Posts Tagged ‘Robert Rodriguez’

The legend of Robert Rodriguez began with the circumstances surrounding the making of his first film, El Mariachi, over twenty years ago now. Rodriguez said he only had a guitar case and a tortoise and so was obliged to make the best of what he had available. One suspects he was being somewhat disingenuous but it was generally accepted that the whole film was made on a budget of about $7,000, some of which the writer-director supposedly raised by allowing experimental medical research to be done on him. The path from a $7,000 micro-budget thriller to a $200 million special-effects blockbuster is probably not a well-trodden one, but here Rodriguez is, in charge of the long-gestating film adaptation of Battle Angel: Alita. (This project was overseen for a long time by Jim Cameron, who eventually departed as director when the umpty-tump Avatar sequels in the works demanded too much of his attention, and Rodriguez apparently insisted on a change of name to Alita: Battle Angel because Cameron’s last two films beginning with an A were massive critical and popular successes.)

Quite early on in Alita: Battle Angel one gets either a comforting sense of being in familiar territory or a sinking feeling that the film is just a load of repurposed old spare parts. We are in another one of those post-apocalyptic futures, some time in the 26th century, with most of the Earth laid waste by interplanetary war. One vast floating city has endured, and living in its shadow a grimy, lawless sprawl has sprung up, the population trapped in poverty, kept docile by watching violent combat sports, and all dreaming of a better life in the sky-metropolis.

One of the locals is cyber-surgeon and part-time bounty-hunter Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who while picking over the junkheap beneath the sky-city discovers a preserved human brain in a cybernetic skull. He pops this into a full-body prosthetic chassis and the result is Alita (Rosa Salazar), a saucer-eyed waif with (naturally) superhuman reflexes, agility and ass-whupping skills. Alita has movie amnesia, presumably as a result of spending many decades as a brain in a can.

Well, it eventually turns out that someone is after Alita, who finds herself involved in various bounty-hunting exploits and a big set-piece sequence concerning the sport of Motorball, which is basically a gladiatorial variation on roller-boogie. Alita gets a love interest in the form of the non-threatening Hugo (Keann Johnson), and together they recycle many favourite old lines from the Big Book of Old Sci-Fi Chestnuts – ‘Does it matter that I’m not human?’ ‘You’re the most human person I know’, etc – during lulls in the plot. But what is Alita’s mysterious past? Who is her enigmatic nemesis? What is his beef with her, and just what is she prepared to do to stop him?

There are many things to be said about Alita: Battle Angel, but probably the most significant one is that after 122 minutes, with the closing credits rolling in front of me, I still really had no clue about the answers to most of these questions. The screenplay doesn’t contain a plot so much as a collection of scenes roughly connected to one another, without much sense of focus or direction. Obviously this is a comic book adaptation, and it does feel like one – in some of the more cartoony elements of the story, but also in the way that the writers have clearly taken a huge corpus of stories, concepts, ideas, and characters and tried to include every single one of their favourites in a single script. The film strains to accommodate all of them, and one of the things that gets pushed out is traditional narrative development and structure.

A good point of reference for Alita would be Ghost in the Shell from a couple of years ago – both big-budget effects-driven American-made adaptations of Japanese manga, with a cybernetic heroine having an identity crisis, although Alita seems to have dodged the usual wave of venom about whitewashing (the word ‘adaptation’ just doesn’t register sometimes, it would seem). Ghost in the Shell is apparently considered a box office bomb, and regular readers will recall I did predict the same fate in store for Alita, a forecast I am not inclined to alter having seen the finished film. If you’re going to spend $200 million on a movie, you need to be pretty sure that audiences are going to turn out in force to see it (ideally several times each), and there doesn’t seem to be that much excitement about Alita: Battle Angel.

(Given that Jim Cameron’s career has often revolved around his gambling large sums of money making projects that industry insiders and commentators were vocally dubious about, which then went on to be immensely successful, one wonders if this has been a factor in his being able to get Alita funded. If so, I suspect the backers are in for a nasty shock this time.)

Certainly the film is light on all the things that a film needs to have in order to justify such a large budget – the story is not well-known outside the cult ghetto, and the well-known faces who appear in it are really character actors in supporting roles (in addition to Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali turn up in unrewarding, mostly-villainous parts). Ghost in the Shell didn’t make an impact despite the fact it prominently featured Scarlett Johansson in a body stocking (if they’d actually called the movie Scarlett Johansson in a Body Stocking I suspect it might have done better business), and I am not sure a heavily CGI-modified version of the comparatively little-known Rosa Salazar will have quite as much appeal.

Seriously, one of the questionable decisions Cameron and Rodriguez have gone for is the one to put Salazar’s performance through the computer and turn her into something not entirely unakin to Gollum, but with better skin and hair. Quite apart from whether the CGI is photo-realistic or not (I still don’t think we’re quite there yet), someone with eyes quite so big is just intrusive and distracting, and a constant reminder that you’re watching a big effects movie – it just makes the film less immersive. Salazar’s actual performance is functional – she possibly overdoes the breathless innocent bit in the early part of the film, but copes reasonably well with many scenes where they weigh down a bit too heavily on the exposition and back story pedals. The central romance remains thoroughly unimpressive, though.

The film is not outright bad, but it only really shows signs of life and energy when it comes to the action sequences – the highlight is probably the Motorball match, which manages to be genuinely exciting despite all the CGI, even in 3D. But even here Alita is seldom really exceptional, and once again I just can’t see it cutting through to make much of an impact on the cinema landscape today. Every time I go to an SF film with this much hype around it – as previously noted, the publicity for Alita has been inescapable – I’m hoping for that extraordinary, giddy sense of being taken to a world totally unlike any I’ve seen before, and the accompanying feeling of breathless delight. This almost never happens – obviously it happened with the first stellar conflict movie, and also with The Matrix and to some extent with Inception. But most films inevitably fall short, and just prove to be a bit too obviously derivative or lacking in the basic storytelling virtues. Alita: Battle Angel is obviously the work of people with a high level of technical proficiency, but it isn’t the work of original, visionary brilliance that its publicity appears to be suggesting it is – certainly not to the point where it excuses poor storytelling. It’s okay – but no more than that.

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As fate and the vagaries of my DVD rental package would have it, we go straight from Touch of Evil‘s handling of cross-border prejudice and political corruption to another film with a slightly different take on the same themes: Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis’ 2010 movie Machete. Marching towards this review with ineluctable certainty are the words ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’… oh look, they’ve arrived.

Machete, as you may or may not know, originated as one of the spoof trailers that accompanied the two Grindhouse movies on their various releases (a complex story). It apparently received such a positive response (I must admit I probably enjoyed it rather more than Planet Terror, the film it was accompanying) that a full movie was duly made. As such, this film is arguably a textbook definition of being an extended joke.

The meandering and not especially coherent plot concerns the exploits of a Mexican ex-cop known as Machete due to his love of sharp objects (and also of hitting people with them). He is played (well, this is a bit of an issue, which we will return to) by Danny Trejo, a leather-faced performer who has carved out a bit of a niche for himself as convicts and lowlives on movies and TV. Machete is illegally working as a labourer in Texas when he is hired to assassinate John McLaughlin (Robert de Niro – yes, that Robert de Niro), a senator whose support mainly comes from his toxically anti-Mexican rhetoric – he also associates with a gang of murderous vigilantes led by Von Jackson (Don Johnson – yes, that Don Johnson).

Accepting mainly so he can pass his fee on to an underground network for the betterment of Mexican illegals run by Lus (the divine and radiant Michelle Rodriguez), Machete sets out to kill the senator – but rapidly discovers he’s been set up by McLaughlin’s aide (Jeff Fahey), intent on creating sympathy for the senator’s views and drumming up anti-Mexican sentiment. Needless to say, our man embarks on a blood-splattered revenge against those who have ruthlessly betrayed him.

(And I haven’t even mentioned Jessica Alba as a government agent, Steven Seagal (yes, that Steven Seagal) as a drug baron, or Lindsay Lohan (yes, that Lindsay Lohan) who wanders through the final section of the film as a gun-toting nun. It’s not that the plot is especially complex – far from it – it’s just utterly all over the place.)

Well, you know, I sat down to watch Machete with reasonable expectations, willing to cut it some slack – Robert Rodriguez is, if nothing else, a consistent film-maker, I’ll watch anything with Michelle Rodriguez in it, and Danny Trejo has certainly got presence. I was hoping for a moderately OTT action movie pastiche that didn’t take itself too seriously. The problem I have with Machete is that it’s actually… well I’m not really sure what it’s supposed to be, and I suspect some of the people involved don’t know either.

Spoof, satire, parody, broad comedy, genuine exploitation (perhaps in this case that should be Mexploitation) movie: the film lurches back and forth across genre boundaries almost at random, its intelligence level going up and down wildly in the process. Particularly baffling is all the stuff about the rights of Mexican illegals in the USA – while I understand this parallels the political dimension of blaxploitation films of the 70s, it’s not in itself particularly funny if it’s here as a parody, and if it’s seriously meant then it’s horribly trivialised by its inclusion in such a determinedly stupid film (‘the most absurd thing I’ve ever read’ was the verdict of one major actor who declined to participate).

That said, some of the Mexican jokes are quite amusing – there’s a running gag where Machete infiltrates the bad guy’s house simply by pretending to be the gardener, and later on beats up a bevy of henchmen using horticultural equipment – even if the climax (our hero raises an army of illegal labourers to battle the forces of evil, and they all turn up waving the accoutrements of their jobs) is again too silly to be genuinely funny. Basically, as a comedy, Machete is only consistently amusing if you subscribe to an oh-ho-ho-isn’t-this-just-so-intentionally-crap? sensibility, and as anything else it’s undermined by the presence of all these laboured attempts at humour.

Compared to this, the film’s problems in the acting department are relatively small beer, but – come on, this is a movie with Danny Trejo in the lead role, which if nothing else demonstrates that presence and charisma are not the same thing. On the strength of this outing Trejo’s range as an actor runs from A to very nearly the far end of A. It’s like making a movie with Chewbacca playing the lead – Trejo just lumbers around making noises and everyone else either tries to copy his style or wildly overacts in an attempt to compensate for it. Almost all the other performances are paralytically lousy, one way or another, which is especially shocking given some of the people Robert Rodriguez has (God knows how) assembled.

Not that long ago, Robert de Niro was routinely being hailed as the greatest screen actor of his generation – one has to wonder what happened, given that his late-period work seems to mostly consist of deeply underwhelming extended cameos in things like this and Killer Elite. Never mind being acted off the screen by Jason Statham, here de Niro is outperformed by, of all people, Steven Seagal. Steven Seagal! To be fair, the world’s least agile martial arts star is on rather good, self-parodying form here.

When Steven Seagal’s acting is one of the best things about a movie you know you’ve slipped a long way off the map of cinematic excellence. Still, neither that nor Michelle Rodriguez kicking ass in a bikini top were quite enough to redeem the movie. At the end of Planet Terror I told anyone who’d listen that it’s all too easy to make a bad film by accident, and plenty of people do every year, and so for a film-maker like Robert Rodriguez to make a bad film intentionally felt like a terrible squandering of both time and talent. I feel exactly the same about Machete, except perhaps even moreso. Of course, I am in the minority, as usual: financing for the two sequels we’re threatened with promised at the end of this film has apparently already been secured, and production is only waiting on Rodriguez to finish writing the scripts. Don’t rush on my account, Bob.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 14th June 2005:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to the column that believes it’s better to be adored by a few than read by anyone. This week we cruise the mean streets of Sin City, our helpful guides being Robert Rodriguez (whom you may recall as the director of the Mariachi and Spy Kids trilogies, not to mention From Dusk Till Dawn) and Frank Miller (who’s partly to blame for the script of Robocop 2 and got stabbed in the head with a pen by Colin Farrell in Daredevil).

However, the well-read amongst you will be aware that while Miller’s record at the cinema ain’t exactly gilt-edged, his track record when it comes writing and drawing comics is peerless – for one thing, the imminently blockbusterous Batman Begins owes a significant debt to Miller’s Year One, while he made Daredevil famous and actually created Elektra. Away from the spandex crowd, Miller is probably best known for his painfully stylish series of Sin City graphic novels – and its these that the new movie is based upon.

The film is set on the streets of Basin City (geddit), capital of the state of total moral collapse, where the police, the politicians, and the church seemingly strive to outdo each other when it comes to venality and decadence, and the blood flows like tippex every night. Locked in perpetual darkness, every single inhabitant seems to be either mad, bad, or sad, but at least this means they all have quite interesting stories to relate. And the film follows three of them – jaded cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis) battles to protect an innocent young girl (Jessica Alba, an actress whose visibility is about to rocket – ho ho ho) from a gnome-like pervert (Nick Stahl). Enigmatic loner Dwight (Clive Owen) tries to help the hookers of Sin City (all of whom seem to be heavily-armed killing machines, obviously) maintain their truce with the police department in the face of interference by the mob. And borderline-superhuman nutcase Marv (Mickey Rourke) sets out to avenge a prostitute (Jaime King) who was kind to him before she was murdered by a kung-fu fighting cannibal serial killer (Elijah Wood. No, really).

This probably isn’t the best choice of movie to take your sweet old grandma to, unless she really gets off on dismemberment, torture, immorality, generally astounding levels of violence and ickiness, and a really special scene where Bruce Willis rips someone’s knob off with his bare hands. (Betcha that doesn’t get picked as a ‘highlight of the movie year’ come the December review shows.) As you may or may not recall, it normally takes a lot to convince me that this level of really extreme violence is justified, but in Sin City‘s case it probably is, given that the film does try to say things about morality and the gore isn’t actually played for laughs. And it has to be said that it does form part of one of the most distinctive visions to be brought to the cinema in some time – a virtually perfect recreation of the original Sin City strips, with individual panels being imitated. The central irony, that stories with a morality consisting solely of varying shades of grey are told largely in black and white, survives. It looks fantastic, luminous monochrome deep-focus cinematography creating a world both utterly fantastical yet grimily realistic.

But solid performances from an impressive ensemble cast keep your attention on the stories, for the most part. The common theme of the three stories is one of dodgy alpha-males finding a sort of redemption through their relationships with women they idealise. Their willingness to do anything for their girls borders on the masochistic, if we’re honest, but to be honest it’s all that separates them from the scum they do battle with. In a funny sort of way Sin City‘s thoroughly unreconstructed gender politics mark it out as one of the most romantic films of recent months – admittedly Bruce Willis shooting somebody in the nuts (yes, this happens too) isn’t everyone’s idea of romance but there you go.

Hang on a mo’ though! A hardboiled, pulpy noiry sort of thriller? With a sort of anthology structure? Where the internal chronology is a bit fishy? And a lot of violence? And Bruce Willis, giving a pretty good performance? Yes, you guessed it, Quentin Tarantino pops up as a ‘special guest director’ (though he thankfully resists the temptation to appear in front of the camera). To be honest I’m not sure why he bothered as the sequence he’s responsible for isn’t particularly long nor distinguished. Presumably Bob Rodriguez doesn’t like being pestered any more than anyone. This movie certainly shouldn’t need Tarantino’s name plastered on it in order to be successful. It’s skilfully put together, memorable in all sorts of ways, and combines arthouse aesthetics with a charnel house sensibility in a manner guaranteed to meet with the approval of a good many cinemagoers. Not one I’d recommend without serious qualifications, but still one of the outstanding movies of the year so far.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 5th October 2003:

Sometimes cinematic careers run in an odd kind of parallel way, two or more actors or directors collaborating or making similar films at the same time – consider Pacino and de Niro in the early and mid-1970s, or Lucas and Spielberg a little later on. Occasionally such parallel tracks remain in synch, in which case, if the artists in question are successful enough, the popular perception of an era can be established. What’s possibly even more interesting is if their paths diverge – Spielberg has recently hit a vein of impressive, largely gritty and downbeat form, to some critical acclaim, while Lucas’ return to directing has been financially successful but critically pilloried.

Two other directors whose careers have spiralled around each other for many years are Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Tarantino, virtually singlehandedly, started the geekpunk charge out of the video stores and garages and into the movie studio offices, and Rodriguez was amongst the highest profile of those who followed the trail he blazed. Rodriguez directed an early Tarantino script, and Tarantino appeared in more than one Rodriguez movie.

With Tarantino’s first movie in over five years soon upon us, it seems only appropriate that it should be heralded by an offering from Rodriguez. (One difference between the two is in their workrate – Rodriguez has directed more movies in the last three years than Tarantino’s managed in over a decade.) It’s an appropriately old-school exercise in hyperkinetic action, winkingly entitled Once Upon A Time In Mexico.

Johnny Depp, exercising pretty much the same acting muscles as he did in Pirates of the Caribbean, plays certifiably eccentric CIA agent Sands. Sands is involved in a complex scheme to topple the President of Mexico, foil a coup organised by criminal mastermind Barillo (Willem Dafoe), and then clear off with an awful lot of pesos and his exceedingly gorgeous ladyfriend Ajedrez (Eva Mendes). To assist with this he recruits ex-FBI agent Ramirez (Ruben Blades), who has a grudge against Barillo, and a legendary gunslinger known only as El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), who’s dropped out of sight following the murder of his wife (not much more than an extended cameo from Salma Hayek).

From this point on the plot does get terribly, terribly complicated, as there are a lot of characters all of whom are bearing grudges, double-crossing each other, and following their own agendas (frequent flashbacks to Banderas and Hayek’s earlier exploits also appear) – I just about managed to hang on to what was happening by my fingertips. This movie is obviously a homage to the epic spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, but at only 100 minutes or so in length this is a very cramped, half-pint sort of epic, particularly when – alongside all the plot – Rodriguez crams in extended gun battles at fairly regular intervals. This is a film that shows all signs of being heavily edited for length – the plot is incoherent and the characterisation skimpy (although, to be fair, this is something of a stylistic trait in Rodriguez movies, especially Desperado, to which this is a sort-of sequel).

However, the action sequences are as frenetically intense and inventive as any Rodriguez has come up with in the past, and a surprisingly eclectic cast (Banderas, Defoe, Mickey Rourke, Enrique Iglesias) keeps it engaging. The star turn of the movie is Depp, however, as for the second time in not many months he effortlessly blasts the ostensible leading man off the screen with a magnetic performance as the deeply morally ambiguous CIA agent. He’s witty and drolly funny, which matches the tone of the most of the film: this is a romp and not to be taken too seriously. Depp should probably make his next few script choices carefully, though, as he’s in danger of getting a reputation as a Nicholson-style pep-pill to boost underperforming scripts.

If you liked Desperado, it’s a safe bet you’ll like this – gentlemen will enjoy the high action quotient, and any ladies disappointed by the relatively small role played by Banderas will surely find consolation in the amount of Depp on offer. It’s even less thoughtful and considered than the previous film, but makes up for it with ambitiousness and bizarre humour. But it’s becoming obvious that Rodriguez is a director first and a writer second – all his films have terrific camerawork, editing, and visuals, but a distinct lack of depth or characterisation. His style hasn’t really developed in the decade since the original El Mariachi appeared, which is inevitably a bit of a disappointment. But the same can arguably be said of his peers, people like Kevin Smith and Tarantino himself, and at least his films are seldom less than entertaining. Once Upon A Time In Mexico certainly kept me amused, even if it’s nowhere near as substantial as the films it’s a homage to.

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