Monday, October 31, 2016

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Director: Robert Rodriguez                              Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Film Score: Graeme Revell                              Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro
Starring: George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis

Guns, lawlessness, sociopaths, misogynists, and murder? No, it’s not a Trump rally, it’s a Quentin Tarantino film. Throw in some vampires and George Clooney and it’s a little different, but not much. As an artistic piece of cinema, From Dusk Till Dawn really is a bad film. When looked at as purely entertainment, however, it’s much more enjoyable. After appearing in a small role in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino wanted to do something more substantial in terms of acting, but didn’t really want to direct himself again so he wrote the film and handed it over to his protégé Robert Rodriguez. Ultimately the film is a story of two screenplays. The first half is a traditional Tarantino blood bath with two sociopathic brothers on a killing spree while making a run for the Mexican border. The second is a traditional vampire siege story. The idea is similar to what Tarantino did with his first real screenplay early in his career, though in that case he literally split it into two and sold it to make two separate films, True Romance and Natural Born Killers. The addition of the vampires in this film plays more into Rodriguez’s wheelhouse, though the end results are less than stunning. Still, the over the top nature of the entire story is the whole point of the thing and, if that’s something you enjoy as a viewer, then you’ll certainly enjoy this.

The film opens in a Southern Texas liquor store with lawman Michael Parks talking to clerk John Hawkes about two brothers on the run, figuring they’ll come through his territory on their way to the border. When Parks goes to the restroom, George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino emerge with guns and hostages, two teenage girls who happened to be in the store. The squirrely Tarantino starts shooting when Parks comes back, the girls escape, and the entire store goes up in flames. The two head to a hotel to wait until dark to cross the border, with a hostage from a bank robbery still in their trunk. But when Clooney goes to check things out at the crossing, convicted sex offender Tarantino kills Brenda Hillhouse and the two must look for a new hideout. Clooney has arranged for a safe house in Mexico in exchange for thirty percent of their bank heist money, but first they need to get there. Unfortunately for ex-minister Harvey Keitel and his two kids, Juliette Lewis and Ernest Liu, Clooney thinks their motorhome might be just the ticket. Keitel has lost his wife in a traffic accident, and lost his faith in God along with her. Meanwhile Tarantino, who has become obsessed with Lewis, almost gets them caught at the border, but they finally make it to the rendezvous, a strip club out in the middle of the Mexican nowhere. It’s there that exotic dancer Salma Hayek turns into a vampire and all hell breaks loose.

George Clooney does a great job because, well . . . he’s Clooney. The same humorous self-assurance that he braught to all his comedic performances from the last twenty years is evident even then. And Quentin Tarantino, as an actor, acquits himself nicely. It’s probably a better performance than the one in Pulp Fiction. But the story itself is sort of a snoozer. Nothing really intricate happens, with perhaps the exception of Cheech Marin appearing as three separate characters. Everything else is fairly straightforward. And Harvey Keitel’s role could have been played by anybody. The last half of the film, with the whole principal cast trapped by the vampires, is surprisingly dull. There’s just too much gore and too much artifice to really generate anything like suspense, which means at that point the killing of the monsters becomes little more than horror comedy. Even the deaths of the principals are uneventful. Both Rodriguez and Tarantino said they were trying for something like Stephen King, where the identification with the protagonists early on hooks the audience when they battle with the supernatural. But that doesn’t work here because none of them are very likable in the first place. Rodriguez, at least at that point in his career, was no Tarantino. Still, From Dusk Till Dawn is fascinating to watch. Not exactly Ed Wood fascinating, but close enough.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Falls: Covenant of Grace (2016)

Director: Jon Garcia                                        Writers: Jon Garcia & Rodney Moore
Film Score: Jon Garcia                                    Cinematography: Seth Wheldon
Starring: Nick Ferrucci, Ben Farmer, Bruce Jennings and Curtis E. Jackson

The third entry in Jon Garcia’s Falls franchise is an important film, not so much cinematically but for the message it conveys. The Falls: Covenant of Grace, is a very different film from its predecessors and so it can’t really be judged on the same criteria as the first two films. The series began with The Falls, a carefully crafted love story of two Mormon missionaries who find themselves swept up in the experience of being honest about their sexuality for the first time. The second in the series, The Falls: Testament of Love, was a tour de force of filmmaking, with the two principals finding themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum and gradually working their way back to each other almost in spite of themselves. In both of those films the conflict that the protagonists face is central to the story, but in the third film Garcia goes beyond conflict to focus on what the ultimate outcome for the two characters will be. The conflict that comes from the church and family is really only token resistance as Nick Ferrucci and Ben Farmer attempt to sort through the important things in their individual lives and make their own choices in order to decide what their future lives will be like, either together or apart.

The film begins with some breathtaking aerial photograph of the evergreen forests of Oregon. Nick Ferrucci is out for a run, thinking about how the rejection of his Mormon faith in the last film has not been the answer he thought it would be. It is a year after he went down to Salt Lake City to save the man he loves, Benjamin Farmer, from a life of deception and now Farmer is coming up to Portland to reunite with him. In a really wonderful sequence, Garcia has Ferrucci picking up Farmer from the airport and taking him to his house, and the awkwardness of their reunion is palpable. But this is something they acknowledge and ameliorate with shots of liquor. The two have clearly been dancing around the issue of whether or not to be together long term for a while, and Garcia’s comedic sensibilities are still spot on when the two are out looking at the lights of the city later, and Farmer says he thinks he could do the Northwest thing. Ferrucci says he already is, and when Farmer asks him how, he responds by saying, “You’re hanging out with gay, bearded men and drinking beer.” Later Farmer meets Ferrucci’s friends, including gay masseuse Curtis E. Jackson, and the inklings of jealousy from Farmer appear, but it’s to Farmer’s credit that he doesn’t let it go any further. The two have an unfortunate argument the day before Farmer leaves, and essentially he goes back to Utah with things still as unsettled as before.

Later, when Ferrucci sees online that Farmer’s mother has died, he goes down to see Farmer after the funeral accompanied by his father, Harold Phillips. The two are at first accosted by Farmer’s father, Bruce Jennings, who then inexplicably invites them to an impromptu dinner with Farmer’s disapproving brother, Andrew Bray. The conversation at dinner is able to demonstrate to Jennings that there is something between the two that has been beyond his understanding, as it’s also the first time the two declare their love for each other. Farmer, who has a small daughter with his former wife, is applying to law school in Utah, and the conversation between he and Ferrucci about their future together becomes the central theme of the film. Because of that the resolution to their dilemma is purposely left cryptic, as though for either of them to say definitively what he wants will force the other into saying no. So Ferrucci goes back home with things still in the air. When Curtis Jackson has a crisis in his life Ferrucci comforts him, and the happy resolution Garcia comes up with continues as a theme throughout the rest of the film, from the about face in Jennings’ character, the return of Farmer to Portland and the eventual happy ending for everyone, to the coda in which the director harkens back to the first film. But then this is the point of the whole film.

Rather than continuing to explore the roadblocks to happiness for gay Mormons, a reminder of the harsh reality they go through daily, Garcia decides to present a vision of possibility for his audience. It’s the kind of promise for the future that the director has always gravitated toward in his endings, but here he puts it front and center for the entire film. And the emphasis on the audience is an important part of understanding the film, because the trajectory of the three films has been moving increasingly toward a gay, rather than a general, audience. This film has many more sex scenes than the first two, as well as an immersion in gay lifestyle rather than the straight universe of the previous films. There is also plenty of Garcia's talent on display. As stated earlier, the director’s sense of humor is wonderful. In the dinner scene, for instance, he makes a terrific Northwest in-joke when Jennings wonders out loud how the two are going to make their relationship work with Ferrucci living in Seattle. Then, when Ferrucci tells him that he lives in Portland now, Jennings says it’s the same thing. The line drew howls of laughter from the Seattle audience at the film’s premiere. There’s also a nice moment after the opening, when Farmer calls Ferrucci to video chat before coming to Seattle the next day. After the conversation is over Ferrucci tosses his phone on the bed, assuming that Farmer has hung up, and criticizes himself out loud for not saying “I love you.” Then Garcia cuts to the phone, with Farmer still listening and a quizzical look on his face. The humor is a crucial element to the story that balances the intensity of the drama.

The aerial photography of the Oregon woods and the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City is really quite arresting, and though it doesn’t seem possible the cinematography throughout is even more intimate that Garcia usually achieves with his emphasis on close ups. If there’s a negative aspect to the film, it’s the way Garcia attempts to touch on all kinds of issues without really giving them any significant screen time. Gay marriage, interracial gay relationships, and gay promiscuity are all mentioned but never explored in any substantive way. To be fair, though, those kinds of challenges were never intended to be the central focus of the screenplay. In terms of acting Ben Farmer does his usual stalwart job, but the real surprise of the film is the incredible performance of Nick Ferrucci. His progress as a film actor has been remarkable in the three years since Testament of Love. Another notable performance is by Curtis E. Jackson, who flirts with stereotypical gay behavior throughout the film but never steps over the line, and manages to give an impressively genuine performance in the process. Also worthy of note is actress Rebecca Karpovsky in the role of Ferrucci’s lesbian friend. She adds another layer of texture to the film that the viewer didn’t even know was missing, but in retrospect is absolutely essential. With The Falls: Covenant of Grace coming three years after his last film, it’s good to see Garcia getting back to making the thoughtful and finely crafted films that he has been known for in the past.