Ground Down

My eyes are up here, QuentinAs promised, here’s a little more on “Grindhouse”, which is very hard to review in 300 words … even though Metro let me stretch the piece out to about 340, risking the very sanctity of the bite-sized newspaper format.

I also took a run at the movie from a different angle in today’s Sympatico/MSN column, which you may or may not find interesting.

Robert Rodriguez’ section of the film, which includes a faux trailer for a Danny Trejo revenge picture called “Machete” (which looks like the lost prequel to the “Spy Kids” films, and was apparently so much fun to shoot that Rodriguez is now actually producing the rest of it) and the feature-length zombie romp “Planet Terror”, is precisely what you want from a movie called “Grindhouse”. It’s got endless affection for the source material, it’s playful and intelligent, and it even features a couple of surprisingly solid performances in the middle of all the splatter.

“Planet Terror” is very similar to Rodriguez and Tarantino’s most recent collaboration, “From Dusk Till Dawn”, in that it sets itself up as a straight-up people-in-a-jam picture — John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” is the most obvious point of reference — and, having established its bona fides, proceeds to go batshit insane in the most enjoyable way.

It’s followed by three more fake trailers, “guest directed” by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth. This is probably the high point of the picture, with note-perfect parodies of three very specific types of exploitation movie (and, though few critics seem to have noted, three very different types of movie marketing) running back to back to back. As with “Machete”, the trailers leave you sorta-kinda wanting to see these movies that never were … well, Zombie’s and Wright’s, anyway.

And then we get to “Death Proof” … which would probably have been a lot more effective if it had just been another fake trailer.

Yes, there’s a really impressive car chase at the end, but to get there you have to sit through two 40-minute stretches of Quentin’s trademark conversations about pop-culture ephemera, and you will not be able to avoid the painful realization that all of his black characters have the same speech pattern as Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules in “Pulp Fiction” now.

I know exactly how this came about. Quentin rationalized that the makers of this imaginary grindhouse picture would have spent 90% of the budget on the two car sequences, and would have had to pad out the rest of the film’s running time. Thus, it makes perfect sense that the characters sit around jawing.

Except that no grindhouse movie would be structured the way “Death Proof” is structured. The shocking act of violence that ends the first half of the picture belongs at the front of the film, possibly even before the credits, the better to grab the audience and keep them waiting for the next big action sequence. Can you think of a single one of these movies where nothing happens in the first two reels?

I will allow that the climax is pretty amazing, as car chases go … though it does go on about three times longer than it should, which gives the viewer plenty of time to wonder why our heroes don’t simply hit the brakes at several pivotal moments. “But then there wouldn’t be a movie,” someone could argue. And we would say: “Sure, there would. It’d just be a lot shorter, and a little less dumb.”

The “Kill Bill” movies were a lot more successful at translating the grindhouse sensibility to the contemporary screen; more to the point, they were grounded in character and peppered with spectacular action sequences. “Death Proof” never quite captures the sleazy tang of cinema’s underbelly; it’s more like a catalogue of how many movies its director has memorized. And you know, he could have rattled off all the references in two and a half minutes, and I’d have been just entertained. Maybe even more so.

41 thoughts on “Ground Down”

  1. Hi Norm. I’m one of your blog readers who was hooked on your reviews back at Starweek and followed you to your blog when you left. Your movie reviews demonstrate an impressive insight into the films’ structure and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of film. While interesting, I also think it does you a disservice as you overanalyse films resulting in the sort of disconnect with the public on which you recently wrote.

    I’m not writing about this because of your Grindhouse review – I haven’t yet seen it, and may agree with you. I realised this a few months ago as I’d read your Metro articles and blog each week. I’m told that I’m overly critical of films and am a bit of a film snob, but you take it to an extreme; you seem to dislike very nearly every movie.

    You’re of course entitled to your opinions, and by no means would I suggest that you alter them to be more ‘accepted’. I just think that you should analyse less and give less significance to the aspects that weren’t achieved as well as you think they should; try to enjoy the flick more. Otherwise, I think you may be too academic for the public to relate – who look to your opinion as a guide on what to see. You may strive to educate the masses on why the movies they see are bad, but it won’t happen – and you’ll be forced to sit through, and write on, an endless supply of crap you won’t enjoy.

    As a film buff, I’ll keep reading your stuff to learn from your analyses. I’ll just look elsewhere for a second opinion on what to go see.

  2. Norm, you forget that Rodriguez and Tarantino also collaborated on ‘Sin City’.

  3. Hi again,

    I was surprised to read in today’s Star an opposite opinion of the two halves of Grindhouse. In
    Peter Howell called “…Death Proof – far the better of the two…” and mentioned that Harvey Weinstein suggested that, “Death Proof would compete for the Palme d’Or next month at the Cannes Film Festival.”

    I saw Grindhouse, and must say that I side with you on this one. I enjoyed most of ‘Planet Terror’, but found that ‘Death Proof’ WAS mostly filler.

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