Sunday, April 08, 2007

REVIEW: Grindhouse

The trick to the retroactive affection for "Grindhouse" (read: low-rent urban movie theaters in the 70s and 80s) era movies is in understanding that they aren't good. That's not the same as saying that they weren't entertaining, worth-watching and even worth preserving and celebrating long past their shelf-date; but it's important to take them at what they were and not get TOO carried away by those who like to claim - based on VERY shaky analysis and some HEAVILY cherry-picked examples - that the "genre" (category, really) was uniformly some sort of subversive, sociologically-important treasure trove like the similarly-rescued "Film Noir" entries turned out to be. Nostalgia isn't powerful enough to turn a Big Mac into the cure for cancer.

Fortunately, the above-described pretense isn't really what Quentin Tarantino (surely the High Priest of post-millenial Grindhouse Worship) and Robert Rodriguez (his most accomplished acolyte) are up to with "Grindhouse," an epic-length 2-movie gagfest framed as a "double feature" of two (mostly) complete feature-length films by each man recreating various feels of the various "Grindhouse" subgenres, plus faux-trailers for similar (phony) films and wacky era-appropriate ads. As you might guess, the making of this has essentially entailed both men writing themselves a license to jam their favorite recurring actors, themes and fetishes (both visual and otherwise) into an asthetic where crude, sensation-focused disregard for narrative finery is considered a blessing and cut the hell loose, playing around with wacky dialogue, unlikely scenarios and jokey digital "film scratches" and "reel missing" jokes to their heart's content. Make no mistake about it: What you're watching is masturbation, plain and simple; but if (the rather Grindhouse-y itself) "Body Double" taught us anything, it's that masturbation can in fact be quite diverting given the proper "performer."

In the broadest sense, there are two categories of "Grindhouse" films: The ones that actually WERE consistently entertaining and diverting because of the freedom afforded by the loose strictures of low-budget "sex and gore" filmmaking; and the (more common) entries that were largely forgettable (and usually rather talky) save for one or two unique/noteworthy elements that made them pop-culture immortal..."You won't BELIEVE the car chase in this one!," "THIS is THE MOVIE where ______ is topless!," etc. Rodriguez has made the first kind, Tarantino the second, and while both evidence a frighteningly-precise familiarity with the form they're also (thankfully) both cheating just a bit: Rodriguez's "Planet Terror" nails the "as much as you can, however you can" kitchen-sink buzz of early-80s Golan Globus offerings - but with special effects and cinematography flourish that the "real thing" could only dream of, while Tarantino's "Death Proof" painstakingly recreates the "pad-it-out-to-90-minutes" talkathon's of mid-70s car-crash entries - save that instead of space-filling jabber his characters are spitting out.. well, vintage Quentin Tarantino dialogue. This isn't Grindhouse Cinema they way it was, it's Grindhouse Cinema the way it's remembered.

"Planet Terror," the opening feature, is a lockstep John Carpenter/George Romero knockoff about various hard-bitten characters fighting off a zombie/virus outbreak in and around a rural army base. Dark-past-sporting scallawag El Wray (Freddie Rodriguez) stripper Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan finally in a juicy lead part) and hard-luck-lesbian-fleeing-abusive-psycho-husband Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) are the principal good guys, an uncredited Bruce Willis as a preposterously-backstoried paramilitary leader is the heavy, and an army of puss-oozing cannibal infectees provide the canon fodder - exploding in bursts of jet-propelled good that looks absolutely nothing like actual blood as the goodies mow them down with bombs, bullets and blades while genre/Rodriguez-Tarantino veterans like Michael Parkes, Michael Beihn and Jeff Fahey (!) dash around the margins making mischief and adding to the action.

You've seen most of the best bits of "Planet" in the trailer, including Cherry's improbable but glorious employment of a (functional) machine gun as a post-amputation artificial leg and the best use of a helicopter as an anti-zombie weapon since "Dawn of The Dead." But the peice never gets dull or wears out it's welcome thanks to the "into it" cast and Rodriguez vaunted gift for concieving mind-shreddingly original ways to off bad guys and stage mass-carnage. He's visibly liberated, by the inherent put-on nihilism of the style he's recreating, from what little connection he had in the first place to the traditional concepts of formula - literally sending the story and characters in direction you can't imagine a "sane" filmmaker going (I'll predict that the exit of at least two characters from the film will turn some folks right off before it's even half over.)

"Death Proof" is an entirely different animal, even if it's breathing most of the same fumes as "Planet." Overall, it's the superior of the two entries in terms of execution, but it's also going to be the most "difficult" for most audiences - even the ones garaunteed to be there with bells on for the movie-proper. Here, Tarantino opts to not only celebrate but also deconstruct and ultimately reinvent the least accessible "side" of the Grindhouse experience: Heavily-padded, overall-forgettable bad movies memorable for a single performance, theme or scene. It conjures up a formula stalker-thriller about a crazed stuntman who gets off murdering young women with his "death-proof" musclecar, featuring a live-wire turn by Kurt Russell as the psychotic "Stuntman Mike," an ultra-memorable crash sequence, a car-chase that's one for the ages and... a lot of time-filler chatter in between.

In that respect, it ("Death Proof") feels just a bit more on the authentic side, for better or worse. It's easy to imagine a "real" version of this movie, one that would be reccomended with great enthusiasm by... well, by hardcore film geeks like Quentin Tarantino, really... to friends for the "insane!!!" performance Russell gives or "one of the ALL-TIME greatest car chases!!!" in the final act - immediately followed by the caveat that "you've gotta sit through A LOT of talk-scenes to get to the 'good parts,' but it's soooo worth it" and the knowing observation that they've attempted to compensate for "all the dialogue" by putting it in the mouths of super-hot actresses. The difference here is that Tarantino, as a writer, is never better than when he's putting longform conversational chatter in the mouths of quick-witted hotties and hard-nosed genre vets. The non-action sequences of "Death Proof" play out like filler because they ARE filler... but GOOD filler in the form of some of Tarantino's best marathon squawk-session writing since at least "Jackie Brown."

The first half of "Death Proof" is dominated by mood, music and Russell's switched-on stalker vibe. But the second half, despite the (understandable) hyping of the inhumanly-beautiful Rosario Dawson, reveals itself as a surprise star turn evidencing (once again) Tarantino's uncanny ability to spot a "movie star" in unlikely performers and craft roles specifically measured to unleash them: This time it's Kiwi stuntwoman Zoe Bell, Uma Thurman's "Kill Bill" stunt double hear playing "herself" as part of a tight-knit group of film-industry girlfriends who go from being Stuntman Mike's second batch of potential victims to his table-turning avenging angels... and, heaven help us, he's done it again.

Bell, who's career to this point has largely involved doubling for female action-heroes, is a bona-fide STAR in her own right, and it'll be entirely unsurprising if she doesn't start turning up AS the star of action movies after this. The initial impetus for her casting, it would seem, is to give authenticity to the incredible car-stunt sequence she takes part in... but it's led to the most remarkable "star turn" by a stuntperson since Ray Park stepped onscreen as Darth Maul. She's a uniquely-lovely, immediately-engaging actress with a cute Kiwi accent; and the way she goes throwing herself at the chance to drive a car "just like the one from 'Vanishing Point!,'" engage in a ridiculously dangerous-looking stunt game or take down a road-killer maniac with the same gung-ho "pep" is downright infectious.

There's a distinct possibility, it must be said, that Rodriguez and Tarantino may have created a monster here. It's depressingly easy to imagine lesser filmmakers using the "grindhouse homage" fig-leaf as an excuse for more general ineptitude, slapping digital film-grain and synth-scores over bad movies and hoping to "fake" some of the magic. It won't be the first time either man has "started" something not-altogether positive (how many bad films have YOU seen that obviously wanted to be "the next Pulp Fiction!" or "Desperado?") And at the end of the day there isn't really much "to" "Grindhouse" beyond it's theme-park-ride/nostalgia intentions. It's an "event movie" for a niche audience that typically feigns apprehension of "event movies," a "have you seen it?" touchstone aiming for audience-participating and repeat veiwings. In other words, it's a blockbuster... and we should be so lucky that all blockbusters actually made so good on their vow to entertain.


1 comment:

T said...

Good review although I would take exception to labelling Rodriguez as a Tarantino acolyte, both in filmmaking terms since they pretty much arrived in Hollywood around the same time...

...and pop-culture terms since Rodriguez has shown his affection for that style of filmmaking for years. His inspiration for becoming a filmmaker was Escape from New York for God's sake.