Wednesday, July 17, 2013

You want an unusual concept? Try "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World"

You want a novel concept for a romantic comedy?  How’s this?  Two people meet just as the world learns that a 70-mile wide asteroid will destroy the Earth in three weeks’ time.  Nothing says “light-hearted romance” like THAT scenario, huh?  You might think that any movie trying to combine or cross genres as diverse as romance, comedy and Armageddon would sway one way or the other to such a degree that the result would seem like satire, but writer/director Lorene Scafaria has managed to avoid that pitfall with a great premise, great dialogue and great performances by her cast.

As the movie begins, we see Dodge (Steve Carell) and his wife hearing news on the radio of a failed attempt to divert the asteroid, and how the End is now a foregone conclusion.  She instantly leaves him to find the man she’s always really loved, never to be seen again.  It seems most people are taking the opportunity of this remaining time to indulge in all of the lawlessness and hedonism from which we restrain ourselves every day, as the yuppies spend their last days snorting heroin and having orgies, and the street folk loot and riot and vandalize.  Dodge, however, copes by making his way to work the next day, one of the few people who are even bothering to do so, even though there’s probably little sense in selling insurance policies that can’t last for another month, but primarily because there’s really nothing else left in his life. 

As the riotous masses begin to swarm over his neighborhood, Dodge escapes with Penny (Keira Knightley), a downstairs neighbor, and the two begin something of a road-trip; he resolving to find the “One Who Got Away” and she trying to find a way to get back across the Atlantic to her family in England.  They meet all sorts along the way, from Ecstasy-fueled servers at an overly-friendly restaurant, to survivalists who don’t totally “get” the impending Doom, to a clueless local policeman who still takes his job pretty seriously.  Of course, they come to learn a good bit about each other along the way and form a bond that more than likely would never have developed in more-normal times.

Everybody loves Steve Carell, primarily from the American television version of “The Office” (and while I’ve always been a fan of his, too, I am almost certainly the last person in the entire nation who has never seen that show).  What I find interesting about his screen presence is how, while he’s not traditional leading-man material, he can carry a movie while serving as sort of an emotional fulcrum – he may not always be the one doing the deeds the carry the movie, but he can be what other characters act upon, steering him into situations that drive a story (see The 40-Year Old Virgin and Dan in Real Life, for example).  His portrayal of Dodge is of such a hapless nice guy that when he tries to do something as simple as release his Hispanic cleaning lady from the responsibility of her last few weekly visits so that she can be with her family and await The End, even that attempt at a kindly act falls on its face.

Knightley’s portrayal of Penny is just as impressive (and she even gets to chain-smoke while onscreen, which seems to be a prerequisite to her accepting any role anymore, but I digress…), as she convincingly conveys the notion of this person who has lived such a care-free lifestyle finally realizing there are things she should have been caring about all along.

I’m reluctant to outline the plot in any more detail, as seeing the details in black and white make them seem almost like satire, but the screenplay rises so far above whatever the mere reading of a synopsis would lead you to think.  There are no action-film clich├ęs about some heroic means of avoiding the cataclysm (at least onscreen, anyway).  No, this film is more about how fairly ordinary Joe-Schmoes might behave in the days leading up to The End than it is about The End itself.  Carell and Knightley, an unlikely cinematic pairing if there ever was one, keep a focal point of relative sanity throughout their quest as they approach the inevitable end.

The premise does make one think about how awful it would be to know exactly when you’re going to die (a character who gives Dodge and Penny a ride even says, “it’s not natural for a man to know”).  As awful as that knowledge must be, multiply it by about seven and a half billion, and surely whatever civil disorder portrayed in this film or any other would pale in comparison to what we human degenerates would actually commit.  Sure, some of us would behave badly, but some of us might do as Dodge and Penny do, and spend the last of our time focusing on those we love instead.

I’m sure we’re supposed to feel some sort of happiness that these two people might end up together, but my desire for a “happy ending” (as happy as the End of the World can possibly be) is at conflict with my more rational understanding that these two people aren’t actually in love, and in more normal times, never would be.  I did find it sort of uplifting to know that these two lonely people find an emotion, and possibly even a true friendship, to share in such a way that neither must face the End alone.  Seeking a Friend… is a very unique movie experience, as even with the knowledge of how it must end, there are still lots of places where the movie made me smile and enjoy getting to know these characters, if only for their few final days.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Reminiscing about the "Grindhouse."

(All this talk of zombies of late got me to remembering a ghoul-filled flick that was a lot more fun than one being forced upon us this summer.  These were my impressions of Rodriquez' and Tarantino's "Grindhouse," originally published April 7th, 2007)

I recall the heady days of the tin-roofed hangout my friends and I used for our weekend-long fests full of Frito-Lay products, carbonated drinks, Dungeons & Dragons and poorly-recorded-pornography-off-of-satellite-television.  These were the dark ages of VHS tapes, portable 13-inch televisions and VCRs as large as a shipping crate, all dragged down to that shack and rigged for watching crap only teenage boys could love.  My fellow geeks and I watched Mad Max this way, we watched Trinity is Still My Name this way, we watched Flesh and Blood this way.  Ah, good times… 

It turns out that, halfway across the continent, Robert Rodriguez was watching some of these very same movies in much the same way, and on the other side of the continent, Quentin Tarantino was doing the same.  Unlike me and my friends, however, these two fellows later took the next few steps up the geek-evolution ladder and began making their own schlock movies (well, “schlock” is a subjective term; some would use “masterpieces” – I’m not saying I would, but some might), and Grindhouse is what seems to be a culmination of that evolution. 

Tarantino and Rodriguez, great friends and frequent collaborators, have produced an un-usual event for today’s commercial cinema – and that’s exactly what Grindhouse is – an event.  We are presented with a true double feature, two movies for one ticket price, along with trailers for other similar (and non-existent) movies directed by directors such as Rob Zombie and Eli Roth, fellow members of the current class of schlock/slasher directors to which Tarantino and Rodriguez also belong.  This is more than three hours of hoot-and-holler entertainment, and if you can accept it for what it is, and have the good fortune to see it in a theater with other reprobates who shared similar adolescent experiences to mine, you’ll have a blast seeing it. 

Rodriguez’ Planet Terror, his homage to the countless zombie movies he loved as a youth, and Tarantino’s Death Proof, his addition to the great muscle-car flicks he loved, are paired as a double feature and titled with the term applied to the poorly-run and –managed theaters that once showed these type movies to hormone-fueled boys, and the girls who for some reason would accompany them, so often that the prints would eventually become unwatchable.  Both movies are bad.  I’ll put that out there up front, but I must admit that they’re both good-bad, if that makes any sense.  Both segments are bad in the sense that they’re enjoyable, and I really believe that was the intention of both filmmakers.  There are scratches and dust and lint on the prints, more so in Planet Terror than in Death Proof.  We hear projector noise.  We see burnt cells throughout the print.  There are missing reels from both features, intentional on the parts of Rodriguez and Tarantino, as sometimes happened in those old grindhouse theaters, something that would be greatly frustrating in more “serious” pictures, but somehow doesn’t matter all that much in this pulp fare. 

Planet Terror leads off the twin-bill, and the opening titles sequence of Rose McGowan go-go dancing is almost worth the admission price (please excuse me, my teenage hormones seem to have returned for a short while…).   The plot is not terribly important, because it seems to me that if you’ve seen one zombie movie, you’ve pretty much seen most all of them, so I won’t waste space here summarizing it.  The 90-minute movie is full of pus, ooze and gore from start to finish, along with bad (read: funny) one-liners and lots of explosions.  How this film escaped an NC-17 rating is beyond me, but I guess, as the old saying goes, what should you expect from a pig but a grunt?  If I didn’t want to be grossed out, I shouldn’t have bought the ticket.  Long on action, short on exposition and moving quickly from beginning to end, Planet Terror is the more exciting of the two entries overall, but Tarantino’s contribution certainly has its merits, too.

Before Death Proof opens, however, are trailers for “upcoming attractions,” as the title card calls them.  They are for similar examples of cinematic genius (cough, cough…), with titles such as Werewolf Women of the SS and Don’t, and while these movies really don’t exist, I’m sure folks who frequent such movies wish they did.  One of these trailers even features an Oscar winning-actor, but I’ll leave it for you to discover who that may be.  The gore factor is prevalent even in these, as the trailers for Machete and Thanksgiving are over-the-top repulsive almost to the point of being ridiculous.  Again, of what drugs the MPAA was partaking when screening this for a rating is beyond me.

Finally, Death Proof begins.  If Tarantino has done nothing else for me and my geek brethren with this film, he has given us back Kurt Russell.  It’s so nice to see the man who was Snake Plissken and Jack Burton back on the screen, and not the guy who was in that horse movie with Dakota Fanning or the guy playing the Olympic hockey coach.  Russell is Stuntman Mike (no other names are really necessary), who stalks a group of pretty girls with his “death-proof” Hollywood-equipped stunt car and uses it as his murder weapon.  The second group of girls he stalks turns the tables on him with their own muscle car, culminating in a fantastic high-speed car chase/battle that, in my humble opinion, is at least worthy of discussion alongside those from French Connection, Bullitt and John Frankenheimer’s Ronin.  Again, like Planet Terror, the plot is not terribly important, and is actually even less-developed than Rodriguez’ film.  It left me with a few unanswered questions about both Stuntman Mike and the film’s heroines, but I personally enjoyed it more because of the climactic chase sequence and Tarantino’s wonderful dialogue through-out the 85-minute film.  If you were as enamored of some of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s conversations in Pulp Fiction as I was, you’ll find the female equivalents here to be almost as entertaining.

So, is it worth seeing?  I think so, and I really think you should.  I still have enough geek in me that I find three-plus hours of bullets, profanity, fast cars and scantily-clad women enjoyable, and if you know me well enough that you’re reading this, you probably do, too.  All in all, Grindhouse is the movie-going equivalent of a roller-coaster ride: dumb, but something that some people find to be loads of fun, especially if experienced as part of a loud crowd.  I don’t really see this double feature being anywhere near as much fun in your own living room, no matter how large your television, as the oohs and aahs and gasps and yelps coming from fellow viewers in a darkened theater are a large part of the fun here.  But, I could be wrong.  After all, I sure had a blast with that little 13-inch television showing a VHS copy of Enter the Dragon all those years ago.  Now please excuse me, I’m suddenly having a craving for a Mountain Dew and some Funyuns…