Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are two filmmakers that need no introduction; it is their respective body of work that says volumes about each director’s passion for their craft. In an effort that walks a fine line between spoof and ingenious homage, Grindhouse isn’t just a movie, it is an organic, vital and uproarious recreation of yesteryear cinema that will make you fall in love with movies all over again.
In the area I grew up we were lucky enough to still have a few sticky-floored grindhouse theaters that managed to avoid being demolished for most of my youth. That being said, my brief childhood memories of the holdovers from this era of cult filmmaking were reinvigorated upon seeing the Tarantino/Rodriguez double feature Grindhouse, a three hour experience of cinematic dynamite, complete with faux trailers and vintage advertisements from Tarantino’s collection that come together to blow audiences away.
First on the bill was Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, an homage that cleverly blended zombies, gore and 1940s screwball comedies. Filled with buckets of witty dialogue and even more blood, Rodriguez has crafted an action packed survival horror story featuring over the top, cartoon-like violence that only the man behind Desparado and Sin City could produce.
In an example of melodrama in its purist form, Planet Terror lets the action drive the story. Though one could argue that the characters are paper thin, they are in fact entertaining, stereotypical archetypes of the genre that Rodriguez is paying homage to. When a biochemical weapon is released into the atmosphere above Austin, Texas the majority of the city’s population turns into, ravenous, boil infested zombies. A small band of survivors, led by El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), a weapons expert with a mysterious past, and Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), a go-go dancer who equips her missing leg with a high powered machine gun, must try to find safety, while simultaneously blowing the roof off the controversy behind this infectious outbreak, and everything and anything else in between.
The effects in Planet Terror are by far some of the most impressive practical effects scene in years. With guns blazing, explosions blasting and body parts flying everywhere, Rodriguez has made Planet Terror a gore-fan’s dream. Just wait until you see some of the inventively horrific deaths in the film, especially Fergie’s, which is one that is sure to send little, teeny bopper fans of the pop star home crying. For the rest of us though, the humorous play on gore is “Fergalicious”.
When it comes to raw filmmaking ability you would be hard pressed to find a director as talented as Robert Rodriguez. Being the writer, director, cinematographer, editor and musician on Planet Terror, Rodriguez is a filmmaker that knows his craft inside and out. Having his actors play each of their roles with over-the-top perfection, Rodriguez makes distinct, deliberate choices which makes Planet Terror one of the most unique and refreshingly fun action films ever made. A tracking shot of El Wray wreaking havoc on zombies down a hospital corridor, plus a helicopter that decapitates an army of zombies in its path are just a smidgen of the fantastic action sequences lying in wait for those who visit Planet Terror, proving once again that nobody can blow stuff up quite like Robert Rodriguez.
After another significant hiatus since Kill Bill, fans of Quentin Tarantino will be happy to know that the director is back and in good form. While Death Proof is the superior film in this double feature, the film fails to truly capture the spirit of the grindhouse. In Tarantino’s love letter to stunt workers everywhere, Death Proof attempts to combine serial killers and car chases when Stunt Man Mike (Kurt Russell) attempts to mow down some of Hollywood’s loveliest ladies.
Though Tarantino has beautifully captured the feel of the brutal, intense car chases and phenomenal stunts from films like Vanishing Point and Duel, the prevailing problem with Death Proof is it feels like a Quentin Tarantino movie. Had it been a standalone film (which it will be upon its release in European markets) this would have been a good thing; however as part of the grindhouse atmosphere it doesn’t quite fit in.
Where Rodriguez has directed his actors to achieve over-the-top camp, Tarantino again directs his cast to exceptional performances. With his trademark dialogue spinning through long, one shot sequences, Death Proof feels too talky for the genre it is trying to imitate. It is as if Tarantino cheated when it came to attempting to capture what grindhouse cinema was. He didn’t make a fun, yet purposefully bad movie; rather the director has made yet another good “Tarantino” film.
While both filmmakers have similar tastes, their directing styles also made a significant impact on the final product of both films. In order to recreate the grindhouse feel, small subtexts were thrown into the pictures such as overlapping dialogue, missing reels, color problems and continuity issues. While some are more obvious than others, it raises an interesting question in the debate of film versus digital cinema. Rodriguez, who has become known as a technology junkie, used all the latest advancements to create his half of Grindhouse. This allowed for the director to make a beautifully shot, consistent movie, then digitally go back and rough it up to recreate the grindhouse feel. It allows all the winks and nods of the genre to help bring the audience in on the joke.
Tarantino’s half, on the other hand, was shot traditionally on film. This poses an extra challenge because Tarantino did not have the luxury of seeing the footage he was shooting on a monitor, meaning that once something is “in the can”, he was stuck with it permanently. One example of this problem was a jump cut which occurs in the midst of a two shot between the adorable Zoe Bell and Tracie Thoms. The juxtaposed shots felt like two separate takes strung together to feel like one continuous shot. Whether or not this was a jab at grindhouse cinema is moot; moments such as these in Death Proof felt like mistakes more than they did the inside jokes of Planet Terror.
Of course one cannot conclude a Grindhouse review without mention of the phenomenal trailers sprinkled throughout the course of this three hour masterpiece. Along with Robert Rodriguez, fellow filmmakers Edgar Wright, Eli Roth and Rob Zombie have created humorously grotesque and campy two-to-three minute pseudo trailers, which in essence are mini-movies themselves. With the large presold audience of Tarantino and Rodriguez fans, the inevitable success of Grindhouse is sure to have movie goers everywhere clamoring for these trailers to become feature films in the not-so-distant future. And if the studios are smart, they will capitalize and give the audience what it wants.
Must-see films are few and far between, but Grindhouse is not just two movies for the price of one, it is an experience from two filmmakers who are working at the top of their game. While audiences will be arguing for sometime over whether or not Planet Terror or Death Proof is the superior of the two pictures, both films are equally unique pieces of cinema deserving to be cherished by fans. Grindhouse wasn’t a film that was made for profit, rather it was a film made by two directors who love their art, and when watching the final product their love is infectious.
– Joe Russo, MoviePulse