Sunday, April 8, 2007

"It's not a GRIND to visit this HOUSE!"

That's what I would say if I was Gene Shalit. Knowing his tastes, he probably said the opposite, something like, "It's a GRIND to sit through this at the movie HOUSE!" Anyway, some thoughts on

Grindhouse (2007, directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino):

To tell the truth, I'm not sure if I can do much of a review of this movie, other than to say, "It's fucking awesome, man!" Seriously, it's one of the best times at the movie theater I've had in a while, and I see a lot of movies. I could go into lots of detail on the background of the movie, but I'm sure you could look in Entertainment Weekly or some such source for one of the myriad interviews Tarantino and Rodriguez did explaining how they're paying homage to exploitation films of the 70's and yada yada yada. It seems like I've been hearing about that for a year or so now, leading up to the release of the movie. But it's out now, so we can judge how well they did. And the answer is "excellent!"

The movie is split into two halves, with Rodriguez and Tarantino each submitting one full movie (making the whole thing over three hours long). Rodriguez's is called "Planet Terror", and it's an attempt to recapture the crazed glory of horror/action movies, with a plot concerning biochemical weapons-created zombies, military conspiracies, a badass secret agent named "El Ray", a good old Texas barbecue joint, and (probably most infamously) a stripper amputee with a machine gun for a prosthetic leg. Some might call it a parody of exploitation movies, but it's probably more of an attempt to create the coolest example of the genre imaginable. It's got great performances, including ones by Rose McGowan as the previously mentioned stripper, Michael Biehn as the local sheriff, Jeff Fahey as the proprietor of the barbecue place, Freddy Rodriguez as El Ray, and Marley Shelton as an anesthesiologist at the local hospital. Not to mention cameos by Bruce Willis (not much of a secret, since he's in the TV commericals), Tom Savini, Nicky Katt, and Quentin Tarantino. The zombies are suitably nasty, growing bloody pustules all over their bodies and exploding when shot. I love the blood splatters; they're not exactly geysers like in Shogun Assassin or something; it's more like the splash from throwing a big rock in a pond. And there's some great violence, especially after McGowan gets her machine gun leg near the end.

As is customary when zombies are involved, I caught myself looking for metaphors. In this case, I think it's about fear of the government/military, as the source of the zombie apocalypse is biochemical weapons used in Afghanistan. Al Quaeda and Osama bin Laden are mentioned, and the leader of the troops decides to do whatever is necessary to make sure his men get a cure for the infection. So it could be about fear of joining the military, or fear of what the government is doing and not telling us about. Or Rodriguez could just be fucking with us, trying to make people like me insinuate a message when it's really about badass motorcycle riding and blowing shit up. Whatever the case, it's tons of fun.

Then we get to "Death Proof", Quentin Tarantino's half of the bill. It's also pretty damn enjoyable, but it's more of a Tarantino movie than an exploitation movie. There are some horror scenes and action scenes, but the majority of the film consists of characters conversing in Tarantino's standard dialogue rhythms. If you like that sort of thing (and I do), it's great. The characters, which are mostly groups of female friends, all seem very well-realized, and I love sitting in on their conversations as they talk about their relationships or memories. Tarantino even steers clear of pop-cultural references, outside of some discussion of "car" movies like Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and the original Gone in 60 Seconds. Plus, the first half of "Death Proof" takes place in Austin, Texas, where I used to live. Characters drive past the Alamo Drafthouse, which I consider to be the coolest movie theater in the world, on their way to eat at Guero's, a wonderful Mexican restaurant (and the location of one of the first dates I had with my wife). It was pretty exciting for me, but I doubt many others will care.

Anyway, the plot concerns a serial killer of sorts: Stuntman Mike, played by Kurt Russell. The title refers to his car, which he says is "100% death proof", meaning that the person driving it will survive even the most horrific crash. And he does, although I won't go into the details of what exactly happens. We skip forward to an unspecified future time, in which he has chosen a new group of women to menace. They happen to be working on a movie, and one of them is in town to visit her friends. This is Zoe Bell, a real-life stuntwoman who doubled for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. She's playing herself here, and while she's visiting the U.S. (she's from New Zealand) she wants to go on a test drive in a car just like the one from Vanishing Point. Not only that, she wants to play "ship's mast", a thrill ride in which she lays on the hood of the car while someone else is driving at high speed. A fellow stuntwoman (Tracie Thorns) drives, and another friend (Rosario Dawson) tags along. Of course, this is when Kurt Russell decides to have his fun, and he pursues them, slamming into the car while Zoe is hanging on for dear life. It's an incredibly tense scene, leaving viewers breathless and white-knuckled from gripping their armrests. Bell's stuntwork is amazing, as you can see it's really her hanging on to the front of the car. When the chase finally ends, you're left gasping, until there's an amazing moment of release. It's beautifully done. Then [SPOILERS for the rest of the paragraph] the girls decide to go after Kurt Russell and make him pay, and it's genuinely liberating. The viewer definitely gets in on the revenge, wanting Stuntman Mike to pay. Well done, Quentin.

So, it's a great time at the movies. I think I like Tarantino's segment better, but that doesn't mean Rodriguez is a slouch by any means. Another fun tactic that they both use is to make the movies seem like they're old and worn (although "Planet Terror" looks much worse than "Death Proof"). Scratches cover the screen, and there's a lot of skipping, as though some frames have been cut out. Both films pull the gag of a "missing reel"; Rodriguez genuinely makes you feel like you missed a good 20 minutes of the movie (even having characters refer to important revelations made in the missing scenes), while Tarantino just skips one scene (as far as I could tell), leaving a certain moment up to our imaginations. The fun atmosphere is built up even more by the inclusion of vintage "Coming Attractions" and "Feature Presentation" animations, and previews for other (fake) exploitation movies from directors like Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, and Edgar Wright. It's a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it.