07 April 2007

Grindhouse: Half a Good Movie

Perhaps the Century City crowd isn't the ideal group with which to see Grindhouse, this weekend's gimmick "double-feature" homage to the exploitations films of the 1970s. Too mellow, not worked up enough, and not the sort of crowd that longed for an homage to exploitation cinema of the 1970s. However, I don't believe that anybody was really pining for a return to those days of the one-week-and-out cheapies from the decade of shame except for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, but they have enough filmmaking clout to get their obsessions up on thousands of screens. At least, Tarantino's obsession. While watching the final product, I decided that Rodriquez cares far less about "grindhouse films" than he does about practicing his "Mariachi" filmmaking style with tongue in-cheek humor and loads of zombie silliness. Mostly, I think he just wanted to hook-up with actress Rose McGowan (which actually happened, so Rodriguez's experiment was a total success on the that level, although it trashed his sixteen-year marriage). On the other side of the table, it appears that Tarantino did honestly want to do his own version of a '70s muscle car chase film/slasher flick mixed with his own "round-robin dialogue" techniques.

So, despite the duplex set-up of Grindhouse, the two movies inhabiting it—Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Tarantino's Death Proof—are completely different beasts. Planet Terror is a parody of exploitation films, and Death Proof is inspired by exploitation films. Guess which one works better?

After an hour of exploding pus-covered zombies and redneck chophouse mayhem, I was extremely ready for Planet Terror to end. I've never enjoyed zombie films, and Planet Terror isn't even trying to be a good zombie film. It's an intentionally bad movie, complete with an artificially scratchy and washed-out print and missing frames. The bogus "missing reel" actually helps the story by thrusting the viewer straight into the third act in a surreal moment. The plot is so intentionally lazy and nonsensical that viewers don't need the missing reel to understand what's happening. And what is happening? Oh, a bunch of zombies created by the military run amuck in Texas, Marley Shelton's husband finds she's had a lesbian affair and threatens her with syringes, and Rose McGowan's stripper gets an assault rifle as a leg replacement. It's all sleaze and sometimes plain icky to watch, but the gore is frequently hilarious, done as cheaply as possible to increase the parody. But the gag-nature of the movie can't sustain itself for a whole ninety minutes, and when it ended I actually shivered to think that I still had another full film to go.

Luckily, Death Proof is a nifty little car-stunt flick. I enjoyed it far more than either volume of Tarantino's Kill Bill. The scratchy look is mostly absent—a few frames have been replaced with blue leader, and there's another missing reel that cheats us of a lap dance—and Tarantino is in his least self-indulgent mode. The movie models here are obviously Vanishing Point and Duel; indeed, the Dodge Challenger from Vanishing Point features as one of the stars. (If you haven't seen either film, please do so now.) The film starts in neutral, with loads of the obligatory Tarantino small-talk conversations. Once Kurt Russell as "Stuntman Mike" starts using his "death proof" black stunt vehicle to kill nubile girls, the rest of the movie is one groovy, fun ride. The final chase is a corker, and when the words THE END abruptly popped up on the screen, the audience cheered with excitement. It surprised me after Planet Terror, but Death Proof really is a feel-good cheap thrill. And watching Kurt Russell howl and scream as his tries to staunch a bullet wound ought to get him some sort of bizarre honorary Oscar. Man, that guy is cool.

The four fake trailers before and between the feature presentations are entertaining additions to faux-'70s experience. The best is Eli Roth's Thanksgiving, which is surprisingly disturbing. It owes a lot to the gravel-voiced narrator, who adds a level of grime to the images no amount of film scratches could. It's a compliment to Roth to say that I would never ever see Thanksgiving if it actually were a real movie.