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Film review: Machete Kills (18)

Machete Kills. Picture: submitted

Machete Kills. Picture: submitted

  • by ALISTAIR HARKNESS
 

This ridiculous and violent film about a machete-wielding Mexican does kind of work, provided you like that sort of thing

MACHETE KILLS (15)
Star rating: * * *
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Sofía Vergara, Demian Bichir, Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson

One of the more interesting aspects of Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s much-maligned (but rather fine) tribute to the exploitation movies of their youth has been Rodriguez’s determination to pursue the idea of that box-office-flopping experiment in his subsequent films.

While Tarantino regrouped after the perceived failure of Death Proof and came back even stronger by transforming his love of sleazy genre films into the politically astute arthouse blockbusters, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, Rodriguez followed up his goofy zombie apocalypse movie, Planet Terror, with 2010’s Machete – a down-and-dirty action film expanded from the brilliant fake trailer that was one of the highlights of Grindhouse’s original US release as a double feature.

Sadly – and rather ironically – the full-length version of Machete ruined the joke. The whole point of Grindhouse was to deliver a pair of films that for once lived up to the gonzo thrills promised by their lurid marketing campaigns, yet here was a movie that was every bit as shoddy and dull as the feature-length versions of its inspirations. It felt like lazy wink-wink filmmaking and didn’t bode well for the follow-up Rodriguez couldn’t resist trailing over the first film’s end credits.

With Machete Kills, however, indie cinema’s most proactive auteur has gone all out and created a movie that’s as ridiculous and violent as a film about a machete-wielding Mexican outlaw should be. Of course it probably goes without saying that enjoyment depends on a certain indulgence and nostalgic love for the sort of trashy action movies that made video shops in the 1980s feel like secret dens of iniquity. Yet for those primed to like this kind of stuff, it does kind of work.

It’s also a slightly better showcase for star Danny Trejo than the first Machete film. Trejo – who is also Rodriguez’s second-cousin – has been a supporting actor in Hollywood for almost 30 years, supplying films and TV shows both big and small with tough-guy authenticity (of late, his short run on – and exit from – Breaking Bad was especially memorable). Whenever a script calls for a gnarly looking badass, his striking features – solid muscular frame, stoic features that look as if they should be chiseled onto the side of Mount Rushmore – certainly fit the bill. In Machete, though, his intransigent nature didn’t translate into a compelling movie hero.

With Machete Kills, however, Rodriguez at least makes a token effort to let Trejo’s eponymous hero become a more active participant in his own pulpy story, which begins with a gunfight on the US/Mexican border and quickly escalates into a ludicrous plot that sees Machete locked into a race against time to stop a missile attack on Washington. In keeping with the film’s general spirit of silliness, this requires him to keep alive a semi-crazy cartel boss (Demian Bichir) who has remotely wired his own heart to the missile’s detonator so that if he dies, the rockets launch.

As soon becomes apparent, this is all really just an excuse for Rodriguez to unleash a rogues’ gallery of crazies and let them run wild through the film. Thus we get Modern Family’s Sofía Vergara as a man-hating madam with lethal lingerie; Michelle Rodriguez (returning from the first film) as a one-eyed revolutionary called Shé; Amber Heard as a CIA agent working undercover as a beauty queen; and a slew of assassins, chief among them La Chameleon, a shape-shifting killer whose myriad guises are embodied by Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr, Antonio Banderas and – making her feature debut – Lady Gaga.

It’s amusingly juvenile stuff, and, as is evident from a number of the actors playing the principal roles, it does what exploitation movies should do by putting the faces frequently found on the fringes of films at the forefront of the action. The Latino-heavy cast aid the film’s crude but occasionally pointed critique of US immigration policy, and Rodriguez adds a further subversive element not just by casting Charlie Sheen as the President of the United States, but by announcing his starring role 
in the opening credits using Sheen’s real name: Carlos Estévez.

Sheen’s notoriety also fits with the film’s excesses and the same might be said for Mel Gibson, whom Rodriguez casts as a deranged billionaire weapons manufacturer with dubious views on ethnicity. In light of his numerous loathsome outbursts, this casting certainly cuts close to the bone, but Gibson – who got his big break in one of the greatest exploitation films of all time: Mad Max – does prop the film up just as it starts to sag.

How much longer Rodriguez can continue to spin this out, though, is another matter. Given the joke seemed moribund with the first film yet somehow works here, don’t bet against the inevitable fake threequel trailer for Machete Kills Again… In Space becoming a reality.

THIS WEEK’S FILM RELEASES

Not Another Happy

Ending (12A)

Directed by: John McKay

Starring: Karen Gillan, Stanley Weber, Henry Ian Cusick, Iain De Caestecker

Star rating: *

A weird amalgam of broad-strokes comedy and try-hard kookiness, this Glasgow-set rom-com barely works on any level. With a plot revolving around a blocked novelist (Karen Gillan) struggling to finish her second book, the problem isn’t so much with the premise (recycled though it is), but with the execution. An over-reliance on montage, a messily structured screenplay, a lack of chemistry between the leads, and a hodge-podge of random-seeming creative flourishes conspire with the film’s lack of believability to make the characters seem not so much endearingly off the wall as completely demented.

Unfortunately Gillan comes off the worst in this respect. Though she’s got the potential to be an even bigger star than she already is (not for nothing did Marvel sign her up for next year’s sci-fi blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy), this film doesn’t do her any favours. Wandering around Glasgow dressed like a hipster droog (though her wardrobe is clearly supposed to be in homage to Annie Hall), her character, Jane, is such a baffling mass of neuroses it’s hard to empathise with her plight.

Of course, it doesn’t help that the romantic friction that supposedly exists between Jane and her twerp-of-an-editor Tom (Stanley Weber) never comes across on screen. He’s French, full of himself and fairly annoying. He’s also convinced she’s too happy to finish her book, so takes to covertly sabotaging her love life with her equally loathsome screenwriter boyfriend (Henry Ian Cusick).

That neither of the men in Jane’s life is in any way charming prevents her from ever seeming like the smart, switched-on, romantic heroine she should be. Instead it just makes her look like a malfunctioning manic pixie dream girl – behaviour that the film

attempts to justify by also saddling her with a honking and incompetently handled subplot involving her

estranged father (played by Gary Lewis). All of which is a shame because there’s no reason why an offbeat rom-com shouldn’t work in Scotland, given the influence Bill Forysth’s work has had on the kind of whimsical American indie films (500 Days of Summer especially) that the makers of this presumably had their eye on. Sadly, nothing in this rings true.

Le Week-End (15)

Directed by: Roger Michell

Starring: Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan, Jeff Goldblum

Star rating: * *

Having previously collaborated on both The Mother and Venus, director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi reteam for another meditation on ageing, this time homing in on a 60-something couple as a long-brewing marital crisis comes to a head in the midst of a 30th anniversary trip to Paris.

Where once the City of Light was beacon for the youthful idealism of academic Nick (Jim Broadbent) and teacher Meg (Lindsay Duncan), now it’s a reminder of the boho romanticism they’ve since outgrown and a symbol of the opulence they’ll never be able to afford. For Nick, this only serves to underscore his own feelings of inadequacy – especially as his efforts to reignite the passion of his marriage aren’t exactly being welcomed by Meg. Given the way he talks about sex, though, her reluctance isn’t unjustified, but she’s also dealing with her own regrets and is contemplating a future that perhaps doesn’t include her husband. It’s all contrived and self-important stuff, though a late appearance from Jeff Goldblum, as one of Nick’s old university friends, does briefly enliven proceedings.

V/H/S 2 (18)

Directed by: Adam Wingard, Eduardo Sánchez, Gregg Hale, Gareth Evans, Timo Tjahjanto, Jason Eisener, Simon Barrett

Star rating: * * *

This sequel to last year’s intriguing but flawed horror anthology serves up a slightly higher hit rate in terms of quality, while still wilfully ignoring the analogue purity of its title. Basically an excuse to bundle a bunch of found-footage films together, the framing story contrives to have a pair of private investigators stumble across a stash of old VHS tapes on which are stored a slew of supernatural-themed (but shot-on-digital) home movies and docs. The difference this time is that some of the shorts are pretty good, starting with Your’re Next director Adam Wingard’s derivative but effective Clinical Trials (in which the recipient of a cybernetic eye implant starts seeing ghosts from his past) and following through with Greg Hale and Blair Witch Project director Eduardo Sánchez’s natty zombie apocalypse movie, A Ride in the Park (in which a mountain biker with a helmet-cam becomes one of the undead). The highlight, though, is Safe Haven, the latest from Gareth Evans, the Welsh director behind last year’s magnificent The Raid. Co-directed by Timo Tjahjanto, it revolves around a documentary crew who venture into the retreat of an Indonesian cult leader only for things to descend into chaos.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon

Directed by: Hong Sang-soo

Starring: Jeong Eun-chae,

Lee Sunk-yun, Kim Eui-sung

Star rating: * * *

South Korean cinema that doesn’t utilise extreme violence or high-stakes action struggles to find an audience in the UK, but there’s some interesting work being done outwith those narrow confines, not least by Hong Sangsoo, whose passion for the French New Wave is evident in this dreamy, whimsical and melancholic tale.

Revolving around Haewon (Jeong Eun-chae), a film student thrown into a state of listlessness when her mother departs for Canada to live with Haewon’s brother, it follows her as she tries to work out what it is she wants from life while bouncing through a series of unsatisfying encounters with, among others, a married film director and a film professor who boasts about his friendship with Martin Scorsese.

That’s pretty much it in terms of plot, but the film works as a study of loneliness and the changing nature of male/female relationships. If it’s sometimes a little cute (Haewon’s introspection is triggered after a chance encounter with Jane Birkin), the allusions to other movies and the self-conscious nods to the filmmaking style of Hong’s heroes highlight the way we all tend to daydream about our lives in terms of the fiction we love.

 

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