Saturday, April 21, 2007

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Hoax

Movie name: The Hoax
Year of release: 2006
Director: Lasse Hallstrom
Stars: Richard Gere, Alfred Molina, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Julie Delpy, Stanley Tucci, Eli Wallach, John Carter, Christopher Evan Welch, Zeljko Ivanek
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7

Lasse Hallstrom finally manages to shake off the mantle of the “prestige” film and creates a gripping, challenging and ultimately rewarding film with “The Hoax”, anchored on two great performances from Richard Gere and Alfred Molina.

Lasse Hallstrom is a filmmaker that has had a long career in Hollywood, one that has been connected with Miramax and so called “pretigious/art” films, that ultimately and invariably have failed to deliver results that live up to the expectations. Having started his American career with the interesting “Once Around” which was followed by the quirky and still his best film to date, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”, his career has been prolific, but rarely consistent in the delivery of truly memorable films. You can check this in the list of films that he has directed in the last couple of years, namely “Something to Talk About”, “Chocolat”, “The Shipping News”, “An Unfinished Life” and “Casanova”. The only exception to the list may be the interesting “The Cider House Rules” which boasted a great cast (as it is usual in his films), and a terrific screenplay based on the John Irving book.
“The Hoax” happily joins the ranks of his good films, boasting as usual a terrific cast and a screenplay that is extremely well written (based on the autobiography of Clifford Irving).
The film introduces us to Clifford Irving, a writer, in the process of selling his new book, something that goes wrong once early reviews come up and destroy all his chances of doing so. Desperate to find a new project, Clifford comes up with the idea of writing an autobiography on reclusive and eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes. He gets the help of fellow author and researcher Dick Susskind, and sets out to sell his pitch to McGraw-Hill. Once the first suspicions emerge (via an agreement with Life Magazine), Clifford manages to keep up his elaborate charade by sending Dick on an elaborate trip to create the sense of plausibility (which is helped by fake letters that he writes). Eventually Clifford manages to sell the book for 1 million dollars, whose check is issued in the name of Howard Hughes, therefore impossible for him to withdraw. At this point Edith Irving, his wife intervenes, creating a solution for the situation, one that requires fake passports and a Swiss bank account. The whole charade is eventually blown up when Howard Hughes comes forth, denying any involvement in the autobiography.
If the story almost looks surreal, watching the film is totally engrossing – Richard Gere perfectly captures the seedy allure and enthusiasm that Clifford Irving had. It was above all his capability of manipulating people that sold the pitch, the story, that Howard Hughes was actually choosing him to write his autobiography (as it is mentioned in the film, he was a minor author). Lasse Hallstrom intelligently creates (with the aid of his usual collaborator, cinematographer Oliver Stapleton) a sense of the reality of the 70’s, of the discomfort with Nixon’s policies, and the way how faking and even taking official documents from the Pentagon(!) were so uncomplicated. The screenplay unravels with delight and precision, watching the web of lies that Clifford creates, lies in which he progressively becomes more and more tangled in, something that the audience realizes there is no way out for him.
Hallstrom manages to show a depth to Clifford Irving beyond the trickster and charlatan, something that is displayed in the way that Irving impersonates Howard Hughes and answers his own questions. Irving is a lost man, desperately reaching for something that reality keeps denying him.
The cast of the film really excels in their compositions, starting with Richard Gere. With the aid of a fake nose, Gere imbues the character with a charm but also vulnerability that makes Clifford Irving more sympathetic and not just a “slimeball” (as the real Clifford Irving was quoted when he saw the film). Alfred Molina and his Dick Susskind end up stealing the movie whenever he shows up – his are the fears, insecurities of an every day man. His ambitions are moderate and with his twitches, sweats and awkward reactions, he is the embodiment of someone who just got on a game way beyond their capabilities. Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden are terrific as usual and Julie Delpy and Stanley Tucci deliver reliable performances as is expected from them.
“The Hoax” proves to be a good surprise, in the sense that is a film that is simultaneously entertaining, challenging and ultimately rewarding for the viewer.


Movie name: Grindhouse
Year of release: 2007
Director: Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Marley Shelton, Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey, Naveen Andrews, Josh Brolin, Nicky Katt, Michael Parks, Bruce Willis, Stacy Ferguson, Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Jordan Ladd, Vanessa Ferlito, Eli Roth, Quentin Tarantino
Genre: Action/Horror/Sci-Fi
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8

“Grindhouse” is all you could expect from the minds of filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, in their homage to the exploitation and low budget films of the 70’s and 80’s. It’s fun, daring, over the top and unlike anything you’ll see anytime soon.

By now everyone has read that “Grindhouse” is not exactly corresponding to everyone’s expectations in terms of box-office receipts, particularly The Weinstein’s who financed this double feature (to a reported budget of 50 million dollars or even more, according to different sources). It has also been reported that there are plans of re-releasing the films separately, since there is enough footage that was shot in order to do so (the original plan was to release the extended versions on DVD). One of the problems that has been hinted is the fact that this double feature runs over 3 hours, and the audience doesn’t realize that after the first segment, “Planet Terror” and the “bogus” trailers, the film “Death Proof” follows. Ultimately this is a double feature that totally corresponds to what the filmmakers intended and set out to do – recreate the low budget films of the 70’s (and to some extent, 80’s), that where exhibited in drive-ins, with low quality projection and sometimes even missing sections of the film (the missing reels).
Grindhouse starts and intertwines both main films with “bogus” trailers, directed by the likes of Edgar Wright and Eli Roth, and for those alone it’s worth going and checking out the film. However the main attractions here are “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof”. “Planet Terror” from Robert Rodriguez starts fast, introducing us to an underground transaction in a military facility that goes wrong and where a strange gas is released producing disturbing results on those who inhale it. We are then introduced to the character of Cherry, a go-go dancer who wants to have a career change and whom we later know plans to become a stand up comedian. We also start following the life of Dr. Dakota Block, whom we understand is meeting with her lover and abandoning her Dr husband, William Brock. The lives of these characters and of Wray, Cherry’s former lover (and for whom she still has feelings) end up crossing, mostly because the gas that was released to the atmosphere earlier on has transformed the city’s inhabitants into flesh eating zombies. In the process of running away the group suffers some losses, namely Cherry’s leg that ends up being replaced by a machine gun. The group manages to find a way to escape, not without the sacrifice of Wray, whom due to a night of passion with Cherry is to become the father of her unborn child. Ultimately the group finds a safe haven in an area that they manage to keep zombie safe.
“Death Proof” on the other hand introduces us to a group of four girls who are meeting for a couple of drinks in a bar. These four friends are approached by Stuntman Mike, an iconic and seductive man who is ultimately a serial killer, that uses his car, “Death Proof” to kill unprotected women. Stuntman Mike manages to kill the four girls and starts checking another group to prey on. However his attack on the latter group turns out sour, when the girls quickly recover and come in his pursuit.
This very resumed view of the film doesn’t make justice to all the gross out moments, frights, sheer laughs and adrenaline rush that populate both films. “Planet Terror” is a typical Robert Rodriguez film, with all that comes attached. As always a multi-tasker (he’s responsible for the music, photography, editing, screenplay, production and direction), Rodriguez aims to create a spectacle where the focus is the non-stop action and gross out humor that derive from the situations (Naveen Andrews’ character and the jar filled with testicles?). There isn’t much to know about the characters, they are simply introduced to give the audience something to howl and have a few laughs about. In a way, this ends up being faithful to the spirit of the films that Grindhouse aims to emulate. It’s fun, non-stop and ultimately there are scenes iconic enough to stay in your mind for some time (namely Rose McGowan’s Cherry). All the actors fill their parts with gusto and irreverence, from McGowan, to Freddy Rodriguez, Marley Shelton and Aliens vet Michael Biehn (just to name a few). “Death Proof” however subverts and draws new cards in the concept. Quentin Tarantino (also lensing, producing, writing and directing) not only pays an homage to the B-pictures, but he also imbues it with a character development and a depth that isn’t usual in those films. He introduces the audience to two groups of women, and he allows the actresses to really flesh them out – we are drawn into these women’s universes. Curiously Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike oozes a menacing charm (much like Snake Plissken, his character in the John Carpenter films, Escape from New York and Escape from LA), but he ends up being the character we don’t really follow that much. He’s a catalyst for all the action, but as always in a Quentin Tarantino film, the whole adds more than just the highlight. “Death Proof” also has one of the best and gutsiest car chases recently filmed – and what is even better, all without any computers. It’s a typically Tarantino film, where the action and the sudden outbursts of violence occur within a structure that is far more complex than it may appear. It’s a rewarding view, and it allows actors like Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Sydney Tamiia Poitier and Kurt Russell to really give memorable performances.
A special highlight should also be given to the “fake” trailers that introduce and divide the presentation of each film. All of them end up being so over-the-top (Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu) and so hysterically funny, that they alone should be given the right of their own film (Werewolf Women of the SS anyone?).
Grindhouse is ultimately a film that entertains, amuses and thrills the audience. It demands repeat viewings for better savoring!