First up on the Grindhouse double bill is Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, an ooey-gooey zombie flick that's 105 minutes of pure, unadulterated fun.
As can be expected, the Army's tinkering with biological and chemical weapons results in green gas filling the skies over the Texas countryside, which in turn transforms the populace into hideously deformed, pus-oozing, flesh-eating monsters. A band of plucky survivors, featuring world-renowned badass Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), one-legged go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), BBQ maverick J.T. (Jeff Fahey), and lesbo-style doctor adulteress Dakota (Marley Shelton), fights its way through the body parts and goop as they try to last the night.
As I said, there's no denying the fun of this movie. The colors are luscious, the action is over-the-top, and the gore flies freely- it's as if rather than trying to recreate a true Grindhouse -style movie (which would have about 1/1000 of Planet Terror's budget), Rodriguez created a pastiche of everything he loves about those films. With its perfect synth score and liberal use of lights and smoke, this flick is akin to an American reinterpretation of an Italian interpretation of a John Carpenter movie. It's truly an outrageous sight to behold, and if you're not wearing a big, goofy grin when Cherry Darling flies through the air in front of an explosion and launches rockets out of her rocket launcher leg, then I have to wonder what kind of movie would give you a big goofy grin.
My biggest complaint with Planet Terror is Rose McGowan, who...well, I'm not sure exactly if her performance is so stilted purposefully (this is, after all a Z-grade movie on a big budget), or if the countless Restylane injections have not only frozen up her face but also her acting abilities. With that machine gun leg, Cherry Darling has the potential to become a real action/horror movie icon; with McGowan's flat performance, however, she's just a girl with a machine gun leg. Which, I'll admit, is still pretty fucking awesome. I just wish she'd been a little less self-conscious and a bit more fun, like the rest of the cast.
If I never see "The Crazy Babysitter Twins" or Quentin Tarantino in a movie again, though, it won't be too soon. Or it will be too soon, or however the saying goes when I mean that they were all fairly irritating.
Scenes to watch out for: "You'll blow your own head off!" and The Death of Fergie, which oddly enough got me thinking about Lamberto Bava's Demons...definite 80s Italian vibe.
On to the much-maligned Tarantino-helmed half of the proceedings, Death Proof. A bunch of obnoxious girls spouting obvious Tarantino dialogue* head off for a weekend at a lake house, stopping several times along the way to drink margaritas, pound shots of Wild Turkey, talk about sexy times, and smoke up. Enter the nacho-loving Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a man who likes to use his "death proof" stunt car to terrorize and/or kill obnoxious girls.
A big complaint about this film is that all that dialogue and yammering gets in the way of the action, and sure, it does. Tarantino isn't simply paying homage to the Grindhouse movie here, he's making one. Check out Unhinged, or hell, even Halloween: horror movies of yore were largely dialogue and yammering. Girls talk...and talk...and talk, and then 40 or 50 minutes in, something happens. Keeping this in mind, I was totally on board with the first half of Death Proof. Tarantino lays out all the hallmarks of the slasher film (weekend getaway, etc), epitomized in the scenes where Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) keeps noticing this creepy black car that seems to keep noticing her. That shit is straight outta Halloween y'all.
In related news, Vanessa Ferlito is pretty fucking terrific in this movie.
When everyone decides it's finally time to head out to the lake house for reals, things get cooking. Pam (McGowan again, just as horribly one-note as she was in Planet Terror) makes the mistake of getting into Stuntman Mike's car and suddenly he transforms from sorta-weird has-been to totally-weird homicidal has-been and it all goes to hell.
Exhilarating hell. Once Stuntman Mike gets his death proof on, the car crash is phenomenal and decidedly not CGI. At this point, Death Proof absolutely lives up to its tagline: "A white-hot juggernaut at 200 miles per hour!"
Sadly, though, all that promise comes to a grinding halt in the second half of the film when the action shifts from Texas to Tennessee. As all of our protagonists died in Mike's assault, we're introduced to a new group of girls, even more obnoxious than the first. As they're all involved in the film industry, they sit around once again spouting obvious Tarantino dialogue about their lives and their jobs and sexy times and how rad Zoe Bell is.
In the parking lot of a convenience store, they catch Stuntman Mike's eye. The girls take a Dodge Challenger for a test spin, which not only allows for Zoe Bell to act like Zoe Bell, but also for Tarantino to list off some muscle-car films we should all seek out immediately. Stuntman Mike catches up to them and engages the girls in some vehicular terrorizin', then the girls turn the tables. Mike wimps out, the girls beat the shit out of him, the end. Literally.
The car chase is fantastic and again, CGI-less. It's filmmaking of a type you don't really see on screen anymore- there are no frenetic edits. Tarantino goes for lengthy shots that up the tension, and again, it's exhilarating. It's too bad, however, that this fantastic sequence is mired in so much bullshit.
It's obvious that Quentin became enamoured with Zoe Bell on the set of Kill Bill, so he decided to build a movie around her and her abilities. That's fine, I suppose, she's great and all, but someone already built a movie around her: the 2004 documentary Double Dare. When Death Proof should have been riding the momentum gained from that magnificent wreck that concluded the first half, it became mired in too-long stories about Zoe Bell's exploits, and that's a real missed opportunity.
Death Proof would have worked better, I think, as a type of rape-revenge film. It is, of a sort, but there's no "rape"- for the ass-kicking/potential murder of Stuntman Mike to pack the wallop it needed to, the stakes needed to be much higher than a game of chicken where no one got hurt. If Tarantino had spent less time at the shrine of Our Lady Zoe of the Bell and more time, say, offing one of the second half's protagonists, the end would have been far more cathartic than it turned out to be. Why not have Mike, I don't know, run over Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) or something? She was completely inessential to the story anyway, and it would have provided a believable impetus for revenge.
All of that said, damn, Tarantino really knows how to shoot a movie. The first half, wherein he kept up the Grindhouse conceits (scratched "film stock", etc), was spot fucking on. I'm not sure why he chose to present the second half in pristine DV, but it was a disappointment regardless.
All of that said, the Grindhouse conceits in both Death Proof and Planet Terror are a bit maddening, for all their "authenticity". They're made to look like films from the '70s, but both also feature modern conveniences like cell phones. It simply doesn't jive or make sense: if these are meant to be "lost films" of a bygone era (I wish this was the intent, but I doubt it), then get rid of the cell phones. If they're modern films in the style of the bygone era (more like it), then why is the "stock" so beat up? It's akin to a CD player made to look like a record player: essentially pointless. Get a GD record player and spin vinyl, or play your CDs on an appropriate device.
Still, I admire the obvious love and nostalgia going on here, and if nothing else, the work of Rodriguez and Tarantino has brought about a revival of Grindhouse flicks- for better or for worse. Anything that brings Pieces to the masses, after all, is fine by me. Unfortunately, I think the ultimate failure (relatively speaking, natch) of the project indicates that the days where audiences would gladly sit on questionably-stained seats for two features and trailers galore are pretty much over. The geeks will still sit for hours on end, sure, but attention spans and "movie culture" have changed, no matter how much some of us may wish otherwise.
Really, though, where were the tits?
*Let it be noted that I don't necessarily mind Tarantino dialogue, unless it simply becomes a list of what QT likes. I mind that all of his characters, male or female, sound alike. The onus is on the actors to make them individuals, and only some of them succeed.
Film Club Coolies, y'all!
The Dark Side Critic
The Agitation of the Mind
It's Dark in the Dark
Exiled from Contentment
Acheter et entretenir sa tronconneuse: Planet Terror / Death Proof