Monday, December 10, 2007

Death Proof not critic proof

I saw the movie Death Proof on DVD. In theaters it was part of a double bill, two movies together called Grindhouse. The whole package was made to look like a drive-in movie or Times Square theater double feature. It was a flop in theaters despite the pedigree of the filmmakers, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino.

Death Proof is a movie that proves that Quentin Tarantino has no one around him to tell him no. "No, Quentin…there's too much dialogue…" "No, Quentin, this movie is too long by 40 minutes at least." Tarantino has been sort of a darling since Pulp Fiction--still his best movie, in my opinion--and apparently studios or backers are giving him what he wants when he wants it.

One of the saving graces of this film is star Kurt Russell, who continues his string of solid acting jobs and movie performances. The man is one of those actors who can anchor a movie by his presence. I think he's overlooked because he's not flashy, flaunting his lifestyle, keeping himself in the public eye. In this role, he's given the job of seeming to be nicer than his true evil within, and he pulls it off.

He is first seen in a grotesque close-up shot eating greasy nachos. Look at the picture I took off the screen. The scar on his face is fake, but the creases in his earlobe aren't. Those creases are supposedly a sign of hidden heart problems. Careful with those nachos, Kurt.In a great scene he describes to the girls in the bar his history of being a stunt man, invoking old TV shows like The Virginian, and Vegas where he "did the whole third season" doubling for Robert Urich. He pauses and asks the girls, "Do you know any of these things I'm talking about?" and they tell him no. It plants the character in the viewer's mind as being over the hill, stuck in Austin, Texas, after an exciting life in Hollywood.

How did he get into being a stuntman, he's asked. He got in because of his brother. What's his brother's name? Stuntman Bob.

Tarantino does an acting job as the bartender. Quentin, you might be the wunderkind--or former wunderkind--of the directing biz, but please, please leave acting to the professionals. Even Hitchcock was content with a cameo. He didn't try to act in scenes with James Stewart, Grace Kelly or Cary Grant.

The pleasant surprise to me was seeing for the first time beautiful actress Vanessa Ferlito as Butterfly. I didn't think any woman could match Scarlett Johansson's lips, but this young woman has a set of Mick Jagger bumpers to rival any Hollywood collagen job.I was immediately taken by how sexy she is, especially in the scene where she gives Stuntman Mike a sexy dance to the tune of the Coasters "Down In Mexico." I'm going to watch for this beauty in future films. The music is really good, even if the dance scene was gratuitous and could have been easily cut without hurting anything. Except for my chance to see Vanessa Ferlito swing her booty.
The other thing that could have been cut was nine-tenths of the uses of the f-word. Quentin, baby, when you overuse that word it loses all meaning. How about saving it for when you really, really need to make a point or emphasize something?

SPOILER ALERT: You don't want to read the rest of this if you want to see the movie.

This is a crazy script for any director to film, even Tarantino, who wrote it. Two sets of four girls are victimized by Russell's character, Stuntman Mike, and his muscle cars. Too much time is spent in the set-up to the situation. Even though the scenes in the bar drag on interminably, Tarantino doesn't seem to get the hint that less is more. Less talk, less profanity…it'd be better, Quentin. Truly.

The crash scene that causes the deaths of the first set of four young women is one of the best special effects-stunt jobs I've ever seen. I ran the scene on my computer DVD player, paused it and took digital photos of the highlights. (I'm low-tech and don't know how to do screen captures.) The scene is set in four segments, each one beginning with the cars crashing, taken from different angles, and showing the mayhem to each girl individually.The first girl is shot through the air, and hits the ground.
In the second set-up of the same scene, the driver of the car is shown showered with glass from the windshield.The third set-up causes the leg of the third girl, Jungle Julia, to be cut off, and it also ends up on the road in a gruesome shot.The fourth set-up shows the girl, Butterfly, sitting behind the driver having her face taken off by the rear wheel of Stuntman Mike's vehicle, as it travels over the top of the girls' car.Wow! Good clean fun, huh? Even though Stuntman Mike has deliberately run into the car full of girls at 100 miles per hour, his car is a special stunt car, and the driver compartment is death proof. Hence, the title.

OK, after that and a time lapse of several months we're shown another set of four girls, this time in Tennessee. But we're given the same lengthy conversations, all dialogue that sounds a lot like the first set of girls. Tarantino has just got to learn to quit loving the sounds of his own written words. He likes black people, only he likes them to call each other by the n-word. That was already established in other projects of his like Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. He likes black women, especially pretty, young black women.

This time Stuntman Mike's plot to kill the four girls using his car backfires--no pun intended--and they use their car against him. Considering the guy is a stuntman who has faced death many times in a very risky job, considering he's probably been injured many times, and that we have seen him deliberately crash head-on into another car at 100 mph, he seems to have a very cowardly reaction to suddenly being the victim instead of victimizer. To Kurt Russell's credit, he gives it credibility. He does a wonderful job portraying a man who has had his plans turn bad. At one point Stuntman Mike shrieks like a little girl, which is totally out of character, but Russell's believability saves it from being as ludicrous as it sounds.

Tarantino wanted to capture the look of a 1960s cheapie drive-in movie. He made a movie that looks 2007, but with the film quality--faked digitally--of a print run way too many times. Why not make it look like 1966 with beehive hair on the girls? Quentin Tarantino likes to show us he's cool. Cool dialogue, cool characters, cool plot twists, and especially cool music. But he could put a lot more cool into his movies by letting us decide what's cool, and not be hammered by his self-indulgence.

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