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April 07, 2007

Grindhouse

grindhouse.jpg

Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino - 2007
Dimension Films 35mm Film

After all the talk about Grindhouse being a tribute to the low-budget action films of the early Seventies, the film, in total, is a mixed bag. The closest approximations to the kinds of stuff I actually saw on 42nd Street back during those years is to be found in the hilarious previews by Robert Rodriguez, Edgar Wright and Rob Zombie. The preview by Rodriguez, for a film titled Machete, actually looked the closest to what I hazily remember among the previews for films that would sometimes not actually get theatrical play. Wright's preview plays on both the gothic house thrillers, that if they weren't English, would be at least appear to be English, and the horror films with titles that offered stern warnings of something scary in the basement, attic, behind a door, or inside a refridgerator. Zombie's preview of Werewolf Women of the SS would have been considered restrained by the 42nd Street crowd. Just seeing the preview of one of the "Ilsa" movies was disturbing enough for me. Of the two actual features by Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, Rodriquez' Planet Terror is the stronger, more sustained work.

What is a bit jarring are the anachronisms running rampant throughout the films. Both features have contemporary settings but a filmed, more or less, with drive-in aesthetics. The big difference is that Rodriguez maintains the look of an old film - the colors occassionally fade in and out, and at one point the film appears to have been caught in the projector and burns up. The story about a virus that turns people into man-eating zombies never lets up. The narrative doesn't always make sense either, but Rodriguez simply keeps moving forward as we watch the members of a small Texas town shoot their way out of an impossible situation.

The main attraction of Planet Terror is watching Rose McGowan as a former go-go dancer. There is a visceral thrill when McGowan, to put it bluntly, lifts her leg, that is the one that has a machine gun in place. Planet Terror may also prove that Robert Rodriguez has spent a bit too much time looking at medical books, the kind illustrated with the most disgusting diseases ever photographed. There is enough blood, guts and goo for at least ten drive-in classics. It's enough to make a film like Humanoids of the Deep or Galaxy of Terror look like the paragons of good taste.

Death Proof is Quentin Tarantino at his laziest. The film starts off reasonably well, especially after Kurt Russell invites Rose McGowan for a ride, and she finds herself trapped in the passenger seat of a car that is "death proof", but only for the driver. There is a disconnected jump to a scene of four women talking. And talking. And talking. Death Proof almost falls apart during this sequence. Far from being grindhouse in style, Tarantino seems to be incongruously mimicking Jean-Luc Godard when the camera moves back and forth between the conversing women. That he even has four women sitting around talking for so long makes me feel like Tarantino was actually channelling his inner George Cukor. At least with Cukor, the gabfests are usually pretty engaging. Tarantino's conversations don't substantially add anything to the narrative or the characters, causing his film to virtually grind to a halt. Grindhouse tries to play with the audience by having missing reels in the two features, but if there was ever a scene by Tarantino that should have been cut, this is it.

After the laborious set-up, the women test drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger. One of the women does a stunt involving riding on the hood of the car. Russell reappears to ram his car into the Dodge, terrorizing the women. It's fun to watch battling cars, but given a choice, I'd prefer repeat viewings of Fireball 500 or the original Vanishing Point.

The biggest problem is instead of trying to make a grindhouse film from start to finish, Tarantino uses Death Proof to show off his pop culture frames of reference. Using an instrumental by Jack Nitsche is a nice touch. I even enjoyed looking at the vintage movie posters on the walls of a bar. Tarantino shows off his pretentious side by having characters quote Robert Frost. Silly is when Russell discusses how the television series "The Virginian" evolved into "The Men from Shiloh". Sillier is a discussion of the mostly forgotten 60s British band Dave Dee, Dozey, Beaky, Mick and Tich. Tarantino has a brief appearance, as a character named Warren Finnerty.

For a truer grindhouse experience, there are plenty of DVDs with built in double features and previews, with the films that actually played grindhouses and drive-ins. As for the movie Grindhouse, wait for the DVD. I suspect that we will be able to see a special edition, one that includes the "missing reels".

A somewhat different version of this review was published previously at Screenhead.

Posted by peter at April 7, 2007 02:00 PM