Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Glory of the Beauty of Barbara Bouchet

The high point of the New Beverly's Grindhouse Festival: the in-person appearance by Barbara Bouchet. Best known in this country for her roles as Moneypenny in CASINO ROYALE 1967 and in the Star Trek episode "By Any Other Name" (the one where aliens take over the Enterprise and turn most of the crew into giant cubes) her latter-day Tarantino-sanctioned fame comes due to her work in mostly Italian films of the seventies including AMUCK, DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING, THE BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA, FRENCH SEX MURDERS and various others including the two that were showing, DEATH RAGE and CRY OF A PROSTITUTE. She's lived in Italy since the early seventies, but Tarantino flew her in just for the occasion.

Friday night didn't start on time due to Tarantino's late arrival. At a certain point I went out to the lobby where several people were milling about, including Bouchet herself. Before I could say anything, an older man appeared from inside to greet her, mock-upset that they hadn't started yet. I recognized him immediately as EMPIRE STRIKES BACK director Irvin Kershner. As he complained that he couldn't find any legal street parking, I piped in to let him know where he could park just around the corner. After I told him, someone pulled him away to go to his car and I just stood there thinking, "Wait a minute, Boba Fett, Lando, Hoth..." Tarantino finally showed up several minutes later, explaining that he he been cutting the "long version" of DEATH PROOF, and the show got under way.

Though they introduced DEATH RAGE together, the real highlight of the evening came in between the films when he brought her up front for a Q&A (or a Q&B, as he called it). Sure, Tarantino gets a lot of knocks for his somewhat over-caffinated public persona but this night really showed him at his best. Gracious with Barbara Bouchet, respectful of her and clealy enamoured of her, he discussed her career and asked questions about some of her films. She discussed how she didn't get along with DEATH RAGE co-star Yul Brenner, that she remembered absolutely nothing about CRY OF A PROSTITUTE, called making CASINO ROYALE a "nightmare" but spoke glowingly about David Niven. Making DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING got her arrested when it presented her apparently playing a nude scene with a child. She also said she prefers the slaps to be real when the scene calls her to get slapped. For what it's worth, she's gotten slapped in a lot of films.

Tarantino spoke frankly about various nude and lesbian scenes she had played while she sat there taking it all in with good humor. Seriously, she's played a lot of these through her career. BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA plays its opening credits over a nude Bouchet getting a massage. It's the best credit sequence in history. It's better than SUPERMAN. AMUCK features Bouchet in a full-on love scene with Rosalba Neri. When Tarantino first said the title one person in the audience applauded. Um, I think that was me. Bluntly put, she was wonderful to listen to and is probably more beautiful than any woman of that age that I have ever seen.

Maybe Tarantino said it best when he talked about how when you live in L.A. you get used to seeing celebrities of various stripes--just yesterday I saw Stephen Root (Jimmy James on "Newsradio") at The Grove. But somebody like Barbara Bouchet, who you really only see in twisted seventies thrillers that feel like they came down from another planet, you never think you're going to see her. And when you do, like on Friday night, it just hits home why you sometimes get obsessed with these silly things. Why these movies stick with you.

The first film, DEATH RAGE, was actually pretty good. Sold as a DEATH WISH knock off, Yul Brenner plays a former hit man who gets pulled back into the game when he goes to Naples to seek out his brother's killer. Bouchet plays a nightclub performer (maybe that should read "stripper") who he falls for. Martin Balsam and some bottles of J&B whiskey also appear. The second film, CRY OF A PROSTITUTE, is most notable in how the title has next to nothing to do with the film. Yes, Bouchet plays a character who is referred to as an ex-prostitute and I guess she cries a couple of times, but the film is really a YOJIMBO/FISTFUL OF DOLLARS knockoff with Italian mobsters and Henry Silva in the lead role. Bouchet is a mobster's wife who drunkedly throws herself at Silva and lives to regret it. This one was somewhat duller, but after the high of the Q&A, very little could live up to that.

I couldn't help it, but during intermission I went up to her and told her what a fan I was, how great it was to see her here. I'm sure I babbled a bit, but she was very gracious. I didn't have much of substance to say to her, but I had to do it. If there's anything that Barbara Bouchet represents, it's the fantasy of the high-gloss Cinecitta thriller coming to life and for a few seconds I was able to look at that fantasy as a strange sort of reality.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Back in Bowl

Now that films such as DAWN OF THE DEAD and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 have gotten their unimpressive remakes, we have crossed the threshold into concious memory towards the films that I either remember opening or in some cases actually saw first run. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING are coming and now today it's been announced that we're getting...ALL OF ME. With Queen Latifah. Which makes me wonder if Steve Martin refused to make a BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE sequel and this is somehow Latifah's revenge on him.

Directed by Carl Reiner in his fourth and final teaming with Steve Martin, ALL OF ME has actually been kind of forgotten in recent years. This is somewhat ironic, as the film was at the time considered a minor comeback for Martin after such box-office failures as THE LONELY GUY and Reiner's own THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS, films which are probably better known than ALL OF ME is.

I'm just tired of remakes. More and more they seem to take what was interesting and unique about the film they're based on and toss them out the nearest window. Yes, they don't burn the negatives of the originals but there once was a time when THE WICKER MAN was a classy British cult item that Christopher Lee referred to as the best film he had ever been it's a crummy Nicolas Cage vehicle that has been the object of justifiable derision and video mash-ups on YouTube. And the memory of the original gets trashed. Just as the memory of a Steve Martin-Carl Reiner teamup is about to get trashed for a Queen Latifah vehicle.

There are original scripts out there. Some of them are probably even pretty good. I'd like to see more of them get made.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Paid in Full

Brian Helgeland's PAYBACK has never been one of those movies that I sit around thinking about, but it does have a few points of interest. The first is that it wasn't really Brian Helgeland's PAYBACK, but let's back up a little first. Based on the 1962 novel by Richard Stark (the pen name of Donald Westlake) about a career criminal named Parker out to get money owed to him after a double-cross, PAYBACK was clearly meant by Helgeland to be a throwback to the type of action thriller made in the late 60s/early 70s. Paramount very probably looked at it as a chance to do their own version of the post-PULP FICTION/USUAL SUSPECTS darkly comic crime thriller. It probably didn't hurt that they had Mel Gibson, who had just starred in CONSPIRACY THEORY, a screenplay written by Helgeland. The movie, in which the name Parker becomes Porter, came together very quickly, but even as teaser trailers were playing in theaters--I remember seeing it in early '98 before HARD RAIN--and even as Helgeland was on his way to winning an Oscar for writing L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, things began to fall apart. After a few test screenings of the original cut producer/star Gibson and Paramount decided something wasn't working. Too dark, too mean, not the ending they wanted. Helgeland, feeling the movie he'd made was the movie he'd made, was let go and a new third act was devised. A narration explaining why he did what he did was tossed in, the whole tone was lightened up, a few extra gratuitous explosions were added. The completed film opened in February '99, did decent business and 5,000 airings on TNT later, that's the PAYBACK the world has.

For whatever reason, Gibson has given Helgeland the chance to go back and present to the world what he originally wanted to. No one ever said DVDs weren't a good thing for film scholarship. What we have now is a version of PAYBACK that is leaner, meaner, absent of explosions and even a relatively faithful adaptation of The Hunter.

Before saying too much about PAYBACK STRAIGHT UP: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT, as the package trumpets it, there's the other main point of interest: POINT BLANK.

I've seen and tried to figure out POINT BLANK so many times that I'm not so sure what to say about it anymore. I first encountered it in college when I knew nothing. I continued to revisit it, until I was seeing it again living here in L.A., where the film is mostly set. Really, it's one of the best L.A. movies out there and some of the city it presents can still be found even today. One of the best filmgoing experiences I ever had in this town was the night it played at LACMA. Not only was female lead Angie Dickinson there to introduce it, but she also sat directly in front of me. Suddenly, the world had turned. I had woken up one night in the City of Angels to discover that I was in POINT BLANK.

The 60s version of the same basic story that comes from The Hunter in which Parker becomes Walker, John Boorman's POINT BLANK can best be described as a action revenge plotline done as existential art film. Lee Marvin is cold as ice, Angie Dickinson truly exudes raw sexuality and the supporting cast is a fantastic array of That Guys, including Keenan Wynn, Carroll O'Connor, Michael Strong, Lloyd Bochner and the great John Vernon in his first major film role.

As much as I will be a defender of the sanctity of the written word, POINT BLANK can truly be seen as a great example of tossing the script aside and using the bare bones of the story to study Lee Marvin, analyze him, take in the world he is moving around in through the harsh color schemes that each of the film's sections is supposed to represent. "I want my money, I want my 93 Grand," Marvin's Walker continually repeats, but does he really? Does he even know the answer to that question? And what to make of the continued suggestions that we're watching the tale of a walking (hence the name) dead man? What are the answers here? Many years after first encountering POINT BLANK, I still don't have the answer.

In making PAYBACK, Brian Helgeland's solution was to not even ask the question. His approach is simple: make a 70s film. In the extensive featurettes on the new DVD, the existence of POINT BLANK is mentioned, but he never offers his opinion of the film. Considering that John Boorman himself has never been very complimentary of PAYBACK (saying that Lee Marvin tossed the first, bad, draft of the script out a window where he assumes a very young Mel Gibson picked it up) maybe this isn't very surprising. PAYBACK'S ambitions are modest, maybe almost too modest for a studio film. It's been a long time since I saw the release version but my overall impression of this one is that of things being stripped down, of any attempts at cuteness omitted to simply tell a tale of a guy who wants his money (70 grand this time around). There's also more nastiness like Porter beating the crap out of the wife (Deborah Kara Unger) who pumped bullets into his back, a dog that is presumably killed and just a meaner overall feel. Running just about 90 minutes, stuff does feel like it's missing; in both PAYBACKs John Glover gets high billing for very little screen time and at one point William Devane says, "I don't want anymore unpleasantness at the hotel," but he's not referring to anything we got to see. And, truth be told, the relatively short climax does feel a little like it's building to a bigger climax that never quite comes. Maybe this has to do with the late introductions of Fairfax (James Coburn, unbilled in both versions) and the unseen Bronson, head of the syndicate (apparently the voice of Angie Dickinson in the early cut, but Sally Kellerman in this version). The unseen boss is what really allowed Gibson to fashion a new ending for the movie with the all-new Kris Kristofferson character instead of the brief shootout that climaxes this version. Ironically, the shot of Gibson in the "Get Ready to Root for the Bad Guy" poster comes from the original ending.

The disc contains several featurettes where we hear from Gibson, Helgeland and others. Everyone seems very reasonable about what went down. Helgeland felt the only issues to deal with concerned the ending;Gibson seems to prefer the release cut, saying that "you have to tailor the film to fit the audience," but pronounces the director's cut as "valid."

In removing the coldness from what was there, the star tampered with what was a pretty damn good performance by himself, but he did make it more of a "Mel Gibson film." Maybe I've had enough of drawn out action climaxes, explosions and lengthy running times, but I prefer Helgeland's version. Making it a seventies movie, which at heart is what he wanted to do, makes it feel more like it has an actual point. More than POINT BLANK it now seems slightly reminiscent of John Flynn's THE OUTFIT(another Parker novel, starring Robert Duvall as Earl Macklin) and Michael Ritchie's PRIME CUT(another Lee Marvin vehicle). The music score has been changed also, which is a good thing. The original score is a decent 70s pastiche but it apes David Shire's score to THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (a personal favorite) a litle too much for my taste. The new score, by music editor Scott Stambler, retains the 70s feel, but also feels more like its own thing and only helps the film in sustaining its own unique mood.

Particularly good in the cast, even if some of it is footage we've seen before, are Deborah Kara Unger, Bill Duke, Devane, Coburn, an early appearance by SIX FEET UNDER's Freddy Rodriguez and the voice-only appearance of Kellerman, who is note-perfect in her two brief scenes.

PAYBACK is not a great movie in any version and was never going to be. And it certainly isn't POINT BLANK. But this new version is a chance to see how it was intended by a writer who wanted to simply make the kind of down-and-dirty crime thriller that doesn't get made anymore. And as he found out, he wasn't going to get to make it either.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

You've Always Been Here

I love SHAUN OF THE DEAD. I just love it. Did I mention that I love SHAUN OF THE DEAD?

Sometimes you just click into some movies. SHAUN manages the near-miraculous tightrope of being perfectly proud of being both a zombie movie and a romantic comedy in equal measures. It also feels very personal, like these are characters that Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg know and relate to in their bones. And it's safe to say that there isn't another movie that's come out in the past ten years that I've seen as many times as SHAUN OF THE DEAD.

And now, HOT FUZZ, a movie I've been waiting to see for months. The last few days before its opening it was all I could do to keep myself from muttering "HOT FUZZ, HOT FUZZ..." over and over again. I have no problem with saying that I flat-out loved the movie. Much of it is a strange amalgam of various movies in the action genre with a few other things, most notably the original WICKER MAN, tossed in as well. The main centerpiece of the "horror" section even culminates in an OMEN(again, the original) it a spoof? Homage? Riff? Something else altogether?

One thing clear in both this movie and SHAUN is that these guys love all these movies and they also love the character actors they've given such juicy supporting parts to: Edward Woodward from the aforementioned WICKER MAN, Billie Whitelaw from the similarly mentioned OMEN, PAUL FREEMAN from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Academy Award winner Jim Broadbent and Timothy Dalton in the most purely enjoyable post-Bond role I've ever seen him in. As much as I love all sorts of action movies HOT FUZZ weiredly just happens to deify two that I've never even liked: POINT BREAK, because I just never got into the silliness of the thing, and BAD BOYS II, which is directed by Michael Bay and therefore awful.

There are whole chunks of HOT FUZZ where I just found myself sitting there laughing non-stop--there's next to nothing about it that I dislike. But I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that I prefer SHAUN to this one. The simple reason why goes back to what I said before: if SHAUN was about characters that they knew and in some senses were, HOT FUZZ is an attempt to do something totally different and be about characters that they didn't know. As a result, the genre riff combined with relatable characters becomes a genre riff. Extremely fun, yes, but the bottom line is that in comparison the film feels somewhat impersonal. And that's where it falls short of SHAUN for me, even if it's possible that the new film is more technically polished. I love SHAUN so much that I'm willing to follow these guys no matter what they do but I guess I hope that the next time around that personal touch is allowed to show up a little more.

Friday night at the Arclight: another reminder why living here is so cool. A post show Q & A introduced by Quentin Tarantino and featuring Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. There wasn't really anything astounding revealed here (although Wright, when asked to name his favorite directors, named Mario Bava as one and they also joked about what a feature-length version of DON'T could be) but I didn't care. It was just a lot of fun to listen to these guys riff on nothing very much for a little while.

Afterwards I spotted Wright as he was heading off to a bar with Tarantino and others (I'm guessing Pegg and Frost were still trapped inside). I went up to him and told him how much I loved SHAUN and this new film. It was quick and he was very gracious. Seemed like a great guy to have a lager with. Maybe someday. I can't wait to see what these guys do next.

The Next-to-Last Picture Show

It was pure luck that I hadn't seen SHOOTER yet, so I decided that a trip out to Westwood to go to the National one last time needed to be done. I went to the 7:20, not the 10:10;sure, the final one would have been preferable, but I have to get up too early.

I don't go to Westwood much anymore. It was already starting to go downhill when I got here but there was still a fun college atmosphere in the air for the most part. I have lots of fun memories of going to those theaters and hanging out on Friday nights. Simply put, it doesn't feel that way anymore.

Going back even further, my memories of visiting L.A. with my family when I was a kid are maybe memories of an L.A. that was never really there. What I remember is a certain feel, that certain architecture that is associated with the 60s and the 70s, maybe how Century City used to look, parts of Beverly Hills that have changed too much by now. The National in Westwood, with its distinctive look and spacious second-floor lobby, had it. It was never a particularly beautiful place and the color of the curtain in the actual theater is even slightly-ugly, but the place has That Feel to it. The theater is big, the screen is big. I was very glad that SHOOTER, the last film I was going to see there, was in Scope, which really showed off how cool a place it could be.

There's no great or lasting point I can make here except to say that movie theaters at their best can feel like cathedrals to me. And a city like L.A., and an area like Westwood, remains unique because of places unlike those you find anywhere else. And when a theater like the National is removed, it makes that place that much less special. It's a shame.

And just for the record, SHOOTER actually turned out to be pretty good. For the memory of the theater, I'm glad about that.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Farewell to the National

Reports are out there that the Mann National, the theater in Westwood Village that can be seen when you're driving past on Wilshire, will be closing down by the end of the week. The theater, which seats 1112, first opened in March of 1970 and helped make Westwood Village the hot spot for all the big movies of the New Hollywood--some footage of lines at the theater waiting to see THE EXORCIST can be found on that DVD. That movie apparently played there for six months.

Probably one of the few single-screen theaters left from that era, the National can be easily recognized playing a San Francisco theater in ZODIAC, where several of the characters go to see DIRTY HARRY. It was never the veritable palace that the Westwood Village still is, but it always exuded a cool 70s vibe, even if it probably did need a paint job over the past few years.

By the time I got here in the early 90s Westwood Village was already dying down but I got to see plenty of movies there during my first few years. Off the top of my head I can remember SLIVER, THE FIRM, RISING SUN, FLESH AND BONE, A PERFECT WORLD, INTERSECTION, BEVERLY HILLS COP III, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, HIGHLANDER: THE FINAL DIMENSION, THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE, BYE BYE LOVE, CLUELESS, SHOWGIRLS, GOLDENEYE, FAIR GAME, COPYCAT, THE FIRST WIVES' CLUB, HEAVEN'S PRISONERS, THE POSTMAN, A NIGHT AT THE, not too many good ones in there. At the end of '99 I saw THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY there on Christmas Day...then I didn't go again until the press screening of THE FANTASTIC FOUR two years ago. I haven't been back and I guess I won't get another chance. Many, myself included, have turned their back on Westwood Village. There are all sorts of reasons for that but it's a shame that the National had to be a casualty. It will be missed.

Clash of the Titans Redux

And the award for unnecessary remake idea of the day goes to....CLASH OF THE TITANS. CLASH is probably most notable for being the final film that Ray Harryhausen did the effects for. It also came out in the summer of 1981, a season that was owned 100% by RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Everything came second to RAIDERS that summer. The screenplay for RAIDERS was, of course, written by Lawrence Kasdan, back before he went on to direct BODY HEAT and THE BIG CHILL. I suppose that in comparison to RAIDERS, CLASH OF THE TITANS must have seemed kind of old hat. And who's been announced as writing the script for CLASH OF THE TITANS REDUX? Lawrence Kasdan.

So now the teacher becomes the student. Or something.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Trinity as a Mom

Well, so much for the whole I'll-post-nearly-every-day plan. If I could come up with a reason why I'm not posting more it would be some sort of answer like I've had too much stuff on my mind to actually write about it. Which, of course, makes no sense. I started to write something yesterday but kept getting sidetracked. It didn't help that I was trying to write a little something on The Hoax (Well-done, but flat) but then I realized that I had very little to say about the movie. So, to try again, here's something on another film playing right now.

DISTURBIA-- Back when I was a kid in the early 80s there was a big re-release of the Hitchcock movies that Universal owned. My parents took me to see Rear Window and afterwards that actually apologized for taking me because they just assumed that I'd been really bored. Funny thing was, I actually really liked the movie. And all these years and many viewings of Hitchcock movies later, Rear Window remains one of my favorite Hitchcocks. How many kids in their early teens would be willing to sit through Rear Window today? I was weird.

I guess I'm supposed to hate Disturbia for cribbing the plot of Rear Window, but the truth is that it works better than it really has a right to. Shia LaBeouf is the kid sentenced to house arrest who begins to suspect something sinister is up with his neighbor, played by David Morse. The suburban setting brings to mind Joe Dante's underrated The 'Burbs and maybe even a little of Tom Holland's Fright Night, but ultimately Disturbia works as a neat little thriller. More than any comparison to Rear Window that could be made, the one truly depressing element of the film is Carrie-Anne Moss playing mom to Shia LaBeouf. Seeing Trinity as a mom is one thing, but mom to a teenager? Even if dialogue does refer to her as a "hot mom," when did that happen? Oh well.

Disturbia works as well as it does because it knows enough to focus on the characters and not jump too far into its plotline without letting us know them first. It's nothing spectacular, but you could do much worse. You have done much worse. And I'll get over the Trinity thing eventually.

Monday, April 9, 2007

At the Vista

One thing I didn't mention about Grindhouse was that my first viewing was the first show on Friday at the Vista. It's a true rarity in this day and age: a neighborhood movie house. One screen, independently run with an Egypt-motif running through the whole place. The picture and sound are always just great and the seats offer more leg room than you've ever seen. There aren't too many trailers before the movie and no real ads except for maybe one for Moviefone. Best of all, I can just walk there. It's a terrific place to go to the movies and ideal for something as old-school as Grindhouse. If you're reading this and you live anywhere nearby...just go there. You won't be sorry.

Quentin Tarantino is also a big fan of the place; back when Kill Bill Vol. 1 ran there, he kept the Pussy Wagon parked out in front.

This has nothing to do with anything, but shortly before I wrote this I spotted Keifer Sutherland at a nearby outdoor cafe. In short, I love this town.

All or Nothing

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The phrase “All or Nothing” pops up in strange ways during the two films in “Grindhouse”. Whether that’s a coincidence I don’t know, but it seems important. But Rodriguez and Tarantino have made what they wanted to make. To them, it’s not how big it is in size. Truffaut said that the only thing he wants from a movie is to see the joy of making that movie. These guys want to show off their joy, as much of it as possible.

I saw Grindhouse on Friday, again on Saturday, have spent a fair chunk of time walking around mulling it over and in the meantime everyone else on the net has chimed in.

First things first, I had an absolutely fantastic time. There’s something ingrained in here that is just about love for these movies, for the act of going to the movies. Tarantino loves the memory of the way things were when he was twelve just as much as Wes Anderson does…they just have very different memories. And to Tarantino there may just be no piece of music on the planet more beautiful than that “Our Feature Presentation” bumper.

Planet Terror: I’ll freely admit that I’m not always that crazy about Rodriguez’s films, but something about Planet Terror just made me go with it. Within the straight ahead zombie plotline is a total blend of Italian zombie movies with some Cronenberg and Carpenter tossed in, random lesbian subplots, maybe some feel of a mid-80s Cannon release with the memory of films that used to have decent parts for character actors doing what they did best. Yeah, there’s an element of spoof here and there’s no point in talking about how the “plot” makes very little sense, as much as I enjoy how most of the narrative seems to take place over one of those never-ending nights. But moreso than the spoof element is the feel that Rodriguez simply wanted to make one of these movies and embrace all the elements that make them cheesy…only not play them as cheesy but as awesome. Rose McGowan is amazing and gets the chance here to be a movie star more than she ever has before. Marley Shelton, always kind of a blank to me, here explodes into becoming nothing less than a modern day Barbara Steele.

And just the idea of casting Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey, who must have gone up for the same parts countless times back in the day, as brothers just fills me with joy. And they get stuff to do! But it’s possible that Josh Brolin, doing some kind of melding of his dad and Nick Nolte, as “Doc Block” somehow nails the specifics of the tone needed here best of all. Planet Terror is very meta, very much a goof and there’s no point in trying to breakdown all the pieces of the plot. It’s still my favorite Robert Rodriguez film to date.

Rodriguez also directed the trailer for “Machete” which runs before the first feature and it's a fantastically violent ad for a Bronson-like vehicle. Of the trailers that run between the films, Rob Zombie’s “Werewolf Women of the SS” gets the premise right but the style is all wrong. Harry Knowles called it right in saying it would be more at home in Amazon Women on the Moon. Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving” is much better and brings in the sleaze factor much more than anything else in the three hours does. There’s something about its griminess that really seems like the stuff of nightmares. I think I liked Edgar Wright’s “Don’t” most of all, a pitch-perfect take on trailers for (usually European) horror films that try to tell as little about the movie as possible, only shouting “DON’T! DON’T! DON’T!” over and over again. It gets it so right that I know the real “Don’t” would in reality be pretty dull stuff. But the trailer is one of my favorite things ever.

The first reaction to Tarantino’s “Death Proof”: Rodriguez made a Grindhouse movie, Tarantino made a Tarantino movie. Well, kind of. And even if he did, are the Movie Police going to show up and fine him? How about this: Rodriguez made a very conscious pastiche but Tarantino really wanted to break down the form and analyze it. Make one of his hangout movies combined with horror elements combined with car chase elements. What if a mad killer suddenly showed up an hour in Howard Hawks’s “Hatari!” Or a Cassavetes film? Or for that matter, “Two Lane Blacktop”? What if characters than get axed in a slasher film weren’t just types but were actual characters? Truthfully, I’m still sorting out what he’s doing here.

Within the two halves of "Death Proof" are two sets of girls. The first include Vanessa Ferlito, Sydney Poitier and Jordan Ladd, each striking, each attractive, containing something a special quality but the film seems to have a slightly ambivalent attitude towards them. How nice are they really, but how catty are they, really? Rose McGowan, reappearing as a different character, only says bad things when talking about the central group, but when we see them actually interacting they seem totally cool with each other. And Sydney Poititer seems to be using her connections with various guys to try to get ahead in the record business...but is she using them or are they using her. One things for sure. Tarantino loves it when she flings her hair around. I don't blame him.

The second group includes Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead...and the truly astounding Zoe Bell, a stuntwoman who first worked with Tarantino in Kill Bill and plays "herself" here, all the better to get somebody who knows what they're doing when they get strapped to the hood of that Dodge Challenger. She seems like an amazing spirit. I don't need to fall in love with her...but I wish I could just hang out with her for a few hours. Or days. Or weeks. If you're going to hang out with somebody in a movie who talks a lot, she's a genuinely intoxicating one to do it with.

Kurt Russell does some of his best work in a long time as Stuntman Mike. That slow feeling of unease that emanates from him in the first half just gets better as it goes and it feels very informed by Kurt Russell’s long history in the biz and all of the real stuntmen he’s worked with. There’s something Stuntman Mike isn’t saying….and I’m pretty sure we don’t want to know what it is. The car chase that makes up the second half is a blast. Is it as good as Bullitt? The Seven Ups? Ronin? I don’t know, but seeing Zoe Bell flailing around on the roof of that car is pretty great. Like “Reservoir Dogs”, “Death Proof” is an anti-art art film that reveals a lot of what Tarantino loves about the movies he loves. Plus he also loves those feet. Bonus points for including the MPAA bug in his opening credits.

Sprinkled throughout the three hours are bad splices, bad reel changes, lots of scratches, missing reels, logos, feature presentation and coming soon bumpers. It’s a reminder of a time when movies were somewhat more handmade and included characters, even ones involved in car chases, who were true individuals. Their movies weren’t always good but they deserve to be remembered in all their scratchy glory. All or nothing.

Thursday, April 5, 2007


Grindhouse opens tomorrow and as far as I know that's what I'll be doing. I can't wait. One of the major scenes in the Tarantino half is a car chase so he's been spouting off in various interviews about some of his favorites. I'd make up my own list, but you know what's on it. Bullitt, French Connection, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Ronin, Vanishing Point, The Driver. But Tarantino mentions a terrific one in the new Rolling Stone that very few people know.

There's an Italian crime movie from the early 70s called Hired to Kill. It's also known as Manhunt, Manhunt in Milan, Manhunt in the City, Hitmen, Black Kingpin and Mafiaboss. Oh, I think I saw it under the title The Italian Connection. Fernando Di Leo directed. It's fairly dull stuff, actually. A small-time pimp is framed by the Milan Mafia for stealing heroin from the New York mob, which dispatches a pair of assassins to take care of him. At least I think that's what the plot is. Mario Adorf is the pimp, Thunderball alums Adolfo Celi and Lucianna Paluzzi are in there and the two hired killers from America are Henry Silva and Woody Strode, looking like obvious forerunners to Vincent and Jules in Pulp Fiction.

Like I said, it's kind of dull. But at about the midway point, there's a brutal killing followed immediately a chase. I remember sitting in the Egyptian theater two years ago watching this, suddenly roused from my boredom, thinking, hmm, this chase seems kind of interesting. After about 90 seconds I suddenly though, no, this chase is AMAZING. Over the course of cabout ten minutes it went from a car chase to a foot chase, just going on and on. It was fantastic. Then, after the chase was over, it was back to the dull movie we'd already been watching. But I'd go to see this movie again just for that chase.

In some ways that's the sort of thing that Grindhouse the movie is celebrating. There's sleaze, there's girls, there's violence and some of these movies also just lie there. But sometimes there's the thrill of discovery in one of these things, a few minutes of flat-out Cinema that gives us that sleaze, that violence, that action, that whatever, that gives us that extra-special jolt of frisson. And we're reminded why we're watching it in the first place. Tarantino knows that. I can't wait to see Grindhouse.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Deserve's Got Nothin' To Do With It

I visited Los Angeles with my family several times when I was a kid, but my first real exposure to the city came in 1992 when I came out here to look into a job that never happened. But I spent several weeks checking out the place, becoming more and more certain that I wanted to move here. Late one afternoon I was driving through Westwood Village, when I spotted that a movie premiere was happening. I parked and walked over to the Bruin where I discovered that it was the premiere of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. I stood with the crowd across the street for several minutes when some sort of security guard came over and asked if anyone wanted to go in and see the movie. They must have needed to fill some seats or something. Quickly I raised my hand and was sent over to a line on the side of the theater, alongside where Hamburger Hamlet used to be. Within minutes the line started to move. I followed the line as it curved around into the theater’s foyer and suddenly just a few feet away from me was Clint Eastwood being interviewed by a tv news crew.

Once inside the crowded theater I found a seat way down near the front in the second row. I remember Joe Dante sitting right behind me. Very cool. And then the movie started.

Let me back up here. This was the premiere of Unforgiven. Which, before it opened, was simply the new Clint Eastwood Western. The first one he’d made in years. I remember seeing the trailer that summer before Batman Returns, but it was only just the new Clint Eastwood western. His previous film had been The Rookie, a buddy-cop romp with Charlie Sheen which isn’t exactly one of the best things he’d ever done. And there was next to no hype about Unforgiven. What I’m saying is, I had no idea what I was about to see.

It first truly hit me when I was watching the scene between Eastwood and the underrated Anna Thomson, the cut-up girl who offers him a “free one”. He turns her down, then explains why, saying it’s because of his wife back home, the one she doesn’t know is dead, adding, “I reckon if I was to want a free one, it would be with you.” I vividly remember sitting there in the Bruin, thinking, “Oh my God. I’m watching a Great Movie.” That never happens anymore. We know too much about everything we’re going to see beforehand. We don’t really get surprises like that very much anymore. I new it then and I knew it through the rest of the movie. And to this day, I watch the last stretch of Unforgiven, from the scene under the tree as Eastwood and Jaimz Woolvet wait under that tree for the girl to bring their money all the way through the final title card at the end and I just find myself welling up with a kind of emotion. Part of it is the movie, but part of it is also me being brought back to the perfection of that night. Of being reminded what power movies really do have and why I want to write in the first place. LA has a way of doing that to you.

The script was written by David Webb Peoples and it can be considered his masterpiece. I met him briefly once, but I didn’t tell him. We all make mistakes.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

First Thoughts

I'm still trying to figure out what I want this to be. Right now I plan on using this to put down various thoughts on films, writing and other things. How personal I'll get, I don't know right now. We'll see.

As for why this is called Mr. Peel's Sardine Liqueur: My first name is Peter and for the purposes of this blog my last name will be Peel, so then it stands to reason that I must be the husband of Mrs. Emma Peel, the secret agent played by Diana Rigg on the Avengers. Rigg went on to play the female lead in the 1969 Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service and may be the very best Bond Girl of them all.

Sardine Liqueur is a drink served by Peter Falk to Alan Arkin in the 1986 comedy Big Trouble. It's a film with a troubled history though the scene involving the beverage is one of the few things people seem to remember about the movie. More on Big Trouble at another time. For now, onward.

In The Beginning

"It was one of those Septembers when it seemed that the summer would never end."

-- first line of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, by Ian Fleming.