Friday, January 5, 2018

Worth Mentioning - Grindhouse Presents

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

A faux trailer spawns two features.

MACHETE (2010)

After the release of the Robert Rodriguez / Quentin Tarantino double feature Grindhouse in 2007, I was left wanting more. I wanted to see sequels, I wanted to see the faux trailers that were part of the film - Rodriguez's Machete, Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the SS, Edgar Wright's Don't, Eli Roth's Thanksgiving - become features themselves. I wanted a franchise, even though it would have made little business sense to pursue such an idea, since Grindhouse underperformed at the box office.

Still, all of the directors of the faux trailers kicked around the idea of turning the trailers into features, with various degrees of seriousness. Roth was the most enthusiastic about carrying on the concepts of Grindhouse; he enjoyed making Thanksgiving so much that he was even going to make an entire feature consisting only of faux trailers, to be called Trailer Trash. He has also pursued the idea of turning Thanksgiving as a feature, and was at one time pitching another Grindhouse double feature that would consist of Thanksgiving and Don't.

The other most enthusiastic was, obviously, Rodriguez, who did end up getting Machete turned into a feature three years later.

Danny Trejo stars as the title character, Machete Cortez, a Mexican Federale who prefers to use a blade rather than a gun. When the film begins, Machete is on the trail of criminal kingpin Rogelio Torrez (Steven Seagal), seeking to rescue a girl who has been kidnapped by Torrez. The rescue attempt goes terribly wrong, and even though Machete hacks heads and limbs off of several of Torrez's lackeys, he doesn't get to Torrez himself. The drug lord murders Machete's wife and daughter and leaves the Federale himself for dead in a burning house.

It's a very strong, blood-soaked start to the film, and it has some of that fake film damage the Grindhouse faux trailer (and Rodriguez's Grindhouse feature Planet Terror) had. The film damage look doesn't continue through the rest of the movie. It also features a fully nude woman who pulls a communication device out of an unexpected hiding place... inappropriate, but also very appropriate for a movie that has its roots in the exploitation era.

Jump ahead three years and we find that Machete survived the fire and is now taking day labor jobs in Texas. Thinking he's just the average illegal immigrant, an unscrupulous business man named Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) randomly chooses Machete to be the person to carry out the assassination of U.S. Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), who has a hardcore anti-immigration stance. McLaughlin wants to put up an electrified border fence, which he would have the illegal immigrants build themselves for no pay before he deports them, doesn't believe in amnesty, and even goes on patrols of the border with Von Jackson (Don Johnson), a vigilante who kills anyone he sees illegally crossing the border from Mexico into Texas. In a very disturbing moment, Von Jackson even guns down a pregnant woman.

McLaughlin joins in on the killing, too. He has himself filmed while he shoots someone on the border, a video that will be shown to his high-dollar supporters.

The reason Booth gives for wanting McLaughlin dead: Texas thrives on illegal labor. He gives Machete $150,000 cash to pull off the assassination. Machete agrees to do it, although he doesn't actually intend to kill McLaughlin. He just wants to shoot him in the neck to shut him up.  He doesn't even get the chance to do that. It has all been a set-up to help drum up support for McLaughlin - if they can blame an assassination attempt on an illegal immigrant, more people will vote for McLaughlin and his anti-immigration policies. Booth's sidekick Sniper (Shea Whigham) shoots Machete, then shoots McLaughlin in the leg.

The whole plan falls apart when Machete survives getting shot and escapes from Booth's goons, disappearing into the underground network that aids illegals and is run by Michelle Rodriguez as Luz, a.k.a. Shé.

Machete caught the attention of ICE agent Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba) even before Booth hired him for the fake assassination attempt, but when she catches up to him she figures out he's a good guy and ends up working alongside him to stop Booth, Von Jackson, McLaughlin... and Torrez, who is using his drug money to finance McLaughlin's campaign. If that border wall gets built, Torrez can take control of drug flow into the U.S.

Sartana also ends up becoming his love interest, although Machete sleeps with several other women before he gets with her. As far as being irresistible to women goes, Machete like the Mexican James Bond. He even has a threesome with Booth's wife June (Alicia Marek) and meth-addicted daughter April (Lindsay Lohan).

For a long stretch of the film, Machete actually gets surprisingly bogged down in plot, character, and also a subplot with Cheech Marin as Machete's priest brother and Tom Savini as a hitman who can be hired through a website and 1-800 number. As good as it is to see Cheech and Savini in anything, this aspect of the movie doesn't amount to much. Savini's character even completely disappears from the film with no resolution. At least Cheech and Savini provide some action in a second act that is more serious and talky than I had anticipated, with most of the flares of action being underwhelming.

I wasn't quite as entertained by Machete as I thought I would be, it wasn't the "lost Cannon classic" the faux trailer made it appear to be, but I should appreciate that bit of seriousness while the film still has it, because it devolves into the ridiculous toward the end, as Machete goes to war with Von Jackson's militia, aided by the illegal workers and the supporters in the network.

Even though the climax is an over-the-top action sequence, there's no feeling of excitement about it. Guns are being fired, explosions are going off, but it feels clunky and lackluster. Something about the way Rodriguez and his co-director Ethan Maniquis captured most of the action in this movie really doesn't work for me. It's awkward, lifeless, and the cool moments from the faux trailer feel dropped in just because they were part of the faux trailer.

I don't know what it is about this movie that can even make a swordfight between Steven Seagal and Danny Trejo seem dull. At least the fight ends with a funny moment.

Some recasting aside, the feature does deliver the moments that were promised in that faux trailer, even when they don't seem to fit, but something was lost on the way to feature length. I wouldn't say that it should've just remained a faux trailer because the feature does have merit and delivers some fun, but the movie doesn't live up to what I thought Machete would be after seeing that trailer. The action isn't as good and the movie isn't as entertaining as I expected it to be.

I was expecting awesome and got... just fine.


While his friend and Grindhouse collaborator Quentin Tarantino continues to hold on to film, Robert Rodriguez has gone in the total opposite direction and fully embraced the digital revolution. He's not the filmmaker he was before he got his hands on digital cameras and cheap CGI, and the shift in his style hasn't sat all that well with me. While he has still made some great movies over the years, as far as I'm concerned he has never done better than the movies he was making in the early-to-mid '90s, like Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn. Relatively low budget (and with El Mariachi, nearly no budget) movies that were made when Rodriguez was still shooting on film and had to deal with the restrictions lower budgeted movies had at that time. Digital blew the doors off for Rodriguez, he can go completely wild with his films now, and too often (for my taste) he lets the technology run away with his movie while indulging and urge to go cartoonishly over-the-top.

Machete Kills is an example of digital allowing Rodriguez to go bonkers, to the detriment of the film. If he still had the restrictions he had when making movies twenty years ago, he couldn't have made a movie as nonsensical as this... and I might have a Machete action movie to watch that I enjoy more than this.

Danny Trejo returns as Machete, of course. You can't have a Machete movie without him. The end of the previous film had promised that Machete would be back in two sequels - Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again. This sequel gets off on a bad foot with me as soon as it starts with a faux trailer for the next installment in the trilogy, a slightly re-titled Machete Kills Again... In Space. Dropping Machete in a cheap knock-off of Star Wars, sure, maybe I could get behind that, the grindhouses played plenty of those sorts of movies in the late '70s and early '80s, but the In Space trailer is too dopey and meta, with a Justin Bieber reference and an admission than maybe they might not be able to get Leonardo DiCaprio to play the mask-wearing villain if/when the movie gets made.

The film proper begins with Machete and his girlfriend Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba) doling out their own brand of justice on the U.S. / Mexico border, thwarting a weapons deal being made between American soldiers and members of a drug cartel. Things being to get overly convoluted when the cartel members kill the soldiers and then a third group shows up to kill the cartel members. They kill Sartana as well, something you often expect to happen to a love interest who survives long enough to make it into an action sequel.

A corrupt Arizona sheriff played by William Sadler takes it upon himself to execute Machete without trial for causing trouble in his territory, but Machete proves tough to kill. And the President of the United States, played by Charlie Sheen (acting under his birth name Carlos Estevez), wants to see Machete anyway. President Rathcock sends Machete on a mission to assassinate Marcos "The Madman" Mendez (Demián Bichir), a Mexican revolutionary with a split personality who has a missile aimed at Washington D.C. and will fire it if the U.S. doesn't invade Mexico to deal with the cartel problem.

Before Machete can get to Mendez, he has to be briefed and armed by his handler, Blanca Vasquez (Amber Heard), who operates under the cover of being Miss San Antonio, and then has to meet up with a girl named Cereza (Vanessa Hudgens), who loves Mendez... and whose mother Madame Desdemona (Sofía Vergara) runs a brotel where every prostitute is packing a machine gun. This includes a girl called KillJoy, not a very good name for a prositute, who's played by Rodriguez's Spy Kids star Alexa Vega.

Don't get too interested in the story of Mendez and Cereza, because she's dumped from the film very quickly. That's another problem with Machete Kills - Rodriguez is also over-indulging himself with the celebrity cameos he's able to score because he can get his actors wrapped in just a couple days. When Machete reaches Mendez and captures him because the missile aimed at D.C. will launch if Mendez's heart stops, an assassin called El Camaleón is sent after him. The assassin got that nickname because they have the ability to completely change their look. Over the course of the film, El Camaleón is played by Lady Gaga, Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Antonio Banderas. It's absurd and unnecessary.

And things get even more absurd than El Camaleón. Even more absurd than Madame Desdemona and her girls hunting Machete down while wearing hardly any clothes. Even more absurd than Madame Desdemona having a bra with two miniature miniguns as nipples and sporting the penis gun codpiece from Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn. An hour into the film's 108 minute running time, things change direction completely to introduce Mel Gibson as Luther Voz, head of Voz Tech, the world's premiere space technology and weapons manufacturer. Voz Tech made Mendez's bomb, and Luther Voz is even more of a madman than "The Madman". He admits he's a fan of Star Wars, but he has a villainous plan straight out of Moonraker: he's going to take off to his own space station, along with anyone who wants to join him, and reboot the human race out in space while nuking the Earth.

Now with Mel Gibson to contend with and his allies turning against him, Machete gets assistance from returning characters Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) and bomb expert Osiris Amanpour (Tom Savini), a former assassin who has been seeking to redeem himself since killing Machete's priest brother. It's a good thing Savini / Amanpour shows up in this one, since he just disappeared from the previous film.

If there's one positive thing I can say about Machete Kills, it's that it doesn't have the dull stretches I felt the first movie had. This one is quite lively, and the action less awkwardly staged. And that's about where the positive word ends for me on this one, because I don't get much enjoyment out of it at all. It's too much of a cartoon for me. Too much of it is just about Rodriguez amusing himself, letting the story fall to pieces around the celebrity cameos and over-the-top mayhem. Of all James Bond movies someone could choose to rip off, Moonraker wasn't the one to go with.

Machete Kills is a mess, and it left things wide open for Machete Kills Again... In Space, so much so that it even ends of a cliffhanger. As much as I disliked Kills and the faux trailer for Kills Again... In Space, I still feel like Rodriguez needs to make his Space sequel simply because he promised it and purposely built up to it. Finish this ridiculous story.

This whole Machete thing didn't work out all that well for me, but I'm still waiting to see if any other Grindhouse directors will do something with the ideas presented in their faux trailers. I'm especially anxious to see Eli Roth make that Thanksgiving movie.

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