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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

PLANET TERROR / DEATH PROOF -- movie reviews by porfle


If you grew up going to big, dark, seedy movie theaters or rundown drive-ins that showed battered, tattered, spliced-and-diced prints of cheap exploitation flicks--and loving every minute of it-- then Robert Rodriguez' incredibly well-rendered homage to all that great stuff, PLANET TERROR (2007), just might be more fun than you can handle.

Originally part of the Rodriguez-Tarantino team-up GRINDHOUSE, which also featured QT's roadkill thriller DEATH PROOF, PLANET TERROR now stands alone on DVD in an extended, unrated version that is pure adrenaline-fueled goofy fun from beginning to end.

The movie plunks us smack-dab into the old grindhouse atmosphere right off the bat with original "prevues of coming attractions" and "our feature presentation" clips, along with a kickass, spot-on trailer parody for a fictitious flick called MACHETE starring the ever-popular Danny Trejo as a blade-wielding badass for hire. It's only a couple of minutes long, but it contains enough outrageous action clips and gravely-intoned taglines ("If you're going to hire him to kill the bad guy--you'd better make damn sure the bad guy isn't YOU!") to make us wish it was a real movie. (Which it soon will be, apparently--according to IMDb, Rodriguez is preparing MACHETE for an 2010 release.)

After a vintage clip informing us that the following movie is intended for adults only, PLANET TERROR kicks in full blast with a title sequence featuring scantily-clad star Rose McGowan doing a very energetic pole-dance in a seedy Texas club. Holy G-strings, Batman! I don't know how you'll react, but it got my full attention. Rose is definitely lookin' good these days.

Her character, Cherry Darling, quits the club in the not-too-likely hope of becoming a stand-up comedian. On the walk home she's almost run over by a convoy of vehicles on its way to an abandoned military base. Here, a shady deal goes down between greedy scientist Abby (Naveen Andrews, "Lost") and a group of renegade soldiers led by Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis) concerning a mysterious toxic gas called DC-2. The soldiers, it turns out, have been exposed to the gas and now need to inhale it in measured doses to counteract its horrific effects. But the deal erupts into a bloody gunfight, and before long a cloud of DC-2 is headed toward town.

Meanwhile, Cherry runs into her old lover Wray (Freddy Rodríguez, "Six Feet Under") in a roadside barbecue joint called The Bone Shack, which is run by the grizzled J.T. Hague (an almost unrecognizable Jeff Fahey). Cherry bums a ride home in Wray's wrecker truck, but they're attacked by some flesh-eating DC-2 zombies who make off with Cherry's right leg. At the hospital, soon-to-become-zombies are pouring into the emergency ward, where Josh Brolin is doing his best Nick Nolte imitation as the burnt-out, hypochondriac Dr. Block. Block is preoccupied by the fact that his wife, Dakota (Marley Shelton, SIN CITY) is having an affair with another woman played by "Fergie" of the Black-Eyed Peas, Stacy Ferguson. But he'll have more pressing concerns on his hands when the hospital begins to fill up with pus-spewing, gut-chomping zombies.

Wray gets hauled off to jail by Sheriff Hauge (Michael Biehn), who has had previous legal troubles with him. The sheriff is J.T.'s brother, and one of the funniest running gags in the film is him desperately trying to coerce J.T. into sharing his secret barbecue sauce recipe with him. But while he's booking Wray for whatever he can think of, zombies strike the police station in force and there's another extremely bloody battle.

Wray eventually makes his way back to the hospital to rescue Cherry, ramming a table leg onto the end of her stump in lieu of a more traditional prosthesis. The "Lt. Dan"-style missing-leg effects are awesome here, especially when Wray later replaces the table leg with a machine gun/grenade launcher that turns Cherry into one of the coolest warrior women in movie history.

Yet another awesome shoot-em-up scene occurs at the besieged, flame-engulfed barbecue joint, where the non-infected survivors have congregated and we discover that Wray is really El Wray. The significance of this is never explained (not only does the film "melt" during the big sex scene, but there's actually a missing reel!) but it's enough to convince Sheriff Hague, who tells his deputy, "Give him a gun. Give him all the guns." The survivors' flight down the highway in whatever escape vehicles they can scrounge up is a thrilling sequence highlighted by the sheriff bashing zombie pedestrians to bloody smithereens in Wray's wrecker while Wray heads the convoy on a tiny pocket bike.

The finale occurs at the old military base after they've all been detained by Lt. Muldoon and his renegade soldiers. Tarantino turns up as a lecherous psycho who tries to act out his women-in-cages fantasies with Cherry and Dakota, and ends up "getting the point", so to speak. His performance has been derided by some, but Tarantino knows exactly what kind of character he's playing and does it to a tee. (He also gets to perform the film's biggest gross-out scene, and boy, is it gross.) The good guys eventually escape from their cells and battle their way toward a helicopter, and not only does everything blow up real good but Cherry gets a mind-boggling opportunity to display her newly-developed battle skills in one of the coolest scenes ever.

All of this weird, wild stuff is wrought with all the directorial skills, grindhouse nostalgia, and giddy Monster Kid glee that Robert Rodriguez can muster. Once this thing gets started, it's non-stop over-the-top action all the way, drenched in gouts of fake blood 'n' guts and brimming with all the wonderful 70s exploitation elements Rodriguez can cram into it.

Stylistically, it's a near-perfect homage, complete with scratchy film, bad edits and splices to give it the look of an old, battered print that's been shown too many times, arch dialogue, and special effects that are well-rendered while being intentionally cheesy-looking. With the DVD's audience-reaction track activated, which to me is the only way to watch this film, it's like sitting in a cheap theater back in the old days. Rodriguez' conviction to go all the way with this concept has resulted in one of the most fun movies I've ever seen.

The entire cast is outstanding. Michael Parks returns as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw, a character that has appeared in Rodriguez' FROM DUSK TILL DAWN and Tarantino's KILL BILL and is further developed here. Gore makeup master Tom Savini and the original "El Mariachi" himself, Carlos Gallardo, appear as deputies. Rodriguez' twin nieces, Elise and Electra Avellán, play the Crazy Babysitter Twins, who should definitely be in their own movie. And his son Rebel does a nice job as the Blocks' young son, Tony, who loves tarantulas and scorpions but should never be trusted with a gun.

This DVD is one of the best Christmas gifts I ever got. Rarely have I had this much pure, unadulterated fun watching a movie. Of course, if you're one of those people who post on IMDb asking puzzled questions like "what's with all the scratches?" or pointing out all the obvious "goofs" and "gaffes", this movie probably isn't for you. But if you're an old-school flick fan who gets what Robert Rodriguez is up to here from the git-go, then chances are PLANET TERROR is an exploitation extravaganza that will be held over for an extended run in your home grindhouse theater.


Having gone ga-ga over PLANET TERROR, I couldn't wait to see the other half of the GRINDHOUSE double-feature he and collaborator Quentin Tarantino unleashed on widely unsuspecting audiences in '07. QT's muscle-car mayhem epic DEATH PROOF, while not as over-the-top awesome as Rodriguez' film, is still a pure, giddy joy that revels in the down and dirty delights of its low-budget inspirations.

We're first introduced to four lovely young wimmins cruising the Tex-Mex diners and bars of Austin, Texas, yakking endlessly about guys and planning an all-girl party at Lake LBJ. There's the petite blonde, Shanna (Cheryl Ladd's daughter Jordan of HOSTEL PART II and CABIN FEVER), leather-clad tough chick Lanna-Frank (Monica Staggs), sexy Brooklyn gal Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito), and locally-famous radio DJ Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Sidney's daughter). Rose McGowan, the star of PLANET TERROR, plays a smaller role here as Pam, Julia's grade-school rival who shows up at the Texas Chili Parlor run by Warren (Tarantino) while the girls are there partying with some horny guys that include a funny Eli Roth (HOSTEL). And, for the record, PLANET TERROR's ever-popular Crazy Babysitter Twins are there as well.

Also sitting at the bar stuffing himself with nacho platters is the burly, scarfaced Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a washed-up Hollywood stuntman who takes an interest in the girls and, through a series of circumstances, ends up getting a lap dance from Butterfly in a steamy set-piece. While Stuntman Mike seems friendly enough, there's something creepy and vaguely dangerous about him. But Pam needs a ride home and climbs into his black '69 Dodge Charger, which, as Mike tells her, is so heavily-reinforced for stuntwork as to be "death proof." This, however, only applies to the person behind the wheel, which Pam finds out to her immense regret as soon as they hit the street.

The first half of DEATH PROOF has the same battered, scratchy, spliced-to-hell look of PLANET TERROR, which should bring back fond memories to anyone who's actually been in a grindhouse or watched a midnight show where the print was as old as they are. For me, the nostalgic joy began in the very first seconds as soon as I heard that awesome bass line from Jack Nitszche's VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS theme, otherwise known as "The Last Race." Then the title, which, for a split second, is "Quentin Tarantino's Thunder Bolt" until the words "DEATH PROOF" are crudely spliced in, mimicking the look of all those cheap films that have been re-released under different titles. Another jarring splice cuts the title sequence short and dumps us into the movie proper.

Later, reel changes are clearly heralded by splotchy indicators and one of the biggest moments of the film, Butterfly's lap dance for Stuntman Mike, ends abruptly due to missing footage. This is the kind of stuff that will mean nothing to a lot of viewers, and in fact seems to put many of them off--which is probably one of the main reasons public reaction to this movie has been so divided--but it makes me as giddy as a schoolgirl.

What happens midway through DEATH PROOF is one of the most thrilling and totally unexpected scenes of recent years--I had to rewind and watch it two or three times just convince myself that this flabbergasting event really happened. Then, after a denouement which features yet another welcome appearance by Michael Parks' Texas Ranger character Earl McGraw, who got his brains blown out way back in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN but refuses to die, the movie blinks forward fourteen months and transports us to Lebanon, Tennessee, where Stuntman Mike is up to his old tricks again.

This time, we meet four more young women who are in town for the making of a softcore "cheerleader" movie. Rosario Dawson (SIN CITY) is makeup artist Abbie, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the movie's cutie-pie star, Lee. Their two friends are hardcore stuntwomen Kim (Tracie Thoms) and real-life stuntwoman Zoë Bell, who plays herself. Zoë's dream is to drive a white 1970 Dodge Challenger with a 440 engine, just like the one in VANISHING POINT.

Sure enough, there's a guy in town with one for sale, and before long, the girls (minus Lee) are out for a pedal-to-the-metal test drive that includes a hair-raising stunt called "Ship's Mast" with Zoë sprawled across the car's hood. This, of course, is when Stuntman Mike makes a surprise reappearance, crashing into the Challenger and then trying to run it off the road in a prolonged, stunt-packed pursuit over rural roads and highways.

Having a real stuntwoman playing a main role adds to the excitement because we see her face the whole time and know she's really doing all of this dangerous and thrilling stuff herself. Tarantino also uses legendary veterans such as Buddy Joe Hooker and Terry Leonard for the driving stunts, allowing him to indulge his imagination with some of the most incredible set-ups ever filmed. "Adrenaline-charged" would be an apt way to describe this harrowing car chase sequence, all the way up to the truly kooky ending in which the girls turn the tables on ol' Stuntman Mike.

The battered-print look disappears in DEATH PROOF's second half, as though we're now seeing another kind of exploitation flick--perhaps the more upper-scale stuff (GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS, VANISHING POINT, et al) that Kim and Zoë like to gush about. One thing that remains consistent throughout the movie, though, is Quentin Tarantino's well-known obsession with female feet. If you're a foot fetishist too, you'll love this movie from the very first frame, as this appears to be Tarantino's substitute for the gratuitous "boob shots" often seen in the usual grindhouse fare. There's also an abundance of big butts, gorgeous legs, and stuffed shirts, all lovingly photographed by a gleefully leering QT. Sydney Tamiia Poitier, in particular, proves a highly photogenic focus for such directorial indulgence. I'm not complaining.

I have heard complaints that much of the girls' dialogue scenes in this movie are too ponderous and not as witty or clever as the "royale with cheese"-type stuff from PULP FICTION. Me, I just like to hear Tarantino's characters talk, even when it isn't all deliciously quotable. These long yakkity-yak scenes also help us get to know the characters before they're subjected to extreme terror and peril by Stuntman Mike. As the crazed highway stalker, Kurt Russell is simply wonderful. Relaxed, jovial, but somehow not quite right, Mike is a great character and Russell is obviously having a ball playing him.

Tarantino has already wowed the mainstream with RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION--here he's content to give us old-time, pre-multiplex movie fans like himself a thoroughly entertaining thrill ride down memory lane in a souped-up exploitation flick with a defiant get-it-or-don't attitude. Like PLANET TERROR, the other half of this heartfelt love letter to grindhouse fans, DEATH PROOF doesn't need mainstream acceptance to validate it or make it good. It's critic-proof.


Buy "Planet Terror" at Amazon.com
Buy "Death Proof" at Amazon.com
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