Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Dir. Robert Rodriguez (Planet Terror) and Quentin Tarantino (Death Proof)
Starring (Planet Terror) Freddy Rodriguez, Rose McGowan, Marley Shelton, Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn
Starring (Death Proof) Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Zoe Bell, Syndey Tamia Poitier, Rose McGowan
The studios have had it all wrong for years. Instead of embracing the silly fun of the low budget genre pictures that sprinkled through the drive-ins and run down theaters, they went in the exact opposite direction. What we got were bigger, faster, more explosive special effects and stunts. The technology improved at an amazing rate and this certainly led to some memorable films. Unfortunately, Hollywood began to forget what made those genre films such fun in the first place. In response to this, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez bring us Grindhouse, a knockout feature that takes us on a wild ride back to the basic simplistic pleasures of film.
Grindhouse has been advertised as a double feature, but it’s so much more than that. Tarantino and Rodriguez have turned this into a movie event. Surrounding the two feature films from the esteemed directors are trailers for fake low budget horror films. These are mostly hilarious, best of which is Rodriguez’s Machete, a gloriously trashy movie that is rumored to be made into a full length film. The one fake trailer that doesn’t work is Rob Zombie’s Werewolf Women of the SS, which is a little too in on the joke, especially with an uninspired celebrity casting choice at the end that probably sounded much funnier on paper than it played out. Aside from the trailers, the show is spiced up with fake advertisements for nearby restaurants, old-fashioned snack shop ads, and fake damage to the film prints, including missing sections to each film.
The first film is Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, which starts out as a classic zombie film and gets crazier by the minute. A deadly virus is spreading throughout a small Texas town, causing those infected to turn into savage zombies. A group of survivors band together against the zombies, including a stripper named Cherry (Rose McGown), her ex-boyfriend El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), BBQ restaurant owner JT (Jeff Fahey), Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn), and abused wife Dakota (Marley Shelton). Things get complicated when the military gets involved, giving the survivors an extra foe to deal with.
This only touches on the surface of the insane plot. Rodriguez is clearly having a blast here, and for the most part, so is the audience. The blistering pace barely leaves the viewer a chance to breathe, and the film is not afraid to shock you with moments that are undeniably disgusting. Fangoria fans will certainly find plenty to enjoy, especially since horror makeup legend Tom Savini shows up in a small role. Rodriguez loses his way a little bit with by veering into self-parody. At times Rodriguez seems to be winking at you, whereas a more straightforward style would have served him better. Also he fails to keep Quentin Tarantino behind the camera, allowing him to chew up the screen in an embarrassing performance that really hampers the film, especially considering it comes towards the end. The proceedings eventually get back on track, coming up with a glorious action sequence that features one of the coolest ways a machine gun has ever been used.
In a smart choice, Quentin Tarantino’s slow paced Death Proof is picked as the second half of the double feature. After the breathtaking action of Planet Terror, the audience gets a chance to catch their breath and look at some cool cars and hot women. The plot is much more basic in this one. It follows a group of female friends, one of whom is a disc jockey, celebrating their friend’s birthday at a low rent bar. The film also follows another set of women who work on a movie set and desire to test drive a car from the movie Vanishing Point. Unbeknownst to them, they are being stalked by the mysterious Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell, playing off his vintage 80s image).
Tarantino's film is the real standout of the double feature. It may make audiences restless on a first viewing, as it takes a very long time to go anywhere. Tarantino spends much of his running time on endless conversations about mundane topics. However, this has become his staple, and his dialogue is as electric as ever. There are plenty of references to both Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, films that clearly inspired Death Proof. However, Tarantino isn't interested in just fooling around. Once we learn Stuntman Mike's true motivations, the film becomes a blast. The finale is a memorable car chase that doubles back on itself and uses the real life talents of stuntwoman Zoe Bell, who plays herself in the film. The thrilling scene brings us back to pre-CGI days, making it feel remarkably authentic and makes the dangerous situation all the more terrifying
It wouldn't be fair to ignore the wonderful ensemble. Rodriguez and Tarantino have assembled a cast that is perfect for the material. Several B-movie actors are appropriately along for the ride, including Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn, Michael Parks, Rose McGowan, and Danny Trejo. Even the A-list actors are obviously chosen for how well they fit into the rugged grindhouse style. Kurt Russell coolly coasts through his role reprising his earlier mannerisms in films like Escape From New York, Bruce Willis has an interesting uncredited part as a military officer, and Rosario Dawson's stunning screen presence adds strength to her resilient character. The most surprising performance comes from Marley Shelton, who comes out of nowhere with an intense wide-eyed performance to steal Planet Terror from her costars.
As a double feature Grindhouse is a very good experiment with two strong films to support the clever gimmick. It's not an insult to say Rodriguez's output is the lesser achievement, as comparisons to Tarantino would put most filmmakers to shame. Still, Rodriguez's film seems more like a really fun trick, whereas Tarantino's is the one that will stay with the viewer long after the lights come up. The most interesting thing about Grindhouse is that in doing films that were designed to mimic the "bad" exploitation films of yesteryear, Rodriguez and Tarantino have come up with films that far surpass the standard middling mainstream fare. Perhaps a return to the basics is just what the doctor ordered to wake Hollywood up.
Posted by Larry McGillicuddy at 2:46 AM