Friday, October 19, 2007

Grindhouse, As Promised

Having a couple kids, I don't always get to go see "grown up" movies in the theater, and must await their arrival on DVD. Such was the case of the Grindhouse double feature of Robert Rodriguez' Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof. Please remember this is only one filmmaker's opinion - I don't claim to be the definitive authority on anything, so if you absolutely love or hate these directors, save the fan/hate mail for them.

Planet Terror - I don't always like everything Rodriguez does, but I *always* respect his maverick, low-budget process. And more often than not, I actually *do* like his work. He's consistently pushing the envelope in terms of the Hollywood production model, creating films one either loves or hates, and when a director creates something that inspires such vehement emotion (on either side of the coin), in my opinion, that's the very essence of art. Look at Sin City. Love it or hate it, you cannot deny it is a work of staggering visual genius.

So let me preface my commentary on PT by saying I didn't start out a Rodriguez fan. I thought his half of From Dusk 'Til Dawn blew goats, and totally didn't fit with Tarantino's first half. Then I went back and discovered El Mariachi, and followed that trilogy through Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. And that won me over. I finally started to understand this guy. Then I took Tyler to the first Spy Kids movie, and it blew my mind - here's a director who can clearly compartmentalize the creative process and make different kinds of films for completely different audiences, with a high standard of technical quality on a low budget (thus "buying" himself more creative control on his projects).

Anyway, I've grown to respect the man as an auteur (he frequently writes, produces, directs, directs his own photography, edits and scores his films), and must say Planet Terror was a filmmaker's dream to watch. The DVD is the extended unrated cut, and since I missed the general release I don't know how it varies. But it does include a trailer for a fake movie called Machete, in the best grindhouse exploitation tradition. Cheech Marin as a shotgun-toting priest who delivers one of the best, most trite lines I've ever heard delivered: "God has mercy. I don't."

Planet Terror is a zombie movie. More specifically, it is THE zombie movie. A rural Texas population is exposed to a military chemical experiment gone awry, and soon popstar Fergie is getting her brain eaten. The cast is a smorgasbord of talent from across the spectrum of TV and cinema: Jeff "Lawnmower Man" Fahey, Michael "The Terminator" Biehn, Josh "The Goonies" Brolin, Michael "Twin Peaks" Parks, Bruce "Sin City" Willis, Tom "Dawn of the Dead" Savini, Carlos "El Mariachi" Gallardo, Freddy "Six Feet Under" Rodriguez, Marley "Pleasantville" Shelton, and the incredible Rose "The Black Dahlia" McGowan (and an army of really great quirky character actors). The plot revolves around a disparate group of uninfected folks having to fight their way through zombies that go POP! when you shoot 'em, through the infected soldiers at the military base, and into the helicopters that will take them to a remote part of Mexico.

It's ludicrous-level violence, and the "film" is "aged" to look like a piece of celluloid that's been chewed up by a projector over and over again. I found this to be particularly impressive, since Rodriguez shoots in HD video. The color correction and aging are perfect. There's even a point at which the film breaks and burns, and we get a MISSING REEL slide from "The Management", only to be thrown back into the movie at a later point in the story. Now, this is not the first time a film has been artificially aged and/or chopped up to convey a story. The parody Amazon Women on the Moon did exactly that. But the way in which Rodriguez uses the gimmick clearly evokes the visceral grindhouse movie experience - I loved it. I mean, come on: a stripper loses her leg and has it replaced with an automatic rifle!! A doctor carries around a hypodermic needle pistol strapped to her leg!! Fergie gets her brain eaten!! What's not to love??

Which made Death Proof somewhat of a disappointment in comparison. Although it has a totally able cast (Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, Rosario Dawson, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Tracy Thoms, Rose McGowan, Jordan Ladd & Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and a workable premise for an exploitation movie, it felt like most of the second act was more like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. I mean, I like Tarantino's writing more than his direction most of the time, but this was chatty even for him, and it didn't necessarily do anything to advance the plot. And while the film (and Tarantino does shoot on actual film) carries some of the wear & tear that Planet Terror uses to such great effect, by the middle of the film it's pretty much gone, and we're watching a pristine print, which kind of defeats the purpose of using the gimmick in the first place. It was almost like Tarantino, with his vast, impressive knowledge of film history, was trying to make a good-looking product, and in doing so, misses the point of making something look crappy on purpose. Death Proof is not a bad film (certainly not his worst), but is completely outclassed by the total camp sci-fi horror experience that is Planet Terror.

On the upside, the chase sequences and car stunts are AMAZING, and the first wreck has some of the most amazing cinematic violence ever put on film, in my opinion - another application of the term gore-nography, for sure. But the chatty stuff just distracts from the whole stalker/cat/mouse/revenge story.

And for the record, I preferred Tarantino's portion of From Dusk 'Til Dawn to Rodriguez' portion, and think QT's best screenplay was True Romance. I still think Pulp Fiction is iconic cinematic genius, and I loved Kill Bill Vol. I. So I'm not writing this as some kind of Tarantino-hater/Rodriguez-fanboy.

Also recently watched Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (wow) and Domino (Tony Scott, you are a mad genius and I love you). Those two films really deserve more than a blogger's footnote, but I really need to get to work...


Andrew said...

We're getting Grindhouse as longer, individual movies in the UK. The DVDs are a while off yet...but I'm not sure I'm missing out.

"I thought his half of From Dusk 'Til Dawn blew goats, and totally didn't fit with Tarantino's first half."

My understanding was that Tarantino wrote the whole thing - for KNB, in fact, to showcase their effects. It was only after that was never filmed and Tarantino got big that he took it to Rodriguez.

So both halves belong to both. One wrote, the other directed.

Interesting Fact: True Romance was written to be a non-linear, Reservoir Dogs-style narrative. Tony Scott changed it to be chronological. Would this have made the film better, or worse? I dunno.

Also: Loved Confessions, hated Domino. Loved Jackie Brown, was disappointed by the Kill Bills, and ache for the next part of Sin City.

(Hello, by the way; long time no speak. But it's a film blog entry - how could I pass that up?)

tbone said...

Hunh. I was always under the impression that QT wrote and directed the first part and RR wrote and directed the second - it actually looks like two totally different movies. Don't know where I got the co-director idea. Gotta put down the crack pipe.

Andrew K said...

I thought it took balls to spend almost half the movie setting the girls up, only to kill them all off in the first wreck. It's a shame they weren't more likeable, or the dialogue wasn't a little sharper. Certainly no stand-out good lines.

Loved Confessions, hated Domino. How's that for a footnote review :-)