From the List of Shame, File #14: From Dusk Till Dawn

While we have seen many films, there are many films that are held in high regard that we haven’t seen yet. As we cross them off our List of Shame, we’ll write about them here!

As a fan of Tarantino (though not an apologist), I have been meaning to go through and watch films made from other screenplays he’s written. With the current vampire craze still undead and kickin’, I decided to dive in and watch From Dusk Till Dawn, his take on the Horror/Vamp genre, directed by his friend Robert Rodriguez.

I’m not a huge fan of Rodriguez’s sensibilities, but it seems like Tarantino wrote the script with him in mind. From Dusk Till Dawn is really two films, the first half comprising of the Gecko brothers, Seth and Richard, (played by George Clooney and Tarantino) en route to Mexico after a bloody robbery in Texas. The second half of the film has them attempting to survive a massive vampire attack along with their family of hostages while waiting in a strip club/bar. The tone of each half is wildly different. The first half really does feel like a gritty crime escape film with Tarantino dialogue rhythms, while the second half retains the dialogue but abandons all semblance of being anything but an adrenaline-fueled B-movie.

Many people will love one half of the film, but may not enjoy the other. I actually enjoyed both halves equally, though for different reasons. In the beginning, we see the tension and comedy that we know and love from Tarantino, while the second half of the film shows off the twisted exploration shlock he and Rodriguez love (remember, this movie predates Grindhouse).

As far as vampire flicks go, this is definitely on the low end. Although the creatures in the film resemble monsters with vampire-like attributes, they aren’t developed all that much in terms of mythology. I guess they at least start out sexy, if you’re into strippers. There’s no glamouring, or much bloodsucking, really.  For the purposes of the film, they may as well be zombies with a love of bats and an aversion to crosses.

I think it’s interesting that Tarantino is so willing to cast himself in the role of the unhinged pervert Richard Gecko, next to George Clooney’s more level-headed Seth Gecko (To my knowledge it’s the second time Tarantino has done this). It’s good to know he isn’t playing roles attempting to glamorize himself (God, I hope not), and this is also the most overt exhibition of his infamous foot fetishizing.

It’s hard for me to deny the fun appeal of this movie, but there were a lot of “Of course!” moments during the film for me. “Of course” the strippers are vampires! “Of course” Clooney builds a pneumatic auto-stake weapon! “Of course” the sun comes up just in time!

I’m not saying this is a great film, but if you like Tarantino and/or Rodriquez, there are worse ways to spend a lazy weekend afternoon.

List of Shame Files normally appears on Wednesdays. Previous entries are here.

The American: The Life of a Solitary Man

I admit, the first thing that attracted me to The American was the awesomely retro Saul Bass-inspired poster. I knew right away this would be a film to watch, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The American

Hollywood rarely makes movies like this anymore. A definite throwback to the character thrillers of the 60s and 70s, The American reminds me of the deliberate sluggishly-paced espionage films my grandfather enjoyed but that I wouldn’t have the patience to sit through even in my teens. These are films like The French Connection, Day of the Jackal, Three Days of the Condor, Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Chinatown. These are all fantastic movies, but unbearable for a fidgety adolescent like myself. Luckily, I decided to seek out these films as an adult and was able to fully appreciate the artistry of restraint. Sometimes slow pacing is good pacing.

The American is a perfect example of this genre. In it, we meet George Clooney’s character in Sweden, stalked by mysterious men in snow camo. After an altercation, Clooney’s “handler” then sends him to a small hilltop town in Italy to hide out and receive his next assignment. I won’t spoil the rest of the plot, but I will say that most of the movie is spent observing Clooney’s character as he broods and wrestles with his deepening, but perhaps justified, paranoia.

This is a movie not afraid to linger. It is quiet and calculated. The screen next to ours was showing The Expendables, and it was LOUD. Lots of sound bleeding, with the reverberation of engines, machine guns, and explosions that interrupted our viewing from time to time. A literal illustration of the stark contrast between the influences of these two films. In fact, it is the utter silence of this film that makes the few action sequences that much more exciting and pragmatic. There are no superfluous sequences of violence, as most of the battles wage within the characters themselves.

The film has a small cast, and obviously Clooney carries this movie on his own, but I want to note that I enjoyed Paolo Bonacelli as the town’s priest very much, as he was perfect for the role. The score by Herbert Grönemeyer also fit the mood perfectly.

Other than Clooney, the film’s other star is the landscape and the architecture of the Italian town in which Clooney resides. The gorgeousness of the setting takes some pressure off the slow pace, but it is also the town itself, filled with meandering alleyways, that supplies much of the tension and “thrill of the chase” within the film. The director, Anton Corbijn, uses amazing cinematography to great effect. He also expertly employs some nice camera work, almost always keeping Clooney tight in the frame either as the central focus or off in the corner. The space surrounding Clooney is either slightly out of focus or it encompasses him completely to emphasize his paranoia and the murkiness of his thoughts.

While this film is not on my top ten list, I certainly enjoyed the change in pace. Anyone interested in 70’s Hollywood or real spy films should put this on their list.

It’s the Economy Stupid: Recessionista Filmmaking

I’ve always been fascinated by how films reflect the era in which they’re made. As a student of history, I love attempting to make connections between the film world and the events surrounding the making of the film. To cite an easy example, Gone With the Wind is as much about the Great Depression, the era in which it was made, as it is the Civil War, the era in which the film takes place (that’s a much longer essay for another time). Because of this, I am very fascinated by narrative films that comment directly on current events. Due to the production cycles of film, only now are we starting to see films commenting on the economic recession we currently find ourselves in.

One of my favorite films from last year, Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, was one of the first major films to comment on the recession directly. In it, George Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham works for a firm that is contracted by other companies to deliver layoff messages to their employees. The direct connection to the recession is a tad subtle, as the plot of the movie really only tangentially relates to it. Rather the commentary is provided through the use of imagery of mostly empty office floors and the startling use of twenty-two non-actors who answered an ad placed in papers in Detroit and St. Louis asking for volunteers for a documentary about job loss.

These non-actors are mixed with a few character actors like J. K. Simmons and Zack Galifianakis, and the effect is striking. It is a testament to the actors in the film that the use of real laid off employees feels just as earnest and real as the professional actors, and that helps give the entire experience more weight. However, because they are not acting, the raw emotions that they are sincerely expressing cut right through the narrative and hit you directly. This decision of Reitman’s was brave, and really put a human face on the job loss this country has experienced. While some of my friends have been laid off, most of them do not have families to support and mortgages to pay, so it is not as dire a situation for most of the people who appear in the film. This film really brought the human tragedy of job loss and recession to life for me.

The Other Guys: Elf and Marky Mark

Last week’s The Other Guys also address the current recession directly. Although the film itself only references it in passing, someone who worked on the production was obviously very angered while doing research for the film. The entire end credits are accompanied by a slick animated infographic that explains several things about the recession, from CEO salaries and golden parachutes to Bernie Madoff and retirement benefits set to a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” by Rage Against the Machine. Video of it is online. Watch it, but I recommend putting to fullscreen to better read the accompanying text.

What is interesting about this is that this is a comedy aimed at people who enjoyed Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Step Brothers; it’s a low brow cop buddy film parody. Like Cop Out, but funny. Granted almost all of the editorializing happens during the end credits, but usually this brand of direct commentary is reserved only for prestige pictures.Honestly I’m not sure how I feel about it. It was entertaining, but it also made me feel bad for laughing so hard at the antics of Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlburg, and Michael Keaton.

Could we have a discussion about the economy in film and not talk about Wall Street? Oliver Stone decided to make a sequel to the 1987 film with Michael Douglas reprising his Academy Award-winning roll as Gordon Gekko. Finally scheduled for a September release, it was screened at Cannes this year to a generally positive reaction. I have not seen the film, and the original film is on my List of Shame, so I don’t really know what to expect other than that Oliver Stone has made a career of using fictionalized films to comment on current events. I’m more curious as to the general reaction to this film than about the film itself.

Most importantly, however, is what these films have to say about our current situation. A common theme through The Other Guys and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is exploitation of the middle classes by the financial elite– the idea that high powered investors are running the show, and deferring as much of the consequences of their actions off on those below them as possible. The Other Guys even depicts murder resulting from this motive. However, Up in the Air shows this in a different light, and one that resonates to the common understanding we seem to have about this recession. The cause and origins are difficult to understand for the people faced with losing their jobs, their retirement, or their livelihood. This is how many of us feel, either currently unemployed, or stuck in a job we don’t want because they’re aren’t enough other options. We’re not slackers, we’re recessionistas.

Did I miss any other films that comment on the current economic situation? Let me know in the comments!