Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan


Posted by CinemaPsycho on April 11, 2007

“Planet Terror” Directed and written by Robert Rodriguez/starring Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Marley Shelton, Josh Brolin, Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey

“Death Proof” Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino/starring Kurt Russell, Sydney Poitier, Zoe Bell, Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, Vanessa Ferlito

Dimension Films – Troublemaker Studios

Two of today’s hottest filmmakers present a double feature that pays tribute to the B-movies they grew up on.

OK, I’m not going to spend too much time analyzing the boxoffice results for this movie. That’s what every damn website is doing, and I’m sick to death of it. I’ve never understood the mentality that every major film has to be “#1 at the boxoffice!” in order to be artistically validated. Who gives a rat’s ass how much money Harvey Weinstein gets to pocket? Here’s the thing: they took a risk. Risks don’t always pay off financially. Let’s get over it already. Besides, did anyone really think this would play to the bonehead Wild Hogs crowd? If ever a movie seemed designed to play strictly to the film geeks, it’s Grindhouse. It’s named after a type of theater that no longer exists, for cryin’ out loud. Do you really think that the “normals” know what grindhouses were? Believe me, you could explain the concept to them until the cows come home, and they would never get it. “It’s two movies in one? Previews for movies that aren’t real? What is this?” As far as the 3-hour running time goes, I’ve never understood why that’s such a big deal for people. Why are people willing to commit to a 2-hour film but not a 3-hour film? What are they going to do for that extra hour? Go home and watch Ghost Whisperer? What’s so important that they can’t watch another hour of a movie? I just don’t get the arbitrary 2-hour rule that everyone imposes on movies. Even a minute longer gets people up in arms – “oh, that’s too long, I can’t sit through that”. Why the hell not? I say, if it’s good and compelling and worth seeing, fucking bring it on! Roger Ebert said it best – “a good movie is never too long, and a bad movie is never too short”.

The important thing, my friends, is that Grindhouse was made, it was released, and it rocks. If the squares don’t get it, that’s their loss. Frak ‘em. That’s what I say. The hell with their sorry, lame asses. The sad truth is that you can’t force people to want quality entertainment. If you could, Zodiac would’ve hit $100 million, and Veronica Mars would be the biggest show on TV. However, people are stupid. What else is there to say?

So instead of wasting our time running around like chickens with our heads cut off going, “what went wrong?” let’s talk about the movie. Because there’s quite a lot worth talking about here. There are a few flaws, but for the most part, Grindhouse is an absolute blast, the most pure fun you’ll have in a theater this year. Whether or not you’re familiar with the genres and subgenres that inspired it, it’s a damn good time.

The prevailing opinion seems to be that Grindhouse is simply a rehash of old B-movies. I don’t think that’s the case, actually. Rodriguez and Tarantino aren’t simply name-checking the movies and genres they love – they’re paying tribute to an aesthetic, a place and time when movies were wild, and “anything goes” wasn’t just a mantra but a state of being. People went to grindhouses (and their rural equivalent, the drive-in) to see things that they couldn’t see in mainstream Hollywood films. Not just sex and violence per se, but an attitude towards sex and violence that was up front and non-judgmental towards its audience. As cartoonish and over-the-top as these movies could be, they were more real to their audiences than the big studio films were at the time. They didn’t just reflect the audience’s collective primal urges – they said, “you know what? It’s okay to want to see this stuff. It’s not a problem. We know it’s all in fun, and you know we know it”. As seedy as the theaters could be, and as sleazy as the vibe could be, the general rule of the films themselves was all about having fun. The filmmakers were indulging their baser instincts, and encouraging the audience to do the same. It was cinematic hedonism, and the movies didn’t have to be “art” as long as they gave the people what they wanted.

What Rodriguez and Tarantino are up to is not just regurgitating the style of the old grindhouse features, but taking that aesthetic and applying it to their own agendas. If you’re expecting a literal throwback to that era (basically, nothing but blood and tits), you’re going to be disappointed. This is grindhouse cinema done Rodriguez and Tarantino style. It’s as much “their” films as it would be if they did a double feature inspired by Bollywood musicals or ‘40’s film noir. They mix and mash together genres and subgenres like a DJ combining pieces of old songs to create something new. Which is basically what all artists do – everything has a precedent, nothing is ever completely and totally original. Star Wars was influenced by Kurosawa films and old sci-fi serials, and since then, pretty much everything has been influenced by Star Wars. The only different is that Rodriguez and Tarantino are up front about it and have more fun with it. So people need to get over the “unoriginality” thing already. What they really mean is, they want these guys to do something serious. I don’t understand why. If anything, I think taking on a project like this shows a refreshing lack of self-importance that we could use more of.

Rodriguez’ “Planet Terror” is definitely a mix of influences that add up to one complete film. A bit of a mess, but a joyful and fun mess for the most part. Part Romero zombie movie, part Carpenter siege film, part Cronenberg “body horror” film and part Hooper Texas horror barbecue, the first half of the film manages to combine pretty much every recognizable ‘70’s horror subgenre into one giant mishmash that somehow feels fresh and inspired. Rather than the usual horror archetypes, Rodriguez throws together a group of disparate characters who are all going through their own little dramas besides the potential end of the world as we know it. The movie is incredibly broad, over the top and downright ridiculous at times, more of an ‘80’s-style horror comedy (complete with cheesy one-liners and recurring gags) more along the lines of a Night of the Creeps than any of the movies that obviously inspired it. Which is to say, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

That is, until Rodriguez pretty much blows the fun vibe by employing what is quite possibly the most repulsive, ugly and cruel thing I think I’ve ever seen in a film. And I’ve seen Cannibal Holocaust. In this scene, a young boy accidentally kills himself with a handgun given to him by his mother for protection. Thankfully, Rodriguez has the modicum of taste to have this happen off-screen, but then we see a glimpse of the aftermath which is just sickening. Suddenly, the fun’s over. I can’t imagine what he was thinking by including this awful thing in what is otherwise a cheesy, campy, goofy horror comedy. Not to mention having his own son play the role – I don’t even want to get into how reprehensible that is. It’s not even the fact that a small child dies – if the kid was eaten by the zombies, that would still be unpleasant, but at least it would be intrinsic to the story. It’s the utter pointlessness of his death that’s truly disturbing, for all the wrong reasons. It seems to have no particular meaning or importance in the storyline, and is barely remarked upon in the rest of the movie. This horrifying image simply doesn’t belong in this movie. I’d hate to see the movie that it does belong in. Until this happens, the movie is fun and wild and enjoyable in a cheesy, self-aware way. Then this happens, and it’s awful and horrible and revolting. Then a minute later, the movie goes right back to being fun and wild and cheesy and self-aware! Except you’re left with the stain of this sickening, godawful image stuck in your head. What was the point of including it? Yeah, I get it, it’s part homage to the kid getting shot by the ice cream truck in Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. It’s Rodriguez’s way of saying, “anything goes”. Except that the death in Carpenter’s movie served a purpose, and the one in Rodriguez’s film is just sick and pointless. There’s a difference between breaking the rules and indulging in pure shock value for no reason. Rodriguez should be smart enough to know the difference.

It’s a real shame, because “Planet Terror” actually has a lot to recommend it. The performances are generally first-rate, incredibly broad but managing to stay just this side of pure camp. Freddy Rodriguez (no relation) seems to be having a blast as the Snake Plissken-like antihero with a past and a secret. I particularly enjoyed genre vets Biehn and Fahey chewing the scenery as two squabbling brothers. It’s especially nice to see Fahey on the big screen again, given that most of his work the past few years has come from Sci-Fi Channel movies and even lesser enterprises. But without question, the real star of “Terror” is Rose McGowan, vamping it up in high style as go-go dancer and aspiring stand-up comic Cherry Darling, a true va-va-voom creation that Russ Meyer would approve of. By the time she’s outfitted with a prosthetic machine-gun leg and demonstrating “Useless Talent No. 67”, she’s already become an iconic character that will probably inspire the drag queens of the future. How exactly does she fire that gun, anyway? Effortlessly sexy and beautifully seen-it-all sarcastic, McGowan owns “Planet Terror” from the first frame to the last. If she really did break up Rodriguez’ marriage, well…I can see why. Not condoning it, just stating a fact. And as for where that “missing reel” was placed, all I can say is, Robert, you’re a heartless bastard.

If it weren’t for that one awful mistake, “Planet Terror” could have been a cheese classic. As it stands, it’s merely a pretty good flick overall, just marred by one unforgivable choice. I liked the film overall, but when I buy the DVD, I’m skipping over that scene.

And then there’s “Death Proof”, Tarantino’s ode to car movies, slasher movies and most importantly, early ‘70’s “female empowerment disguised as exploitation” movies. While some people have dismissed this as being “too much girl talk, not enough action” it’s important to note that the movies Tarantino is mainly paying tribute to, like The Swinging Cheerleaders and The Student Nurses, are chock-full of girl talk. And Quentin wouldn’t have it any other way. It helps that his ear for dialogue results in some of the most interesting conversation since the heyday of that particular subgenre. Needless to say, if you like listening to sexy young women hang out and shoot the shit, “Death Proof” will enrapture you. If all you’re looking for is cheap thrills, however, you’d be better off checking out the porn section of your local video store. This ain’t that kind of movie.

“Death Proof” basically concerns two groups of young females who are preyed upon by one Stuntman Mike (Russell), an Austin local who kills with his souped-up stunt car. The first group is led by radio DJ Jungle Julia (Poitier, the daughter of Sidney and the former journalism teacher on Veronica Mars). This group also includes Jordan Ladd, who I have to mention is incredibly fucking cute. Anyway, Julia and company go bar hopping one night and eventually run into Mike, who is simultaneously charming and disturbing, and old enough to be their grandfather. Mike’s stuntman resume, which includes long-forgotten TV Westerns like High Chaparral, doesn’t exactly impress the girls, but their would-be nemesis Pam (McGowan again, this time as a blonde) is intrigued by that car. She needs a ride home, and Mike is more than happy to oblige. And so the fun begins – for Mike that is, not so much for the girls.

The second group is led by real-life stuntwoman Bell (Uma’s stunt double on Kill Bill), a New Zealander who’s in town working on a film with the improbably named Abernathy (Dawson), Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, thankfully a long way from the godawful Black Christmas remake) and Kim (Thoms). Zoe’s idea of fun is to strap herself to the hood of the car from Vanishing Point (well, same model, anyway) and go 100 miles an hour down a dirt road. Needless to say, Mike has picked the wrong girls to mess with.

At first glance, “Death Proof” seems like another “girls kick ass” movie, albeit one of the best ever made. But there’s a rumor going around the Internet that suggests a subtle subversion of that subgenre, one that I never even thought about while watching the movie. The rumor suggests that the second half of the film actually comes before the first, and therefore the vengeful second group of girls actually comes chronologically before the first. So we’re basically seeing Mike take out his first group of victims, and then seeing what happened to make him the way he is. What at first seems like a simple revenge piece becomes something more disturbing and fascinating upon further reflection.

I have no idea if this is what Tarantino actually intended, and I have to admit that I never even thought about this while watching the film. But if this is true, then the movie actually makes a lot more logical sense than it initially seems to. I didn’t notice if Mike had the scar in the second part of the film, but now I don’t think he did. Mike genuinely seems to be “just fucking around” with the girls in the second half, which is confusing after seeing him mercilessly attack the first group. The second group’s reaction actually seems like an overreaction – although he’s being a total asshole, no question, they don’t actually know that he’s a killer or even that he intended to kill them. This would also explain why Mike is such a tough badass in the first part of the film, and a bit of a wuss in the second part. Admittedly, it’s still a bit psychotic to ram your car into the back of another car while someone is strapped to the hood. But what do you expect from a guy named Stuntman Mike?

I think the film actually works either way, however you choose to look at it, which is part of Tarantino’s brilliance. But it becomes two very different movies. One thing that really bugged me was the way the girls basically abandon the drunken Lee with the redneck guy who owns the car, implying that he can “get better acquainted” with her. What was that supposed to be about, exactly? Is he going to rape her? And if so, is that supposed to be a joke? That whole thing was just weird. We never see what happens (indeed, Lee is never seen or spoken of again), so it’s left ambiguous, but it confused me. I didn’t really buy that they would choose to leave her there in the first place, especially given that she’s the thinnest and weakest of the bunch. And I certainly didn’t buy the implication that this total stranger was “allowed” to do whatever he wanted to her. Seems like a weird thing to put in a “female empowerment” movie, no? At the very least, it’s a shitty thing to do to a friend, even if nothing happens. I actually thought it would’ve been funny if Lee had been sexually aggressive to the guy, to the point where it turned him off and he lost interest. Maybe not believable, but funny. I’ve heard that Dawson actually had a big problem with this plot contrivance, and I really don’t blame her. It doesn’t really make any sense, unless you consider that maybe the girls are much more thoughtless and less intelligent than they seem. But there’s no indication of this beforehand. So I really don’t know what to think. Why didn’t they just pay the guy to use the car? Then all four of them could have gone along for the ride, and none of this shit would be necessary.

That flaw aside though, “Death Proof” is still an instant classic, a miraculous hybrid of seemingly incompatible genres. Along with a truly great performance from Russell, whose Stuntman Mike is now an iconic Kurt character, up there with Snake Plissken, R.J. MacReady and Jack Burton, it’s impeccably acted by the mostly female cast, who seem to be having a ball delivering Tarantino’s dialogue. If it often seems too good to be true, and people generally really don’t talk like this, well…wouldn’t it be cool if they did?

And then there’s the fake trailers:

Robert Rodriguez’s “Machete”– this actually was my favorite of the trailers, evoking Charles Bronson pics of the ‘70’s with a Mexican flavor. This is the one trailer that I think could actually work as a real movie – the others, while fun to watch, are far too vague. With “Machete” you can see the whole movie condensed in that crazy trailer, and it’s one I’d gladly pay to see.

Rob Zombie’s “Werewolf Women of the SS” – dead-on re-creation of that sleazy Jess Franco vibe, with an obvious nod to Nazisploitation like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. Nic Cage is more fun to watch here than in the entirety of Ghost Rider!

Edgar Wright’s “Don’t” – nice play on the creepy British imports of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. It’s actually funnier if you’ve seen the trailers for movies like Don’t Go In the House and Don’t Go in the Basement, even though that’s not really what he’s spoofing.

Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving” – hysterical spoof of the low-rent slasher ripoffs of the early ‘80’s, complete with teenage T&A, heavy-breathing killer, deep-voiced narration and use of a holiday in the title. Very 1981. I may never eat turkey again…

That about covers it. If you haven’t seen it, GO before they split the movie in half! Do you really want to pay twice? Grindhouse deserves to be seen, and appreciated, in its entirety. That’s one tasty beverage, indeed.

“Planet Terror”: *** “Death Proof”: **** Trailers: **** 4/11/07

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