Monday, April 9, 2007

All or Nothing

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The phrase “All or Nothing” pops up in strange ways during the two films in “Grindhouse”. Whether that’s a coincidence I don’t know, but it seems important. But Rodriguez and Tarantino have made what they wanted to make. To them, it’s not how big it is in size. Truffaut said that the only thing he wants from a movie is to see the joy of making that movie. These guys want to show off their joy, as much of it as possible.

I saw Grindhouse on Friday, again on Saturday, have spent a fair chunk of time walking around mulling it over and in the meantime everyone else on the net has chimed in.

First things first, I had an absolutely fantastic time. There’s something ingrained in here that is just about love for these movies, for the act of going to the movies. Tarantino loves the memory of the way things were when he was twelve just as much as Wes Anderson does…they just have very different memories. And to Tarantino there may just be no piece of music on the planet more beautiful than that “Our Feature Presentation” bumper.

Planet Terror: I’ll freely admit that I’m not always that crazy about Rodriguez’s films, but something about Planet Terror just made me go with it. Within the straight ahead zombie plotline is a total blend of Italian zombie movies with some Cronenberg and Carpenter tossed in, random lesbian subplots, maybe some feel of a mid-80s Cannon release with the memory of films that used to have decent parts for character actors doing what they did best. Yeah, there’s an element of spoof here and there’s no point in talking about how the “plot” makes very little sense, as much as I enjoy how most of the narrative seems to take place over one of those never-ending nights. But moreso than the spoof element is the feel that Rodriguez simply wanted to make one of these movies and embrace all the elements that make them cheesy…only not play them as cheesy but as awesome. Rose McGowan is amazing and gets the chance here to be a movie star more than she ever has before. Marley Shelton, always kind of a blank to me, here explodes into becoming nothing less than a modern day Barbara Steele.

And just the idea of casting Michael Biehn and Jeff Fahey, who must have gone up for the same parts countless times back in the day, as brothers just fills me with joy. And they get stuff to do! But it’s possible that Josh Brolin, doing some kind of melding of his dad and Nick Nolte, as “Doc Block” somehow nails the specifics of the tone needed here best of all. Planet Terror is very meta, very much a goof and there’s no point in trying to breakdown all the pieces of the plot. It’s still my favorite Robert Rodriguez film to date.

Rodriguez also directed the trailer for “Machete” which runs before the first feature and it's a fantastically violent ad for a Bronson-like vehicle. Of the trailers that run between the films, Rob Zombie’s “Werewolf Women of the SS” gets the premise right but the style is all wrong. Harry Knowles called it right in saying it would be more at home in Amazon Women on the Moon. Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving” is much better and brings in the sleaze factor much more than anything else in the three hours does. There’s something about its griminess that really seems like the stuff of nightmares. I think I liked Edgar Wright’s “Don’t” most of all, a pitch-perfect take on trailers for (usually European) horror films that try to tell as little about the movie as possible, only shouting “DON’T! DON’T! DON’T!” over and over again. It gets it so right that I know the real “Don’t” would in reality be pretty dull stuff. But the trailer is one of my favorite things ever.

The first reaction to Tarantino’s “Death Proof”: Rodriguez made a Grindhouse movie, Tarantino made a Tarantino movie. Well, kind of. And even if he did, are the Movie Police going to show up and fine him? How about this: Rodriguez made a very conscious pastiche but Tarantino really wanted to break down the form and analyze it. Make one of his hangout movies combined with horror elements combined with car chase elements. What if a mad killer suddenly showed up an hour in Howard Hawks’s “Hatari!” Or a Cassavetes film? Or for that matter, “Two Lane Blacktop”? What if characters than get axed in a slasher film weren’t just types but were actual characters? Truthfully, I’m still sorting out what he’s doing here.

Within the two halves of "Death Proof" are two sets of girls. The first include Vanessa Ferlito, Sydney Poitier and Jordan Ladd, each striking, each attractive, containing something a special quality but the film seems to have a slightly ambivalent attitude towards them. How nice are they really, but how catty are they, really? Rose McGowan, reappearing as a different character, only says bad things when talking about the central group, but when we see them actually interacting they seem totally cool with each other. And Sydney Poititer seems to be using her connections with various guys to try to get ahead in the record business...but is she using them or are they using her. One things for sure. Tarantino loves it when she flings her hair around. I don't blame him.

The second group includes Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead...and the truly astounding Zoe Bell, a stuntwoman who first worked with Tarantino in Kill Bill and plays "herself" here, all the better to get somebody who knows what they're doing when they get strapped to the hood of that Dodge Challenger. She seems like an amazing spirit. I don't need to fall in love with her...but I wish I could just hang out with her for a few hours. Or days. Or weeks. If you're going to hang out with somebody in a movie who talks a lot, she's a genuinely intoxicating one to do it with.

Kurt Russell does some of his best work in a long time as Stuntman Mike. That slow feeling of unease that emanates from him in the first half just gets better as it goes and it feels very informed by Kurt Russell’s long history in the biz and all of the real stuntmen he’s worked with. There’s something Stuntman Mike isn’t saying….and I’m pretty sure we don’t want to know what it is. The car chase that makes up the second half is a blast. Is it as good as Bullitt? The Seven Ups? Ronin? I don’t know, but seeing Zoe Bell flailing around on the roof of that car is pretty great. Like “Reservoir Dogs”, “Death Proof” is an anti-art art film that reveals a lot of what Tarantino loves about the movies he loves. Plus he also loves those feet. Bonus points for including the MPAA bug in his opening credits.

Sprinkled throughout the three hours are bad splices, bad reel changes, lots of scratches, missing reels, logos, feature presentation and coming soon bumpers. It’s a reminder of a time when movies were somewhat more handmade and included characters, even ones involved in car chases, who were true individuals. Their movies weren’t always good but they deserve to be remembered in all their scratchy glory. All or nothing.

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