Monday, April 23, 2007

GRINDHOUSE - exploitation-tastic-ish

GRINDHOUSE is the new movie double-bill from directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. I'm not going to pretend I had a clue what GRINDHOUSE was till I read the production notes. But grindhouse refers to the shabby adult cinemas that were found across America in the 70s until home video put them out of business. It also refers to the lo-fi exploitation flicks that were played back-to-back in these cinemas until the prints were scuffed and scratched and whole reels were missing. To the extent that Rodriguez and Tarantino have always riffed on schlock cinema - from exploitation flicks, to camp horror classics, to spaghetti westerns, to cheesy martial arts epics, GRINDHOUSE is a logical step. Because instead of just subsuming pop cultural references into a slick modern movie, GRINDHOUSE actually looks and feels like crappy worn-out 70s B-movies complete with scratches on the celluloid, missing reels and hysterically funny mock movie trailers. In fact, the trailers have pedigrees to match the main feature, being shot by Eli Roth of HOSTEL fame and the guys behind SHAUN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ. In particular, I liked seeing Danny Trejo as "Machete" - the vengeful hit man with a gun-wielding, Catholic-priest (Benicio Del Toro). (This may actually become Rodriguez' next feature - neat!) The trailer with the killer Nazi were-wolf women and Nic Cage as Fu Manchu also looked awesome.

First up in the double-bill is the Rodriquez zombie-flick, called PLANET TERROR. Rose McGowan is a go-go dancer called Cherry Darling, on the run from rampaging zombies in her ex-boyfriend (Freddy Rodriguez') car. Infected hicks turn up at Doc Block's hospital as Block (Josh Brolin) feuds with his wife, who's about to hook up with her lesbian ex(!) Meanwhile, sinister government agents, in the form of Bruce Willis and Naveen Andrews, are blowing shit up. I was mildly disappointed by PLANET TERROR. The sheer fun of watching a genre pastiche faded with repetition and the story was actually rather boring. It wasn't helped by the fact that Rose McGowan plays her role in very self-conscious camp style - winking at the audience as she goes. For the Grindhouse project to work, all the actors have to act like they are playing these roles for real - to keep the trick alive for the audience. Plus there's the highly subjective issue that I have never really liked zombie pics as a genre, so even a crazy pastiche isn't going to hold my attention for long. To that end, I'd love to know what real fans of these flicks make of PLANET TERROR.

Second up is the Tarantino stalker-slasher-action pic, DEATH PROOF. This stars Kurt Russell as a bad-ass retired movie stunt-man called, da-da-daa!, Stunt-Man Mike. He kills attractive young women by offering them rides home in his "death-proof" car. Sadly, the "death-proofed"-ness only applies to the guy sitting in the drivers seat. Let's be clear, people, this is BY FAR a superior film.* It's superior insofar as its not just a straight pastiche but a genuine reinvention with memorable characters, brilliant dialogue and just enough camp violence to be funny but not boring. The flicks falls into two halves. In the first half we see Stunt-Man Mike stalk and eventually dispatch a bunch of girls (Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Sydney Tamiia Poitier and Rose McGowan again) that are drinking in a bar. As in all Tarantino, the real joy is seeing these normal people talk normal shit but with that added twist that outlandish stuff is round the corner. In the second half of the flick we move to a different set of chicks (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson and Zoƫ Bell) driving round in cars. Cue more cute dialogue, crazy car-stunts and a bit of the old comedy violence.

The revelation is that while we all grew up on camp classics and lo-fi B flicks, not even Rodriguez can match Tarantino's genius in spewing out movies that can hold their heads up as genuinely entertaining outside of the pop-culture references that sustain them. Some of the fun of DEATH PROOF is picking up all the references to other QT flicks but, crucially, that's just an added bonus, not the whole deal. While Rodriguez' movie is an interesting exercise, DEATH-PROOF is a movie to watch and re-watch on its own terms.

*And I know Europeans are complaining the the double-feature is being split - so they'll have to pay double than Americans to see both films - but frankly, given what I now know, the wise move would've been to buy a ticket for the double feature and slip in at the 90 minute mark anyways.

GRINDHOUSE was released as a double-feature in the US in April 2007 and will be released as a double-feature in New Zealand on May 31st and in the UK on June 1st.

DEATH PROOF will be released in Estonia, Finland, Italy, Norway and Sweden on June 1st; in Belgium, France, Switzerland, Netherlands, on June 6th/7th; in Germany on June 14th and in Iceland on August 1st. PLANET TERROR will be released in Iceland on June 8th, Estonia on July 6th, the Netherlands on July 19th, Finland on July 20th, Germany on July 26th, Belgium on August 1st, in Norway on September 14th and in Sweden on September 28th.

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