Friday, 14 September 2007

Review: Death Proof Extended and Unrated DVD

I've had this DVD since the 8th and have been attempting to review it (well, Death Proof) since then. I've now given up and am just posting what I write off the top of my head (apologies in advance).

Death Proof's review has proved elusive because of its long and complicated history, so let's get that out of the way first: For those who don't know, Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof was originally intended to be seen in the US, UK and some other countries, along with Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror in a unique, retro double-bill called Grindhouse. Both of those two films were cut down to 90 minutes, they got some famous horror directors to put together some fake trailers for 70's exploitation style movies, and they packaged the whole thing as one long, crazy, experience.

The US audiences didn't like it, it flopped and major theatrical release of Grindhouse was pulled from other countries. As to why it flopped, nobody knows. Rodriguez claims it was because the TV advertising confused cinemagoers. Tarantino, more philosophically, thinks it's because people just didn't want to watch two films back-to-back in the cinema ("man, I've got shit to do today!"). Others have speculated that it was just too "out there" for audiences, being as it was, an homage to an obscure and unpopular niche (70's exploitation cinema).

I personally speculate that Tarantino's core audience Rodriguez's core audience don't necessarily crossover as much as people think, and prospect of having to sit through a film from a director you're not that bothered about just to watch a director you are that bothered about, wasn't an enticing one.

Whatever the reason, its pull from cinemas left UK and Australian audiences fuming. Instead of the full Grindhouse experience, however, both films are being released theatrically in their longer, director preferred cuts, separately.

This DVD includes the this longer cut, which was always going to be released on DVD the world over.

The first thing to say is that thankfully, the idea of Death Proof being an homage to guilty pleasures comes across immediately. Even outside of the Grindhouse experience, the retro opening titles, with all their bad cuts, scratches, dirt and deliberate jumps, get the message across clearly and leave you with a smile on your face.

The second thing to say is that yes, this longer cut, is the better of the two versions. The much talked about "missing reel" from the Grindhouse version has been, ahem, "found" and reinserted back into the film, creating this version's first compelling moment.

Aside from that though, most of the extra twentyodd minutes is additional dialogue, which, while not adding any new amazing scenes, does help flesh out the characters a little more (in an indirect way) and gives us some classic Tarantino dialogue, too. The second half almost suffers from too much conversation, but just as you're just about to get tired, the finale kicks in (no extra footage there, though).

This is the version that Tarantino always wanted to us to see, but he was happy to sacrifice his favourite moments in order to make Grindhouse work better as a whole, knowing that one day we'd all be watching this version.

Eagle-eyed viewers will notice one small edit (yes, a removal of a few lines!) and one different take, but in both cases they are improvements.

If you're not familiar with Grindhouse and are completely new to Death Proof, then let me begin as I would have if I hadn't had to explain all of the above. Tarantino's fifth film is (or at least starts as) a tongue-in-cheek attempt to capture the atmosphere of a low budget 70's slasher movie. It's got the innocent girls talking about boys, the lurking danger and the almost non-existent plot. Staying true to its origins, when the violence and action comes, there is no use of CGI. This is truly an old school treat.

That's not to say that Death Proof is flawed or too simple. It's actually a lot cleverer in its structure than you might realise and is hugely entertaining to boot, even if it owes a lot more to Psycho than it does to any forgotten slasher movies.

Kurt Russell is brilliant as the mysterious Stuntman Mike and its shocking to know that he wasn't the first choice for the role. This is a brilliant addition to Russell's rogue gallery of characters, along with Escape from New York's Snake Plissken and The Thing's MacReady.

"The Gals" (as they're referred to in the opening credits) are all great, too. Vanessa Ferlito, Rosario Dawson, Rose McGown and newcomer Zoe Bell shine in particularly. The cast as a whole work perfectly together, too, which given the large amount of ensemble conversations is extremely fortunate. The chemistry appears so good amongst the cast that you can't imagine they didn't have fun filming Death Proof.

You'll forgive me if I seem to be deliberately avoiding talking about the plot, it is, as I've said, so simplistic that frankly there's nothing to be gained by telling you about it. Just go and watch and enjoy if you're outside of the US or buy, watch and enjoy if you're in.

By now I'm sure you've come to expect, as I have, a pretty decent treatment for films on DVD, and thankfully Death Proof is no different. If anything I'd have to say that, apart from the obvious loss of detail, the picture quality is actually better than the brand new cinema print I watched last week. The blacks are nice and black, but the image isn't too dark (as it was in the cinema), creating good contrast with shadow detail. The colours are perfectly captured, and so are all the deliberate scratches, bits of dirt and other artefacts.

The same goes for the sound (although I have to say, listening to it full volume in the cinema was most impressive). The deep engine growls cry out for a system with decent bass and loud speakers. Like the plot structure, the audio is deceptively simple.

As with Kill Bill, it seems like extras are not really what this DVD release is about, despite having a second disc dedicated to them. On the first disc you get the International Trailer (gives everything away) and a Poster Gallery (especially uninspiring).

The second disc is made up of short featurettes, which do provide some sense of background for the film when viewed together. I'm not really sure what a feature length documentary or commentary could have provided for a film like Death Proof, unless it delved into its Grindhouse beginnings... which none of the included documentaries do, unfortunately.

Stunts on Wheels: The Legendary Drivers of Death Proof (20mins) - A short piece on the old school drivers they used for the car chase. Some of the things they did seem almost let down by the film itself (for example the "near miss" they talk about is not very impressive in the final film).

Introducing Zoe Bell (9 mins) - An interesting explanation as to why one of the actresses does some amazing stunts.

Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike (10mins) - A short piece on how great Kurt Russell is as Stuntman Mike (he is, but ten minutes of this isn't totally necessary, but I guess any shorter and it would have felt equally pointless).

Finding Quentin's Gals (20mins) - Another short piece on how each of the women were cast by Tarantino.

"Baby It's You" sung by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (2mins) - A short outtake from the film showcasing Winstead's surprisingly good voice.

The Guys of Death Proof (8mins) - A smaller piece on how the guys were cast (did you know that Eli Roth was one of them?).

Quentin's Greatest Collaborator: Editor Sally Menke (5mins) - An extremely short piece were Tarantino thanks his editor, and some snippets which are the closest to outtakes/goofs as this DVD gets.

Double Dare trailer - A trailer for the documentary that shows Zoe Bell's story and one that possibly led to Tarantino casting her.

A lot of people are probably annoyed that there's no mention of Grindhouse nor any of the fake trailers which were originally shown between the two features. The reason for this is actually quite hopeful; Tarantino and Rodriquez see Grindhouse as a separate entity don't want to do it a disservice by just selling off its parts. As such, this DVD is about Death Proof, not Grindhouse.

They both love Grindhouse and want it to keep alive, and the only way to do that is to keep whatever unique elements it has, to itself. This means, thankfully, that Grindhouse will indeed keep floating around cinemas all over the world once its two halves have had their separate releases. Ultimately its life will probably be one closer to the low-budget 70's it pretends to emulate, appearing in lesser known cinemas for sporadic (hopefully late night) showings.

Final thoughts
If you're familiar with Grindhouse and liked it, you'll love this. If you're new to Death Proof (meaning you're probably reading from outside the US) go see it at the cinema first (it's great with a good crowd) and then come back and import this DVD.

It may not be Tarantino's greatest work, but it's his most playful, joyous and outright fun.


Recommended (for the film itself and presentation more than anything else).


Peter said...

Well, as I saw Grindhouse 5 times at the theater, I really have no choice about whether or not I'm buying this DVD. Interested in seeing the extra 20 minutes though. That should probably make it worth it on its own. Not a bad review at all, sir.


Johnny Walker said...

Thank you very much!

Wormsie said...

I actually feel priviliged to have seen the longer version in the theatre. I know something you don't, hehe!

Johnny Walker said...

Hi Worsmie, I've also seen the extended edition in the cinema, maybe I wasn't clear in my review?

Care to share your mysterious knowledge?