14 November 2007


Asking me for my favorite film is an exercise in futility. Even a Top 5 is tough, as it often just depends on my mood. If there's one thing I've learned about the moving picture, it's that movies hit you differently depending on when in your life you've watched them. I used to love Top Gun with every fiber of my being when I was eight, in large part because I had no concept of the French Kiss. Watching Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis tongue-bathe each other in soft blue lighting was an earth-shattering cinematic revelation for me. Nowadays? Not so much.

However, if you ask me why I've pursued a career in film, what movies made me want to MAKE movies, the answer is easy. Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects. Hands down, no contest. I watched them and thought, "Wait, you can do that in a movie?" Each flick, in its own way, questions the films that came before it, acknowledges and re-invents genre conventions, and finds unique ways to kick ass.

Which is why it pains me to say that I didn't care for Death Proof at all. Quentin Tarantino's first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, along with his screenplay for True Romance, have had an undeniable influence of Hollywood (not to mention me) in the last fifteen years, but in that same time Tarantino seems to lose himself a little more in his passion for movies. Each new QT piece, from his segment of Four Rooms on down, is bloated, self-indulgent, and often just a little boring. For every butt-kicking Kill Bill, Vol. 1, he delivers a drawn-out Kill Bill, Vol. 2.

Death Proof's faults are a lack of storytelling basics. There is no clever reinvention, no freshening up of dusty genre cliches. It's four girls yapping, followed by another four girls yapping. For two hours. And every now and again, Kurt Russell and his death proof mobile drop in to make things exciting.

And don't get me wrong, things get exciting when the titular car makes an appearance. The raucous, road raging finale delivers on the guilty pleasure promise of the whole grindhouse notion. It's genuinely thrilling to watch two types of car fetishes literally ramming into each other on a winding two-lane road. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the film is content to be about girls in conversation. And not the wonderfully sly, lyrical conversation Tarantino is known for. The conversations aren't unique, don't wind back on themselves, don't come up again later, or reveal anything about the characters. It's dreadfully natural chatter, bland in its realism. Oh, sure, there's a vague thematic connection, but who wants thematic mirrors when you've been promised killer cars?

I remember the mid-90s when Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez burst onto the Hollywood scene. Tarantino was the Golden Child, the post-classical Hollywood auteur. He was the trendsetter to Rodriguez's raw, brash director prodigy. The knock on Rodriguez was always that he could direct the hell out of anything, but couldn't write a story to save his life.

Planet Terror kicks unholy ass. Rodriguez has crafted a screenplay that toes the line of awfulness without ever going over, resulting in a marathon of corny dialogue and excessive gore that's an absolute pleasure to take in. He's smart enough to give us characters we care for, and savvy enough to know that what we really want out of Grindhouse is the sweet action/horror stuff. For example, there's El Wray, the classic brooding anti-hero. He's constantly being given a hard time by the local sheriff, who makes vague references to El Wray's dark, mysterious past. After skipping over a "missing reel" that burns out the film midway through the story, Rodriguez jumps straight to all hell breaking loose and reveals a wounded sheriff telling El Wray, "Thanks for telling me about... you know." It's more than just a film buff in-joke. It's Rodriguez telling his audience to hang on, the good stuff's on the way.

The film is a delightfully rich ball of cheese. It's the type of movie that's unafraid to beat a testicle joke to death, to repeat dialogue for melodramatic effect, or to amputate it's heroine's leg and replace it with an automatic rifle/rocket launcher. While Death Proof goes through great pains to recreate certain grindhouse elements (the scratched, dirty film stock, poor editing, etc.), Planet Terror actually relishes in the ridiculousness of action/horror movies. Tarantino delivers a tip of his cap to a by-gone genre of film, but Rodriguez goes all out and makes a film that stands on its own cheesy, gory merits.

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