Movie Review: Grindhouse: Planet Terror
FILM REVIEW: GRINDHOUSE
By Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
"Grindhouse: Planet Terror": 2 stars
"Grindhouse: Death Proof": 3-1/2 stars
Fanboy vengeance is theirs! Like so many stray body parts, the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez double bill "Grindhouse" gathers up two 85-minute features, "Planet Terror" by Rodriguez and Tarantino's more talkatively sadistic (and far better) "Death Proof"; a quartet of coming-attraction trailers for fake `70s-schlockazoid pictures of various genres, one of which is a riot; and 1,001 memories of the genuine grindhouse trash that malnourished many a grateful young filmgoer.
Since the earliest screenings preceding this week's release - in non-U.S. markets, the film's two halves are going out as solo acts, not as a 191-minute double header - "Grindhouse" has stoked a fevered "which-faux-feature-is-better?" argument. Some, I find, have it all wrong. They like "Planet Terror" better. They barely got through the "Death Proof" dialogue scenes alive and were saved only by the sight of strapping New Zealand stuntwoman and actress Zoe Bell (Uma Thurman's double in the Tarantino "Kill Bill" pictures) dangling from the hood of a speeding 1970 Dodge Challenger. It's the same make and model, Tarantino takes pains to point out, driven by Barry Newman across the west in "Vanishing Point."
Don't listen to these people. In a retro act riding wholly on sweet nostalgia and film-geek nastiness, Rodriguez comes off like the poseur, or at least the one without a cinematic knack. By contrast Tarantino's film does its restlessly referential thing while managing a personality and drive of its own. It may take Tarantino too long to get Bell on the hood, but I'd rather see a talented stuntwoman earn her paycheck than sit through another round of computer-generated pus explosions.
In "Planet Terror," U.S. military experiments with nerve gas, somehow involving the hunt for Osama bin Laden, turn a good chunk of Texas into a haven for flesh- and brain-eaters. Rodriguez's protagonist is Cherry (Rose McGowan), a go-go dancer who ends up with a machine gun for a leg. Josh Brolin, doing his best Nick Nolte impersonation, grumbles around as a doctor inundated with a rabid citizenry; Freddy Rodriguez plays Cherry's ex and go-to savior when it comes to getting out of Zombietown alive.
Even if you're not much into this filmmaker's brand of schlock, you think: How can this miss? Whether or not you share writer-director Rodriguez's rumpcentric and cleavagelical interests, surely there's enough in the freak department. It's sad, then, that Rodriguez believes filmmaking heat lies entirely in the editing room. He rarely moves his camera or his actors in dynamic ways.
And he's essentially humorless, even in camp mode. Every other gag line in "Planet Terror" is literal-minded in the extreme. Nurse, examining a corpse whose brain is missing: "Looks like a no-brainer." Legless angel of death, regarding her condition: "But I was gonna be a stand-up comedienne!" I enjoyed bits and stray, gristly pieces of "Planet Terror," but Rodriguez's attempts to make the experience authentically rasty (hacked-up reel changes, pops and hisses on the soundtrack) erode our sense of immersion rather than amplifying it. For the record, in "Planet Terror" Tarantino plays a slobbering would-be rapist upstaged by his own zombified pustular genitalia, and while it is now too late to say "Warning: the phrase `pustular genitalia' ahead," it's best to know what you're in for.
Compared to Rodriguez, writer-director Tarantino downplays the "I Love the `70s" parlor tricks in his contribution. With "Death Proof" (in which he takes another small role) Tarantino isn't making anything other than revenge-fueled crud - but then, DePalma's "Carrie" was exactly that, as well as being a prime example of a terrific movie with one foot in the grindhouse spirit, the other in Oscar nominations.
Kurt Russell's a major asset here, smiling his sharklike smile and making a human being out of a slasher-film archetype. He plays a D-minus celebrity (a stuntman with a modestly impressive resumé) taking out his disappointment in life on unsuspecting females in the environs of Austin, Texas. "Stuntman Mike," as Russell's character calls himself, goes after a lissome threesome (Jordan Ladd, Vanessa Ferlito and Sydney Poitier, Sidney's daughter) out on the town. The murder weapon is Mike's modified Chevy Nova. The car is built to kill, and it does, after a lingeringly vicious buildup.
Ever on the prowl, Mike's next targets are in the film industry. Zoe Bell plays herself, a Kiwi shooting a low-budget film in Tennessee (really California, and some of the roads look mighty familiar from the Georgia-set, California-shot "Dukes of Hazzard" TV series). Along with her fellow stuntwoman (Tracie Thoms) and their movie's makeup artiste (Rosario Dawson), Bell ends up pursued by Russell's cackling psycho until the tables are turned and the villain receives his comeuppance, as they say in polite circles.
The sadism in "Death Proof" is no less determined than in "Planet Terror," but the individual acts of violence are relatively few, countable on two hands. There's a moment when Dawson, sitting in the back seat of a Dodge Challenger the stuntwomen are keen on testing out, transforms in closeup from terrified passenger to fellow thrillseeker. Her smile becomes an emblem of the audience's experience of "Death Proof": The film's thrills may be grimy, but around the midpoint you realize the filmmaking is strong and swift enough to make hash of your resistance.
A generation ago, director Stanley Donen made "Movie Movie," a mock-double bill of 1930s genre pictures, one a boxing story, the other a backstage musical. "Grindhouse" is this generation's "Movie Movie," only with cell phones and text-messaging and severed limbs. The biggest kick is one of the quickest: Edgar "Shaun of the Dead" Wright's priceless trailer for a pretend movie called "Don't Scream," paying homage to the massively dubbed likes of "Don't Open the Window," a zombie film I saw at the dear departed Racine, Wis., Westgate Drive-In back in 1975. It was a Spanish-Italian co-production shot in England (recently released on DVD under the title "Let Sleeping Corpses Lie"). At the time I remember thinking: Why are all those swarthy Mediterranean-looking undead speaking in upper-crust British dialects?
Such are the memories evoked by "Grindhouse," which gives dumpster-divers a chance to slum in the antiseptic safety of a multiplex.
"Grindhouse: Planet Terror"
Written, directed and photographed by Robert Rodriguez; edited by Rodriguez and Sally Menke; production design by Steve Joyner and Caylah Eddleblute; produced by Rodriguez and Elizabeth Avellan. A Dimension Films release. MPAA rating: R (strong graphic bloody violence and gore, pervasive language, some sexuality, nudity and drug use).
Cherry - Rose McGowan
Wray - Freddy Rodriguez
Block - Josh Brolin
Dakota - Marley Shelton
"Grindhouse: Death Proof"
Written, directed and photographed by Quentin Tarantino; edited by Sally Menke; production design by Steve Joyner and Caylah Eddleblute; produced by Tarantino and Erica Steinberg. A Dimension Films release.
Stuntman Mike - Kurt Russell
Zoe - Zoe Bell
Abernathy - Rosario Dawson
Kim - Tracie Thoms