April 6, 2007

Movie Review: Grindhouse

Posted in Movies at 7:49 pm by Calico Jack

You know you’re in for an experience when the pre-film theater credits play upside down and backwards, as if a lazy projectionist attached the reel without looking at which way it went — and at a digital screen theater, no less. Such seemingly accidental goofs set the stage for Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s loving homage to ’70s exploitation films in their double feature Grindhouse. Taken together, the running time for Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof hovers somewhere around three hours, but any sense of time is beaten out of the audience’s collective skulls through an on-screen overabundance of exhilarating violence and sleaze. And yes, those words are purposeful.

Rodriguez and Tarantino know exactly which target they’re aiming for in these two pics; and even if they don’t always hit the bulls-eye, they’re close enough to the center to forgive whatever flaws occasionally pop up. These two men have made a film which gleefully recreates a movie experience that no longer occurs in the ultra-comfy, sometimes hushed theaters where everything is supposed to be so new it gleams. The “print” for Grindhouse is full of scratches and rips and even missing reels which perfectly complement the shlocky plots and heavy-handed acting that were a staple of B- movies a few decades prior, and now can be found in A-list pictures throughout the year.

Rodriguez starts things off with Planet Terror, an apocalyptic zombie flick that manages to include every single horror film cliché known to man — and yet on some ridiculous level, it works. Rose McGowan stars as Cherry Darling, a go-go dancer (“not the same thing as a stripper!” she helpfully reminds everyone) in a seedy joint in Texas who gets caught up in an archetypal “government experiment gone wrong” plot. Naveen Andrews of Lost fame plays a scientist who sells biochemical weapons to an Army unit formerly stationed in the Middle East which captured Osama Bin Laden, but was then injected with a zombie drug…is this making any sense to you? It didn’t to me either, but that isn’t really the point of Planet Terror. After meeting her truck-driver-with-a-hidden-past ex-lover (Freddy Rodriguez), Cherry assembles a ragtag group of freedom fighters (Suspicious sheriff? Check. Barbecue joint owner? Check. Hot policewoman with exposed midriff? Check. Sexy doctor with a penchant for needles? Check. And so on…) willing to kill everything in sight in order to escape to some remote region of the world where they can hide out and save the human race. Cherry quickly runs afoul of these soldiers-turned-zombies and loses her leg, which gives Planet Terror its most entertainingly ludicrous plot twist one could imagine: instead of a prosthetic limb, why not attach an assault rifle to the stump for some old-fashioned zombie killing? Like this:

Really, not much more needs to be said about Planet Terror: that picture pretty much sums up what the movie is all about. It’s trash, but it knows it’s trash — and it revels in its own gratuitousness. It’s also far, far more entertaining than it has any right to be. Rodriguez pulls out all of the stops in making a film that never degenerates into outright parody, but has enough self-winking to let the audience know that hey, we’re all along for this ride together.

There is no intermission in Grindhouse; instead, the audience is treated to several faux trailers for more B- movies, from directors Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie and Eli Roth. With such titles as Werewolf Women of the S.S. and Thanksgiving (tagline: “White meat, dark meat: all will be carved!”), the trailers are both hilarious and gruesome; one particular scene elicited horrified gasps from almost everyone in the theater.

Rounding out the second half of the double feature is Tarantino’s Death Proof. Where Rodriguez paid tribute through gritty grandiosity, Tarantino prefers to play his film straight up — and it almost works as a movie in its own right. Instead of jumping into the action, Tarantino has an extended setup as a group of vacationing women in uniformly short shorts sit in a bar and talk about relationships, men and life in general — all in Tarantino’s trademark pop-culture-infused style that starts off strongly, but wears a bit thin before the suspense kicks into high gear. They meet Kurt Russell, an ex-stunt driver named, appropriately enough, Stuntman Mike. He seems charming, but he drives a menacing ex-stunt muscle car –and his real love is death. And what better way is there to celebrate his two passions than by targeting this group of nubile young women with his car? Tarantino knows the audience is anticipating a certain progression of events, but he plays around with the audience’s expectations and delivers a film that builds tension to a climactic road chase that is more exhilarating and thrilling than anything seen on film since Spielberg’s Duel. The last thirty minutes of Death Proof are worth the price of admission alone; everything else that comes before is a bonus.

Grindhouse is most definitely not a movie for everyone. The audience has to be willing to accept a certain set of presuppositions — mainly, that these films are meant as a homage to other movies, and that the purpose of Grindhouse is to give its audience a hefty dose of thrills and excitement, nothing more. It’s impossible to fault Grindhouse for its gaps in logic, plot holes, inconsistencies and hammy acting, because those are all placed quite deliberately; Rodriguez and Tarantino want the audience to notice and laugh along with them. Grindhouse works quite well in recreating a time when movies weren’t run through an endless number of focus groups and marketing committees, but instead were made for the sheer enjoyment of it all. And oh boy, is it ever entertaining.

A-.

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