GRINDHOUSE Blu-ray Review

     October 8, 2010

There are two things to note about this recent release of Grindhouse. The first is that when the film premiered in the spring of 2007, much was hoped for this three hour double feature from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s half Planet Terror had a stripper (Rose MacGowan) and her off-again boyfriend (Freddy Rodriguez) battling a zombie plague brought on by a scientist (Naveen Andrews) and a crazy solider (Bruce Willis). Death Proof is the second half and has Kurt Russell playing a killer whose weapon of choice is a stunt car, and whose prey are young women (including Rosario Dawson, Zoe Bell, Tracy Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Vanessa Ferlito, Sydney Poitier, Jordan Ladd and Rose McGowan). But Tarantino’s and Rodriguez’s fan-base and the world at large either didn’t get or didn’t care about the movie, and so it flopped at the box office. It was meant to be a fun flagship production by the Weinstein company, and instead was a big black eye. As such the films were broken off and sold separately on home video. So finally, three and a half years later, the film comes as originally intended to DVD and Blu-ray. And my review of this three hour opus is after the jump.

The film opens with the fake Machete trailer, which is now through the looking glass as a film was made out of the fake trailer, so it’s a fake trailer selling something that now exists. But, like so many of these movies, the Machete trailer is better than the feature. Planet Terror starts with Rose McGowan doing some pole dancing, and you can tell that Rodriguez is more energized than he’s been in a while. RR has the habit of making slap-dashed products and making cut-rate films, but perhaps working with Tarantino goosed him some. As such, the set up and pay off are almost equally as good. McGowan’s Cherry Darling has quit her job and is looking to get out of town when she runs into El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), her ex-boyfriend. The two get into a car accident and she loses her leg. Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) is having an affair, and her husband Dr. William Block (Josh Brolin) is violently suspicious about it. It’s interesting to note that at the time of production Rodriguez was having a made-public affair with McGowan, and here casts the cuckolded as the asshole. I don’t hold that against the film, but I always notice it. That said, Brolin is really good in the role. Around town Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis) has been betrayed by Abby (Naveen Andrews), who himself was betrayed by the people he had helping him. Such explains why mutants have broken out and are killing anyone in their path (tonight’s celebrity guest death: Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson).

El Wray gets into trouble with the Sherrif Hague (Michael Biehn), who keeps raising the rent on his brother J.T. (Jeff Fahey) and his BBQ place. But the sheriff doesn’t know what a bad-ass El Wray really is, and how helpful he will be if – say – there was a zombie outbreak. So you’d never guess how they all team up to make their way out of town with any survivors, but then there’s Lt. Muldoon’s team, who wants to keep everybody in town, cause…Well, you need a villain.

The running time of the film in the theatrical cut is around 88 minutes, and that’s exactly how long this needs to be. Rodriguez was accused of not going full grindhouse, but this seems more of an homage to the mid 80’s zombie movies that followed Dawn of the Dead, more so than Tarantino’s more 70’s approach. If you’ve seen Nightmare City, I think there’s room for comparison here. But fortunately, the short run time and the genre mechanics means that everything moves very quickly, while the film actually builds to its conclusion, where Cherry has a gun for a leg, and takes out a lot of dudes (how it works is beside the point. The film plays like hopped up nonsense, but it works in context. Rodriguez has you laughing at the genre tropes, while Tarantino’s approach is in no way less infused with grindhouse fare, so much as it exists more to be a part of it.

Planet Terror is followed by three trailers by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth. This is part of the holy grail aspect of this release, as they were not available to own previously, except via bootlegs. Rob Zombie’s might be the weakest because he inserts himself more into the idea than anyone else (and though it’s got all the elements, it never plays period), but the punchline is still great. Edgar Wright’s piece is the cleverest, and brilliantly directed, while Eli Roth’s is the one where you feel like you’ve actually seen the movie he’s parodying. Roth’s and Wright’s trailers are pitch perfect.

Quentin Tarantino’s Thunder Bolt (with the title changed to Death Proof) does something that pisses a lot of people off. Which is that it features women talking on screen for about forty minutes before anything really happens. At some point they’re joined by Kurt Russell, but the opening is a talk-fest, with a set up of Vanessa Ferlito’s Arlene playing – what in any other movie would be – the final girl. She’s joined by “Jungle” Julia (Sydney Poitier) and Shanna (Jordan Ladd) as they spend an evening in Austin bar-hopping and getting hit on by boys. But there evening is slow, and that’s how they make the acquaintance of Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), who turns out to be a homicidal killer who’s good at alibis. One car accident later, and Mike’s on to a new group of girls. They’re all in the film business, with Zoe Bell playing herself, and joined by Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), driver Kim (Tracy Thoms) and actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Then there’s more of the ladies talking and a trip to check out a 1970 Dodge Charger that is an exact match for the car in Vanishing Point. Zoe wants to do something crazy with the car, but what she doesn’t know is that Mike is on their tail.

There’s way more meat on Tarantino’s bone than Rodriguez’s. That’s partly because he has a plainly bifurcated narrative, which forgoes the three act structure. Or you could argue it has a five or six act structure if you wanted to. But for someone fascinated by how stories play out, it plays to Tarantino’s inherent love of tinkering with structure, that it excites by its unfamiliarity. The front and back half act as a mirror to each other, with one group of girls becoming the surrogate avengers. It’s a fascinating structural conceit, and though some people get sick of Tarantino’s chatting women, I think they have a breezy chemistry and never find their dialog boring. Taranitno wanted to flex his action muscles with Kill Bill, and here those gifts are used for a car chase that is one of the greatest car-on-car sequences in cinema history. And the film ends with a brilliant twenty minute sequence of spectacular car action. And that sequence pulls a lot more weight in the Grindhouse cut – actually both films are better in their shorter cuts – because it replicates some of the Grindhouse traditions of ending a film by firing on all cylinders. Though it could be argued the least of Tarantino’s filmography, it is no way bad.

Taken apart, Tarantino’s film plays more like a film and less like a goof, but Rodriguez’s is the more fun of the two in terms of a party film. But taken together, it’s even better. This is the only way to watch the film/films, and I’m glad to finally have it.

Vivendi entertainment and Dimension films present the film in a two disc Blu-ray edition that presents the film on the first disc, and supplements on the second. Missing from the previous releases is the extended cuts, and Rodriguez’s cleaned up version of Planet Terror. But all the other supplements are reproduced. On the first disc there’s a commentary track for Terror from Rodriguez, an audience reaction track, and Eli Roth and co-writer/actor Jeff Rendell on the Thanksgiving trailer. The film is presented in widescreen (2.35:1) and in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, and there’s also a music cues section for Death Proof.

Disc two is broken into special features for both films and all new bonus content. Planet Terror has the previous released “Robert Rodriguez’s Ten Minute Film School” (12 min.), “The Badass Babes of Planet Terror” (12 min.), “The Guys of Planet Terror” (17 min.), “Casting Rebel” (6 min.) on casting RR’s son and his death scene,  “Sickos, Bullets and Explosions: The Stunts of Planet Terror,” (13 min.), “The Friend, The Doctor, and the Real Estate Agent” (7 min.) on RR’s friend-casting, and a poster gallery.

For Death Proof there is “Stunts on Wheels: The Legendary Drivers of Death Proof” (21 min.), “Quentin’s Greatest Collaborator: Editor Sally Menke” (5 min.), “The Guys of Death Proof” (8 min.), “Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike” (10 min.), “Finding Quentin’s Gals” (21 min.), “The Uncut version of ‘Baby It’s You’ performed by Mary Elizabeth Winstead” (2 min.), “Introducing Zoe Bell” (9 min.), a trailer for the documentary Double Dare, extended music cues for two tracks, and a poster gallery.

For the new content, there are two featurettes for Planet Terror: “Robert Rodriguez’s Ten Minute Cooking School” (9 min.) on how to make ribs, and “the Make-up Effects of Planet Terror” (12 min.), which gives Geg Nicotero a chance to talk about his work on the film.  The Death Proof section has “The Hot Rods of Death Proof” (12 min.) and “From Texas to Tennesse: The Production design of Death Proof” (8 min.). Solid additional featurettes, nothing special, but perhaps most exciting is the effort that goes into the Trailer section of new stuff. It opens with the extended cut of the Werewolf Women of the SS trailer, with optional rob Zombie commentary, and a making of the trailer (9 min.).It’s followed by an extended cut of Edgar Wright’s Don’t trailer, with optional Wright commentary, a Storyboards to trailer comparison, also with optional commentary, a making of (10 min.), and a storyboard still gallery and poster. There’s also a making of for the Thanksgiving trailer (6 min.). If that weren’t enough there’s a “New York Times Talk with Lynn Hirschberg” (65 min.), where Tarantino and Rodriguez talk about the movie and the film’s comic-con panel from 2006 (24 min.), and then finally the trailer for “Hobo with a Shotgun.” This is the edition to own.

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