Grindhouse… a double feature of reviews

Planet Terror

4.5 Stars

Robert Rodriguez pays homage to the B horror flicks of the 70’s, filled with gore, sex, violence and enough stars to make fanboys and casual admirers take notice and give it the proper due it deserves.

Bio-chemical engineer Abby (Naveen Andrews) double crosses Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis, in an uncredited cameo), a special ops leader, in the sale of a mysterious bio-weapon that turns most who come in contact with it into blood thirsty zombies. The survivors are to be used in experiments to find the antidote. When the bio-weapon is let loose on a small Texas town, those who survive have to fight off the undead and the cure thirsty military men. Mysterious super-fighter El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) and his go-go dancer girlfriend Cherry Darling (Rose McGowen) lead the fight to survive.

There is a sort of, tongue-in-cheek attitude to this film, and Rodriguez wants to make sure that it’s not to be taken too seriously, which is the magic of Rodriguez’s flicks. A lot of movies that are put out today are what producers, writers and directors think we want to see. But Rodriguez makes films that he wants to see, because he’s a fan too, just like us. And he makes his own films. Very few filmmakers have that much creative control over their films.

One thing that’s undeniable about Rodriguez is that the guy has a flair, a certain panache, for the visual. Since his breakout hit “Desperado” in 1995, through kiddie flick trilogy “Spy Kids” in the early 00’s, and into the stylistic tour de force “Sin City” in 2005, he’s always exercised that meticulous attention to detail, to presenting a visual appealing movie, while still delivering on substance.

As part of that throwback to the grind house horror flicks, his heroes and villains are very distinct. He’s got the bad ass, sexy girls, always looking completely glamorous even in the most perilous situations. Cherry still pulls off her go-go dancer moves, despite losing a leg and having it replaced with an assault rifle. The heroes are tough as nails. El Wray fights his way through an overrun hospital with nothing more than a pair of butterfly knifes and his hand to hand training. And the villains are so delectably evil, you love to hate them. Dr. William Block (Josh Brolin) and Muldoon (both sporting the demonic goatee) are the classic examples of evil, always keeping their cool.

If I were to pick two leads for this flick, it would be F. Rodriguez (“Bobby”) and Marley Shelton (“Sin City”) as Dr. Dakota Block, who is on the run from her now zombi-fied husband. They each helm their respective subplots with such immense talent that they could almost be seen as character studies, instead of a flashy horror flick.

But as with any zombie/survival flick, it’s more about the ensemble, than it is about the supposed leader of the group. “Planet Terror” gives R. Rodriguez a chance to show off one of his other filmmaking talents- assembling a perfect cast. You get great performances from everyone involved, because of how well they all fit into the movie, like pieces of a puzzle. Everyone is just top notch.

While it’s nowhere near a great, classic movie that will be a landmark in cinema, and I doubt anyone will think of it come awards season, it’s still such an enjoyable experience highlighted by stunning visuals, fantastic performances and such a delightfully intriguing script. It’s just good.

Death Proof

4 Stars

Quentin Tarantino brings his trademark flair for dialogue mixed with bombastic action to “Death Proof,” his contribution to the “Grindhouse” double feature. Kurt Russell and the bevy of beauties Tarantino cast highlight the flick.

Stuntman Mike (Russell) has modified his car to be completely 100 percent death proof- only if you’re sitting in the driver’s seat though. And this is how he kills people. He makes nice with them in the bar or something, then tracks them down and kills them. He first goes after radio host Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier, daughter of Sidney Poitier) and her friends, after soliciting a lap dance from one. After succeeding with them, he tries his luck with movie make up artist Abby (Rosario Dawson) and her two stuntwomen companions, Zoe (Zoe Bell) and Kim (Tracie Thomas), who actually give Mike a run for his money.

Tarantino has always been strong on dialogue. He’s great at mixing wonderful, almost lyrical dialogue with intense drama and action. They’re conversations you wish you could be smart enough to hold with your friends. The opening of “Reservoir Dogs” around the table at the diner is fantastic, and the Superman monologue in “Kill Bill, Vol. 2” shows how he can slow down the action but still keep you interested. Unfortunately he slows it down right away with “Death Proof”, offering up an overly long car ride scene (for which he’s famous) with mostly pointless dialogue. About halfway through the scene I got tired and let my mind wander. It didn’t come back till a full introduction of Stuntman Mike was made, nearly 15 minutes later.

That’s out of character for Tarantino. He’s usually right on the money, and can keep his scenes nice and tight. But I guess after 15 years and six movies, he’s allowed to falter a bit, but it’s just hard watching such an admirable and capable filmmaker falter like that.

Once he gets to the action, the first attack on Jungle Julia and her cohorts, the movie really gets going. Seeing Russell playing such an insanely demonic character is interesting, after his recent string of good guy roles. And he handles the villain role with an ease that makes it seem like a perfect fit. He breathes a certain life into the role of Stuntman Mike that makes me wonder why he wasn’t the first pick (casting rumors state he was the last resort).

The thrust of the film is the back half, with the film crew members. I wondered why that wasn’t the whole movie, the first half seems superfluous, considering the amount of time Tarantino has us invest in it. It’s almost pure action from the get go on the back half, which makes up for the dialogue heavy first half.

Tarantino has an infatuation with strong willed women. Almost all of his films feature strong female leads, and he punctuates that sentiment with a slew of heroines to fight off the domineering male villain. Dawson (“Sin City”), new comer Bell and Thomas (“Rent”) take their characters to a whole new level. The whole ordeal could have been a woman vs. man metaphor, playing it simple and safe. But these actresses kept it strictly victim and aggressor, and give vengeance a whole new meaning.

I can say for certain that this is in fact one of Tarantino’s worst films. But with six (including “Death Proof”) under his belt, all of them completely stellar, that’s not necessarily a negative. Because when making a list of one through six, something has to be first, and something has to be last. And despite the slow start, it becomes watchable around the halfway point.

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