Wednesday, July 23, 2014

SMOAT Double-Features #3!!! (Machete Kills/Monsters)

For this week's double-feature we jump forward from the era of my birth to the (approximate) present day, with 2013's Machete Kills and 2010's Monsters. Technically neither of them is a Summer Movie, since both were released in October, but they both have the feel of classic dog-days drive-ins to them, grindhouse and creature features and whatnot. Go ahead and Google "summer blockbuster is dead" for further evidence as to whether or not release date means all that much anymore. (Spoiler: it doesn't. Also, spoilers ahead!)

Machete Kills is of course the sequel to Robert Rodriguez's Machete, which was a flick I watched as part of last year's SMOAT, an experience which made my end-of-year superlatives list and which had me very eager for the continuation. Unfortunately, I must admit that Machete Kills was somewhat disappointing as a follow-up. In and of itself, on its own (dubious) merits, I probably would have liked it a bit more. But it definitely suffers in comparison to the original.

Machete is a fairly ridiculous movie, and Machete Kills is an egregiously ridiculous movie. Both feature copious amounts of bloodletting but somehow Machete manages to maintain a tenuous connection to reality, which makes the enhanced hyperviolence pop in spite of how unreal (or surreal) it all is. Machete Kills abandons anything remotely associated with realism, leaving behind the grit of cop-on-a-vengeance-trip thrillers referenced in the first movie and jumping headfirst into borrowing tropes at will from super-spy and science fiction traditions. Master-of-disguise characters literally portrayed by multiple actors (and an actress), clone characters, psychic characters, and futuristic technology galore all piling up on-screen to create an utter fantasy world where the violence feels somehow less visceral, more Looney Tunes. Lest I be accused of being a cranky scold, I will say I get it - Rodriguez is having fun, making a big-budget movie as if he were a kid playing make-believe in the backyard, doing Star Wars pastiche simply because it's a blast. And there's an arguably humorous meta-joke inherent in taking the scowling no-guff-taking character of Machete and putting him through the paces of a story that gets more and more impossible and insane as it goes along. I grok all of that, I really do. But, again, Machete kept itself under control and its intermittent bursts of madness were exhilarating. Machete Kills is like watching a ten-year-old totally spaz out: amusing here and there, but very wearying after a while.

If there is ever a third Machete movie, will I spare a couple of commuting hours to see it? Most def. "Not as good as the original" isn't the same as "bad", and my obsessive completism makes me more tolerant than most of diminishing returns. Besides, with my expectations appropriately adjusted, I might enjoy Machete Kills Again ... In Space that much more.

I will say this about one stellar turn in Machete Kills: the stunt casting of Charlie Sheen (aka Carlos Estevez) as President Rathcock pays off big time. I'm about as sick as anyone at this point of Sheen's antics and attitude towards fame, his industry, and the world he considers himself so exalted above. BUT. In the initial scene in which Machete meets the President, Charlie kills it. And "it" is a dead-on perfect impression of his father, Martin Sheen, specifically as he embodied President Jed Bartlett on the West Wing. The Sorkinesque cadence, the world-weary gravel in his elder statesman throat, everything, so on-point I wanted to stand up and applaud. I never would have guessed there would be a big overlap between Machete franchise fans and a network political drama that was in its heyday over a decade ago, but I learn something new every day. If Rodriguez just went for the homage because, like everything else in the flick, it simply amused him to do so, then this is one example of the tendency I can totally get behind.

Moving on ... Monsters was recommended to me by an old college buddy of mine, whom I saw in New York a couple months ago, meeting up for beers after my wife and I caught the Hedwig show. We talked a little bit about this summer's Godzilla reboot, which my friend found disappointing, mainly because he had expected so much more out of Gareth Edwards based on Monsters. I admitted that while Monsters looked/sounded interesting, I hadn't seen it yet. My friend urged me to catch up with it soon, and so I did.

And I agree that Monsters is a charming, fascinating movie, one that straddles the line between sci-fi special effects and human drama, coming down far more frequently on the latter side (as you might expect from a no-budget indie film). The titular extraterrestrials are extremely interesting, visually, but Edwards wisely shows very little of them early on, doling out more and more clear shots until the biggest reveals in the final moments of the film. Mostly the aliens are simply part of the backdrop, shading around the edges of a story about what regular people do when their backs are against the wall, and how they come to realize what is most important to them.

The story is set mostly in Mexico, which is not an accident at all, and the movie aims to raise a certain awareness in the audience about issues associated with immigration, the policies enacted to control it and the real fallout and consequences of those programs. Anyone hoping for a straightforward us-against-the-xenotypes shoot-em-up is bound to come away disappointed. In fact, I'd posit that the strangely beautiful ending sequence is intended to challenge the very desire to see such stories play out at all. So it's an impressively sharp-looking movie for being shot on a wing and a prayer, and thought-provoking to boot, which is no small feat. Clearly, though, those virtues are the exact opposite of what big-studio producers would want to wring out of a brand spanking new Godzilla flick, so it's little surprise that very little of Edwards' special, deft touches made it into the most recent would be King of the Monster Movies. I'm honestly not sure how my friend could have expected it to be otherwise.

COMING ATTRACTIONS: Next week, more 21st-century sci-fi!


  1. "Machete Kills" worked for me, though even as I was enjoying it tremendously, I could see why my opinion is not widely shared.

    MK is a James Bond film interpolated through American grindhouse sensibilities - seriously, even the credits - and holy shit is it hilarious. The last twenty minutes are a giant riff on "Moonraker," for crying out loud. MK may be the first movie in history to even imply a comparison between Danny Trejo and Roger Moore. (DON'T MAKE ME CHOOSE, I LOVE THEM BOTH SO MUCH)

    The episodic structure kept it from being too involving, but the underlying quest of Machete gave it enough coherence that it didn't get downright boring. The whole thing felt like Rodriguez decided to screw around, and he could get all sorts of name actors to participate because (a) filming for everyone but Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, and Amber Heard probably took about three days each, and (b) the actors were encouraged to screw around and have fun with it.

    All that said, its weird, basically improvised shape makes it such a strange bird that if the loopiness doesn't work for you fully, there's not much else for it to win you over.

    I file it under "I love it, but I don't expect anyone else to." We all have a few of those.

    1. Yep. As always, I'm speaking from an extremely subjective stance, and intentionally so, and if what didn't really push my buttons did push yours, that's cool.

      I'm very, very shallow on James Bond, but now you've got me thinking I gotta make time for my first-ever viewing of Moonraker one of these days ...