I am an unabashed fan of Robert Rodriguez, despite what many may feel about the over the top imagery to be found in all his works aimed at adults. To me this is central to his endearingness as an artist. Many directors are chameleons with the ability to work in disparate genres and while these craftsmen are bestowed with praise and awards for fickleness, someone with a more singular vision like Rodriguez remains something of an outsider. Indeed, while his work may not immediately suggest art-film, to my sensibilities he displayed real artistic integrity by quitting the Directors Guild of America over a credits' dispute concerning Sin City, precluding himself from ever receiving an Oscar.
His latest film, Machete, is based on a massively popular pseudo-trailer from the tragically overlooked Grindhouse double feature. Thankfully, the new film has had far more success with both the public and the critics , in spite of its dabbling in graphic, intestinal humour.
The titular character is played by an actor whose face is the epitome of cragginess, Danny Trejo, and it's a small miracle that distinctive features such as his are still allowed in today's sanitized Hollywood. A slightly different version of this character known as 'Uncle' Machete appeared in the family film Spy Kids, to which my son recently gave his fervent approval. In keeping with his trademark, anti-establishment attitude, Rodriguez has lined up a cast which, aside from some very familiar faces, also contains members of that most unloved category; the 80s B-movie star! Steven Seagal and Jeff Fahey, and an honorable inclusion must also go to Don Johnson, who doesn't really conform to the type if you look at his body of work, but there is something about the man which suggests he could have had a memorable second-tier career focusing on straight-to-VHS titles.
There is little point in discussing the plot, but it does involve threads of revenge and pro-immigration politics (possibly not given the best vehicle here). However, if you're offended by extremely attractive unclothed women, and utterly ridiculous, jocular violence then this is most definitely one to steer clear of. On the other hand if the thought of a never-smiling Danny Trejo turning to the camera to say 'Machete don't text' piques your interest, then treats lie ahead.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Another director wholly uninterested in staid drama and Hollywood convention is Edgar Wright. He and his chief collaborator Simon Pegg have been responsible for some interesting output since they first began attracting attention with their off-the-wall television programme Spaced. Since then, they've released two very well respected comedies; Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Pegg has become a recognizable face in Hollywood, despite his not being able to outdo James Doohan's Scottish accent in the revamp of Star Trek (J.J. Abrams). Now Wright has made his first feature without Pegg since his debut (unseen by me) A Fistful of Fingers.
Scott Pilgrim has so far been the most surprising flop of the year - it's certified fresh at 81% on the Rotten Tomatoes tomatometer, and also contains a young, talented cast who are in perfect sync with the material. Some have said that the bold visuals referencing video games overshadow a more or less perfunctory plot, but let's face it, in what pre-existing movie must the hero defeat his newfound love's seven evil exes in mortal combat in order to secure her affections? All the unorthodox stylisations are a pleasure to behold, and it couldn't be clearer that Wright, unlike so many of his peers, is not afraid to go outside any semblance of reality in order to find ways to excite and amuse his audience. This is generally cinema's greatest weakness; so much of it is an anaemic imitation of life, when so many of us go to the cinema to escape the drudgery of our lives. I haven't read the graphic novel which the movie is based on, but somehow I'm guessing that the style employed by Wright is mandated within its pages.
Having seen three of Wright's films and both seasons of Spaced, I'd say the jury is still out as to whether he'll become a milestone figure of the movies. I like his films - they can be excruciatingly funny - but I'm still waiting for him to turn his hands to a real epic of a story, best befitting the potential evidenced in his work so far. As a relatively young Briton, he's produced some head-turning work, and Pilgrim is his Hollywood feature debut, so hopefully it will be a smash-hit on Blu-Ray, and Wright will continue to expand the borders of our imaginations.
I have yet to see Anton Corbijn's feature debut, Control, about the ill-fated singer of Joy Division, Ian Curtis. Though a quick glance at Corbijn's résumé suggests that as a teenager I may well have seen some of the music videos which he'd made beforehand, when I paid more attention to such things.
In The American, he's managed to make a film that not only plays like an art-house special, but has also become a commercial success. It must be said, that without the involvement of George Clooney, and the film's outward resemblance to an action/spy thriller, it could hardly have been expected to have performed as well at the box office. This instance of betting on a long-shot suggests there is something wrong with Hollywood's usual greenlighting system. The conventional wisdom is that films targeted at teens, like Scott Pilgrim, will automatically translate to box office gold, while adults seeking more cerebral thrills don't spend much money at the movies. Omnivores such as myself seem to get the best deal out of wrongheaded decisions made by the suits watching the money, although with every successive year there does seem to be a greater proliferation of movies meant to have mass appeal that have no appeal whatsoever.
That's not to say some viewers haven't felt shortchanged by The American. Imdb has a very negative user review where the writer states that he and his wife would have both enjoyed the film had it not been falsely marketed as a Jason Bourne type thriller. It's difficult to convey in writing the dumbfounded expression which made its way to my face at the rotten logic of such a contention. Have the ad-men really gained that much control over our psyches?
I personally was a little surprised by how much fuss has been made over what many feel to be a dichotomy between the film itself and its marketing campaign. Anyone paying attention to Clooney's work would know by now that the man is just not interested in playing the roles expected of him. In 2005 he starred in Syriana (Stephen Gagan), an oil industry polemic so much more convoluted than the likes of The American that I am still waiting for a bit of extra time on my hands to watch it several times over, in the hope of getting closer to deducing just what on earth is going on.
And then there are the endless debates about slow pacing, as can be found in the movie. For me there is no debate. It's quite simple; non-stop explosions and machine-gun fire can only serve one good purpose, and that is to make you smile at the absurdity of it all in a film such as Machete. The most exciting, believable, on-screen action is served up in sparing doses, otherwise it is just flat-out dull. That's why I stopped going to see Michael Bay films long ago.
The American takes its time, and in doing so manages to tell you a great deal about the character played by Clooney without needing to give you any solid information about the actions which may have defined him prior to the film's opening scene. An opening scene, which I may add, quickly lets you know in a moment of violence on Clooney's part, that this is not going to be a typical action film. And so we are given a study of a character with a lifestyle as foreign as can be, shrouded in mystery. Yet, unlikely though it may seem, his actions rarely fail to evoke empathy.
Control is in black and white, and when the credits of The American began rolling I couldn't help but think that the film would have reached a truly dizzying level of artistry if these scenes of a tiny* rural Italian village - as alluring as they were in their colour presentation - had been filmed in gritty, atmospheric, black and white too.
Additional thought: The exquisite, spy-themed, television programme by AMC, Rubicon, was recently cancelled after one season. Chief complaint against it? Too slow! It really is time that silent films were made mandatory segments of high-school curriculums to tackle this peverse mindset, yet by now it is probably the teachers who would do the rejecting.
* Castel del Monte - population 129