Thursday, April 12, 2007


On Kurt Vonnegut:

- I remember at one point in high school, my favorite English teacher, Mr. Dessants, spoke about the next book on our class reading list with a glimmer in his eye. I don't remember much about our class' studying of Cat's Cradle, but I do have this vague memory of Mr. Dessants giving me a look in class (by that point he knew me pretty well), and saying "Danny B, you're going to like this one." What I do remember very clearly though is the sheer feeling of enthusiasm that came over me while reading my first work of Vonnegut. "Finally," I thought, "a guy who really gets it." In high schools across America, this same thing was probably happening to thousands of impressionable and increasingly cynical teens. In fact, the same thing had been happening for decades and decades. Reading Vonnegut for the first time was akin to that first dose of Salinger or Twain - a shock, a revelation. Except Vonnegut is still, even now, 100% relevant, 100% modernist, 100% applicable. Reading Cat's Cradle, I was predisposed to like it because of its science fiction overtones. But as I read it, my whole concept of literature was turned on its head. This was brilliant writing, yet composed of short sentances, quick phrases, and profound statements that cut right to the point. This was smartass scifi, with a deep, dark sense of humor that brutally skewed society. Everyone should read Vonnegut to get a healthy dose of cynicism, a healthy skepticism about the world we live in. Who else but Vonnegut could at once instill a total sense of wonder with the scope of his ideas, yet at the same time make you wonder if every character in his stories wasn't a raving lunatic?

Not to mention, Vonnegut's works are some of the most quotable of all time, as was the man himself.

I don't know if Billy Pilgrim was really unstuck in time or just insane. But I'd like to think that Vonnegut is simply floating around in the ether, reliving the various signifigant moments in his life with a curmudgeonly smile, thinking "Ha! I was right all along!" But unstuck in time or not, America has lost one of its true geniuses, one of its true canonical writers. We can all only aspire to change people with our ideas like Vonnegut has.

Perhaps even more importantly, however, a whole generation - from Jon Stewart on down - has learned a valuable lesson from Vonneget: when the chips are down, when things look bleak, when it seems like humanity has let you down ... well, change may best be perpetuated by staring straight into that void of liars, sinners, and hypocrites and being an unabashed, unrepentant smartass.

So it goes.

"I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in it's entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, "What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?" It doesn't take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.
This is it: "Nothing." "

"No damn cat, and no damn cradle."

"Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt."

RIP Kurt Vonnegut

Monday, April 9, 2007

Goin' down to the GRINDHOUSE


- There's a certain joy in movies that are imperfect. Sure, all movies are imperfect in their own way, but you know what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the movies that most people list among their favorites, but won't make any AFI Top 100 lists. Movies that made an impact not with their overall quality, per se, but with the sheer power of their ideas, their characters, their stories. Sure, in some movies, you have to wade through a lot of crap to get to those great moments or to see the premsie through to its conclusion, but its usually worth it. Because the greatness of "B" movies that are so bad yet so good is that they are raw, unfiltered, flawed but at the least, showing you something that is pure, unadulterated, uncensored vision. I mean, look at a movie like Buckaroo Banzai - by any quantifiable standards, not a good movie. But I still love it for its instantly iconic, zany characters, for its classic synth soundtrack, for the sheer ridiculousness of its plot - so ambitious that the movie ends with a never-fulfilled promise that we should all stay tuned for the next Buckaroo Banzai film to find out what happens to our hero in his further adventures. Now for people like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, finding the diamonds in the rough in the onslaught of 1970's / 80's grindhouse flicks became a lifelong passion. Finding the great moments in bad cinema, or just the great cinema in a genre filled with garbage, led to a film vocabulary that not many others possess. Tarantino's Citizen Kane came in the form of Sonny Chiba kung-fu, blaxploitation, teenage slasher flicks, hardboiled crime films, and low-budget action. Grindhouse is a love-letter to those films, and it both satirized and praises, celebrates and falls victim to, all the flaws associated with the genre. Like the B-movies of old, the flicks are raw, incomplete, devoid of logic, and filled with actors who aren't exactly Oscar-bait. But at the same time, Grindhouse is, like those same B-movies it pays homage to, a hell of a good time.

For me, Grindhouse works as well is it does not because of the individual films, but because of the whole package as a singular experience. Being in a packed theater, seeing the scratchy film stock, the old-school music, the dated logos, all adds up to the immersion factor. And man, those trailers, to me they might very well be the highlight of the whole Grindhouse experience. These fake movie trailers, each for totally over-the-top B-movies that never were, are just hysterical, laugh out loud, totally kickass pieces of shortform cinema. Before the first feature gets underway, we are treated to Robert Rodriguez's MACHETE, a friggin' hilarious trailer that had me grinning uncontrollably. "You just $#%#'d with the wrong Mexican!" is an instant classic. Then there is Edgar Wright's (Shaun of the Dead) DON'T - one of the funniest horror parodies I've ever seen - in a few short minutes it brilliantly lampoons every trailer for a horror movie you've ever seen. I want to see DON'T right now! Make it into a full-length movie! Rob Zombie's WEREWOLF WOMEN OF THE S.S. trailer felt a little bit off for some reason, maybe because Zombie's forte isn't exactly humor ... but, he did manage a crowd-pleasing, totally crazy Nicholas Cage cameo that had everyone rolling. Finally, Eli Roth's THANKSGIVING was classic - of all the trailers, it looked like it legit could have been a late 70's horror movie trailer, except it was over the top the the extreme, with a voiceover guy speaking so low he made usual trailer voiceover guy sound like Mickey Mouse - you had to love it. Man, I probably would have been happy with a whole movie of just these crazy grindhouse trailers -- that's how sweet they were.

But anyways, let me talk about the main features. One thing that definitely threw a lot of people off, I think, is just how different these two movies are. With Planet Terror, Rodriguez is basically doing a full-on satire of grindhouse movies. With nonstop, mile a minute action, he brilliantly parodies zombie flicks, post-apocalypse flicks, girl-as-action hero flicks, and just about every B-movie genre you can think of, all the while putting a modern twist on things, with nods to comics, videogames, modern action/horror movies, and current pop culture. But ultimately, Planet Terror is an action-horror-comedy, and a satire. On the other hand, with Death Proof, Tarantino isn't so much out to lampoon the grindhouse genre. Instead, he seeks to make his own, modern-day grindhouse movie that is both an homage, an update, and a subversion of the genre, all the while being a 100% Tarantino flick. Death Proof has all of Quentin's usual emphasis on random dialogue, obscure, meticulously selected soundtrack selections, and experimentation with narrative structure. It's almost like FROM DUSK TILL DAWN in reverse, with Planet Terror akin to that movie's action-packed, satirical second half, and Death Proof more like DUSK's slow-building, dialogue-heavy first act. These are two VERY different movies, but they add up to one perfectly-complimentary double feature, each showing a different side of what the grindhouse experience is all about.

First off - PLANET TERROR. This is the big, loud, gore-filled, action-packed, over the top satire that people were expecting when they went into Grindhouse. In short, the movie 100% succeeds at being a roller coaster ride, replete with crazy characters, extreme action, and a John Carpenter-esque synth score that is absolutely PERFECT in evoking just the right old-school mood for the film. Not to mention the instant-classic theme song, that is up there with the theme from Kill Bill in terms of sheer atmosphere-setting, adrenaline-pumping potential. There's a million and a half things going on in this movie, which is one of the reasons it's so fun but also perhaps its biggest flaw. In the end, you will NOT be able to recount what, exactly, happened in Planet Terror. What you'll remember are the characters, the great lines of dialogue, and the fun moments of girls, guns, gore, and gross-outs.

The cast of Planet Terror is great, in the way that oly a true B movie can have a great cast. The actors, like their characters, are larger than life, often defined simply by a singular fetish or piece of iconography. There is of course Rose McGowan, a modern-day pinup girl with a heavy metal, goth edge. Planet Terror opens with her doing a strip-tease for the camera that makes Selma Hayek in From Dusk Till Dawn look tame by comparison. Soon enough we learn that Rose, aka Cherry Darling, is an ex go-go dancer with a pipe dream of being a comedienne, who instead finds that her true calling is to be a zombie-killing warrior sporting a high-powered machine gun in place of a left leg. Rose McGowan has always been an attention-grabbing actress, but until you've seen Grindhouse, you ain't seen nothing yet. Lots of reconizable faces show up throughout the film doing cool, badass, hilarious things. You've got Bruce Willis as an army commando who seemingly walked right out of an X-Box game. Lost's Naveen Andrews as a scientist who has an obsession with, um, balls. However, many of the stars of the film are lesser known or have long been out of the spotlight. Marley Shelton is one of the big, big stars to emerge from Grindhouse, a total scene stealer as the sadistic mom-turned-mad-scientist Dr. Dakota Block. Josh Brolin is similarly creepy as her murderous husband, William. Michael Biehn is great as a cocky sheriff, and then there's Jeff Fahey as JT, who is a total riot as a BBQ cook whose backwoods dive-bar houses a secret stash of anti-Zombie combat vehicles. Tarantino puts in a memorable cameo that features one of the grossest things I've ever seen in a film. Finally, Freddie Rodriguez does a great job as our main hero, the mysterious El Wray, whose ambiguous origin is kept a mystery throughout the movie to hilarious effect. In fact, when Robert Rodriguez jumps from point B to point D in the movie, with Point C taking the form of a "missing reel," it is a brilliant satirical device that asks "look, do you really want to hear the secret origin of El Wray, or should we just skip to Rose McGowan killing zombies with a machine-gun leg? Yeah, that's what I thought ...". There's even a great, totally spot-on "Well, the world is forever changed, so we'll round up the survivors of the apocalypse and start a new utopian society by the ocean" ending to boot.

Again, Planet Terror is basically a piece of pop culture candy. It's a funny send-up of B-movie subgenres, but really, it just takes great pleasure in its calvacade of oddball characters, sexbomb women, and wanton cartoon violence. While you could hold the movie's silliness and illogic and all-over-the-place plot against it, it's best to just sit back and let Rodriguez's enthusiasm take hold. That is, if you've got the stomach for it ...

Now, on to DEATH PROOF. After the gorefest that was Planet Terror, I think people were expecting the same from Tarantino, whose last film, Kill Bill, was his most action packed to date. But like I said, Tarantino set out with a totally different approach than Rodriguez - he wasn't trying to lampoon grindhouse films - he wanted to make his own. Now, a grindhouse movie is not exactly a huge departure for Tarantino. All of his movies have pretty much been rooted in the realm of cult cinema, from Italian crime films to kung-fu flicks to blaxploitation. But the freedom of being a part of Grindhouse seemed to give Tarantino a certain freedom to be even more experimental than usual with his narrative structure. Because there's no doubt that Death Proof has an odd, even frustrating structure that will leave many scratching their heads. To briefly sum up (SPOILER WARNING), Death Proof focuses on a washed up stuntman known (appriately enough) as Stuntman Mike, played to grizzled perfection by Kurt Russell (more on him later). Mike seems like a friendly enough, if somewhat awkward guy, but really, he's a sadistic killer who gets off on using his souped-up stuntcar as an instrument of death, with his victims tending to be young women, the same type of young women who routinely give Mike odd stares, wondering who that creepy older guy is who's looking them over at the bar.

Anyways, Death Proof's first half centers on a group of these young women, who Tarantino slowly introduces us to through his trademark dialogue. But here, the build up is sloooow, the pacing deliberate, as Mike gradually enters the picture and begins to stalk his victims. This story plays out, and then, BOOM, the movie effectively restarts itself, and we're introduced to a WHOLE NEW group of women. Mike is nowhere insight until much, much later, when he finally reappears, only for the tables to be turned ... How? Well that would be saying too much. But this two-part structure is definitely a bit jarring. Why spend so much time building up one group of women only to completely switch gears, only to introduce a completely different set of main characters? Now don't get me wrong - the pacing of this movie seemed off at times, but Tarantino accomplished something great with his strange narrative - he made it one of the most unusual story structures I've ever seen in a movie, and, unlike Planet Terror, which kind of floated in and out of my brain like a round of Playstation, Death Proof has stuck with me. I thought about it and thought about it, turned it around in my head, wondered what it all meant, wondered what, exactly, was Tarantino trying to accomplish as a storyteller. In retrospect, it's almost like a classic campfire ghost story: "The first group of girls met the evil killer, then the second group met him, and theeeen ....".

Now, what Tarantino undeniably accomplishes with Death Proof is that the build is so slow, so deliberate, that the final payoff is a total rush. Suddenly, the movie goes from being a vehicular slasher flick to a women-get-revenge movie, and Tarantino does all this with a kind of casual, happy-go-lucky detachment that makes the whole thing totally surreal. As all of this is happenning, Kurt Russell's Stuntman Mike undergoes a total character shift, going from Snake Plissken-esque badass to complete wuss in the span of minutes. In a weird, twisted way it all makes sense, and it's utterly fascinating to see how Tarantino plays around with the audience's expectations to the point where everything you THINK will happen doesn't, and everything that does happen seems to be at odds with what our original expectation was molded to be. This is both a positive and a negative. Positive because it's just plain fascinating, and ultimately, memorable and rewarding. Negative because, as much as I like Tarantino's dialogue, Death Proof is padded with scene after scene of random, meandering conversations. Except, instead of Sam Jackson and Travolta talking about Royales with Cheese, it's a bunch of high-strung women talking about much less exciting things, like how stuntwoman Zoe Bell happened to fall in a ditch yet somehow emerge unscathed. Sure, it's all foreshadowing, but there is just way too much dialogue here, especially in light of the fact that we know, waiting in the wings, is Kurt F'n Russell ready to unleash hell.

As I mentioned, Russell absolutely owns Death Proof, even if his screentime is surprisingly limited. He's altrernatively an eccentric, aging, throwback, a badass killer-on-wheels, and a sadsack crybaby who cracks at a little antagonism thrown his way for once. Before heading out to the Grindhouse, I popped in Escape From NY and was reminded all over again how kickass Kurt can be, and was blown away at how his presence is as iconic as ever here in 2007. Gerard Butler, step aside for the true king of badass.

Now, the women of Death Proof all have a real presence as well. Rose McGowan once again shines here - she should probably be annointed the new Queen of the Grindhouse. But everyone else, from Sydney Poitier as Jungle Julia, to infectiouslly energetic Zoe Bell as herself, does a good job and carries their weight. Zoe Bell to me really stood out because she's unlike any leading lady I've ever seen. You know that girl in your elementary school karate class who could kick all the boys asses with a smirk and a smile? Well that's Zoe Bell for ya'. The downside of these actresses is though, that as good as they are, they aren't great with Tarantino's rapid fire dialogue. This slows the movie, but hey, it does lend it that authentic B-movie feel, with just about everyone but Kurt Russell slightly in over their head.

I still find myself torn about Death Proof. It was in many ways frustrating, but somehow, its flaws almost add to the end product, because half the movie you're wondering "so ... where is all this GOING?" and then, where it actually does go becomes all the more satisfying, and the zip of the ending becomes all the more fun thanks to the relative slowness of the rest of the movie. I don't know - this is one of those movies that will be analyzed and debated for years to come, and I doubt there will ever be a real consensus.

Personally, I'm not 100% sure how I feel about Death Proof as a standalone movie, but it really worked for me in the context of GRINDHOUSE. In that context, I had a certain set of expectations - that this was a forum for two directors who had already pushed the limits to go even further and just be really out there, to really lay their own personal and filmic fetishes bare ( and I really mean that - Tarantino's well-documented foot fetish is on full display in Death Proof). And as a movie fan- how can you not support that? I mean, this is everything it should be - raw, unconstrained, unconventional filmmaking. You've gotta love it. Even if some are hit, and some are miss, I wish that there were more movies out there that dared to be this individualistic. This is a movie that deserves high praise, flaws (intentional and unintentional) and all. The whole package of Grindhouse - two unique, boundary-pushing movies, crazy details from scratches to missing reels, drop-dead hilarious mock trailers ... this is a ride at Disneyland on crack, with images, ideas, characters, that will be burned in your brain, an adrenaline rush that won't let up. An A-level B movie, if such a thing is possible, which it isn't really. But then, that's part of the charm.

My Grade: A -