Grindhouse

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Rico Torres/The Weinstein Company
Robert Rodriguez (”Planet Terror”)
Quentin Tarantino (”Death Proof”)/United States 2007

Mere weeks after 300’s Spartans geysered enough computer-generated blood to sink a medium-sized archipelago, perpetually adolescent directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino present a devilishly over-the-top and absurdly off-the-wall gore-fest of their own. This is Rodriguez and Tarantino’s idea of camp as high art – part homage, part barefaced ripoff. Constructed to resemble the exploitation films of the 1960s and 1970s, Grindhouse attempts to reinvent the genre closest to the co-directors’ hearts. Sleazy sex, gross-out horror and ultra-violent crime were a staple of the B-movies the two loved so well growing up and Grindhouse was probably a foregone conclusion.

Grindhouse is actually two films that play back to back, a cinematic one-two punch of Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” and Tarantino’s “Death Proof”. In between the two features, Eli Roth (Hostel), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) and Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects) guest direct three so-bad-they’re-good trailers for fake movies with names like Werewolf Women of the S.S. Filled with an army of B-actors and Rodriguez/Tarantino veterans, Grindhouse is 185 minutes of schlock, goo, bare skin and unapologetically ridiculous entertainment.

Well, one outta two anyway.

Rodriguez delivers everything he promises and then some. In “Planet Terror”, Rose McGowan (television’s Charmed) plays a Texan go-go dancer who must fight for her life when a town becomes infected with a military biological weapon that transforms the populace into flesh-eating zombies. That a few of them manage to chew off one of her legs before her boyfriend (Freddy Rodriguez from Six Feet Under) rescues her might seem like a terrible downer but that’s before she’s outfitted with a prosthetic machine gun/grenade launcher. Yes, that is how any rational person defines over the top … deliciously, deliriously so.

“Planet Terror” looks and feels every bit the part of a ’sploitation film of the 1970s, albeit with a terrific budget and impressive CGI. Director Rodriguez throws everything that he has at his segment. “Planet Terror” is filled with enough T&A, tough guys, blazing guns and gross-out horror to pack several films. Intentionally damaging his movie to give it the abused look of one too many projections, Rodriguez has repeatedly scratched the image, removed frames, inserted skips, edited incompetently and at one point even excised an entire reel. The end result is a film that is endlessly entertaining, disgustingly fun, and dead on target.

Too bad everything comes to a screeching halt once Tarantino’s “Death Proof” hits the screen. The grindhouse pictures of old may have been many things, but you could never accuse them of being boring – until now. For a man who swears he learned everything he knows about filmmaking from watching grindhouse fare as a kid, Tarantino sure doesn’t seem to remember much of it. He promises all-out mayhem but what he delivers is 90 percent bore-fest and 10 percent white-knuckle action. The formula, Herr Director, is precisely the opposite, methinks.

“Death Proof” follows Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a psychopath who uses his suped-up muscle car as a weapon with which to murder unsuspecting beautiful women. What Stuntman Mike forgets or perhaps never knew is that hell hath no fury like a woman … No more plot or story explanation is required. Or at least, in a genre film of this nature, there shouldn’t have to be.

While Rodriguez’s gruesome mayhem would be a tough act for anyone to follow, Tarantino’s “Death Proof” so scandalously kills the mood that it is as if all the fun in the theater is suddenly sucked into the vacuum of space. “Death Proof” is never-ending dialogue. Too caught up in once again trying to impress us with his verbal repartee, Tarantino spends incalculable time allowing his characters to drone on and on about sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. This might be okay if Tarantino were half as funny or as hip as he thinks he is. But instead, the tiresome first half of “Death Proof” hits the theater floor with the sort of resounding thud no one would have been capable of hearing in “Planet Terror” because the audience was too busy laughing and screaming.

Worse yet, eschewing grindhouse’s notorious lack of cinematic quality, Tarantino shoots his subjects with loving cinematic caresses, beautiful light, and fluid camera work. “Death Proof” is preposterously self-referential, playing like a cinephile’s broken record of movie shout-outs. (I swear, Tarantino, if you invoke Vanishing Point just one more time … !) Like Rodriguez, Tarantino fills his segment with homages to the look and feel of his predecessors – freeze-frames, funky colors, and voyeuristic ogling of scantly clad girls – but overall he fails so miserably at anything even close to a facsimile, let alone a re-envisioning, that, cut off from any sort of context, the film utterly crashes and burns. It is as if Tarantino knows what a sloppy, over-the-top, schlocky movie is supposed to look like but he just can’t lower himself to sincerely make one.

To be fair, this achieves the desired effect – when the twisted metal and mechanical carnage begins in earnest, we have indeed been lulled into a false sense of security. But we’ve also been lured right of out giving a damn.

Despite this stinker, one cannot help but smile to see Escape From New York’s Snake Plissken or The Thing’s R.J. MacReady swagger back into a B-movie. Kurt Russell may be past his prime, but he is still one badass mofo. And let’s face it, the ladies (including Rosario Dawson) certainly aren’t hard on the eyes either. (Stuntwoman Zoe Bell, who doubled Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, is infectious fun in her acting debut; that she is also able to do her own stunts lends a terrifying degree of authenticity to the only exciting parts of “Death Proof”).

Does Tarantino have any original ideas of his own? Is he capable of doing anything other than blatantly ripping off from and amalgamating the films of those who’ve gone before him? If so, we haven’t seen it yet. Sure, he’s made some fine films, but has he ever made a singularly authentic, sincere, innovative frame of film in his entire life?

It’s too bad Grindhouse didn’t come out one week earlier. At least then we’d all be in on the April Fool’s joke.

© 2007 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

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