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Speedy Trial

August 18, 2011


As a pretty hardcore Quentin Tarantino fan, by default I’ve always thought of his friend and fellow director Robert Rodriguez, as a “poor man’s Tarantino.” Rodriguez is a talented director with the ability to create entertaining and engaging films, however, I’ve always felt he was unable to create a “classic” which is why my initial excitement for the Grindhouse teaser trailer Machete becoming a full length film waned when I read who had joined the cast. A film starring Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez with appearances from Lindsey Lohan and Cheech Marin just seemed too gimmicky and left a terrible taste in my mouth. And while the film is indeed gimmicky, Machete exceeded my expectations… which was basically Dead Sea level low.

When renegade Mexican Federale Machete (Danny Trejo) attempts to save a kidnapped woman, he is double crossed by his own men and drug lord Rogelio Torrez (Steven Segal) who murders Machete’s wife and daughter before his eyes. Left for dead, Machete recovers three years later, now an illegal immigrant looking for work in Texas. He is hired and blackmailed by local businessman Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) to kill the racist, outspoken Texas State Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), whose platform is deporting all illegal immigrants. Machete, however, is once again double crossed as a second assassin attempts to kill Machete and only wounds McLaughlin resulting in a spike in McLaughlin’s support and more enemies for the fugitive Machete. Meanwhile U.S. customs agent Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba) is assigned to find Machete as well as take down Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), a taco stand owner rumored to be the leader of an underground illegal immigrant aid system and revolutionary. Through a hail of bullets, boobs and heavy CGI, Machete must break himself free and take back his life.

Prosecution: Rodriguez’s direction in Machete is perhaps its weakest element. The film as a result is inconsistent and seems amateur. Most of Machete’s action sequences just aren’t captured well, bullets don’t have clear directions, combat is brief with little focus and the use of CGI blood detracts from the gritty vintage aesthetic that the films takes its influences from. Lindsay Lohan in the role of Booth’s daughter, April, is just awful and the decision to even include her character in the film is confusing. Her scenes are terribly edited together within the film making it obvious that she was filmed separately and probably after most of the film had already been done. Not only are scenes with Lohan out of place and amateurly edited but most of the film appears this way making certain scenes and situations aesthetically and fundamentally differently from the overall film. Machete also spends so much of its time focusing on other characters and giving them long-winded monologues, that it forgets that Trejo is the film’s star and main character. Rodriguez initially created the trailer to give the underrated but talented Trejo credence, however, Trejo only seems to have been given roughly two pages in all of speaking lines and barley any emotion that could be regarded as ‘acting.’

Defense:  Despite Machete’s at times amateur and unimpressive techniques, it does a great job of entertaining while also being socially reflexive. The film focuses on the issue of illegal immigration while showing an exaggerated yet realistic reaction of Americans in a post-economically decaying society. As a film and as a character, Machete is meant to give a voice to immigrants while showing American’s how ridiculous their fears and prejudices have become. Alba and Rodriguez impressively pull their weights and do great jobs of portraying strong female characters, yet it’s Steven Segal as Torrez who singlehandedly saves Machete and is easily the film’s best character. His brash gruesomeness and hilarious one-liners are the few factors that actually make Machete the exploitation parody it attempted to be.

 Verdict: TOSS UP. I wouldn’t recommend you see it but you won’t want to slit your wrists if stuck watching it.

Friends with Benefits

I’ve always enjoyed the ways in which cinema reflects the changes in societal structures and sexual relationships. Jean Renoir’s 1939 classic, Rules of the Game examined the French culture’s views on adultery, which was acceptable in high society as long as no one spoke of it. The 1960s produced Bob & Alice & Ted & Carol, a film that showcased the growing trend of wife swapping and now the 2010’s have begun to portray the recently publicized notion of a “friends with benefits” relationship in the aptly titled Friends with Benefits.

Dylan (Justin Timberlake) is an art director for a successful but small internet website in Los Angeles. Jaime (Mila Kunis) is a recruiter for an agency attempting to hire Dylan for a position with GQ Magazine in New York. Apprehensive at first, Dylan is immediately drawn to the quirky, outspoken Jaime and the wonders of New York enough to accept the job and move. Both fresh from breakups that resulted in them being labeled as emotionally damaged and unstable, the two become quick friends and decide to embark on a relationship that involves sex with no emotions. As their relationship blossoms they begin to find out that not having emotions may not be as healthy and natural as they once thought and the two must confront their own personal demons for the sake of future relationships.

Defense: Friends with Benefits delivers more heart than expected in a film about a guy and girl attempting to keep a platonic friendship when sex is involved. Friends with Benefits is more than a sex comedy romp; it develops empathy by focusing on why both Dylan and Jaime are so emotionally damaged. The chemistry between Kunis and Timerblake is amazing and the two work well together with an on-screen presence so convincing that I left the theater rooting for both Kunis and Timberlake hook-up in real life. Kunis, who received unnecessary praise for her performance as the blandly written Lily in Black Swan, actually shows great range and proves her talent as an actor in Friends with Benefits.

The writing is carefully crafted, smart, and in depth. Even secondary characters are given personal issues, backgrounds, and hilarious moments. Woody Harrelson is easily a major highlight as Tommy, the flamboyantly gay sports editor of GQ magazine, delivering some of the films funniest lines while the always amazing Patricia Clarkson brings humor and spirit as Lona, Jamie’s free-loving, glue sniffing flake of a mom.

Prosecution: While it desperately tries to prove itself as being a different breed of Rom-com, it ultimately wusses out near the end and ties everything together in a cute little rainbow-colored bow. Because of its need to develop such a simple and stereotypical ending it introduces great characters and relationships that take unexpected and grossly underdeveloped turns for the sake of a happy solution.

Verdict: SEE IT. But your life will be complete even if you don’t.

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