Thursday, 17 July 2008

Review: Grindhouse

Since I mentioned QT and Death Proof yesterday, I thought it was maybe time to get on with one of the reviews I've been putting off for so long...

As a big fan of both Rodriguez and Tarantino, the prospect of a themed double bill was massively exciting. Being too young to have any experience of the exploitation films in which the concept was born, I was interested to see whether the films would be able to stand up without any grounding in the reference material. The huge expectation was only equalled by the massive disappointment I felt when I discovered that the full "Grindhouse experience" was not to be played in the UK, with the two films being released seperately. Not only would we lose out on seeing the films back to back as they were intended, but also on the B-movie atmosphere set up around them, with an intermission and fake trailers.

Whatever the motivations behind the films being split, I resolved to avoid seeing either film until I could experience them together in their intended format, and luckily didn't have a huge amount of time to wait until there was a run of "proper" showings in Brixton. Since they are different films, I'll talk about them seperately, before doing a quick rundown of how I rated the whole experience.

I saw the films all the way at the back at the beginning of the year, so these reviews may be a little restricted by fuzzy memories, and by my intense desire not to spoil bits of Death Proof for anyone who hasn't seen it. Apologies, hope there's some interest to be got from them:

Planet Terror:

Robert Rodriguez's film was the first to be shown: a darkly comic zombie movie with a large ensemble cast. It's a very enjoyable watch, as long as you don't mind a large amount of pretty graphic (if mostly cartoonishly-over-the-top) gore, and has a tight script to back up the visual extravagance. In particular, the characters, despite remaining essentially caracatures (something of a necessity, given the large cast and hence their limited screen time), are engaging and solid. There's a good chemistry between the actors, and everyone keeps the acting tongue-in-cheek most of the time, ensuring that the movie never starts taking itself too seriously.

The acting is so consistently high it feels slightly wrong to pick out particular roles, but nevertheless if I had to choose, I thought Rose McGowan balanced being funny, sexy and deadly brilliantly, and Josh Brolin is fantastic as the dark, brooding, Dr. Block. Freddy Rodriguez also deserves mention for leading the ensemble admirably. If there was a weak link, it was maybe Tarantino's "cameo", which I felt was a little too long and over-the-top, and doesn't quite gel with the feel of the rest of the movie.

The plot covers both the tension of the initial zombie outbreak and the frenetic action of the fight scenes well, though it maybe loses its way slightly, right at the end. Nevertheless, once the pace gets going it never lets up, and the suspensful hospital scenes at the beginning contrast well with the action-oriented finish.

Overall, I really enjoyed Planet Terror's witty and knowing approach to the zombie movie concept, and it handled with inventiveness and pace what can be a predictable genre.

Death Proof:

It's difficult for me to describe Quentin Tarantino's film, because watching it without knowing anything about it was massively enjoyable. I encourage anyone who hasn't seen it and is planning to, to do so without finding anything out, since it adds masses of suspense to both halves of the film. I'll try not to give too much away in any case, but consider yourselves warned.

I can't find the exact quote, but I remember Mark Kermode talking about Quentin Tarantino and saying that "no one in the world talks the way Tarantino's characters speak". And it's true. The characters in this film talk in the strange plodding, purposful dialog that we can see in all of QT's films, and which doesn't seem to have any relation to the way that people talk in real life. If you can let yourself settle into his world, however, the script really does work - despite watching them talk about basically nothing, you feel like you know characters very quickly. Both halves of the film have extended sequences of chatter, which are massively difficult scenes to keep dynamic, but the vitality of language and sparkling performances ensure that they never feel dull, and left me really caring about the characters.

Backing up the script are a succession of great performances, and I really can't pick out a weak link this time. The standout has to be Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike - it's really difficult to describe why without spoiling it, but his performance in the conclusion of the first half of the story is amazing. Indeed the whole first half of the film packaged up could be presented as its own dark little mini-movie.

The only nitpick I have with the whole thing is that I felt slightly let down by the very end. Where the rest of the film is painfully realistic at times, it descends slightly into cartoon, and I thought it detracted from the film as a whole. Not enough to make the film a very enjoyable (and emotional) experience, and not enough to cause me to recommend seeing it any less.

The Grindhouse Experience:

I couldn't be more glad that I waited to see the films as I did. While you wouldn't necessarily lose anything from the individual movies by watching them seperately, it was the event as a whole that was special. The trailers and fake cinema announcements were small touches, but ones that had been worked hard on, and they turned it from simply a double bill into a carefully crafted experience. It would have been very easy for Tarantino and Rodriguez to just make their own movies, distributed in the usual fashion, but to collaberate and create something both impressive and unique is a real achievement and I'm very happy I got to see it properly.

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