Saturday, April 7, 2007

Review of Grindhouse

I must admit to approaching this review of “Grindhouse” (2007) with some reluctance. It is my first review of a newly released film and I’m a little worried that there is little to add to the deluge of reviews and opinions already flooding the internet. I also have no ultra-strong opinion either for or against the movie and thus can’t offer any fiery-eyed attack or defense.

First of all, I can say that reports of the entertainment value have not been exaggerated: fans of either director will be well-pleased overall. Tarantino and Rodriguez both have a good time, plenty of money to throw around and lots of famous (and infamous) faces in all the right places (personal favorite reference: Udo Kier). Not to mention the fact that you get two movies for the price of one! Nevertheless, there was an element of disappointment as I left the theater, recognizing that what I had seen was not the inspired genius of “Pulp Fiction” (1994), “Kill Bill” (2003/2004) or “Sin City” (2005).

Robert Rodriguez opens with the first film, “Planet Terror,” a trashy, hyper-violent zombie flick. The ridiculously-named Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) stars as a go-go dancer whose leg gets amputated. McGowan fits the part like a glove (albeit it an uncomfortably tight and revealing glove), combining her own reputation as a modern exploitation starlet, an energetic sensuality and delivery that syncs up with the tone better than most of the rest of the cast. That isn’t to say that the cast isn’t good: credit goes to Josh Brolin as a rather deadpan doctor, Freddy Rodriguez as the requisite badass and Jeff Faley as a restaurant owner who acted exactly the way that I secretly imagine my own favorite local BBQ chef would behave during a zombie attack. However, acting isn’t really the point.

Understanding the right tone is the trick to this type of movie working for me. You have to be over-the-top, overly witty, unfazed by eccentric incidents, wildly creative, etc. However, the real key is to feign a lack of awareness at the outrageousness; to not openly acknowledge the exploitive nature to the extent that tension, exhilaration and emotion are entirely lost. Sometimes Rodriguez goes too far for my taste, as in his frequent indulgence in gross-out moments (I get it: genitals) and his occasionally overplayed comedy (a tiny moped comes to mind).

Attempts at being topical are also a delicate area and Rodriguez has one complete miss with an Osama Bin Laden reference. Far better are the handful of videogame references, one a decent stinger at decriers of videogame violence and a witty shot where a main character shoots an actual exploding barrel. Perhaps the best comedy comes from the intrinsic elements that aren’t treated as comedic set-ups or prepared one-liners, but instead, flow directly out of the narrative as if the outrageous situations were completely natural.

In between the two films are a series of humorous trailers that slyly skewer three distinct trailer types. “Werewolf Women of the SS,” “Don’t,” and “Thanksgiving” which are directed by (and semi-targeted at) Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead” (2004)) and Eli Roth respectively. Each trailer gives a jolt of nostalgia and parody, also assuring us that none of these people are taking themselves too seriously.

Tarantino’s segment, “Death Proof” seems to be getting the majority of press attention which surprised me because I found it markedly less entertaining. While Rodriguez channels the spirit of the 1970’s originals (the bad taste, the overwrought acting, the excitement, the mish-mash of crazy plot devices and so on) Tarantino creates a film that feels like it really belongs in a period grindhouse.

Kurt Russell stars as Stuntman Mike, a creepy character who cruises around in a “death proof” car designed to survive even the most extreme stunts. However, to the film’s detriment, the real focus is on two batches of tough, brassy women who follow the usual route from prey to predator. Obeying the tenets of low-budget stalker-killer and carploitation films of the 70’s with undaunted authenticity, we are given interminable sequences of talking, drinking and general sitting around before anything interesting happens.

The talking is easily the worst part, ranking as Tarantino’s laziest prose to date. It lacks anything clever, thoughtful, ironic or cool, all traits that used to be trademarks of his popular dialogue. The film drags through these segments, helped in no way by coming after Rodriguez’s wild, non-stop actionfest. Tracie Thoms (as Kim) must also shoulder some of the blame, although Rosario Dawson and Zoe Bell (a real-life stuntwoman for Uma Thurman on "Kill Bill" amongst other films) are only passable in a relativistic way.

“Death Proof” has one scene that far transcends the rest. It’s the only genuine “horror” scene in the film and features an all-too-short pairing of Kurt Russell and Rose McGowan (again). I couldn’t help but feel that if Tarantino had focused his attention on a straight-up slasher tribute, it would have been more my taste. Instead the film’s parents are clearly tough-talking blaxploitation and chase-themed carploitation, both subgenre for whom I have little love or nostalgia.

The Film Walrus must address the inevitable question of “self-indulgence,” the well-worn battle-cry of all those who disparage these two directors. In this case, there seems to be something more than usual to be said for the complaint. By harkening back to an era and to subgenres famous for their ineptitude, Tarantino and Rodriguez may have constructed too good of an excuse to let their own obsessions run wild. Tarantino plugs his favorite car movies, his own movies and himself (twice!) always without naturalness, wit or inspiration.

Sometimes the “intentionally bad” works, like in the scratchy, faded quality of the prints, “missing” reels, the always-reviled zoom shots and Rodriguez’s excessive bloodiness (typified during a knife-twirling ballet down a hospital corridor). However, I can’t help thinking that some qualities like poor pacing, continuity glitches and flat dialogue are better left behind. The $100 million budget, which the viewer can always feel lurking in the background, also tends to diminish some of the retro authenticity. The Slate has an excellent article on the topic.

Though Rodriguez has made a 00’s style exploitation flick rather than a 1970’s style original, he may be better off for it. His previous work on films like “El Mariachi” (1992) and “Sin City” (2005) have demonstrated a genuine love of violence and sex that resonates with contemporary action fans, gorehounds and cinecultists. His cinematic antics are almost charming and rarely overwhelmed by pretentiousness. Tarantino, on the other hand, comes dangerously close to taking the whole grindhouse tribute too seriously. At the end of the day, Rodriguez has made a modern evolution of B-movie trash whereas Tarantino has made a history lesson.

Walrus Rating: 7-ish


Mad Dog said...

I love tough-talking blaxploitation and especially the gross-out moments in Planet Terror and the girly shit in Death Proof. I also loved the revenge the girls got on Kurt in the end, especially the hilariously well-timed "The End." I also loved that Fergie got called "brainless." When she showed up on-screen I couldn't tell if I was delighted or pissed, but thankfully they took her shitty image and ran with it. If you knew his character on Lost, perhaps you would've connected to Naveen Andrews' ball-gathering scientist character a little bit more.

FilmWalrus said...

My problem with blaxploitation is that it is so retroactively idealized as cool by pop culture refrences when in reality its so grindingly boring and inept. Having sat through "Superfly," "Coffy," the original "Shaft," and "Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song" amongst others I started to realize how tedious the subgenre really was.

I did like "Death Proof's" sudden ending. Tarantino definetly has a talent for timing things like when to bring in music and when to make a hard cut.

magusart said...

I completely agree with this review.

Mad Dog said...

I completely disagree with your FACE.

FilmWalrus said...

You'll disagree with my face more if I take away my antidote mask and bloody pustules start blistering at you.

Mad Dog said...