Monday, April 9, 2007

Grindhouse: A Film Review

Grindhouse is the name for two back-to-back masterwork films by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez that deliver a smörgåsbord of exploitation with cleverness, style, and virtuosity. This is not another indistinguishable Kurt Russell vehicle. The Tarantino-Rodriguez film experience is so ingenious that conventional movie reviewers writing for sheep or blurbs will simply fail to capture what these guys have released.

If you don’t know already, grindhouse movie theaters existed in downtown areas of cities that experienced heavy white middle class flight, such as Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Cleveland, and many other tier-2 and tier-3 cities. Grindhouses were movie palaces that showed first-run flicks exclusively back in the 1930s and '40s, but resorted to "grinding out" non-stop double-bill programs of B-movies during the 60’s and 70’s in an effort to remain competitive or survive.

Grindhouse emulates the grindhouse experience. Grindhouse films were generally traded, shared, or saw limited distribution. One copy often circulated among all the theaters. As a result, the copy accumulated scratches, off-color backgrounds, and thin spots that turned into burnt celluloid. Rodriguez works these “special effects” into his portion of the film, while Tarantino's feature has far fewer.

Rodriguez kicks-off the double-feature with Danny Trejo in an ass-kicking trailer, followed by a cool, retro feature presentation graphic. The moviegoer is transported 30 years back in time by these “jump cuts” of trailers and graphics. Once Planet Terror, Rodriguez’s feature, is on screen, it is clear that an amazing cocktail of gore mixed with humor and throwback movie allusions is being served up.

Planet Terror explores a small town that serves as a test-bed for bioterrorism. Starting with Revolt of the Zombies in 1936, The Blob in 1958 (starring Steve McQueen in his first role), then Night of the Living Dead by George A. Romero in 1968, and including The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, among others, zombie and flesh-eating-blister movies abandoned conventional norms of movie taste and art, and embarked in other directions. This body of work enables Rodriguez to expertly go to new cinematic extremes in Planet Terror, especially in the gore department. And he accomplishes this without a single throat gag. The cast almost doesn’t matter.

Then Death Proof, Tarantino’s film, comes on, but starts slowly after the Planet Terror gore-hurricane. Tarantino’s dialogue is his main charactergirl-talk about sex and pop culture referencesand it lulls viewers into a sense of calm. Then you go to the Death Proof-place courtesy of Kurt Russell. In a muscle stunt car, he plays both the inflictor and inflicted.

Tarantino is relentless, taking the on-screen characters to places never seen before. There are points in the film where you really want Russell to stop the car, but Tarantino won’t surrender. Instead he laughs, like a nut behind the camera, as you twist and squirm.

Grindhouse is a heady mixture of gore, heart-pounding action, and incisive dialogue that takes filmmaking to a new level. True to its name, it will put you, heart and soul, through a meat grinder.

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