One of the unspoken pleasures of being deep into exploitation movies is the feeling that you're part of a cinephile underground — that when you drop names like Sid Haig or Lucio Fulci, or titles like "White Line Fever" or "Ilsa, the Wicked Warden," most people won't know what you're talking about. Which is no doubt true. However, to make the further assumption that nobody will know what you're talking about is, by now, delusional. The illicit kick that these films — the slash-and-crash fodder of a million double-header matinees — once had, back in the days when they were screened in small-town drive-ins and sordid urban grind houses, has long since dissipated. Insider appreciation of such pictures started bleeding out into the mainstream in the early 1980s, with the publication of such mass-market Z-movie bibles as Michael Weldon's "Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film" and Danny Peary's "Cult Movies"; and by 1994, when Tim Burton released a major-studio biopic about the most celebrated bad director in the history of the medium, the cultists' clubhouse door was left dangling on its hinges. Ed Wood had left the building.
So there's a faint air of condescension wafting out of "Grindhouse," the new fake double feature from exploitation fans Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. The picture consists of two quickie-style movies — Rodriguez's "Planet Terror," an exuberant zombie-gore flick, and Tarantino's excruciatingly dull "Death Proof" — interspersed with very funny fake trailers. The film purports to instruct us about what it was like to experience lovably-bad exploitation movies back in the early '70s. And so the footage has been digitally manhandled to give it a staticky, run-through-a-thousand-projectors look, complete with missing frames and even whole scenes; and many of the actors muster a period deadpan anti-charisma that's all too authentic.
But what was new about exploitation movies back then — their brassy determination to give the thrill-seeking audience what it couldn't get from standard Hollywood fare, be it geysers of blood, hair-raising car crashes, or hot-for-the-time soft-core sex — is not new now. We've seen it all. And if there's any need for a cultural-history lesson, as Tarantino, at least, appears to believe, we can easily go to the source — virtually all those old movies are available on DVD. Unfortunately, we can't watch them through the steamy windows of a car parked at the local drive-in 30 years ago, huffing beer or whatever and hollering at the screen during the inevitable long, talky interludes between outbursts of the action we've really come to see. However much Tarantino may wish it were otherwise, you can't go back. And even if you could, there aren't any grind houses left to go back to.
Rodriguez, to his credit, has no heavy pretensions in this regard; he just seems to be having fun. His "Planet Terror" may be a loving tribute to genre wonders like "Night of the Living Dead," "The Quatermass Xperiment" and "Creature With the Atom Brain," but it's also a whoopingly over-the-top monster bash, and highly entertaining on its own terms. The plot is as perfunctory as you might hope: There's a sinister military base; a mysterious virus that's turning people into zombies (well, not technically zombies, but limb-rending, pus-dripping homicidal maniacs nonetheless); a bit of light cleavage-ogling (two cheers for Stacy Ferguson, of the Black Eyed Peas); and a brave, against-all-odds young couple, played by Rose McGowan and Freddy Rodriguez, who are damned if they'll succumb without a fight.
"Planet Terror" contains the only iconic image in "Grindhouse": a shot of McGowan mowing down fiends with a machine gun that's been fitted onto the stump of her ripped-off leg. (She's extra-angry because the amputation has queered her dream of becoming a standup comic.) The film also has a berserkoid sequence of a sort I've never seen before — a flailing testicle harvest that should provide some squirmy moments for half of the audience. (The other half can rear back in alarm at a scene in a subsequent trailer involving a girl doing splits on a trampoline and the sudden appearance of a butcher knife.) This is the true exploitation spirit — Rodriguez pushes things too far, and every time he does, we can't wait for him to do it again.
Tarantino, on the other hand, in "Death Proof," has recreated a completely un-mourned aspect of the exploitation tradition. His film is nominally a tribute to old car-chase movies (he cites the 1971 "Vanishing Point" and the original, 1974 "Gone in 60 Seconds"), and the chasing and the crashing in it are suitably spectacular, in a familiar way. But what he's mainly managed to replicate, with dismal precision, are the turgid stretches of low-energy talk-talk-talk that often becalmed those old pictures, and which are — surprise — every bit as boring now.
Kurt Russell, in full grizzled wheeze, plays a psycho movie stuntman called ... Stuntman Mike. He roams the back roads of Texas offering high-speed thrills — and bloody deaths — to any young women unwise enough to hitch a lift with him or pass him in the fast lane. Among the women he encounters are some very lively actresses, especially Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, and real-life stuntwoman Zoë Bell. (Bell's wild ride atop the hood of a careening Dodge Challenger in the film's concluding chase scene is almost worth the tedious slog required to get to it.) Unfortunately, their characters are marooned in the shallows of some of Tarantino's most unengaging dialogue. (This is not the Quent who brought a new kind of goosed-up verbal energy to pictures like "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction.")
The women are up-to-date action chicks, and so along with the usual hard-nosed talk about men, they also engage in endless nattering about hot cars and of course other pop-culture concerns. They yammer on and on, in back seats and barrooms, while Tarantino, taking a cinematographer credit for the first time (he also acts in both films), pans around them in relentless circles. In some of these scenes, the restless camerawork is the only thing really going on. Given Tarantino's flamboyant gifts for writing and directing, his half of this movie, almost in its entirety, is baffling.
An important fact to be noted about "Grindhouse" is this: It's three hours and 11 minutes long. After sitting through the rousing Rodriguez feature that opens the film, and the hilarious faux trailers that follow (courtesy of guest directors Eli Roth, Rob Zombie and "Shaun of the Dead" 's Edgar Wright), one could be forgiven for not wanting to sit through a second picture, even a good one. And that, sad as it is for a Tarantino fan to say, won't be what's coming up next.
"Black Book": War Stories
Director Paul Verhoeven's engrossing film about wartime intrigue and betrayal, set in the Netherlands during the last months of the Nazi occupation, examines the ambiguities of good and evil in a worldly way that probably wouldn't be possible in a Hollywood movie. The Nazis are mostly swine, of course, but not all of them; not entirely, anyway. And the courageous members of the Dutch Resistance ... well, they're not exactly what they seem to be, either.
Verhoeven returned to his native Holland, where he'd made such early European hits as "Soldier of Orange" and "The Fourth Man," to shoot his first film there in more than 20 years — free at last, he says, from the American constraints of studio timidity and puritanical nitpicking. His cast is Dutch and German (the picture is subtitled) and our lack of familiarity with the actors makes their vivid performances seem revelatory — especially those of the three leads, Carice van Houten, Thom Hoffman, and Sebastian Koch (who was also memorable in last year's Oscar-winning German film, "The Lives of Others"). These three actors could be stars in any language.
The movie begins in late 1944. Houten plays a displaced Dutch Jew named Rachel — a wealthy singer before the war, now hiding from the Nazis with a sympathetic farm family. When the farm is destroyed by bombs, she makes her way to a nearby city to visit a kindly lawyer named Smaal (Dolf de Vries), who's known to smuggle Jews out of Holland to safety behind the lines of the advancing Allies. Smaal agrees to help Rachel, and writes down her name and particulars in a little black notebook. Together with her family and a group of other well-to-do Jews, she's taken by a compassionate Dutch police official to a boat that will transport them all to freedom. But then a boatload of Nazis comes crashing up, and they proceed to machine-gun all the Jews and then carry their corpses ashore and strip them of money and valuables. Only Rachel escapes. Outraged, she determines to join the Resistance.
The dashing Resistance leader, Hans Akkermans (Hoffman), takes her on and soon has her smuggling weapons and seducing a cultivated SS officer named Müntze (Koch), with an eye toward infiltrating the local Nazi hierarchy. Before long, life gets very complicated. She's being dragged into a Heil-Hitler champagne bash one moment, and rigging a Resistance jailbreak the next. But things keep going wrong for the Dutch rebels — somewhere in their top ranks there's a traitor. The eventual arrival of the victorious allies and the dispersal of the Nazi thugs would normally signal the end of a movie of this sort; but the story marches on into unexpected areas.
Verhoeven, with his background in such lurid American entertainments as "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls," seems an unlikely duck to be paddling around in this somber pond. I can believe that the 68-year-old director has a personal connection to the material (he cowrote the script, after what he says was 20 years of research), but an unmistakable blockbuster crassness still flares up. There are gaping character improbabilities. (How cultivated can a Nazi SS officer really be, being, as he is, a Nazi SS officer?) And then there's the titillation issue. This is a movie with quite a lot of nudity; some of it is offhand, in the European manner, and some of it is frankly voyeuristic, which is, well, not unprecedented in a Holocaust film. (Recall the gratuitous reaction shot of the naked girl in Ralph Fiennes' bed in "Schindler's List.") But there's a big scene toward the end of this picture, involving the appalling humiliation of a bare-breasted woman, that would be crossing the line into gross exploitation were it not an unflinchingly accurate depiction of something that actually happened. But did it? Since we have no way of knowing, gross exploitation is the way it plays.
But "Black Book" has some penetrating things to suggest about the imperfect choices people are forced to make under wartime duress. And the movie succeeds on the strength of its actors. Sebastian Koch has a stalwart romantic presence that suggests George Clooney without the comicality. Thom Hoffman, with his swashbuckling intensity, bears an intriguing resemblance to Russell Crowe. And Carice van Houten, with her crimson lips and pearly blond glow (she's part Jean Harlow, part Christina Aguilera), bathes the screen with a unique light. She's a beacon of beauty and courage in a dark time that's desperate for both.
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