Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Grindhouse: Post Mortem

Sunday I went to see Grindhouse at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater here in the heart of Hollywood. After dodging the tourists (of which there were multitudes) and getting refreshments (Nachos, Diet Coke) and going to the restroom (this would, after all be a three hour tour) I settled into my comfortable seat to watch the movie…

Okay, make that movies.

For those of you who don’t know (and what rock have you been living under that you don’t know) this is a double feature event - just like the old exploitation double bills at the “bad theater” or the Drive-in back in small town America. In my case, the bad theater of my youth was the “Rocking Chair Theater” which conjures up images of old people whittling on the front porch of the homestead rather than an exploitation palace. That and the fact the theater was only blocks away from the “Good theater” -- well, that’s Aiken, SC for you.

Where were we?

So Grindhouse is made up of two movies - Planet Terror and Death Proof and features trailers interspersed throughout the event by notable directors Eli Roth, Rob Zombie and Edgar Wright. The whole package was designed to be a popcorn munchin’, drink swillin’ good time (minus the sticky floors and multiple stale odors of real ‘grind houses‘).

Planet Terror is a new look at an 80’s style zombie flick. There are echoes of Dawn of the Dead, Zombie and countless other movies thrown into the mix - including an homage to Dario Argento. Writer-Director Robert Rodriguez wants to make this an “archetype-filled” romp and for the most part succeeds. He knows and liberally steals from his source material, but often gives it all a unique spin.

It was also nice to see so many familiar veterans in the movie including Jeff Fahey, Tom Savini and Michael Parks - all of whom know the material and know how to elevate it beyond clichĂ© (well, almost). The characters they play are all part of the same universe that includes Kill Bill and From Dusk til Dawn. It’s a strange, twisted alternate dimension where zombies, vampires, ninja-like assassins and Texas all come together.

We also have Marley Shelton, Josh Brolin, Freddy Rodriguez and Rose McGowan in the cast. All fill their roles nicely, and deal with plot turns and twists well. McGowan is especially “nasty hawt” if you get my meaning.

Oh yeah, Bruce Willis, Quentin Tarantino and that guy from Lost are in it too…

What’s funny about Planet Terror is that it’s well, funny. Every scene has a different element of humor - the one-liner, the visual joke, the parody, character humor and the flipping of the convention (amongst others). That dear audience is where Planet Terror runs off the tracks for me.

See, these exploitation “masterpieces” of the 60’s , 70’s and 80’s always took themselves seriously. Yes, there was always bad dialogue, bad acting or poor directing - but through it all it took itself seriously. If there were laughs (HG Lewis anyone?) they were played to show the depravity of the characters. For example, Vigilante is an exploitation picture by Bill Lustig (Maniac, Relentless) that has some bad moments - but it takes itself seriously and doesn’t break down into parody. Same goes for Ms. 45 or Bad Lieutenant or Dawn of the Dead or Zombi(e)… they immersed you in a world that didn’t make fun of the genre (or anything else associated with the film).

Planet Terror not so much.

There is a lot to admire about this film - its energy, its twists (when was the last time you saw a kid do that?) and its production value (especially in the makeup effects arena) - but all of that is undercut by the fact they are making fun of zombie movies instead of doing what grind house writers and directors should be doing or have done in the past:

Give us a (zombie) movie that pulls no punches.

Rodriguez violated the cardinal rules of exploitation - don’t second guess yourself and make it all into a comedy expecting the audience to get the joke. Make a movie the studios can’t (or won’t ) make. Make an intense, memorable, visual experience.

Rodriguez got two of those right. The humor cut him out of the running for the third.

Most of the trailers fall into the same category. Machete and Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving being the only ones to follow the path set forth by other exploitation films without delving into parody. I want to see those two films because they did take themselves seriously (or at least serious enough to make me want to see them) and were transgressive enough to merit the “grind house” label (I will not jump on a trampoline or eat turkey again, especially after that bit which wasn’t shown in the Youtube trailer).

Death Proof is the second half of this Grindhouse double bill, and like Rodriguez, Director Quentin Tarantino knows of which he speaks when it comes to exploitation cinema. Death Proof is his take on a car chase, killer-on-the-loose picture. It mixes elements of such car classics as Grand Theft Auto (the opening credit sequence for instance), Eat My Dust, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and Vanishing Point. All movies which Tarantino blatantly references in his feature.

Death Proof is the story of Stuntman Mike , a movie car stuntman who can only get off by killing someone with his specially outfitted vehicle designed to keep him from being killed while he goes on his jet-fueled, hormones ragin’ death spree. Mike, played with dirt-under-the-fingernails charisma by Kurt Russell, is a guy who meets his match on the highway when he targets a trio of movie crew girls who are out on a joyride in a white Challenger recreating the thrills of movies like Vanishing Point.

What makes this movie different is Tarantino doesn’t make fun of the genre so much as ignore it in favor of his own dialogue fetish. This is a talky movie. Okay, very talky. Chick flick talky as written by an aging adolescent boy… am I clear here?

While there are moments of brilliance in the film (the atmosphere and detail, some of the car stuntwork and the casting of Vanessa Ferlita who has the saddest and yet most wonderful eyes I‘ve ever seen), there is simply not enough action nor thrills to classify this as an exploitation picture. The story would have been better served if Tarantino had watched more Mad Max and Road Warrior and less Crossroads (yes, the awful Britney Spears movie).

It is also clear both men love the city of Austin (Rodriguez’s home and Tarantino’s getaway spot) and its culture, and yes there are many more stories to tell there, but there comes a point where the whole scene becomes too “in-jokey” and not “real”. Sure you can show the Alamo and the local chili and BBQ joints, but by drawing so much attention to how great these places are - you take us right out of the story. We get that Texas is part of the DNA of this picture (as many exploitation classics were shot there), but seriously - start swimming in the deeper end of the gene pool. The place where the really dark stuff lies at the bottom.

That's where the real exploitation films come from...

Coming Soon: Grindhouse is (supposedly) a failure - so what happened and what’s next?


T. D. Fuhringer said...

"The story would have been better served if Tarantino had watched more Mad Max and Road Warrior and less Crossroads (yes, the awful Britney Spears movie)."

Great line and a great review. I hope rottentomatoes.com links you because that's the best, non-spoiler review of Grindhouse I've read yet. Thanks Bill!

Curt Purcell said...

You know, Bill, I thought Rodriguez was a lot more sincere than you give him credit for here. He has fun with the material, but that doesn't mean he's making fun of it. The humor, I thought, tended to be a lot more in-jokey than spoofy, if that makes sense.

Cunningham said...

Whether he was being sincere about his love for zombie movies or not -what you ended up with was a zom-com...

It should have been a scary movie, yet I found myself laughing for the most part. it kneecapped the whole movie.

Luke H said...

I may be wrong but wasn't another characteristic of most grindhouse movies was that they were made pretty cheaply? I expected the two movies to be low budget productions and was surprised to see huge explosions and a car chase that looked like a financial nightmare.

Kelly J. Crawford said...

Well, now I'm starting to get a better understanding of why this double feature didn't do so hot on its opening weekend. Thanks for that review, Bill.