Thursday, April 12, 2007

Welcome to the "Grindhouse"


directed by Robert Rodriguez (“Planet Terror”), Quentin Tarantino (“Death Proof”)
starring Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Marley Shelton, Josh Brolin, Michael Biehn, Naveen Andrews; Kurt Russell, Sydney Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Rosario Dawson, Traci Thoms, Zoe Bell, many others I’m forgetting; cameos by Bruce Willis, Nicolas Cage, QT himself, others

What, really, is left for me to say about “Grindhouse”? The Tarantino-Rodriguez double feature just hit theaters this past weekend, but there’s been so much lead-up coverage in the media I read regularly, so much anticipation among Hollywood watchers and my fellow movie-lovers, and so much discussion already by those who flocked to see it on opening weekend, I feel saturated in a way that I know isn’t reflected in the box office numbers or the general public consciousness. The movie debuted a disappointing and distant fourth, and in the new, shaky house that Harvey built there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Does that mean it’s a flop? Well, yes and no. Personally, I always thought “Grindhouse” was more likely to end up a cult film, and was dubious that the Weinsteins’ marketing blitz was really going to change that. Fanboys, cinephiles, and critics (especially those who grew up in the ’70s) have been licking their chops for months now over this movie, and their reaction has been almost uniformly enthusiastic. Everyone else, I suspect, greeted the early promos with a shrug and a “looks really bad,” “gross,” “cheesy,” or “not my thing,” and stayed away. So, gentle reader, whichever group you belong to, I realize that whatever I write will likely have little impact on the odds of your going to see this particular movie.

That said, should you go see it? Yes, as long as you know what you’re in for. “Grindhouse” is a wildly entertaining experience, all 3+ hours of it, and it is most definitely a movie that should be seen in a theater—preferably a crummy, dingy one. Yes, it is gross and cheesy, rife with lame dialogue, indifferent plotting, leaden acting, scantily clad chicks (though surprisingly little nudity), and truly revolting images of bodily dismemberment and decomposition. No, it doesn’t deserve a free pass merely because these were all characteristics of the original “grindhouse” flicks—seamy B-movies that played continuously in seamy, run-down theaters throughout the ’70s. Let’s face it, a parody of schlock can still be (and often is) schlock.

“Grindhouse,” however, is no parody; it’s a celebration. In fact what’s brilliant, if arguably a little prodigal, about it is that it flaunts all the flaws that marked those low-rent exploitation extravaganzas—right down to scratches on the “print” and missing “reels”(nev’ mind that the whole film was shot in digital on a very generous budget)—and at the same time captures the visceral appeal and energy that made them such good trashy fun. Neither director shows a whiff of condescension towards their material or any intimation that they’ve risen above it. Quite the contrary, they’re eager to evoke the exhilaration they found in the ol’ grindhouses and to show how it influenced their own filmmaking styles.

Of course, those styles being quite different, they go about doing this in very different ways. Rodriguez leads off with a hilarious fake preview for a Mexican revenge movie called “Machete” (I guarantee you’ll remember the punchline), followed by a zombierama entitled “Planet Terror.” The premise of “Planet Terror” doesn’t get much more basic: toxic green gas inadvertently released at a military base turns normal human beings into ravening, rotting cannibals who threaten to take over a small Texas town. This is the one that features Rose McGowan with a machine gun for a leg, although she doesn’t acquire that prosthetic until fairly late in the game. She plays Cherry, a go-go dancer who loses a leg to the zombies, hooks up with an old flame (Freddie Rodriguez) with a mysterious past and a talent for gunslinging, and joins a ragtag band of stock-character survivors, including a skeptical sheriff (Michael Biehn, welcome back), a creepy barbeque restaurant owner (Jeff Fahey), and a sexy blond female doctor (Marley Shelton, who’s a riot) on the run from a scary doctor husband (Josh Brolin) who’s just discovered that she’s been having an affair with another woman (Fergie – yep, that’s right, Fergie). Much mayhem ensues, at a breakneck pace that never lets up until the final frame.

I haven’t seen any of the movies Rodriguez invokes, but his is about as perfect an imitation as I ever could have imagined. Which is not, you know, all that easy to do. The trick is the tone, which he gets exactly right. It has just the right level of tongue-in-cheekiness, enough to be playful, not so much as to be haugh-haugh annoying. Rodriguez has a sense of humor about this stuff, but he’s also clearly loving it and having a blast. And his enthusiasm is infectious: “Planet Terror” brims with a gleeful, can-you-top-this quality that finds expression in ample effusions of bullets, blood and guts. (Suffice to say the makeup artists, one of whom plays a minor character in the movie, obviously had a field day here. I can just hear Rodriguez calling exuberantly, “MORE blood! MORE popping pustules! MORE melting flesh! Yeah!”) It’s all so over-the-top that the overall effect is more grotesque than sadistic, though be forewarned that the first shock effect is the appearance of a freshly severed testicle rolling into the foreground. If you can’t deal with that, you may have a hard time sitting through the rest. (As a naturally ultra-squeamish viewer who eschews horror movies and can’t even watch “CSI” without flinching, I can tell you it helps greatly to watch with an appreciative audience. Also, for what it’s worth, there are very few close-ups of actual acts of violence, as opposed to their effects; this ain’t no “Saw” or “Hostel.”)

There’s a short break between the end of “Planet Terror” and the beginning of Tarantino’s contribution, “Death Proof.” But don’t get up to use the bathroom or you’ll miss the three fake horror movie trailers, which alone are worth the price of admission and which I won’t spoil by describing except to say they continue the trend of loving spoofery that Rodriguez established. There’s a sharp tonal shift, however, when QT takes the helm.

“Death Proof” itself is divided into two halves, both of them about a serial killer named Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) who uses his “deathproof” car—a car rigged specifically for old-school crash-and-smash stunt driving—as a weapon to both stalk and mow down unsuspecting young women. The first and far stronger half begins on a lazy, leisurely morning in Austin, Texas, and centers on the lazy, leisurely day of a posse of young women headed by the comely Jungle Julia (Sidney Poitier—yes, the daughter of that Poitier), a local radio show host. They have a visitor from out of town (Vanessa Ferlito), a more retiring chick who goes by the name Butterfly. (McGowan also pops up again, as a much more annoying character this time.) The first half hour or so just shows the girls hanging out and shooting the shit, making plans for the weekend—but it also shows them being stalked quietly by the ex-stuntman. Tarantino does a superb job building the tension; a shadow falls whenever Butterfly glimpses Stuntman Mike’s car, and in a masterful scene when the man himself approaches her, Russell is at once chilling and charming, which makes the final moment of reckoning all the more brutal and terrifying. The first part of “Death Proof” illustrates all the virtues of restraint, which is not what I’d call a QT trademark.

Tarantino allows himself quite a bit more self-indulgence in the second half, which suffers as a result. Once again, he focuses on a group of girls on their day off, once again they have a friend visiting from out of town, and once again they become the target of Stuntman Mike. This time, though, two of the girls (played by Tracie Thoms and Zoe Bell) turn out to be stuntwomen themselves, and they proceed to turn the tables on their enemy over the course of a white-knuckle car chase. It’s basically a rewrite of the stalker flick into a QT female revenge flick. Unfortunately, apart from the neato stunts performed by the charismatic Bell (a real-life stuntwoman who stood in for Uma Thurman in the “Kill Bill” movies), the rewrite isn’t particularly well written. The girls engage in long-winded dialogue that is pretty identifiably Tarantino dialogue, but not in a good way: they basically become little more than his mouthpieces for everything QT loves about car chase movies from the 1970s. And Russell’s conversion from scary killer to whimpering victim doesn’t feel credible, which makes the climax feel more like a letdown than a payoff.

Still, to give credit where credit’s due, “Death Proof” as a whole provides a nice counterpoint to the excesses of “Planet Terror.” Like Rodriguez’s film, it’s an affectionate tribute to a bygone genre, but it’s a much subtler one. Paradoxically, it’s also not an entirely successful one—more interesting in theory than in execution. “Planet Terror” is just the reverse. Of the two, “Planet Terror” is more fun to watch; “Death Proof” more fun to mull over and talk about afterwards. Put the two of them together, and you get your full money’s worth.

DEATH PROOF Part 1: A-, Part 2: B-; net: B+


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