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November 7, 2013

Critical Views: Film

Contributions from students of COM 327: Media Criticism

All cheap thrills in ‘Machete Kills’

By Mike Boyce

“Machete Kills” – a tribute to the ultra-low budget action films of the 1970s – has no need for nuance, no taste for subtlety, and no desire to provide anything but the exhilaration of a cheap thrill. Audiences looking for blood and guts with a wink and nod will find it here.

Danny Trejo reprises his titular role from the original “Machete,” a film based on a joke trailer director Robert Rodriguez made for his 2007 “Grindhouse” collaboration with Quentin Tarantino. Trejo played Thug #2 in innumerable low-budget thrillers before finding a home with Rodriguez and Tarantino.

The plot in “Machete Kills” merely serves as a vehicle for Trejo, Rodriguez’s highly stylized violence, and a parade of cameo appearances.

Machete is recruited by the U.S. President (Charlie Sheen) to stop a Mexican terrorist (Demian Bichir) from launching a nuclear missile at Washington D.C. and an arms dealer (Mel Gibson) from launching a weapon into space. He is supervised by an undercover beauty queen (Amber Heard), trailed by a face-changing assassin (Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, Antonio Banderas), shot at by the double-barrel breasts of a Madam (Sofia Vergara), and aided by old friends (Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba).
Every performance is intentionally self-aware.

Every plot twist is purposefully ridiculous. Every gruesome killing is an over-the-top pastiche to action genre conventions. The entire film creates the impression that Rodriguez himself can’t believe what he’s getting away with.

Audiences will feel the same way. Random acts of cartoonish, gory violence certainly have their esoteric charm, but too much of a good thing has diminishing returns. “Machete Kills” never promised us a fully rounded narrative, but the lack of balance between story and slaughter gets old fast. By the time a waiter is killed with a corkscrew to the neck, it barely registers on the emotional Richter scale.

Years ago, Rodriguez promised a fun diversion from ultra-serious modern action movies, but the novelty has worn off. When a film starts parodying itself it is time for both audience and auteur to move on.

Slow burn of tension in ‘Captain Phillips’

By Matt Alison

“Captain Phillips” is an adrenaline-charged film founded on a unique balance of realism and suspense. Under the direction of Paul Greengrass, it brings an unfathomable moment in history to life by embracing the rules of the biography-thriller.

Captain Phillips was commanding the Maersk Alabama when four Somali pirates hijacked the ship in April 2009. The event was the first successful seizure of a vessel under an American flag since the 19th century and became an international crisis when Phillips was taken hostage.

“Captain Phillips” is a ticking time bomb of anxiety and urgency until the film’s heart-stopping ending. Greengrass, who has directed action-thrillers (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) and historical dramas (“United 93”), uses techniques mastered in both.

This film is full of fast-paced editing and camera movement to capture its physical stunts. The nautical chase scene, where the pirates follow, attack and mount the towering side of the ship, rivals chase scenes in any action film. The action is thematic while still managing to be wonderful eye-candy.

Yet Greengrass is bound by history and uses realistic depictions of maritime and hostage procedures to create much of the film’s drama. He sets it all up by showing normal people doing normal things, such as Phillips packing his gear and chatting with his wife before the saga begins.

Realism is reinforced by the use of an unsteady, hand-held camera. Audiences are suddenly transported to Somalia and encounter the pirates engaging in their version of normalcy as shown through the same camera work.

Greengrass is faithful to history, but certain events and details are altered for the sake of storytelling.

He has the pirates speaking English, for example, and they did not. He casts a Hollywood star, Tom Hanks, who serves up an unrealistic depiction of Captain Phillips – according to Phillips himself. Still, Hanks transforms himself into a merchant sailor, dominates every scene, and holds audiences’ hostage during the film’s most dramatic moments.

Overall, “Captain Phillips” offers an admirable balance between entertainment and realism, and serves it up with engaging filmmaking. It delivers something for action-seekers and biography-lovers alike.