Monday, April 23, 2007

In Theaters: Grindhouse

Image courtesy of LAist.comI'm writing about GRINDHOUSE now, though it's already coming to the end of its unexpectedly brief theatrical run (another triumph for the Weinstein Company; I feel comfortable mocking them because I know Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez aren't in any trouble.) It's a shame, not just because the film deserves to be seen by more people, but because it's specifically meant to be a theatrical experience, a recreation of a grimy, sticky part of American moviegoing that has long since passed into memory. Recreating the atmosphere at home will be difficult. Maybe TWC could try to revive it as a Midnight Movie.

As a time machine, GRINDHOUSE is imperfect but as good as we're probably going to get. As a double feature, it's great fun. Both films- Rodriguez's PLANET TERROR and Tarantino's DEATH PROOF- exhibit the kind of sense of fun necessary to enjoy sleaze (for sleaze without humor becomes merely unpleasant), some sophistication but not too much, and enough visceral punch to give you a bruised forearm if you see the film with a date.

PLANET TERROR is a zombie film of sorts, in which a mysterious nerve gas developed for the military gets loose in a small town, turning people into ugly cannibal mutants with gross pus-filled boils. Among the people seemingly immune to the plague are stripper Cherry Delight (Rose McGowan), who loses a leg to the creatures, her ex-boyfriend Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), an increasingly disturbed anaesthesiologist (Marley Shelton), the sheriff (Michael Biehn), his brother J.T. (Jeff Fahey), and a pair of twin babysitters (Electra and Elise Avellan). The inveitable standoff occurs at J.T.'s barbecue joint outside of town, and things get interesting when the survivors run into a military unit (led by Bruce Willis) addicted to the gas and starting to suffer from the unpleasant effects of withdrawal.

This is the campier of the two films, and Rodriguez piles on the kind of trashy spectacle that real grindhouse movies aimed for but rarely could achieve for lack of money. There's gore and fiery carnage everywhere in this one, and it keeps moving at a fairly insane pace. But there's the faint hint of substance and character development at the edges, and as clichéd as it is sometimes, there's a certain sincerity to it that I admire. It has just enough depth to it (alongside a very modern bit of political subversion) that you can't feel too guilty for enjoying it. Despite the veritable flood of zombie films we've had in the past few years, this one is creative enough and lurid enough to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack.

Tarantino's DEATH PROOF is the less-liked of the two films; it's slower, and talkier, more so than it needs to be, I'll concede. But it's also kind of brilliant. Playing as an ingenious subversion of the genres it indulges in, while not really rejecting them, it turns very suddenly from a slow and chatty thriller to a pure white-knuckle experience that goes from terrifying to exhilirating to exuberant. I really, really don't want to give away too much about the story structure, because there's a shift midway through that is wonderfully mind-blowing. It's the sort of thing you really don't want to talk about, and I'm not sure we've had one of those since PSYCHO. Suffice it to say, Kurt Russell, as good as he has ever been, plays Stuntman Mike, an embittered and twisted former stuntperson who kills women in his stunted-up "death proof" automobile. There's another stunter in the movie, real-life Kiwi stuntwoman Zoe Bell, more or less playing herself, and suffice it to say she can hold her own. It takes a while for this film to get where it's going, but it's a worthwhile journey, and one gets the feeling that Tarantino started to make an exploitation pastiche but got sidetracked by some of his own ideas, resulting in something altogether unique. Even though there's a lot of talk, it's good stuff; a long scene in a bar on a rainy night captures a sense of pathetic desolation and people wanting to be elsewhere, and becomes strangely vividly real. DEATH PROOF may defy what one expects from a grindhouse movie (though, of course, many grindhouse films were incredibly talky as a means of reaching feature length), but occasionally an artsy one slipped through the cracks, and I'm willing to let it slide. The car action is masterfully shot and cut, with a real sense that no character is safe. There is a moment that I won't describe in detail but everyone will know when they see it, that is the most wonderful single moment that will be in any movie this year. Bell is hugely charismatic, outshining Rosario Dawson (though she's no slouch), and making me hope she'll do more acting in the future.

A number of tricks are used to make the feature resemble a true grindhouse double bill; both films are artifically but convincingly scratched, with not-perfect sound, and DEATH PROOF has its title card rather blatantly spliced in at the last minute, with the "real" title ("Thunder Bolt") briefly visible. Both films have a "missing reel", a gag that is mostly done for humor in the first movie and really just cuts through an already long scene in the second. There are short "Restricted" animations before each feature, authentic "coming soon" spots, an ad for the Acuña Bros. Barbecue located "next to the theater", and of course, trailers, all hugely entertaining and incredibly convincing, directed by folks like Rob Zombie and Edgar Wright and Eli Roth (while Rodriguez put together the trailer for MACHETE, which may actually see life as a direct-to-video feature.) Interestingly enough, despite the retro format, both features are very explicitly set in the modern day, with cell phones and PDAs and modern cars and so on.

It's a damn shame this experiment failed, though it was perhaps also inevitable. Catch this feature while you can, which may not be for long (there are rumors of TWC going ahead and releasing both films separately, though the "missing reels" and such make me think this would be difficult- and really, at this point they would just be spending more money.) In the end, I should just be glad that the films were made at all, and that two highly influential directors are interested in recapturing the vibe of this weird and sordid little era. It gives me a kind of hope. I'm not sure why either.

Written by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino (and Jeff Rendell and Eli Roth)

Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino (and Eli Roth and Edgar Wright and Rob Zombie)

Grade: A-


weepingsam said...

It's very strange that this didn't make decent money. I'm sure it will on DVD. I notice that Death Proof will be playing in competition at Cannes. I'm not sure how well it would work by itself - it seems to be playing on the fact that it's the back end of a double featuer (starting and ending with bathroom jokes, say) - but who knows. And I'd definitely like to see Machete, I think...

Piper said...

The Weinsteins totally jacked this movie up.

I've talked to several people who have seen this in the theater and they've said that a dozen or so people have been in the theaters when they saw it.

This movie is about the experience and it was marketed as a run of the mill movie when it's obviously not that.

And it's not like it's going to make its money back on DVD.

Evan Waters said...

I could see it getting discovered on DVD, it's just that the people who see it that way are going to miss so much.

TWC needs to somehow set this up as a new ROCKY HORROR- maybe not with audience participation, you can't force that, but set up regular midnight screenings across the country wherever it seems like there'll be an audience. I don't know if any studio has the motivation to try that or if it could even work, but there should be some way that people can have the experience of GRINDHOUSE and not just see the movie.

aquabot said...

Personally I loved Grindhouse, especially Planet Terror; saw it twice, probably gonna see it again. Even my mom liked it- she's a Death Proof person- and she doesn't even like Quentin and only likes Robert's kid's movies, like Spy Kids.

I know people who wanted to see it but didn't want to sit in the theater that long, so I'm gonna go with its length being a contributing factor to why it did so poorly in the US box office