by Rob Gonsalves
The trailers for grindhouse movies were always better than the films themselves. Sadly, the same is true of 'Grindhouse.'Directors Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) and Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) share a deep love for the cheezoid drive-in-and-Times-Square exploitation flicks they devoured as budding movie geeks, and together they have made a three-hour, double-feature monument to their celluloid guilty pleasures. It's the strangest, biggest, most expensive case of director indulgence ever to open in multiplexes across America. I applaud the idea of it, but in practice the hip, knowing crappiness becomes depressing. Directors talented enough to make such a loving tribute to grindhouse should probably be doing better things with their time.
"Lower your expectations a bit."
Rodriguez has apparently always wanted to make a zombie movie in a vague John Carpenter style, and that's what he does in Planet Terror, sort of. Stuffed with youngsters (heroic Freddy Rodriguez, erotic dancer Rose McGowan, harried doctor Marley Shelton) and grizzled veterans of exploitation (Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey, Michael Parks), the movie has been painstakingly run through a digital wringer to achieve the chewed-up look and stuttering rhythm of a weathered grindhouse can of film. But the illusion is ruined by guest stars such as Bruce Willis and Tarantino himself (as a rapist soldier). Planet Terror is also too ugly conceptually to be any fun -- people are always oozing disgusting substances -- and it reaches its climax when Rose McGowan receives a machine gun in place of her missing leg, reminding us that the actual grindhouse flicks of old wouldn't have had the budget to achieve that effect. It feels like something of a cheat; Rodriguez should've decided on a bygone year when the movie was supposedly filmed, then held himself to the available technology of the era.
Planet Terror is hectic but unmemorable, and after a few amusing faux trailers (Planet Terror is preceded by Rodriguez' fake Machete trailer, which packs more legitimate grindhouse punch than the feature that follows), we enter the Tarantinoverse, complete with garrulous, beside-the-point dialogue about movies and scoring weed. Death Proof concerns a stubbly, scarred maniac named Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), who likes to kill women with his invulnerable car. He meets his match in a trio of spitfires (including Rosario Dawson and Zoe Bell, the stuntwoman profiled in the entertaining documentary Double Dare). The entire segment, which feels much longer than it is, is redeemed somewhat by watching the he-man misogynist killer at the mercy of three tiny women.
Rodriguez and Tarantino already made a fun grindhouse double feature of sorts twelve years ago -- From Dusk Till Dawn, which began as a Tarantino-esque crime spree filled with chatty menace and took a hard left into Rodriguez' playpen of vampires, strippers, and bad-ass Mexicans. For all its movie-geek fervor, Grindhouse remains a private party, an event that was probably more fun to make (and to market) than it is to watch. In these movies' intentionally two-dimensional reality, there's little dramatic meat for the actors to chew on; Rose McGowan brings her goth insouciance to her dual roles (she also plays a victim in Death Proof), and Kurt Russell gives Stuntman Mike a hearty malevolence that detours into cowardice, as if he were a boy playing roughly with dolls, and started crying when they bit him.
But grindhouse fare isn't generally about depth of character, or depth of anything, and Grindhouse is a regression for both Rodriguez, who took his stylistic brio to a new level in Sin City, and, God knows, Tarantino, who is becoming more famous as a voracious movie nerd than as a moviemaker. I don't speak from an ivory tower, either: my DVD shelves are full of real grindhouse movies, which tend to have a scrappy, low-budget charm -- something like Tarantino's and Rodriguez' first films, come to think of it -- that Grindhouse mostly lacks.Watching it is a bit like watching slick, high-powered modern comics artists do a tribute to old corny comic books of the '30s, or listening to accomplished musicians covering goofy novelty songs from decades ago: We can appreciate the affection and effort that go into the homage, but we're left wondering whether it was worth doing when the original fun junk is right there to be enjoyed.
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originally posted: 04/07/07 08:48:24