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The Carpenter and the Walrus: Jeff Does the Non-Comics Thing for a Sec…

Jeff Lester

Forgot I’m at the store on my own today, so the liveblogging? Ain’t happening.

Wow. I’m just full of broken promises this week, aren’t I? And while the tank’s still on empty as far as comic books go, here’s a film or two I’ve seen in the last week, and maybe I can still wrangle an uncomfortable comic book comparison or two:

THE LOOKOUT: I think my wife may have developed a “thing” for Joseph Gordon-Levitt after watching Brick, because this film suddenly jumped to the top of our to-see list once it came out. It’s a very solid film written and directed by Scott Frank (for whom the warm spot in my heart for adapting Out of Sight is mitigated by the very cool spot in my heart for writing Dead Again), caught somewhere between a crime film and a character study. Gordon-Levitt plays a brain-damaged guy working as the janitor and night man at a small time bank who’s embroiled in to a plot to rob the bank. As I say, it’s a very solid film with a near-great performance by Gordon-Levitt who nicely underplays the part, and a script that’s an astonishing piece of craft. Despite all that, it’s no more than highly OK–Edi and I talked about the film a day or so later and realized neither of us had thought about it for more than a second after seeing it–maybe because Scott as first-time director plays his visuals a little too safe, or maybe because, as sometimes happens in tightly crafted crime pieces, people act only as little cogs that move the plot forward. Worth a rental, though.

SHOOTER: Yeah, I never heard back when I asked if anyone saw this and now I know why: after you walk out of this movie, you’ll go to great lengths to pretend you never saw it. This “adaptation” of Stephen Hunter’s deeply engrossing Point of Impact cuts everything out of Hunter’s book the filmmakers thought the audience would find dated, corny, overly complex, or satisfying and puts in a whole bunch corny, overly simplistic, dull talky stuff that will age badly.

Here’s a good example: in the book, after Swagger is double-crossed and shot, he manages to make it far downstream, makes his way into some scrublands, and finds and kills a boar, whose protein rich liver he is able to eat raw, giving him the strength to go on even though he’s steadly bleeding out. It’s a cool scene, filled with fun facts about eating why the liver is one of the few organs you actually can eat raw, but okay, I can see how it might look a little ridiculous to your average filmgoer and the filmmakers needed something different. Okay. So in the film, Swagger manages to make it far downstream, steal a truck, make his way into a small little town, finds some tin foil in a dumpster, shorts the lights in the country store so he can’t be seen by the clerk, buys some sugar, salt, water, and a turkey thermometer, goes on to create a rejuvenating concoction, and injects this concoction by shooting himself up with the turkey thermometer in a gas station. Yeah—that looked a lot less ridiculous, guys. Nice job.

In fact, there’s a distressing amount of emergency shopping in Shooter–so much so, you wonder if they should’ve called it Shopper, instead. Once Swagger makes it to the home of his dead buddy’s ex-fiancee and convinces her to help him, he gives her a massive shopping list of stuff she’ll need to conduct surgery and remove the bullet. (Of course, this involves eighteen cans of whipped cream, so that Swagger can use the nitrous as anesthetic–and no, I’m not kidding.) Later, when Swagger and the FBI agent who’s decided to help him have to prepare for an assault on the trap that’s been set for them, they go to a big-ass department store and race up and down the aisles with their shopping carts, pulling in huge swathes of shirts and nails and other goods they’ll MacGyver into C4 and napalm and booby traps. The message is clear–when your precious government is riddled with corrupt black-op agencies working for the highest bidder, the only way you can fight them is by shopping. It’s a strange updating of Hunter’s Second Amendment oriented thriller–one wonders if the Swagger of the movie drives a pick-up with a “You can take my charge card when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers” bumper sticker.

Oh, and the action scenes are dull and there aren’t enough of ’em. Truly Awful.

GRINDHOUSE: I’m supposed to see this tomorrow but I couldn’t hold out any longer and caught a matinee yesterday. I could bore you with a million different thoughts about the thing but I’ll stick to one central point: Rodriguez and Tarantino may now own the grindhouse, but apparently John Carpenter built it. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is riddled with classic Carpenter flourishes, from the self-composed keyboard hums, to the disastrous fate that befalls a child, to the mixture of jokey, aw-shucks humor mixed with outrageously disgusting effects. (Admittedly, Rodriguez pulls from a bunch of different other sources as well, but the Carpenter stuff is the stuff that really sticks.) Similarly, Tarantino’s Death Proof tries to throw a lot of different stuff into the mix, but the long, near-interminable conversations between the first four girls mirrors the far crisper, naturalistic conversations among the four girls in Halloween. Throw in Eli Roth’s trailer, and Grindhouse is a veritable John Carpenter tribute joint.

Which is all fine and good. I quite enjoyed Grindhouse, but every failing that Grindhouse has (including, arguably, its financial one) comes from emulating just about everything Carpenter did while ignoring how Carpenter had to do it. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to one of the Kurt Russell-less John Carpenter commentaries, but Carpenter gives (in a bored, laconic tone) some advice that really reinforces how much money mattered in his early films: in one commentary, he talks about running the title credits on a black background because it’s that much more time you can fill up without having to shoot any film. Carpenter had to come up with ways to get his films to run ninety minutes because he only had the budget to shoot eighty-some-odd minutes of film. By contrast, Rodriguez and Tarantino have trouble keeping their movies to length, because anything they can think of–endless credit sequence of naked women feet, genital-leaking rape scenes, that chick from the Black-Eyed Peas bending over a car engine–they can get.

That said? Quite enjoyable, highly Good, and unlike The Lookout, there’s stuff I’m still pondering a day later. As I said, I’ll spare you the rest of it, but you could fill a book with the comparison and contrast and strange subtextual rumblings running through Grindhouse, and hopefully someday someone will.

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