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“Machete” trashy, hammy, overacted fun

Just because Machete don't text doesn't mean he's not good with his hands.

Robert Rodriguez likes making movies with equal parts explosive violence and hot babes and one-liners, which means he is doomed to spend his career being compared to Quentin Tarantino. Not such a bad fate, eh? There are worse people to be compared to, and to the untrained eye the comparison even seems kind of valid. But here’s the key difference: Tarantino likes to write insight in his worst characters. Rodriguez just wants them to have comically bad (like Nicholas-Cage-in-“Captain-Corelli’s-Mandolin” bad) accents. 

Is there a problem with that? Not for anyone willing to sit down, 86 the Tarantino snobbery, shut up and enjoy the ride. Rodriguez believes in the beauty of B movies, with their atrocious  (but so funny!) dialogue and their ill-written parts and their liters of blood and hacked-off body parts. He doesn’t take “Machete” seriously, and neither do the actors — which is why this fleshed-out film trailer is pure trashy fun, no brain engagement required. And the merriment begins with the opening credits, when Rodriguez — that cheeky bugger — includes the line “Introducing Don Johnson.” The casting is wild. Robert De Niro? Jeff Fahey, who seemed doomed to live his days as That Guy from Those Straight-to-VHS ’80s Movies? Mr. Miami Vice and Steven Seagal and Cheech in the same film? If there’s a Cinematic Cheesiness Scale, “Machete” has to be on the buxom end of it. And Lindsay Lohan crops up for good measure, a sure cause for some hoots because she’s playing a caricature of herself but looks too dumb (or drunk) to notice.

From this sea of tomfoolery emerges — “charges like a ticked-off Brava bull” might be a better phrase — Danny Trejo as Machete. On paper, this character actor, with that craggy face and lined skin that speaks to years of hard living and hard time, sounds like an odd choice for a revolutionary. Could a 66-year-old ex-con make a viable action hero? Claro que si, bruto! Watch him level goons with his thousand-yard stare and win a street fight without ever putting down his burrito. That sneer and hardness of character come in mighty handy in “Machete”; in fact, they are exactly what the original faux trailer promised and then some. As is customary with such a hero, there’s a dark past connected to some supremely shady criminals. Druglord Torrez (Seagal with an outrageously overdone Spanish accent), whom we recognize as terribly powerful because he calls everyone “puñeta” with a smirk, lops a few limbs of Machete’s family tree. Like all stories involving heroes, this is the unspeakable tragedy that makes the man. Years later Machete, an ex-federale, struggles to find enough money to scrape by. He gets the chance when Texas businessman Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) offers him $150,000 to kill Sen. McLaughlin (De Niro), a complete waste of oxygen posing as a political candidate taking an unbelievably hard line against illegal immigrants. The job isn’t this simple, naturally, and Machete gets tangled up with slinky U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent Sartana (Jessica Alba) and Luz/Shé (Michelle Rodriguez, looking refreshingly not drunk), the hardbody leader of an Underground Railroad-type operation to help Mexicans cross the border.

Down and down this rabbithole of a plot goes, eventually winding around to include a truly sadistic Border Patrol vigilante named Von (Johnson), who’ll shoot a pregnant immigrant without a second’s hesitation, and Machete’s brother Padre (Cheech Marin), a priest who always keeps a blunt, a flask and a semi-automatic weapon handy. (Time, you’ll discover, has not slowed Cheech’s comic timing: “I absolve you of all your sins. Now get the fuck out!”) It’s like a “Nash Bridges” reunion more nudity, some porn music and a kickass showdown involving tricked-out, hydraulics-happy cars, murderous rage and someone shouting a line that will put “remember the Alamo” six feet under: “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us!” There are high highs and low lows — Lohan has the acting skills of a dead person; Fahey is like a less adept Eric Roberts — with Rodriguez’s shortcomings, like character development, on obvious display. He’s great at trailers and feature-length ham. With Trejo making like a true-blue action hero and De Niro doing his best Foghorn Leghorn impression, who cares? 

Grade: B+

Review: “Backdraft” (1991)

“Backdraft” is known as a special effects-driven epic with some familial drama written in; nobody could argue Ron Howard’s film doesn’t earn that classification. There’s hardly a scene in the film that doesn’t include some lofty speech, or some feats of derring-do. There’s more to “Backdraft” than stunts, though, and it has to do with romance — not romance between characters (though there are requisite sex scenes) but romance between the firefighters and their prey. Never before has fire been filmed with such reverence and … eroticism. Arson investigator Shadow Rimgale puts a finer point on this, describing fire not as a phenomenon but as a feeling, living being. “The only way to truly kill it is to love it a little,” Shadow explains, almost lovingly. So “Backdraft,” really, is something of a love story.

If fire is the object of desire here, it does not lack suitors, and their stories — written and filmed without particular originality — only serve to complicate the bizzarely fascinating courtship dance of man and flame. Gregory Widen’s script supplies conflict in the form of two warring brothers, Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey (Kurt Russell) and Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin). The scenario is quite familiar: Bull fulfills the expectations everyone has for the son of a heroic firefighter. He has a wife (Rebecca De Mornay) and a son and a company of firefighters — including Axe Adcox (Scott Glenn, superb and heartbreaking), Tim (Jason Gedrick) and Grindle (Cedric Young) — he’d happily die to protect. Being the younger brother, Brian plays the perennial screw-up who bounced from one job to another, one girl to another, until stumbling into his big brother’s shadow once again. (It would be refreshing to see these roles reversed just once, no?) Bull, as his name suggests, is stubborn and brash; he endangers himself and his men by taking big risks, a habit that has threatened his career and his marriage. He’s a hero capable of sweeping dramatic actions who can’t handle day-to-day life. Russell plays him with a touch of sadness, and he hints at something a little darker: Maybe Bull’s reasons for doing the job aren’t as noble as he preaches they are. Maybe, as Rimgale suggests, fire is a femme fatale to get hooked on.

Brian and Bull’s problems serve as one piece of the bigger picture. The script has romantic entanglements — Jennifer Jason Leigh gives an underwhelming performance as Brian’s ex — that feel unnecessary (though De Mornay labors to make her character more than a blip on the screen) and, worse still, bothersome. They clutter up the film’s more intriguing substory: Rimdale’s investigation into a series of puzzling fires. Believed to be the work of a serial arsonist targeting Chicago’s connected politicos like councilman Swayzak (J.T. Walsh, possessed of a pair of squinty, up-to-something-rotten peepers), they are highly unusual because they are backdrafts — fire’s explosive response to the reintroduction of oxygen into flames that had exhaused the O2. If the science behind Howard’s creation of this phenomenon is iffy, his execution is not. The effects flirt with sheer brilliance, as Howard’s lens captures flames that undulate independently and together, like reeds rippled by an afternoon breeze. The camera accomplishes the tremendous feat of giving fire the forceful personality De Niro talks about. The flames are alluring and treacherous, capable of sensing — harshly punishing — those who do not respect them. Hans Zimmer’s score, expectedly boisterous, seems too overpowering for such a delicate, deadly creation.

Few other characters in “Backdraft” seem as nuanced as the flames Chicago’s Engine 17 chases down, though some come close. De Niro and Donald Sutherland (as arsonist Ronald Bartel) brings quiet eroticism to their parts. These are two men entranced by fire, and they are not ashamed to admit their fascination. Russell’s Bull is equal parts selflessness and swaggering bravado, a do-gooder who would prefer to escape into a burning warehouse than face his everyday life. And then we have Glenn*, who does so much with limited screentime it’s a wonder he didn’t nab a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Axe goes through the motions of heroics, talks the talk and walks the walk. His eyes tell a thornier tale.

Grade: B-

*Glenn tops the Pompous Film Snob’s Man Crush list, and after “Backdraft” I can see why.

The Big 2-9

Aside from the fact that this day sealed my fate as the “Never Gets a ‘Happy Birthday’ from the Teacher or Your Classmates Because School’s Out for Summer Kid,” June 28 never seemed like a terribly interesting day to be born.

Until I realized that’s also the day sublimely talented actors Kathy Bates, John Cusack, the late Gilda Radner and the late Pat “Wax On, Wax Off” Morita headed toward the light of the birth canal. June 28 also gave King Henry VIII to England (bet that’s one pregnant lady the Great Holy Aardvark wishes he could have uninseminated). And June 28 happens to be the only day every year where the month and the day are different perfect numbers*.

But really, the only reason I ever get all jacked up is because the 28th of June is when the World’s Greatest Director — the reason I love movies and the reason I have such a warped, wacko sense of humor — Mel “Lepetomane” Brooks classed up Planet Earth’s population.

This year, though, looks be far more exciting because Andy at Fandango Groovers hatched a brilliant idea: Write a post listing favorite films for every year I’ve been breathing. Later in 2010 Andy’s planning a blog event on this theme, so start thinking about your choices, readers. Without further adieu, here are my favorites from 1981-2010:

Ash will saw off your nose.

1981: “The Evil Dead” — Maybe directors did horror-comedy before Sam Raimi’s cult classic, but those movies did not feature the unstoppable Bruce Campbell as erstwhile hero Ash, who would later go on to coin the phrases “boomstick” and “hail to the king, baby.”

1982: “First Blood” — The first in the Rambo franchise, Sly Stallone’s “First Blood” combines jaw-dropping action, buckets of bloodshed and a surprisingly poignant message about the treatment of Vietnam vets in America.

1983: “The Big Chill” — College pals Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum reunite to mourn a friend’s suicide. This much acting talent on one set is a recipe for goodness.

1984: “Blood Simple” (full review) — The fact that this is Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film is almost as astounding as the film itself. Almost.

1985: “The Breakfast Club” — The late John Hughes showed us, in this poignant ode to real teen issues, that lurking inside everyone there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a basket case and a criminal in search of connection. And a little doobage.

1986: “Aliens” (full review) — Twenty-four years later and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains a female action hero with smarts, guts and muscles. What a novel idea.

1987: “The Untouchables” — Most gangster movies offer plenty of bloody shoot-em-ups, slick double-crosses, dark double-breasted suits and bank accounts stuffed like you wouldn’t believe. Brian De Palma’s “Untouchables” also has something else: a conscience.

Velcome to vaxwork...

1988: “Waxwork” (full review) — There are crappy films, and then there are films that revel and delight in their own crappiness. Guess which kind “Waxwork” is.

1989: “Heathers” (full review) — No matter how cruel the queen bees in your school were, they don’t hold a candle to Idi Amin wannabe Heather Chandler.

1990: “GoodFellas” (full review) — Powered by the performances of Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta, “GoodFellas” set the bar for gangster movies impossibly high.

1991: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” — The follow-up to Cameron’s impressive “Terminator,” the sequel blasted the volume up to 11, boasted some thrilling chase scenes (the semi rundown is iconic) and reached the level of Whoa, I’ve Never Seen That Before! with its ice-cool villain T-1000 (Robert Patrick). 

1992: “Reservoir Dogs” (full review) — Quentin Tarantino gives the Cuisinart treatment to the traditional caper-gone-wrong and ends up making one of the most inventive films of the ’90s.

1993: “Schindler’s List” — Steven Spielberg’s sweeping, horrifying and heartbreaking retelling of the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) mission to rescue Jews during the Holocaust is emotionally punishing, but it’s a film that must be seen. It can change your life if you let it.

1994: “Pulp Fiction” (full review) — It’s got John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen, a booty-shaking soundtrack and scene about Christopher Walken wearing a watch up his ass two years. That’s all you need to know. 

Will the real Keyser Soze please stand up?

1995: “The Usual Suspects” (full review) — Not only does Bryan Singer’s noirish, twisty thriller feature a killer-good ensemble cast (Kevin Spacey AND Gabriel Byrne AND Benicio del Toro AND Chazz Palminteri), “The Usual Suspects” also has the best twist ending. Ever written.

1996: “Fargo” (full review) — Dear Coen brothers: Thank you for showing me that it’s never impossible to take an old formula (best-laid plans gone to hell) and put a devious, violent spin on them. Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies

1997: “Chasing Amy” — Too few directors of romantic comedies have no interest in showing relationships as they actually are. Kevin Smith is not one of these directors. His “Chasing Amy” is raw, frank to the point of crudeness and deeply heartfelt, and it examines the problems all lovers — gay and straight — face.

1998: “The Opposite of Sex” — “The Opposite of Sex” is the best black comedy you’ve never seen. Don Roos puts the screws to the traditional narrated film formula with Dee Dee (Christina Ricci), a heroine who may be plucky but isn’t the least bit lovable. She’ll ransom your dead gay lover’s ashes and not think twice about it. 

Move Milton's (Stephen Root) desk to Storage Room B and see where that gets you.

1999: “Office Space” (full review) — Mike Judge takes a maze of cubicles and turns it into a feature-length film that’s the personification of Dante’s limbo, then sets it to a fantastic rap soundtrack. It’s good to be a gangsta.

2000: “Quills” (full review) — No other actors slips so effortlessly into the part of the villain as Geoffrey Rush can, and that mirthful, slightly evil glint in his eyes makes him the perfect (and only acceptable) choice to play the infamous Marquis de Sade.

2001: “The Believer” — Based on the true story of Dan Burros, a Jew who became a Neo-Nazi, Henry Bean’s “The Believer” looks unflinchingly at all aspects of faith and features what may be Ryan Gosling’s most gripping performance. Ever. 

2002: “City of God” — Fernando Meirelles’ crime drama plays out like an elegaic marriage of the best parts of Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”  and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” capturing the bloody, grim realities of a life lived in Brazil’s rough Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela.

2003: “Mystic River” — Author Dennis Lehane understands, deep down in his soul, the rhythms of Boston’s shady, bleak underworld. Director Clint Eastwood understands the people who have fallen through the cracks. Together, “Mystic River,” about three childhood friends dealing with a murder, they make an unbeatable team.

Javier Bardem's performance is anything but bleak.

2004: “Mar adentro” (full review) — Is it possible to make a film about a quadriplegic (Javier Bardem) who wants nothing more than to die and have that film turn out to be an affirmation of life? Look to “Mar adentro” for the answer.

2005: “The Constant Gardener” — Taut political/medical conspiracy thrillers ordinarily don’t offer emotions as complex as the plotlines. But director Fernando Meirelles etches characters (Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes) who matter to each other, and so they matter to us.

2006: “The Lives of Others” (full review) — Movies about Big Brother rarely take the time to humanize the enemy, but director Henckel von Donnersmarck finds humanity even in the most ardent supporter (Ulrich Mühe) of suppressing free will.

2007: “No Country for Old Men” (full review) — Call it the Coens’ Law: Every time you think they’ve made their best movie ever, they top themselves. How they’ll top this gritty, violent and blackly funny caper is something this reviewer has gotta see.

2008: “The Dark Knight” — With “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan single-handedly revived a years-ailing franchise; in the inspired sequel — part Greek tragedy, part action flick, part sweeping character drama — he let Heath Ledger reinvent the iconic Joker in the spirit of creation.

Get in my bell-ay, Jew Hunter!

2009: “Inglourious Basterds” (full review) — In terms of sheer imagination and cojones, almost no director working today can match Quentin Tarantino, who in this misspelled epic rewrites the ending to WWII and gives cinema one of its greatest villains (Christoph Waltz).

2010: So far? “Shutter Island.” The predicted winner? “True Grit.”

*It’s my birthday and I’m giving you a math lesson. Can you say “nerd”?

No. 40: “GoodFellas” (1990)

“Fuck you, pay me.” ~~Henry Hill

People who rail about the evils of power are people who don’t have any. Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) learned that honest from his father, a working-class schnook made furious by his own powerlessness. The fix for that problem appeared right outside the window of Henry’s Brooklyn bedroom: the Lucchese crime family. These gangsters, with their overstuffed wallets, fine-threaded suits and cowering errand boys, want for nothing because they take everything. That’s as close to omnipotence as a man can get and it’s right in front of Henry. He can’t resist a taste. Who could?

The frightening thing about Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” the definitive portrait of Mafia life, is how easily Henry slips into this society of free-flowing cash, limitless influence and tricky, uncrossable lines. There’s no pomp or circumstance — just a job opening that Henry pounces on. He doesn’t look like a hardened criminal because he isn’t one; he’s a kid who wants respect and pocket money. Although epic in terms of scope and talent, “GoodFellas” also feels intensely personal and matter-of-fact, thanks in part to Liotta’s narration and Scorsese’s direction. The director takes pains to demystify mafia life; he peels away the layers until we see what’s really there: a business, one with rules and consequences. For all the talk of respect and family, it’s the money and the power that matter most.

Each of the men Henry works for has a different approach to keeping business booming. Paul “Paulie” Cicero (Paul Sorvino, capable of leveling anyone with a stare) acts as a father figure to Henry, but he didn’t earn his status through kindheartedness. Paulie is a man who moves slowly because he “doesn’t have to move for anybody,” and this capo is straightforward in his dealings. Also in Paulie’s inner circle are his associates, the calculating Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro), who steals for the thrill of it, and armed robber Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci, comical and terrifying), whose explosive temper causes messes that don’t sit well with other wiseguys. Tommy’s anger makes him dangerous, but it’s Jimmy, so calm and mannered, who may be more treacherous. Drawn into this life through her marriage with Henry, Karen (a ferocious Lorraine Bracco) understands the dangers and looks past them. More than that, she gets a charge from them, particularly in the scene — a masterpiece of filmmaking — where Henry leads her into a restaurant through a series of maze-like back entrances and hallways, where the manager produces a primo table as if from thin air. That thrill of having everything at your fingertips is intoxicating.

Scenes like these indicate a director at the height of his creative powers (though he’s an artist who’s his own toughest competitor) and his eye for atypical shots. There’s an eerie close-up of Liotta, his face bathed in the red glow of brakelights, and an even more and artistic) shot of DeVito and De Niro digging up a body shrouded in the same ethereal, otherworldly light. Scorsese also doesn’t shy away from the violence; rather, he lets it blindside us, a precursor of even more shocking scenes to come in “The Departed.” In a particularly unnerving, now-infamous moment, Pesci renders a pen more lethal than a switchblade; in another, he empties his gun into a server who gives him lip. Despite his astonishing ability to underscore feelings with song (“GoodFellas” is aces in that respect), the brutality is usually stark and always unexpected.

Also responsible for netting the film six Oscar nominations is the acting, since the cast of “GoodFellas” remains one of the finest ensembles ever put together. Scorsese continues to bring out the best in De Niro, so quietly lethal as Jimmy, while Pesci rips into Tommy DeVito like a man possessed by the devil himself. Sorvino’s presence is towering enough that he needs little screen time. At the hub of it all is Liotta, who dials down the rage to make Henry the plainspoken storyteller “GoodFellas” needs. It’s his voice that stays with us at the end, when the truth finally blindsides him (and us): The trouble with power is it makes you want more power, and when you get it you’ll do anything to keep it. Consequences be damned.