"Throwdown"—Head to Head Film Reviews

Mike’s and Lisa’s Throw-Down Review: Hobo with a Shotgun

Lisa

How big a movie geek am I? Well, here’s a hint. More years ago than I care to admit, I flew to Jackson, Mississippi to visit an actor I was dating at the time who was starring in a horror movie shooting there. One night we headed over to the local movieplex, where we were the only two people for the evening show of a re-release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. After the movie, the theatre manager recognized my boyfriend and invited us up into the theatre attic—which was stuffed with 30 years of movie memorabilia. He told us we could take whatever we wanted. Well, this theatre had apparently never shown a first-run film, and that was fine with me. I walked out with a stack of stuff that included a Battle Beyond the Stars poster, Rock and Roll High School lobby cards, and Death Race 2000 stills.

Yeah, I’m a pretty big movie geek.

So I totally dug Hobo with a Shotgun.

I have no idea if someone who wasn’t intimately acquainted with 1970s and ’80s exploitation cinema would get this movie or not, but the geeks like me are in for a whopping good wallow. Hobo with a Shotgun takes a lot of the basic themes and aesthetics of the true grindhouse cinema, and ramps everything up a little. The colours are brighter, the gore is more insane, the music is louder, the plot is dumber, and stuck in the middle of all of it is an honest-to-God movie star, delivering a performance entirely too good for a movie this gleefully dumb. It may have been more than a quarter of a century since Rutger Hauer became a star for playing Roy Batty in Blade Runner, and sure, Rutger’s aged a little . . . but his talent and charisma certainly haven’t. He’s still magnificent.

Did I mention “gleefully dumb”? Well, here’s the plot:...

Mike and Lisa's Throwdown Review: Zombieland

Lisa

Once upon a time, the American alternative cinema bristled with life and energy; the movies were fast and a little subversive, and somehow all had a sort of West Coast mentality. It probably all started in 1965 with a movie in which even the title for cryin’ out loud promised more speed, more sex, and more violence: Russ Meyer’s seminal Faster, Pussycat, Kill Kill. Meyer’s story of three stacked babes on a path of vengeance took them from the Sunset Strip to the vast wastelands of the Mojave Desert, and spewed so many great lines along the way that it spawned an entire cottage industry of rock bands and graphic novels.

In the ‘70s this fine tradition continued, with the ultratalented Jack Hill amping up the blaxpoitation genre and making a star of Pam Grier in the process, while over at Roger Corman’s company directors like Paul Bartel and Allan Arkush made infectious low-budget classics like Death Race 2000 and Rock and Roll High School.

Unfortunately, the heyday of the high-octane microbudgeters died out shortly thereafter, replaced by the increasingly dirgeful cycle of slashers in the ‘80s and direct-to-video/cable cheapies in the ‘90s and after. As the low-budget alt-thrillers gave way to formulaic, CGI-driven monster flicks, there was a brief spark of possibility in the work of directors like Quentin Tarantino, who grew up admiring these West Coast funfests and regurgitated them in new forms.

My problem with the work of Q.T. has always been that those forms simply aren’t new enough. If you’ve seen the original source material, the rehash can look pale by comparison. Kill Bill’s martial arts, for example, will simply never stack up to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, no...

Mike and Lisa's Throwdown Review: The Watchmen

Lisa

Watchmen (the movie) starts with a logo sequence done in stark yellow and black, mirroring the bloodied smiley face button that's become as iconic as the scrawled letter "A" in a circle. But there's another pop culture artifact that's also yellow and black, and that could be equally applied to director Zack Snyder's adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' seminal graphic novel:

Cliffs Notes.

Yeah, those little bumblebee-colored booklets that condense great works of literature down into a few cram-worthy pages, offering up little beyond plot reductions for students too apathetic or braindead to actually read the full books.

Watching Watchmen is a strange and frequently frustrating experience, like being condemned to Cliffs Notes when you wanted to read a great book. Snyder and his screenwriters have done one smart thing with their film: They've acknowledged that Alan Moore is a better, smarter writer than any of them, and so they've stuck closely to his original Watchmen (this is, in fact, the most faithful of any of the Alan Moore adaptations, which have varied from the nearly-unrecognizable From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to the half-and-half realm of V for Vendetta). A whopping 95% of Watchmen's dialogue is taken right out of the comic; no new characters have been added, no major plot points completely changed. Yes, the ending has been altered, but they've managed to use chunks of Moore's script in explaining the new ending, and it works.

What doesn't work is the same thing that's missing from Cliff's Notes: The style. The emotion. And the very point of the thing.

Because Alan Moore's Watchmen was a deconstruction of the superhero myth...

Mike and Lisa's Throwdown Review: Mother of Tears

Lisa

In a brilliant 2006 review of The Departed, film scholar David Bordwell used average shot length (ASL) to demonstrate how Scorsese's style has changed over the years, moving from an ASL of 7.7 seconds on Mean Streets to 2.7 seconds on The Departed; Bordwell used the word "succumbed" to describe how Scorsese has gone from New York maverick to Hollywood insider.

Well, we don't need an ASL to chart the downfall of Dario Argento on display in Mother of Tears; just a basic working knowledge of Argento's body of work will do nicely.

Mother of Tears isn't a completely terrible movie; in fact, it's still better than 98% of what comes out of Hollywood bearing the "horror" label these days. But this is Argento, damn it; this is the mad genius who recreated the Italian giallo in his own image and turned world horror cinema completely upside-down with his 1977 release Suspiria. We expect more from Argento; even when he fails, as with his Phantom of the Opera, he fails spectacularly. When he doesn't fail, he's liable to produce a classic, like Deep Red or Tenebrae.

Mother of Tears is unfortunately neither a magnificent mistake nor a gem; it feels more like someone else trying to ape Argento's style than the work of the maestro himself. it includes a number of Argento's trademarks, including the visual obsession with wide framing shots of architecture, trips to bookstores and art museums, and of course the casting of his daughter Asia, but in many other regards it feels less like a progression or celebration of Argento's themes, and more like a betrayal.

Although some of Argento's giallos have been fairly tightly plotted, story has never been the foremost...

Gemma and Mike's Throwdown Review: Dagon

Gemma

As his many wistful fans know all too well, H. P. Lovecraft never has translated easily to the silver screen; because his work regularly deals in the unspeakable, the unnameable, the unimaginable—the Shadow of the Thing from the Pit Beyond the Stars of Eldritch Doom, whose Merest Toe is Enough to Drive Men Mad on Contact—your average filmmaker is apt to find it well-nigh impossible to reduce even the tip of ol' Howard Phillips's existential cosmic iceberg into a managablely celluloid-sized visual image. As a result, they either overshoot gloriously, as with Dan O'Bannon's grue-soaked revisionist retelling of "The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward" in The Resurrected, or undershoot risibly, as with The Dunwich Horror's vision of the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young as briskly-shaken hank of psychadelic yarn: Groovy, baby! It's Cthulhu in a miniskirt!

Thus far, the people who've come closest to getting it...rightest, I guess...are Japanese director Hideo Nakata (the doom-laden central figure of whose modern masterpiece Ringu could more than give Wilbur Whately a run for his money in the halfbreed Old One stakes) and American director Stuart Gordon (whoseRe-Animator, though just as parodic and demented as their source material, remains riotously true to Lovecraft's central mad-scientist-as-black-magician-with-less-innate-professional-integrity paradigm). Which is why Gordon's long-awaited triumphant return to this regrettably fallow field really shouldn't surprise me much except in a pleasant way, especially since the result, Dagon, is such a cool and squid-slick little box of nasty treats. It's a version of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", his classic New England gill-men novella, which will also inevitably set...

Mike and Lisa's Throwdown Review: Inland Empire

Lisa

David Lynch's Inland Empire is one of the most brilliant examples of film-as-surrealist art to hit movie screens since the glory days of Bunuel and Godard . . .

or . . . .

It's three hours of fragmented, self-indulgent drivel.

Few films are guaranteed to divide critics like a new Lynch work, and Inland Empire in particular seems to have left our arbiters of cinematic taste no breathing room.

Just in case you hadn't already guessed what side I'm going to come down on, Inland Empire also demonstrates—more than any other film of recent memory—that our 21st century critics don't have the foggiest clue.

I can remember a time when popular film critics wrote intelligently, before they existed only to outdo each other in hyperbole, all vying to see their names at the top of the stack of blurbs on the newspaper ads for the newest flicks. Nowadays film reviewing seems determined to keep up quality-wise with the mediocre releases (which, of course, somehow all manage to be "stunning", "dazzling" or "a new standard"). It's not hard to figure that a critic like the New York Post's Lou Lumenick, who gives high marks to King Kong and The Da Vinci Code, is going to do nothing but offer cheap puns ("He's Out to Lynch, Dern It!") in a review of Inland Empire.

Perhaps what we need with Inland Empire, then, is something that's not precisely a movie review.

Because Inland Empire isn't really a movie, at least not in the sense of what movies have come to mean in 21st century America. It doesn't just eschew explosions, macho posturing and illogical plotting; it also dispenses with linear narrative,...

Gemma and Mike's Throwdown Review: Signs

Gemma

Though M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense still ranks as a most unexpected blockbuster—the first horror-themed film to garner an Oscar nomination since The Silence Of The Lambs—no audience has been completely happy with any of his films thus far. Reflexive backlash against hype did for a certain portion of The Sixth Sense's consumers, while one form or another of sequelitis (the frustration over it not simply mimicking its predecessor's conventions exactly vs. the belief that it did, and therefore reduced itself to formula) did for Unbreakable's; to quote Kurt Vonnegut, so it goes.

Now comes Signs, which I think is pretty much perfect, for many of the same reasons that Michael's already outlined: Subtle acting, a build-up which seems inevitable in hindsight, creep and shocks which rely squarely on you, the viewer, to connect the dots. Yet this time, the backlash isn't even waiting a few weeks to set in, and instead of focusing on areas which actually bear examining—Shyamalan's grantedly hubristic tendency to cast himself in increasingly more central cameo roles, his occasionally unnecessary obsession with showy tricks of framing, his almost Mamet-ian tics of dialogue-as-duelling-monologues, etc.—it takes the film for the most unprovable of all sins: Involving stuff we, the critics, apparently didn't think it would.

What I find hard to understand—and this is speaking as an extremely secular person raised within the context of an extremely secular culture—is why the not-exactly-O.-Henry-like denoument of Signs is coming in for so little slack, just because it implies the dreaded G-O-D word at work. Especially since the one character really voicing that implication is Graham Hess, a man whose...

Mike and Lisa's Throwdown Review: I am Legend

Lisa

Once upon a time, American action films existed without explosions. Maybe they weren't truthfully even action films yet. Maybe they were actually Westerns or war pictures or spy thrillers.

Then, somewhere in the '80s, the movie landscape shifted, and "action" became its own genre, regardless of whether it also included other genre elements. Die Hard was no longer a cop movie, it was an action film; even James Bond films became action movies, with less emphasis on Bond's cunning and skill, and more focus on...

...explosions.

Which leads us to this latest version of I Am Legend.

Yeah, okay, Mike, I know that you think the first half is good, that it captures the novel's sense of quiet and desolation. Well, I'm going to argue you on that shortly, but for now let me just say this:

Any genuine feeling or pace the first half builds up is shattered by a final act that not only betrays the title of the film and the source material, but ends in some of the most egregious explosions ever employed by any action film.

Yep, I'm categorizing I Am Legend as an action film, not science fiction or horror. It has a few bits of science, which feel neither particularly real nor fantastic; and despite a few jolts, its primary concern doesn't seem to be to terrify its audience.

What we are presented with up front is a car chase, no more than 15 minutes into the film. Robert Neville (Will Smith) and his trusty canine sidekick Sam are in high-speed pursuit of a herd of deer through a deserted and overgrown cityscape. Neville drives like a madman, careening his muscle car around corners, through construction zones and past obstructions as if he's barreling after bad guys....

Mike and Lisa's Throwdown Review: Dawn of the Dead

Lisa

In 1978, I was a young film student (and yes, I know I’m dating myself here) when the original Dawn of the Dead opened. A T.A. whom I’d bonded with told me we simply had to go to the midnight show on opening night, that he’d heard this would be the goriest film ever made. I’d never seen Night of the Living Dead (remember, these were the days before VCRs and DVDs and cable television), and had only the barest idea of what it was about; but scoring points with your T.A. was never a bad idea, so I went.

And my life would never be the same.

Dawn of the Dead did more than just cause a few sleepless nights; like The Exorcist five years earlier, it changed my idea of what a horror film could be. Yes, it was (at the time, anyway) probably the biggest grossout fest ever made, but it was also satirical, smart, and wildly subversive, with its tale of a black man and white woman surviving consumerist society. When I found out more about its maker, the great Philadelphia maverick George A. Romero, it also changed my notions about how films in general could be made. Its distribution even dared flaunt Hollywood’s sacred ratings system, since its blood would have earned it an "X".

As you can probably guess, I’m not going to be a completely objective reviewer of the new Dawn of the Dead. I was prepared to write a terrible review of it. And is it terrible? Not totally. But is it going to change anyone’s life?

Nope. Not even close.

The new Dawn of the Dead is less a strict remake, and more a reworking of a few basic ideas from the original. Yes, it has retained the idea of cannibalistic (sort of—read on) zombies, and yes, it has a few human survivors holed up in an indoor shopping mall....

Mike and Lisa's Throwdown Review: Pan's Labyrinth

Lisa

A young girl in Spain escapes the nightmare of living under Franco's fascism by escaping into a fantasy world.

If that description evokes some sense of deja vu, it might be because not only is it a description of Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, but also of a 1973 film called Spirit of the Beehive, by Spanish director Victor Erice. While it's unlikely that del Toro committed any obvious lifting (Pan's and Spirit are really quite different in attitude and approach), the similarities do point to one of the central problems of del Toro's new film:

It seems to pick and choose bits from a variety of sources, but unfortunately the pieces simply don't all match. It's a jigsaw puzzle with a patch of blue down in the corner, where more grass should be.

Pan's Labyrinth begins in a forest, as young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) are being brought to rendezvous with Ofelia's stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), an officer in Franco's army who has been assigned to a remote mountain village to quell a rebellion brewing there. The caravan carrying Ofelia and Carmen stops at one point, and del Toro offers up the mountain hillside as enchanted woods, complete with golden shafts of light and the same drifting filigree that Ridley Scott used for his forest in Legend. Ofelia's mother chides her for bringing too many books, and it turns out Ofelia has a predilection for fairy tales. Perhaps that explains why Ofelia is barely startled when she encounters a huge, praying mantis-like insect perched on a crumbling, pagan sculpture.

This insect will become Ofelia's guide into the magical world that apparently surrounds the hamlet where Captain Vidal and his men...

Pages