Thursday, November 29, 2007

"I'm gonna eat your brains and gain your knowledge"

After watching (and reviewing) Tarantino’s Grindhouse contribution, Death Proof, earlier this week, I couldn’t seem to keep myself from watching Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. So on the return trip to the video store to bring back Death Proof, I felt compelled to pick up the other half of Grindhouse.

Now that I’ve seen both, I guess I can level my “whose movie was better” opinion. I’d have to say that the reviews were more or less right, Tarantino’s Death Proof is the better movie. But making that kind of comparison, however unavoidable, is a little strange. While Death Proof played like a cross between Monte Hellman and early Wes Craven, Planet Terror comes across much more like old John Carpenter on a dangerous mix of bad acid and a lot of meth. Just wanted to make it clear, though these two movies are meant to be packaged together, they are two very different animals.

Similar to Death Proof, Planet Terror’s plot isn’t really all that important, but here goes anyways. In an unnamed backwater Texas scrub town, a biochemical weapon stored at an old army base begins mutating all the local residents into a horde of infected, cannibalistic, zombie-like “sickos”. A ragtag group of uninfected locals (including a tow truck driver with a mysterious past and an affinity for guns, a sassy ex-go-go dancer with a chip on her shoulder, a BBQ chef obsessed with getting on the Food Network, and the bumbling Sheriff’s department, among others) must battle their way through the ever growing horde of mutants and tangle with a roving band of murderous ex-military personnel. Throw in some stuff about addiction, exploitation of our military, and confusing back-story relationships between just about every character and there you have it. It may sound confusing, and it is a little at times, but plot is not really the point.

Pretty much from the get-go, the movie is a non-stop insane-o-fest. By minute 10 you’ve seen a man get his balls cut off (as well as the giant jar of balls in which an entire ball collection is kept). By minute 12 you’ve seen a man get his face melted off by a mysterious green gas. Pretty much all bets are off at that point. From there on, you’ll be treated to what was one of the goriest movies I have ever seen. It was staggering, just the sheer volume of gore. It blows my mind to think about the amount of fake blood, guts, and viscera that went into the filming. Bodies are constantly gushing blood, guts, being eaten, or just ripped apart.

Planet Terror also offers some truly cringe-worthy moments. It’s not all over-the-top, campy horror movie excess (though it is to a great extent). One character in particular gets stabbed repeatedly with syringes one moment, only to break her wrist in a car door handle the next. And the cringes don’t just come in the form of in-your-face gruesomeness, Rodriguez definitely knows how to remind the audience that all bets are off, no reminder more clear than when a child accidentally shoots his own face off (oddly enough, Rodriguez didn’t want to traumatize any child actors by filming that scene, so he just cast his own son).

Overall, the movie was a lot of fun. It’s highly stylized, overflowing with tough-guy talk, sneers, sassy retorts, huge explosions, and just about any ridiculous movie convention you can think of. It featured both Rodriguez’s typical guitar-based Southwestern score, as well as a very Carpenter-esque synth score (a la Escape from New York). Even all the faux-damage to the film reel is employed with a purpose (while Tarantino used film stock then intentionally damaged it for effect, Rodriguez shot in digital and added the damaged-film effects in post). As the tension mounts, the screen wobbles and bleeds, color distortion creeps across the screen as villains leer at our heroes. While decidedly less “authentic” than Tarantino’s strategy, Rodriguez maintains more control over the ‘70s exploitation motif, lending the movie a much slicker appearance (for better or worse).

There are more than a few things that don’t make much sense (e.g. how does Rose McGowan’s machine gun leg fire? why does the arrival of zombie-like mutants cause every car within eye-sight to spontaneously explode? since when has Freddy Rodriguez been a badass action star?), but the movie is way too damn fun for any of that to matter. From the moment that first testicle hits the pavement up to the last exploding head, Planet Terror is a whole lot of blood-soaked, ratcheted-up genre fun.

I should warn, this movie is most definitely not for everybody. You’ll need a strong stomach and a very strong appreciation for horror/action movies. The non-stop action, gore, and violence means that the movie can definitely wear on the audience. Especially if that audience isn’t that into ridiculously over-the-top violence in the first place. Be forewarned, if this doesn’t sound like something you’ll like, you’ll hate it.

Overall, very nice work boys. It’s a shame the Weinstein’s haven’t released a theatrical cut on DVD yet. It’s a shame I rented two double-disc movies, and didn’t get to see the special guest directors’ fake intermission trailers (I was especially looking forward to Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the SS). Maybe someday…

PS. Prior to the start of Planet Terror, you’re treated to a faux-preview for a film called Machete, starring badass Danny Trejo. Pretty awesome. Featuring, very prominently, plenty of downtown Austin landmarks. Plus Cheech Marin dressed as a priest, points a shotgun at someone, and says, “God may have mercy. But I don’t.” Sweet.

Ah, online validation

Despite the fact that their reviews are often irritating enough that I rarely get through them and their news section is generally filled with bands I've either never heard of or couldn't care less about, I still check Pitchfork at least once a day. Those indie rockers are just so judgmental, I need them to think I'm cool!

Anyways, one feature I actually enjoy reading is the column "Show No Mercy", Brandon Stosuy's coverage of the extreme metal world. Yesterday's column was his year in review for 2007, and here's what he had to say about High on Fire's Death is this Communion:

Matt Pike, Des Kensel and new bassist Jeff Matz do the unthinkable, topping the classic 2002 gem Surrounded By Thieves (and 2005's Preston-y Blessed Black Wings, etc.) The Jack Endino-produced slab rails through eleven counts of perfect no-bullshit Oakland-born hard rock. You can call it stoner or doom or post post-Sleep, but whatever the case, Lemmy must be proud (and maybe a wee bit scared). Full review soon.

I knew I was cool! You can read his full recap of 2007 here.

You can read my review of Death is this Communion here. Not that my review will be any easier to get through than Pitchfork's will be. Probably just less pretentious (and with worse grammar).

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"You wanna get hot?"

There is something great about low-budget exploitation movies. It’s not a mysterious thing. They’re just kind of awesome. The lack of studio over-sight means they tend to be pretty uncensored. The lack of budget means the better ones tend to be pretty innovative. And, at the most basic level, they’re just badass.

I was pretty excited when I heard about Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s ode to the by-gone days of exploitation cinema. Unfortunately, a busy schedule and a 3+ hour runtime (due to the Alamo serving beer during movies, more runtime means more beer, which means bigger bill) kept me from seeing it in the theaters. Following its notoriously poor showing at the box office, and the Weinstein’s notorious run of bad financial luck, meant the double-feature was split for the DVD release in an attempt to recoup more money. So, when I finally got around to watching it, I had to watch one at a time. I started with Tarantino’s Death Proof, buying into the notion that it was the better of the two. I have yet to see Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, so my take will have to wait.

Given that plot isn’t really key here (nor is there really much of a plot to talk about), I’ll just get it out of the way now. Kurt Russell plays an ex-stuntman named, appropriately enough, Stuntman Mike. He drives his “death proof” muscle cars around, chasing, terrorizing, and vehicularly murdering beautiful young women. That’s about it.

There are a lot of things to like about Death Proof. As an Austin resident, the first half was fantastic. Shot on location in Austin, the first forty minutes elicited plenty of “been there” and “I know where that is” mental checks. Rodriguez and his Troublemaker Studios are famously located in Austin, and Tarantino’s close friendship with Rodriguez means he’s a surprisingly common guest. He definitely has a good feel for our fair city. It might not be a universal appeal, but it was a pleasant surprise to see the city represented so well.

The movie itself is filled with more or less typical Tarantino dialogue. Pop culture and profanity abound in the talk-heavy segments of the movie, leading into some of the greatest chase scenes and car stunts I have ever seen. No one is going to walk into this movie wanting to hear characters talk endlessly, and no one is going to leave talking about the dialogue. It’s all a means to get us to the meat of Death Proof’s appeal. The cars. The stunts. The crashes.

Tarantino, notoriously resistant to digital effects, opts for classic ‘70s style stunts. There are no enormous explosions. Cars hit cars. Metal twists and glass breaks. Tires squeal and smoke billows. No ridiculous CGI nonsense that is usually more distracting than cool. This is all to an amazing end. There are two chase scenes that will get your heart pumping, probably unlike any more has before.

First time actress, long time stuntwoman, Zoe Bell turns out a performance that is more impressive than any I’ve seen in a long time. As an actress she is almost immediately likeable. She’s naturally charming to the point where it requires no work on the part of the audience or the director to make us like her. We just do. As a stuntwoman, doing her own stunts obviously, she is jawdroppingly ballsy. The first of the aforementioned car chases has her doing some of the craziest stunts I have ever witnessed. Not since watching Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr. (way back in 1928) have I been so convinced that not only are the things I’m watching look dangerous but in reality were dangerous to film. There are no “that looked crazy, must have been tough to do”, it is all “how did she not die while filming that?!” I won’t ruin what exactly some of these stunts are, but watching Zoe Bell alone is reason enough to rent Death Proof.

If a badass stuntwoman doing insanely dangerous things isn’t enough to get you into this movie, a badass Kurt Russell should help tip the scales. Stuntman Mike is a coolly bizarre psycho that is immediately fun to watch. I wouldn’t say Russell’s performance is necessarily good acting, as much as the fun he obviously had playing the character is immediately contagious. He sneers. He spouts ridiculous, cool, tough-guy talk. Just when you think watching him can’t get any more fun, the 180 the character takes after the first chase is absolutely incredible.

Death Proof definitely has its problems, though. Surprisingly, its biggest problems are the dialogue and acting. I’m not sure if it was purposefully written and acted this way (my guess is that it was, given the terrific dialogue Tarantino has previously written and fantastic performances he has previously elicited), but it all seems to be done to further emulate the old exploitation movies. Ultimately, a lot of the dialogue seems stilted and awkward and a lot of the delivery comes across as forced and uncomfortable. Even if it is an attempt to continue the throwback motif, it doesn’t make it any less annoying or distracting. The constant name-dropping of the old movies Death Proof is trying to ape gets old after the first time someone brings up Vanishing Point. I don’t need to hear for a fifth time how great Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry is. Finally, a small but minor annoyance is how bizarrely anachronistic the movie can be. It looks like the ‘70s. It sounds like the ‘70s. But everyone has cell phones and iPods. Minor thing, but I found it distracting.

All in all, I’d have to say that Death Proof is a good, not great, movie. I’d give it 4 out of 5 stars. That being said, though, I would say that it’s a must see. If that makes sense. It won’t go down in history as a fantastic movie, just a couple of fantastic car chases. I’d bet you’ll walk away from this movie thinking it was good (not great), but you’ll definitely be glad you saw it.

Running through maple syrup while being punched in the face

Following the infamous (and kinda hilarious) demise of doom metal, slower-than-dirt icon Sleep, guitarist Matt Pike formed the noticeably faster-than-dirt band High on Fire. High on Fire recently released their fourth full-length, Death is this Communion (following the Art of Self-Defense, Surrounded by Thieves, and Blessed Black Wings). How this band managed to stomp around under my radar for so long is beyond me. To be honest, I’m a little embarrassed, but regardless I’ve found them. Or they found me, if you want to get a little creepy about it.

Death is this Communion, on the whole, is thick, heavy, dense, and down tuned to within an inch of its life. This bottom-heavy, wall of sound comes across at times a bit like trying to run wind sprints in a pool of molasses. The songs are written in an almost Motorheadish blues-metal style, with, at times, a more prog structure thrown in to keep things interesting. It can definitely leave you feeling, at first listen though, as if all their songs sound the same, separated by the occasional Middle Eastern influenced guitar work or drum solo. You hear it once, walk away thinking it all sounded like the same thundering fist in the gut, but in a little while, it begins.

Could be hours. Could be days. Hell, could be years. There are probably Typhoid Mary, asymptomatic High on Fire fanatics just waiting out there. Then it happens. You can’t get it out of your head. You find yourself replaying songs over and over again in your mind. You don’t know which songs they are. You don’t remember the words. You’re not even sure if it’s one song or some kind of muddled up medley your mind has glued together. But it plays and plays until you listen to the album again. Then it replays until you listen to it a third time. Next thing you know, you have 75% of the album memorized, all just so you can make sense of all that noise in your head.

The cause of the songs surprising catchiness can mostly be attributed Matt Pike’s vocals. His almost inhuman voice is all at once raspy, guttural, and melodic as he screams in throat shredding fashion surprisingly well-written lyrics. His barking howl doesn’t so much rise over the thick murkiness of the music, as it pushes itself through the din. The guitar, bass, drums, and vocals all lurk and sway in dangerous, thunderous unison. Guitars and bass become inseparable, bass and drums merge, and the vocals lead them all through the apocalyptic stomp. As if fifty hands were to all mold themselves into one giant sized fist, repeatedly punching you in the face, the music is melting pot of blues stomp low-end noise.

Check out their new video for the first single, “Rumors of War”, definitely one of my favorite songs on the album, along with “Waste of Tiamut” and “Turk”. Though, I have yet to find a single cut that I couldn’t listen to over and over again. Highly, highly recommended for people looking for some new metal, or just for people who don't have shitty taste in music.