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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Short Takes – Recently Seen: April 2007

Grindhouse is a formidable technical achievement, but a very mixed bag as either entertainment or art. Director teammates Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have a lot of fun with the trappings of the movie – the parody “prevues” of coming attractions, the scratches and missing frames, the general air of rowdy sensationalism in the 1970s exploitation films to which they are paying affectionate homage. And Rodriguez’s half of the double bill, Planet Terror, is actually pretty entertaining. The hyperbolic gore throughout the nonsensical zombie tale is astonishingly overdone, and often funny in itself. (As in Rodriguez’s Sin City, the limits of the R rating are stretched to meaninglessness.) The performers get right into the spirit of things and Freddy Rodriguez is particularly good as the hero.

But Tarantino’s Death Proof, while skillful, is never as interesting as the best parts of Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill. It divides itself into two similar stories, involving sadistic weirdo stunt driver Kurt Russell’s encounters with two different groups of young women. (If there is a narrative connection between the two stories, or even an indication which one is supposed to come first chronologically, I missed it.) Again, the actors are fine, and the movie is technically accomplished. But the stories don’t add up to much, and they don’t have the baroque asides of Tarantino’s best earlier work. The ending seems particularly lame, attempting to put a lighter-hearted gloss on a very sadistic storyline, or pair of storylines. Possibly by then I was just weary of the whole meta-movie concept. If each feature could have been just an hour or less, the whole thing might be more satisfying.

300

Despite a well-executed visual style that is not quite like any other movie, the dumb-dumb-dumb thud of 300’s dialogue and narration can deaden a viewer’s mind and senses. The ‘triumph’ of this movie is in art direction, not art (art is no doubt far from the first thing on the mind of these particular filmmakers). There is very little genuine feeling in 300, despite the lip service given to the grief caused by war and the sacrifice of good men for ‘freedom.’ Its gigantic boxoffice success is puzzling - apparently this is actually rousing to a sizable number of young men. Perhaps they love the idea of a video game blown up to Imax size, with plenty of beheadings, blood splatters, and adolescent attitudes toward sex and nudity. As for historical versimilitude, the film could as easily take place on another planet as among the real Greek city-states of the past.

The Hoax is about Clifford Irving’s nearly successful publication of a fake Howard Hughes biography. Well acted and competently directed, it’s an interesting story well told, rather than a fascinating story rivetingly told. Based as it is on Irving’s own account, it sometimes seems to buy into his aggrandized self-image. Despite Richard Gere’s surprising charm as Irving, this portrayal of his scam as something of great importance is not entirely successful.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

You’d think this would be a likely movie to compare and contrast favorably with 300: with its deeply felt stands on war and politics and power and freedom, this should be the kind of historical drama that shakes you with the force of art. But Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winner is a real disappointment, more respectable than 300 without being a great deal more moving. The story of the Irish rebellion against the English in the 1920s is handsomely photographed and well cast and acted. But putting a political point of view front and center, as the characters speechify to each other and to us, is a far less effective method than genuine dramatization, and the result is oddly remote. The sadness may still get to you, but the narrative is too spare, lacking in depth and resonance. It's rare to wish a movie were longer, but this one could use more incident, more texture, more of the exhilaration of an epic.

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