Saturday, April 07, 2007

Grindhouse

It's ironic that the most original film experience Hollywood has presented in years is one that has roots in movies of thirty years ago. Leave it to Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, two of the most creative filmmakers working today, to make it work.

GRINDHOUSE takes its title from a particular cinematic subgenre that was extremely popular years ago. Oh, we still have exploitation movies, but now they cost $175 million and are made by major studios. But back then, most "drive-in" or "grindhouse" movies were filmed on a low budget by independent producers and released regionally in the United States by "bicycling" a dozen or so prints around the country. Some of the better exploitation movies of the era, however, were made by major studios, such as VANISHING POINT (20th Century Fox) and THE OUTFIT (Warner Brothers), but most of the time, they were products of companies long since evaporated into the ozone: American International Pictures, New World Pictures, Dimension Pictures, Hallmark Releasing, Film Ventures International, Manson International, Compass International Pictures (which released HALLOWEEN), Aquarius Releasing and so many more.

It's this type of film to which Rodriguez and Tarantino pay homage in their new film GRINDHOUSE. To duplicate the '70s experience as best they can, the two men have done something unique in Hollywood and created not just a film, but an entire nostalgic experience. GRINDHOUSE includes two full-length feature films, as well as trailers, intertitles and even an advertisement. Clocking in at just over three hours, GRINDHOUSE is a full evening's entertainment.

It opens with a trailer for a non-existent film called MACHETE, which hilariously posits the menacing character actor Danny Trejo as a badass hitman recruited to rescue a rich man's (direct-to-video leading man Jeff Fahey) kidnapped family, but who is set up by the government as a patsy. They "fucked with the wrong Mexican," as the narrator (in a deep Percy Rodrigues/Adolph Caesar style) says. Machete teams up with an equally badass priest (Cheech Marin) for revenge, which culminates in Machete jumping a machine-gun-shooting motorcycle over a giant fireball. MACHETE gets GRINDHOUSE off to a wonderful start, and it's rumored that Rodriguez (who directed it) may bring back Trejo and Fahey for an actual MACHETE movie.

Rodriguez's 85-minute feature, PLANET TERROR, is next. It's a balls-to-the-wall non-stop blood-and-gore horror flick about a Texas community infested with mad flesh-eating zombies (though the word is never used). More Umberto Lenzi than George Romero, these mutated humans are the result of the U.S. military's careless germ warfare experiments. Identifiable by the pulsating pus spots on their skin, these zombies wreck havoc on the town, leading various disparate citizens to band together for survival.

PLANET TERROR is grand, goofy fun, filled with splashy blood squibs and imaginative special effects. Rose McGowan (CHARMED) gets top billing as stripper Cherry Darling, who doesn't let an amputated leg keep her off the battlefield. Armed (legged?) with a sub-machine gun strapped to her stump, Cherry and ex-beau mechanic El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) lead the rebel attack against an army (literally) of zombies, which include an unbilled Bruce Willis. Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton, Naveen Andrews (LOST), Nicky Katt and Tom Savini also appear, but, for me, the biggest thrill was seeing genre favorites Michael Biehn (THE TERMINATOR) and Jeff Fahey (DARKMAN III) in major, chewy supporting roles. I really, really liked Fahey in this movie. Heck, I never thought I'd see Fahey on the big screen again, and he got such short shrift in the marketing that I figured his role was small. Nope. It's a great part, and I love the concept of him and Biehn as brothers who don't get along. I enjoyed filling in their backstories.

I also appreciated Rodriguez's great lengths to make PLANET TERROR look like a junky old print, including the pops and scratches and faded color. There's a "missing reel" gag that's perfect, melting out of a sex scene and popping back into major chaos. It also leads to a bit with Biehn learning El Wray's "secret identity" (which we never really learn, 'cause it's in the "missing" footage), and background gags with extras that tag along with the main characters--extras who just appear out of nowhere, including the lady deputy whose clothes get skimpier and skimpier. Funny stuff.

PLANET TERROR leads into three more trailers, all entertaining. Rob Zombie directed WEREWOLF WOMEN OF THE SS, which recalls the bizarre "Nazisploitation" movies that came out of Europe during the '70s. One of cinema's sleaziest genres, it nonetheless looks downright tame under Zombie's direction, though he assembled a marvelous trash cast, including Udo Kier (ANDY WARHOL'S FRANKENSTEIN), Tom Towles (HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER), Bill Moseley (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE), Sybil Danning (CHAINED HEAT) and "Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu."

Edgar Wright (SHAUN OF THE DEAD) spoofs the "Don't" horror movies of the '70s--DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT, DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE, DON'T GO NEAR THE PARK et al.--with DON'T, which is a one-note gag, but a good one. Eli Roth (HOSTEL) parodies slasher flicks with the grimy-looking THANKSGIVING, which features a naked cheerleader, many bad-taste gags, bestiality, Jordan Ladd and a hilarious cameo by Michael Biehn, whose "Son of a bitch!" earns a big laugh.

Tarantino anchors GRINDPROOF with his own full-length feature. DEATH PROOF was touted as a slasher movie/car-chase flick, but it's really neither, despite elements of both. Too talky to be an authentic drive-in movie (hey, it was written by Quentin Tarantino), DEATH PROOF opens with three young women (Sydney Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd) acting like they're in SWINGERS, talking a lot of shit, smoking pot, drinking beer, and considering what guys they'll go home with that night. At the bar, they engage in conversation with Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), an older man with a '71 Chevy Nova. As psychotic as he is charming, Stuntman Mike eventually engages in a game of late-night chicken with the trio. Later, he tries the same dangerous road games with another trio of hot babes (Rosario Dawson, Zoe Bell, Tracie Thoms), but bites off more than he can handle, not realizing Thoms and Bell are professional Hollywood stuntwomen.

Kurt Russell is so freaking charismatic, it's scary. First off, he's still rocking that mullet, and he's the only guy in the history of the world who has ever looked cool in one. Ever. He really owns the first half of DEATH PROOF, and everything he says and does is three times as interesting as the women are. The movie's biggest flaw is that Russell vanishes for about a half-hour in the middle, and he is sorely missed. On the plus side are the car chases, which are the best Hollywood has seen in at least a decade and feature 100% stuntwork--no fucking CGI (fuck off, THE MATRIX RELOADED and 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS with your weightless computer cars). It helps when you cast a real stuntperson--Zoe Bell--as your leading lady, meaning you can get up close and personal with the camera as the cars are tearing along at high speeds.

Both DEATH PROOF and PLANET TERROR have neat little stylistic touches I got a kick out of. In lieu of the regular Dimension Films logo (Disney's production arm dedicated to genre fare), Tarantino opened DEATH PROOF with the logo of the old Dimension Pictures (no relation), a shortlived '70s company that made drive-in classics like SWEET SUGAR and TERMINAL ISLAND. It's too bad company president Charles Swartz died recently before he could see his proud company immortalized in a QT joint.

I also liked the opening title sequences, right down to the copyright notices, the huge fonts (I miss those), the DeLuxe credit and the MPAA certification, and the separate DEATH PROOF title card, which "replaced" the original title. Whereas Rodriguez scored PLANET TERROR with an authentic-sounding John Carpenter-ish synth score, Tarantino dug into his record collection to pull out badass rock cuts like Jack Nitzsche's "The Last Ride" (from VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS!) and soundtrack clips from super-cool Italian crime dramas.

As flat-out entertainment goes, you'll be hard-pressed to find more fun at the movies this year than GRINDHOUSE. As a concept, it's prime material for unlimited sequels. Maybe a blaxploitation movie backed with a moonshinin' movie or a space opera on a bill with a spaghetti western?

3 comments:

katie said...

yea what you said. well written! i had a lot of fun.

Chris Stangl said...

Marty, yours was the GRINDHOUSE review I was waiting for... Seriously, the movie singlehandedly proves David Denby at "The New Yorker" is completely useless.

But hey, re: DEATH PROOF being too talky; I found it a pretty dead-on recreation of the way exploitation movies pad running times with indifferent plot scenes.

Matt Farkas said...

Great, thorough review, Marty. I saw this last Friday with my wife and another couple and I very much agree with your assessment, especially DEATH PROOF's liabilities.

I'm sure lots of people would shrug this off, but my biggest complaint about the film would have to be the paucity of skin. These are, afterall, EXPLOITATION films (or exploitation homages if you prefer), and gratuitous nudity is indeed a formal element of the genre. Considering that they hired Rose MacGowan from CHARMED, the most braless show on television, it's a pity that they couldn't even offer up a little jiggle. Of course, the Rolling Stone cover you linked to last week shows that Hollywood is happy enough to offer up nudity, but for promotion only, not for inclusion in the actual film they expect us to pay money to enjoy. These days, Hollywood will not sell you your chocolate and peanut butter together.

Given all the effort put in to making the films look "old school" I'm surprised that both PLANET TERROR and DEATH PROOF weren't set in the '70s. Why should "new" films look so beat-up and crappy? Neither film's storys demanded modern technology - the text messaging was mildly pertinent in PT and completely superfluous in DP - and there appeared to be a deliberate effort to outfit the characters in semi-retro styles (Vanessa Ferlito's feathered hair would've done Heather Menzies proud!).

Robert Rodriguez's score for PLANET TERROR was absolutely fabulous. I ordered the soundtrack on Saturday.

Overall, I really enjoyed this. I really wished my initial fears about QT and RR being too much of contemporary Hollywood pussies to include nudity in their film had proven to be ill-founded, but oh well. It was still a lot of movie entertainment for your dollar.