Sunday, April 08, 2007

Grindhouse: A Review

Grindhouse Parody PosterOkay, this is going to be a little messy. I may go back later and clean this up but I want to give some of my raw impressions of the GRINDHOUSE experience. This is the Rodriguez/Tarantino GRINDHOUSE I'm talking about, not the Tramontana movie (see earlier post).

We all remember the first time Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made a movie together. The results weren't pretty. Even then everyone was comparing the two filmmakers. In FOUR ROOMS the Tarantino and Rodriguez chapters were the high points in this botched affair. Tarantino's entry was a simple rip-off, er, remake of the "Man from the South" episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." Rodriguez's was simple, solid storytelling. Luckily, their ventures since then--FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, SIN CITY, etc -- have been a marked improvement.

Two feature films plus a handful of trailers for a three-hour extravaganza of entertainment sounds like a great idea, and it is. I loved the overall experience; the bad splices, the damaged prints, the old school ratings animations. That all worked. So did Robert Rodriguez's film, PLANET TERROR. This gore-infested zombie film is a real hoot. It stars "Six Feet Under" undertaker Freddy Rodríguez as "El Wray," a man with a wrecker and a past. He encounters a luscious figure from his past at the local BBQ joint when he meets up with Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), a Go-Go Dancer who once had a dream of being a doctor.

PLANET TERROR is brimming with interesting characters who are certainly archetypes but fun archetypes. Two of my favorites include a craggy Michael Biehn as the crusty small town sheriff who's been on the outs with this brother, Jeff Fahey, for years over his secret bar-b-que recipe. Along with this familial conflict, there's political intrigue, medical drama, crazy babysitters, and blazing gunfights. The whole thing is set to an all-too-familiar score reminiscent of John Carpenter. In fact, quite a bit of the film plays like a Carpenter/Romero lovechild. Think ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 meets DAY OF THE DEAD.

On the other end of the spectrum from this rip-roaring blast of action is the second feature of GRINDHOUSE, Quentin Tarantino's DEATH PROOF. Essentially, this film is comprised of dialog. It's one scene after another of two groups of girlfriends talking about a whole lot of nothing. It's basically a movie version "The View" with more pot, drinking, and swearing. Kurt Russell is also there as Stuntman Mike. He hangs out in the background for most of the film, only really having two scenes that count in this tedious and talky exercise that would make MY DINNER WITH ANDRE look like an actionfest.

The overlong set-up to the first action scene (buried somewhere after the half hour mark) of DEATH PROOF also proves out that watching people text-messaging--even if it's set to Pino Donaggio's score from BLOW OUT--is deathly dull. I like women's revenge flicks as much as the next FASTER PUSSYCAT, KILL! KILL! fan but these girls are so talky and trite that I wanted to get up on screen and kill them myself. All of them, especially Jungle Julie (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) and Kim (Tracie Thoms). Stuntman Mike was doing the audience a favor. He was the personification of classic cinema and should have triumphed over the boring, chatty triumvirate of film geek chicks.

Stuntman Mike The script to DEATH PROOF explains far more than ended up on screen but neither version gives a whole lot of motivation for why Stuntman Mike terrorizes women with his tricked-out car. The movie of DEATH PROOF holds confusion here and even in its timeline. Knowing that director Tarantino likes to muck about with time (DEATH PROOF is set before PLANET TERROR even though it's shown first), some have proposed that the second half of DEATH PROOF comes before the first half chronologically. This is done in an attempt to explain Stuntman Mike's scar, cool attitude, plastic car cage, and bloodlust. Otherwise, audiences are denied any of these and can't identify with anyone in the film, even its psychotic killer main character. (Despite what some say, Stuntman Mike does have a scar in the second half of DEATH PROOF. See screengrab).

Every film fan knows what they can expect from a Quentin Tarantino film: pop culture-laden dialog, backgrounds festooned with movie posters, other films' soundtracks pilfered for his film's soundtrack, a horrible director cameo, and bare female feet. DEATH PROOF has these in spades. However, this time Tarantino just doesn't seem to have either the formula right or perhaps the spark that typically brings it all to life. One would think that having this ample opportunity to pilfer and emulate classic exploitation films would have provided Tarantino with inspiration to make his grindhouse tale an unstoppable homage. Instead, he seems to have been shackled to ceaseless scenes of girls chatting.

Sure, the girls chat about movies, too. They refer to VANISHING POINT, CANNONBALL RUN, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY, GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS, and others (for more on these films see "The Chase Is On from Cashiers du Cinemart #11) but DEATH PROOF comes nowhere near the excitement of any of these films. With no offense meant to David Lynch's film but THE STRAIGHT STORY moves faster than DEATH PROOF. There may also be a reference to TWO LANE BLACKTOP in that Stuntman Mike seems to be cut of the same blowhard cloth as G.T.O. (Warren Oates) in the Hellman film.

Quentin Tarantino - THUNDER BOLTAnother odd thing about DEATH PROOF is the lack of "print damage" when compared to PLANET TERROR and the four fake previews. There's some minor mangling of the print near the beginning of the film (and a clever re-titling) but it quickly disappears, not to appear even around reel changes. There's one moment where the film utilizes a conceit that there's a reel missing from DEATH PROOF. This is done, apparently, only to avoid the awkward scene of Butterfly (Vanessa Ferlito) giving Stuntman Mike a lap dance. This same "Reels Missing" trick was used in PLANET TERROR as well, but used entirely differently. In Rodriguez's film the missing reel contains a wealth of action sequences that other characters elude to, effectively winking at the audience and counting on them to be smart enough to get the joke.

In short, if you haven't seen GRINDHOUSE yet do yourself a favor and leave after the preview for Eli Roth's THANKSGIVING. By that point you've gotten all of the entertainment you're going to get out of GRINDHOUSE.