The Faculty (1998) – Retrospective Horror Movie Review

The Kevin Williamson formula (rewrite familiar horror scenarios and have the characters note the familiarity) has gotten to be a bore, and in this case it makes no sense. In a story patterned after INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (though it stumbles closer to INVADERS FROM MARS), the characters surmise that films like MIB and ID4 were made by aliens as a form of disinformation to fool us from recognizing a real invasion; yet the characters end up using science-fiction films as a foolproof blueprint to defeat the aliens!
Still, the film is more interesting than the overrated SCREAM-fests. The high school setting, with the faculty gradually being taken over, actually works, because conformity and peer pressure are such a big part of the characters’ lives. The plot generates empathy and suspense as its outcast students band together to fight off the alien menace; their growing paranoia is nicely handled, and the litmus test (each proves he or she is still human by snorting caffeine) is a hoot. Most interesting is the idea that the people who have been snatched are actually improved by their condition: the hard-ass coach turns into an understanding guy; the mousy teacher (Janssen in a stunning piece of Jekyll-Hyde work) turns into a self-confident vamp.
Unfortunately, the potential in this idea is never realized, because the filmmakers do not trust it to hold our interest; instead, they pander to their target teen audience with copious computer effects, plus gratuitous and gory stalk-and-slash scenes. Question: Why does the football coach (Patrick) drive a pencil into the hand of the principal (Neuwirth), when the aliens want to snatch bodies, not slash them? Answer: Because the film needed a shocking image in opening reel! It is hard to feel frightened by the temptation of the alien’s promise of blissful conformity when we see evil pod people slashing their victims to death.
Director Rodriguez is as much to blame for this: a fine action specialist, he has the most fun when all hell breaks loose; a long, slow, suspenseful buildup just is not what interests him. Still, he keeps things lively, even when they get silly: the film ends with a romantic kiss between the geek and the head cheerleader (easily the most unbelievable image in the movie – far more so than the squid-shaped true form of the aliens), followed by a closing montage of the cast showing all the pod people back to normal – even those who were shot, decapitated, and stabbed in they eye!
THE FACULTY(Dimension Films, 1998). Director: Robert Rodriguez. Writer: Kevin Williamson. 101 mins. R. Cast: Elijah Wood, Laura Harris, Robert Patrick, Bebe Neuwirth, Famke Janssen, Piper Laurie, Salma Hayek.

Sin City (2005) – Retrospective Film Review

A Ground-Breaking Piece of Film-Noir Fantasy

Jessica Alba in That Yellow Bastard
Jessica Alba in "That Yellow Bastard"

This is a small milestone in the history of cinema: a $45-million film shot, on co-director Robert Rodriguez’s sound-stage in Austin, Texas, using actors in front of green screen to combine the cast with CGI backdrops, thus creating an artificial environment that simulates the feel of the Frank Miller graphic novels on which the stories are based.
The result is a hard-boiled, noirish film that revels in a pulp-fiction type storytelling that’s crude but powerful — and very effective. It’s not a total success: its trio of tales are a bit too similar to each other — variations on a theme, without quite enough variation — but that’s not enough to prevent the film from being a hypnotic exercise in style that succeeds on its own unique terms. Filmed mostly in black-and-white (with specific objects shown in color), the film creates a distinctively memorable look that conveys the essence of comic book art better than anything previously seen in films like CREEPSHOW or DICK TRACY.
There has probably been too much written about the film’s graphic novel origins and about how special effects were used to translate that look onto film. To some extent this is the fault of Rodriguez, who emphasized his faithful approach to the material in interviews given before the films release, going so far as to tell the Los Angeles Times: “I didn’t want to take SIN CITY and make it into a movie. I didn’t want to adapt it or squeeze it down. I wanted to take cinema and make it a moving graphic novel…. [Miller’s] book was bolder and more visionary than anything anyone was trying to do in cinema. I said, ‘We could reinvent cinema just by re-shooting what you did page for page.’”
There have even been too many comparisons to the previous year’s lamentable SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, because both movies were shot on high-definition digital cameras and used CGI to create background settings. This kind of commentary misses the real triumph of SIN CITY, which is that it creates a valid cinematic style (whatever its source and inspiration) that works on film because it tells the violent and often wildly incredible stories in a way that makes the tough-guy clichés, hard-boiled voice-overs, blond bombshells, excessive shoot-outs, and enormous bloodletting seem entirely appropriate, even if you don’t have a particular taste for graphic violence on screen.
And unlike SKY CAPTAIN, which felt embalmed, SIN CITY zips along with amazing vitality. How the backgrounds were created is immaterial to our appreciation of the finished product, because the film does not feel computer generated. The special effects are only “special” in the sense that they used different techniques (besides building real sets); in terms of the film, they’re integrated like any other shot, just part and parcel of a clear cinematic vision.
In his famous essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler wrote, “Down these mean streets a man must go.” SIN CITY presents an old-fashioned fantasy world, like Chandler’s, where the seedy and sometimes ugly appearance of the protagonist hides the fact that beneath the cynical sneer lurks the soul of a white knight who will risk and sacrifice everything; however, the streets of Basin City (the town’s official name) are meaner than anything Chandler ever described. Considering the gore quotient, a more apt comparison would be to the violent mystery-thrillers penned by Mickey Spillane. SIN CITY is a den of corruption, where the powerful protect the wicked, and where lone men are forced to dispense a grim and ugly version of justice on their own, because the official rule of law is no more than a charade, and the only way to fight the bad guys is to “play it their way, only worse (to paraphrase Spillane’s private eye, Mike Hammer).
This sense of doing the right thing, in spite of incredible odds, lends SIN CITY a solid foundation lacking in most films directed by Robert Rodriguez (e.g., ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO). So it’s nice to see that co-director Frank Miller’s source material helped Rodriguez (always an entertaining stylist) put his visual firepower in the service of something that is more than just empty flash. You wouldn’t want to call SIN CITY sophisticated, exactly, but like all good popular entertainment it knows how to manipulate the lowest-common-denominator elements to good effect. The film may not have the intricacy of a string quartet, but it rocks like a supercharged three-chord head-banger anthem that doesn’t need subtle harmonies and modulations to make its point.
The tone may be too hard-edged and brutal for some, and the familiar clichés may not appeal to everyone. However, like many great science-fiction and fantasy films (ranging from METROPOLIS to BLADE RUNNER), Frank Miller’s SIN CITY immerses the viewer in a strange, new world. Open-minded viewers, looking for something brilliant and amazing, should enjoy the trip.

TRIVIA

After his previous experience with Hollywood, in particular working on the scripts ROBOTCOP 2 and 3, Frank Miller was not interested in having his work filmed. To convince Miller that a satisfactory film version of SIN CITY could be made, Rodriguez invited Miller to help film a test scene (based on Miller’s “The Customer Is Always Right” from “The Babe Wore Red”), which became the film’s opening sequence (with Josh Hartnett as a hit man who bumps off a blond in a red dress). Rodriguez paid for the shoot, cut and scored the footage, which got the go-ahead from Miller to make the feature. Rodriguez then invited Miller to co-direct the film, in order to make sure that the result would accurately reflect his vision. The Directors Guild of America frowns on co-directing credits, so Rodriguez resigned his membership. This decision was not without consequences. Not being a guild member, Rodriguez can direct only independent films; major Hollywood studios only hire DGA members.
Quentin Tarantino “guest directed” one scene, in which Clive Owen and Benecio Del Toro have a macabre conversation in a car (SPOILER: Del Toro’s character is dead, so the conversation must be taking place only in the other character’s mind). Tarantino’s directing fee was $1, his way of paying Rodriquez back for scoring Tarantino’s KILL BILL VOL 2 for only $1.

Marv (Mickey Rourke) consults his parold officer.
Marv (Mickey Rourke) consults his parold officer.

There is no screenplay credit because Rodriguez simply transcribed three graphic novels from the SIN CITY series. The three stories are “The Hard Goodbye” (in which Marv, played by Mickey Rourke, tracks down the killers of a prostitute); “The Big Fat Kill” (with Clive Owen as Dwight, helping get some prostitute out of trouble when the kill a corrupt cop); and “That Yellow Bastard” (the story of John Hartigan, played by Bruce Willis in the movie, who sacrifices himself to save a girl from a serial pedophile-murderer). Rather like the first STAR WARS film, the first graphic novel (the story about Marv avenging the death of Goldie) was simply titled SIN CITY when it was originally published, as a stand-alone effort; only later, when Miller turned SIN CITY into a series, did he retroactively title the first one “The Hard Goodbye.”

DVD DETAILS

The original DVD for SIN CITY was a bare-bones presentation with only one bonus feature on the disc; there was not even a trailer. The DVD’s menu mixes images of the film with comic book-style drawings, and the Chapter Search function is amusing. It’s laid out to look like panels of a comic book (or graphic novel, if you prefer), and the scene selector icon is a splash of red (i.e., blood) whose spray pattern changes slightly as it switches from one scene to the next.
The behind-the-scenes featurette is fun but short — under nine minutes. It’s basically a promotional piece shot before the film was finished (the actors comment on how much they are looking forward to seeng the final product). We get some interesting glimpses of the actors working on the green scene set (the preferred color that allows the special effects experts to add in their computer-generated sets in post-production), and several of the actors related sound bytes about their characters and how they got involved in the film. Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, and Quentin Tarantino all speak about the film, but their respetive contributions are not clarified (it’s not even explained that Tarantino directed only one scene).
Ultimately, it is an interesting glimpse behind-the-scenes, but it left one anticipating future “special edition” DVD that would  provide athe in-depth low-down on how the film was made. This eventually arrived, first in the form of a double-disc special edition and eventually on Blu-ray (reviewed here).
Frank Miller’s SIN CITY(2005). Directors: Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller. Special Guest Director: Quentin Tarantino. Based on the graphic novels by Frank Miller. Cast: Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Rosario Dawson, Jessica Alba, Jamie King, Benicio Del Toro, Powers Booth, Rutger Hauer, Elijah Wood.

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski

Sin City – 2-Disc Blu-Ray Review

The SIN CITY Blu-Ray is an easy early candidate for any 2009 discs of the year list.

Released almost exactly four years ago, the massive impact that SIN CITY had on the way Hollywood makes movies has been somewhat blunted by subsequent efforts utilizing the tools without the talent. SIN CITY was filmed using state-of-the-art digital cameras (the Sony HDC-950) to shoot the actors on a nearly bare green soundstage; then a fully digital backdrop was inserted around the performances. This method had been used previously by George Lucas in the Star Wars prequels, but their flat presentation and Lucas’ seemingly inability to coax convincing performances from his actors (nearly everyone save Ewan McGregor appears hopelessly lost, particularly in the first film) won the process few supporters. The hyper-stylized SIN CITY is the first (and thus far, only) time that green-screen filmmaking has produced the cinematic miracle long promised audiences by forward-thinking directors.
SIN CITY actually began as a series of books by Frank Miller, regarded by many as one of the saviors of modern-day graphic novels. Perhaps only Alan Moore can claim to have cast as long a shadow since the early ’80s, but it was Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (released in 1986, the same year as Moore’s Watchmen) that set off a concussion grenade within the industry, forever changing the nature and method of storytelling within the format. The early Sin City books were written in the early ’90s and were the first to be completely written and inked by Miller in stark black and white, paying tribute to the stories’ film noir inspiration. The books were always close to Miller’s heart, and the author had refused all offers to adapt them into films until Robert Rodriguez invited Miller down to Austin, TX to witness the filming of a test sequence (the footage that would eventually make up “The Customer is Always Right” story.) Miller was blown away by Rodriguez’s approach; preserving nearly all of the author’s dialog and using his panels as strict storyboards. So close would the finished product be to Miller’s original vision that Rodriguez gave Miller co-directing credit on the film (a move that was initially blocked by the DGA, causing Rodriguez to resign in protest.) After the initial shoot, the entire city, including buildings, cars, streets and sky, was painted-in digitally during post-production, rendering a Basin City that is at once highly stylized and unreal, but also a tangible, living place. The resulting film utilized 3 of Frank Miller’s books and a short framing device; the theatrical and extended cuts differ not just in length, but how the stories are interwoven. In chronological order, they are:
The Customer is Always Right
The opening of the film features Josh Hartnett as a hitman who meets his next subject – a beautiful woman standing on a balcony while a cocktail party continues inside. She’s clearly distressed by an un-named worry, and after quietly assuring her that everything will be alright, he unexpectedly shoots her with a silenced pistol. His narration tells us that he’ll “cash her check in the morning”
That Yellow Bastard
Bruce Willis stars as about-to-retire Basin City detective Hartigan, spending his last hours before retirement going after a child murderer and rapist (Nick Stahl), who also happens to be the only son of Senator Roark (Powers Boothe.) Hartigan arrives at the docks in time to save 11 year old Nancy, and “disarm” Roark via the removal of both his shooting and raping mechanisms. Hartigan is betrayed at the last minute by his partner (Michael Madsen) and winds up framed as the pedophile/murderer. Fearing for Nancy’s safety, Hartigan remains silent, never protesting his innocence even after 8 years of imprisonment. He retains his sanity with weekly letters from Nancy – until one day the letters stop and a severed finger arrives instead. Thinking that Roark’s men have finally located her, Hartigan confesses to the crimes in order to secure parole and save the now 19 year old Nancy (Jessica Alba) from the very much alive Roark Jr., who has mutated into a bald, gangrenous-yellow colored monster as a side effect of experimental surgery used to restore his manhood.
The Hard Goodbye
After a night of passion with the beautiful Goldie (Jamie King), the hulking Marv (Mickey Rourke) wakes to the sound of police sirens and Goldie lying dead beside him, killed silently during the night while he slept. Enraged at the death of the only girl to show him kindness –Marv resembles a cross between a Dick Tracy villain and the Incredible Hulk – he sets out to find her killer. What he finds is a web of corruption leading to Senator Roark’s own brother, the real power behind Basin City, Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer, looking disturbingly like Otto Preminger) who protects Goldie’s killer, Kevin (Elijah Wood), at the Roark family farm. It turns out that Kevin has been allowed to both murder and eat the bodies of women for years, and Goldie was murdered after learning of the partnership between Kevin and the Cardinal. Marv becomes even more bent on revenge when he finds that his only friend, parole officer Lucille (the ever-gorgeous Carla Gugino) has been held captive at the farm and forced to watch as Kevin ate her own hand.
The Big Fat Kill
After spending the night with barmaid Shellie (Brittany Murphy), Dwight (Clive Owen) is forced to set her former boyfriend Jackie Boy (Benicio del Toro) straight after he barges into her apartment with his cronies (“straight” in this case means holding his head in a urine-filled toilet). Jackie Boy leaves in disgust, ready to start trouble with the prostitutes in Basin City’s Old Town section. After he pulls a gun on the girl’s leader, Gail (Rosario Dawson), the lethal martial arts expert Miho kills Jackie Boy and all his associates with her Katana sword. Things get dicey when Jackie Boy’s ID reveals him to be respected Basin City detective, whose murder at the hands of the Old Town prostitutes would bring a speedy end to the truce that has allowed the girls to run Old Town without police interference. Dwight volunteers to hide the bodies in a tar pit outside of town, but is intercepted along the way by a gang of mercenaries brought in by Basin City’s largest organized crime family who want to use Jackie Boy’s head to break the truce and take over the prostitution racket in Old Town for themselves. An informant among the girls betrays Gail and reveals their location, leading to a violent showdown to determine the course of Old Town for good and all.
In the wake of Watchmen’s disappointing box office and lukewarm critical reaction, SIN CITY seems even better now than when first released. Watchmen director Zack Snyder first employed SIN CITY’s distinctive filming style on another Frank Miller book, 300. The resulting film certainly retained the visual scheme from the book, but the adaptation was so slavish to Miller’s vision that Snyder never had room to develop his own. Watchmen had nearly the same problem; with performances and visuals feeling so locked-in that the entire production had the feel of a play that had been too-often rehearsed and arrived stale on opening night. But Rodriguez seems to be invigorated by the process that has strangled so many others. Rodriguez’ style, even filtered through Miller’s book, is assured, with carefully chosen angles and what must be a trusting relationship with actors, with no one turning in the ‘phoned-in’ performances of the type that too often wash up on the comic-adaptation shores. Miller’s bleak world-view will be familiar to his readers, and Rodriguez miraculously retains the book’s feel of corruption dripping from all levels of organized society. Each of the three main stories casts its villains from among Basin City’s 3 leadership castes: organized crime, politics, and the church. Miller’s heroes have learned through experience not to trust in any of them, as they have watched with their own eyes as they both figuratively and literally feed off the denizens of ‘Sin City’.
Those touting Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler as a comeback clearly weren’t paying much attention when SIN CITY was released in 2005. In terms of pure marquee value, Rourke’s name is just a minor one in a cast top heavy with major stars (including Bruce Willis, Clive Owen, and Benicio del Toro) solid younger talent (Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, and Jessica Alba) and experienced pros (Powers Boothe and Rutger Hauer), but it’s his Marv that becomes the unlikely heart of the film. Covered under multiple layers of latex appliances (and for a large middle section, literally dozens of facial bandages) Rourke nonetheless burrows down and finds a soul to Marv that wasn’t always evident on the page.
Rourke is matched by possibly the biggest name in the Rodriguez/Tarantino stock company, Bruce Willis. His narration beautifully sets the hard-boiled tone right from the opening moments and his weathered face grounds a portion of the film in a gritty reality. Willis is becoming geometrically more interesting to watch as he ages; the ticks and quirks that he used to fall back on even in serious roles are falling away, revealing the sort of character actor face that Anthony Mann would have sold his soul to get in front of the camera. Willis was born to walk Frank Miller’s black and white, noir-infused universe and lends Hartigan’s story a weight and purpose that is extraordinary.
Both actors lift their respective stories – “That Yellow Bastard” and “The Hard Goodbye” – beyond the realm of simple revenge tails, and into something that at least seems more meaningful. Only Michael Madsen disappoints in a minor role as Hartigan’s duplicitous partner, leading us to assume that Tom Sizemore was somehow unavailable (we’re actually thinking of starting a Facebook group devoted to digitally inserting a Sizemore performance over each of Madsen’s existing ones.)
The film’s weak link is the third tale, “The Big Fat Kill”; Owen is fine but neither he nor his character have the inherent gravity that comes with age and experience, and without the undeniably powerful revenge hook that powers the other stories, he’s stuck swinging away in the weakest link of a still-strong chain. Dawson never looked better, and her cadre of working girls look resplendent in fishnets and lace, but there’s an odd lack of focus on what should be the mail plotline – the mob takeover of Old Town – and far too much time is wasted on Dwight’s imagined chat with Jackie Boy’s corpse in the front seat of his car (not surprisingly, this is the sequence that was “guest directed” by Quentin Tarantino).
As the dodgy link in the chain, Rodriguez should have gotten “Kill” out of the way in a hot hurry, but instead chose to wrap the strongest, “Bastard,” around the other two (the story pauses after Hartigan is shot by his partner just after saving young Nancy and resumes after “Kill.”) As in Miller’s books, the characters and stories interact with each other to a limited degree – we see Marv sitting at the bar during Hartigan’s visit to Kadie’s bar, where Dwight’s girlfriend Shellie (Brittany Murphy) works – and “Bastard” does have a natural break when Hartigan is sent to prison.
Fortunately, anyone who finds the ordering of the stories problematic will be thrilled to hear that, like the previous special edition DVD, the new Blu-Ray edition of SIN CITY presents each story individually (though unlike the previous DVD, you can play all stories straight through) in extended cuts, bringing the running time to 147min (versus the 126min theatrical edit). Once you watch the original theatrical edit, we find watching the individual extended stories to be constantly rewarding, filling out the superb “Bastard” and “Goodbye” with welcome character grace notes and making them feel more like separate features than merely smaller parts of a whole.
Howeverthis does leave “Customer” a bit out in the cold, as it only exists to start and end the film – presented on its own, it doesn’t make much sense. This also brings up one small gripe with the set. Though the 147-min running time sounds great, remember that each of the four sections is presented with a separate set of closing credits. This totals close to half of the 20min of “new” footage, and, since the technical crews ought to have been the same, it is rather nonsensical.
The 1080p Blu-Ray image is quite simply one of the best we’ve ever seen. With the unusual nature of the photography, we were frankly prepared for anything, as this sort of high-contrast photography can be a nightmare to get under control unless someone who knows what they’re doing is paying careful attention. Because SIN CITY was shot on digital video cameras, this Blu-Ray should be a direct hard-drive transfer (in much the same way as the Pixar movies are) and that’s exactly how it looks. During “Bastard,” the added detail reveals the scruff on Willis’ chin and the lines on his face so vividly as to almost appear to be 3D. It’s a reference-quality disc that ought to win over just about anyone. And though the DTS-HD mix is somewhat over the head of our equipment, it was certainly good enough to make us wish we didn’t have neighbors. The Blu-Ray replicates nearly all the special features from the previous DVD edition, adding two HD exclusives:
Disc 1: Restored Theatrical Version

  • Cine-Explore – Blu-ray Exclusive
  • Commentary With Robert Rodriguez And Frank Miller
  • Commentary With Robert Rodriguez And Quentin Tarantino
  • Audio Track Featuring A Recording Of The Austin Audience Reaction

Disc 2: Recut, Extended, Unrated Version

  • Kill ‘Em Good Interactive Comic Book — Blu-ray Exclusive
  • Rodriguez Special Features
    – 15-Minute Film School
    – All Green Screen Version
    – The Long Take
    – Sin City: Live In Concert
    – 10-Minute Cooking School
  • How It Went Down: Convincing Frank Miller To Make The Film
  • Special Guest Director: Quentin Tarantino
  • A Hard Top With A Decent Engine: The Cars Of Sin City
  • Booze, Broads And Guns: The Props Of Sin City
  • Making The Monsters: Special Effects Make-Up
  • Trench Coats & Fishnets: The Costumes Of Sin City
  • Teaser And Theatrical Trailer

As with all of Rodriguez’s commentaries, this one (two, actually) is/are a gas. The guy is practically a one-man filmmaking band, and it’s amazing to hear that he still has enough energy and enthusiasm left for two separate chat tracks. Rodriguez and Tarantino have recorded tracks together before (From Dusk ‘Till Dawn) and listing to these two revving each other’s geek-engines might not be to everyone’s taste, but we always find it an infectious good time – and stay tuned for a surprise guest showing up towards the end. Rodriguez’s track with Miller will be of enormous interest to comic fans, and it’s interesting to hear how they did actually work in congress to make the film (making it a shame that Miller couldn’t get similar help on last year’s The Spirit, a truly gut-wrenching disappointment that, we’re sorry to say, robs many of SIN CITY’s style points.)
The audience reaction track is a fun idea – and once you know the film, there are several beats that you’ll want to hear a crowd react to – but we can’t imagine watching the entire film this way. The major Blu-Ray exclusive, is the “Cine-Explore” feature, which is an easier to handle variant on Universal’s daunting U-Control feature. When running, it activates the Rodriguez-Miller commentary track and highlights whatever BTS footage is available that illustrates what the filmmakers are discussing at any given moment. We were surprised at how well it actually works, and would love to see it used on other extant commentary tracks.
The extras on the second disc are all from the previous DVD and transcend the standard EPK fluff. The green screen version is basically the entire film as is was originally shot, in color and on an all green sound stage (though run through at many, many times normal speed.) There’s likely no place in the world with a less noir-ish atmosphere than a bare, bright green stage, and this helps to really appreciate the technical marvel that SIN CITY represents. The Long Take offers a fascinating peek into the filming of Tarantino’s segment with Owen and del Toro. It’s not our favorite scene, but it’s very interesting to see how the actors work, both with the director and with each other. We’re also continually amazed at the amount of good information Rodriguez packs into his ‘Film School’ shorts.
The second disc’s Blu-Ray exclusive is the “Kill ‘em Good” interactive comic book, which is apparently a game inspired by “The Hard Goodbye.” Our patience with “interactive games” on discs ran out long ago, and we gave it a miss. If any reader feels like jumping in – please give us a report! Unfortunately, the previous 2-disc DVD set came with a fabulous extra that hasn’t been included here: a paperback copy of “The Hard Goodbye” (consider keeping the packaging from the old set and swap out the discs.)
The SIN CITY Blu-Ray is an easy candidate for the 2009 discs of the year list, with an image so eye-popping that you almost forgive that the older supplements haven’t been upgraded to HD. Highly, highly recommended.

Grindhouse (2007) – Film Review

This homage to exploitation cinema of decades past seeks is not so much a movie as a gimmick that links together two feature films, plus a handful of faux trailers and advertisements – all appropriately scratched and faded to recreate the experience of attending a second-rate “grindhouse” theatre playing beat-up old prints. As amusing as the concept is, the actual result is a considerable disappointment – a high-tech forgery that lacks the disreputable charm of its models, which were made without the self-conscious affectation on display here. The movie is not without its merits, but it’s safe to say that much of it would have been derisively hooted off the screen at any real grindhouse theatre. In at least one sense, however, the film perfectly captures the grindhouse experience: it promises much more than it delivers.

GRINDHOUSE launches with its best foot forward, a fake trailer called “Machete,” starring character actor Danny Trejo as a Mexican man set up by the people who hired him to assassinate a senator. The brief flurry of outrageous violence, overblown dialogue, and hyperbolic narration yields the perfect recipe for an explosive blast of sheer, giddy fun that the rest of GRINDHOUSE cannot possibly match. Perhaps retrofitted exploitation is better in two-minute doses.

That brief opening exhilaration extends through the first few minutes of “Planet Terror,” written and directed by Robert Rodriguez. With a nod to George Romero’s zombie films like DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD (whose make-up supervisor, Tom Savini, shows up in a supporting role), the story portrays a small town in Texas overrun by zombie-like mutants who have been infected by chemical weapons.

Robert Rodriguez's PLANET TERROR

After getting off to a good start, the film bogs down in its narrative meanderings. In way, it too closely emulates its models: it’s boring, and you have to wait for the eruptions of gore and violence to break the boredom. By the time the jokey “Reel Missing” title card flashes on screen and the film jumps ahead as if several scenes have been lost, you’re grateful for the quickstep progress in what had hitherto been building tedium rather than tension.
When the shit hits the proverbial fan near the conclusion, the action blast across the screen in an unapologetic way, but the central visual conceit of actress Rose McGowan with a rifle in place of a leg never really comes off, yielding more derisive chuckles than gasps of excitement. (In the low point, she is supposed to blow smoke away from the recently fired weapon, and it is painfully obvious that she cannot get her mouth anywhere near enough to the barrel to have an effect.) At least the episode is partially redeemed by Rodriguez’s simple but effective music, a pounding, repetitive motif that recurs throughout in different permutations, a la Ennio Morricone and John Carpenter.
Next comes a trio of phony trailers: Rob Zombie’s “Werewolf Women of the S.S.,” Edgar Wright’s “Don’t,” and Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving.” All are amusing, but none match the delights of the opening “Machete.” Wright’s stands out a bit by virtue of aiming at a target other than cheap exploitation films; its visual style consciously recalls higher-class efforts like 1973’s THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (one actor is a dead ringer for Roddy McDowall, right down to his hair cut).
Roth’s trailer perfectly captures the washed-out look and downbeat “serious” tone of sleazeball horror films, and Zombie gets credit for making a mini-movie that includes both Udo Keir and Nicolas Cage (who, despite being an Oscar-winner, has shown a penchant for ham-handed scenary chewing that would be quite appropriate in a grindhouse movie).

Quentin Tarantino's DEATH PROOF

Next up is writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” which seems deliberately designed to piss off the target audience. One can admire the nerve it took promise “explicit sexuality and hard-core thrills” and then deliver a feature film that consists mostly of two groups of women sitting around in bars, cars, and cafes, talking about their personal lives; however, that does not make the result entertaining. There may be a sly strategy at work here: the character stuff is so boring that you eagerly look forward to the intrusion of death and violence, which takes the form of Kurt Russell as “Stuntman Mike,” who uses his car to plow through the first group of girls but gets more than he bargains for with the second. Unfortunately, Russell is not really the star of the episode – he is off-screen far too long – so his presence is not enough to save it. But he deserves high-fives all around for taking his despicable woman-killer and turning him into a pathetic loser who whines like a baby when the tables are turned on him.
The other big plus in “Death Proof” is the astounding stunt work by Zoe Bell (who doubled for The Bride in KILL BILL). Here, Bell plays herself, on vacation in America, where she goes on a test drive in a white Dodge (like the one from VANISHING POINT) and hangs off the hood suspended by nothing but a pair of belts. Tarantino gets his camera right in on the action so that you can see it is real, with Bell hanging on for dear life when she and her friends run afoul of Stuntman Mike.
Even so, the chase sequence never matches the thrills of BULLET, and Tarantino overplays his hand: several times, the driver of Bell’s care passes up opportunities to slow down and/or stop, so that Bell could get off the hood and back into the car; this stretches the situation out beyond belief or credibility, delaying what we really want to see – and what Tarantino finally delivers – Bell and friends turning the tables and putting Stuntman Mike in his place. Sadly, the comeuppance arrives, satisfying as it is, cannot possibly justify the time it took getting to it.


In the end, GRINDHOUSE is almost exactly the opposite of what it promises to be. Real grindhouse movies were made on fast schedules with few resources; the exploitation elements were necessary in order to give the audience some kind of entertainment value in exchange for their ticket-buying dollar. Running times were short (88 minutes fit into a single canister, making it cheaper to ship to theatres), and self-indulgent filmmaking was pretty much out of the question.
Rodriguez and Tarantino no doubt have sincere affection for these films, but they come across as posers – not too far from Pat Boone covering a Little Richard song. As much fun as the exploitation action is, it lacks the serious sleaze of the genuine article, and it’s not quite arch enough to amuse as camp. And for all the promise of balls-to-the-wall mayhem, what they deliver here is no more hardcore than anything we’ve seen in their previous films. Hopefully, if GRINDHOUSE II is ever made, the Dynamic Duo will take executive producer roles and hand over the directorial reigns to some young, hungry filmmaker eager to churn out a real grindhouse movie. Either that, or Rodriguez could make the actual feature-length version of “Machete.”

PARTING THOUGHT

Put crudely, one might say that watching GRINDHOUSE is a bit like watching two guys jerk each other off while staring at a Playboy centerfold. In their own minds, they’re having sex with a beautiful woman, and for some reason, they expect us to share their fantasy. But only a blindly loyal fan could be blind to the ugly truth.

TRIVIA

The (actual) trailers for GRINDHOUSE feature shots that are not in the final film (such as Kurt Russell saying “I’m not a cowboy; I’m a stuntman.” According to Rose MacGowan, Tarantino wrote a script for “Death Proof” that was long enough to be a stand-alone feature. Expect lots of deleted scenes (or an extended director’s cut) when the film arrives on DVD.

PLANET TERROR DIRECTOR’S CUT

For DVD, the GRINDHOUSE double bill was divided up into two titles, one for Robert Rodriguez’s PLANET TERROR and one for Quentin Tarantino’s DEATH PROOF. Each offerd an extended unrated director’s cut. The longer version of PLANET TERROR still begins with “Machete” – bogus preview for flick about a Mexican day laborer set up to take the fall for a political assassination – which was probably the highlight of GRINDHOUSE when it was in theatres. Unfortunately, the new cut does not alter PLANET TERROR in any major way – it just adds little bits and pieces throughout – so unless you loved the film to begin with, there’s not much reason to see it again. In case, you were wondering, despite restored footage, the “Scene Missing” title card remains in place, so you still will not learn what Wray said to convince the Sheriff to suddenly trust him.