Grindhouse


In Scott Frank’s surprisingly great “The Lookout”, we’re told at some point that accident victims who suffer frontal-lobe trauma sometimes lose their inhibitions. Far be it from me to suggest that the directors of “Grindhouse” got clunked something fierce during the shoot, but I’ve rarely seen filmmakers, in current Hollywood at least, expose their sexual and sadistic kinks on screen with such shameless glee!

In this throwback to the days of seedy movie-houses and drive-ins that showed double features of exploitation flicks, we get two crazy-ass features back to back, plus a bunch of amusing fake trailers such as “Machete”, a Mexploitation epic starring Danny Trejo as the titular avenger and Cheech Marin as a gun-toting padre, and “Werewolf Women of the SS”, Rob Zombie‘s take on “Ilsa”-style Nazi romps, with Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu!

Our Feature Presentation begins with “Planet Terror”, a zombie flick in which Robert Rodriguez indulges in everything that makes his movies so fun but also so frustrating. It starts out promisingly enough, with go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan, hot as hell) doing her thing on stage then acting out backstage, in a scene straight out of Showgirls. But then the film starts swinging back and forth between hilariously bad and just bad, as Rodriguez throws in way too many characters and subplots.

For every bit that works, say the Assault on Precinct 13-style way the Sheriff (Michael Biehn, who hasn’t had nearly enough good parts since the days when he was James Cameron’s go-to guy) and an outlaw (Freddy Rodriguez, pretty badass) have to band together to survive (I also love how Rodriguez’ music mimics John Carpenter’s eerie synthesizer scores), there’s a whole bunch of sloppily written stuff, like everything having to do with the Army platoon (led by a wasted Bruce Willis) and most of the story thread with the dysfunctional couple of doctors (the obnoxious Josh Brolin and the amusing Marley Shelton).

Rodriguez also makes the mistake of too often going for a jokey tone, apparently failing to realize that one of the things that make these old B-movies so funny is how seriously they take themselves. In any case, a lot of what passes for comedy in “Planet Terror” is embarrassingly dumb gross-out humor – the less said about the countless balls gags the better. That leaves us with the copious amounts of blood, guts and severed limbs in nearly every scene, which might be enough to please insatiable horror fans. Personally, I grew bored of all the repetitive gore effects pretty fast. Rodriguez can be a kickass action director, but he needs a Frank Miller or a Tarantino to provide him with good material, otherwise his relentless visual excesses feel pointless and exhausting.

Infinitely better is Quentin Tarantino‘s “Death Proof”. Tarantino doesn’t go for inconsequential references to his favorite movies like Rodriguez does; he isn’t merely working within genres, every time it’s as if he were reinventing them. And whereas his Mexican colleague seemingly never heard the phrase “less is more”, Tarantino understands that carefully modulated bursts of violence are more effective than a non-stop barrage of excesses.

“Death Proof” is basically a female Reservoir Dogs (Reservoir Bitches, if you will), inasmuch as the near majority of the running time is devoted to showing the interaction and conversations of a group of people, who eventually find themselves in deadly circumstances. To a large degree, this is what QT himself calls a hanging out movie, and I loved every second of it. I’ve already heard of folks being bored by the long scenes of chicks driving around, having drinks and casually chatting all the while, but let’s leave those fools sucking on their Popsicles.

If you’re not only waiting for the gore, you’ll certainly enjoy spending time with Quentin’s girls, which are separated into two posses. First, there’s Jungle Julia (brazen Sydney Poitier), a “famous or something” Austin radio DJ who goes out on the town for a night of partying with “Butterfly” (lovely Vanessa Ferlito), an old friend from college who’s back in Texas for a few days. The two intend to get drunk, get high and maybe get laid, if worthy suitors show up. For the longest time, we’re simply having a good time at the Texas Chili Parlor along with them, talking it up, having a few laughs and feeding the jukebox. We really get a feel for the place and the people in this bar (literally tended by Tarantino), and the jukebox is an almost too perfect opportunity for QT to play a bunch of his favorite songs as diegetic music. Plus, this being an exploitation picture, Tarantino gets to forget all about political correctness and ogle every curve, line and indentation of his gorgeous actresses’ bodies with his camera – unsurprisingly, his foot fetish gets plenty of mileage!

And then Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell at his best) shows up. Actually, we’ve already had glimpses of him, or more precisely of his car, both of them ominous figures. But once the guy’s sitting at the bar, engulfing his nachos and talking up a honey (McGowan again), he seems like a rather charming, easygoing fellow. Tarantino’s placed almost all of his pieces now, we’re fully immersed in this universe and with these characters, we care about them, and then… Oh, I ain’t gonna spoil it, but it gets damn brutal and in only a few minutes, we get more visceral thrills than through all of “Planet Terror”. Also, that editing trick that QT uses at the climax of this first road rage scene? Brilliant.

As I mentioned above, another group of young women is introduced later on. We’re now in Tennessee, where a cheerleader movie starring Lindsay Lohan (!) is being shot. On a day off, a makeup girl (Rosario Dawson, adorable as ever) and a stuntwoman (Tracie Thoms, hilariously sassy and foul-mouthed) welcome an old friend from New Zealand (Zoë Bell, as herself!?), also a stuntwoman, and they hang out – told ya, it’s that kind of movie. But before too long we’re back on the road for an even more brutal action sequence, one of the best car chases I’ve ever seen. You got Stuntman Mike and his death-proof car trying to run over girls again (why? maybe he’s just watched Cronenberg’s “Crash” too many times, heh)… But these aren’t just any women, they’re stuntwomen, so Stuntman Mike’s got his work cut out for him. What happens from there is as exciting and fun as it gets, and it culminates in a note-perfect final shot.

Phew! That was a whole lotta film to cover, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of this mammoth double-header. It’s too bad that “Planet Terror” isn’t as great as “Death Proof” but hey, we’re getting two flicks for the price of one, so we can’t complain too much, right?

***

IF YOU’RE INTERESTED IN EVEN MORE TALK OF GRINDHOUSE (WITH SPOILERS THIS TIME), HERE ARE SOME POSTS I MADE ABOUT IT ON THE SADLY DEFUNCT CINEMARATI BLOG:

PLANET TERROR is definitely a parody, and not a very good one at that. I wish it would have taken itself more seriously, like FROM DUSK TILL DAWN or SIN CITY, which are pretty out there but wouldn’t go for something as retarded as bag-of-balls gags. DEATH PROOF, on the other hand, is a masterpiece, the best film of its kind I’ve seen since… A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, I think. Those two actually have something in common, in the way that they take a genre and turn it inside out, spending more time with the characters than you’d expect. And when violence erupts, it’s all the more powerful because the characters aren’t just one-note good or bad guys.

(…)

I have a theory, two actually, about why you and other women I know didn’t like the DP (how apt that those are the initials, as it’s pretty much all about penetration/ramming into?): either a) QT gets the girly talk right and, since you hear it all of the time already, it’s without interest, or b) his girly talk is purely a man-fantasy, which makes it dismissable to you.

In any case, I myself was thoroughly fascinated by all the crazy sexy beautiful chicks and could have spent hours listening to them chat. Whether girls like this exist or not, I’d love to hang out with them.

(…)

Again,

SPOILERS!!!

I’m not sure if this is exactly what James is referring to, but in any case that’s the thing about the “pointless” talking, it’s actually almost all set up for the action-packed third act – on top of, IMHO, being engrossing and hilarious. It’s almost Chekhov, for chrissakes – they talk about Kim carrying a gun, boom, it’s put to use later on. They tell that great story about Zoë surviving a fall into a ditch in the Philippines, whadyaknow, she pulls another “cats”-trick like that at the end, and so on.

In a more general vein, notice that the remainder of the dialogue, with both girl posses, is almost all about guys, love vs. lust, courtship, etc. Then Stuntman Mike shows up and, quite overtly I think, his actions are the almost purely action-driven punchlines to what was said before, especially at the end. It’s like he’s one of those stupid guys they talk about, ramming into them like an idiot then trying to bail, but these girls aren’t pushovers – they turn the tables around and show him who’s wearing the pants in this post-feminist world!

(…)

Well, he does show something: girls interacting. As much as they talk, their body language and what’s going on around them in the bar, plus Stuntman Mike’s progressive intrusion in their inner circle, are all “shown”. Here’s a movie that might benefit from being shown with the sound off – there isn’t a throwaway shot in there.

(…)

Now, knowing that the first girl posse would die a gruesome death, everything before was so bittersweet. And when they’re in the car, grooving to that great Brit invasion song… Anyone who thinks QT is all about “cool” should see that scene. Not cool. Not funny at all. In fact, one of the saddest things I’ve seen in a long while — the tragedy of lives cut short.