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From Dusk Till Dawn: Season One
Based upon the cult favorite 90's film from director Robert Rodriguez, From Dusk Till Dawn is a new television program for the El Rey network which simultaneously explores the origin and the story of that pop-culture film success as groundwork while adding in a new mythology, mystery, and characters to keep it fresh and original. The series has already received a renewal for a second season. For fans of the filmmaker Rodriguez this is an exciting new series that shows enough promise to be a successful reboot and reinterpretation (while also honoring the film's legacy as a fan-favorite slice of genre filmmaking).
Director-writer-producer-special-effects-wizard-editor-musician-cinematographer and all around movie buff Robert Rodriguez has had his hands full recently with making (in a little over a year) Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Machete Kills, and the creation of this new From Dusk Till Dawn television program for the new El Rey network (as based on the film he directed, written by Quentin Tarantino) and in working on a similarly new El Rey series getting off the ground entitled Matador.
The Austin, TX film whiz who became his career with a breakout film El Mariachi during the independent cinema boom of the 1990's has built a massive career in Hollywood filmmaking while managing to retain his Texas film roots. Rodriguez has built a unique career of family-friendly fare (the Spy Kids film series, Shorts, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl) to abundant b-movie fare with films like Desperado, Sin City, and Grindhouse (with which he made the feature Planet Terror and collaborated once more with longtime friend and fellow filmmaker Quentin Tarantino).
Machete Kills seemed less inspired and felt more like it was a 'going-through-the-motions' effort, yet Rodriguez seems re-fueled and energized with the idea of revisiting his beloved cult classic through creating his first television production (and presumably many more will come on his fledgling network). The director has also said he is open to the possibility of more series that revolve around films or characters in his universe (I would personally go for a Spy Kids series starring the now adult Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara (the actors from the original films) taking on brand new missions. For me, that would be ridiculously awesome. (Please, El Rey network... make it happen!)
You may be wondering: what is the El Rey network? It's a new television venture by none other than Rodriguez, who submitted a proposal for a new television station last year that has been a major undertaking for the filmmaker. Part of the proposal was that his network would be one spotlighting works that are produced and created by Rodriguez for the station. And with the successful launch of the channel, Rodriguez thought that revisiting the world and characters created by Tarantino for the small screen was a great idea and it was a story he wanted to be more fully explore himself.
Rodriguez's love for Grindhouse style filmmaking and vampire mythology is a huge element of this series. He liked the idea of expanding on the universe in a 'book style' format where there is more character development and more mythology based upon actual Mesoamerican, Aztec, and Mayan mythologies based upon 'blood cults' which sounded to him vampire-like, so basing these historical accounts taking place in Mexico, Rodriguez thought up new ways to expand storylines of the film into a television series that revisits the characters, settings, and elements of the film but in a new way -- both a television 'remake' of sorts where things play out at a much slower pace -- (the original film is completely covered by the end of the first season) to being a new creation altogether with some new characters and changes to the writing and directing. The television version both adds and subtracts aspects. Ultimately, it works well at this balance.
One of the huge obstacles in making this program was the role of casting on the show. It was important to find the right actors for the parts which had been made famous. Rodriguez talked about the pressure of finding the right actors for such iconic roles; finding perfect actors that could both honor the performances by George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino and also add a new spin to the characters -- Harvey Keitel's role as the father/preacher is now cast as Robert Patrick (Terminator 2, The X-Files), who adds a great dramatic performance to the series that unquestionably feels like a huge part of the heart of the series.
The Gecko Brothers: Seth Gecko (D.J. Cotrona) and Richie Gecko (Zane Holtz) are back. Somehow these two bank robbers find themselves working for a vampire mob of sorts. It ultimately leads them to a mind-trip showdown with vampires and prophecies and strange occurrences by season's end. The strange, warped brothers traverse towards Mexico after stumbling on the run from their bank heist and kidnap a traveling family to help them into Mexico.
That family of characters consists of Jacob Fuller (the brilliant Robert Patrick), Kate Fuller (Madison Davenport), and Scott Fuller (Brandon Soo Hoo). The family has lost their beloved mother (and for Jacob, a beloved wife) in the last year. Jacob decides to take the family on a trip to rediscover themselves and find a new sense of where their lives are at. This is where the series finds its core as this family in crisis is explored in a way richer and more rewarding than the film was able to do with such a short run-time. Jacob was a pastor in their home-town and both of his children are religious as well, but Jacob is in his own state of crisis because of his wife's death. During the season, this question on faith and spirituality and their roles in people's lives is a big part of the season and as it relates to this family as they search for meaning amidst a increasingly crazy situation. Patrick is in many ways the most impressive performer of the season and brings a gravitas to the show that keeps it compelling at each turn of events. Both Madison Davenport and Brandon Soo Hoo also do commendable jobs with solid performances that enhance From Dusk Till Dawn's expanded storyline.
Cotrona offers up a splendidly confident performance with the same degree of laid-back enthusiasm that Clooney offered, and manages to make the role his own at the same time. Relative unknown Holtz looks a lot more like Brendan Fraiser than Quentin Tarantino, and performs the part in a way that is definitely his own. While Tarantino's version of the character was played with a sort of bizarre gleefulness, Holtz manages to make Richie Gecko much darker, disturbing, and psychotic (even more so than he even was in the original film); he plays the part with a surprising degree of dark precision that makes the character uniquely differing from Tarantino's original concept while not breaking away from that original part entirely.
Don Johnson also adds his southern drawl and grace to his recurring part, though it's a small one it's also memorable and appreciable. That 70's Show Wilmer Valderrama also plays a surprising character with a lot of menace and vampire hierarchy that is in total opposition to the comedic roles people know him for: here he plays a really wicked character named Carlos (referenced throughout the original film but never seen) and with a strong dramatic flair that wasn't seen by the actor before to this degree. New to the series is also a revenge-seeking police officer named Freddie Gonzales (Jesse Garcia), who adds a lot of depth and dimension to the program. He is a complex character looking to protect his family while also going out on his quest for the Gecko brothers. In many ways, Garcia's performance of this character is one of the other core grounding attributes and it's a nice addition to the show. Gonzales is a smart, likeable character but also one facing his own fears and struggles on the journey (alongside all of the other varied characters on this series).
Over the course of the season, the basic story concept of the two outlaw brothers on the run traversing into Mexico with a completely different family entering their lives is expanded successfully and in ways even more compelling than the film in some respects, with more breathing room for the spiritual questions at play. By season's end, everyone ends up in an incredibly bizarre vampire world and face-off. The series explores their fight for survival, deeper mysteries surrounding the origins of vampires, and the strange mysterious mental connections between some of the characters and the vampires entering their lives - which especially becomes a focus of the season with the psychotic Richie Gecko seeing visions, following them, and acting like the craziest one of all. Where exactly these storylines will ultimately leads to is in itself a mystery but it seems like Rodriguez and his collaborators genuinely seek to be up for that challenge.
Rodriguez not only created the show but directed 4 of the 10 episodes. This had led to the series ultimately feeling like a Rodriguez television series, which makes sense, given that his unique brand of filmmaking is on display here. With that component comes quality production merits; excellent sets and special effects that are very much close to being on par with feature films made by his own production companies. From Dusk Till Dawn is a modestly budgeted series compared to many Hollywood films, but then, Rodriguez has always managed to create works that seemed like they had larger budgets than they did with so much technical understanding of CGI and other production merits. Combing this deft production understanding with a group of writers aptly expanding on the original characters, storyline, and themes of the feature film is a successful attribute to the program. It might not be a perfect series - the last few of the season's episodes were not quite as good as the start was, for example - and it's concluding Grindhouse style action scenes will appeal to some and disappoint others, but overall this is a quality series which has a lot of potential.
Some lingering mysteries are still around at the end of this season 1 outing. Hopefully season two continues to expand and explore the mythological and mysterious underpinnings of the program (which are in many ways the best part as the series finds ways to keep the audience guessing about the plot and it's direction). While it's unclear how the series may continue one gets the sense that it will at the least be an interesting: Rodriguez begins to play in television's sandbox for the first time and the results are both noteworthy and intriguing.
From Dusk Till Dawn arrives on Blu-ray with an incredible presentation for a television series. Colors seem so alive, vibrant, and surreal that it adds a unique element to the production merit. The show looks just as impressive as a well-budgeted film and these 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encodes do a splendid job of demonstrating the show's immensely theatrical filmmaking qualities. Contrast, depth, and clarity are all strong. Close up shots have great detail. The presentation has minor faults in minute compression-related banding, but for the most part this is not an issue. The series has a strong 25mbps bit-rate which makes this a very good encoding for a television series release. Fans will appreciate the efforts undergone to bring this series to Blu-ray with a high quality presentation.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio presentation is one of the more dynamic sounding presentations I've heard for any television series. The separation between the speakers is quite impressive and works on the same level as one typically expects from high-production-budget films. From the battle scenes to the quieter moments, the sound mix still finds ways to creatively implement its sound into the experience and it adds great ambiance to the show. The score by composer Carl Thiel (frequent collaborator of Rodriguez, who has also helped score the likes of Planet Terror, Machete Kills, Shorts, and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) also sounds splendid here and has a creativity and clarity that strongly impresses. This is a noteworthy lossless audio presentation that will surely please fans.
There are a number of extras on this release -- much more than recent Rodriguez films, which used to be jam-packed to the brim with supplements. It may be a bit of an indication of more investment right now in this television series and his new El Rey network's growing success.
The set includes six audio commentaries across six of the ten episodes. Commentaries are included on the Pilot, Blood Runs Thick, Place of Dead Roads, Pandemonium, La Conquista, and The Take. Featuring Robert Rodriguez and several cast members, additional episode writers, and executive producers for the series, these commentaries are one of the highlights of the bonus materials included on the set.
The Pilot Premiere at Alamo Drafthouse - Q&A with Cast and Creator/Director Rodriguez (34 min.) is one of the best supplements. It features a good panel-like discussion with Rodriguez, alongside most of the cast, as they discuss the program's creation and their parts of the show while answering audience questions.
On Set: Episode One - Day One (2 min.) is a brief behind-the-scenes segment on the making of the pilot episode.
On Set: The Making Of From Dusk Till Dawn (23 min.) is a reasonably well-made behind the scenes special which was originally created to air on the El Rey network. It offers interviews with the cast, crew, producers, directors, and (of course) creator/director Robert Rodriguez about the origin of the show. There is quite a bit of interesting information about the thought process in the production design, costume design, and other technical components. It was also interesting to learn just how many of the individuals involved on the show's crew are longtime collaborators to Rodriguez who are still working with the director on this new television venture.
SXSW Featurette (1 min.) would better be described as an exclusive promotional trailer that was made specifically for the film festival in Austin, TX.
Best Kills Video (1 min.) is a redundant and unnecessary promotional piece showing the 'best' vampire kills on the show.
Behind the Scenes (3 min.) includes promotional material showing brief behind the scenes moments (as sponsored by General Motors and Dos Equis).
Commercials for General Motors and Dos Equis are also included, featuring some of the cast members (D.J. Cotrona and Wilmer Valderrama). Lastly, a Big Kahuna Commercial for the popular burger shop (which was highlighted on the series).
Character Bio Featurettes (5 min.) offers audiences who are less familiar with either the film or series a basic run-down on the characters of this universe with clips from the television series).
What's in the Briefcase Spot (22 sec.) is a commercial for From Dusk Till Dawn that includes a reference to Tarantino's famous Pulp Fiction scene (the big reveal is the El Rey network being inside the briefcase).
Full Length Trailer (2 min.) is a film-like promotional trailer for the television series.
From Dusk Till Dawn is a surprisingly effective television reboot of the original cult classic film from director Robert Rodriguez and writer Quentin Tarantino. The series aptly draws upon the original script and makes this a more drawn out and fully explored universe. The ending of S1 concludes where the original film left off (while leaving viewers with some new and surprising elements along the way). It's a bit unclear where the series may head to next but it's going to be interesting to see where Rodriguez and his fellows writers/directors take the program next year. Anyone who considers themselves a fan of the source film that inspired this series should check out this incarnation. This series is an effective new spin on the material that should keep fans of the Grindhouse filmmaking duo of Rodriguez and Tarantino entertained with its unique vampire mythology and the mystery undercurrent going on throughout the season. EOne Entertainment is worth commending as well for the excellent Blu-ray release quality.
Neil Lumbard is a lifelong fan of cinema. He aspires to make movies and has written two screenplays on spec. He loves writing, and currently does in Texas.