Wednesday, January 30, 2013

I finally saw: From Dusk Till Dawn

Who knows why it took me 17 years to finally see From Dusk Till Dawn.

Actually, I do. It came out during that phase when I looked down my nose at Quentin Tarantino for really wanting to be an actor. "Yeah, I'm a director, but what I really want to do is act." It could have been the derailment of his career, if he'd let it. I assumed that FDTD was some massive ego stroke on his part, and that the self-deception would permeate the project.


In fact, Tarantino is pretty darn good at playing a demented psycho. The surprising part is that he actually underplays being a demented psycho. I figured he'd at least chew the scenery, but he doesn't even do that. There's nothing he does that's at the same ill-advised intensity level of the "dead ni**er storage" scene in Pulp Fiction.

Tarantino's work was just one of many pleasant surprises in this movie.

For example, how good is that first half? How nice is it to see George Clooney (who was not yet GEORGE CLOONEY) playing "a bastard, but not a fucking bastard"? (Great line -- actually, his last of the movie.) He really commits to being a bad person, but he's also not chewing scenery -- in fact, what I really admired about his work was the couple throwaway facial tics he employs to subtly underscore the significance of certain moments. He delivers the best of Tarantino's sharp dialogue, but Tarantino also saves plenty of that for the opening conversation between a Texas cop (Michael Parks, so great years later in Red State) and a liquor store cashier (John Hawkes, so great years later in ... everything), the main thrust of which is whether mentally challenged people should be allowed to work in food preparation. The scene walks that Tarantino fine line of poor taste and walks it well. I love the way the scene devolves, and how Hawkes' character really was trying to do the bidding of Seth and Richie Gecko when they gave him specific instructions on how to behave with the cop -- specific instructions that he followed to the letter, to no avail as far as psycho Richie was concerned.

And how good are Harvey Keitel and the members of his family, not only the professional actor (Juliette Lewis), but the novice (Ernest Liu)? Okay, Liu isn't great, but he holds his own. And I'd never seen Keitel in a role like this before: bearded, subdued, that familiar trope of the pastor who's lost his faith in God, but seeming new-ish here. Lewis also goes way under-the-top, something she's been accused of very few times in her career. In fact, she's got some priceless, low-key facial reactions, like when she's trying to figure out what the hell Tarantino's talking about when he tries a clumsy innuendo, referencing a moment in which he imagined her asking him to give her cunnilingus.

And how good is that second half? Maybe not as good as the first half, but totally different, and to some people, probably better than the first half. Like, maybe to Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi. That's some straight-up Raimi-Jackson monster stuff in the second half, and some incredibly imaginative weapons with which to kill them. Few settings encapsulate that wild west spirit we believe exists in "lawless" Mexico than the Titty Twister -- even before you know it's a vampire hive. And as good as all that vampire-killin' is, the movie's most enduring moment for me may be Salma Hayek's exotic dance with a large yellow snake. I don't usually like to speak too much about my male heterosexual desires on this blog, but -- hubba hubba.

So yeah, I liked From Dusk Till Dawn. I liked it a heckuva lot.

When I wrote my first in this "series" called I Finally Saw last October (A Nightmare on Elm Street), I set out to determine if the film still holds up -- though "holds up" is a phrase you usually use about films you've already seen, but not in many years. So I'm really trying to figure out if I could still see the movie through the eyes of the people who saw it (and loved it) when it was brand new.

I didn't think it was possible to return to that mid-1990s moment when ultra-violence seemed fresh and new, and "Tarantino-esque" was only starting to become a made-up word.

But there I was, watching this movie, feeling like a giddy 23-year-old again.


Travis McClain said...

I was too young to go see it when it played theaters. Not only was it rated R, but there wasn't yet a theater here in town where I could have sneaked into a screening (something, incidentally, that I've never done).

From Dusk Till Dawn wasn't even on my radar at all, really, because it was a milieu and genre well outside my interest range at the time. When it finally hit VHS, it was on the New Release wall at Movie Warehouse here for more than an entire year. Eventually, my friends and I did rent it.

In those days, we'd go see a movie at the then-new theater in town on a Friday night, then go rent three movies on VHS and come back to my place for an all-night trilogy often built around a particular theme. I forget what else we watched when we finally got around to From Dusk Till Dawn, but I vividly recall that the sun was actually coming up by the time the movie ended. Perfect.

As for the film itself, I'd concur with all of your observations. I'd add that the supporting cast is also terrific, particularly Fred Williamson as Frost and Tom Savini as Sex Machine. They look and feel like guys who would turn up in a place like the Titty Twister. There's also, of course, Cheech Marin in his several roles.

The best bit in the entire film for my money is Clooney's speech about what's going on:

"I know what's going on. We got a bunch of fucking vampires out there, trying to get in here and suck our fucking blood. And that's it. Plain and simple. I don't want to hear anything about "I don't believe in vampires," because I don't fucking believe in vampires, but I believe in my own two eyes, and what I saw, is fucking vampires. Now, do we all agree that what we are dealing with is vampires?"

That kills me every time. That spiel is why the whole film works.

And yes, Salma Hayek's dance is insanely erotic. It's more captivating than some actual dances I've experienced in real life, honestly. I could do without the snake, but Tito & Tarantula's "After Dark" is the perfect song for that scene. After re-watching From Dusk Till Dawn in my friends's backyard (they have a projector) last summer, I went home and bought that song from Amazon after loving it for years. It's such an unexpected song for a dance like that, but once you've seen that scene, it's impossible to imagine anything else working there.

Most of my friends are of the mind that the first half of the film is stronger than the second and that they'd rather it just continue as a fugitive movie instead of becoming a vampire movie. I get the appeal of that, and honestly the last two times I've watched it, I've been taken out of the movie by the dated visual effects of the vampire slayings, but it's just so much fun that I don't share the same level of mismatched enthusiasm.

Anyway, glad you finally saw it and that you enjoyed it.

Vancetastic said...

Great childhood memories there, Travis. I too remember one or two times I stayed up all night watching movies with friends. Can you believe it wasn't even that hard to do? As a young'un, you could stay up all night using just your willpower. Now it would take me some seriously strong drugs, especially since watching movies is an inherently passive experience.

Excellent moment to isolate with that Clooney speech. That's Tarantino at his best, a moment of talking to the core of an issue in an effective and efficient manner that isn't quite 100% realistic, but doesn't bother you for being too artificial. It's the perfect kind of "fake" dialogue, the kind that feels real because you wish people would talk like that.

On the dialogue front, it's interesting how Tarantino basically grinds the movie to a halt (in a good way) to linger on the scene where Keitel gets his kids to agree to kill him when he turns into a vampire. You could argue that that really wasn't needed, but it's such a nice touch, and also creates an enforced moment to catch our breaths before the final mayhem starts. Clooney submits one of the facial tics I mentioned in this scene.

I could have said more about Hayek, but on a family blog where I only occasionally use bad language, I opted not to.

Travis McClain said...

Well, they weren't really childhood memories. I was fourteen when From Dusk Till Dawn opened in theaters and in my late teens when I finally got around to seeing it. I still do all-nighters, but that's because of insomnia aided and abetted by the meds I've taken.

That "I don't believe in vampires" speech is really the heart of the whole thing. That speech is what legitimizes the segue from the first half into the second because it catches us just as we're about to suspend our disbelief and says to us "We can't believe it, either, but it's gonna happen this way all the same." That speech is not for the other characters; it's for us.

Clooney sells it not just as a speech, but he sells us on everything that's yet to come in the film. We can't argue with him. We just saw vampires with our own eyes, too, and we've no choice but to agree that what we are dealing with is vampires.

I disagree that the scene with Keitel and the kids "really wasn't needed". On the contrary, I'd say that it's practically a mandatory part of their character arc. We need to see him finish reasserting himself not just as a preacher, but as a father and as a human being. It's his final act as father, to essentially say to his children "You're out of the nest now and this is what's expected of you."

It also cements the growth of the kids from hapless hostages to realized individuals. The son doesn't make it out alive, of course, but there for the finale of the film he's basically become a man through a particularly odd rite of passage (kill vampires in a strip bar, you're a man).

We could piece this all together ourselves, but within the story, those characters need to have that moment with one another.

Thaddeus said...

I remember going with 6 friends to see the new QT/RR movie, From Dusk Til Dawn. I sat down, game for a wild, pulpy ride, and we were all very entertained by the creepiness of Clooney and Tarantino, the sudden simple drama of this traveling family, and the tension of the uber-violence that surrounded those two outlaws.

And then Cheech Marin made his first appearance in the movie, and I cringed in my seat. You know the scene I'm referring to. 4 of my friends were women, and the scene goes on for so long, so unnecessarily, and like an intentional effort to say "f--k you, wh--es" to every female in the audience.

It pissed me off, bigtime. And I guess, as with racially-edgy humor (which I recently described), the dividing line was whether the jokes were necessary, whether they were intended to be demeaning, and whether they were actually funny. Cheech's first lines did not succeed on any of those levels.

And yet the movie did accomplish an amazing change in pace and tone, and the scenes inside the bar were excellent. I enjoyed so much of this movie - it had A-level everything (acting, effects, dialogue), except for the plots, which were intentionally B-level (like Big Trouble in Little China).

I just rewatched this movie the other night, and I was amazed by how good it was. It made me recall my anger at that one scene - it was still offensive, but I could skip past it, and I didn't have female company over on my second viewing. It has so many strengths, is a great vampire film (or even as an entry in the action/pulp genres), and the Clooney charisma is massive.

I'm glad you had a good time watching it, and that you were appropriately impressed by the many fine performances throughout. It's amazing to think how mixed my reaction was because a movie had 99% astounding excellence in what it was going for, and then 1% of its scenes were so offensive as to make me feel contempt. What an odd effect to experience in one picture...

Horror Movie Medication said...

This is a love it or hate it kind of film. If you love great dramatic acting and over the top horror satire, then this is the perfect film. If you only like one or the other, this movie is going to be so so at best. I really liked this movie, especially as a Tarantino fan, and I think it's one of Clooney's best performances ever.
I also got the chance to review this flick on my new blog. I would love to get some feedback from another critic. Check it out if you can.