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Robert Rodriguez’s Machete Kills

If Robert Rodriguez’s Machete cracked a few beers in the grindhouse exploitation cooler, his follow up Machete Kills taps the entire keg and lets it flow for a sequel that although isn’t as focused or on point as the first, blows it out of the water in terms of cameos, star power and sheer bottom feeding genre madness, it’s a hell of a fun time. Danny Trejo did the journeyman tough guy thing in a long stint throughout the 80’s and 90’s, by the time Rodriguez found him for a smaller role in Desperado he was already long overdue for a starring vehicle as far as I’m concerned, which Robert handed to him and then expanded with this balls out sequel that although is still indisputably Danny’s show, is also peppered with a staggering amount of star power and recognizable faces. That’s the thing about Rodriguez, he’s such a talented, hands on enthusiast of a filmmaker that he attracts actors from all walks of industry life to work with him, and his projects come alive. Trejo’s ex federalé super badass Machete is recruited by the president of the United States himself this time, played by Charlie Sheen in exactly the type of portrayal you’d expect. Mel Gibson’s big bad gun runner Luther Voz is stirring up trouble and it’s up to our antihero to stop him, as well as a whole pack of villains, weirdos, corrupt officials and femme fatales. This one sees a lot more characters running about including Sofia Vargera’s Desdemona, a matriarchal shryke of a contract killer whose daughter (Vanessa Hudgens) also figures into the plot while Machete recruits a lethal government agent (Amber Heard) who doubles as beauty queen Miss San Antonio. Michelle Rodriguez and Jessica Alba also return but are sort of swallowed up in the emerging newer elements. The great character actor William Sadler turns up briefly as a Texas Sheriff with a big gun, as do Rodriguez regulars Julio Mechoso, the Avellan twins, Tom Savini, Demian Bichir and Alexa Vega. Perhaps the best element in either Machete film is an elusive, inspired contract killer called The Chameleon who changes their appearance frequently. Not many films can say they hired Antonio Banderas, Cuba Gooding Jr., Walton Goggins and Lady Gaga to all play the same role, but Rodriguez pulls it off and gives each actor something fun to do. I enjoyed this Machete more in the sense that it didn’t try to be socially conscious or inject a political message like the first, this is straight up action pulp the way it should be, and hopefully we will get to see Machete blast off into space soon as the reliably ridiculous meta fake trailer outlines here.

-Nate Hill

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Robert Rodriguez’s Predators

I like to call it Robert Rodriguez’s Predators despite the fact that he only has a producer’s credit, but his influence is all over it, plus the presence of Danny Trejo. This is one solid flick though, and definitely holds up against the first two films. The premise could even be said is more innovative than before, because as with any sequel or update, the story must evolve and break new ground, a feat they’ve outdone themselves with here. The Predators have taken it upon themselves to kidnap the roughest, toughest individuals of the human race and set them loose on a giant planet designed to be a game preserve, and have their fun. Adrien Brody does tense vulnerability to a T as a special ops badass, joined by an Israeli soldier (Alice Braga), a Russian spetznaz operative (Oleg Taktarov), an ex cartel enforcer (Danny Trejo), a psychotic maximum security inmate (Walton Goggins), an African rebel (Mahershala Ali), a disgraced Yakuza (Louis Ozawa Changchien) and… Topher Grace, whose involvement gradually becomes clearer. They’re forced to band together against a squadron of specialized hunters who pursue them, complete with the vicious wildlife native to this planet. It’s incredibly cinematic, brutally entertaining stuff, and the actors give it their all, including Laurence Fishburne as a crazy dude who’s been alone on this world a few too many years. Standout scenes include the chilling moment these poor folks reach the crest of a hill, spot two giant suns in the alien sky and realize they’re not in Kansas anymore, as well as a knockout showdown between the Yakuza and a giant predator that eerily mirrors Sonny Landham’s Billy making a final stand in the original film. Atmospheric, well casted, acted and shot, a solid action horror funhouse that lives up to the Predator legacy.

-Nate Hill

William Monahan’s Mojave

William Monahan‘s Mojave is garbage dressed up in hopeful noir tropes, a flick that could go either way when you see the promising trailer, but ultimately ends up as the little movie that tried, and failed pretty darn bad. What works, or at least helps it limp through its extremely violent final act, is a performance from Oscar Isaac that’s a lot of fun, if never exposited very well. It’s like The Shining by way of The Dark Half but with less King and more paradoxically muddled pseudo supernatural desert pulp, which admittedly sounds great when I write it like that but really is just repetitive and frustrating. Garrett Hedlund does a moody turn as a morally twisted Hollywood screenwriter who is ready to punch his own ticket. On a spontaneous solo trip out into the desert, he meets a mysterious, sinister weirdo (Isaac) who causes nothing but trouble and chaos from the moment he enters the narrative. Latching onto Hedlund, he follows him back to the city, makes his life hell and they slowly play a circular game of cat and mouse that the filmmakers don’t quite realize is only their own narrative circling the drain from being too exhausted and deliberately oblique. Walton Goggins shows up as a sleazy Hollywood figure and Mark Wahlberg has an amusing cameo as a producer, but it’s mostly Isaac growling out dark, nonsensical platitudes and not making much sense, despite being pretty entertaining in his efforts and putting in good villain work. Parts of this seem to have come from a better movie where… I dunno, where things actually make sense, but the way everything is organized and presented here is one big shitty head scratcher, and misses the dartboard overall. Pass.

-Nate Hill

Jeb Stuart’s Switchback

I’ve always really liked Jeb Stuart’s Switchback, despite it not being as taut a thriller or as well oiled a machine as it thinks it is, it’s one of those slightly Hitchcockian, well photographed and terrifically casted shockers that still services and sort of grows on you. I also remember, before ever being allowed to see stuff like this when I was really young, seeing a few short scenes of it on cable at my dad’s work and being riveted to the seat in fear and fascination as Danny Glover and Jared Leto drove through the night in the Rocky Mountains, each trying to out-creep the other. I had no idea what the film was, but years later I found the DVD and was reminded of those few short scenes I saw that had immense power on my still impressionable perception. The hook is that either Leto or Glover is the killer, and we’re saddled with an extended guessing game as they plough through snow covered highways and the tension mounts between them. Elsewhere, Dennis Quaid plays a stoic, relentless rogue FBI Agent whose infant son was kidnaped by the same killer a year or so before. His search leads him through a string of remote mountain towns where he clashes with local law enforcement and gradually gets closer to the murderer’s trail, which went cold a while back. It’s an odd, obtusely paced concept for a thriller that almost seems a bit muddled and reworked from something more succinct in the scriptwriting phase, but it’s one of those that you buy anyways simply because the cast and cinematography are so first rate. Quaid is cold and desolate as the Agent, hoarsely intoning his lines with enough intensity to implode a diamond, deliberately reigning in his usually charming persona and famous mile wide grin. Glover is boisterous, and just friendly enough that the creep factor sets in, while Leto plays naive and sensitive til we see through the facade (see how long it takes you to guess which is the killer). The late great R. Lee Ermey is excellent here in a rare soft spoken performance as a kindly local Sheriff who assists and befriends Quaid, even when it puts his badge at risk. Ted Levine shows up as his head deputy, and watch for Walton Goggins and underrated William Fichtner as an opposing candidate for Sheriff’s office. Like I said, this isn’t the crackling thriller it should be with all this talent onboard, it has its issues with a weirdly drawn plot and some clunky story beats. But when it works, it’s memorable, and you can’t beat intrigue set in the gorgeous Rockies, especially when there’s a tense freight train set piece involved. Fun, engaging, slight overall but definitely worth a watch.

-Nate Hill

The Crow: Salvation 


Now let’s be real, there’s only one good Crow film. They were just never able to catch that midnight magic again, though they tried, with four more films and a dud of a tv series. Each of the sequels is nearly the exact same as the first, in terms of plot: a man is killed by feral urban thugs, only to be resurrected one year later by a mysterious crow, blessed with invincibility and begins to work his way through the merry band of scumbags in brutal acts of revenge, arriving at the crime lord sitting atop the food chain, usually a freak with vague ties to the supernatural or occult. All the films in the series are structured that way, but only one deviated and tried something slightly different with the formula. City of Angels, the second, is a boring, almost identical retread of the first, it’s only energy coming from a coked up Iggy Pop. Wicked Prayer, the fourth, had a premise with potential aplenty, and turned out so maddeningly awful I’m still dabbing the blood from my eye sockets. Salvation, however, is the third entry and almost finds new air to breathe by altering the premise slightly. Instead of lowlife criminals, it’s a posse of corrupt police detectives who frame an innocent dude (Resident Evil’s Eric Mabius) for crimes they themselves committed, fry him to a crisp in the electric chair and get off scott free. His girlfriend (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe) is also killed in the process. Now, not only is it cops instead of criminals, but the arch baddie at the top of the pile is the police commissioner, who has occult written all over him. *Not only* that, but he’s played by Fred Ward, who is brilliant in anything. While nowhere near an iota of the atmosphere or quality of the first film, this one works better than any of the other sequels, thanks to that spark of an idea that changes the game ever so much. The detectives are a nice and skeevy bunch too, played by the reptilian likes of William Atherton, Walton Goggins and others. Ward wears the starched, proper uniform of an authoritative figure, but his eyes gleam with the same secrets and dark magic we saw in the two other previous underworld kingpins, Top Dollar (Michael Wincott) and Judah Earl (Richard Brooks), but it’s that contrast that takes you off guard and makes things more intriguing. And as for Eric, does he hold his own with the others who’ve played the role? Mabius he does, Mabius he doesn’t, you’ll just have to watch and see. He definitely knocks Vincent Perez out of the park, that silly Frenchman. Real talk though, no one will ever dethrone Brandon Lee, not even whatever piss-ant they get for the remake that’s been hovering on the fringes of preproduction for the last half decade. On top of it all we also get Kirsten Dunst, of all people, as a sympathetic attorney who works alongside Mabius to clear his name, as he clears the streets of no-good crooked cops. So there you have it. If you ever find yourself meandering around the kiosks in blockbuster, and see the Crow films lined up on the shelves like emo ducks in a row, the first film will naturally already be rented out. Where then to turn? You can certainly do worse than this one. 

-Nate Hill

Shanghai Noon: A Review by Nate Hill 

I forgot how much goddamn fun Shanghai Noon is. It’s pretty much the quintessential east meets west buddy flick (sorry Rush Hour, love you too bbz), and upon rewatching it I realized that it’s every bit as awesome, and more so, than I remember as a kid. You take Jackie Chan, a stoic, robotic Chinese fighting machine with the sense of humour god gave a sock, and pair him with Owen Wilson, a wishy washy surfer dude of a cowboy who can’t take one second out of the day to stop talking or cracking jokes, and you’ve got gold. Of course, they need a film to run about in that’s just as solid as they’re team up, and that’s just what we get. This is a bawdy, unapologetic roll in the hay, a genre bender that tosses the American western, the buddy cop flick and the Kung Fu picture into a big cauldron, fires a few bullets in and gives it a big old stir. It’s ridiculously fun for its entire duration, an achievement which the sequel just couldn’t keep up with. Chan is Chon Wang (say it fast), a Chinese imperial guard on the trail of runaway Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu), who has runoff to America.  No sooner does he set foot on Yankee soil, he’s bumped into peace pipe smoking Natives, and clashed with a band of train robbers led by Roy O Bannon (Owen Wilson), a fast talking soldier of fortune who doesn’t seem to have much skill besides yapping his way out of a situation. The two are thrown into a mad dash across then west, Chon looking for the princess, and Roy after the missing gold from the train. It’s what movies were made to be, a pure rush of gunfighting and chop socky, kick ass action sequences, all given the boost of Chan’s insane talents. He’s like a rabid squirrel monkey, and Wilson a drunk sloth, constantly mismatched yet always coming out on top, like the best comic duos always do. They’re faced with taking dpwn a few baddies, including Walton Goggins as the dumbest outlaw this side of the Rockies, and a terrifying Xander Berkeley as a corrupt, homicidal marshal.  The core of it rests on Chan and Wilson to entertain us though, and even in the down time between action, their energy is infectious, especially in a manic drinking game that just can’t be described in writing. Like I said, the sequel, Shanghai Knights, just doesn’t capture he magic quite like this one does, and seems to fall flat. You can’t go wrong with this original outing though, and it just gets better with age. 

Quentin Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT – A Review by Frank Mengarelli

Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, came out at a hostile time in contemporary America. Tarantino joined marching protests against police violence; then the overly sensitive millennial online “journalists” chastised the film, and Tarantino, for painting shades of misogyny and racism. Tarantino was unfairly attacked by the extreme wings of each political party. Had no one paid attention to Tarantino films prior? Of course racism and misogyny plays a vital part in this film, because not only did those elements exist in the post-Civil War 1800’s, but also exist in reality.

Hateful Madsen

This film is a cataclysm of Tarantino’s self-indulgence. He constantly references his prior works (mainly RESERVOIR DOGS) while homaging Sergio Leone, Billy Wilder, and John Carpenter. His limited casting is formed of new Tarantino players: Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, and Bruce Dern who Tarantino has worked with twice prior; as well as his seminal ensemble made up of Samuel L. Jackson, Zoe Bell, James Parks, Tim Roth, and Michael Madsen. Joining the Tarantino crew for the first time is Jennifer Jason Leigh, Demian Bichir, and Channing Tatum.

For as visionary as Robert Richardson’s cinematography is and Ennio Morricone’s Academy Award winning hypnotic score, the greatness of this film lies within one of Tarantino’s best screenplays and one of the best acting ensembles since GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. Tarantino is one of the most talented actor’s directors who has ever sat behind the camera. He carefully crafts each character with an actor in mind, playing on their strengths and bringing out untapped potential from even the most veteran actor he’s working with. The cast is absolutely brilliant.

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Kurt Russell does the best John Wayne impression ever as the hard barked simpleton whose stupidity is even more outrageous than his facial hair. Russell is always a joy to watch, and Tarantino’s use of him are highlights in an already legendary career. Samuel L. Jackson is one of the best linguists to ever grace the screen. Tarantino’s dialogue has never sounded better than coming out of Jackson’s mouth (aside from Harvey Keitel). Tim Roth gives one of his best performances delivering an English shtick of Mr. Orange from RESERVOIR DOGS. Perhaps the most surprisingly great performance in this film is that of Michael Madsen playing a caricature of himself. I can’t say anything more about Jennifer Jason Leigh that hasn’t already been said. She should have won the Oscar.

Tarantino outdoes himself with THE HATEFUL EIGHT; the script is outrageously funny, giving these talented actors so much to play with. Only Quentin Tarantino would be able to craft an epic western built upon heightened paranoia that is three hours long, set inside a tiny cabin that is filled with eight larger than life characters, filmed with a wide angle lens that is constantly on the move. Tarantino has reached Terrence Malick status by making films for himself, not for an audience, or a demographic, and that’s what he has excelled since GRINDHOUSE. No one loves movies more than Quentin Tarantino. Oh, and about that overt racism in this film, did those people not stay until the end?

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