Thursday, April 05, 2007

Grindhouse Review

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In order fully enjoy Grindhouse, one must remember that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are two completely different filmmakers.

Sure, Rodriguez blurred that line when he gave Tarantino ‘guest-director’ credit for helming a tiny scene in Sin City. Also responsible for the confusion are the facts that the two directors are best friends; Quentin has appeared in several of Robert’s movies; Robert has directed one of Quentin’s scripts (From Dusk til Dawn); and both have made films full of blood, guts, and bad-ass women with samurai swords.

Okay, so maybe they do function as a similar unit from time to time, but other than that, they are still unique from one another. Rodriguez typically focuses on the visceral aspects of violence and action while Tarantino pays more attention to the cerebral. If one paid close attention to Planet Terror and Death Proof, those differences should be obvious.

Unfortunately, some people walk away from Grindhouse in a Tarantino-Rodriguez blur. They say things like, ‘The first part was awesome, while the second part was slow and lame.’ There is no ‘first part’ or ‘second part’ - Grindhouse is not a film, it’s a compilation, a double-feature for the Multiplex and DVD era. This means that instead of ‘parts,’ you have film one and film two.

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Film one, Planet Terror by Rodriguez, is an insane little ride. This zombie movie is heavier on gross-outs than the recent crop of movies starring the walking undead. The zombies here spread their infection by bursting pustules upon their victims faces, and when they are hit by shotguns or speeding cars, they burst into slimy, pink-colored puddles.

Thankfully, the movie is not all blister-popping and zombie carnage; it also has a wicked sense of humor. Rose McGowan plays a bubbly go-go dancer who loses her leg in a zombie attack. Her replacement leg comes in the form of a crude wooden peg, and later, a machine gun she is able to fire without touching the trigger. Guess it’s one of those guns that read people’s minds.

Terror also features some great work from the never-been-funnier Michael Beihn, a former staple of action movies in the eighties, and Freddy Rodriguez, whose performance seems to channel Beihn’s character in the original Terminator. Here’s hoping this film gets both actors more high profile work in the years ahead.

If Rodriguez’s film had one flaw, it’s that the director obviously spared no expense in making it. Planet Terror is filled with huge explosions, nice computer effects, and hundreds of bursting zombie bodies that no B-movie director could have ever afforded. All that really means, however, is that the title, Grindhouse, is nothing more than a misnomer.

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Tarantino stays truer to the low budget roots of the grindhouse with film two, Death Proof. Unlike Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, Quentin doesn’t even spring for an epilogue. The ending delivers nothing more besides the final action, and the words “The End,” which pop up on the screen to let you know it’s over. Many a grindhouse movie concluded this way, most likely because they ran out of film or rental time on their production equipment, but Quentin’s authenticity in this regard did not go unnoticed by me.

Heavy on dialogue, with bits of intense car chase violence peppered throughout, Death Proof is more “Reservoir Dogs” than Kill Bill. Sure the pacing is slow in the beginning, but that’s the set-up. Death Proof is more of a head-game than a cheap thrill. As the women talk at length about boyfriends, sex, and marijuana, you almost start to think you’re watching a tripped-out episode of “The Gilmore Girls” before they get mowed down by a murderous stunt driver.

While several female characters die horribly in Death Proof, Tarantino - who already proved himself adept at empowering women in Kill Bill - obviously has enough respect for females not to employ the tired device of the ‘sacrificial lamb’ (i.e. the female character who gets murdered after less than five minutes of screen time). The women here are characters, not types, thus making the way some of them die more painful than predictable.

Kurt Russell deserves mention as Stuntman Mike, a speed-demon who utilizes his steel reinforced muscle car to hunt and kill attractive women (“It’s probably the only way that diabolical son of a bitch can shoot off his goo!” a police offer says). Like his car, Russell shifts gears and speeds from gentle and seductive to manic and homicidal in a matter of seconds. If there was any reason why “Grindhouse” should have been released in the fall for awards season, it’s because of Russell’s performance. He’s that good.

Many of today’s flicks employ state of the art editing and computer tricks to make their chase scenes more intense, but Death Proof employs the best trick of all: Raw speed caught on camera. Vehicles dart down the road at insane speeds, with no other sound than the roar of their engines to get hearts pumping. This makes the danger all too real when stunt woman Zoë Bell (who plays herself) clings to the hood of a speeding car while Stuntman Mike knocks her around. One mistake on-set and we could have had another Brandon Lee on our hands.

Sandwiched between Planet Terror and Death Proof are a trio of fake trailers from Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth. I noticed that some people used that time as an opportunity to use the bathroom, smoke, or leave for good. My advice is to stay in your seats during this time. You might have to ignore the pangs of your bladder or a nicotine fit, but at least you won’t miss some of the best parts of the entire package.

P.S. If you still think you might need a bathroom break in the middle, you wan watch the hilarious trailer for Roth’s Thanksgiving below, and make a mad-dash when it starts to play in the theater.

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