Skip to main content

Check it out. I wonder if BJ brought the Bear with him.

Death Proof
(2007)

(SPOILERS) In a way, I’m slightly surprised Tarantino didn’t take the opportunity to disown Death Proof, to claim that, as part of Grindhouse, it was no more one of his ten-official-films-and-out than his Four Rooms segment. But that would be to spurn the exploitation genre affectation that has informed everything he’s put his name to since Kill Bill, to a greater or less extent, and also require him to admit that he was wrong, and you won’t find him doing that for anything bar My Best Friend’s Birthday.

My recollection of the movie was one of, as the phrase goes, hot garbage, hotter even than Robert Rodriquez’s companion piece Planet Terror (which, like it or not, seemed more invested in its messy tapestry; it also helps that he’s a slipshod director of slipshod movies intentionally making a slipshod movie, so there aren’t any real joins to see). This revisit confirmed that assessment, although in fairness, I had written off the opening hour – kind of Tarantino’s equivalent of a Psycho misdirection, whereby, Janet Leigh style, the heroes you meet at the start aren’t the ones you end up with, but devoid of any accompanying quality – as a series of mind-numbingly banal conversations only truncated when Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike fashions a grisly demise for them all.

That part is accurate – and whether or not Tarantino might argue the banality is intentional, crap is no less crap for wanting it to be crap – but they’re really appreciably no worse than the second half’s quartet’s interactions. In tandem with this, our auteur has a whale of a time fetishising the bodies of his stars, be it Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s and Vanessa Ferlito’s bottoms or Sydney Poitier’s legs. Or Rosario Dawson’s toes. But he can do that, okay, because it’s self-aware… Yes… But then, Tarantino’s take suggests he’s not that self-conscious about the movie (“let me take the structure of a slasher film and just do what I do”).

Indeed, I’d say that, despite the presence of three more recognisable actors – Winstead, Dawson and Tracie Thoms – in the second half, they fare less well due to the encumbrance of Tarantino’s attempt to turn Zoë Bell into an actor and failing in a manner that, by comparison, makes his own acting career suddenly appear wholly viable. Bell is shockingly bad, and no heavy lifting by her supporting cast is going to remedy that. I suppose you could use the get out that Zoë Bell is playing Zoë Bell, so this is her, but what, is Tarantino going to claim his intention was for Bell to be really bad at being herself?

Even the ostensible reason for having her there – the picture revolves around a “death proof” stunt car, of the type Stuntman Mike drives, that protects its driver’s seat no matter what, and thus Quentin figures, he can justify an actual stuntperson playing an actual stuntperson going up against another stuntperson, or some such suspect reasoning – crashes and burns in the face of Tarantino shooting the chase material in the most tedious and long-winded manner. Because he wants it to be authentic, okay, with Bell flailing about all over a bonnet while pulling a “ship’s mast” stunt.

The first half consists of a protracted sequence showing Mike up to his insidious agenda. Which may be entirely creepy, and Mike is easily the least engaging role Russell has taken – which doesn’t mean he’s unengaging in it, just that you wish it had been worthy of him – but it’s about the only time the picture really holds the attention. The reveal that Mike had the evening’s gory pile up planned out in advance, spurning alcohol and covering his tracks, as offhandedly theorised by Michael Parks’ Earl McGraw, is the one point in the proceedings where Tarantino’s actually come up with something worthy of past talents, rather than draping himself in the flag of mutton dressed as mutton while hoping his audience comes along for the ride, the way he previously hoodwinked them with his previous exploitation riff, Kill Bill. But this is much closer to the earlier From Dusk Til Dawn. Notably, all three feature McGraw, affiliating them in a scuzzy, seedy backwater of Tarantino fare that he’d probably engage with even more actively if he thought he could bring the viewers along in sufficient numbers.

From Dusk Til Dawn was exactly as crappy as most Rodriguez movies (the only reason I can figure James Cameron wanted him for Alita: Battle Angel was that he didn’t want anyone on board – such as a Kathryn Bigelow – who might make a better movie than he could, the same for Terminator: Dark Fate). Kill Bill showed off Quentin’s express intent – proving he could do action – but had little else really going for it. It did allow him to shoehorn a lot of self-conscious movie trickery into the mix, though, and he clearly thought that had given him enough rope to go forward with his Grindhouse concept (film jumps and assorted damage, including hairs, scratches etc). Which absolutely no one bought into. When even the Tarantino faithful – and there are a either lot of them or they’re just very vocal – don’t want to know, that’s saying something.

Kill Bill isn’t a particularly good movie, but it isn’t a boring one (although, I’d argue the succession of fights does get tedious, particularly viewing the parts back to back). Death Proof commits the capital crime that, luckily, he hasn’t steered clear of since (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tests the patience, but it at least does so in an interesting way). It’s dull. It’s dull, it’s ugly, and it has no interesting characters. You might argue this is all intentional homage, but what then are you left with, precisely?

There are various links here, however, that definitely make Death Proof of a piece with subsequent fare. In particular, you can hang this with Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in its focus on a “rousing” revenge fantasy climax. Those are all revisionist histories to some degree (Django Unchained in terms of period permissibility rather than actual events), but they link by dint of their crude – and being aware of the crudity doesn’t, like the general issue of quality, somehow make it meritorious in a post-modern sense – righting of wrongs committed by racists/ Nazis/ murderous cults/ misogynists.

Taken collectively, they suggest a filmmaker gripped by permanent adolescence in the way he responds to such issues. Which tend to reveal that he has no real way of responding to such issues, as he responds to them in a movie way. The misogynist, in the form of Stuntman Mike, comes in for beating here. But rather than rousing, it’s simply irritating, as Tarantino – again, in the name of exploitation cinema – goes for the most obvious. So Mike is revealed as a coward beneath it all, blubbering when he gets shot, and proceeding to show what an inadequate man he is when the trio of Bell, Dawson and Thoms give chase. Because I guess they’re actually insane psychos themselves deep down, in a movie-movie with no connection to the real world – Tarantino will probably point to this at some point and say Brad Pitt’s actions in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are no different, to counter misogyny charges there – suddenly reveal how, with no prior indication, they’re happy as punch to beat a man to death. And stomp his head in.

I mean sure, if that’s your bag. I just don’t have an “in” here. For this kind of ultra-violence to be cathartic, you need to be invested in the first place. At very least, when movies riff or offer homages (Joe Dante or John Landis, say), they’re usually done with a modicum of wit, but there’s none of that here.

I’ll warrant though, that Tarantino has continued to nurse the scars of Grindhouse’s reception, which is why Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has proven a stealth reheat of many of Death Proof’s elements (some were bafflingly conjecturing that Kurt would again be playing Mike – what, when he’s ten years older and the movie’s set forty years earlier?) Both have a stuntman in a central role again, with a shady possibly murderous past, there’s a flourish of references to old TV shows no one remembers (here The High Chaparral, The Virginian, Vegas, The Men of Shiloh, Gavilan, as well as namechecking unknown stuntman Lee Majors). Half of each picture is set in the world of movies (obviously, all Tarantino’s movies revolve around movies to some degree) and both end in the protagonists slaughtering the antagonist(s) with impunity. So yeah, Quentin spruced up his grindhouse with big name actors, gave it a polish and an air of respectability, and passed it off as non-defective goods.

Inevitably, Quentin shows up here, as the first half’s bar owner (Warren). He appears to have effected a peculiarly gargoyle-like transformation of himself at this stage of his career, resembling a Bob Hope as Elvis Halloween mask. For an embarrassment of displeasures, he’s joined in the same scene by Eli Roth. So I guess there’s a degree of authenticity here; the idea that the pair of them would show up acting in dodgy grindhouse fare isn’t beyond the ken. Hilariously, a 127-minute version of Death Proof was screened in competition at Cannes that year. I mean, maybe it was great… If Cahiers du Cinéma put it at number two for the year, it clearly tickled those French critics. Just not enough to persuade anyone else. Tarantino said of it that it “has got to be the worst movie I ever make. And for a left-handed movie, that wasn’t so bad, all right?” No, Quentin. It was.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

The past is a statement. The future is a question.

Justified Season Six
(SPOILERS) There have been more than enough damp squib or so-so show finales of late to have greeted the demise of Justified with some trepidation. Thankfully it avoids almost every pitfall it might have succumbed to and gives us a satisfying send-off that feels fitting for its characters. This is a series that, even at its weakest (the previous season) is leagues ahead of most fare in an increasingly saturated sphere, so it’s a relief – even if there was never much doubt on past form – that it doesn’t drop the ball.

And of those character fates? In a show that often pulls back from giving Raylan Givens the great hero moments (despite his maintaining a veneer of ultra-cool, and getting “supporting hero” moments as he does in the finale, 6.13 The Promise), it feels appropriate that his entire (stated) motivation for the season should be undermined. He doesn’t get to take down Boyd Crowder, except in an incarcerating sense, but as always he is sanguine about it. After…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

You’re only seeing what’s in front of you. You’re not seeing what’s above you.

Mr. Robot Season 2
(SPOILERS) I suspect my problem with Mr. Robot may be that I want it to be something it isn’t, which would entail it being a much better show than it is. And that’s its own fault, really, or rather creator and writer-director of umpteen episodes Sam Esmail’s, who has intentionally and provocatively lured his audience into thinking this really is an up-to-the-minute, pertinent, relevant, zeitgeisty show, one that not only has a huge amount to say about the illusory nature of our socio-economic system, and consequently the bedrock of our collective paradigm, but also the thorny subject of reality itself, both of which have been variably enticing dramatic fodder since the Wachowski siblings and David Fincher released a one-two punch at the end of the previous millennium.

In that sense, Mr. Robot’s thematic conceit is very much of a piece with its narrative form; it’s a conjuring act, a series of sleights of hand designed to dazzle the viewer into going with the flow, rath…

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

It’s the Mount Everest of haunted houses.

The Legend of Hell House (1973)
(SPOILERS) In retrospect, 1973 looks like a banner year for the changing face of the horror movie. The writing was on the wall for Hammer, which had ruled the roost in Britain for so long, and in the US the release of The Exorcist completed a transformation of the genre that had begun with Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby; the realistic horror film, where the terror was to be found in the everyday (the home, the family). Then there was Don’t Look Now, which refracted horror tropes through a typically Nic Roeg eye, fracturing time and vision in a meditative exploration of death and grief. The Wicker Man, meanwhile, would gather its reputation over the passing years. It stands as a kind of anti-horror movie, eschewing standard scares and shock tactics for a dawning realisation of the starkness of opposing belief systems and the fragility of faith.

In comparison to this trio, The Legend of Hell House is something of a throwback; its slightly stagey tone, and cobweb…