April 9, 2007

Grindhouse Brings Back the Sleaze

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The excitingly shameless Rodriguez/Tarantino double feature Grindhouse isn’t only a rekindling of the 70s exploitation films, but a rebirth of the communal novelty in going to the movies. Once again, there is a worthwhile reason to make the trip to the cineplex instead of apathetically waiting for the DVD release or downloading a rip on DC++. This celebration of such raw, unrestrained filmmaking packed the theater with an enthusiastic audience last Friday night, and with the exception of the woeful fool one row behind me who felt it necessary to offer an offensively loud nasal laugh in response to every single frame, I felt an energetic intimacy with my fellow viewers as we all collectively cringed and squirmed at the gloriously indulgent images. It was how I imagined the cinematic experience before Hollywood destroyed its authenticity and auteurism with financial politics.
Before viewing the film, I expected the juxtaposition of these two Hollywood directors to finally expose Rodriguez as the no more envious, incapable imitator of Tarantino’s distinct postmodernism. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is indeed inferior to Tarantino’s Death Proof, but Rodriguez finally succeeds in capturing a mood instead of just tiresomely trying (the tedious, overly self-conscious nihilism of the CG-ridden Sin City comes to mind). Don’t dismiss Planet Terror on account of the misleading trailer’s ridiculous image of a scantily clad woman with a machine gun for a leg, because this is Rodriguez’s most satisfying work yet.
The plot is unoriginal, aimless and nonsensical, but such campiness feels refreshingly authentic in the context of contemporary Hollywood cinema. Go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) unexpectedly reunites with the mysterious, talented gunslinger El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) in J.T.’s (Jeff Fahey) roadside BBQ restaurant. Meanwhile, Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) plans to leave her awesomely creepy, suspecting husband and coworker (Josh Brolin) for her lesbian lover Tammy (Fergie). But the town of Austin, Texas gets even more interesting when a business deal between a diabolical scientist (Lost’s Naveen Andrews), who collects the severed testicles of the men he kills, and a group of U.S. soldiers led by Lt. Muldoon (an uncredited Bruce Willis) goes horribly wrong. A deadly gas infects the air, turning everyone into zombies with a hunger for human flesh.
The whole thing is both a meticulous parody and a respectful celebration of 70s-80s era B-movie conventions. Many scenes, such as when a patient shows up at the doctor’s office with an ugly bite wound that soon becomes something much worse, feel comfortably familiar. Rodriguez doesn’t just dogmatically stick to the traditions of the genre, but hurtles them to the forefront with a raucous excessiveness. Although at some points Planet Terror feels like it is going to plummet over the edge in its frantic, erratic absurdity (an evil scientist who collects human testicles in a pickle jar?), it manages to save itself from getting lost in its parody.
Amidst the sensational insanity there is an authentic freedom that alludes to a world of cinema before censorship and strict conventions. Consider the scene when Dakota Block gives her son a gun, warning him not to point it at himself. The film teasingly obliterates the expected cinematic conventions when the boy in fact does blow his own face off a few seconds later. Rodriguez’s capricious, badly-lit eve of apocalypse feels just as grimy as its honest inspiration, and the greasy, oozy synth soundtrack brilliantly intensifies that feeling.
The film’s big punch line — McGowan as the crippled stripper spraying bullets at zombies with her machine gun leg — is satisfactory, but nothing special. The real gems are Michael Biehn (the unforgettable badass from The Terminator) as the cynical Sheriff Hague and Michael Parks reprising his role from Kill Bill as Earl McGraw. Their performances are essential to the film’s enjoyable, sensational dingy soul.
Like all Rodriguez films, Planet Terror tries a little too hard. Yet at least this one embraces its excessiveness without the slightest reservation. The result is a pleasantly depraved, unhampered piece of work that truly feels like its cheap source matter despite its enormous budget. As one half of a major motion picture release, Planet Terror offers the primal, pulsing thrill of an era largely free from the censorship and regulations of Hollywood.