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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Shortbus (2006)

Shortbus is a tragic comedy (or humorous drama, depending on your point of view) from the fertile imagination of John Cameron Mitchell, writer/director/star of the wonderful play and film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Unlike Hedwig, however, Shortbus is a lot less interesting. Perhaps that is because one of the themes of the film is the collective ennui of young bohemian New Yorkers struggling with post-9/11 disillusionment. Or maybe it is because it depends too hard on the supposed shock value of its content and not hard enough on stuff like direction, writing and editing. Shortbus received a lot of criticism for containing real sex scenes, which is quite possibly the stupidest reason in the world to criticize a film. How could people have trashed this movie for such a superficial reason when it has such a host of other shortcomings?

Shortbus is a modern day counterculture film, reminiscent of the many free love art house pictures that grew popular in the 1960s. The youth of that decade cried out "You're either on the bus, or you're off the bus,” in defiance of the norm and in praise of the new countercultural ideal. Shortbus’s title is clearly a reference to this slogan, and, like that era, it contains a number of jaded hipsters for whom there are no clear social boundaries. So far, so good…I would have loved to see a real examination of what makes my generation tick. Lamentably, Shortbus only provides a peep show without taking us into the Champagne room. It strives for Tinto Brass but it only manages Russ Meyer.

The Shortbus is a kinky salon that serves as a node for a number of characters, including a dominatrix named Severin (couldn’t they have some up with something less obvious?) a marriage counselor who can’t have an orgasm, and a stable, loving couple who is neither stable nor loving. Their lives intersect in various ways that are only marginally interesting and not particularly well written. The only problem with writing witty, intellectual characters is that they have to actually say witty and intellectual things. The actors are generally okay, and many of the Hedwig players make appearances. I really liked Sook-Yin Lee as Sofia, the marital therapist. Most of the other actors, however, are only minimally competent.

Shortbus toys with being hard core, but many of the pivotal scenes left me feeling bored and impatient precisely because I felt so emotionally detached from the poorly written characters. The countercultural and sexually explicit imagery Shortbus was nothing I haven’t seen before (especially since I have a penchant for male masturbation scenes and guy-on-guy action). A compelling, well-written screenplay with consistent and believable characters could have set it apart and made it really special; Shortbus’s shortcomings make it a disappointing and, ironically, a decidedly anticlimactic film going experience.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Grindhouse (2007)

The term “Grindhouse” refers to the subgenre of exploitation films that was so utterly ubiquitous in the 60s and 70s. As such, it encompasses a vast array of film types: burlesque, horror films, sexploitation, blaxploitation, biker films, car-chase films, cannibal films, chambara [a kind of samurai] films, kung fu films, Mondo [“shockumentary”] films, Nazisploitation (yes, there is such a thing), Giallo [erotic Italian horror], and women-in-prison films, just to name a small few. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s joint project Grindhouse pays tribute to all of these films in countless minute ways, from the intentionally rough editing to the post-production dust and scratches on the film, to the non-sequitur burlesque numbers, to the throwaway references so obscure that it’s almost shameful to catch them (my god, one scene actually references the 1974 film Killdozer. Shut up, I know I’m a total geek)). To put it simply, Grindhouse is a movie geek wet dream: it is 200 minutes of obscure pop culture references mixed with a liberal helping of tits, ass and blood.

The film is structured as a double feature, with fake “trailers” in between the features. The first installment, Planet Terror, is a zombie apocolypse cum hixploitation adventure featuring Rose McGowan as a one-legged go-go dancer. Picture a drunkenly directed joint project of Roger Corman and Russ Meyer and you’ll have a close approximation. There are lots of partially nude women and flesh-eating zombies (and, at a certain point, partially nude Fergie devoured by a whole gang of flesh-eating zombies. I’ll skip the obvious jokes about her being “Fergilicious”). Planet Terror has pretty much every cliché character and situation you can think of: the pompous foreign scientist (Naveen Andrews), the Sheriff with something to prove, the woman and young son running from her abusive husband, the biker rebel (Freddy Rodriguez) running from his past, the stripper with a heart of gold, etc.. Overall, the film has the effect of a big bowl of sugar cereal: there’s a lot of color and stimulants, and not much substance. There is something a little bit soulless about some of Rodriguez's work. He is very good at parroting a genre, but he rarely steps outside to comment on the genre. Planet Terror feels like it's supposed to be satirical, but you can't really have satire without critique. All in all, however, Rodriguez serves up a lot of laughs and a few genuine scares: it's a good old-fashioned zombie picture with a sense of humor.

I think the previews in between deserve some comments, too, as it is clear that a great deal of thought was put into them. The first installment, Werewolf Women of the SS, is director Rob Zombie’s tribute to the Nazi-themed pornographic horror films that grew prominent in the 70s (e.g. Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, Love Camp 7). It features Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu, Udo Kier as Franz Hess, the commandant of Death Camp 13, and Zombie's wife, Sheri Moon Zombie and Sybil Danning as SS officers. The second preview, Don’t, is director Edgar Wright’s parody of cheesy low-budget British horror and Mondo movies. The trailer, like the trailers of British horror films released thirty years ago in the United States, is haphazardly edited together with no audible dialogue from the film (a frequent tactic taken to prevent US audiences from realizing the film wasn’t American). Finally, Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving is the over-the-top slasher parody in the tradition of Creepshow, April Fool’s Day and Prom Night (in fact, the music in the Thanksgiving trailer is taken from Creepshow). All three trailers are hilarious, with Roth's being both the most absurd and the most true to its source.

The second feature, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof is almost too good to be a believable grindhouse film. Death Proof is a traditional slasher film disguised as a car chase film. The structure is that of a typical killer-in-the-woods movie like Friday the 13th. The cars, the dialogue and the way it’s shot, however, are all reminiscent of classic flicks like Duel, The Getaway and, most of all, Richard Sarafian’s 1971 film Vanishing Point. Tarantino doesn’t simply make reference to the Dodge Challenger from Vanishing Point; he takes it a postmodern step further by having his characters make reference to the Dodge Challenger and seek one out for a test drive. The characters in question are Zoe (played by Zoe Bell, Uma’s stunt double in Kill Bill), Abby, Kim and Lee, four young women who work in the film industry. Kim and Zoe decide they want to play ships and masts with a 1970 Dodge Challenger that they see for sale in the newspaper. Little do they know that they’re being stalked by a homicidal maniac named “Stuntman Mike,” (Kurt Russell) who kills women with his “death-proof” stunt car. As incredible as it sounds, Death Proof is completely engrossing and utterly satisfying. I found myself invigorated halfway through it, despite having sat in the theatre for more than two hours by that point. At the conclusion, Tarantino pulls out a surprise ending and mystifies the audience, which might be the most compelling and difficult to capture qualities of the best the Grindhouse subgenre has to offer.