Review: “Grindhouse”

Exploitation cinema of the 70’s gets a loving tribute in “Grindhouse,” a unapologetically entertaining double feature that, despite its drawn out runtime and clunky moments, is arguably one of the strongest films of the year so far thanks to its inventive take on an old and often cringe-worthy genre.

Indeed, the dual efforts of “Grindhouse” deliver different ideas of what the whole ‘Grindhouse’ experience actually is. Rodriguez gives us “Planet Terror”, a post-modern spoof that winks at its audience and indulges in the sheer exploitation, over the top violence and cheesy schlock attitude that many people today associate with films of that type. Rodriguez’s plays more to the audience of today who will no doubt delight in all the cheese on offer.

In contrast Tarantino’s “Death Proof” is a straightforward, irony-deficient piece that far more resembles the actual films played in “Grindhouse” cinemas – right down to much of its core construction. Whereas Rodriguez is a showman who sets out to dazzle and makes movies to please the masses, Tarantino seeks only to please himself and has a far more innate understanding of the material and how it should be handled. The result is a more robust and personal film that won’t sit as easily with most audiences, but will last the test of time far longer.

That’s not to write-off “Planet Terror” which in itself is a fun, tongue-in-cheek and deliciously gross zombie movie. Considering this genre has had a popular appeal of late, the idea of another zombie film doesn’t exactly seem retro. In fact where ‘Terror’ will find most of its detraction is from the fact that films such as “28 Days Later” and “Dawn of the Dead” are far stronger films in their own right than Rodriguez’s often silly homage (then again its FAR better than sitting through another odious chapter in the “Resident Evil” franchise).

That inherent winking allows the film to get away with some silly stuff – ranging from Tarantino’s cameo in the film’s most memorable gross-out scene involving melting genitals, to Rose McGowan’s already iconic visage as the stripper turned amputee who uses assorted projectile weapons to mow down the undead. McGowan has proven herself a solid actress and does so again here with strong work and a fun character – it’s needed as the remaining cast such as Freddy Rodriguez, Josh Brolin, Naveen Andrews and even Bruce Willis leave little impression.

In showing just how badly made and plain silly much of the “Grindhouse” movies were, Rodriguez indulges his showmanship levels to new heights – and the result amply displays his frustrating appeal as a filmmaker. When it comes to the actual technical aspects of filmmaking the man’s a genius, as financially efficient as a frugal accountant, visually creative, and delivers flashy product designed with audience appeal in mind.

Yet qualities like subtlety, artistry, passion and a true emotional voice aren’t there. There’s a difference between a filmmaker and an artist, Rodriguez is purely the former and whilst we’ve seen a glimpses of the latter in some of his work (most notably “El Mariachi” and “Sin City”), it’s not on display here. At 100 minutes “Planet Terror” also runs a little long, but the ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach makes it a fast and easy to watch time. Go in with little expectation and it’s hard not to enjoy.

Sandwiched between the films are the whole effort’s creative highlight – four fake film trailers from a variety of directors. Edgar Wright’s “Don’t”, a fun spoof on those foreign films which used fast editing and a narrator to hide the fact the actors spoke in another language, is the highlight. It’s the best idea of the piece, has an interesting ‘Hill House’ kind of vibe to it, and so many cameos one can’t wait for the DVD to freeze frame and figure out who’s involved.

Also surprisingly strong is Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving”, a typically crass effort from the often far too self-indulgent director, but as a homage to slasher films it evokes (and most convincingly looks like) its original subject matter the best and features a delightfully twisted tone that makes it the meanest – and amongst the most memorable – two minutes of the film.

Not hitting the mark so well is Rob Zombie’s “Werewolf Women of the SS”. On the upside is the overall brilliant concept for the trailer and a clever cameo by Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu. On the other hand a knowing tongue-in-cheek attitude, some awful line deliveries by everyone except Udo Kier, and some really odd choices in direction (like the cast list) make it seem decidedly amateur.

It scores better than Robert Rodriguez’s “Machete”, the worst of the bunch. Danny Trejo plays the more violent version of Rodriguez’s “Desperado” character and whilst it serves as a fun satire of exploitation cinema, a good idea falls surprisingly flat and inspires little interest – which makes one wonder why they’re bothering pursuing this as a direct-to-DVD film.

Moving on from the showman to the auteur, and without question “Death Proof” is the stronger piece of filmmaking of the two “Grindhouse” features. Whereas Rodriguez set out only to entertain, Tarantino’s work seeks to become a great cult film in its own right in the genre it is paying homage to – in this case the thrilling counterculture road movies of the 70’s. It’s also trademark Tarantino in many ways – plenty of smart and tough broads seeking revenge, endless bouts of conversation, and occasional spouts of extreme violence.

Does it succeed? For the most part yes, but its emulation of those very deliberately paced films with their long setups will not carry well with the more attention-deficit audience of today. Coming in as the second half of an already too long piece of cinema, the pacing issues are exacerbated and far more noticable than had the film been released as a separate piece of work. Those in foreign countries bemoaning the splitting of the releases should actually be happy – you’re likely to warm to the films more that way, especially Tarantino’s.

“Death Proof” is a two act film, the first and second both similar and yet opposite in construction but narratively only linked by Stuntman Mike (a superb Kurt Russell thoroughly enjoying himself) and his car as the antagonist. Both follow the setup of a bunch of girls going out for a fun time in the small Texan city of Austin. They soon cross paths with the slick movie stuntman and his car, built to withstand basically anything due to its being constructed to be used in movie stunts. High speed auto carnage ensues.

The two halves of “Death Proof” however, unlike say “Psycho” which remains the most famous film to use this trick, are dynamically different in tone – to the point that one can spot many elements that deliberately counterbalance each other. The first is an almost melancholy and at times quite subversively nasty little piece, the second a real high octane and almost light-hearted fun female empowerment movie – even as though it’s filled with effective action scenes any testosterone-laced blockbuster would kill to incorporate.

The first features a bunch of bitchy girls who are so annoying and unengaging that in many ways you’re happy to see them get bumped off – especially Sydney Poitier’s well-acted but arrogant Jungle Julia. Throughout much of the overdrawn setup, we see these girls talk about pot-smoking and playing a practical joke to get one of the group laid. Trouble is they’ve picked some dive bar where all there is on offer are some sleazy guys fixated only on snatch (Eli Roth playing to his strengths), and of course – Mike.

There are moments of greatness here – most of Mike’s dialogue, a blonde-wigged Rose McGowan showing her range by playing the opposite of her “Planet Terror” character, and the eventual and surprisingly brutal crash (which is repeated four times to show the effect on each victim). Unfortunately much of this is long tedious banter between a group of vapid, narcissistic characters – whilst it certainly plays believably, it is often plain tedious because you never feel drawn in to actually empathise with this group. Ultimately they only serve to remind you that you’d be having much more fun right now out in a pub doing the same thing with real people who are far more interesting and less self-obsessed.

Yet with Mike he’s created something quite clever in this piece, an out of place interloper in a scene where he doesn’t fit who ultimately takes out that frustration and impotence on the girls by mowing them down with his big ass penis-mobile. Most of course will think he’s simply paging Dr. Freud for the psychological make-up of the character, but there’s a glimpse of something darker here – the primal misogynistic drive in all men that actually elicits, maybe not our sympathy but certainly our understanding. Mike serves as the physical incarnation of that split-second of rejection, rage, and ultimate self-loathing that every man whose ever been spurned feels before reason and civility take control again.

Taking us to such a dark and quite male place in the first half, the second half comes as antithesis in every way with a lighter, faster and more feminine tone that is probably Quentin’s most optimistic work to date. The dark scruffy nighttime interiors are replaced by bright, airy and for the most part exterior scenes all in the daytime. The girls this time, rather than being ego-driven ice queens are genuinely warm, fun, assertive and bubbling personalities – these aren’t girls, they’re women and as such prove far more fascinating and endearing, even if it goes against the grindhouse modus operandi.

Tracie Thoms and Rosario Dawson bring warmth and sass to the table, and play well with the entire film’s real breakout star – stuntwoman Zoe Bell. In spite of some real clunky line readings, most notably at the start, Bell wins us over with such a great personality and zest that you’ll find it impossible not to walk away a fan of the tough as nails Kiwi. This half is also far more focussed on action, with the brilliant car chase and fight sequences just going to prove that real stunt work remains far more effective than all the CG in the world when it comes to tense action.

It’s a far more straightforward flick, in many ways playing as what “The Hitcher” remake should have been like, but by doing so it loses that dark subversive sense of dread that permeated the first half, whilst Mike is given no time or character at all in this half so that he becomes more a force of nature than the deeper and more compelling creep he played in the first part. The camaraderie of the girls makes up for it with its very Tarantino-esque dialogue which is much more fun and enjoyable than the flat talk of the first batch.

After the lethargic “Jackie Brown” and the enjoyable but often disjointed “Kill Bill” saga, “Death Proof” has a refreshing return to focus for Tarantino. Long after “Grindhouse” has gone to video, people will still be coming back to it to check it out again, it’s a solid work and the anchor for which this whole film works on.