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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Grindhouse: Planet Terror and Death Proof (review)

Let’s All Go to the Movies!

This is the iconic image of Grindhouse, and it’s brilliant and hilarious and audacious and outrageous and just so, so right: a girl with a machine gun for a leg, and getting off on it. I mean, it’s… perfect. It’s sex and violence played with typical male belligerence combined with aggressive feminism — a chick with a phallic appendage shooting her wad at dudes! — all in one ridiculous, absurd, wonderful package. It’s “exploitive” in the sense of those old Roger Corman flicks that were meant to be offensive and shocking, and yet it’s not, either, somehow: this woman, for all that she is manipulated by the outlandish plot into this preposterous situation, is not an object, not a victim. Call it postexploitive, an appropriation of the tropes of old B movies for a 21st-century purpose.
The image is from Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, the first flick in the double feature of the impudent and wildly entertaining Grindhouse — the second is Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof — but the same could be said of the entire project on the whole: it’s not just two cheesy movies slapped back to back, it’s two deliberately cheesy movies offered with a wink and a nudge and a whopping dollop of love and nostalgia. It’s meta in a way that the movies it’s aping never were — they were the opposite of meta, made on the quick and on the cheap and as ready paychecks for everyone involved — and yet there’s a sweet sadness to Grindhouse too: it laments the absence of energy and enthusiasm and sheer what-the-fuckness that’s missing from The Movies once the B’s were taken over by the corporate studios from the lean and hungry indie filmmakers and become the A’s.

And that passion — that pure love of the wildness of The Movies — comes bursting out, in all its icky, gooey glory, in Planet Terror, a pastiche of zombie movies that is daring and disgusting and as much fun as I’ve had at the movies in a long time. (Oh my god, please don’t bring kids to this: Terror alone should have ensured Grindhouse got a rating of NC-17, not an R, it’s that gross. Tender eyes that can’t yet make the distinction between fantasy and reality need to be kept far, far away from this.) A presentation of, ahem, “Rodriguez International Pictures” — devotees of Mystery Science Theater 3000 know all about American International Pictures — stars the wonderful Freddy Rodriguez (Bobby, Lady in the Water; no relation to the director) as, well, a dangerous dude about whom we know very little, and Rose McGowan (The Black Dahlia, Monkeybone) as the chick with the machine gun leg, though she starts out with a full complement of fleshy limbs. The less said about Terror the better, because Rodriguez is all about getting you to scream and laugh as a crowd, and I don’t want to spoil any of the jokes or grossouts for you; this won’t be the same experience at home on DVD, so catch this one at the multiplex with a rowdy crowd.

Grindhouse isn’t just about a lost attitude with which cinematic stories are presented — it’s about the experience of seeing a movie in a movie theater with a lot of people, with reveling in that group experience, with reminding us what going to the movies used to be like before we all started downloading movies and watching them on our laptops, or (for those of us more law-abiding) sitting on our couches and playing DVDs. This is no clean, digitally remastered presentation: these movies are a mess, if a lovingly re-created mess, of pops and hisses and scratched film and bad audio and worse projection jobs: the film stock gets “caught” in the “projector” more than once, and there are “missing reels” interrupting the storytelling, such as it is. We never learn the mystery of Freddy’s character, for one, because his revelation comes in one of those “missing reels,” and that tickles: director Rodriguez (The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D, Sin City) is playing with the conventions of filmic storytelling, reminding us how filmed stories are built and that sometimes, it doesn’t matter where a character is coming from as long as where he’s going to is diverting enough.

There’s a missing-reel joke in Tarantino’s Death Proof that is similarly wickedly funny and smartly teasing: the film is building to an early cinemorgasmic peak and then — after an apologetic placard about a missing reel, sorry for the inconvenience — skips right to the metaphoric afterglow cigarette, and there was a distinctively frustrated huff in the guffaws of the pumped-up audience I saw this flick with when we realized what Tarantino was pulling. We loved being fooled like that, and yet: damn! Now, in retrospect, though, I think that was actually symptomatic of the problem that ultimately drags Death Proof down, makes it less successful overall than Planet Terror: Q.T. is batshit terrified of women, of female power, and when he’s trying to deal with that here is when Death loses its momentum; that missing scene would have been all about women’s power over men. (By comparison, there’s nothing in Terror that leads you to suspect that Rodriguez has any hangups about the material he’s presenting that is preventing him from dealing with it straight-up.) I’ve been hard on Tarantino in the past, but now I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, poor thing: he’s trying, he really is, not to be such a dork about us girls, but he’s not quite there yet.

See, he’s created a kind of serial killer in Stuntman Mike, a guy who gets off on killing bunches of pretty thangs all at once with his souped-up deathproof stunt car. (As with Rodriguez, Tarantino wrote as well as directed his feature here.) Kurt Russell (Poseidon, Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story) is a hoot as Mike, and he’s a genius bit of casting, as the uncredited Bruce Willis (Fast Food Nation, Over the Hedge) is in a small part in Terror — these guys are our B heroes of today — but while Willis’s small part is of perfectly adequate emphasis and importance and screentime, Russell’s is far less than it should be: Stuntman Mike is not the focus of Death as he should be. Instead, it’s all about the girls: Q.T. likes girl talk, or at least how he thinks girls talk, and he indulges himself in long sequences of gals hanging out and talking about boys and stuff before Mike comes along to do his thing. It would be one thing if the film suggested that Mike got a kick out of seeing girls be all girly before he killed them, but that’s not the case: Mike is not privy to these conversations: it’s Tarantino getting off on these girly chats, which perhaps wouldn’t be such an issue if they didn’t, er, grind the film to a halt too many times: Death loses too much momentum — we could have done with a few more missing reels.

Still, Death gets a pass from me because the girls are kick-ass cool — I particularly like Vanessa Felito (Man of the House, Spider-Man 2) who’s visiting Arlene Austin in the first sequence, and real-life stuntwoman Zoë Bell making her acting debut (albeit as herself) in the second sequence; check her out in the documentary Double Dare and see for yourself how damn awesome a chick she is. And because the last 40 minutes or so of Death feature some amazing stuntwork and stunt driving, seat-of-the-pants filmmaking that is as fresh and organic as anything Roger Corman would have done, and like we hardly ever see at the movies these days. This pure-adrenaline cinema more than makes up for the long tedious stretches that come before.

And together with Planet Terror, this is one of the most exciting movie experiences in ages, one that demands to be seen on a big screen. (Don’t step out between the feature or you’ll miss the spectacularly spot-on faux trailers; my favorite is for the “film” Don’t, by Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright.) “Get more out of life — go to a movie,” implores the “theater advertising” in the “intermission” — and it’s good advice. You’ll be sorry if you catch Grindhouse only on DVD.

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MPAA: rated R for strong graphic bloody violence and gore, pervasive language, some sexuality, nudity and drug use

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
  • eigafan

    Planet Terror was very entertaining. The fake previews were fantastic! The first set of girls in Death Proof deserved to be finished off quickly by Stuntman Mike. The second set of girls were a real riot, thanks to Zoe Bell’s performance. I read somewhere that Rodriguez couldn’t get Tarantino to commit to shooting digital which explains why Death Proof has a cleaner film stock appearance.

  • lunarangel01

    Grindhouse was awesome! Planet Terror was the better of the two, but I’m kind of glad that Death Proof took the intensity down a notch since Planet Terror was SO intense.

    I liked Death Proof, but I agree that it was rather slow at the beginning. But you know, that’s the way Tarantino’s dialogue is in several of his movies. Every time I see a Tarantino flick where the characters begin to ramble, I picture him with his rambling, nasally voice in his segment of the movie Four Rooms, in which he also acts. He goes into this huge rambling diatribe and finally gets to the point and the guy slices off his finger. It amuses me more than anything, because it’s not really his characters I see anymore, so much as him, rambling away.

  • maxwell horse

    I haven’t seen Grindhouse, but the impression I’m getting is that Death Proof suffers simply by being placed at the end of the movie. They should’ve switched them around. Of *course* after the wall-to-wall action of Planet Terror, ANY kind of quieter scenes (dialogue) are going to come off dead boring by comparison. If they’d put Death Proof first, I think audiences would more easily appreciate its “slow burn.”

  • MaryAnn

    Oh, come on. It’s not that the “dialogue” scenes are “quieter” when compared to *Planet Terro,* it’s that they are a problem within the context of *Death Proof.* Switch the order of the films, and *Death Proof* would still be the same movie. There’s a difference between “slow burn” and “dead stop.”

  • Drave

    There are two main reasons they couldn’t have switched the two movies around. The first is that if Planet Terror had been second, NOBODY would be going out to eat after the movies. The second is that the ending of Death Proof is a MUCH better way to cap off the movie-going experience. I mean, Planet Terror’s ending is bad-ass, don’t get me wrong, but people were standing and cheering when The End appeared after Death Proof. Also, Zoë Bell is the hardest woman alive, and my new personal hero. I agree that the talky bits of Death Proof get a little bogged down, but the last act is so freaking awesome that it more than makes up for QT’s excesses in the beginning. I think I liked both movies about equally. But what the heck was up with Sayid’s… err… collection?

  • MBI

    “Q.T. is batshit terrified of women, of female power”

    What?? >.

  • MaryAnn

    What what, MBI? I think that final image of *Death Proof* says it all.

    As does the entirety of *Kill Bill.* Chicks are *scary,* and can kill men if they want to.

  • MBI

    Buh?? Fwuh?? I think the clear message of that last shot is: Chicks are *awesome*, and can kill men if they want to. Kurt Russell was the scary one.

  • MaryAnn

    You think Tarantino thinks it’s a good thing that chicks “can kill men if they want to”? I think Tarantino is terrified of this. Kurt Russell was absolutely NOT the scary one in that last scene: he’s a sniveling baby by the last act of *DP,* which makes no sense at all — he’s a totally different character than he had been, with little justification.

  • MBI

    In any case, we both agree that Quentin is both aware and respectful of chick power. If that’s all we’re talking about, then there’s no argument. But to tip that awareness and respect into “fear,” I think you’d have to argue that QT’s sympathies are with Stuntman Kurt and not the chicks. I can’t really see that. I think QT is just getting off on humiliating the bastard.

  • MaryAnn, I just wanted to thank you for writing this review. When I first saw the posters for “Grindhouse,” I kinda rolled my eyes a little and planned to give it a miss, but your enthusiastic review changed my mind. (You’re the only reviewer who can do this – our tastes in movies are so eerily similar that I know that when you rave, I better run to the theater, and when you rant, I better run *away* from the theater.) I’m so glad it did – I enjoyed both movies immensely, and I wouldn’t have seen them otherwise.

    And you’re right about the sense of temporary community amidst moviegoers. The show I saw was sparsely attended, but we were all right into it, and afterwards I walked up to a group of strangers and started talking about the movie with them. I never, *ever* do things like that. So, thank you, for directing me to a movie I enjoyed that inspired me to step outside my social comfort zone.

    As for the movie-order discussion: I personally liked the talky scenes in “Death Proof,” since I’m a sucker for character stuff like that. I also appreciated the breather after “Planet Terror,” since I scare a little too easily for my own good. However, once it got to the meat of the story, I kept wondering (whenever I stopped to think for a couple of seconds) – *why* did it take so long to get there?! The talky stuff was fun, but mostly unnecessary to the story, and if I were to watch this again, knowing what’s coming, I would be bored out of my *mind*. Much like “Kill Bill,” Tarantino could have stood to tighten things up a bit. I would have felt the same way regardless of the movie order. Actually, had it been reversed, I think my brain would have exploded from overstimulation about halfway into “Planet Terror.” And then I wouldn’t have been able to write an entire freaking novel here, and that would have been a shame. ;)

  • Grant

    “…he’s a sniveling baby by the last act of *DP,* which makes no sense at all — he’s a totally different character than he had been, with little justification.”

    On one hand, thank you, I felt the same way. On the other hand, dang, I was hoping maybe you could explain this. Though I will say this, Mike’s paniced wimpering did elicit more than a few sadistic giggles from the audience.

    As far as the ordering of the films, it might be helpful to consider that RR and QT were trying not only to recreate grindhouse films, but also the experience of being a regular grindhouse customer. The owner of a grindhouse wouldn’t have programmed the films in order to keep the pacing up. More likely, the missing reel in DP would have relegated it to the second slot.

    Consider things like Jeff Fahey and Micheal Beihn each appearing in both Planet Terror and one of the trailers (as basically the same character in Beihn’s case). The point: if you see enough of these flicks, you start to recognize the same actors in often the same roles. Anyone familiar with the names Brion James, Brian Thompson, or Jeff Kober – amoung hundreds of others – will understand what I mean.

  • MaryAnn

    On the other hand, dang, I was hoping maybe you could explain this.

    I don’t think there is any explanation, except for QT’s incompetence and/or neuroses.

  • Noah

    I think that if they would have switched the film sequence (ie: Death Proof first, then Planet Terror) people would have had a lot more perspective on what a good movie Death Proof is.

    The ‘slowness’ of the film is much more noticeable when on the adrenaline hangover that Planet Terror causes.

    I know I’m in the minority here, but I found Death Proof to be much better than Planet Terror (which, don’t get me wrong, I loved!). But the dialog, build up and pacing of Death Proof was crafted by a master who understood the genre they were handling. Not only that, it was a brilliant illustration as to how films have lost touch with actual stunts and stunt people.

    Anyway, both films were brilliant in their own respect. I just think people need to step back a bit on the “Death Proof” pounding. It really exposes an interesting dichotomy in most viewers and how opinions change depending on what they’re exposed to.

  • Read the review, went and saw the movie again, and then came back and read the review again (as I love to do). Aside from everything else, I was thinking about the missing reels. QT’s missing reel was a funny tease, but I think RR’s was better. QT’s just felt like a “ha, ha! Gotcha!” while RR’s felt like a statement: What you are seeing on the screen is so hot it melt the reel. I like that a bit better. =^)

    Loved both movies, tho. Thanks for the recommendation.

    PS: I interpreted Mike’s whining at the end (seeming wrong for a tough stuntguy) to be demonstrative of the fact that he’s only cool and tough when he’s in control. Once he wasn’t in control anymore, he immediately fell apart. Seems to tie in with the “out of touch has-been who takes his problems out on pretty girls who will no longer sleep w/ him.”

  • llama

    I actually believe that Death Proof was the better movie. Planet Terror was great, don’t get me wrong, but I actually liked the conversations between the women and I didn’t think it slowed the movie down at all. I liked the fact that Stuntman Mike broke down. At first, I had the same reaction you did. I thought it was random and out of character, but then I realized, like BZero said, that some people have nothing to anchor them internally so they have to rely on external control instead and when Mike lost that, well, his ego collapsed and we saw him for what he really was. I know the film is just entertainment, but I liked the inadvertant commentary on domination and how some folks who need to dominate other people are heavily reliant on those beneath them.

    I love your reviews.

  • PaulW

    Best possible news: “Machete” is coming. Straight to DVD though, but then again most grindhouse flicks are nowadays… :)

  • Jason

    both films take place in AUSTIN, TX. so, no, Vanessa Ferlito’s character does not visit Arlene, TX at the beginning of Death Proof.

  • MaryAnn

    Well, thank you, Mister OCD. And this changes my analysis of the movie how?

  • Jason

    it doesn’t, but does put a blemish on a major plot point, since it is mentioned that Jungle Julia died in Planet Terror. and that she is a famous DJ going to the Texas Chili Parlor in Death Proof, which is where she meets Stuntman Mike. and, also, calling me Mr. OCD? how very mature.

  • MaryAnn

    Well, you know, it would be nice if the comments area was used for substantive discussion of the film and/or my review, not for nitpicking something that does not change what I have to say about a movie. It was a momentary brain blip: it does not “put a blemish on a major plot point.”

    I’m human. I’m writing fast, usually. Occassionally a typo or other minor error will get through. And I’ve corrected the mistake.

    I don’t mind readers pointing out errors, but it would be nice to hear a little more than “ha, ha, you made stupid little a mistake.”

  • TH

    Re this “Tarantino is afraid of women”… maybe he is. I too would be afraid of things that can kill me. Not that this matters in any way. The actual point is that “Kill Bill” is not about mans fear of women, but instead it’s simply some cool kind of goddess-worship. It’s an ode, and the irony is how charming poor Bill actually is.

  • MaryAnn

    I too would be afraid of things that can kill me.

    Would you care to explain this?

  • TH

    I don’t think this is so much about fear, but I don’t remember being afraid of the good guys Schwarzenegger played, even when he chopped of limbs. A female hero is a great way to change dynamics (and identification with the audience) in an action-movie. “Kill Bill” did that perfectly, and felt very fresh to me.

    Sitting next to Jack Slater, I’d like him explain how he did this or that. But sitting next to the bride, there would be sexual fascination. Touch her, loose a hand…

    I can see why you called it a wank in your review. But how can you mind man wanking at a woman in charge? I thought strong women are so totally Zeitgeist, finally.

    The bride is sexy, the hero, and has a sword. I wouldn’t know how to top that.

  • MaryAnn

    Tarantino’s fear of women isn’t about being afraid of something that can kill him. It’s about being afraid of women, period.

    I don’t see the Bride as heroic, and “indulging in an orgy of physical violence” doesn’t necessarily equal “strength.”

  • TH

    I don’t care for Tarantino. I saw both parts of Kill Bill with a woman, and she liked it very much. Why is the issue of fear so important? I just don’t see it.

    The bride is a hero, the female mirror to the things Schwarzenegger did in the eighties. Besides stating that again, I don’t know how to make my argument any clearer…

  • MaryAnn

    Why is the issue of fear so important?

    I’m not sure I ever said it was “so important” beyond the fact that it clearly informs much of Tarantino’s work.

    I saw both parts of Kill Bill with a woman, and she liked it very much.

    Fantastic for her. Alas, all women do not think alike any more than all men think alike.

  • TH

    In the real, adult world I see why fear should be unnecessary. But movies need strong emotions, and are best when build on actual feelings of the artist. I really have trouble understanding your perspective on this…

  • MaryAnn

    If Tarantino’s films were about him actually exploring or dealing with this fear, that would be great. But he seems to be unaware of it. That’s what’s worth talking about.

  • Charlie S

    By the way, MaryAnn, do you know which Doctor Who writer makes a cameo in the Grindhouse Don’t trailer (Hint: Think of ‘League of Gentlemen’)?

  • MaryAnn

    No clue.

  • The Party Crasher

    This review lacked the presence of Josh Brolin.

  • MaryAnn

    You’re Josh Brolin, aren’t you, Party Crasher?

  • Papone

    Just finished Death Proof, have Planet terror to go.
    I’m mad i didn’t see this in the theaters, the movie was perfect.It was like mad max with good music and hot chicks. My excuse is i got work and school, A big tv works just as good.
    As much as I love QT i do believe hes got some woman issues.I saw him on iconoclast with Fiona Apple, and he was all like shaky bone and skipping over words.He was running over old storys, like the whole hostel befriending Eli Roth. I couldn’t watch it.
    I dunno why Fiona Apple intimidated him. But clearly In Death Proof there is a sense of fem dom

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