“Grindhouse”, the double feature showcasing new films by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, tributes to the types of films with titles like “Werewolf Women of the SS” and “Death Trap”, films containing violence, sex and as many other types of lurid behavior as you can imagine, is a sensory overload type of experience.
And I liked it. I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would. But I liked it.
Growing up, both directors were exposed to many, many films, in a variety of genres, and this helped to shape the course of their careers. Clearly, the films they most identified with, most loved and were most influenced by were movies they saw at these theaters, which they refer to as a “grindhouse”. These establishments are the type of place you wouldn’t find a Roger Corman film because it was too highbrow. These places played films made on the cheap, with prints circulated to too many theaters. The films were generally filled with as much gratuitous sex, as much graphic violence, as much horror as possible. Did they attract the talents of Robert DeNiro, Donald Sutherland or Elliott Gould, popular actors in the early and mid-70s? Of course not; the actors who appeared in these films were happy to get the paycheck and knew their big break would never come. If a “name” actor ever appeared in such a film, they were usually at the end of their careers, making the film between mall ribbon cutting ceremonies or appearances in regional theater.
What these films had was a fantastic lack of inhibition, even for films of the 70s, a pretty freewheeling era in film. And I feel this is probably what captivated the imaginations of Rodriguez and Tarantino. Each has, essentially, been making expensive tributes to these films for their entire careers. What sets “Sin City”, “Kill Bill”, “Spy Kids”, “From Dusk ‘Till Dawn”, “Pulp Fiction” and all of the others apart from the films they are paying tribute to? More famous actors, bigger budgets, better writing (in most cases), but they still push the envelope and contain as much graphic violence, sex and horror as possible.
I went to see “Grindhouse” with a friend from work. Before the program began, they showed a number of trailers for real films coming out in the coming months. One of these, a new John Cusack – Samuel Jackson film called “1408”, based on a story by Stephen King, tells the story of Cusack spending the night in a haunted hotel room, the dreaded Room 1408. Image after image assaults the senses; Cusack banging against the wall, Cusack screaming in fright, Cusack trapped in a room filled with snow and ice, freezing his bum off, people banging on the walls. My friend turned to me and said “I’d hate to be in room 1407”.
Another hallmark of these “Grindhouse” cinemas was they showed a series of films continuously throughout the day. A few trailers would follow the first film, a couple of ads, then the second film would start. As mentioned, these films would show many times in a single day and then the prints would shuttle off to another theater. The prints weren’t handled very gingerly, so scratches, dirt discoloration, and the like pretty much dominated the images. The films were spliced together rapidly, and with little skill, sometimes a reel would be missing. Rodriguez and Tarantino are going for an all out sensory homage to these films and the theaters they used to play in. It isn’t enough for them to simply evoke the themes of these films. They have to recreate the experience as much as possible. They have enlisted some friends to create trailers for other films. They have aged the film to include scratches, bad coloring and the like. Occasionally, we see a notice from the management informing us of a missing reel. All of this helps us to believe we have slipped into a seedy, rundown theater in the middle of downtown, grabbed a seat in the balcony, and placed our feet over the edge, allowing us to take a quick nap and catch the feature the next go around.
It is also a bit surreal to watch a “real” trailer for the upcoming Rob Zombie-helmed remake of “Halloween” (don’t even get me started on that) and then to watch one of the trailers he created for “Grindhouse”. Honestly, it was difficult to decide if “Halloween” was a legitimate film. Why remake a classic? To make it gorier? That is why the original “Halloween” is so great; much of the horror is left to your imagination.
My friend and I will occasionally go to a highly anticipated film on opening night. More often than not, we get there too early and end up racing though dinner to get to the film, just in time to stand in line.
But Tarantino and Rodriguez don’t stop at simply trying to evoke the experience of going to see one of these films; they try to recreate the themes, style and ideas of these films. Both are successful at this, but the degrees of success vary and this makes the program a little less successful as a whole.
More often than not, we go to films at either Century City or Westwood. I prefer Westwood, because of the large screens, but Century City has more screens and can play more films more frequently, so it is often more convenient.
Rodriquez is up first with “Planet Terror”. A shifty scientist, Abby (Naveen Andrews, TV’s “Lost”) prepares to sell his entire stockpile of a new invention to a crooked army commander, Muldoon (Bruce Willis). The deal goes wrong and the gas is released. Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), desperate to leave her husband, Doc Block (Josh Brolin) and take her son with her, goes to work one last time. That evening, all hell breaks loose. People arrive at the hospital with boils breaking out all over their bodies and the infection seems to be spreading. Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) quits her job as a pole dancer and is trying to leave town when she gets into an accident. She ends up at the hospital with an amputated leg and an ex-boyfriend El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez, “Bobby”, “Poseidon”, TV’s “Six Feet Under”), a gunslinger with a huge reputation arrives and tries to set things straight. Soon, Cherry Darling, El Wray and a rag-tag group of disparate souls are trying to fight off the legions of people who have succumbed to the gas and become zombies. El Wray fits Cherry Darling’s leg with an automatic rifle and she becomes one woman to reckon with.
Rodriguez seems to relish in the gory aspects of the story, paying little, if any heed to the Motion Picture Ratings Board. At one point, I heard that “Grindhouse” had received an NC-17 rating, guaranteeing it would play in only a handful of theaters. Either the studio successfully negotiated an ‘R’ rating, or something was cut. I suspect the later, because both films contain a lot of graphic material.
From the moment the gas is released, little pustules begin to form on various people. They grow larger, multiply and then explode, causing more people to become infected. There are a couple of instances, okay many instances, when Rodriguez lets this get away from him, he lets the gore take over, but that is in keeping with the spirit of the film and merely helps to make “Planet Terror” seem all the more authentic. These directors want us to avert our eyes.
There is an empty seat next to me in the theater. Aaah, the room to move around. But I should know better.
Rodriguez has spent a lot of time and money to make “Planet” look as though it is an old film, run through many, many projectors. In other words, he has gone to a lot of trouble to make the film look bad. Again, this serves to enhance the story and make the film all the more interesting as part of this tribute. Scratches, discoloration, missing reels and more all help to evoke the look and feel of a cheapie film, made on the quick.
Throughout the film, people sitting in the row behind us put their feet on top of the empty seat next to me. Every time their feet become uncomfortable, they move their feet, kicking the top of the seat, sending a shock wave through the entire row, causing discomfort for everyone. Yet, no one says anything. Even me.
Towards the end of “Planet Terror”, Rodriguez amps up every aspect of the film, violence, gore, lack of storytelling. A small group of humans have withstood the effects of the gas and there is a brief attempt to explain how this could happen. There is even a more halfhearted attempt to explain what they have to do to save the world. All of this leads to an action filled memorable climax.
My friend and I have had mixed luck picking films to watch, Generally, the films we pick are some of the worst I have seen in any given year, it is almost a given we will at least dislike what we go to see so when we actually enjoy something; it comes as a bit of a surprise. “Grindhouse” was a surprise. It is one of the few good films we have seen.
Because “Grindhouse” contains two films and is intended as an experience, both films will affect the overall perception of the project. Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” is good, but less successful than “Planet Terror”.
Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier, the daughter of actor Sidney), a local radio DJ, prances around her apartment, smokes some pot, and then meets up with some friends (Vanessa Ferlito and others). They gather at a local watering hole and make the acquaintance of Stunt Man Mike (Kurt Russell). After many, many conversations, the girls get ready to leave and Stunt Man Mike offers to give Pam (also played by Rose McGowan, now wearing a platinum blonde wig), a ride home. Along the way, Stunt Man Mike proves to be a little unhinged and all of the women end up dead. Flash forward and Stunt Man Mike is watching a new set of women, all of whom are in town to shoot a movie; Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Zoe Bell (playing herself, a real life stuntwoman), Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The women have lengthy, lengthy conversations about films they like, working on films, buying a white Dodge Charger, who they slept with, the like. Then, they end up in a duel with Stunt Man Mike, using their cars as swords.
The AMC Century City 15 was recently remodeled and it is a vast improvement over the old multiplex, but it could’ve been much better. The theaters are fairly large for a multiplex, but the auditoriums have an aisle up both sides of the seating area. Many new theaters I have been in recently have smaller seating areas on the sides of the aisle. This allows people to sit here and not have to climb over others if they need to leave during the screening.
Tarantino embraces the “Grindhouse” feel of the film, but he seems to forget about it after the first act before returning to it during the finale. He does a unique thing and tries to mimic the feel of a poorly spliced film. As a scene plays, we see a brief flash of white and the soundtrack skips, indicating the projectionist did slip shod work as he tried to put together the print. There are a couple of other flourishes throughout, but when you compare the two films side by side, it is like comparing a film by Disney with a film by Hanna Barbera when they were working on television. Tarantino doesn’t seem to want to use the technique throughout and his lack of enthusiasm shows.
As soon as “Death Trap” begins, we realize the directors are using another technique common to this genre. They share some actors, some of which are playing the same characters, others are playing new people and they also share locations. Both of these techniques were quite common because they saved the filmmakers money. These original films were made on the cheap, very cheap. Tarantino and Rodriguez are spending a lot more money but still honor the convention.
Tarantino likes to write dialogue for his characters and this has lead to some of the most well remembered scenes in film history. Tarantino has a knack for capturing natural, memorable dialogue requiring us to remember what the characters have said. In “Proof”, he has composed two main separate, all encompassing conversations between his characters. They talk about a lot and espouse a lot of their personal philosophy. And it doesn’t ultimately contribute anything to the main plot. These scenes are punctuated, interrupted, halted by two pretty impressive car chases and a winning performance by Kurt Russell.
“Death Proof” is really two half films, each containing a separate group of women, long conversations and an impressive bit of stunt work. The first half is a set-up for the more elaborate, impressive stunt work in the second half. It also contains an even more mind numbingly pointless conversation.
But that stunt work. It is truly impressive and worth the wait.
Tarantino has a knack for choosing an icon of cinema and writing a role for them, a love letter to help them rejuvenate their careers and become familiar to a whole new generation. “Pulp Fiction” resurrected John Travolta who repaid the favor by perpetuating “Lucky Numbers”, “Domestic Disturbance” and many others on an unsuspecting public. “Kill Bill” brought us David Carradine. “Death Proof” shows us Kurt Russell in a new light. Russell’s career will get a little boost of adrenaline, but of the three, Russell is least in need of the attention, but it is a unique and interesting role taking a nice little turn. And the actor is clearly having a lot of fun, giving the role everything he has.
The problem with the conversations is they seem incongruous to the film. What they contribute to the story is debatable and negligible, but if they help define the characters, they are worth the time and trouble, In “Proof”, they sort of help to establish the characters and their motivations, but would such a film have lengthy conversations to help establish character? No. As in “Planet Terror”, very little time is spent on actual exposition, leaving much more film for terror, sex and violence. In “Death Proof”, the characters would only spout one or two lines of dialogue before running into the middle of an inferno. Because of this, Tarantino seems to be less interested in creating a tribute to the “Grindhouse” and more interested in showing how clever he is.
“Grindhouse” contains two films, always interesting, but very different, which ultimately make the experience a little uneven. “Grindhouse” is a good film, an interesting experiment and a sensory overload experience. But it isn’t a great film.