Monday, September 24, 2007

How to Disarm a Box-Office Bomb

By Mike Gillis

I'm among the majority of movie-goers who skipped "Grindhouse" at the theater earlier this year. I happen to enjoy much of the work of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez but suppose at the time just didn't feel like sitting through three-plus hours of grindhouse homage. It's just as much fun assembling a grindhouse lineup at home, without having to succumb to a hip, clever tribute to justify the wasted hours.

That said, I have been looking forward to wasting a few hours at home with "Grindhouse" courtesy of my local Blockbuster, which I did over the weekend. My disappointment was immediate.

No, the picture isn't that bad -- at least the picture I saw. You see, The Weinstein Co., in a shameless but admittedly practical attempt to chart a course out of a box-office black hole, only released "Death Proof," Tarantino's contribution to "Grindhouse." "Planet Terror" won't hit the rental shelves for another month.

tracie_thoms8I find it a bit ironic that Tarantino and Rodriguez lobbied hard -- and successfully -- to have the films released together, along with a handful of fake movie trailers (which, to be honest, are what I really wanted to see. Sadly, they are not included on the "Death Proof" DVD.) Of course, the original pitch called for Tarantino's and Rodriguez's pictures to clock in at an hour each, which along with the trailers, tallied up at a little over two hours total. Neither director was able to pare back his picture.

So the idea of paying tribute to grindhouse cinema, of which brevity is a virtue, is already out the window. And what do get on DVD? An extended and unrated cut.

I'm not sure what was added to "Death Proof" for DVD since I missed the theatrical run. I guess I'm being punished for missing it while being teased into seeing something a little different -- a tradeoff for not having all of "Grindhouse" to watch on one DVD. And if I want some extra features -- a documentary, the film's original trailer or even some mindless featurettes -- I can buy the two-disc special edition.

And I'm sure the full "Grindhouse" theatrical and expanded edition will be out just in time for Christmas.

You may think a similar strategy worked for Peter Jackson and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, but the multiple edition DVDs followed the release of each picture, years apart, and offered two takes on each picture -- a bare-bones theatrical edition and a special, extended edition with lots more footage. That made sense and, I have to admit, for better home viewing and a rich experience at the theater.

So what about "Death Proof"? It's not a bad picture. It's thick with Tarantino-speak: Lots of people bantering about the banal, the philosophical, sex, drugs, popular culture -- occasionally all at the same time. There's a grisly car wreck and, to balance, a few genuinely touching moments.

But this isn't "Pulp Fiction" and it certainly isn't "Kill Bill."

20070708_220004death-proof-Kurt Russell plays Stuntman Mike, a pleasant and charming psychopath whose rigged stunt car is 'death proof,' he states. What he neglects to tell the unfortunate female victims who hop in for a ride is the car's protection doesn't extend to the passenger's seat.

I do like the way Tarantino twists the familiar plot on his head, giving the women a chance to exact some serious revenge, breaking some of the rules of earlier grindhouse pictures, but ignoring the fact that a host of later genre pictures have already been there.

And there are some very fine performances. Rosario Dawson, Sydney Poitier and Vanessa Ferlito soar in this picture. Who doesn't? Well, Tarantino needs to stop pretending he can act. He's awful. So is his buddy, Eli Roth, who shows up for a good 10 minutes. Perhaps one of the most jolting casting decisions is Zoe Bell, a stuntwoman who plays herself. She's given a prominent role in a group of four friends, but it's too obvious she was cast for her dexterity, not acting chops.

Then there's Kurt Russell. Russell is versatile, wonderful actor, who I enjoy in almost everything. I did with "Death Proof", too, but I don't think I was meant too. There is nothing to Stuntman Mike. No edge. No depth. No sense. No Snake Plissken. I recall reading Tarantino had written the role for Mickey Rourke, and I can't help but wonder if it would have been a better picture for it.

Of course, I also wonder if I would have enjoyed the picture more had it been the second act of "Grindhouse," not an overlong B-movie that aims to be A-list.

I guess I'll never know.