Thursday, April 19, 2007

A Visit to the Grindhouse

I took the opportunity to watch Grindhouse the other day; I absolutely loved it, but I am not surprised at all that it flopped hard in America.

Grindhouse is a veritable concept movie, an homage to a style of film making and viewing experience of the so called grindhouses of inner city 1970s fame. Two movies in one, they are unified by faux trailers (prevues) for similar movies (my favorite was Eli Roth's Thanksgiving horror movie), as well as a few ancillary characters who appear in both films.
Why did it bomb? Many reasons have been cited, including the film's length, its somewhat lurid subject material, as well as the arguably sub-par plotlines and over-the-top violence of both films.

I think the film bombed because it was too smart for its own good.

Most people under the age of 45 neither remember nor appreciate the raunch cinema of the '70s, and some of the window dressing elements of this film (ie the missing reels, the trailers, the grainy film appearance, et al) went unnoticed, unappreciated, or actually distracted too much from the viewing experience.

The movie bombed hard when it opened, and plummeted out of the top ten like no one's business. There are probably some unhappy campers in the Weinstein camp, and no doubt people will think about producing another Shrek chapter or Pirate sequel before they experiment (and invest) in something like this again.

But my guess is this movie will sell well as a DVD. There are undoubtably many additional scenes (like the reels missing from the actual films!), and addtional features that will make this movie a must add to any collection.

The first feature, Planet Terror, is a standard zombie plague flick. The effects and action are cartoonish and excessive, but true to form, this movie replicates the myriad of terrible horror movies that dominated the 70s and early 80s (c.f. My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to you, Basket Case, Evil Dead, et al, if you can even find any of them on DVD), and does so with a wink at the audience. Terror's biggest weakness is that the Zombie genre was, er, resurrected a few years back with films like 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, and the like. So Grindhouse opened up with a comical shockfest that most filmgoing audiences had already been exposed to.

I still liked it, and hopefully an entrepeneur will open a Bone Shack franchise in my neck of the woods some day soon.

The second movie-within-a-movie, Death Proof, is on far more solid ground as a unique, stand alone film. A revival of the muscle car genre of the 1970s, this thriller is Quentin Tarantino's contribution to Grindhouse. Death Proof is replete with all the trademark Tarantino banter and pop culture references, and bad-ass MOPAR V8's wreaking havoc on winding roads.

Quentin Tarantino paces the film spectacularly, introducing viewers to a quartet of fun-loving Austin women who happen upon Stuntman Mike (played by the phenomenal Kurt Russell) in a bar. The first act frames the calm, twisted Stuntman character, who drives a "Death Proof" (for the driver anyway) Chevy Nova SS. Mike charms the ladies at first but seals their fate on the dark open road. . .

The film then flashes forward to a new quartet of lovely women, hollywood types this time who are in Tennessee to film a low budget film. Two of these are stuntwomen, and are steeped in the lore of classic seventies films. They talk about iconic yet obscure films from the 1970's like Dirty Mary and Crazy Larry and Vanishing Point, and establish the fact that they are a tough, devil-may-care crew. On a whim they decide to test drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger (a dead ringer for the Vanishing Point car) on Tennessee back roads. And once again Stuntman Mike comes into the picture, driving a black 69 Charger R/T; this time, however, he gets a little more than he bargained for. . .

If Tarantino films were books, they would be appreciated as much for their footnote references to nearly lost pop culture treasures as for the content themselves. Have you seen Vanishing Point lately? Not many people have. At one point in the film Stuntman Mike laments the advent of CGI, and appears nostalgic for the time when, if a filmaker wanted a car to crash, he had to put a stuntman in it. There is little doubt that Tarantino's stuntmen earned their pay with the last reel of this film.

It would not be surprising to see this movie elevated to cult classic status after a little while, either. Grindhouse took a chance and tried to create an artistic experience from schlock material. The movie failed to make coin, but the spectacle is worth watching.

Post Script. I ordered Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (the Turbocharger edition) on Amazon the other day, so the Grind house is alive and well in Afghanistan!


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