Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Grindhouse memories

Monday night was not the best evening to see Grindhouse. A movie that consciously revels in the moronic possibilities of gun violence was not going to sit well as news of the real-life horror that had overtaken Blacksburg, VA, unspooled on my TV, but I had three hours-plus to spend, so off I went.

It's easy to see why the Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino collaboration, a watershed in movie junk, tanked. Too smart for its own good, but too dumb to be very pleasurable, the movie is at best only spottily enjoyable, and the spots pretty much belong to the guest filmmakers brought onboard to create the fake trailers that follow Rodriguez's half. Don't, from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright, is a riotous and affectionate parody of cliches that is indistinguishable from the way Brit horrors (like the scabbily disturbing films of Pete Walker) were marketed Stateside in the 1970s (coincidentally, I happened to see the oddball film of Rad Bradbury's The Illustrated Man on DVD last weekend, whose trailer also leans on the word "Don't" to arouse curiosity).

The best part of Rodriguez's chunk is his own faux trailer, for a "wetback" revenge pic called Machete. But it's only a little more ridiculous than Planet Terror, his feature, and not a lot sillier than any of his films, which are pretty much the work of an arrested adolescent whose statis has become embarrassing, like a 40-year-old who bunks with mom for the convenience. (It comes as no surprise to learn that Rodriguez would like to expand Machete into a feature.) Planet Terror has some nice things happening on the surface; the title is classic exploitation bait-and-switch (the threat is global in nature, but the movie takes place entirely in a scruffy patch of Texas), the storyline has a typical genre nod to topical events, and its coda is pleasantly daffy, and a relief after so much ado about very little.

For me, though, Planet Terror ended after about two minutes. It begins with a jarful of testicles being crushed, and a lot of tin-eared dialogue to get its zombie military storyline off the ground. Unsurprisingly, Rodriguez, whose lighter, comic films (Spy Kids) are too stylistically self-impressed to be all that funny, doesn't know how to shoot this outrageous imagery for humor, and the writing is flat-out poor--far worse than spoofery requires. I passed its near 90 minutes in an uncomfortable silence. Maybe it might have helped had I not seen the similarly, more cheerfully inane Feast a few months earlier. But I couldn't reconcile its Iraq-charged narrative, goofy as it is, with its treatment; intentionally, the movie is in terribly beat-up shape, with splices, speckles, scratches, and missing reels, to make it look more like a disreputable cheapie that had been in constant play at rough urban theaters 30 years ago. Why, though, would a newly minted film, with torn-from-the-headlines subject matter, look like this?

I know, I know--putting on my film buff's hat, I'm supposed to pretend that this is all supposed to be time-warped. But I suspect the filmmakers, and The Weinstein Company, thought that the general audience needed to make this $60 million-plus film profitable was much more conversant in trash cinema than it really is. I'm part of the niche, but I've always part of it, and this movie needs a lot of backgrounding to get the not much out of it that it offers. I'm sure reports of audiences up and leaving after Planet Terror ended, either unaware or all-too-aware that more was to come, are true: Who wants to waste more time with a movie that looks, feels, and sort of smells like garbage?

Rodriguez did his job ardently, but neither wisely nor well. If only last year's coolly clever Slither, or, better, a naturally aged print of a more vintage title, say, Re-animator, could have been dropped in its place. As it was, my biggest reaction came when star Rose McGowan, a Maxim and tabloids fixture, was referred as to as resembling Ava Gardner. This may have been meant as a love tap by the allegedly smitten Rodriguez, but, c'mon; McGowan wears a machine-gun attached to a leg stump with some verve, yet she does not suffer from an overabundance of talent or presence, and I would hope that she does not let the compliment go to her head.

I'm not sure why Rodriguez puts up with Tarantino. For one thing, he is a terrible (and terribly unattractive) actor, who really stinks up the screen in Rodriguez's segment (his acting, which has gotten worse over the years, isn't grindhouse, just a grind). For another, he gets the good reviews and the accolades. Theirs comes off as an unhealthy sibling relationship, with Rodriguez sadly co-dependent; even the movie that some critics liked, Sin City (I was at best lukewarm), has a bit of Tarantino woven into its DNA. He can take some consolation this time, knowing that he and Tarantino went down together.

Tarantino's segment, Death Proof (pictured), is better, discarding most of the gimmicks (save for his own nostalgically worn-looking cinematography) and feeling like a real movie, but it's not that much of a lift, and idles. He can write a good line but most of the femme-delivered dialogue here is just breeze-shooting, which tires easily. There is a big wham at about the midpoint, then it just moves on; what should be more upsetting is just a bad patch on the highway. The show crests again with a nicely engineered car chase that, internalizing its grindhouse roots, isn't that spectacular; it's just as good as it needs to be to ratchet up the thrill count, and stuntwoman Zoe Bell is fun playing a version of herself. It climaxes with a spasm of road rage, which might have played better had the recipient of the abuse, Kurt Russell, acted as if he really believed a trio of girls could whip his veteran ass; I usually like Russell, who gets the crime part of his character, but not the punishment. The End. There's not even a final, teasing end-credits bit to send us back home on, and if ever a movie justified the inclusion of one, Grindhouse was surely it. (Reinforcing the mood, shouldn't the picture have seemed to be starting up again?)

What Grindhouse really lacks, natch, is grindhouses--faded movie palaces gone to seed--to show it in. Young audiences don't know what they were except through accounts. I saw it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Rose Cinemas, which have nothing crummy about them except small seats; my haunches still ache. (BAM's wonderfully distressed Harvey Theater is almost an ideal venue in terms of interior but not a moviehouse). The Mobius Home Video Forum had a question about real-life grindhouse experiences, and I answered back (with a few new additions here):

"I spent some time at the Chicago 'mini-deuce.' I was too young for its big brother in New York, and probbaly would have too chicken to attend at that age. The Woods had the roughest fare and the toughest customers (I saw a double feature of Werewolf Woman (pictured) and the strange '82 picture The Black Room there), while the State Lake had Deathstalker marathons. The Woods held on as long as it could but the other neighboring theaters moved to more conventional fare like the Friday the 13th pics and Streets of Fire, once Cineplex Odeon bought them out. It was definitively all over by 1986, when the Chicago (which kept its lights halfway on during weekend shows to discourage troublemaking), whose movie theater days ended with the family-friendly Brewster's Millions in 1985, reopened as a legit theater a year later, which the town fathers applauded but more rabid cineastes mourned. Even when the programming turned Hollywood at the "md" I still went, just to soak up the ambiance of stately decay and decline.

As I said, I never experienced New York's finest. Funnily, the one cinema near my hometown of Randolph, NJ, went from Disney double features (I think I was taken to them all) to porn (not one viewed), by the late 70s. The K-Cinema is now a bank, or a gym. Something corporatized and non-threatening.

Favorite grindhouse memory: Fleeing a showing of Charles Bronson in The Evil That Men Do when rival gangs started throwing bottles at each other. Lee Marvin drives past those old Chicago moviehouses in 1972's Prime Cut, which is on DVD."

So, Grindhouse. Coming much sooner than expected to a DVD player near you, or as separate, skippable films in countries that lack a grindhouse culture, which American audiences have also forgotten if they knew it existed at all. Except a few others and me, and I accept no substitutes.

Postscript: I got home, turned on the tube, and saw that the death count in Blacksburg, a town I have spent some time in, where my best friend and best man is from, had hit an appalling record. Damn.


kind said...


Janna said...

Nice review.