Sunday, September 23, 2007

Death Proof

One of my biggest filmgoing regrets of the year is the fact that I never got to see Grindhouse. I was still in school when the film came out, and it wasn’t playing at the theater near Wesleyan. Time passed, and when I return to New York, it was only playing at one theater. I kept meaning to go down and see it, but soon it had vanished, and with it my chance to experience the full theatrical spectacle intended by its creators. I’m assuming the film will turn up on DVD at some point, but for now, I’ll have to make do with the DVD of Tarantino’s Death Proof, the extended cut.

It’s odd to read so much about the reaction to a film before getting to see it, and my expectations for Death Proof were definitely colored by what I’d read. While someone going into Grindhouse probably would have been expecting pure action spectacle, I was aware that it was a talky film, centering on two separate groups of women. Going in with those expectations, I loved the film, parts of it more than others, but I do think it’s a worthy addition to Tarantino’s oeuvre.

Unlike a lot of people, I think Tarantino really came into his own with his past two films, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill. While I love Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, they’re not as accomplished and cinematic as the latter two. Jackie Brown in particular is one of the most underrated films of all time, almost always left out of discussions of his work when it is in fact his most emotional and mature piece of filmmaking. On the DVD, he describes that film as a hangout movie, one where you’re watching it to spend time with the characters rather than following the story, Death Proof is much the same.

My favorite part of Death Proof is the opening hour, following the first bunch of girls during their night on the town in Austin. Tarantino can write dialogue like no one else, and it’s a joy to just watch these people talk and be together. You’re given access to their social world, and during the sequence in the bar, it feels like you’re sitting at the bar, watching the happenings. My best compliment to those scenes is that they made me really want to go hang out in Austin. I wanted to be a part of that place for real because it was so vividly depicted here.

Throughout the film, there’s perfectly chosen music cues, provided by the fetishistically adored jukebox. My favorite music moment was cutting from T. Rex to melodramatic music to show our character’s emotional state, then back out to the T. Rex. You don’t need to know the background of that drama, it’s all conveyed in the moment. It doesn’t even matter that the story goes nowhere beyond them getting killed, it’s all about enjoying the moment.

I won’t lie, a large part of the enjoyment of that segment came from spending time with Vanessa Ferlito, who’s absolutely gorgeous. The lapdance sequence was fantastically sexy without ever really showing anything. I would have been happy to just stay with those characters up at the lake and not even have any violence happen. This was a Russ Meyer feel to the sequence, Faster Pussycat in particular.

But, a happy weekend at the lake was not in the cards for our heroines. The death sequences, first Rose McGowan’s and then the fourpeat of car destruction were intensely nasty. Tarantino called the film a slasher film where the car is the killer, but those sequences go beyond the slasher film by making this something utterly real. You could be driving along and ripped apart like that. The reality of the car chase later in the film made it feel more dangerous than any CGI perils. I particularly like the poking fun at CGI when Stuntman Mike is talking about how they do car chases in movies.

The second half of the film drags a bit because it’s largely more of the same, and those characters don’t feel as realized as the first half’s crew does. I also didn’t like the move from grainy 70s style to the clean look of today. I really preferred the quirky cuts and scratches of that opening segment. It’s not that the second half is bad, it’s just you’re going to be less forgiving of a seven minute dialogue sequence halfway into a film than you are near the start.

When we do get to the action, that also drags a bit. The car chase is exhilarating at times, but needed about a minute cut out to maximize the thrills. That said, there were a whole bunch of fantastic moments throughout, and I loved the way the movie ended, so sudden and abrupt. That had a real exploitation flavor, you do the violence, then you end the movie.

On the whole, I loved the movie. The first half is straight up brilliant, the second only drags in comparison to the superior first half. But, I think it got a bit of a bum rap, and will hopefully be more appreciated on its own. I’m going to have to give it a couple more watches to see just how good it is, but right now, I’d say it’s the best film of the year.


porcalina said...

I loved Death Proof and I saw it opening weekend before it could get ripped apart be people annoyed by dialog. So I'm glad for that. I went out and got the soundtrack immediately after seeing it. It's great.

And the ending was perfectly hilarious.

Fletch said...

Put me in the pro-Death Proof camp as well. I saw it in the theater as well and highly recommended Grindhouse as a feature to be seen there. I'm sorry you didn't get to, and I'm pissed that they're splitting them for DVD (not to mention excluding the trailers, from what I've heard).

I'll be waiting for the combined DVD to make a purchase.

"Jackie Brown in particular is one of the most underrated films of all time, almost always left out of discussions of his work when it is in fact his most emotional and mature piece of filmmaking."

I couldn't agree more. Very well said. I still put Pulp above it, but I really enjoy Jackie.