Sunday, September 18, 2011

Movies again: From Dusk till Dawn

I'm weighing in with this one a little late... about 15 years. Nevertheless, I saw Quintin Tarantino's From Dusk till Dawn yesterday for the first time.

I honestly can't remember the last time a movie raised my expectations so high and crashed them so low so quickly. Not even the soggiest ending has so disappointed me. And it was a new feeling. I wasn't mad, I didn't feel ripped off (particularly since I didn't pay to see it; a friend brought it over)... I felt sad.

Now, when my buddy showed up, he did say something about "vampires". But I quickly forgot that detail when I started watching the movie.

Starts off in a liquor store in the middle of nowhere. The bad guys, Tarantino and George Clooney (as brothers Richie and Seth Gecko, respectively), are introduced in an extremely clever and quite novel way. I was a little let down when the scene descended into over-the-top violence, but I reminded myself that, hey, this is Quintin Tarantino we're talking about. You can't have a scene about a guy going to the bathroom without a five-alarm homicide (see Pulp Fiction). So, okay, accept there's going to be a lot of gratuitous violence and weed the plot out as you go. That usually works with a Tarantino movie.

The goodies are Harvey Keitel, in an admirably low-key job portraying Jake, a recently-widowered preacher undergoing a deep crisis of faith, and his teenage kids, Kate (Juliette Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Liu), all on vacation in an RV. The set-up here is believable, with the blase conversation and arguments nicely underlining the emotional cap Jake has placed on himself.

The baddies and the goodies all wind up at the same motel, where Richie first demonstrates what an especially bad baddie he is by raping and killing their hostage when Seth makes the mistake of trusting him alone with her. Not long after, Richie and Seth break in on Jake and his family, insisting that the family will conduct them all safely across the Mexican border in the RV. Seth assures them that as long as they follow the rules, they'll be set free afterward. Initially, Jake flatly refuses, even offering to go with them alone, but he is forced to include the kids when Seth makes it plain they'll all die then and there otherwise.

On the road to Mexico, Jake and Seth get into a conversation that, while prickly, serves as the first inclination of a bond between the two men. Richie's attentions, meanwhile, are focused on Kate, which pleases neither of the other two men. The scene at the Mexican border is key. Scott urges his father to appeal to the Mexican guards for help, but Jake realizes the likely outcome of that and gambles that playing for time is the better move. When the guards become suspicious, quick thinking on the part of everyone saves the day, and raises the stock of the family with Seth.

Successfully in Mexico, Jake drives the RV to the rendezvous, a biker bar called "Titty Twister" with sign noting it is open from dusk till dawn. When an altercation at the bar between Seth and the bartender threatens to end in violence, Jake is the voice of reason and compromise who defuses the situation. Sitting at the table together, the five begin to drink, reluctantly at first, but then with a budding comradery. When Seth reveals that he intends to drain the whisky bottle and then break it over the head of a man who touched him, Jake takes a fantastic risk by asking Seth if he's a loser. When Seth demands an explanation, Jake points out that Seth must be a loser not to be able to appreciate all he's won. He has robbed and killed, escaped a huge dragnet across Texas, and has made it safe and clear in Mexico. When Seth realizes the wisdom of Jake's words, he insists that Jake, who has refused to drink with him, share a toast. The two men toast one another's families.

At this point, exactly the one hour mark, the movie ends. As far as I'm concerned, anyway. What should have followed hits the virtual cutting room floor, and what is spliced on is... some other movie, where the names and faces of the characters happen to be just the same.

First, there is a long, gratuitous, and surprisingly boring table dancing scene, so long and self-indulgent that it had me wondering which casting chair enjoyed the baloney-pony ride that clearly paid for it. It also made it clear that we had 75 minutes of plot that needed to be Hamburger Helpered over the 100 minute mark. Well, even that's okay; Tarantino's padding is usually interesting for dialog, at least, and quite often character development as well...

But then come the vampires. Turns out the bar is nothing but the vampire equivalent of a spider web. The rest of the movie is nothing more than the typical zombiefest of huge monster body counts, the slow but sure attrition of human characters, and the retreat to ever smaller rooms and ever more meager survival resources. Tarantino allows himself to ignore that he has spent over the first half of this movie creating a handful of intriguing characters we've come to care about, and pretty much turns them into Star Fleet red shirts who've beamed down on The Wrong Freakin' Planet™.

At the end, everyone's dead but Kate and Seth, and despite the fact that they've lost everyone else in their lives, and everything they've been through together, they basically just take off in different directions after Seth hands Kate a stack of money, as if that would mean anything to a teenage girl who's just lost her brother and surviving parent. I watched it to the end, just to see how disappointed I'd be. You can probably tell: palpably.

I can identify the movie I wish Tarantino had made; the movie I thought he was making around the time Seth and Jake were having their passive-aggressive conversation and I was starting to perk up thinking, "Damn! This is gonna be good! How did I miss this all these years?" That was the movie where they end up at the rendezvous in Mexico, Seth and Jake have learned to trust and even grudgingly admire a few things about one another, and either something goes wrong with the deal Seth's trying to make, or else Richie's intentions towards Kate clash with Seth's promise to let them go if they follow the rules, and in either case Seth has to make a choice between his principles and his love for his maladjusted brother. There's a scene in the movie where Seth has to kill vampire Richie, and he says he hopes he can give Richie the peace in death he couldn't find in life. Why couldn't Tarantino have given us that scene as the conclusion of a taut, razor's edge thriller where the fates of characters we've come to care about really matters? Where was the scene where Jake recovers his faith (and is it necessarily in God when he does get it back)? What was the point of having Jake in a crisis of faith at all, if all the movie needed was some joker who could turn tap water into holy water? Honestly, I have never seen such promising cinematic potential so gratuitously wasted. I suppose you could call Tarantino a genius for being able to build something that impressive and then burn it down himself, but don't ask me to applaud it.

This could have been something the calibre of Reservoir Dogs. Instead, when Mr. Blonde says, "Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie, or are you gonna bite?", Mr. White turns into a werewolf.

Yeah, exactly.

" Oh, say I beg your pardon, but can you see...?"

This is true; not a word of a lie. I once held a door open for someone in Erie, Pennsylvania, and she said, "Oh, you must be Canadian!"

There are worse national reputations, to be sure. But I mean, seriously, are you telling me it's so unusual to hold a door open for someone in the United States that your conclusion isn't, "Wow, what a nice person," but, "Wow, this person's from another country..."?

What's the thought process here? "Whoops, this person's being considerate. No American would do that. He must be a foreigner. But from what country? Well, given the geography, the most likely one is Canada. Let's check that. ...Hmm, yes, it says here that Canadians have a reputation for being polite. All indications are that this person must be Canadian. In fact, I'm so sure of that conclusion that I feel justified in saying so out loud!"

How could she lose? Either she's on the money, in which case she's going to flatter a Canadian, or else she's giving a sort of complement to a fellow American on the basis of a shared cultural stereotype... still a winning move. There's an off chance she'll actually offend a fellow American, who might respond with, "What, you don't think an American can be polite?" But let's face it: if he's polite enough to hold the door open, he's probably not rude enough to say that. So, like I said, a winning move all around.

But I think all Americans should do this. Regardless of whether they think the person they're talking to is actually Canadian or not, whenever someone is even the slightest bit polite, they should say, "You must be Canadian!" I think this would promote an ever-increasing level of politeness building on politeness, until at last, the US was indistinguishable from Canada in this regard.

Then, we could take over. Everything from Galveston to Alert would be one place. And at long last, that greatest of dreams would come true...

We'd finally have Alaska. :)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Movies, movies, movies

Wow, it's been ages since I posted anything. Not much to say, occupying myself with other things, etc., etc.

Well, this one's about movies. A friend arranged with me to go out last night to a restaurant he found a while ago and we both like... imagine a gourmet greasy-spoon. Sandwiches and pub fare, meals largely under $10, but Beamers and Lexuses parked out front. I am not joking. Anyway, movies. I suggested we take in a movie afterward, and he approved the choice I threw at him. Back to this in a moment.

In the lead up to the movie, there were promos for five others. One sucked; one might be worth seeing, but to my surprise, three really peaked my interest. Of the three, two include George Clooney, two include Philip Seymour Hoffman, and one includes Brad Pitt. These are The Descendants, The Ides of March. and Moneyball. It's been a long, long time since I've haunted the theatres, but it looks like there are some solid cinematic reasons to line up and grab a seat this fall. I'm mostly writing these down here so I don't forget.

The Debt

Okay... the movie we went to see was The Debt. It's the story of three former Massad agents who undertook a mission in the mid-1960s, and how it is affecting their lives in the late 1990s. Helen Mirren stars in it, and for me, that means you can't go wrong.


Don't read any further if you don't want to know what happens.

The movie opens in 1997 when the Sarah, the daughter of two of agents (now divorced) is launching a book about her parents' mission, the story of which is a failed success: failing to bring a Nazi war criminal to justice, her mother, Rachel, managed to shoot him and prevent his escape. Things begin to go wrong when the third agent, about to be driven to the book launch, opts to step in front of a truck instead.

The action moves to 1965, Rachel, David, and Stefan, the agents in question, are sent to East Berlin to complete the investigation of a suspected Nazi criminal, Vogel, the "Surgeon of Birkenau", and, if the target proves to be him, to kidnap him and return him to Israel to stand trial. Rachel and David pretend to be a married couple trying to conceive as a ruse to get close to their target, who is now a gynecologist. Rachel and David develop feelings for one another but David balks, and Rachel turns to Stefan.

Meanwhile, the doctor's identity is confirmed, and the plan goes into action. Rachel injects the doctor during an examination and, in the guise of an ambulance crew coming to the rescue, David and Stefan abscond with the doctor. The plan is use a "ghost station", one of the pre-WWII transit stations West German trains may pass through but not stop at, to hustle Vogel out of East Berlin to Tempelhof Airport and out of Germany. The plan goes wrong, an East German border guard is killed, and three have to retreat to their flat with Vogel and hope for some other means of getting out.

In the interim, Vogel works on his captors, causing tension between them, and finally manages to free himself. But this time, we learn that Rachel did not manage to rise and shoot him at the last moment. Vogel escaped. The three realize that Vogel will simply disappear. Deciding that Israel "cannot be seen to fail" as a means to justify their own failure, they agree to say that Rachel shot Vogel to prevent his escape, and that they disposed of the body. And so the story goes for 30 years, the foundation of their reputations and careers.

This doesn't sit well with David. After a few years, and a long affair with Rachel, he announces his is leaving. 25 years later, he returns, and reveals to Rachel that Vogel has apparently turned up in mental hospital in Kiev. Hoping to relieve his burden, he suggests telling the truth. Rachel argues that the fiction has to be maintained for her daughter's sake. The following day, David kills himself.

Stefan, wheelchair-bound, convinces Rachel to go to Kiev and murder Vogel before he can talk to a reporter who has taken an interest in the strange old man's story. Through some astute intelligence work, she locates the man, but realizes he simply is a crazy old man and not Vogel. She phones Stefan to tell him so, but also that she has reached the same conclusion as David. She hangs up on him and leaves a note for the reporter, who is only steps behind her, that tells all.

And there the movie should have ended. But it doesn't. At this point, the script was apparently hijacked by high school boys, because at the last moment, Rachel sees someone disappear through a door, and follows to an abandoned part of the hospital, where she is attacked with scissors by none other than Vogel himself, whom she, in turn, dispatches with the syringe of poison she had brought with her for the mission. The last 90 seconds of the movie take a wonderful film about truth, redemption, keeping the faith with friends, and a mature worldly recognition that sometimes the bad guy gets away, and tosses it instead to an audience with a colouring book appreciation of morality. What a shame. What a real shame. It is the fatal flaw in an otherwise exceptional and starkly honest story.