Grindhouse (2007) Movie Review #2

Had “Grindhouse” been made by some up and coming neophyte filmmaker it would’ve been cut to shreds by the critical establishment. But the critical blank check given to Robert Rodriguez, and especially Quentin Tarantino is cashed in at this grindhouse, which is a very mediocre attempt to play with exploitation fire without getting burned. The two films that make up “Grindhouse’s” double feature, Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” and Tarantino’s “Death Proof”, are perfect examples of directorial sophistication over directorial skill. Neither filmmaker is willing to actually make a real grindhouse pic, and instead come up with anti-septic fakes that miss the entire point of exploitation.

Both Rodriguez and Tarantino obviously love these crazy flicks, and yet feel that the subjects are below them as artists. They both feel the need to present themselves as “superior” by fashioning the stories as campy nonsense. However, each employs a different tactic in order to dance on this volatile volcano. Since “Grindhouse” is one long ride through the sticky floors, the used hypodermic needles and gummed seats of the old grindhouse evening program, I will break the evening down the same way and with my own exploitation hard sell loglines…

“Enter the Grindhouse”

The filmmakers miss a real opportunity to slip between realities by sneaking their first trailer for the fake 80s action movie “Machete” right after a series of real trailers. In any case, Danny Trejo was born to play “Machete”, an ace hitman screwed by his employers, who clearly “Fucked with the wrong Mexican!” Looks like a Cannon Group flick from about 1979-80, with Jeff Fahey appearing as the villain. The real version would’ve had Franco Nero in the lead.

“Planet Terror”

“A flesh eating virus turns peace loving Texans into bloodthirsty raving mad sickos! A motley crew of cops, scientists, and strippers join the notorious El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) to stop the world from turning into ‘Planet Terror’!”

Robert Rodriguez has gone from a certain kind of charming frugality in filmmaking to something where you look at his movies and wish he would not move at his famous “speed of thought”, and actually think through his concepts. In some backwards way, he’s become the B-movie equivalent of Jackson Pollack, tossing random images all over the movie screen canvas in the hopes that it’ll catch his mojo energy. He seems to be less an actual movie director than a frustrated fx artist or stunt coordinator, trying desperately to convey some kind of narrative through an accumulation of wild gags.

Rodriguez’s films display very little in the way of writing, acting or storytelling that is even vaguely coherent. What they do achieve is something interesting nonetheless, as they resemble highlight reels of a whole genre’s worth of movies where nothing was kept except the “money shot”. The trouble with this approach is that watching a filmmaker shoot his load over and over again is pointless without some kind of dramatic buildup, and Rodriguez clearly has no interest in that.

“Planet Terror” is supposed to be some kind of grind house zombie flick along the lines of Fulci and Lenzi, but both of those guys had no access to the kind of digital and practical special effects that Rodriguez employs here. He uses all his modern equipment and techniques to push “Planet Terror” into such overkill absurdity that nothing is remotely gross or offensive in the way a real Grindhouse picture might have been. As a result, “Planet Terror” is simply a silly B-movie that doesn’t have the balls to be bad.

There are loads of “shocking” outrageousness, but not a single moment of actual shock or disgust that was one of the primal pleasures of watching these kinds of movies. They’re supposed to feel “dirty”, like someone’s nightmare of child porn or snuff; films that had no illusions about respectability. Rodriguez basically makes the kind of zombie film he would’ve made without the “Grindhouse” label. It’s silly fun, especially with actors like Michael Biehn, Nicky Katt, Jeff Fahey and Tom Savini all trying to outdo each other with perfect bad acting. But they’re all trumped by, of all people, Josh Brolin as a homicidal weirdo who happens to also be a doctor.

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This is probably the most entertaining part of the evening. A series of fake trailers that capture the mood and atmosphere of the grind house classics more honestly than either Tarantino or Rodriguez could.

Rob Zombie’s “Werewolves of the SS” is a little vague and uncertain, but it has a couple of great moments with Udo Kier (a joke in itself) and Nicolas Cage for no reason. The best, however, are Edgar Wright’s “Don’t” and Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving”. “Don’t” seems like some kind of twist on the “Legend of Hell House” trailer, right down to an owlish looking actor resembling Roddy McDowell. It’s all about the timing and the editing, which are fantastic.

Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving” is good enough to make you wish to see a longer version, which would probably never be as good as the trailer. Roth has a certain sophomoric attitude as a filmmaker that’s just right for the more crass kind of slasher film that once flooded cinemas. Besides, who can resist his very non-PC trailer narration: “White meat, dark meat, all will be carved this thanksgiving!”

“Death Proof”

“White hot death at 200 mph! Watch as free and easy women find themselves as prey to a scarred maniac behind the wheel of a suped up ’69 Dodge Charger. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) has a hard-on for flesh and blood on metal and these young ladies won’t know what hit’em!”

Quentin Tarantino may not be death proof himself, but he’s quite clearly “critic-proof”. There are legions of critics in line at the ER waiting to have their lips surgically removed from Tarantino’s ass. Though I am not one of them, I do have a real respect for Tarantino as a filmmaker. I would go so far as to say that he is one of the greatest filmmakers working in movies today, and perhaps one of a handful of truly influential filmmakers in the short history of the movies with something new to offer.

Tarantino is a filmmaker for whom storytelling is everything. That’s storytelling, not story. He tells very simple stories that should be unsurprising and redundant, and yet finds ways of shocking the audience time and time again with his sharp turns of plot or surprising revelations of character. He is one of the rare filmmakers for whom there is no separation between “art” and “pop” filmmaking.

The elements Tarantino borrows from art films (stylized self-contained movie worlds, long dialogue scenes, non linear storytelling, homage) are usually employed to separate the artist from the audience. In the films of “art” filmmakers like Godard, Antonioni and Fellini, those cinematic devices would be used to give their films a quality of “strangeness” or alienation that would intentionally prevent the audience from becoming immersed in the artificial story and characters a’la Hollywood.

But Tarantino doesn’t want to alienate anyone. He wants the audience to be immersed in his world and fall in love with his characters. What he does is quite original in using those alienating devices to make old-fashioned stories surprising again. By skipping key scenes, by showing us the effect first and revealing the cause later, by framing shots to feature odd personal objects, and by slowing everything down in order to listen to banal conversations, Tarantino subverts expectations, reveals intimate details about his characters, and gets the audience’s mind involved in the storytelling the way Hitchcock did. This is the key reason why Tarantino has been the singular exception to the rule of Pop versus Art. He is one of the few filmmakers able to play to the sophisticated film buff as well as to the casual viewer.

This is also why so many critics need to visit the ER, because if they were honest with themselves, they would have to admit that “Death Proof” is a complete mess. That doesn’t mean it’s not also brilliant, original and incredibly well crafted, because it’s all those things. It’s just that the tricks Tarantino employs this time only works half the time, and when they work they are exceptional. Unfortunately his ambition gets the better of him, and what could’ve been a very entertaining weirdo giallo/muscle car/cheerleader flick is rendered mysterious and, at times, excruciatingly boring.

This is because “Death Proof” is a really weird idea to begin with. Tarantino’s choice to mix the slasher film genre with the killer car movie (not a great genre outside of “Duel”), the car chase flick (this is not really a chase movie) and the girl power/revenge movie is like putting ketchup on your ice cream. Please, just don’t do it! None of these genres are missing anything that would be improved upon by blending. Besides, the way Tarantino tells the story, it’s seemingly designed to fall apart.

Like a grindhouse version of “Full Metal Jacket”, the screenplay for “Death Proof” separates itself into two smaller films that are glued together. Following the great ending to part one, we are introduced to a whole new set of characters that Tarantino asks us to spend time getting to know. A lot of time. In real time. One take runs about six minutes without a cut or an end to the mindless chatter. There is no suspense to any of this, since we know it’s a matter of time until Stuntman Mike shows up for the kill.

Tarantino starts off strong enough, actually employing a somewhat new style in his scenes with Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) and her gang of young ladies. The dialogue is still well written, but is much more earthbound and natural, and Tarantino spends time letting us hear them talk, drive around and hang out. This is clearly “Death Proof, Vol. 1” and it has a rhythm all its own. Tarantino plays with genre conventions in order to surprise us by cutting them short, including the planting of the classic slasher film archetype, “the final girl”.

But what really works here is the loose feel of the piece. The mood of the Chili Bar and the people hanging out. Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike trying to tell some girls about all the TV shows and movies he’s worked on, and realizing that they have no idea who Lee Majors is, or that “Vegas” was a TV show with Robert Urich. There is a great melancholy in Russell’s performance that goes a long way to getting you to understand his motives.

It’s unfortunate that Tarantino isn’t interested in following through with his ideas, and simply turns “Death Proof, Vol. 2” into a light hearted “girl power” car chase picture that renders Russell’s character powerless. He also switches back to his more familiar style of dialogue, which now sounds like self-parody — four ladies all talking like Sam Jackson from “Pulp Fiction”. The biggest sin is that for all the chasing and killing, “Death Proof” is deathly boring.

Nevertheless, Tarantino comes closer to a real grindhouse picture during the first half than in any second of Rodriguez’s zombie farce. The mood of the film once Rose McGowan gets into Russell’s car is spot on, and the way Tarantino shows how Mike kills each of his victims by showing a horrendous car crash four separate times is very, very effective and presented without satire or a comic leer. Too bad he couldn’t let Stuntman Mike kill one of the other girls as well to make it a real revenge flick.

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“End Credits”

Though these were entertaining overall, the truth is that they were all too slickly made and artificial to really capture the right tone. It’s the concept that is actually wrong; there’s a sense that the directors wanted to give their separate creations both the feel of the late 60’s early 70s. Well then, why not just set it in that time period? A more interesting concept would be that movie mad film collector Tarantino, while on one of his print buying binges, “discovered” these two “lost” gems in some old storage room. They would then be authentically old and like some relic from a forgotten era.

Both features should’ve also been shot using the same equipment (single cam, 35 millimeter or 16mm) and been constrained by tight scheduling like the grindhouse classics were, with budgets topping off at $500,000 or so apiece. Casting mostly unknowns and a few grizzled veterans the way the old cheapies used to exploit John Carradine and Boris Karloff, the films could also go for a real R rating and fill their pics with violence and gratuitous nudity. The missing piece from these new fangled grindhousers is the gratuitous nudity; not nudity needed by the story, but dictated by the need to make money.

I am sure “Grindhouse” will inspire a new interest in some of the obscure old films that inspired it, but mostly it makes you wonder what a Fulci or Jack Hill might’ve achieved if they had millions of dollars and an endless shooting schedule like Tarantino and Rodriguez.

Robert Rodriguez (segment “Planet Terror”) (fake trailer segment “Machete”), Eli Roth (fake trailer segment “Thanksgiving”), Quentin Tarantino (segment “Death Proof”), Edgar Wright (fake trailer segment “Don’t Scream”), Rob Zombie (fake trailer segment “Werewolf Women of the S.S.”) (director) / Robert Rodriguez (segment “Planet Terror”), Quentin Tarantino (segment “Death Proof”) screenplay
CAST: Rose McGowan … Cherry (segment “Planet Terror”)/Pam (segment “Death Proof”)
Freddy Rodríguez … Wray (segment “Planet Terror”)
Josh Brolin … Dr. William Block (segment “Planet Terror”)
Marley Shelton … Dr. Dakota Block (segments “Planet Terror”/”Death Proof”)
Jeff Fahey … J.T. (segment “Planet Terror”)
Michael Biehn … Sheriff Hague (segments “Planet Terror”/”Thanksgiving”)
Naveen Andrews … Abby (segment “Planet Terror”)
Stacy Ferguson … Tammy (segment “Planet Terror”)
Nicky Katt … Joe (segment “Planet Terror”)

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