How to review "Grindhouse," the new Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double feature that, like all Tarantino movies, pays homage to and educates many about a style or genre of movies long gone or overlooked.
It is, in a word, difficult. Anyone who has three and half hours to kill and a penchant for blood, cars and scantily clad women is going to enjoy both Rodriguez’s "Planet Terror" and Tarantino’s "Death Proof." They are both simply fantastic B-Grade movies. So there is the review, they are fun and gory, but that isn’t the point so be forewarned that the review stops here and a discussion that will most likely only interest cinephiles proceeds.
What then is the point? The point is to bring back a bygone era or genre of down and dirty filmmaking where major studios and digital effects were no where to be seen and the only thing getting these films made was a lot of idiots with cameras, fake blood and the balls to drive cars the wrong way down a one way street with a camera strapped into the seat next to them - a sort of prehistoric filmmaking. Both films show a yearning for a time when the movie going experience wasn’t so homogenized, clean cut and elitist.
But the ultimate irony and one that Rodriguez seems to have completely missed is that the films themselves would not have been able to be made without the growing homogony of the film industry. This is especially true for "Planet Terror" which is full of digital gore effects, computer generated scratches on the film and over the top action that would have never been possible in those cheap zombie films of yester year. The movies plot and action about a chemical which escapes into the air and turns people into flesh eating zombies is right out of the cheesiest B-grade horror films but Rodriguez uses the film scoring, discoloration, terrible splices and general faked bad quality to effect the film dramatically, effectively making what was once a random occurrence that added character (or something) to those old screenings just another digital effect. In short, Rodriguez’s film is more of a loving, updated mimicry of the films Grindhouse is recalling. Mimicry, it is said, is the greatest form of flattery but it hardly recreates the feeling that those old theaters had. All it does is present the subject like a caveman display in a museum. Sure it’s fun to look at for a while but it barely gives you an idea of what it was like to be there.
"Death Proof," which follows "Planet Terror" after a few fake previews (the horror film "Thanksgiving" must be made into a real movie for the benefit of all mankind), on the other hand seems to get it a little better. Tarantino, who, in all fairness, has had far more practice creating films that don’t mimic but capture the feeling of their predecessors, focuses much more on making a film than honoring the past and, in the end, does a better job of both. Eventually, as the story of an ex-stuntman (Kurt Russel) who gets his jollies by crashing his stunt car into young pretty women unfolds, the faked scratches and digital discolorations fade away and instead of a movie trying to be a grindhouse film you get an actual grindhouse film with real car chases in real muscle cars like the ones in "Vanishing Point" and the original "Gone in 60 Seconds" (both referenced in the film). With the digital effects gone and the focus of the film shifted to and dialogue it’s almost as if that cave man display has come to life and invited you back in time. Unfortunately for us living with the cavemen isn’t as fun as it should be, the action is amazing but Tarantino loves his dialogue a bit too much in the beginning of the movie, especially after the 90 minutes of action that was "Planet Terror." But even if it hadn’t come second the two major scenes of dialogue, although tightly directed, do not stand up to any of Tarantino’s previous works.
The end result of the two movies being put together is a little lopsided. Most of the fun and dumb action comes first in "Planet Terror" and most of the respect and knowledge comes second in "Death Proof."
To move back to the caveman metaphor, imagine the two directors are students who were asked to create a project on cavemen. Rodriguez brings in an incredibly fun and entertaining mock up of caveman life, Tarantino brings in an actual caveman (maybe from the GEICO commercials) but he’s a bit dull. The class (general public) is going to love the one that’s more fun but the teacher (cinephiles and film critics) know that mimicry is easy, creation is the tough part.