April, 2007, Thriller

Directed by: Death Proof: Quentin Tarantino, Fake Trailers: Robert Rodriguez, Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, Eli Roth, and Jason Eisener, Planet Terror: Robert Rodriguez

Starring:Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton, Michael Biehn, Stacy Ferguson, Naveen Andrews, Jeff Fahey, Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Zoë Bell, Bruce Willis, and Nicolas Cage

Return with us now, to those thrilling days of yesteryear”…no, the old radio announcer’s famous tag-line introducing The Lone Ranger hasn’t shown up on the big screen, but aficionados of pop culture could be excused for making that connection while watching this paean to low-budget genre films that used to be shown in a certain kind of movie house a half century back, where the smell of sweat, cigarette smoke and near-rancid butter blended nicely with lumpy seats, broken armrests and heavy breathing over scantily-clad maidens on the screen. Cinema aesthetes might well look down their noses at the mixture of sex and violence those movies provided, but writer/directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino affectionately recreate the double-bill offerings of those long-ago venues with this pastiche of bogus film-trailers surrounding a pair of feature-length films. Nearly 3¼ hours long and featuring a cast loaded with nubile babes and barely recognizable old goats from the actual films of that era, Grindhouse probes the world of scuzzy B-grade flicks the way Warhol excavated the detritus of pop culture for his silk-screens a decade or so later. Watching this often exhilarating but bloated exercise is the cinematic equivalent of stuffing yourself with one of Subway’s foot-long hoagies; you lurch out of the theater convinced you’ve over-indulged and slightly embarrassed at your lack of restraint - - precisely the reaction this pair of Hollywood bad-boys intended.

Rodriguez’s contribution, (a horror film takeoff entitled Planet Terror) features mutant flesh-eating zombies, a go-go dancer whose amputated leg makes room for a prosthetic machine gun and the recipe for an award-winning Texas barbeque sauce along with enough decapitations, bodily dismemberments and exploding body parts to satisfy the most atavistic of tastes. Thanks to the increasingly sophisticated techniques of Hollywood’s special effects experts, pustules can now grow on an actors faces as they unsuspectingly orate, providing the audience advance knowledge of their hideously impending doom. Body counts escalate here beyond the capacity of the mind to comprehend, the finer points of vintage cars and motorcycles are presented in the midst of battles worthy of the word Armageddon and the proceedings are shot in a lurid palette of reds, mauves and purples supplemented by deliberate scratches on the film stock to simulate the damage done after repeated showings by projectionists not always skilled in their craft. 

Planet Terror literally makes no sense, but it does display the director’s sensibility; Rodriguez has made a number of commercially successful films (The Spy Kids, the Tex-Mex westerns featuring El Mariachi) along with the movie version of a graphic comic book (Sin City) each evidencing his fascination with cartoon-inspired escapism. His energy and near encyclopedic knowledge of the genres he so lovingly exploits are impressive…for about 15 or 20 minutes. But the gore soon grows so repetitious it smothers the director’s sharply observant presentation of the conventions of this material. A lot less would have gone a lot farther…

Tarantino’s segment, (entitled Death Proof) however, is another matter; in it, the creator of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction et. al. once again displays his remarkable talent for writing dialogue that captures both the freshness and cadence of conversations between working class Americans who’ve come of age during his lifetime. His voice is uniquely contemporary, enlivening the cheesy characters of this demolition-derby fantasy with lines that are at once perfectly suited to the action of his film while simultaneously presenting a view of our culture that’s both accurate and not a little disturbing. At their best, Tarantino’s films are a unique blend of hope and nihilism; the whack-jobs that people his world may do god-awful violence to themselves and those around them, but even the worst are rarely beyond redemption. Often adrift with no moral compass, they nevertheless manage to speak directly to often unarticulated needs buried deep in the director’s audiences, liberating and embarrassing them at the same time. Tarantino may be to cinema what R. Crumb is to comics; a talent who delivers pungent adult commentary in an often-denigrated, childishly scabrous manner.  

Death Proof unfolds like a diptych; first, a group of round-heeled young women go bar-hopping and flirt with a sadistic but rakishly-attractive older stuntman, (Kurt Russell at his self-assured, sneering best) who subsequently dispatches them in a deadly car crash. Fade-out. Then yet another quartet of women, all working for a film company on location, duel with the same sadistic stuntman with a diametrically opposite result. End of film. The excitement in this homage to hot-rod epics comes from the improbable but visually riveting car crash sequences, but the really interesting part of the film lies in the random conversations these two groups of young women have: in classic Tarantino style, no one seems to be saying much of anything yet the passivity of those in group one stands in stark contrast to the assertive, confident women in group two. Is the director saying that weak women get what they deserve while strong ones get to take what they want? Are the heroines of Jackie Brown and Kill Bill re-emerging in the latter half of Death Proof, suggesting a gender-switch to the old adage “kill or be killed”? If so, does it really matter?

In the end, these two gifted, idiosyncratic directors deliver the movie equivalent of Harvard’s annual Hasty Pudding Festivities; there’s a good deal of cleverness in nearly every frame, an amazing litany of cultural clichés, all briskly lampooned, yet delivered with obvious affection for the subject matter…but guys, isn’t slathering this on for over three hours a bit much?

The verdict? Only for rabid Tarantino fans and lovers of “le grand fromage”…and you know who you are.  


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