SXSW offers first look at Predators

Writing for Hollywood Reporter’s Heat Vision department, Dan Carlson offers us a blog-y account of the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival’s preview of PREDATORS, in Austin, Texas. Carlson’s take is that the new sequeldirected by Nimrod Antal and produced by Robert Rodriguez, plays up the horror aspects while returning the franchise to its roots (i.e., while ignoring the PREDATORS VS. ALIENS movies).

The set-up is that several of Earth’s most notorious killers (which somehow includes Adrian Brody) are abducted and taken to a special planet that acts as a game preserve for Predators to run around and hunt people for sport. It’s a nice continuation of the first flick’s story that also ups the stakes, and the film won’t so much be a revamp of the character as a new direct sequel to the first movie, bypassing the deeply flawed “Predator 2.”


"Shorts" opens on August 21

Warner Brothers releases another fantasy-kid flick from the creator of SPY KIDS. The plot follows a boy who discovery of a rock that grants wishes, but things go wrong when local adults get hold of it. Can our young hero and his two new-found friends save the residents of Black Falls from themselves? The studio must be hoping that this colorful comic fantasy is not another SPEED RACER at the box office. Director: Robert Rodriguez. Stars: Jimmy Bennett, James Spader, Kat Dennings.

From Dusk Till Dawn: Salma Hayek dances to "After Dark"

Since this weekend is focused on the horror and fantasy films of Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, including the latter’s 1996 film FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (scripted by Quentin Tarantino), we thought we should share this video clip of Salma Hayek as the vampire queen Santanico Pandemonium, dancing to the uber-cool song “After Dark.” This memorable sequence is one of the highlights of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN; the hypnotic cadence, moody melody, intriguing lyrics from  Tito and Tarantula’s performance add immeasurably to the obviously stunning spectacle of Hayek’s snake dance. Too bad all this set up only leads to Hayek’s character being summarily dispatched in the movie!

Sense of Wonder: Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller – The Hard-Boiled Hitmen of Sin City

With the back-to-back home video releases of  THE SPIRIT and SIN CITY, now seems like an opportune moment to take a brief look at the cinefantastique of Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez. Although neither artist is a specialist in science fiction, fantasy, or horror films in quite the same way as someone like George Lucas, their work does impinge on the genre in interesting ways. Sometimes this is a matter of style (creating imaginary, graphic novel-inspired worlds in SIN CITY and 300); sometimes it is a matter of content (the overt sci-fi, fantasy, and/or horror elements of THE SPIRIT, ROBOCOP 2, the SPY KIDS movies, THE FACULTY, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, and GRINDHOUSE). Although both men display a vision most heavily imbued with action-packed machismo, they have, separately or together, had a big influence on genre films culminating in their collaboration on 2005’s SIN CITY (which currently has a couple of sequels in pre-production).
Frank Miller, of course, is primarily a graphic novelist rather than a filmmaker. His greatest claim to fame in this regard is The Dark Knight Returns, an impressive piece of work that revitalized the Caped Crusader and paved the way for the feature films, beginning with BATMAN in 1989. Although Hollywood did not have the nerve to adapt Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns directly to the screen, its influence is in the dark tone (the opposite of the campy ’60s TV series), and there is even a brief hat tip in the form of a reference to Corto Maltese (an area of political unrest in the graphic novel, triggering a nuclear confrontation between the US and the USSR).
Frank Miller’s influence is even more strongly felt in 2005’s BATMAN BEGINS, which borrows elements from both The Dark Knight Returns and especially Miller’s Batman: Year One. At one point, there was a plan to adapt the latter graphic novel, with Miller supplying the screenplay and with Darren Aranofsky (who helmed the excellent art house science-fiction film PI) attached to direct. As its title implies, Miller’s graphic novel tells the the story of Batman’s first year in action. Although the final screenplay for BATMAN BEGINS is not officially based on Batman: Year One, numerous similarities abound:

  • Jim Gordon, apparently the only honest cop left in Gotham, forms and alliance with the Batman, even though officially the police think that Batman is a vigilante they want to arrest.
  • Besides helping out Gordon, Batman also passes incriminating evidence about Gotham’s corrupt fat-cats to someone in the district attorney’s office.
  • Trapped in a building surrounded by the police, Batman escapes by using a transmitter that emits a sound that attracts a massive swarm of bats.
  • Batman doesn’t call his vehicle the Batmobile, and it looks more like a tank than a car.
  • The story ends with the Gordon-Batman alliance forged and ready to take on a threat from the Joker.

Of course, substantial differences exist between Miller’s version of Batman and what emerged on screen in the various films, but there is no doubt that his work lit the fuse that ignited the on-screen explosion.
Frank Miller’s first hands-on film work was writing a draft of the screenplay for the disappointing ROBOCOP 2, in which he also has a cameo as a chemist. The experience was apparently not a happy one, which is why, fifteen years later, Robert Rodriguez had to go to extreme lengths to convince Miller to film SIN CITY. Rodriguez invited Miller to help film a test scene (based on Miller’s “The Customer Is Always Right” from “The Babe Wore Red”), which became the SIN CITY’s wrap-around sequence (with Josh Hartnett as a hit man who bumps off a blond in a red dress). Rodriguez paid for the shoot, cut and scored the footage, which earned the go-ahead from Miller to make the feature. Rodriguez then invited Miller to co-direct the film, in order to make sure that the result would accurately reflect his vision.
Robert Rodriguez had first gained attention in 1992 by writing and directing EL MARIACHI, a low-budget action film with a simple story augmented with lots of exaggerated filming technique (such as speeding up the action for comic effect). After following up with a sequel-remake DESPERADO, Roriguez tried his hand at horror by directing FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996), which was scripted by Quentin Tarantino. Two years later came the science-fiction-horror film THE FACULTY, scripted by Kevin Williamson.
As with his action efforts, Robert Rodriguez’s science fiction and horror efforts were characterized by impressive displays of visual style, and he embraced the genre elements enthusiastically, without any embarrassment or any sense of guilt about needing to “elevate” the material. He was more than happy to deliver the horror unapologetically, even if that meant spraying buckets of blood and goo across the screen.
Unfortunately, this also meant that Robert Rodriguez’s films came across as slick but superficial, and despite their eagerness to please, they were never quite so thrilling that you could completely overlook their shortcomings. Sure, they were fun, but they weren’t that much fun.
Perhaps Robert Rodriguez’s style was just a bit too over-the-top – to the point that it became more cartoony than cool. This may also explain the blockbuster success of his SPY KIDS movies (his biggest hits to date) – the feel of a live-action cartoon perfectly suited material aimed at kids.

Co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller
Co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller

After a return to DESPERADO territory with ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO, an entertaining but somewhat convoluted attempt to fashion an epic action film along the lines of a Sergio Leone Western, Robert Rodriguez collaborated with Frank Miller on the film version of SIN CITY, sharing directorial credit. Somehow the collaboration brought out the best in each artist; Rodriguez’s penchant for in-your-face action and outrageous stylization was perfectly suited to Miller’s source material. As I wrote in my review of the film:

…the real triumph of SIN CITY […] is that it creates a valid cinematic style (whatever its source and inspiration) that works on film because it tells the violent and often wildly incredible stories in a way that makes the tough-guy clichés, hard-boiled voice-overs, blond bombshells, excessive shoot-outs, and enormous bloodletting seem entirely appropriate, even if you don’t have a particular taste for graphic violence on screen.

SIN CITY may be the apex of cinematic achievement for both Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller. Typically, their work – either alone or together – evinces a penchant for tough-guy heroics, but too often this is rendered in cartoony terms, with good-looking movie stars blazing away with guns just because it looks cool. The real macho ethos is not about how many bullets you can fire; it’s about navigating a corrupt world with some kind of personal integrity intact, doing the right thing or the honorable thing – or as close as you can come – at great personal expense, not because the world or the law or the government is watching you but because you must stay true to yourself, your own personal code of honor.
This is a very appealing worldview, but it is a bit sophomoric as well; it really only makes sense if social institutions are ineffectual and/or morally corroded. SIN CITY does the perfect job of creating a world in which the personal integrity of lone men is the last bastion against an overwhelming tide of corruption. As long as you are willing to take a trip into its world, the actions make total sense.

Gabriel Macht as the Spirit
Gabriel Macht as the Spirit

In retrospect, you may suspect that Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller actually enjoy the world of SIN CITY precisely because it justifies the use of lone-wolf tactics and violent action; fortunately, this is not enough to undermine the film’s effectiveness, but the issue raises its ugly head in Miller’s recent solo outing, THE SPIRIT, which echoes SIN CITY’s visual style without ever achieving its level of conviction.
In THE SPIRIT, Frank Miller expects his audience to assume that a masked hero is necessary to fight crime; there is some lip service paid to justifying this, but it’s the flimsiest of excuses used to justify having a Good Guy beat up a Bad Guy just because it’s supposed to be way cool. The Spirit frequently soliloquizes about his love for his City, but he doesn’t seem much interested in effecting real change – which would put him out of a job.
Compare this with the far more sophisticated THE DARK KNIGHT, which also mixes superhero fantasy with hard-boiled thematic elements. In that film, Batman’s existence is justified because official law enforcement is ham-strung by institutional corruption, allowing criminality to run rampant. However, Bruce Wayne is anticipating the day he can put aside the cape and cowl, which seems to be coming when new District Attorney Harvey Dent steps in and takes on organized crime and institutional corruption.
Christopher Nolan, director and co-writer of THE DARKN KNIGHT, is not going to give his masked avenger a permanent license to act as a vigilante just because it’s the easy way out dramatically; he understands that for Batman to be truly heroic, he must be working to make himself obsolete, so that conventional law enforcement can take over and run a city that is a fit place for citizens to live in peace.
Neither Frank Miller nor Robert Rodriguez has offered anything like this in one of their films. They are too in love with pulp for its own sake, with the thrill of the kill, the crash of a car, the snap of a bone, and the flame of a dame. At their best they are smart enough to know that these lowest common denominator elements can grab an audience by the guts and make them watch, enthralled by the dark spectacle on screen. At less than their best (GRINDHOUSE, 300, THE SPIRIT), they simply pander to their own worst instincts (as Miller proudly says in “Miller on Miller,” a bonus feature on the SPIRIT DVD, “I’ve been led by my dick.”), and they end up delivering a lot of POW! without any real punch.
Hopefully, their SIN CITY sequels will pack enough punch to return them to their heavyweight contender status. They struck black gold once. Why not again?
Timed with the home video release of SIN CITY and THE SPIRIT, we have posted these reviews:

Addtionally, in our achives, you can find reviews for:

Sin City Trailer

SIN CITY is out on a new 2-Disc Blu-ray set this week. This was one of those uber-cool projects that actually lived up to its hype. There had been previous films with digitally created environments (SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW), but SIN CITY really used its technique to create something memorable. It wasn’t just Frank Miller’s graphic novels brought to life; it was a mad dream of of a city, a crystallization of every film noir vision of mean streets hiding dangers in every shadow. Frank Miller tried his hand at this kind of thing a second time with THE SPIRIT (which came out on home video last week), but the results fell flat, suggesting the importance of Robert Rodriguez’s contribution to SIN CITY. Check out the trailer for a brief trip down memory lane.

Full Tilt Boogie (1997) – Retrospective Documentary Review

Full Tilt Boogie (1997)Two years after the fact, this documentary about the making of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN reaches screens, and what an amusing account it is. Much of it is off-the-cuff and entertaining, but some parts have also clearly been staged for the benefit of the documentary, particularly the hilarious opening, wherein George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino are unable to find their way to the set.
If you’re interested in the behind-the-scenes travails of film-making, you’ll get them in spades, but don’t expect any serious dissection of the film at hand; in fact, there is not so much as an explanation for why this particular film was deemed worthy of being documented. And since the focus is on production, the disappointing reaction the film received (especially after the hoopla surrounding its collaboration between Tarantino and director Robert Rodriguez) is not even mentioned.
Perhaps the most interesting moment (which is merely presented, without comment, by the film)is Tarantino and Rodriguez’s insistence, in an early double interview to promote the project before filming began, that the script gives you a chance to care about the characters by spending time with them before introducing the horror element in the last half. No one stops to wonder whether an hour in the company of two violent criminals, one a psychotic sex killer, is really enough to endear us to characters whom we would much rather have seen dispatched by the vampires in the first fifteen minutes.
Ultimately, the best thing about this film is that, by incorporating most of the best footage from its subject, becomes a more than adequate replacement for FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. Now, you can now see your favorite parts, without having to sit through the whole movie again.
FULL TILT BOOGIE(1997). Directed by Sarah Kelly. With: Quentin Tarantino, George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Fred Williamson, Gregory Nicotero.

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) – Retrospective Horror Movie Review

It’s not easy being God – just ask Eric Clapton. Quentin Tarantino has achieved iconic status, to the point that it was widely assumed his involvement in this crime-horror hybrid would guarantee blockbuster success. What people forget, however, is that Tarantino has only one blockbuster to his credit (PULP FICTION). Not that artistic achievement should be judged by box office, but it’s not a bad idea ot remember that his name, on its own, is not yet a guaranteed franchise. If we needed any proof of this, the disappointing FROM DUSK TILL DAWN certainly provides it.
Tarantino tries to rework the structural ploy from the Bruce Willis section of PULP, in which a story going in one direction takes an abrupt and outrageous turn; unfortunately, that gambit can’t work in a feature film, when all the trailers and pre-release interviews have told us that this crime melodrama will end up in a lair full of vampires.
The result is that the set up takes too long, because we know what is going to happen. In fact, the killer on the road sequences end up resembling nothing so much as the most over-extended first act in screen history.

Salma Hayek as Santanico Pandemonium
Salma Hayek as Santanico Pandemonium

What accounts for this miscalculation? One can only assume that it ws to provide more screen time for Quentin Tarantino in his co-starring role. Actually, he acquits himself well enough by mostly standing in the shadow of George Clooney, who proves himself an excellent leading man. Still, one cannot help wishing that some of that screen time had been devoted to more deserving characters who show up later, such as Hayek’s vampire dancer Santanico Pandemonium, who ends up being destroyed far too soon (an unbelievable miscalculation on the part of Tarantino and director Robert Rodriguez).
When we finally get to the vampire striptease club south of the Mexican border, the film immediately jumps to life: it is as if Robert Rodriguez, back on home turf, has finally got a handle on the film. When the first melee occurs, and the characters we have been following find themselves thrust together and fighting for survival with the help of  two complete strangers (ably played by Fred Williamson and Tom Savini, the latter known for his makeup work on DAWN OF THE DEAD), the film briefly realizes some of its full potential.
Alas, no sooner is this new group drawing  together under adverse conditions, than Quentin Tarantino’s script begins dispatching characters left and right, rather than dramatizing the internal conflicts that must inevitably arise under such duress (a la NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD or ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13).
Quentin Tarantino is a real movie-movie talent; that is, much of his cleverness comes from knowing films and filmic expectations and bending them to suit his purpose or re-using familiar material with a win of recognition toward the audience. thus, the appearance of Savini and Williamson is an amusing nod to the cult audience, not because of the characters but because we recognize the actors and associate them with their past accomplishments.
At other times, Tarantino’s script is a bit too clever, setting up interesting ideas that never pay off. For instance, the Gecko brothers are escaping to a lace in Mexico called El Rey – which just happens to be the name of the enigmatic ruler of a south-of-the-border haven for escaped criminals in Jim Thompson novel The Getaway.In the final chapter, (which was omitted from both film adaptations), the escaped robbers find themselves in a criminal sanctuary that is little better than Hell on Earth (“You tell yourself it is a bad dream. You tell yourself you have died…and have waked up in Hell.”) One might, therefore, expect the sanctuary in DUSK TO be similarly revealed as no safe haven at all and that Seth Gecko, through his confrontation with tangible evil in the Titty Twister Bar, would change his ways, choose not to go to El Rey, and thus avoid a horrible fate. Instead, the idea is abandoned. As with everything else in the film, Quentin Tarantino seems almost frantic to throw away potentially good material in favor of impaling a few more hearts and exploding a few more bodies.
Tarantino, Hayek, Clooney
Tarantino, Hayek, Clooney

Sitting in the director’s chair, Robert Rodriguez does an adequate job of filming the gobs of gore, but for some reason the action lacks the balletic intensity of DESPERADO – the stylistic verb that invites sympathetic viewers to forgive the story deficiencies. and simply surrender to the excitement of the on-screen carnage.
Whereas one might reasonably have expected that the combo of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez would yield a critical mass of nuclear proportions, instead of an atomic fireball’s worth of entertainment, we get a long fuse, quite a bit of fizzle, and a rather minor blast. It is a shame to see so much good talent giving such low-yield results.
FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996). Directed by Robert Rodriguez. Written by Quentin Tarantino. Cast: George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, Cheech Marin, Salma Hayek, John Saxon.

Copyright 1996 by Steve Biodrowski. This review originally appeared in the June 1996 issue of Cinefantastique (Volume 27, Number 10).