Grindhouse (2007)

Rated R for strong graphic bloody violence and gore, pervasive language, some sexuality, nudity and drug use.

Starring Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodríguez, Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton, Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn, Naveen Andrews, Michael Parks, Stacy Ferguson in "Planet Terror";
Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Rose McGowan, Sydney Poitier, Tracie Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Zoe Bell in "Death Proof."
Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez ("Planet Terror") and Quentin Tarantino ("Death Proof").
Produced by Elizabeth Avellan, Erica Steinberg, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino.
Distributed by Dimension Films.
191 minutes.

LVJeff's Rating: 10/10

Photos ©Dimension Films. All rights reserved.

Theme Park Attraction

Grindhouse isn't a movie -- it's a theme park attraction. I know that doesn't sound like a compliment, and even though I'm saying it with some amount of smirky enthusiasm, this statement serves a purpose. Viewers approaching Grindhouse without the knowledge of what they're getting into might find it no fun at all. This movie isn't for everybody -- but it's definitely for people in on its joke and those who may already embrace or have the potential to appreciate the movie's aims of re-creating a certain experience using just the big screen, without the added benefit of a surrounding theme park.

The experience I'm referring to involves attending a rundown low-rent theater during the '70s, catching a double feature of exploitation flicks possibly featuring zombies, car chases, nude women, and bad dialogue, on prints that have been run through a projector so many times their scratches make them barely viewable. To filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino -- who may have come of age in such environments -- such scratches are as notalgic as listening to the crackles on an old LP. Only the music coming from the speakers would be punk tunes, rather than studio pop or classical jazz.

Thus, Grindhouse could be seen as something of a stunt re-enactment, like any other enterprise that might seek to cash in on old memories. The feature includes two movies, approximately 80 minutes per -- Rodriguez's "Planet Terror" and Tarantino's "Death Proof" -- with fake trailers for exploitation movies sprinkled in here and there. The movies in and of themselves resist traditional individual criticism, as everything is an equal part of the show. With Rodriguez diving headfirst into B-movie cheese, and Tarantino focusing on a singular exploitation theme -- revenge -- the parts create a greater sum.

Much of the value in watching Grindhouse comes from observing its relief against the landscape of current cinema. It becomes easily apparent what the presence of grindhouse cinema a few decades ago might've meant to young movie enthusiasts looking for an outlet for their adolescent urges. Such movies didn't survive to the present day, so the youths have turned to other means for their outlets -- perhaps video games, or the internet. This movie then serves as a stark reminder of what similar alternatives are missing in the land of movie theaters today -- rebel cinema, cinema with a lurid voice and just the right amount of disposibility to be "discovered" by the more adventurous moviegoers. Never mind that these movies might not have been "good" in the mainstream sense.

Anyhow, all my previous comments would be just airy theory if the movie itself wasn't as much fun as it is -- and, frankly, as fortuitously constructed. Although Grindhouse is postmodern by design, the filmmakers have made sure their involvement is spirited and appropriate, with less winking and more blatant outrageousness. The trailers make a good starting point -- Rodriguez's own kicks off the action sporting some wickedly funny one-liners and money shots, and the three during the "intermission" are uniquely perverse, starting with a way-silly one by Rob Zombie and ending with an Eli Roth number that reminded me of the display sleeves of those quick-buck horror movies that adorned my parents' video store when I was a teen -- I Dismember Mama, Faces of Death, Body Shop, etc. But my favorite was the one in the middle by Edgar "Shaun of the Dead" Wright, a work of wonderful comic timing, which is all I'll say about it.

Mainly, though, it's the juxtaposition of Grindhouse's main parts that makes the whole work as well as it does. "Planet Terror" comes first, and it's all immediate gratification, everything you're expecting this movie experience theme park ride to be. Strippers! Zombies! Trucks! Motorcycles! Blood! Guts! And characters with secret pasts and contentious relationships, at locations from the hospital to a steak diner to a military base. It's totally ridiculous and quite a ball, as long as you can stomach the gore, which there's no shortage of.

But just when you're expecting more of the same from "Death Proof," you're thrown off-balance. This segment seems slow and talky, and for about an hour you'll have no idea where it's going. Suffice it to say the payoff is very much worth the wait, and viewer patience will be rewarded.

If Tarantino's section was indeed more of the same, frankly the whole movie might've started getting old. But "Death Proof" makes the whole ride feel very satisfying -- we've had our straightforward pleasures, so now we should be able to handle a slow build/punchline scenario. The segment also provides the kind of food for thought that invites a deeper analysis. It couldn't be more simplistic as a story, but the movie actually works as a conscience-of-society piece, making a strong case, rather ironically, against the objectification of women.

"Death Proof" carries grindhouse intentions but is almost too professionally executed. One could say it consciously emulates the bait-and-swtich tactics of the lesser exploitation movies -- while posters promise action and sleaziness, the movie might deliver mostly talking with one or two lame action scenes -- but then that doesn't account for the exhilirating pace of its ending. The dialogue is too well thought-out, and the scenes of terror are honestly intense and convincing. Does this, then, make it better or worse than Rodriguez's straight standard? That debate doesn't matter -- what does is how one ultimately balances the other, and how Grindhouse as a whole makes the case for exploitation films in terms of their capacities to be guilty pleasures, their potential as a distinct formative experience, and their legitimacy for classification as significant cultural objects and art. The entire package, then, is as much thesis as it is a wild theme park ride.

©Jeffrey Chen, Mar. 30, 2007

This review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews.

Planet Terror (2007)

LVJeff's Rating: 8/10

Death Proof (2007)

LVJeff's Rating: 9/10

Separated on DVD

In my review above, I stated why I believe Grindhouse works as a whole greater than the sum of its parts, which is why I find it a shame that Dimension has decided to separate the two features and sell them individually on DVD. I suppose you could try to simulate the experience by playing the two back-to-back, but both movies have been expanded beyond their double-feature lengths, and the three middle fake trailers (and accompanying fake ads) are nowhere to be found on either DVD, not to mention the loss of seamless transition would be annoying. Maybe one day, Grindhouse as it existed in the theaters will be made available for home video?

Well, that day isn't here yet, so what we've got are two movies, each a little longer than they were before, and as such they are worth some individual attention.

With Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, though, it's hard to tell what's been added. I think some scenes might've been made longer by including certain lines and takes that were originally removed, but frankly that's a guess on my part, as I could not significantly discern the differences between what I saw in the theater and what I watched at home. The runtime seems to have increased by almost half-an-hour, but it feels like 10 minutes of that are the end credits (previously, the movie ended on the "The End" freeze-frame), which admittedly crawl up the screen slowly, albeit with a cool background effect. Also, the trailer for "Machete" that originally preceded the feature is intact, and I think that counts in the total runtime.

So overall, Planet Terror doesn't lose much pace, and it's still is what it is -- a competently-made zombie-action extravaganza, highlighted in particular by its very gross special effects, abundant humor, and deliberately scratchy print. Its spirit is one of pure entertainment, and its commentary on old grindhouse movies is lovingly satirical. On its own, it's a lot of fun, but it's also so self-consciously cheesy that it's difficult to take it as anything but a good joke. Rodriguez could probably think up a hundred more movies like this, just by being given these "grindhouse rules" to work with. Thus, his movie is enthusiastic, but not necessarily personally distinct. Any extra points the movie gets from me is due to the amount of pure joy that one can feel coming from Rodriguez as he is encouraged to play up his most goofy instincts.

Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof is more notably different than its Grindhouse version in that it adds two distinct whole scenes. The first one is the originally "missing reel," where Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) gives Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) a lap dance. Originally it made a nice gag, but "restored" it provides more juice to Stuntman Mike's lasciviousness. After all, the movie's first half is there mainly to let us get to know Russell's villain and find out the depths of his cruelty and psychosis; this scene then lends a bit extra dimension to his depravity.

The first half also lets us get to know his victims, to give them enough color so that the horror of their loss feels palpable. The second half then adds the other new scene, which is an introduction to the new group of gals before they pick up their friend Zoe (Zoe Bell). It plays in black-and-white, which is presumably another nod to the grindhouse aesthetic, but I think there's a bit more to it. The scene leads us to believe that this group of girls will just be another set of unlucky victims; Rosario Dawson's character even reclines in the car with her bare feet out the window, like Sydney Poitier's character did in the first half. But after Stuntman Mike creates a brush encounter with her, she steps out of the car and promptly puts on a pair of boots -- our first sign that things might be different this time. At around this point, the film reverts to color too, as if to say, "change your expectations."

I'll have to admit now that I personally feel Tarantino's movie is the stronger of the two. It's a well-controlled buildup of expectations, suspense, and character contrast. The two sets of girls are very different and even provide separate sexual energies, with the first being more lurid and sweaty and the second being more direct and violent. Even if it's considered a relatively minor work as a proposed half of a double feature, and also due to its more self-indulgent tendencies, on its own it does stand solidly within Tarantino's lineup of films.

©Jeffrey Chen, Nov. 5, 2007

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