Last night I got to check out "Grindhouse" over at the Vista Theater, and it did not disappoint!
I'm one of those people who always reads every review I can before checking out a film. I often end up spoiling things for myself. So any film that can stand up to that kind of treatment and win me over must be very special indeed. "Grindhouse" grabbed me from the first scratched and battered frame and didn't let go for the duration of its 3-hour-plus running time.
As most people already know, the film is really two films, an old-fashioned double feature: Planet Terror by Robert Rodriguez and Death Proof by Quentin Tarantino. It's funny how mainstream critics almost unanimously gravitated towards Death Proof, praising its characterization and writing and rather haughtily dismissed Planet Terror as being too over-the-top and a "guilty pleasure". Based on those reviews, I was prepared to be really bowled over by Planet Terror and somewhat bored by Death Proof, which sounded like eight chicks sitting around yammering for an hour-and-a half with a couple of car crashes and a few impressive stunts thrown in.
Well, although I did end up preferring Planet Terror and would probably choose to own it over Death Proof, one must never underestimate Tarantino's talent for entertainment. Although not a film I will necessarily want to see again and again (unlike Kill Bill Vol. 1 or Jackie Brown which have semi-regular screenings at my place), he builds the suspense and tension masterfully and just when things begin to lag, he throws in a subtle visual cue, a surprisingly erotic flirtation or a tension-relieving belly laugh that captures the audience's full attention. By the end of the film, I wasn't the only one hooting and hollering out loud and cheering on the heroines.
But back to the beginning, or Planet Terror. I am not going to spoil the fun but I do want to point out a few things. First off, this is the half of the double feature for true grindhouse fans. It's got pustule-faced zombies (or "infected" if you prefer), wood splinter in the eye, exploding head, castration, attempted rape, death of a child (for comic effect!), explosions out the wazoo and, of course, a one-legged Rose McGowan with a gun for a leg. It is the in-your-face violence-saturated, razzle-dazzle Kill Bill Vol. 1 whereas Death Proof is the softer, subtler, more critic-friendly Kill Bill, Vol. 2.
In addition to the splatter and action, we've got some fun performances from Freddy Rodriguez as master gunfighter El Wray, Michael Biehn as the upstanding Sheriff, Jeff Fahey as his brother J.T., who won't give away his secret barbeque recipe until he's on his deathbed, Naveen Andrews as a vicious scientist/gangster who collects the balls of his enemies, Robert Rodriguez's nieces Elise and Electra Avellan as a couple of twisted hellcat babysitters, and Josh Brolin (who seems to have aged thirty years in the past ten) as a jealous, homicidal physician. And although I'm not a huge fan of Rose McGowan as an actress, I really like the physicality she brings to her role as Cherry Darling. She starts out as a sultry, sad, graceful two-limbed go-go dancer (NOT stripper, as she clarifies), then hobbles around awkwardly and comically on a makeshift chairleg attached to her stump for most of the film. But it is in the finale, when she receives her machine-gun upgrade, that she becomes a Terminator-like killing machine, mowing down all the baddies in her path.
But standing head and shoulders above all of these performances is one that has received little mention in most of the other reviews I've read. And that is Marley Shelton's turn as Dr. Dakota Block. Shelton has quite a slew of credits to her name, but the only role prior to this one that made an impression on me was as the pregnant cheerleader in Sugar and Spice. In Planet Terror, she owns every scene she's in as wife, mother, secret lesbian lover (of Fergie!), and most importantly, anesthesiologist who's as quick and deadly with a syringe as El Wray is with a gun. Smart, resourceful and handicapable, she spends much of the film with two numb wrists and hands (the film's most ingenious visual gag) and still manages to drive a car and sling syringes at the zombies. She reminded me very much of Dee Wallace Stone in Cujo--a survivor who keeps her wits about her in crisis and finds creative ways to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. She is the character who explains the film's philosophy, which is that all of the seemingly useless tricks we learn in life serve some purpose at some point and can make us achieve greatness. Crude, gross and with a lot more subtext than the other critics would have you believe, Planet Terror rocked my world.
As for Death Proof, it's essentially a "Women Take Revenge on a Homicidal Maniac" movie a la Slumber Party Massacre, but with cars as weapons instead of knives. Although Tarantino attempts to give the female characters personalities through lots of banter, I found that the technique only worked half the time. The problem is really in the casting. While Rosario Dawson, Rose McGowan (blonde here and actually more convincing as a ditz than a hard femme fatale—see also Scream, one of her best roles to date), Tracie Thoms, Zoe Bell (Uma Thurman's stunt double from Kill Bill playing herself, more or less) and Lanna Frank (Daryl Hannah's stunt double from Kill Bill, here in a small role but with a lot of personality) pull off Tarantino's pop-culture-reference-heavy dialogue in a more or less natural manner, I have to give thumbs down to Jordan Ladd and especially Sydney Poitier.
I tried really hard to let them slide, but every time they opened their mouths, a major vacuum of suck opened up in the movie theater. Ladd has little to do but smile and smoke pot, but Tarantino gives Poitier some very lengthy (too lengthy?) speeches that she intones as if she's reading them off the page for the first time. As DJ Jungle Julia, she convinces neither as a DJ, as someone who knows anything about pop culture, or as a "regular" girl with lots of ambition and chipped nail polish trying to make it big. Rather, she comes off as the spoiled daughter of a Hollywood legend who was put in the film both for name recognition and because she is quite gorgeous. She looks great walking around in polka-dotted underwear, smoking a bong and shaking her truly lovely locks to music. But she doesn't have enough oomph to embody her character. She comes off as a prima donna, a queen bee, petulant, overly impressed with herself and just generally unlikeable. I think she was supposed to be a bad ass who doesn't give a fuck what other people think of her (which is admittedly a challenging role to play), but she just completely fails.
The best two performances in the film come from Kurt Russell (of course) as the lovable serial killer Stuntman Mike whose Dodge Charger is the "Death Proof" vehicle of the title, and perhaps more surprisingly, since she doesn't have quite the clout or name recognition, Vanessa Ferlito, whose Butterfly is sexy, seductive and slightly innocent. Her sexy flirt with Kurt Russell is the highlight of the film—even more exciting than Zoe Bell's stunts or the final car chase that brings about the Stuntman's downfall.
So, as thus far described, it sounds like I didn't like the film very much. But I guess I'm starting with the negatives and moving to a more uplifting note, which is Tarantino's flawless direction. The plot is super simple. Much of the dialogue is rather pointless, but what Tarantino does is lull you into this serene, happy place, where you're just watching beautiful young people having a good time. Maybe it's fun, or maybe it's kind of annoying, but you watch, you chuckle a bit, and you feel pretty relaxed. And then, about every ten minutes, he throws a very subtle cue at you—a shot of the Charger with a ominous chord, a flicker of recognition as Butterfly realizes that Stuntman Mike has followed them to the bar, the fact that Stuntman Mike keeps a log of all the people he meets, and he puts the girls in it, and on and on. The first part of the film builds such a sense of tension, that when the first big crash setpiece occurs, you're ready for it, you dread it, but you can't look away.
In the second half of the film, with a new set of girls/potential victims, Tarantino starts over again. These girls don't smoke dope and aren't wasted (is he making a comment on the fact that in old slasher movies kids who engage in 'bad' behavior always end up dying?) and are presented as ballsy daredevils. They want to take a 1970 Dodge Challenger (Challenging the Charger?) on a test drive so that Zoe can peform a crazy stunt, riding on the hood of the car. Mike picks this moment to launch his attack. This last half-hour is one long, long scene. First the girls are on the defensive. Then they regroup and decide to go on the offensive, reducing Mike to tears as he finally feels the pain he's inflicted on all of his previous victims. Some reviewer said they felt bad for Mike at this point, and that there was something sadistic about the girls' decision to bring him down, but I call bullshit on that. He totally deserves it, and most people totally enjoyed the end of the movie. I certainly did.
As has been widely publicized, there are several mock trailers for upcoming films which might or might not be made into future Grindhouse installments. My absolute favorite was Don't by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) which perfectly parodies a Eurotrash horror film of the 1970s down to the graphic fonts and the hairstyles and clothing of the cast. A close second was Thanksgiving by Eli Roth. I think the murky technique he employs to wash out and darken the print saved him from the MPAA. Watch the very last shot very closely. I asked a friend and he confirmed what I thought I saw going on between the serial killer and the human "turkey"—eek!