At The Picture Show
Now this is what I call a chick flick -- the kind with blood, guts, severed legs and zombies
The Weinstein Company
Director/Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino ("Death Proof"), Robert Rodriguez
Starring:Rose McGowan, Kurt Russell, Josh Brolin, Zoe Bell, Freddy Rodriguez,
Marley Shelton, Rosario Dawson, Sydney Poitier, Tracie Thoms, Michael Parks,
Vanessa Ferlito, Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn, Nicky Katt, Naveen Andrews and
Rated R / 3 hours, 11 minutes
(out of four)
Apparently, some people just didn't get it. There was plenty of hype surrounding
Grindhouse upon its release. The fanboys were out on the Internet message boards
in full swing. (I was one of them.) But it bombed at the box-office. The studio
failed so badly to get its message across, that reportedly some people didn't realize
the film was a double feature and left after the first half.
Perhaps, since those the film was being targeted at never experienced the 1970s
grind-house scene that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino knew and loved,
some of the meaning was lost.
But it's the audience's loss, the box-office
bottom line notwithstanding. It's unfortunate that it failed, but it makes sense --
audiences have been disciplined all too well. A three hour-plus double-feature
shlock-fest with fake trailers and missing reels? That strays much too far from the
norm. Let's go see Disturbia instead!
But Grindhouse is an absolute triumph. It's that rare movie that can actually be
called an experience. It's not just about telling a story for a couple of hours -- it's
a complete production number in and of itself. That was the vision of Rodriguez
and Tarantino -- to pay loving homage to the glorious exploitation movies they
grew up on. In the finished product, Rodriguez did the better job replicating the B-movie form, Tarantino made the better movie, and combined with the efforts of
Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie and Eli Roth, Grindhouse is both an uproariously
entertaining ride and a savagely clever deconstruction of genre filmmaking itself.
Rodriguez opens the twin-bill with Planet Terror, a purely camp zombie thriller
that somehow manages to find a way to link flesh-eating zombies and genetic
experiments with the U.S. military's hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Needless to say, the experiments go awry and start turning people into zombies,
tearing a small Texas town into pieces. Inhabitants include Dakota (Marley
Shelton), who's getting set to leave her sadistic doctor husband, Dr. Block (Josh
Brolin); two brothers (Jeff Fahey and Michael Biehn) feuding over a barbecue
recipe; and, most importantly, the outlaw El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) and his
freshly one-legged girlfriend, Cherry (Rose McGowan).
Robert Rodriguez -- who has had a decidedly
hit-or-miss career but has done much of his best work recently -- never
compromises his campy vision for Planet Terror. The print is scratchy, the blood
is a blatantly fake shade of red, the acting is way too dramatic for the material, the
one-liners are too cheesy and obvious for words. (After Cherry's leg has just been
severed, she deadpans, "I was going to be a stand-up comedian.")
In an early scene, Bruce Willis pops up in a cameo as a military general trying to
secure a virus from a mad scientist/sadist played by Naveen Andrews. As Willis
-- with that patented smirk of his -- surveys the landscape leading up to a bloody
shootout, the camera lingers on his face...and it just lingers. No one-liner, no
action....it's just an unnecessary close-up. And the longer the camera stays there,
the funnier it is.
Rodriguez does the same thing in a later scene, as Dr. Block gets ready to stab his
wife with a needle after discovering her betrayal. Instead of any kind of payoff,
we're treated to extreme close-ups of their eyes and his needle as the scary music
hits a crescendo...and that's all. Rodriguez knows the mechanics of the B-movie
form so well that he can pull humor out of essentially nothing. Planet Terror is a
non-stop homage to zombie exploitation movies that never once strays from its
roots. It's pure grind-house, pure camp and, even as it affectionately exposes all
that made these types of movies so ridiculous, an unreasonably entertaining show.
Were it not so deliberate, this would be the
very definition of a guilty pleasure. It's as bad as it gets...which is a compliment,
of course. Grind-house flicks -- which are now seeing a small resurgence in
popularity on late-night cable TV -- are often given the "so bad it's good" label.
Planet Terror adds another level to that. It's so bad it's good, because it's so good
at being so bad.
However, with the second half of the double feature, Death Proof, Tarantino
refuses to be hamstrung by convention. Instead, as he's done with pulp crime and
kung-fu flicks, he elevates the material and takes a shopworn formula in a new
direction. Sure, there may not be as much gore, as much silliness or as much
unadulterated fun in Death Proof as there is in Planet Terror, but Tarantino does
Rodriguez one better: instead of simply paying homage to his chosen genre (in this
case, the slasher film), he turns it on its ear.
Not surprisingly given Tarantino's tendencies as a filmmaker, he takes a slower
approach to telling his story -- which might make it a bit of an awkward transition
from the fast-paced Planet Terror, but it doesn't take too long to settle in. He
establishes his characters and gets to know them through a night of conversation
before things actually start happening. Not only do we get a healthy dose of
Tarantino's patented dialogue style, but he continues to, quite hilariously, play
with form -- like the cheesy romantic music that suddenly starts up whenever
Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) gets a text message from her potential new
Death Proof plays smoothly as an exercise in
style, and Stuntman Mike (played by Kurt Russell with seductiveness and
maniacal glee) as the enigmatic, terrifying killer. But then, after a first half that,
plot-wise, has played completely to our expectations, Tarantino shatters them in
the second half. By this point, we've gotten to know a new set of characters -- the
first group of girls has, of course, been eliminated. What ensues is a series of
brilliantly executed and savagely funny chase sequences -- directed with
virtuosity by Tarantino, who served as his own cinematographer, a rare distinction,
for the first time -- that turn in ways we could not possibly expect. Most
importantly, Tarantino completely deconstructs the mythological serial-killer
archetype, causing the final act of the film to twist in a whole new direction.
The film's drastic dramatic shift opens up entirely new possibilities that make
Death Proof infinitely more entertaining, and more creative, than it would have
been had things gone as they were "supposed" to. That's why, as entertaining a
filmmaker Rodriguez is, Tarantino has always been his superior. Both filmmakers
know the conventions of moviemaking inside and out; Rodriguez does a great job
replicating what we love about movies. Tarantino does the same thing - and then
he defies those norms.
Put together, Grindhouse was a stroke of
genius, no matter what the box-office receipts say. In an age when we've become
so accustomed to being controlled by Hollywood norms and expectations, it's
exciting to see a couple of filmmakers who live simply for the joy of movies --
and with the balls-to-the-wall adrenaline rush of Grindhouse, they have provided
cinema with a vital shot in the arm.
AS FOR THE FAKE TRAILERS....
Machete (Robert Rodriguez): B+
Werewolf Women of the S.S. (Rob Zombie): C
Don't (Edgar Wright): A
Thanksgiving (Eli Roth): B+
Read more by Chris Bellamy