INMATE #1: THE RISE OF DANNY TREJO (2020, doc)

July 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s easy and convenient to lump folks into the old adage “people don’t change”, because not changing is the easiest way. However, we’d be hard pressed to find someone who fits the “turned over a new leaf” description better than Danny Trejo. He has certainly made the best of his second chance … and he knows it. What makes his story inspirational is his willingness, no make that determination, to share his own story in hopes that he can help others.

Director Brett Harvey surprises us in a couple of ways with this documentary. First, he spends the first two-thirds on Trejo’s background, with barely a mention of movies. Second, he recognizes the gold to mine here is derived from Trejo himself, and he allows the man to talk and show us what he’s all about. Sure, we get bits of insight from Trejo’s neighborhood friends, his acting peers, and his own kids and sister, but no one can tell Trejo’s story better than Trejo. In fact, director Harvey bookends the film with Trejo talking to convicts, and beginning with “my number was B-948.”

While cruising around town in his 1956 Chevy Bel Air, Trejo points out “Richie Valens Junior High”, which is actually Pacoima Middle School. It’s fascinating that he still lives in the same area in which he was raised, especially after we hear him recall his childhood. As a kid, his hero was Uncle Gilbert – the cool guy who had money, cars, and girls. Trejo stuck like glue to Gilbert, who turned the boy onto weed at age 8 and heroin at age 12, and then transitioned him to armed robbery (including a live grenade!). It was four bags of sugar sold to an undercover cop that sent Trejo to San Quentin.

Trejo is very direct as he discusses his time in prison and what occurred to push him towards getting his life in order. He mentions it’s not about reform, but about keeping a promise. He talks about the ‘predator or prey’ aspect of prison and recalls some of the best advice he received: remaining on the path of drugs-alcohol-crime can only lead to death-insanity-jail. He absolutely believes these words and works this in to his motivational speeches to this day.

He stumbled backwards into an acting career, simply by visiting a friend on the set of RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985). His look and that tattoo were instrumental to his acting gigs, and that’s where the title of the documentary comes from – he was cast as “Inmate #1” in the early days. Of course, things really exploded for him after his second cousin, director Robert Rodriguez, cast him as the silent assassin in DESPERADO (1995), and then again when Trejo got the lead in the tongue-in-cheek MACHETE (2010) which spawned from a fake trailer in the Rodriguez-Tarantino blend GRINDHOUSE (2007).

One of those interviewed states, “They make movies about guys like him”, and by the time the documentary ends, we simply with there were more people like Danny Trejo in society. It’s rare that we find such respect for an actor after getting to know what they are like “in real life.” He may joke about learning acting at the San Quentin School of Dramatics, but he spends most of his time doing good for others. His infectious laugh and upbeat demeanor are traits of a man who appreciates his second chance in life. Just keep in mind, “Machete don’t text.”

watch the trailer:


BIG KILL (2018)

October 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 6 years since Scott Martin directed his last feature film, and most of his credits are as a producer. This time out, the Texas filmmaker proves his love of the western genre, and he’s so committed to the cause that he dons many Stetsons for the project: writer, director, producer, editor, and one of the lead actors. We always admire those who overcome obstacles and see their vision become a reality. Every movie doesn’t need to be a classic … it’s a Herculean task just to get a film made, and hopefully it provides some entertainment value (which this one does).

Mr. Martin plays Jake, who along with his friend Travis (Clint Hummel) travels the old west countryside finding trouble and making waves at every turn. Jake is the sharpshooter, while Travis is the ladies’ man. Neither seem to have any marketable skills, other than the knack for staying alive – which is an accomplishment given that they seem to be shot at quite frequently and run out of every place they ride into … even Mexico!

The opening shootout sets the mood for us, as it comes across as tongue-in-cheek, with just enough realism to let us know danger exists. Danny Trejo has an entrance worthy of his cult status as Mexican General Morales … a man very displeased with Jake and Travis. An annoying electronic score accompanies a chase scene that crosses the border and ends at a Cavalry outpost run by a Colonel played by the great Michael Pare (EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS), whose two scenes are over far too quickly.

Jake and Travis accompany city slicker Jim Andrews (Christoph Sanders) on a road trip via horseback to Big Kill, Arizona … a town Jim’s brother has promised him is booming. A recurring punchline of “Never heard of it” adds some levity every time Big Kill is mentioned. Instead of a lucrative silver mining town, they find a once boom town gone bust, and now the town is run by the most unethical “Preacher” (steely-eyed and square-jawed Jason Patric) that one is likely to find. The preacher is aided by his muscle: quick-draw Johnny Kane (Lou Diamond Phillips in a gaudy red suit and evil grin) and Stephanie Beran as a knife toting Felicia Stiletto – just one of the character names pulled straight out of the comic book universe.

Jim’s brother (played by KC Clyde) is located, and though Jim begins the courting process with local girl Josie Strong (a standout Elizabeth McLaughlin), the troubles and violence and literal backstabbing in town soon draws the boys into the fracas. Much of the film has the look of kids playing dress up, but as a tongue-in-cheek western, there is enough entertainment value to hold our interest for 2 hours. Fortunately music director Kays Al-Atrakchi resorts to more traditional trumpet-based western music after that opening chase. Most of the shootouts provide some humor, whether intended or not, but we can be sure the cast had a grand time making this one … that shines through loud and clear – especially in a town where the undertaker is named Digger.

watch the trailer:


PREGGOLAND (2015)

May 25, 2015

preggoland Greetings again from the darkness. Understanding women is an unrealistic goal for most men, though we never stop trying. The past couple of years have brought numerous indie films from female filmmakers (writers and directors) and despite all of the new insight, the level of understanding has not really improved … rather it’s become clear that there were many things we men didn’t know that we didn’t know.

Along comes a script written by Sonja Bennett that shines a spotlight on a mid-30’s single woman who is being left behind by her group of friends as they move on to motherhood and family life. Ms. Bennett also stars as Ruth, the party girl whose drunken behavior at a friend’s is not just inappropriate, but also injures a child. Her group of long-time friends decides that Ruth no longer fits in their circle and they inform her that she would be happier in a different social environment.

Ruth’s steady stream of booze and cigarettes, and the fact that she still lives with her dad (James Caan), set her in stark contrast to her “perfect” sister Hillary (Lisa Durupt) who has just announced she and her smartphone-bound husband are working on having a baby. This makes the grandfather-to-be VERY happy. Not long after, in a quirky unfolding of events, Ruth is mistakenly identified as “with child”, and rather than nip the misunderstanding in the bud, the fib is allowed to fully blossom … setting the stage for the entire story.

What follows is a combination of dark humor and slapstick that never quite clicks. By nature, the premise makes the ending somewhat predictable, but there are moments of brilliance in the script. However, it’s the comedy portions that never really bring the laughs … except for one pretty startling site gag sequence involving more Jello than even Bill Cosby has ever seen (is it Ok to make a Cosby reference these days?).

Most impressive is that the vast majority of scenes are between women, and about women. Yes, there is a love interest (Paul Campbell), a demanding dad (Caan), and comedy relief in the form of Danny Trejo, but these are mostly minor players in this perspective of how women treat each other once the “bun in the oven” comes into play. It’s also a commentary on what happens when a little oops is allowed to snowball into a no-win situation.

Director Jacob Tierney’s film has had success at film festivals, and that’s understandable since it’s a nice change of pace from the vast majority of ultra-serious films populating the lineups. While the education effort of female filmmakers continues … most of us men will appreciate the Jello catastrophe, but still end up right where we started – with a glazed-over look, hoping we don’t say the wrong thing.

watch the trailer:

 


MACHETE (2010)

September 6, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sprung from the loins of the fake trailer during the Tarantino/Rodriguez double bill Grindhouse, this one delivers everything it promises: comedy, corn, bloody violence, over-the-top political statements, and wild spoofy stunts. There really is no legitimate way to critique it or review it. If you possess the gene that allowed you to enjoy Grindhouse, you will certainly be entertained by Machete.

Robert Rodriguez co-directed and co-wrote the film and puts his stamp all over it. There is no challenge to discovering where Mr. Rodriguez stands on the immigration issues. He is fortunate enough to be a filmmaker who can deliver a message in ways that very few can. Of course, this is not strictly speaking a message movie. It is better termed a spoof … heck, it’s billed as mexploitation! Danny Trejo, character actor extraordinare, finally gets his chance to carry a movie and he seizes the moment. His portrayal of Machete is with striking force and a straight poker face. There is little doubt that he is the Mexican federale whose family was killed by a drug kingpin (played by Steven Segal). Trejo tries to get on with his life, but is drawn right back in to the battle thanks to a local activist played by Michelle Rodriguez (headquartered in a Taco stand … yes, really), and by Jeff Fahey, henchman to an ultra racist State Senator played by Robert Deniro.

For a movie that prides itself more on brain spatters than brain matter, there are sufficient twists to the story to keep the viewer interested. But the real fun comes in the outrageous moments like opening credits “introducing Don Johnson“, and the cat-like ability of Machete to avoid certain death. Laughs ensue when Machete drags his brother into the fight. His brother? A new-age priest (Cheech Marin) packing an arsenal in the pews.

All of this is going on while an immigration agent played by Jessica Alba is trying to put the squeeze on Latin legend “She”, who she suspects is Michelle Rodriguez. Alba spends her lunch break playing Wii to keep fit. If all this isn’t quirky enough for you, how about Lindsay Lohan playing Fahey’s strung-out daughter, who later in the film dons a nun’s habit and a pistol?

You could think of this movie along the lines of a master spoof, similar to Airplane, only with tons of violence and explosions. The visual gags are on display, as are the one-liners that come out of left field. Mr. Rodriguez has done well for himself and his high expectation fans. I believe he knows what we want because it’s exactly what he wants himself!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you loved Grindhouse and can appreciate violent, over-the-top action spoofs … or if you just want to be shocked by seeing Steven Segal onscreen again.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are “normal”


PREDATORS (2010)

July 10, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a fan of the 1987 original film directed by John McTiernan (Die Hard) and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, you couldn’t help but be a bit excited about this new one since Robert Rodriguez is involved. What a letdown.  It plays more like an episode of Lost, or even The Twilight Zone.

With films from Mr. Rodriguez, we have always been able to count on creativity, ingenuity, humor and excitement. This one lacks all. Now to be fair, the director is actually Nimrod Antal, whose resume includes Armored and Vacancy, both of which are as empty as this one.  But Mr. Rodriguez was very involved in the details.

Of course when your cast is minus Arnold, you start with a major handicap. When you replace him with Adrien Brody, you appear to be aiming for disappointment. Sure Mr. Brody did a few sit-ups to prep for this role, but he is no action hero, regardless of how he mimics the Christian Bale Batman voice in order to seem tough.

The rest of the bad luck cast of characters is rounded out by Laurence Fishbourne, Alice Braga, the great Danny Trejo (a Rodriguez staple), Topher Grace and Walton Goggins (so great as Boyd Crowder in Justified, TV’s best new series this past season). Just to add to the misery, the film score is simplistic and a bit of a joke itself. It certainly misses the excellent work of Alan Silvestri from the first film.

Not much need to discuss the lack of any real new material here. The bad guys are pretty much the same. The weapons are pretty much the same.  The cast and script are weaker. The real money with this one lies in a “making of” documentary in which the first “pitch” meeting takes place and the producers are presented with the idea to make a thrilling new action movie … a new Predator movie … starring … Adrien Brody and Topher Grace!