Monday, April 09, 2007

Movies: Double bill, but half the thrill.

Now that the opening weekend take of Grindhouse hasn't even measured up to half the $30 million Miramax dropped on simply marketing the retro-tastic neo-trash double header, it seems like Tarantino has, officially, his first bomb. His co-director, Robert Rodriguez, is likely more calloused to the feelings watching one of your flicks sink at the box office must give rise to. Being one of America's most notable and least consistent directors prepares one for the slings and arrows of outrageous financial fortune. But for Tarantino, failure on this scale must be a somewhat new sensation. Not to mention it must all be somewhat confusing to the spastically boyish director. His previous two flicks – the Kill Bill films – mined much of the same disreputable genre territory to produce a commercial and critical hit. Success for Grindhouse should have been a matter of course. But here he is, opening weekend and nothing but a big, ol' double feature flop to show for it.

And, I'm sad to say, he and Rodriguez somewhat deserve it.

Unless you've been living in a particularly remote cave in some unusually desolate part of the world, you know by now that Grindhouse is a 3 hour 10 minute flick that consists of two short films – Rodriguez's Terror Planet and Tarantino's Death Proof - surrounded by retro rating warnings, a quartet of trailers from movies that don't exist, and interrupted occasionally by fake film damage and two "reel missing" title cards.

Of the two, Rodriguez's outing is the weaker, which is unfortunate as it means you're sitting through nearly an hour and a half of mediocre film before really getting to something interesting.

Terror Planet suffers from "The Byrne Problem." Forgive me the digression, but it will tie in, I promise. Anthony Burgess's (the British novelist perhaps best known in America as the man who wrote A Clockwork Orange) last book before his death 1993 was a long mock epic poem called Byrne. The premise behind the book was that Byrne was the absurd and narcissistic last grand gesture of Michael Byrne, a truly horrible poet that reaches the dubious "heights" of his artistic achievement during the Nazi's rise to power in the 1930s. It is at once a devastating send up of pretentiousness and a meditation on talent and inspiration. Here's the catch: to get this though, you have to read a really horrible novel-length epic poem. Certainly, it is intentionally bad. The clumsy rhymes, the lag wit metaphors, and the drunkenly staggering rhythm were all part of Burgess's joke. But does it matter. At the end of the day, joke or not, if you want to read Byrne, you've got to read a fistful of really shitty verse. So, "The Byrne Problem" can be summed up thusly: intentionally creating bad art does not solve the problem that you made bad art.

Though it is intended as a loving send up, Terror Planet is 90 minutes of bad film. To be fair, Rodriguez seems to have taken the project to create an old grindhouse-style flick earnestly and, despite the recent flurry of rose-tinted revisionism that now depicts that era of the crap exploitation flick, creates just the sort of cheap-o, illogical, gore splattered, mindless film that was a staple of the genre. Terror Planet involves a group of rogue US soldiers who, after getting exposed to a zombifying biological weapon for killing Bin Laden off schedule (seriously), unleash the agent on a unsuspecting Texas town. Ultimately it is up to the local police, a truck driving super gunslinger, and an ex-stripper turned one-legged killing machine to save the day. Silliness piles upon silliness in a Sci-Fi Channel original-grade plot. None of this is redeemed by Rodriguez's trademark kinetic visual style, which he reins in so that he can better recreate the clumsy filmmaking of a real grindhouse horror cheapie. The editing looks like it was handled by a blind man working with a meat cleaver and some duct tape. Set-ups are static and un-inventive. There are bizarre and unnecessary close-ups, some on the ample anatomy of the flick's female characters, but mostly on irrelevant and un-aesthetic details.

I have no doubt all of this was intentionally. Robert Rodriguez was, I'm certainly, trying very hard to recreate the look and feel of a cut-rate. The problem is, he pulled it off brilliantly, which is to say, he made a bad movie. Terror Planet is the sort of film you might run across on cable on some lazy afternoon and watch solely because nothing else is on. That was, in fact, the fulfillment of Rodriguez's ambitions for the film, which, in a way, makes it even sadder.

Tarantino, the more consistent and thoughtful of the two filmmakers, avoids the "The Byrne Problem" by cleverly betraying the project's premise. Death Proof shares the same relationship with exploitation cinema that the rest of Taratino's films have had: he uses his love and knowledge of the genre to steal and refine its best moments. Tarantino didn't really make a grindhouse-style film (it is telling that the fake dust spots and film damage that was digitally added throughout Terror Planet is almost entirely absent in Death Proof), he made a Tarantino film that was influenced by those genre filmmakers who, despite working in a critically reviled context, managed to create unique, energetic, and enduring films. Where Rodriguez recreated the experience of seeing a bad film in a crappy theater, Tarantino fuses Russ Meyer revenge chick flicks with the sure cinema instincts of Monte Hellman and creates a solid flick that is influenced by exploitation cinema while transcending its origins.

Death Proof involves the psychopathic Stuntman Mike. Mike gets his kicks through vehicular homicide. He takes his stunt worthy car and gets himself in accidents that are always fatal to the women he stalks. However, as luck would have it, Mike picks on a trio of women that includes a couple of female stunt drivers and, instead of easy pickings, we get one of the longest, most intense car chase scenes to grace the screen in a long time.

Death Proof is the least of Tarantino's films. It is well-built, smart fun that suffers from the fact that Tarantino is not a horror filmmaker. His instincts are to let characters yap on and ramble. We get too much talking and not enough tension. After one particularly horrific scene, we spent most of the movie killing time until the big chase. When that comes, it will pull you in. But, until then, you feel every minute of the flick as Tarantino's characters do what everybody in the Tarantino universe does: they discuss old cult flicks (nobody in the world Tarantino lives in ever reads).

I do have something to praise without qualification. The four faux trailers are, each and every one, brilliant. Rodriguez turns in a trailer for Machete, a violent revenge flick, that packs more fun into its four or five minute running time than we find in all of Terror Planet. Shaun of the Dead's Edgar Wright turns in Don't, a wonderful send up of British haunted house flicks from the groovy era. Rob Zombie gives us the absolutely gonzo Werewolf Women of the S.S., featuring a cameo of Nicholas Cage as Fu Manchu (I kid you not). And, I'm shocked to say, Eli Roth's slasher-flick trailer for Thanksgiving is so spot on and funny that it might be the best moment in the film. We've had our differences in the past Eli; but good job.

There are some great moments in Grindhouse, but they are too few and far between to justify the 3 hour running time or the $10 movie ticket. This puppy was made for DVD. Using my mathematically precise Ships the British Royal Navy Has Named After the Port City of Bristol, I'm going to give Grindhouse a middling "wooden screw frigate launched in 1861 and broken up in 1883."


Heather Santrous said...

I went sunday to go see it. One of my friends didnt get the act that the "missing reel" was part of the plan for both movies. We had to explain that to her after the movie was over. Outside of the gore factor for Planet Terror, I didn't find it all that interesting. It was good for a few chuckles I guess.

Death Proof surprised me some since we had a long set up with a quick death scene then yet another long set up. One thing that Tarantino knows how to do is make the conversation his characters are having, interesting. At least they can be to me. All the talk about the movies, I haven't seen yet so I can't say I knew what they were talking about but it was fun all the same. You are right that it made the movie drag just a bit though. It just surprised me how Mike becomes this big cry baby once someone turns the tables on him.

I might do my own review but I'm in the middle of an event over on my blog and decided to stick to the plan. Maybe once the plan is over I will do a write up but I haven't decided if I want to take the time to do so. One thing that would have been nice for Grindhouse is a place to go to the bathroom at! 3 hours is way to long to try and sit through a movie.

CRwM said...

I guess my thing with Death Proof is that we don't get enough of Mike's homocidal tendencies to make him feel like a truly dangerous bad guy. He has his one killing scene, then we get the final battle royale. It is a kick ass battle royale, to be sure . . . but maybe I was just tired out from already sitting through the shrug worthy Terror Planet that I didn't get all the good of it. I would have liked more set-up with Mike. We could have seen him stalking the second crew or seen some sort of trophy room that would let us know that he's really done in a lot of folks. Something to make him a more sinister figure.

I'm digging your current series.

spacejack said...

Wow, I pretty much agree with this entire review. I was worried our tastes were beginning to diverge a bit too much recently :)

I forgave Planet Terror somewhat because I think there are a lot of people who enjoy that sort of thing, even if it's not really my style. So I think it could be seen as delivering what it promised better than Tarantino's. I think maybe PT was for people who enjoy true genre films in all their schlocky, nonsensical glory. Although I find them interesting, I can't count myself as a real fan of them. I went to see the film with a friend who really enjoyed it, so maybe I appreciated it vicariously through him somewhat.

I break down Death Proof like this:

1. The first sequence, with the girls driving and then hanging out at the bar, up until they drive home and meet their fate with Stuntman Mike. Though a bit long-winded, it didn't lose me. The writing and acting was just good enough to string me along, and the crash sequence was, I must say, pretty bloody shocking.

2. The second dialogue sequence however nearly lost me completely, and I could understand why so many people have said they wanted to walk out on it. I thought the long talky parts were over by this point, but instead things were just getting worse - the writing, the acting, everything was really beginning to stink, bore and even offend me. It was as if Tarantino had hired 4 young girls to deliver his film manifesto and promote his views on filmmaking, because he's too annoying to do it himself. (Nevermind that I actually agree with him on a lot of points, it's just not the sort of content I want to see in a movie.)

3. Finally, the car action. Totally blew me away. I don't think I've seen seat-gripping, sweaty-palm-inducing action this good since the 80s. I thought that using an actual stuntwoman as one of the lead actresses was a brilliant idea, he just shouldn't have given her more acting material than she could reasonably pull off.

In the end, I'd pay full price just to see an edited-down version of Death Proof in the theatre again. The rest of it I could've watched on video. And as I mentioned elsewhere, Tarantino just shouldn't appear in movies.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

I think the only thing we disagree on is the trailers, which I thought were really funny and a joy to watch. I think trailers are like Borges stories: short and evocative little gems that, at their best, are often more involving than movies. But that might just be me.

Anonymous said...

I'm not reading this post yet because I want to see this movie, but since it appears you have some reservations about the movie, I'll just have to get my ass into a theater and see it as soon as possible.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Spacejack,

Aw, dammit.

As you well know, you're not Screamin' Sassy. Screamin' Sassy is Screamin' Sassy and you're Screamin' Spacejack.

I don't know where my head was.

spacejack said...

Double-dammit! And here I thought you came up with a cool nickname for me.

I think one of my problems with the trailers is that they were all described to me before I saw it, so a lot of the punchlines were ruined.

Funny thing about Thanksgiving is I thought the 'money shot' was in bad taste - moreso than anything in Hostel. I guess Roth is capable of offending everyone :)