Saturday, August 23, 2008

#54, #55: GRINDHOUSE (Planet Terror and Death Proof


Planet Terror
Directed by Robert Rodriguez
Written by Robert Rodriguez
Released June 21, 2007

Death Proof
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Written by Quentin Tarantino
Released June 21, 2007

In the Summer of 2007, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez teamed up to pay homage to 70s B-movies and bring back the midnight movie double-feature experience. The whole package was called Grindhouse, a reference to the name given the brand of cinema shown at grimy old film houses that specialized in fare like kung-fu, horror and exploitation movies.

In my opinion, it was a goddamn shame that this package, which paired Rodriguez's sci-fi/horror Planet Terror with Tarantino's Jaws-via-cars thriller Death Proof, was not a box office hit. It kind of befuddled me... What's not to love about two movies for the price of one? About zombies and car chases? About machine guns and machine-gun mouths? Sex, blood and rock and roll?

Personally, I could sit at a movie theater for hours. In fact, I wish they just charged by the hour ($2 is a suggestion). I kind of hate summer, so when I used to live in Chicago, I would go to some cavernous multi-plex and plan out an afternoon of sneaking around inside. Grindhouse was right up my alley. I saw it three times in its theatrical release, and it was fun every time. Buy a giant soda and sneak in some booze and a few cheeseburgers... good times, good times.

Sadly, the pairing of those two movies pretty much bombed in theaters, and the double feature idea was nixed by the time the films saw release in the U.K.. Same goes for the DVDs: both films we released separately. Maybe I'm a purist, but the idea that these movies were meant as a whole experience, I can't watch one without the other. Tonight, with Netflix leaving me high and dry, I paired the movie, got properly inebriated, grabbed a bunch of sodas and snacks, and watched Grindhouse proper.

Save one exception: the fake movie previews that separated Rodriguez and Tarantino's films are not on either DVD. Rodriguez's awesome Machete preview still comes before Planet Terror, so at least they got it half right. Machete, by the way, looks like it could have been Danny Trejo's best role ever, and the movie doesn't even really exist. "He just fucked with the wrong Mexican!" Supposedly, Rodriguez is talking about actually filming the movie. That makes me happy.

We go from Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin blowing away whitey with double shotguns and a flying motorcycle attack to Rodriguez's almost note perfect tribute to the movies of George Romero and John Carpenter. Planet Terror is like Night of the Living Dead meets a Chuck Norris movie. The dialogue is appropriately keyed to those old movie scripts, with childish yet hilarious dialogue like:

"Where's the shit?"
"The shit's right there. The deal is still good."

and, my favorite:

"I want to eat your brains and gain your knowledge."

Rodriguez's masterstroke is hiring great B-movie actors like Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey and Tom Savini (who is hilarious in his role as an inept police deputy) alongside a restrained Bruce Willis and the never better Freddie Rodriguez (no relation to the director). Rodriguez makes a great, if surprising, heavy, and it's his conviction that sells the movie. Everyone looks like they're having a blast, and playing their roles without once blinking at the audience to make sure we know this is all a tribute.

In addition, you've got pretty much the beginning of the resurrection of Josh Brolin. He looks as he if has stepped right off a classic Carpenter movie and into his role as a somewhat mad, definitely malicious doctor.

Throw in the barrage of nonstop and over-the-top violence (wait until you see what Rodriguez puts his own son through during the handgun scene!), the varied and effective score and special effects that make the movie look like you're watching it on a sketchy projector that could very well melt the entire reel of film at any time, and you've got yourself a damn good time.

This one got great crowd reactions every time I saw it in the theater, especially in the scene where Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas nearly gets run down in the middle of the highway and a driver yells, "Get out of the fuckin' road, bitch!" There's also an incredibly clever device at a key scene where Rodriguez employs a "Missing Reel" joke. A stand-up comic has daydreams about getting the kind of laugh out of a crowd this scene evoked from the audience when it suddenly snaps back to the next reel.

Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof has a tough act to follow, and in some ways, it fails in comparison to Rodriguez's movie. Comparing the two isn't wholly fair, since they are two very different genre films. Planet Terror is the movie of the two that is more capable of standing on its own, outside of the double feature format. Death Proof is, in some ways, about movies (and isn't that the case with almost all of Tarantino's films?). It's kind of the Scream of car chase/suspense movies; it takes time out to essentially deconstruct the genre it is attempting to enlighten you on.

Remember earlier, when I reviewed The Seven Ups, and said it was basically an average movie built around one very awesome car chase? That's what Death Proof is, and it's one of the greatest of its particular genre. These movies were typically low budget, and whatever budget they had was mostly reserved for that one white knuckle car chase. The rest was typically a bunch of random dialogue.

If it's random dialogue you want, Tarantino has never been more your man than in this movie. This is, unfortunately, part of the problem. The first 20 to 25 minutes is non-stop jibber jabber, mostly from an annoying character named "Jungle" Julia. Jungle Julia is basically Tarantino sees himself: as a black woman. Julia spouts off pop culture minutae and is trying so hard to act cool that it's embarassing. If you've ever seen Quentin Tarantino get interviewed on a talk show, this is exactly what he's like.

Of course, when Tarantino himself shows up as a bartender and annoys instantly (he's much better as the military douchebag in Planet Terror), which means for several minutes there are TWO Tarantino characters on screen, trying to out cool each other.

A "director's cut" of a movie can swing both ways. In the case of Death Proof, the added or extended scenes don't really add up to much here, but it is nice to watch Russell chew scenery for a few more minutes. Oh yeah, and there's the matter of that lap dance to The Coasters' "Down in Mexico." It's hard to explain how the lap dance arises, but the scene where Kurt Russell negotiates for it is a perfect level of creepy and seducing. When you see what Russell has planned for this crew of ladies (scored to the scorching garage rock of Dave Dee, Dozy, Mick and Tich), it makes the lap dance seduction that much more evil. Watch the "accident" I'm referring to in slow motion if you happen to rent the movie. You'll see what I mean.

The bulk of the extra scenes come right where brevity is needed. You know the killer, you've seen his m.o., lets get to that wicked awesome car chase. Instead, we're talking about, what, inport issues of ItalianVogue? Tarantino even manages to insert us into a long conversation about car chase movies between the four new targets of Stuntman Mike's attention. It's almost like he's apologizing for the sheer nothingness of the second half of his script: four women attempt to test drive a car. Hey, at least in this movie he's supposed to be stealing from other movies.

Again, the appearance of Russell pulls you out of the doldrums, and the movie explodes into a near 20 minute, three act deadly car chase, and it really is worth the wait. Zoe Bell, a stuntwoman playing herself, does some work on the hood of a car that will scare the shit out of you, and that's before Stuntman Mike shows up.

I won't give away any more, but I will say that revenge has had few better payoffs than the final scene in Death Proof.

Watching these two movies tonight was fun, but I would love to do something like this in a theater. I've been looking around trying to see how much it would cost to rent a theater out for a night. I'd love to screen a couple of movies, maybe even on Halloween night, for friends as a big party. Sneak in some booze, watch a couple of slasher flicks and yell at the screen. That's worth almost any price in my book.

For more on Planet Terror:
- The usual links at IMDB and Wikipedia.

For more on Death Proof:
- IMDB and Wikipedia.

This YouTube video of Eli Roth's fake trailer for a horror movie called Thangsgiving, shot in a crowded theater, is a great example of what seeing these movies with a knowing crowd was like:

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