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Monday 9 April 2007

Movie Review of Grindhouse

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Robert Rodriguez ("Planet Terror"), Quentin Tarantino ("Death Proof"), Eli Roth, Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie (fake trailer segments)

Written by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino

Starring Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton, Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn, Naveen Andrews, Bruce Willis, Michael Parks, Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Tracie Thoms, Monica Staggs, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Zoe Bell

Lawrence Person: This film is a hoot and a half, and accomplishes everything it sets out to do, which is to craft a loving homage to the look and feel of the "grindhouse" films of the seventies. The only reason it's not two hoots is that Quentin Tarantino's segment has too much setup for the payoff.

For those unfamiliar with grindhouse cinema, it was those inner city cinemas that were the last pre-videotape refuge of quickie, cheap exploitation films, high on sex, violence, and non-stop action and low on character development, budget, and recognizable acting talent. To recreate that grindhouse milieu, A-list directing talents each tackle full-length B-list material, with Robert Rodriguez doing the sci-fi/horror Planet Terror, and Quentin Tarantino doing the "maniac in a muscle car" homage Death Proof. There's even fake '70s lobby ads, trailers for non-existent movies, and even deliberate worn film artifacts like pops, scratches, stutters, and burn-ins, and even (once each segment) a "missing reel." Plus all the action and gore you could ask for. And at just over three hours, you really are getting two whole films for the price of one.

Howard Waldrop: Grindhouse is Tarantino and Rodriguez' homage to the double-features of the 1970s; as if AIP had continued on (under both James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, and not just Sam alone through the Salt Water Taffy Years). The double-features have been filmed to look like they were made in the 1970s, and have been through the sprockets 700 times each, with pops, hisses and scratches. An end credit is given for Film Damage Compositing Director.

It's like the Seventies never ended and lasted into the era of cell phones, text messaging and CDs. Bertolt Brecht would approve of the alienation effects here. Both movies are weirdly lit, even the outdoor scenes.

LP: Despite the fact that I'm a much bigger fan of Tarantino than Rodriguez (despite having much bigger budgets, both Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn (though Quent has his own share of blame for that) were disappointing compared to El Mariachi, Rodriguez's clever, ultra-low-budget feature film debut), Rodriguez's Planet Terror is clearly the best of the two. A homage to the cannibal zombie film (primarily George Romero and his many imitators) with the semi-usual "deadly agent turns people into crazy cannibals" twist, Planet Terror would (by itself) be the second best film in the genre, behind only Peter Jackson's screamingly funny Dead Alive (aka Braindead).

At the center of the action are go-go-dancer-with-a-heart-of-gold Cherry (Rose McGowan) and her onetime boyfriend Wray (Freddy Rodriguez; apparently no relation to the director), currently driving a wrecker but with a mysterious (and violent) past that is/isn't revealed in the film. (Just one of many hilarious uses to which that missing reel is put.) There's an outbreak of a flesh-eating, boil-bubbling, cannibal-making agent at the local abandoned military base, and the un-infected have to fight for their lives against the zombie hordes. Sucked into the battle are the local sheriff (Michael Biehn), his BBQ-cook brother (Jeff Fahey), outwardly-calm-but-inwardly-crazy ER doctor (Josh Brolin, looking an awful lot like a younger Kurt Russell), and his hot, bi-cheating, death-dealing doctor wife (Marley Shelton), plus a cast of dozens of other survivors and redshirts. Both the action and the gore are pretty much off the meter here, along with several nifty kinks to the usual zombie movie tropes, and it all works.

(An aside: Marley Shelton is indeed unbelievably hot, but what is this fetish Rodriguez has for pretty young blonde women with tear-streaked mascara eyes? Shelton here sports the same look Brittany Murphy did in Sin City.)

HW: Rodriguez's movie Planet Terror is like the Nth remake of the (somehow) 1988 The Blob (a closed Army base, biological warfare) presciently remade in the early '70s by AIP, crossed with a George Romero zombie flick, or Night of the Comet. (This is the one from the previews with the go-go dancer with the missing leg replaced by a machine gun... believe it or not, this is a love story...)

Tarantino's Death Proof is his homage to Hitchcock, if Hitch had been an action-flick director working alongside Roger Corman (as well as automotive mayhem films like Two Lane Blacktop, the explicitly mentioned Vanishing Point, etc.) I won't tell you what he does, but there's a scene — we've seen what maniacal stuntman Kurt Russell is capable of — where the camera is panning around and around four women talking at a table — and we just know, like in Strangers On A Train — that Russell is going to be in the shot eventually — and there he is...

Austin stands in for Austin here in the first part of Death Proof (even that title is an obvious retitling of whatever the original was — there's no PAUSE control on the seats of the Regal Cinema I saw this at); somewhere in California stands in for Lebanon TN in the second part. Don't try to figure out who the main protagonist (of the four women in the Austin part) is — you'll be wrong.

LP: Since it gets a mention in the film and the credits (as well as where I saw it), let me put in a word about the Alamo Draft House. Learn that name, because in 15 years, I suspect that the Alamo (or an imitator) will be the largest movie chain in the country. What they've done is take out half the rows of seats in the theater, replaced them with a long rail table, and instead of stale jujubes, they serve real food and alcoholic beverages. It's like an independent film house, except with a talent for doing live events and a huge streak of political incorrectness. Tarantino loves Austin (you can tell it in the film, though I think he's more of a regular at LaLa's Little Nugget than the Texas Chili Parlor) and does at lot of events at the main Alamo Draft House. Rodriguez even had a Grindhouse Trailer Competition there, which was won by Hobo With a Shotgun (usual NSFW warnings apply), which they played before the showing I saw.

HW: Speaking of Don't — the movie has four trailers (one before the movie starts — Machete) and three in the intermission — Don't is one — every prohibitively-titled '70s horror movie ever made rolled up into one. And the directors have dug up intermission-type title cards too — STARTS WEDNESDAY, etc.

LP: The fake trailers all fall close enough to the objects of their parody/homage to provide great laughs for sleaze-cinema enthusiasts. I would plop down money right now to see Machete (directed by Rodriguez), the story of a Mexican day-laborer hired to assassinate someone who turns out to be much more deadly (especially to his employers) than anticipated. Rob Zombie's Werewolf Women of the SS has the best title (and the most bare breasts) of any of them, but looks just a little too cleanly filmed to be a real grindhouse title, though it makes up for it by casting Sybil Danning (then again, how could you have a film called Werewolf Women of the SS and not cast Sybil Danning?), plus Nicholas Cage (we just can't get away from him) as Fu Manchu. Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright's Don't is a pitch-perfect parody of B-grade haunted house/possessed child movies of the 1970s, complete with a hilariously on-target, sentence fragment announcer. ("If you. Are thinking. Of opening. This door. Don't.") And Hostel director Eli Roth's Thanksgiving is a grainy grade-Z slasher (or in this case, axe-murderer) rip-off of the Halloween/Friday the 13th ilk.

Evidently some cuts were made in order to get the film down to an R from a threatened NC-17. But this is still a pretty hard R; leave the kids at home.

HW: It's great to see Michael Parks back (though he never really left), as he plays a character in each flick. He's never had anything as swell to do as he did in his 1969 TV series Then Came Bronson and I hope people start using him in everything again.

It's obvious Rodriguez and Tarantino were having a great time — probably somewhat better than you will. Tarantino's dialogue isn't up to his (great) standard. I wanted it to be all like the scenes where two guys are watching Russell (who is scarred down the whole left side of his face): "He probably got that scar falling out of his time machine," says one. Would that it were all like that.

Even with the missing two reels, this is slightly too long — about ten minutes per flick, I'd say. There should be "some compression of time through editing" as they used to say on MST3K.

LP: Planet Terror didn't seem too long to me at all, but Death Proof could easily have 10-15 minutes of the early character exposition and dialog excised. In many ways, this is Rodriguez's strongest film, and Tarantino's weakest.

HW: For you who weren't even alive when movies like this played in theaters, this is about as well-made an ersatz retrospective as you're liable to find. The problem is, even with the troubles this has, it's better than 90% of those. Rent lots of them, looking for gold; you'll find one brass and one dross, more often than not.

Death Proof took me back to the days when I was the second owner of the late Chad Oliver's green 1968 Fastback Barracuda Coupe. I had it till I blew a rod in it. I am the Audience for this movie.

LP: Let me sum up this film the way it deserves : The Joe Bob Briggs Way. Hundreds of dead bodies. 20 breasts (half of those in the fake trailers). Naked strippers. Oozing pus. Exploding zombie brains. Melting genitalia. Swastika branding. Explicit highway fatalities. Bruce Willis playing Bruce Willis as only Bruce Willis can play Bruce Willis. Gun-fu. Shotgun-fu. Knife-fu. Skull saw-fu. Castration-fu. Exploding-gas-tank-fu. Lesbo-fu. Flying syringe-fu. Stripper-peg-leg-machine-gun-and-rocket-launcher-fu. Helicopter-fu. Axe-fu. Dodge-Charger-fu. Metal-pipe-fu. Three-women-kicking-the-ass-of-one-crying-girly-man-fu. Drive In Academy Award Nominations for Kurt Russell for going from total-psycho-to-weeping-girly-man in 60 seconds flat, Freddy Rodriguez for some sweet knife-fu and general bad-assery, Marley Shelton for the Best Secret Lesbo Aardvarking Doctor of Death, Danny Trejo for the Baddest Ass Mexican Ever Featured in a Trailer for a Non-Existent Movie, Tracie Thoms for Best Gratuitous Use of "Nigga Please" to a White Woman, and especially Rose McGowan, for The Hottest One-Legged Go-Go Dancer With a Machinegun Leg Ever On Film. A 79 on the vomit-meter.

Four Stars.

Lawrence-Bob says check it out.

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