Sunday, April 08, 2007

Grindhouse / **** (R)

Cast listed for each feature individually below.

Dimension Films presents a double feature by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Running time: 191 min. Rated R (for strong graphic bloody violence and gore, pervasive language, some sexuality, nudity, and drug use).

Ever since first hearing about this double feature project from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, I’ve been thinking about how difficult it will be to explain and review. Now that the moment is here, I realize that writing about it will be just as much fun as watching it, however guilty I may feel for enjoying it.

“Grindhouse” is Tarantino’s and Rodriguez’s ode to the ‘70’s exploitation pictures they both enjoyed during their formative years. Each director’s work has been heavily influenced by the exploitation genres of ‘70’s “grindhouse” cinema, films which were churned out by now defunct independent studios for little money to capitalize on the specialty market of filmgoers who fed off extreme violence and gratuitous sexuality.

As a film, “Grindhouse” is more than just a tribute to this particular market of genre films. It is a return to the entire experience of watching grindhouse films that goes beyond just ridiculous plots that merely act as excuses for graphic violence and voluptuous women; it goes so far as to mimic the poor production values and the scratches and color deterioration on the film stock. It even features four fake grindhouse previews made just for this double feature. What these filmmakers have created are not just a couple of movies, but an entire movie going experience.

I wrestled with what star rating I should award the film. It won’t appeal to a mainstream audience, nor does it try to. But as an exercise in exploitation cinema, “Grindhouse” is a phenomenal success. In essence, this film is a peek into what would result if some of the most innovative modern filmmakers were to tackle some of the worst Z-movie plots conceived. Apparently, it is not the material that makes a film but the men behind the camera who can turn anything into an entertaining experience.

Fake Movie Trailers

“Machete” directed by Robert Rodriguez.
Machete: Danny Trejo

“Werewolf Women of the SS” directed by Rob Zombie.
Franz Hess: Udo Kier
Eva Krupp: Sheri Moon Zombie
Gretchen Krupp: Sybil Danning

“Don’t” directed by Edgar Wright.

“Thanksgiving” directed by Eli Roth.
Tucker: Eli Roth
Judy: Jordan Ladd
Sheriff Hague: Michael Biehn

The four fake movie trailers are as much a part of the experience of this project as either of the feature films. “Machete” sets the mood for the entire experience with its ultra exploitational nature. In a plot that bares a striking resemblance to the recent “Shooter”, the titular character Machete (Danny Trejo, “Heat”) has a penchant for surviving an assassination frame up, a bevy of beautiful bare-chested women and, of course, the blades of his moniker. There was such a positive response to this fake trailer when it premiered on You Tube last week that Rodriguez is thinking about making it a reality for his follow-up project to “Sin City 2”.

Cult directors Rob Zombie (“The Devil’s Rejects”), Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) and Eli Roth (“Hostel”) provide the three trailers which separate the two features, with each capitalizing on one particular exploitation trademark. Roth’s “Thanksgiving” imagines a teen slasher flick based around the titular holiday. If you think you’ve seen every shocking way in which teenagers can lose their life while having sex, Roth offers a few more imaginative suggestions, one of which had the entire theater groaning in disgust. Wright’s “Don’t” has fun with the marketing technique offered by the ultra simplistic title of this awful looking haunted house flick. And the title of Zombie’s “Werewolf Women of the SS” pretty much says everything it can about some of the ludicrous plots found in these exploitation films and the trailer lives up to everything the title promises.

Death Proof

Stuntman Mike: Kurt Russell
Zoë: Zoë Bell
Abernathy: Rosario Dawson
Kim: Tracie Thoms
Lee: Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Jungle Julia: Sydney Poitier
Arlene: Vanessa Ferlito
Shanna: Jordan Ladd
Pam: Rose McGowan

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.

I acquired a taste for exploitation cinema only later in life. Originally, my problem with the basic format was that while I was watching the movies for the gratuitous violence, their low budgets really didn’t allow for too many effects sequences. The talent was dirt cheap, so all the money was spent on the action sequences, but for all too many exploitation pictures that money did not stretch very far. So what would result would be two or three fun action scenes separated by long stretches of people who couldn’t act their way out of a garbage bag spouting dialogue from writers who weren’t any better.

With Tarantino’s “Death Proof”, a car chase thriller grafted with a sexy girl-power flick, we get a slasher flick structure filled with talented performers and long stretches of beautiful dialogue. Damn, Tarantino can write good lines. Here he gives us a lecherous baddie who says things like, “There are few things as fetching as a bruised ego on a beautiful angel.” Or, “This car is 100% death proof, only to get the benefit of it honey, you really need to be sitting in my seat!” Even simple dialogue exchanges seem to sparkle.

Pam: Warren, who is this guy?
Warren: That’s Stuntman Mike.
Pam: Who the hell is Stuntman Mike?
Warren: He’s a stuntman.

Or this one:

Mike: Do I frighten you?
[Arlene nods.]
Mike: Is it my scar?
Arlene: It’s your car.
Mike: Yeah, I know. Sorry.

Because Tarantino’s (“Jackie Brown”) script is as dialogue-driven as any of his work, “Death Proof” is the tamest segment of the “Grindhouse” experience. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get his chance to exploit the audience’s fears and visceral response to gore. Stuntman Mike is a sociopathic killer who hunts sexy young women and mows them down with his death proof stunt car. He kills one set of victims by smashing into them head-on on the open highway.

Mike meets his match in stuntwoman Zoë Bell, playing herself. This allows for some spectacular stunt sequences and a car chase that could go down as one of the greats. Tarantino has a blast empowering Bell, with her fearless stunt-driven personality, and her posse of friends, including the frank personalities of Kim (Tracie Thoms, CBS’s “Cold Case”) and Abernathy (Rosario Dawson, “Sin City”).

I suppose this could also qualify as a revenge picture. It’s quite a hoot to see Kurt Russell, the man who was Snake Pliskin in John Carpenter’s exploitation influenced “Escape from New York”, scream like a girl when a woman finally takes a shot at him.

Planet Terror

Cherry: Rose McGowan
Wray: Freddie Rodriguez
Dr. Dakota Block: Marley Shelton
Dr. William Block: Josh Brolin
JT: Jeff Fahey
Sheriff Hague: Michael Biehn
Abby: Naveen Andrews
Rapist: Quentin Tarantino
Earl McGraw: Michael Parks

Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez.

The zombie flick has been exploiting people’s fears of other people since the dawn of the horror genre. The sub-genre reached a new plateau of stomach churning when George A. Romero introduced the first of his “Living Dead” series “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968. Romero’s zombies fed off their human victims in full view of the camera, causing audience members to clutch their own stomachs in effort to hold on to their lunches.

Rodriguez (“Desperado”, “Spy Kids”) takes mutilation to a new level with “Planet Terror”. In his sometimes goofy, sometimes laughable, always gruesome and extremely clever zombie flick the protagonist has to deal with her own mutilation. The go-go dancer Cherry (Rose McGowan of TV’s “Charmed” in one of two roles in the “Grindhouse” project) loses a leg in an early zombie attack and spends the final scenes with a machine gun/grenade launcher as a pyrotechnic prosthetic.

As is often the case with viral mutilation plots, a military experiment has run amuck. On a base near Austin, Texas a rouge Army lieutenant (an uncredited Bruce Willis) has unleashed a gas which turns ordinary people into mindless zombies.

Rodriguez gathers a sprawling cast of characters to act as both victims and resistance to this zombie plague. Freddie Rodriguez (HBO’s “Six Feet Under”) is a mysterious outlaw who never misses with any weapon and becomes the leader of the plague survivors. Marley Shelton (“The Last Kiss”) is a doctor who wields a needle as if injection was a martial art. Josh Brolin (“Hollow Man”) is her psychopathic doctor husband. And Jeff Fahey (“The Lawnmower Man”) and Michael Biehn (“Aliens”) play a pair of brothers fighting over the family BBQ recipe. In Texas, even a zombie plague takes a back seat to barbecue.

Rodriguez’s primary goal here seems to be disgusting the audience with the mutated pustules that mark the infected zombies. There’s a really funny scene as the hospital first starts to see infected victims where two doctors view pictures of some painful infection cases in front of one victim. The joke comes back around later in the film with the demise of a rapist character played by Tarantino in what is the film’s biggest test of audience intestinal fortitude.

“Planet Terror” is populated with just about every weapon in the exploitation arsenal. It has sexy women in skimpy clothing, men with big guns on testosterone highs, more blood and gore than one would think could fit into 80 minutes, terrible dialogue, and bad editing. The film even stops and appears to burn up on the projector bulb at one point. This could be the ultimate exploitation film.

And remember, never allow a child to handle a gun.


trevor walsh said...

i was so happy to read this review. because honestly, i don't know what i'd have said to you if you hadn't liked the film...

i fully enjoyed your review, and agree with it wholeheartedly - that said, let me talk about some of the things that i felt were important, but got missed in your write-up.

number one - i think you spill some beans that should actually be kept secret in your "Death Proof" review. i hope you know what i mean, so i don't call further attention to it - but i thought being ignorant on that front helped my experience of the film greatly.

which brings me to the experience as a whole. you don't talk at all about it, but i hope that is not an indication that it was limp for you - because i don't know how the audience was where you saw it, but to me, the viewing experience was the best time i think i've ever had in a theater, and given that, i think you should encourage people to see it in public as soon as they can - before they're surrounded with people that know every surprise already - i mean, i'm planning on seeing it a second time, and i never do that. the audience participation was amazing when i saw it. so much laughter, clapping, cheering, jeering, and gasping at what was going on on the screen. people knew what RR and QT were doing, and loved it. really, it was heartwarming and exciting to see this movie with a crowd of people.

the other thing on my mind - already i've been asked a few times, "Which film did you like better?" - wanting me to choose between the two. i am refusing. because in my mind, this was meant to be experienced as a whole. these directors worked together on this project - there's much interlapping of characters and ideas.. (and by the way, did you catch the multiple references to earlier Tarantino films throughout "Death Proof"? everything from the sheriff and his son to the Acuna Boys tex-mex place... god, i love self-mythologization when it's done right.)

and so - you're bound to hear, as i have already from the rank and file audience, that Tarantino's turn is weighed down and criminally slowed by self-indulgent dialogue that goes nowhere. i think people that rail against this are missing the point and denying themselves the appreciation of the big picture.

here's two of my reasons why. number one - QT is emulating the films of the 70's that basically revolve around one or two semi-glorious setpieces and rely on lots of padding to get them there. dude, he accomplishes this with panache. the romantic text messaging scenes are so fucking great and quietly over-the-top.

number two - after the literally thrill/laugh/shock-a minute hellride that "Planet Terror" is, i don't know that he could step into another high-octane experience right off the bat and had it feel successful. there was a period of come-down from that movie, where you were watching these (fucking sexy) girls in "Death Proof" and feeling like you should be chuckling at the end of every line - but you don't. and eventually, you calm down. and settle in. and maybe even become a little bit bored with the conversation. and this to me is the genius of the pacing between the two, and why they're meant to be seen together - it's my sincere belief that without that calm-down, without that lull, that moment when the girl finally gets out on the hood of that car would not be nearly as exhilarating and nerve-wracking as it is... do you see what i'm saying? tell me what you think...

bottom line, i loved this whole experience so much - i want to go again as soon as i can, but i'm sure nothing will compare to the first time. i want to go see it with people that i know will love it, you know? i mean - "Machete"... oh dear lord, how amazing was that to kick of the 3 1/2 hours?

and even though i think seeing this in the theater is a MUST (and this is coming from someone who gets out to the theater extremely rarely), i think an easy sign of a great movie is when you and your buddy, less than a half-hour after seeing the film, are already talking about how we can't wait, because of how badass the DVD release of it is going to be.

Andrew D. Wells said...

OK. This is that discussion that I could have over just about any film, that my readers so rarely engage me in. Of course, such a discussion is so much easier to bring about when it is about material as rich as can be found in Grindhouse.

At first I was wondering what spoilers you meant in my death proof, but I’m guessing you feel I revealed too much about the resolution of the film. Since we can still discuss it without directly talking about it for other readers’ sake, I think I didn’t spoil it entirely. Perhaps, I should have posed a question rather than a statement at a certain point in my review. I did make a conscious effort not to state the resolution directly. And I don’t think you would really realize I was spoiling anything until you were actually watching the picture, and only until you were halfway through at that. I have QT’s genius restructuring of the slasher format to thank for that.

He makes you think the storyline is going in one direction and then completely switches it out on you. Much like Hitchcock’s Psycho. And I also made a point not to reveal that mid movie surprise because I thought it was the one that was harder to see coming. Of course, I also don’t talk about any of the first part of the film in my synopsis (only in my praise of his dialogue), and that my reveal too much about those characters’ importance in itself.

But probably the biggest reason why I may reveal too much is that I just had to say something about Kurt Russell screaming like a girl. That moment was just the greatest moment of the film for me. I couldn’t not comment on it. Goddamn that cracked me up!

Another reason I was willing to reveal a little too much was because of what makes QT just so amazing to me. I touched upon some of the same things you discussed about his dialogue. To me it doesn’t matter if you know where QT is going. Yes, it is rarely where you expect, but it is the way he gets there that makes it so good. His dialogue is so rich and textured, his mythology so vast, that multiple viewings aren’t only suggested, they are required for a full understanding of the QT experience.

Now a lot of things got left out of my review, due to space constraints. Yes, it is my own blog, but I feel I need to attempt to stay within a publishable level of copy. Sure, you might read it if it were any length, but to the stranger who wanders along my blog, they aren’t going to commit to some endless rambling. So I try to compress for a large project like this. I wanted to be sure to touch upon for things: the overall experience, the fake trailers, and slightly smaller than my normal reviews for the two features. I was very happy with the length of my overall review, but didn’t get to go into great detail on the two feature films. With “Death Proof” I tried to briefly highlight my favorite features of each half of the film and make a statement about QT’s own commentary of the exploitation genre.

I probably could have done better in painting the overall picture without revealing anything too sensitive, but I’m really not sure this is really a spoilable picture. It is honoring the clichés of the genre. But in QT’s own unique way.

I heard this wonderful interview with QT on XM. He dicussed to great degree how this was a QT slasher flick. And how that meant it wasn’t really like a regular slasher flick. I’d like to discuss that as well, but that would be impossible without spoilers. So maybe in another forum.

He also talked about the differences between the two films. He said they really both just made their own films and didn’t really discuss much about how they would play together. He said they only made one conscious decision in that respect and that was to honor a double bill tradition of present one film that was like a creature feature and one that was less fantastical like a slasher flick. That difference certainly accounts for much of the difference in pace between the two. It fits the entire experience so well, that I think your reaction to the two films together is the only natural reaction.

That brings me to why I changed the order of the films in the review. I think the balls to the wall of Planet Terror first and the more concentrated effort of Death Proof as a follow up was the right way to do it. But in print I though the closer attention to detail worked better for the middle rather than the ending of a review. I utilize all those specific quotes for DP and with PT I just run through the action of the pot more. But mostly I wanted to end the review with the line about kids and guns. It is something only readers who had seen the movie will get and hopefully get those who haven’t curious enough to see it. And that was just so great. Not even most exploitation directors would have done that.

I’m very glad you are resistant to the idea of picking a favorite. This is exactly why I rated the entire film, rather than the individual features. I’ve seen several reviewers rate each feature individually, and to do that you are really missing part of the point of what is going on here. On one hand, QT and RR are trying to make a fun evening of exploitation cinema, but on the other they are making a statement about cinema itself.

In that interview QT mentioned how this film was very Godardian. It is cinema that not only entertains, but comments on itself with all the sloppy edits and fake trailers, purposely bad dialogue (in PT that is), in Tarantino’s padded structure and long stretches without action in what is supposed to be an action flick. Even in scenes like the text messaging you mention. It goes over the top and makes a point of itself that never amounts to anything. And that is the point. Ah, that is so rich. People just don’t even know what they are watching.

As for that. Remember I’m in the Midwest. I was shocked there were as many people in the theater I saw it in to begin with. I’m sure much of my audience did not really know what they were in for. And QT also mentioned in that interview how directors like he and RR make movies for their fans. Well, I don’t live in an area where directors generally ave fans.

It was apparent there were some members in my audience that knew what they were going to see. There was more audible reaction to this film than most I see in theaters around here, but it was hesitant. I wish I could have had the experience you described, it really is the one that is intended with a film like this.
As a sign of the ignorance, I haven’t really heard so much grumbling about QT’s film being bogged down with dialogue as much as I’ve heard people balk at the three hour running time. Which says to me, they already don’t understand what is being presented here before they even have tried to deal with material contained within the film. People just aren’t getting this whole concept of getting two movies for the price of one. And while it is all one experience, it is two separate movies (despite character and references which may show up in each, or even in some of the fake trailers). Did you catch that Michael Biehn is the same character in Roth’s “Thanksgiving” trailer, or at least has the same name as in “Planet Terror”?

Anyway, I’m glad you liked it. I’m sure it will be a kick ass DVD as well. Although, I wonder if their going to put out some lame initial release, as they did with Sin City. They did right that wrong with the recut version, so I doubt they will disappoint with Grindhouse.