Saturday, April 07, 2007


Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez mash-ups have improved with age. In the '90s, their collaborations tended towards the goofy but slight (From Dusk Till Down) or the downright excruciating (anyone else remember Four Rooms?) Like I said, things have improved.

Sin City found Rodriguez in rare form, still not making a film with any kind of emotional payoff or resonance, but at least making something fun and vital and entertaining from beginning to end. And he did so with a vital assist from Tarantino.

The two have now reunited for a grindhouse double-feature, a modern imitation of those old Z-grade '70s Times Square features that still get run in revival houses like Austin's Alamo Drafthouse or our New Beverly Cinema here in LA. This is a gamble. Most Americans aren't actually familiar with these old films: crudely-shot, badly-worn and gleefully perverse bits of nastiness. But beyond the subject matter's relative obscurity, the very concept itself seems destined to fail.

In short, how can two famous directors who work with decent-sized budgets and big stars under the auspices of a major Hollywood studio recreate a grindhouse film?

By definition, these '70s films were made on the cheap, with a bunch of nobodies, in a week or two. Manos, the Hands of Fate, isn't the worst movie ever because it was trying to be campy and bad. IT REALLY IS THAT CAMPY AND BAD, and that's why audiences continue to watch all these years later (even if it is only the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" version).

Rodriguez and Tarantino physically cannot recreate this. Thus, they CANNOT make a true grindhouse film. All they can do is imitate. That's what Rob Zombie did in The Devil's Rejects last year - he used his own resources to make a film that imitated the gruesome horror/road movies of his youth. Which is fine, I suppose, but not terribly exciting.

Rodriguez and Tarantino have, thankfully, devised a third path that I had not anticipated. (Really, a third and fourth path, as their films are not entirely similar). Not only does it work, but it works phenomenally, using '70s style to comment on filmmaking today AND potentially introducing a new generation to an obscure but hugely entertaining moment in American cult filmmaking.

Planet Terror

I'm not sure if every theater will get the same print, and see the Rodriguez film first in the line-up, but that's how it worked for me. Interestingly, Rodriguez has pretty much declined to make a grindhouse film. None of these '70s movies on which he's riffing had these kinds of elaborate make-up and special effects sequences. They rarely had huge explosions or action scenes, or a lot of gunplay. These people were working with four-digit budgets (if that!) They had enthusiasm, ambition and, frequently, some degree of technical knowhow. But they did not have the Weinstein Company behind them.

Instead, Rodriguez has made a big, funny, outrageous, cartoon zombie spoof that borrows the adolescent nihilism of grindhouse films. I haven't seen Sin City in a little while at this point, but I'm tempted to say it's topped by Planet Terror in terms of sheer fun. If nothing else, it's a whole lot more funny than any previous Rodriguez film, as if he'd managed to borrow the brains of old-school Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson for weekend brainstorming sessions or something.

At this point, I think it's fair to say that Robert Rodriguez thrives on uncomplicated, straight-forward action and horror. Whenever one of his films must rely on actual CHARACTERS or interpersonal drama to succeed, it will not work. He knows not what to do with, you know, people. Utilizing new technology to create the latest in live-action video games is more the guy's metier. Everyone's bored by overly-labored, complex non-starters like Once Upon a Time in Mexico, but boredom wouldn't be possible during Planet Terror. The thing doesn't stop moving for a second.

The opening credits are more "grindhousy" than anything that will follow in the rest of the film. Cherry (Rose McGowan) cries as she go-go dances in front of an unenthusiastic crowd. (Her boss reminds her that it's called "go go dancing," not "cry cry dancing," in a speech that reminded me of Larry Bishop's skeezy car wash tirade in Kill Bill 2).

Later that night, she winds up bumping into an old flame, the mysterious and massively-badass Wray (a fantastic Freddy Rodriguez, Rico from "Six Feet Under"). It's just in time, too, because at a nearby military facility, a shadowy government operative (Bruce Willis) and his team have accidentally flooded the atmosphere with a potent poison gas that is soon transforming the local population into mutant cannibal freaks.

What develops, as Cherry and Wray encounter other survivors and hole up in a barbecue restaurant, is pretty much a frenetic and grisly Romero send-up. (The presence of Tom Savini as one of sheriff Michael Biehn's deputies practically invites the connection). It's in some ways kind of similar to Rodriguez's work in From Dusk Till Dawn but more immediate, over-the-top, violent and funny. Rose McGowan's gun-leg has already become the film's most iconic image, but clever little devices and silly visuals like that abound throughout the film.

'80s legend Biehn, who was once James Cameron's go-to tough guy, gets his best role in YEARS as Sheriff Hague, an entirely likable play on the classic gruff B-movie cop archetype. He even gets to reprise the role in one of the fake trailers that come between the two films! Biehn's final scene with his brother JT (a similarly-terrific Jeff Fahey) is the one moment in Terror that has anything even resembling pathos.

Despite all the silliness, Rodriguez does slip in some insights along the way. I loved Willis' monologue explaining the origin of the poison gas - which decisively sets the film in the present-day, provides for one of its biggest laugh lines AND even lends the grim conclusion some poignancy.

But it's his use (overuse, really) of digital trickery and animation effects that really let us know where Rodriguez stands. He genuinely seems to feel that computers improve every aspect of filmmaking. He's not trying to recreate grindhouse films, really, so much as he's IMPROVING upon them. He can make movies as goofy, unhinged and personal as those old cheapo '70s features, but he can fill them with amazing stunts and impossible action sequences. He can even make the wear-and-tear of old prints, the grain and dirt that's usually the bane of classic cinema fans, into a FEATURE of his new movie. The fucked-up splices, the missing reels and so forth are part of the fun of his movie, rather than minor irritations or distractions that have become a constant "part of the experience" of going to the grindhouse over the years.

In some ways, he succeeds. I have rarely seen an actual grindhouse film that's this consistantly entertaining. And I've never seen one with an action climax on this kind of scale. But I feel like I come down more on Tarantino's side of this debate, which I will get to shortly.

The Trailers

There are four fake trailers included in the film. One plays before the first feature, and the others play in between.

Rodriguez did one himself, Machete with Danny Trejo, which is pretty cool. Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead fame contributes a really hilarious one called Don't. Rob Zombie crafts the surprisingly authentic Werewolf Women of the SS, the only one of these trailers that genuinely feels like a real grindhouse trailer and has the added benefit of starring Udo Kier and Sybil Danning. (There's an additional cameo that is so good, I would not dream of spoiling it here).

By far the best trailer, one of the year's best short films, really, is Eli Roth's Thanksgiving. Holy shit, this guy is some kind of demented genius. I mean, I liked Hostel a lot and am eagerly awaiting the sequel, but this trailer is extremely sick and perfect. It's as if Roth took every idea for a death scene he'd ever had that was too disturbed or brutal to make it into his actual movies, and then just shot them all in quick succession from odd angles. Brilliant.

Death Proof

Tarantino takes a diametrically opposed strategy with this film from his directing buddy. Rather than use contemporary technology to alter or IMPROVE upon '70s filmmaking, Tarantino has made a bittersweet ode to the forgotten movies of the past, as well as a lament for the soulless bland filmmaking that has come to dominate the marketplace. His film, in some ways, feels like a response to Rodriguez's. "That's a lot of fun," he seems to say, "but not even the world's most powerful computer can replace the thrill of amateur filmmaking, of seeing something that was handmade by enthusiastic nobodies." I think he's right.

Death Proof is SO committed to recapturing the old spirit of the grindhouse, it even gets boring and static in the midsection. I don't know if Tarantino purposefully limited his budget or what, but it feels like he RAN OUT OF MONEY about halfway through and needed to invent some dialogue scenes as "filler" to get to 85 minutes. Any fan of these movies will immediately recognize the sensation - grindhouse films have one or two cool moments in the first half hour, to capture your attention, and then get pretty slow and boring until the end.

BUT WHAT AN ENDING! The final 30 minutes of Death Proof is, without a doubt, some of the best work QT has ever done. Seriously. Kurt Russell is fantastic as Stuntman Mike, a really sadistic piece of work who tools around Austin in his modified Chevy Nova, looking for nubile packs of young girls to crash into. (His car was designed for film and TV stunt work, you see, so it's 100% death proof provided you're in the passenger seat).

Unfortunately for Mike, he has now taken on a group of female stunt drivers, including Rosario Dawson, who now test the upper limits of his driving (and fighting) ability. It sounds dumb, and it is, but in an exceptionally smart way. These final racing scenes feature two classic '70s movie cars (Mike's Nova comes up against a Dodge Challenger, the same car from Vanishing Point) skidding around a contemporary freeway otherwise filled with Toyota Camrys and SUVs. At one point, Russell's car careens through a marquee advertising Scary Movie 4.

These old cars, and the old movies that featured them, had PERSONALITY. They were the products of individuals, not corporations, and because they were made with no money or celebrities, the personality became the star attraction. When I think back on The Candy Snatchers, I don't remember the chase sequences or double crosses. I remember that weird old actor with the beard who chortles "An 8 year old that can't talk! Who ever heard of a child that doesn't talk!" Or the old stage actor who plays the mad scientist in Night of the Bloody Apes. His strange overacting is memorable because it's just so weird.

Computers, you see, they don't do "weird." Or "cheap." Or "homemade." They do exactly what you tell them to do, which is pretty much the 180 opposite of a camera, which does what you tell it only if you're amazingly fucking good with a camera.

But beyond all that "meaning" crap, this is really just great filmmaking. After the House of Blue Leaves sequence in Kill Bill the First and now these crazy racing scenes, Tarantino has proved himself more adept at shooting action than the vast majority of contemporary action directors. The race scenes from the Fast and the Furious movies look like shit in comparison. It's laughable. How humiliating for guys like John Moore, Paul Greengrass and the God-King of Shitty Action Scenes, Michael Bay, that QT can take such a simple premise and turn it into something so intense and exciting.

And, of course, as with every QT film, the music in Death Proof is absolutely stellar. Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, where have you guys been all my life?

Know Fear

Thursday, April 05, 2007

And Now, the Saddest Search of the Week

Someone came to the blog today having performed this Google Search. And I quote:

"looking for sex in ducktown tn"

Is it as bad as all that? (Don't worry...It only links to me because I reviewed the reprehensible Johnny Knoxville film Daltry Calhoun, which coincidentally was set in Ducktown.)

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha...

For all the talk about potential candidates who haven't entered the 2008 presidential race — from Mayor Bloomberg to Vice President Gore to Senator Thompson and Speaker Gingrich — the one that who would bring the most to the race is Vice President Cheney.

...ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha...

Were Mr. Cheney in the race, it's hard to imagine that the president's approval ratings would not be five or 10 points higher. The reason is that the administration would have a defender on the campaign trail as part of the public debate.

[Loud snorting]

Mr. Cheney has virtues as a candidate in his own right. He has foreign policy experience by virtue of having served as defense secretary, and he has economic policy experience, having served as a leading tax-cutter while a member of the House of Representatives.

Lawrence Kudlow wrote a column a while back saying he hoped President Bush asked Vice President Cheney to run for president in 2008. It was a fine idea then and it still is — not because the current field is particularly weak, but because Mr. Cheney is so much more experienced and shrewd a figure, one who could help settle some of the arguments about the Bush years in favor of Mr. Bush. A White House aiming to get Mr. Cheney elected could also avoid some of the hazards that befall lame-ducks — drift, brain drain, irrelevance. Such a campaign might lift Mr. Cheney 's own standing in the polls.

This is not an endorsement, and there are things we find attractive about many of the other candidates. But for those of us who are concerned with extending Mr. Bush's campaign for freedom around the world and cutting taxes at home, a Cheney campaign is attractive.

Okay, okay...I'm okay...Whew...Just let me collect myself here...

In the same Alabama speech in which Mr. Cheney quipped about wanting to run for office again, he said, " America is a good and an honorable country. We serve a cause that is right, and a cause that gives hope to the oppressed in every corner of this earth. We're the kind of country that fights for freedom, and the men and women in that fight are some of the bravest citizens this nation has ever produced. The only way for us to lose is to quit. But that's not an option. We will complete the mission, and we will prevail." What a contrast to the carping over tactics that has infected some of the Republican field and to the fever among the Democrats for cutting off funds for our GIs and sounding a retreat.

Nope, I've lost it again...

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Ventriloquists at the Roxy!

I'll remind everyone later on in the week about this, but this coming Thursday, my friends The Ventriloquists will be opening at The Roxy for Philadelphia's Man Man. You have heard me rave about both of these bands frequently here on The Inertia - this will be a rare, awesome chance to see TWO great acts (three, hopefully, if Simon Dawes lives up to the hype...) for the Scrotastically low price of only $10!

The Ventriloquists on MySpace!
The Ventriloquists on iTunes!
We Are Man Man!

Definitely check out that MySpace link for the Ventriloquists. (What would be the good casual term of familiarity of this band? The 'Quists? The Vents?) They've put up some cool new tracks from the Albino Pomegranite EP, including one catchy song called "Sidecar" that I'm not sure I've ever heard before.