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Once Were Movies
by Lucius Shepard
May 4, 2007

Once were a director by the name of Lee Tamahori, who made a movie, a very good movie, entitled Once Were Warriors, a powerful character study of a deracinated Maori family in the dead-end slums of Auckland. But that was a long, long time ago, back before he moved from New Zealand to Hollywood, started hanging out at LA fetish clubs, and took to churning out pictures like XXX: State of the Union, Die Another Day, and Along Came a Spider. Now Tamahori has turned his deracinated talent to a Philip K. Dick property, The Golden Man, a film that has been entitled (exemplifying the fund of imagination that studios employ in such matters) Next.

Imagine that title spoken by a harried counter clerk at Burger Death, his face covered by a film of grease that nourishes a fresh crop of acne, and you will have some idea of how the quirky Dickian notions of freewill, perception, and the nature of reality have been handled in the film. But enough has been said about Hollywood’s bowdlerization of Dick, the neutering of everything vital in his work in the service of creating high-concept-driven action pictures; so let’s skate past that topic and get right to the heart of the matter.

Whereas Dick’s original story dealt with a golden-skinned mutant and a government paranoid about his pre-cog abilities, Next tells the story of Chris Johnson (Nicholas Cage), an almost down-and-outer who’s earning a marginal living as small-time gambler and a magician with a Vegas lounge act, assisted in these pursuits by his ability to see two minutes into his future. Into his nebbish life comes FBI Agent Callie Ferris, played by Julianne Moore, a fine actress who here seems to be taking on a role that Joan Allen rejected and not relishing it at all. She’s desperate to have Johnson’s help in tracking a gang of Eurotrash terrorists who’ve stolen a ten-kiloton nuke and are determined to blow up LA, an idea I came to have a certain empathy with during the movie. Why they want to commit this atrocity is unclear—as is why Agent Ferris thinks Johnson can help (I mean, you can’t do that much in the way of stopping nuclear explosions in two minutes), as is how she found out about him . . .  as is damn near everything else in the picture. The most unclear thing is how come Johnson, who has an amazing ability to make precision judgments relating to the information he receives from his glimpses of the future (he’s able to avoid bullets, for instance, by dodging at the last moment, causing them to miss by just this much), hasn’t ripped off a casino and isn’t living in a mansion in a Rio. Jessica Biel is along for the ride as Liz, who teaches Native American kids on the reservation and has a heart of gold, a killer body, and a couple of Worst Actress awards. Johnson waits for her every day at a Vegas diner, mooning over a two-olive martini. He has seen her enter the diner at eight minutes past eight in a vision and believes she holds the key to his fate. With her by his side, he can see more than two minutes into the future, a whole lot more, and this allows for a plot twist so outrageously clichéd that it almost works . . .  but nothing really works in this movie. It is essentially a ninety-minute chase scene sectioned by undigested chunks of exposition and a sliver of love scene during which Cage stares at Biel like an addled goat wearing Tom Hanks’ hairdo from The Da Vinci Code.

The most abysmal of Cage’s performances is surely Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, when he trotted out that unforgettable Italian accent; but he’s on quite a roll quality-wise with his last few pictures. First there was The Wicker Man, a film that surely will go down as a classic of unintentional humor (Cage in a bear suit, Ellen Burstyn as a bee-woman, Neil LaBute’s Fun-With-Misogyny directing style). And then there was the jaw-droppingly horrid Ghost Rider. When that icon of the sinister and the macabre, Peter Fonda, plays the Prince of Darkness . . .  well, you’ve been given a strong hint that the movie is in trouble. Cage does an Elvis impression for half his screen time and wears a flaming skull for the other half. The skull is by far the better actor. While watching the movie, I fantasized about taking the audience hostage, subjecting them to a course in Godard-style guerrilla cinema, and sending the best students on a suicide mission to Studio City. Next falls somewhere between those two . . . and can’t get up. It’s substanceless, flat, and uninvolving, a celluloid pie smashed into the face of the audience without any whipped-cream topping to make the experience semi-palatable.

* * *

The premise of Grindhouse, the film oddity directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, is to offer the moviegoer an evening at a drive-in theater double-feature during the 1970s, complete with cheesy title cards, previews of mega-violent exploitation flicks (Cage stars as Fu Manchu in one of them), and film that’s rife with glitches (scratches, scuffs, burn-throughs), projector troubles, and missing reels. It’s a clever idea, classic high concept, and perhaps it will be successful at the box office and in DVD sales. Be that as it may, the filmmakers (especially Mr. Rodriguez) seem to be missing the point that the kids who went to these movies back in the day didn’t actually watch them or, if they did, did so intermittently between bouts of making out, hell-raising, and six-pack consumption. But I imagine they’re working from the premise that, forty years after the fact, our nation has been sufficiently stupefied that what once was viewed as trash is now booked into mainstream theatres as a nostalgic “masterpiece” (yes, that word has been used in reference to Grindhouse, notably by Richard Roeper, the new Michael Medved) and fawned over by the fanboy legions.

You would think that Rodriguez was admirably suited to the project—after all his career was founded on exploitation flicks; but his offering, Planet Terror, in which zombies take over a small Texas town, is a tepid version of the form. Though replete with exploding heads, zombie armies (with Bruce Willis as a zombie soldier, Lieutenant Muldoon, in command), bubbling pustules, haphazard plotting, one-legged go-go dancers, badass twin babysitters, decapitations, castrations, squibs like giant red loogeys, and so on and so forth, his movie comes off as peculiarly bloodless and unpersuasive. I had the thought that Rodriguez must never have seen an exploitation flick, but that he had read extensively on the subject and thus included one of everything on the Z-movie checklist. If there is enjoyment to be had from watching it, it’s because you’re in on the joke, but that and a few jump scares are not enough to keep the laughs going. Planet Terror is, I suppose, the perfect exploitation flick, allowing the audience’s attention to wander throughout. If there had been a couple of cute girls in a ’65 Chevy Impala with the top down parked next to me to flirt with or toss things at or otherwise hassle, that would have filled in the dead spots; but I doubt the director was going for this degree of verisimilitude and it was evident that the audience didn’t receive that message, sitting primly in rows on either side of me, watching as they might an A-list film. What Rodriguez doesn’t appear to get is that the exploitation genre was funded by genuine emotion (usually anger), and that what made these films work—when they did work—were the flashes of real anger that seeped through now and again. Without them, his movie comes off as a tired joke told by a comedian with bad timing.

Death Proof, Tarantino’s film, gives us Kurt Russell as the charming, amiable serial killer, Stuntman Mike, whose Dodge Charger has a death-proofed driver’s seat that allows him to survive the most extreme of crashes. Those who ride with him, of course, are not so fortunate. Russell is a seemingly effortless actor, capable of making any role sympathetic, and Tarantino has showed the wisdom here to rehabilitate Russell as a B-picture actor, allowing him to return to roots established in films like Carpenter’s The Thing, Escape from New York, and—most pertinently—Breakdown.

The movie consists of two long dialogue sections and two action sequences. During its first half, when Russell is on-screen as a full participant, Death Proof is quality exploitation fodder and not surprisingly so. Except for Jackie Brown, one of the best love stories of the 90s, Tarantino’s movies have all proudly displayed a film-geek cachet. He is the ultimate fanboy auteur and when Russell delivers lines like, “You’re going to have to get scared—immediately!”, we know we’re in the hands of someone who understands the genre. But during the movie’s last half, when Russell is reduced to a target, it bogs down in Tarantino-isms, in banal chatter laced with a heaping helping of “motherfuckas.” and “Nigga, please(s)!” The three women who take revenge on Russell are merely vehicles for Tarantino’s indulgent dialogue style and never catch on as characters, leaving Stuntman Mike as the sole human being in the picture. That said, Death Proof is by far the superior of the two films, worthy of comparison to the original films of the genre, although not to the best of them, whereas Planet Terror is just another ingloriously rotten movie.

If you’re up for three-hours-plus of wink, wink, nudge, nudge, then this may be for you. One imagines Tarantino and Rodriguez chortling in a high school corridor, congratulating themselves on their cleverness after having dropped cherry bombs down the toilets in the girls' bathroom. To most of us, it’s not that funny. Still, in an era of crappy films, I suppose an homage to crap was inevitable.

In the interests of recommending at least one decent genre movie per column, I’d like to mention Hate 2 O, a horror/thriller filmed in English by Italian director Alex Infascelli, now available on Region 0 PAL DVD. Superbly photographed by cinematographer Arnaldo Catinari, the movie combines the claustrophobic tension of Neil Marshall’s The Descent and the latent eroticism of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, telling the story of a group of young women who have marooned themselves on a desert island with minimal resources for the purpose of going on a water diet. No one will pick them up for a week. Something else is occupying the island. Bad things ensue . . .  albeit stylishly.

Of special note, though I’m not sure what genre it falls into, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ultimate cult movie, El Topo, finally makes its way to DVD. Part Spaghetti Western, part LOTR-type quest, part ultraviolent exploitation flick, sporting influences as wildly variant as Luis Bunuel, Russ Meyer, and Antonin Artaud, this is the film that started the midnight movies, playing for months at late shows in Greenwich Village during the Sixties to perplexed, yet appreciative audiences. Ostensibly a Western, the film features a gunslinger hero, also named El Topo, a seeker after enlightenment who crosses the Wild West to duel the Four Masters, black magicians of an Aleister Crowley-ish bent, fends off whip-cracking lesbians, the advances of a beautiful woman, and Russian Roulette-playing priests, and winds up as a Holy Fool who saves what appears to be the cast of Freaks from their mountain prison. Filled with incomprehensible imagery, some of it gorgeous, some grotesque, some depraved, El Topo is altogether a mess, but a glorious, unforgettable mess.