Directors: Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Rose McGowen, Freddy Rodriguez, Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton, Naveen Andrews, Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn, Stacy Ferguson, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Traci Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Running Time: 191 min.
**** (out of ****)
Grindhouse isn't just a movie, or even two movies. It's an experience. It isn't something you just watch. It's something you survive. For the past few weeks I've had everyone telling me how this is the kind of film you have to see in a theater (preferably a really grungy one) to truly appreciate and watching it in the comfort of your own home couldn't possibly do it justice. Now I know exactly what they were talking about. I was fortunate enough to see it with an audience who understood that. In the course of the over 3 hour double feature I found myself immersed in laughter, screams, applause and in some cases, walk outs. This is a trip where you're either on board or you're not. Those who appreciate it will have the time of their lives and a movie experience they won't soon forget.
With Grindhouse Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have made all their crazy fanboy dreams come true and have let us share it with them. In paying tribute to the exploitation films of the 70's that they grew up on, we're taken back to an age of cinema we thought was long gone. We see their love for those movies in every frame of both features. What's most impressive though is not how accurately they managed to capture look and feel of those B-movies, but how they also managed to recreate the experience of seeing movies in the 1970's. They've even thrown in some fake old school slasher trailers that will likely have you rolling on the floor with laughter. More importantly though they've also made two movies that would be considered fun in any decade, especially this one.
I can't beat around the bush with this one. Of the two features, Rodriguez's Planet Terror may provide more fun but Tarantino's Death Proof is the superior film and the one that will linger in the mind long after it's over. Rodriguez set out to make bad (good?) zombie flick and succeeded. He effectively and hilariously pays tribute to the films he loved, while sprinkling his own touches along the way. It's a blast, but Tarantino goes one step further. Actually, he goes a few steps further. He's not content on just paying tribute to or sending up 70's car chase, slasher or revenge films, he wants to make a great one of his own, and succeeds. Death Proof also contains some of the most beautiful actresses working in movies today, yet Tarantino never once makes it about that. He's always been an "actor's director" but it's never been displayed as broadly as it is here, as the performances he gets from them are unusually strong considering the material. While Planet Terror may be a great cult trash movie, Death Proof is something more.
Within the first second of Planet Terror you know you're in for something special. We're treated to go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowen) pole dancing in a scene not unlike the Jessica Alba cowboy hat and chaps strip dance in Sin City. I'm not a fan of Rose McGowen. I don't think she's a particularly good actress and looks kind of trashy. However, those qualifications work to her advantage here and make her absolutely perfect for this part. She gets to give a bad performance in a film that actually calls for it. The funny thing is that she doesn't. She's gives a good performance in a role that couldn't possibly fit her better.
Cherry is joined by her ex-boyfriend Wray (a bad ass Freddie Rodriguez), an outsider with a violent past, in a battle to rescue a Texas town besieged by zombies. Rounding out the fun is the town sheriff (Terminator's Michael Biehn), a barbecue cook (Jeff Fahey in a hilarious turn), a biochemist (Lost's Naveen Andrews) and best of all the sadistic, abusive Dr. William Block (Josh Brolin) and his lesbian anesthesiologist wife, Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), who has a very close relationship with her needles. I found this sub-plot the most fun and Brolin and Shelton look like they're having the time of their lives playing the feuding spouses.
We also get some interesting cameos from the great B-movie legend Tom Savini, the not so great singer Stacy Ferguson, Bruce Willis (as a corrupt military official who has the thankless task of actually trying to explain the plot of the film) and Quentin Tarantino as a sadistic rapist. I should divulge that the second Tarantino appeared onscreen the whole audience literally erupted with laughter. Let's just say he's never going to win an Academy Award for his acting but something unintentionally hilarious about his onscreen presence. He's so distracting as he screams all of his lines while making these ridiculously contorted facial expressions. In any other movie it wouldn't work, but of course here it's perfect. He shouldn't quit his day job though.
All of the performances and generally everything about this picture are hilarious and firmly rooted in the B-movie tradition with Rodriguez getting all the details right of the films he's honoring. The missing reels, the dirty prints, the muffled sound, the campy one-liners, the John Carpenter influenced early 80's synth score and the cheesy special effects. Despite this style though, Rodriguez manages to keep the gore level pretty high, as the film is actually incredibly graphic and disgusting. When Cherry is finally fitted with her infamous machine gun prosthesis by El Wray after losing her leg to the flesh eating zombies, it's an unbelievable moment because we were made to care about her. That's something you wouldn't find in any the zombie movies he's spoofing. McGowen will probably never in her life have a part as great as this again, but she's made me a believer that she deserves one. I thought the film kind of ran out of steam toward the end and the finale was anticlimactic, but is that really important in a movie like this? It's just supposed to be crazy mindless fun and no one can say Rodriguez underperformed there. Planet Terror is a wild ride.
Before and in between the double feature we see some fake slasher and revenge movie trailers, the first of which is the "re-imagining of a horror classic" with Rob Zombie's Halloween. Oh wait, that one's real. Well I guess if they HAVE to remake this (which they don't) Zombie's just about the only guy who can be trusted to do it. Seriously though, the trailer did look menacing and at least we know the remake is being tackled by someone who appreciates and respects the genre. Zombie also directs a hilarious fake trailer for Werewolf Women of the S.S. the title of which probably says it all. It's a Nazi exploitation spoof that features a hysterically memorable cameo from Nicholas Cage.
Rodriguez's own faux trailer for Machete starring Danny Trejo as a Mexican day laborer out for revenge against those who betrayed him, was hilarious and is the only trailer so far confirmed to be turned into an actual feature. Supposedly Rodriguez has nearly enough scenes already filmed for it. But that's not the one I really want to see made into a feature. That honor goes to Hostel director Eli Roth's Thanksgiving, which features a demented pilgrim carving hapless victims up as a creepy, muffled voice promises, "you're going home for the holidays…in a body bag." Classic. If I didn't know I would honestly think it was actually made in 1980. Roth's definitely going places as a filmmaker. Where? I'm not sure, but he's going somewhere. You also see a pretty neat trick involving a topless cheerleader, a trampoline and a knife. That's probably all I should say.
As pure comedy, no trailer worked better than Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright's for Don't, which is so simplistically stupid it's genius. The audience I saw it with agreed, as they would scream the word "Don't" at the screen along with the narrator. Now that's a good time. I'm not sure how this would sustain itself as a feature film but supposedly Wright's going to try.
There's a lot of talking in Death Proof. This isn't a surprise. It's a Quentin Tarantino movie. It's unfortunate in a way that it had to follow Planet Terror on the bill only because the films are so fundamentally different in style and execution that it almost forces the viewer to take sides. That's not really fair as Rodriguez and Tarantino are each making a film that reflect their own unique vision and style. After the adrenaline fueled ass kicking that is Planet Terror we slow down to enter the colorfully verbose world of Tarantino where characters talk, keep talking and then talk some more. Some would argue he just likes to hear his own dialogue. I can't argue with that and nobody ever claimed he wasn't self-indulgent. But if you wrote dialogue like that, you'd be self-indulgent too. Tarantino has a gift that few screenwriters can claim to possess: the ability to write the way people actually talk. Not only how they talk, but what they talk about. In Death Proof he does something that's becoming a lost art in slasher films: builds charcaters.
While Death Proof does have a throwback feel and look, Tarantino's print isn't nearly as scratched as Rodriguez's and he tells a slower paced story which of course includes Quentin trademarks like a great soundtrack filled with songs and bands only he's heard of. At least he has good taste. They only thing Planet Terror and Death Proof have in common is that they're both B-movies that would play as part of a grindhouse double feature. The similarities end there.
Kurt Russell is Stuntman Mike, a scarred former Hollywood stunt driver who's black 1971 Chevy Nova is one hundred percent death proof with the only catch being, as he gleefully boasts, that you have to sit in his seat to get the full benefit of it. You see his car is a weapon of mass destruction and homicide he unleashes on the unsuspecting young women of Austin, Texas. At first glance Mike seems like a charming guy who just came into the bar for a couple of drinks and then it's back on the road. Lurking beneath that calm exterior is a crazed psychopath and Tarantino shows the foresight not pull the trigger on that too early. We can wait. It'll be worth it.
It's a thrill to see Kurt Russell in a role like this again. He's one of those underrated actors who's always good in everything (even lightweight family fare like Miracle and Sky High), but this is the bad ass Russell we've wanted to see return and has been suppressed for too long. Finally a role that harkens back to his glory days as Snake Plissken in Escape From New York.
The first group of girls to feel the wrath of Mike and his deadly muscle car are led by Sydney Tamiia Poitier as local D.J. Jungle Julia. Her entourage includes Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), Shanna (Jordan Ladd) and pot dealer Lanna (Monica Staggs). Rose McGowen also returns as his very first victim, but in a role far different and more subdued than her work in Planet Terror. We also get more distracting and funny director cameos from Tarantino (this time as the owner of the bar) and Eli Roth as…some guy. I'm not completely sure what his purpose was but it was funny seeing him.
All the actresses are great, but one of them really stands out. Every once in a while when you're watching a film you have the privilege of witnessing the birth of a star. That moment comes the second Poitier appears on screen. She just commands your attention. She has it right way obviously by how she looks, but the girl can act and deliver Tarantino's rapid-fire dialogue like it's nobody's business. The first half of Death Proof literally belongs to her. When the moment of homicidal destruction does finally come it's just brutal, especially when Tarantino takes the camera inside the car and you feel what it's like to be sitting, quite literally, in the death seat.
The second group of girls consist of Hollywood makeup artist Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), stuntwomen Kim (Traci Thoms) and Zoe (New Zealander Zoe Bell, Uma Thurman's stuntwoman in Kill Bill, playing herself) and sweet, air headed actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Tarantino lets us spend what seems like a week and a day getting to know these women in long uninterrupted takes, which means there's some really impressive acting here. Some people will dig this, others won't. I was hanging on every word. Stuntman Mike has them on his radar, but this time he picked the wrong girls. They're not taking shit from anybody and are going to put up the fight of their lives. What unfolds next will go down as one the great car chase scenes in motion picture history.
Tarantino proudly wears his cinema influences on his sleeve as he directly references killer road films like Two-Lane Blacktop, Gone in 60 Seconds (the original "not that Angelina Jolie shit") and best of all, Vanishing Point. It's the 1970 Dodge Challenger from that film that the girls decide to take on the test drive that leads to the film's thrilling final 20-minute thrill ride that uses no CGI. It becomes pretty clear soon why a professional stuntwoman had to play herself. I could lie to you and say this was one of the few times I found myself worried for the safety of an actor or actress in a film, but I was so caught up in the thrilling scene that it was actually the last thing on my mind. It didn't hit me how dangerous it really was until after it ended. It's a reminder of just how much CGI have destroyed movies.
Ironically the whole purpose of computer generated effects in movies was to create a sense of wonder, but it's actually done just the opposite because they always look so ridiculously fake. Here, a woman is really hanging on for her life on the hood of a car going 90 mph. No computer image can replicate that thrill. This sequence was a reminder of how we need to get back to that.
It helps that we're personally invested in the fates of these extremely likable women because we were given the time to get to know them. I don't think I ever cared more about what happens to anyone in an action movie than I did here. They're not characters, but real people with feelings, thoughts, ideas, beliefs and problems. You can accuse Tarantino of a lot of things but no one can say he objectifies or denigrates women. These women are strong, empowered and out to kick ass. Tarantino made a chick flick. In any other film all these roles would probably be played by men.
These four actresses are given the ball and run all the way with it, especially Traci Thoms as Kim. I'm pretty familiar with Thoms, from her co-starring role on tv's Cold Case to some of her supporting film work (Rent among others), but nothing could have prepared me for the spunk she brings to this role. If Poitier owned the first half of Death Proof, the second half is all hers. Zoe Bell isn't an actress, but she definitely will be after this. She exudes a natural charm and likablity in her very first acting role. I don't care if she's "just playing herself" because she's doing it extremely well.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives a really adorable performance as Lee. So much so that you can actually understand Rosario Dawson's position in her supposed on-set argument with Tarantino about leaving Winstead's character behind with that sleazy redneck. However, we never do see what happens and it is an absolute necessity of the story, so Tarantino wins. But what a testament it is to Winstead and the film that we really do care what happens to her. I have a feeling this controversy is something we'll hear more about on the DVD.
Lately everyone's been trying to figure out why this movie flopped at the box office. Was it the over 3 hour running time? The hard R rating? Did the grindhouse idea fly over current moviegoers' heads? I'm both disappointed and relieved that the movie didn't make any money. Obviously disappointed because it's an incredible experience that deserves to be seen and appreciated by a wide audience, but relieved because it will now exist exactly where it should be: on the fringe.
The second it was over I already had a burning desire to watch it again. It's that kind of movie. It's box office failure could be considered the ultimate tribute to trashy grindhouse cinema. Really, how many of those 70's movies even made a cent? Tarantino and Rodriguez will continue to do what they do best no matter how much this rakes in, and as much as he hates it, Harvey Weinstein knows there's nothing he can do about it. It's only April but I'd be shocked if there are many better films this year than Grindhouse. If there is, or even if there isn't, 2007 will go down as one hell of a year for movies.