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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Grindhouse

Yesterday I arrived at the Essex Cinemas a few minutes before my movie began and so I had the opportunity to chat with my dear friend Nancy for a bit. Well, not my movie, but you know what I mean. Anyway, Nancy only works at the theater on Fridays, so I am always happy to begin my weekend movie-going experiences with a smile from Nancy. Today was going to be a marathon as I was going to see Grindhouse, which runs a total of 3 hours and 16 minutes. Now, I have a bladder that can’t possibly make it through a two hour regular-sized film, so I knew I was going to regret that decision to forgo wearing Depends for this one. Oh, I’m kidding, of course, but what if I wasn’t? If it’s good enough for one of NASA’s “best” then the stigma should be gone by now. So what if the NASA’s “best” I’m referring to turned out to be a whack job astro-nut with a jealous streak wider than the jet stream. It beats the alternative.

Okay, so if by this point you are grossed out just about my writing about adult diapers, then you are probably not going to want to sit through the feast of bodily fluids called Grindhouse. You see, urine is probably the only thing that doesn’t seem to be in great supply when liquids are spewed across the screen in this slaphappy splatter fest from directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. These two friends and renowned sick puppies got together one night (probably for a human sacrifice or some other such activity) and were reminiscing about the “good old days” of their boyhood, when movie theaters would show cheesy low-budget double features, usually sci fi or exploitation flicks that no one with a modicum of taste would go near. So what do they decide to do but recreate that “magic” time by giving us Grindhouse. Each director decided to make a full length film of his own, in the tradition of crap, er, I mean the American International and Hammer Studios, which cranked out double doses of this stuff every month or so throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s. In addition, they asked other director compadres Eli Roth (Hostel ), Edgar Wright (Shawn of the Dead), and Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects) to create fake “Coming Attractions” trailers for non-existent films of their own imagination to be shown before and then between the two feature presentations. Neat idea, huh? The only problem is that the faux films look so good and are so “out there” that you can’t possibly use the few minutes’ break between the full length films to take a bathroom break. They are just too wickedly funny, especially Roth’s homage to all those holiday-themed horrors like Halloween, Black Christmas, and New Year’s Evil. He gives us Thanksgiving with a machete swinging Pilgrim on a rampage, lopping the heads off of band members in the middle of a Turkey Day parade!

The feature presentations themselves are a matter of taste. Bad taste, of course, but even bad taste can be discriminating. The first movie is called “Planet Terror”, a misleading title that might make you believe you are on your way to outer space, but instead it focuses on the earthbound problem of a zombie invasion thanks to some military hanky panky led by a surprise cameo star. The zombies are multiplying faster than Osmonds on crack and seem to be everywhere fast, interrupting the soap opera lives of Dr. William Block (Josh Brolin; The Dead Girl) and his cheating wife, the delicious Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton; American Dreamz). Just as dramatic is the accidental (?) reunion of estranged lovers Cherry (Rose McGowan; The Black Dahlia) and mysterious wrecker driver Ray (Freddy Rodriguez; Bobby) at the local rib shack. Somewhere in the midst of all this is Naveen Andrews (from tv’s mega-hit “Lost”) and The Black-Eyed Peas vocalist Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson as potential zombie meat. What passes for a plot here is slimmer than Allegra Versace’s forearms after a ten day purge, but it hardly matters. The real “stars” are the zombies themselves, whose heads, limbs, and chests explode generously throughout thanks to the well-equipped citizenry of this seemingly sleepy Texas town under siege. The biggest laughs though come from McGowan’s Cherry after she has had her right leg ripped off and eaten by those pesky zombies. In retaliation, boyfriend Ray equips her stump with an automatic machine gun that seems to fire at her will, allowing her to swing her new “leg” wherever she wants to with perfect aim. The whole silliness, not to mention the outrageousness of the not-so-special effects, makes “Planet Terror” the perfect howler for anyone old enough to appreciate the original barrel of source material from which the bottom was scraped to put this together. I can only wonder if young audiences will appreciate the energy put into Rodriguez’ work. Most of the Velveeta-laced movies of the 1970s and 80s have been (thankfully) ignored by television, so a lot of what we of a certain age may cringe at with familiarity may be a baptism to tackiness for the post-boomers. God bless Robert Rodriguez for energizing another generation to bad camp.

If Rodriguez is the Baptist, then Quentin Tarantino is the High Priest who confirms the audience members in their new faith in bad taste movies. Tarantino has long been a Hollywood favorite when it comes to making overzealous and bloated bloodbaths (Kill Bill: Vol. 1; Kill Bill: Vol. 2; and, of course, the legendary Pulp Fiction), so it should come as no surprise here if he let loose a pipeline of plasma in telling his tale “Death Proof.” Well, the surprise is that QT did just the opposite. There is an adequate enough body count to satisfy, but Tarantino concentrates here on two other staples of The Grindhouse school of filmmaking: sex and fast cars and he keeps the blood to a minimum.

“Death Proof” spends way too long concentrating on the short-shorts clad derriere of Jungle Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier; The List), the décolleté of Vanessa Ferlito; Descent) and the whole lot of
both belonging to Jordan Ladd (Inland Empire). It seems like the action in this devotion to devilish driving is never going to begin, but then again the original movies played like two hour sessions of foreplay for a generation that believed sex would lead them straight to hell in a hand basket. It was as close to the real deal as most of them were going to get (off) that night, so the low-budget grinders didn’t care much about advancing a plot that was secondary to the “stars” of the show, the breasts and bottoms of the actresses slated for extinction later on.

Still, when the bad dude in town finally does make his move, who better than Snake Plissken of the old Escape From L.A. and Escape From New York movies of long ago. Kurt Russell, now aged to perfection both facially and in the mentally deranged department, sparkles as Stuntman Mike, a serial killer with a difference. He uses his “death proof” car to attack and kill his prey, thus giving the audience both an exciting car chase and a cool-as-beans crash with each stalking. Unfortunately for Snake, er, Stuntman Mike, Tarantino also loves those “women-kick-ass” movies like Cleopatra
Jones and his own earlier tribute film Jackie Brown, so “Death Proof” swiftly turns from just a lot of chicks shaking their butts in front of the jukebox to a cat and mouse high speed race to the death between Russell’s psycho and a bevy of beauties who aren’t too crazy about getting killed. They’re just crazy about getting revenge. Who doesn’t love a high octane revenge flick? Well, okay, maybe not the real life victims of hit-and-run drive-bys (or, more accurately, drive-overs), but for everybody else, this is the best fun you’ll see with a car this side of Cars, and this time you’ll get a whole lot more action than Pixar and Disney dished out with their feel good animation flick from last year..

Grindhouse is a hoot. A long hoot, but it is chock full of laughs, grimaces, and groans to be had over some of the gore gone wild, the jiggles lingered on for way too long, and the technical add-ons meant to enhance the films with real “flavor.” The film (intentionally) breaks, reels are missing, the color is occasionally faded or overly bright, and even the sound gets fouled up during a crucial moment. The stock looks dirty, scratched, and like it has been left under a bed somewhere for the past thirty years. In other words, it looks like the films it mocks looked when they were brand new.

I left a little shell-shocked. When I emerged from the theater I was actually stunned to see Nancy still there, armed with her broom and ready to clean the theater between showings. “Is it still Friday?” I asked. We both laughed, but the truth is I felt like I’d just spent an afternoon back in my neighborhood theater in 1972. I’d have tried to explain that to Nancy, but I didn’t have time to chat. I had to pee. You will too, but it is worth the wait just to catch every frame.
Grindhouse is a rock ‘em, sock ‘em winner.

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