Monday, April 9, 2007

GRINDHOUSE is a Very, Very Fine House.

I missed the grindhouse era. I was very much around during its last 25 years or so, but I never once took up the opportunity to experience it in all its glory. Having grown up in the NJ suburbs, grindhouses for me meant the Paramount Theater in Newark and, of course, The Deuce, 42nd Street in New York City. I was mesmerized by the ads for these films I would see in the movies section of the Friday Star-Ledger, but they never played in my area and even if they did, I could never get anyone to take me to see them. As is a right of passage for most NJ teens, once you discovered the bus line that would pick you up in the center of town and drop you off in Manhattan one hour later, you would also discover The Deuce in all its sleazy and frightening glory. As tourist-friendly (and, in a way, scarier) as it is now, 42nd Street was pretty fucking oppressive to a shy white kid from NJ, and you made a point of getting the hell off that block toot suite. While the huge marquees and strange titles of three kung-fu hits in a row held a certain amount of fascination, what was inside those theaters, or more to the point what went on inside those theaters, was a little too daunting. The closest I ever came was almost 20 years to this day in mid-April 1987, as I took a day from my high school spring break to venture into Manhattan to see some films that were not playing locally. As I walked past one theater, I noticed that THE NIGHT STALKER was playing; I took an interest in it because it starred Charles Napier, who I liked in RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, and because The Phantom of the Movies, who used to write a weekly exploitation column in the New York Daily News, gave it a good review. I stood outside that theater for about a good 10 minutes, looking at the poster, looking inside the lobby, checking out the showtimes, and thinking to myself, “Should I go in?” Ultimately, I chickened out and attended a showing of HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE at the Embassy 2 in Times Square (why I thought that was any safer, I don’t know) and I never came that close to seeing a film on 42nd Street again.

But I have long taken an interest in exploitation films. On one fateful Saturday night in January 1985 the NYC PBS affiliate aired Christian Blackwood’s excellent documentary ROGER CORMAN: HOLLYWOOD’S WILD ANGEL, the film that sparked my initial awareness of these films. Since it featured such Corman grads as Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme and Allan Arkush, all of whom were becoming big things at the time, I realized I must see these films and well over time I began to watch all the New World films. I loved them then and love them still (they all hold up or get better with time) and while I didn’t dive into the deep end of the exploitation pool for a long while, I had a respect and admiration for much of it. It was around the mid-90s, when my friends and I would get together for daylong festivals called Sleazefest, enjoying the finest exploitation cinema from the U.S., Europe, Asia and the rest of the world over, that I began to realize how much I loved these films. They expanded my horizons, made me appreciate different styles of filmmaking and storytelling and made me realize that all types of films and styles of filmmaking are legitimate as long as they’re good. My friends and I still do the Sleazefests a couple of times a year and while we’ve gone from crowding into a tiny basement apartment in Brooklyn to a loft in Tribeca with a big old home theater, the content hasn’t changed much. It has also lead me to film festivals and markets all over, like Fantasia in Montreal and the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, where I have made dear friends who share my love of these films. The Sleazefest crowd has been pretty much the same core group over the last decade or so with some members trickling in and out, but the objective is still the same, to have fun. But to me it’s more than that, it’s the thing that bonds me and my friends together, a love of this kind of cinema. Many of us met through this fest and have remained friends for a very long time because of it. I never would have expected that exploitation movies would bring me friends that I will probably have for life, but I couldn’t be happier about it. And along the same lines, I never would have expected that GRINDHOUSE, the new “double feature” from Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, would also lift my spirits not just with the joys of its filmmaking, but with its spirit of camaraderie and friendship that flows throughout it. Likewise, I couldn’t be happier.

As everyone knows, GRINDHOUSE is actually two movies in one, PLANET TERROR from Robert Rodriguez and DEATH PROOF from Quentin Tarantino (with several fake trailers thrown in) and it was a film that was born out of the friendship between Tarantino and Rodriguez and their mutual love of these films. It’s also a tribute to a different kind of “event” movie, not PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN but the very idea of a night at the movies circa the late 70s, although PLANET TERROR is more early 80s. This is one of the things that I loved so much about it, that GRINDHOUSE is the sleaze equivalent of “let’s put on a show”, or more like a night at the Alamo Drafthouse. It’s two buddies taking control of the programming for a night to show you stuff that they feel that you’ve just got to see, but this time they’re not only hosting it, they’ve made the damn flicks, too. Like a house party where the host has made sure there’s more than enough beer to drink, good music to dance to and the proper ratio of girls to boys, Tarantino and Rodriguez want to make sure that everyone has more than just a good time, but a night to remember. Even if this isn’t your idea of a good time in the first place, there should be no denying that there is a spirit of showmanship to this film that hasn’t existed in a while. As a piece of entertainment it’s ambitious in a way most films aren’t. There’s spectacle and there’s awesomeness and GRINDHOUSE is unquestionably the later.

There are, of course, two films to be discussed here, but to be honest there really is only one worth discussing. Rodriguez’s film is certainly diverting, but it’s pretty much instantly forgettable, although one could argue that it doesn’t matter any. It’s an all over the place kind of thing, coming together only in its final reels, but it has its charms, no question about it. One of the biggest surprises was seeing Jeff Fahey doing very well in an offbeat character part, like the kind he hasn’t played since WYATT EARP (Jesus, I know more about Jeff Fahey’s career than anyone should!). He steals PLANET TERROR and supplies a surprising amount of charm and you’ve got to give Rodriguez credit for trumping Tarantino on brining an actor back from the brink to give the best performance he’s delivered in years. And it has to said that in casting Rose McGowan as his lead, he’s given her something she hasn’t really had in her career thus far (unless you’re a fan of THE DOOM GENERATION), which is an iconic role. You see her looking fabulous with that machine gun leg and you can’t help but smile and think that this is what she’ll be remembered for (although she gives a better performance in DEATH PROOF). The majority of it is all special effects and gore, which are fine in their own right, but it just goes to show once again that Rodriguez doesn’t really seem to care about making the kind of movies only he wants to see as opposed to making something with some substance to it. Yes, there are more than enough fun moments to make this worth at least one viewing, but we all knew that this segment was going to be the lesser of the two and Rodriguez doesn’t disappoint.

Which leads us to DEATH PROOF, which through me for a loop in so many ways that I’m still in the process of soaking it all up. I mentioned before how this film was not unlike a night at the Alamo Drafthouse and to be more specific, this is the Rolling Roadshow equivalent of a QT Fest, Tarantino’s own festival of prints from his personal collection which he does once every so often at this miraculous venue. I’ve attended several of these throughout the years and always have a fantastic time there. Tarantino is a great host and his selection of films is often first-rate, having unearthed some real gems over the years. It was because of one of these events I went down to Austin for the first time in August 2001 at the invitation of my friend Anthony Timpson and it was there I made friends with the Alamo staff, all of them good friends to this day, and fell in love with the city of Austin, a town I now return to at least twice a year. So while watching the first half of DEATH PROOF, the one set and shot in Austin, an unexpectedly warm, happy feeling came over me. It had more to do than just seeing so many of the Austin haunts that I know and love (like the Drafthouse itself!), but that, in a way, I have experienced this movie long before I ever saw it. Those nights at the Drafthouse, watching the QT fests and other film events I’ve experienced there, surrounded by great friends, having great times: I’ve been there. The friends may not have all been totally hot chicks (a few of them were) and maybe we’re not all stoned (because I don’t roll with that crowd), but it’s still the same. The Austin bars and BBQ joints, all of them came back to me while watching this part. All I needed was a nice, warm breeze and maybe some Amy’s Ice Cream and I would have felt right at home. (And to make matters even better, three of these friends end up getting a special thanks in the end credits!) I loved his selection of actresses, especially Vanessa Ferlito, and could have watched this segment go on for an extra reel (which it seems I will eventually). Of course, the Tarantino dialogue is a pleasure and it’s obvious that he loves these women and so do we. He also gets a mid-70s slasher vibe going very well and I was reminded (in a good way) of the scenes between Jamie Lee Curtis, Nancy Loomis and PJ Soles in HALLOWEEN in that what these women were saying sounded very natural. It’s high time that we give Tarantino props for being a great writer of women, both in characterization and in dialogue, as this segment easily cements. Then, about halfway through, the story changes venues and a new group of women are introduced, all of them equally lovely and even more likeable, all of them portrayed by a wonderful group of actresses. As with the first half of DEATH PROOF, we’re interested in them and enjoy their company, but for me it once again got much deeper than that, because two of the lead characters are gearheads. I also happen to have another dear friend (this one in in L.A.) like that, who I know had already seen and loved the film, and I was reminded of her throughout most of this segment, which I found to be a wonderful thing. I don’t know if she likes to ride on the hoods of muscle cars (I probably wouldn’t put it past her), and since I know that she’s as film obsessed as I am, the smile simply could never leave my face, even in the midst of scenes of unrelenting terror. That’s the other thing about DEATH PROOF that I absolutely fucking loved: It’s a goddamn brilliant horror film.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike character yet and I felt that I shouldn’t mix him in with my praise of the rest of the film, but rest assured that Russell hasn’t been this good in a long, long time. Stuntman Mike is a fascinating character in his own right and Russell handles both the psychotic and the sociopathic elements like a real pro. He’s even very funny in several moments (especially one bit where he runs down his credits) and completely intimidating as a ruthless killer. And there’s no way I can write about this film and not mention the amazing car stunts, not just the chase in the latter half (which literally, no bullshit, had me on the edge of my seat) but one car stunt that was so amazing and intense that it literally left me stunned. In this moment, Tarantino out-Argentos Dario Argento himself and creates what is unquestionably one of the greatest scare scenes in all of movie history, right up there with the chest buster in ALIEN and the first shark attack in JAWS. In a sense, the film peaks at that moment, but the car chase finale is so brilliantly done that it nearly catches up (although I have to confess that the truck chase in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is still the finest car chase in movie history. Sorry, Quentin). SPOILER: And I loved how Stuntman Mike reacts to his comeuppance like a baby, so beautifully handled by Russell and wonderful (and true) in concept that it had me laughing out loud END SPOILER. I’m not going to try and rank DEATH PROOF with the rest of Tarantino’s other work, but I simply have to say that I am unabashedly a fan and have yet to be disappointed. As time goes on and the haters find someone else to harp on, Tarantino will be seen as what he is, a one-of-a-kind true cinematic talent and quite possibly one of the all-time greats. He keeps doing new things and keeps succeeding and how you can’t see or admire that I’ll simply never know.

There’s no way for me to wrap us this piece except to say that even if you have a remote interest in seeing GRINDHOUSE you absolutely should as soon as possible. See it in a theater and experience the love of not only going to the movies but of seeing a film that will shock, surprise and amaze you. I, for one, can’t wait to see it again.

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