does when it’s on, when it has you.

For example, I really dig the character Stathis Boranis. He’s a complicated man, and he starts off so easy to hate. He’s a stalker, a man fond of sexual harassment, and kind of a jerk. But as the movie progresses, we find that his love for Veronica is very real, just as real as Seth’s. And when the relationship between Veronica and Seth starts to break down, Stathis is right there. When Seth becomes the monster of the tale, Stathis takes the role of monster hunter, and this is an amazing moment, as he enters the laboratory armed with an antique-looking rifle. He’s taken a complete 180, and we’re actually behind this guy.

His characterization was so important because the emotional momentum in this movie is something that shifts constantly. We need to feel for his character as a broken hearted, hopeless romantic, in order to support his role as hero in the end, and when the Brundlepod struggles forward a horrific fusion of flesh and metal, he does so only to have himself killed – the final journey – and we discover that there are no heroes or villains, that there never were.

Indeed the main theme of the movie is man’s struggle with death, which perfectly adapts to The Fly storyline because we have a scientist battling against the unknown, an obvious metaphor made visually apparent and unique through the fly metamorphosis. A scientist loses his great mind over time, and it goes back to that idea that there are no heroes or villains – aging happens to us all; we can only be people in relation to it. When he becomes monstrous, it is a final, futile resistance to the inevitable, and we learn that coming to grips and finally accepting death is a better option that striving against it, as the latter option sees the harm of others.

Of course, neither is really a good thing, and this is why the ending is tragic, but not as outlandish as the premise of a man turning into a common housefly might inform. Because the science-fiction is grounded in the universal cold realities of aging and death, the effective dramatic elements are not left-field natives. I fully believe that the criticism of this film that ‘it tries to be too many things at once, dramatic, horrific, tragic, funny, but succeeds at none’ (jack of all trades, ace of none), is entirely superficial. I believe this because it’s easy to pass this over as a greasy horror flick.

Cronenberg himself even admits that the movie is quite extreme for a financially successful mainstream film (his most successful until A History of Violence, assumedly), and he was shocked to find how brutal some of the stuff was upon a repeat viewing many years after its creation. It certainly shows – the monkey in the telepod that didn’t quite make it but isn’t quite dead is only the beginning, and it really ramps up from there a la Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which hits you halfway through the film and never lets up. The gore and effects were all practical, which for nowadays means that they possess an eerie quality. The melting of Stathis’ hand and leg are particularly effective, and the final metamorphosis, where all we see is the legs of Brundle and Veronica as they move towards the pod, and pieces of flesh fall all around them is intense.

That should however never distract from what is at the core of the film. In fact, I never could understand, and it is a recurring lament here on the Dreck Fiction, why people hate on movies that have good special effects in claim that they ‘detract from the story/characters/drama.’ In some cases, movies could theoretically be better off hiding special effects, but not in the case of The Fly. This is a case similar to Terminator 2, where the visual effects are a practical necessity, because they help construct the characters. The T-1000 uses the special effects, he isn’t used by them. Like in Videodrome, we can’t just be left to our imaginations to devise the things depicted here – it’s crucial we see them.

The horror we experience is the horror that the characters do. The scarier the images are, the greater the dramatic reflection in Seth and company. The two require each other, and this is what makes The Fly unique. Most horror movies, mostly the contemporary ones, draw fright from suspense. Here, the horror is out of an investment in the characters. We don’t want Seth to change, and when he does, it hurts because it’s so horrifying.

A good example of the masterfully engineered horror in the movie is a moment alluded to already, when Veronica accidentally tears off his jaw. Seth is trying to get Veronica into the Telepod, and his mutations have gotten so bad that is eyeballs are melting out of his head. There’s so much going on in this scene, where Stathis is dying in a corner, we have this countdown sequence initiated with an absolutely terrifying implication behind it (the fusion of Seth and Veronica), Seth is losing himself more and more to the monster, and finally, Veronica rips off his jaw in an attempt to get away, and lets out a scream of true terror. In this moment, out focus is compressed into a singular area, whereas before our minds were ticking with all sorts of terrifying what-ifs and of course, we were being affected by the visceral energy on the screen.

Powerful horror here is backed by emotional impact and the refined filmmaking of a true master, a literarily and technically affluent mind. Recently I sat through The Strangers, which was truly awful. It was ninety minutes of nothingspace – that is what the movie was about. In this movie, the characters crept around the house waiting to be scared by the masked killers, and this is where suspense kills the horror movie. There’s so much empty space where we’re just waiting for something to happen that the filmmakers must have forgotten what ‘content’ meant. It’s the antithesis of a movie like The Fly, which is all meat. Mutated, hairy fly meat.

Something that David Cronenberg stressed in the making of The Fly was each difference his film would have to the original adaptation of the short story. He wanted his scientist to be unmarried, his transformation gradual, and his themes… Cronenbergian. The most significant change of course was the actual fly metamorphosis, which is absent in the original movie. One could not imagine the 1986 version with a hastened transformation – the movie’s power comes out of the scientist’s struggle to rationalize and defeat what ails him, which of course as we know, is death. (Not AIDS)

It’s interesting – I watched a video review of both movies, where the man behind the Angry Video Game Nerd webseries commented that the original film benefitted from the scientist being flyualized instantly, and not being able to speak. He must find alternate methods, like writing on a chalkboard or using a typrewriter, to communicate. And then we have David Cronenberg, who believes that the scientist must be able to speak for most of the movie, until of course he gets his jaw ripped off during his final transformation. This reinforces the movie as a tragedy, and it is more emotionally distressing than frightening. Both approaches are sound, but I know which is more popular, and in my opinion, the remake is better for the revision.

The Fly is a great movie and a standout in both the horror and science-fiction genres. Rarely do either tap into such an evocative emotional force, while also managing to keep your mind ticking in classic SF fashion. Would I ever watch it again? Of course, but not before any other in my top twenty. Strange, for sure, but that’s just the name of the Cronenberg game.

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