Friday, April 13, 2007

Film Review: The Lookout and Grindhouse

I want to spare you some of the disappointment I felt walking out of both these movies and totally lower your expectations. Not that either movie was bad at all, but the reviews were so glowing that both films' mere artful adequacy and eleven dollar price tags made me feel cheated in the end. Let's start with The Lookout, starring that kid from 3rd Rock From The Sun and directed by some guy. It got an 87% rating on and a 73/100 rating on, largely on its success as a character study instead of a bank heist flick. A good chunk of my reaction to The Lookout was, therefore, honestly my mistake — you pick up on one stray reference to Memento in an obscure write-up somewhere and you start assuming this and that. Blatant thematic similarities to Rian Johnson's much more cerebrally engaging Brick — again, the former alien kid plays an insider-turned-outsider who becomes the center of an intricate criminal plot — also popped into my head. Despite what everyone who saw the movie before had to say about it, there just wasn't all that much to tickle my brain. I felt like I could totally disregard whole chunks of the movie, and worse, since I wasn't occupied trying to piece the thing together, or at least mesmerized by the cinematography a la Brick or (another one of my favorites I'll talk more about later) Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, my mind kept wandering back to the wrong questions, namely, "Doesn't the alien kid's mental disability seem a bit inconsistent?" I mean, with Memento, I had to watch the movie three times before I finally realized, "Hey, how does Guy Pierce remember that he has no short-term memory?"

I'll say that as a character study, looking at Joseph Gordon-Levitt's tragic collapse after breaking his brain in an annoyingly-filmed car accident and the conflict between his conscience and his desire to reclaim some his past glory — and independence, the film is truly successful, if not maybe a little too gentle. Even forgetting some extraneous scenes with a dopey comic-relief Jeff Daniels that bring the character study down, I could have done with more contrast, both internally between Joseph Gordon-Levitt's two desires and externally, between him and the stock but beautifully manipulative bad guys. It works, and all the pieces fit, but — and maybe this only because I had a different movie in my mind — I just didn't care.

Then I snuck into Grindhouse, which seemed appropriate, given the whole conceit of the movie. Not that that's why I snuck in — I would've snuck into a self-made Volver double-feature too — but I'd have a different justification. (I'm cheap and movies are overpriced.) Let me first say that I don't think Grindhouse is really for mass consumption, especially for anyone of my generation who's never been inside a movie theater with fewer than eighteen screens, stadium seating and reclining chairs, and Dolby 5.1 surround sound. It's for film pervs like Quentin Taratino — and I think "film perv" is an appropriate way to describe anyone who lists Manos: The Hands of Fate among his favorite movies — trying to relive the good old days when you couldn't be a hundred percent sure that the sticky stuff on the theater floor was just Coke.

Grindhouse is two full-length movies, four "previews" for fictional coming attractions, and I think there was a random cigarette ad in there somewhere too. Despite what often-wrong New York Times movie critic A. O. Scott wrote in his review, they're not funny, or sly parodies, or worth anyone's time. For example, one of the fake films is "Machete," starring Mexican Danny Trejo as the title character and some Mexican guy who looks like Cheech Marin but apparently isn't as a machine-gun shooting priest. Yes, they quip lame one-liners like they did back in the [fill-in-the-blank]-sploitation days, but so what? Those jokes started off life moldy and didn't age well. I was really hoping that "Machete" would be a slick commentary on America's attitude towards immigrants, like something South Park might do, but it's nothing more than an excuse to watch people get dismembered in various ways. Not that it's supposed to be anything more than that, but... I'll get back to this point.

The only fake trailer that I thought had potential was for a serial killer movie called "Thanksgiving," which features an old woman having sex with a turkey and not one but two scenes of some girl making out with a decapitated guy. Eli Roth (hack!) is already in talks with Lions Gate to bring it to the big screen for next Christmas. A. O. Scott found this trailer fucking hilarious. I did not. It could've been hilarious — and I was waiting for this reveal through the whole grotesque preview — if the crazed killer turned out to be a giant turkey, or a guy in a turkey costume. See, Eli, that's parody — taking something self-important and unaware of its own silliness and then mocking it by exaggerating that silliness. With these genre-blind morons, I can't fucking believe Mirimax isn't producing my serial killer movie already.

Scott writes that this old grindhouse fare has a sort of soul and individuality that the modern Hollywood focus-grouped and studio-produced Firehouse Dog crap can never hope to match. I won't disagree with him, but having seen tons of B-movie junk plus these faux-relics, it's pretty clear that the Grand Guignol tripe has a banality all it's own. Does it really matter if you liked the blurry rape and torture scene in "Thanksgiving" while the scuzzy guy two rows in front of you preferred the blurry rape and torture scene in "Werewolf Women of the SS?" There's a visceral thrill in watching gratuitous sex, violence, sadism, misogyny, etc., but let's not pretend that there's anything more profound going on. Or at least, if there is something more profound going on, let's pretend we're disturbed by it instead of inspired. (Another reason I love Lady Vengeance so much: it's got one of the most disturbing torture scenes ever in it, and most of the scene is completely off-screen. You see the elaborate preparations, and your fucked-up mind takes over from there.) The grindhouse sub-culture feels like the legions of internet porn, where there's something for everybody, but really, once you've seen one dirty website, you've seen them all.

Apparently nothing illustrates this better than "Planet Terror," the universally-acknowledged "bad" part of Grindhouse. I gotta say that the only time I really freaked out at seeing something gross on a screen was the grand finale of FOX's 101 Things Removed From the Human Body, when a doctor from India was telling us all about a surgery he was performing on a man with a distended abdomen and found a fully-grown conjoined fetal twin inside his stomach. (Or somewhere.) "Imagine my surprise," he says, "when I reached into his belly and another fully-formed hand grasped mine." Yeah, okay, that would make me drop my scalpel too. But I know people who cover their eyes at the gruesome scenes, and I can understand where they're coming from. However, a message to the gaggle of teenage girls in the Grindhouse theater with me: First, it's two in the afternoon on a Thursday. Shouldn't you be in school? And second, you don't need to freaking flip out at every disgusting thing Robert Rodriguez puts in front of the camera. It's just latex. It's not real. Chill. Like, the first time someone loses a fake limb with a hemorrhage of fake blood, maybe. (See Michael Haneke's Caché for an example.) After ninety minutes of this, can't you either become a little inured to it, or at least stop complaining about how violent video games make our kids violent? One or the other.

Okay, so "Planet Terror" was lame. Too sophisticated for MST3K, too pointless to justify itself any other way. But we knew that. I was there for Tarantino's "Death Proof," about a crazy guy who chases women in his crazy stunt car. As usual, Taratino's shit got excellent reviews — "Planet Terror" pays homage to the grindhouse, but "Death Proof" elevates the grindhouse to art, they say. But, just like Kill Bill didn't do with the spaghetti western and wuxia genres, it collects the thematic elements from its parent genre, adds a modern sophistication and Taratino's trademark constructed dialogue (which I love, by the way, and I wrote my film class final paper on) and then goes absolutely nowhere with it. Okay, not entirely true: Tarantino clearly uses his incredible film talent to satisfy his weird "Fox Force Five" foot fetish and Amazon fetish, which apparently distract him from the types of beautiful, redemptive stories he explored in Pulp Fiction and, to a lesser extent, Reservior Dogs.

I thought — I don't know — that the characters in "Death Proof" would... what's the word the formulaic screenwriters use? Grow. Here's "Death Proof" in a nutshell:
Act One. Group of women talk a lot. A lot. Stalked by misogynist serial killer stunt car driver. He drives his car into their car. 200 miles per hour. Body parts fly. Body parts fly. Body parts fly. Same shot, four times.

Act Two. Group of women talk a lot. A lot. Stalked by same misogynist serial killer stunt car driver. Crazy stupid woman ghost rides the whip out on the highway. He drives his car into their car. A lot. Big car chase. After like twenty minutes, the crazy stupid woman finally falls off the car. But she's okay.

Act Three. Group of women talk a lot. But they're in a car, driving real fast, so you can't hear what they're saying. It's unfortunate. Group of women stalk same misogynist serial killer stunt car driver. They drive their car into his car. A lot. Big car chase. Won't spoil the ending.
So back in the sexploitation era, when the women's lib movement was growing, cynical hack filmmakers pandered to both ends of the sexual inadequacy spectrum with X-rated filth that had titles like "Rape Squad" and "Hooker's Revenge" and, one of the "most depressing experiences" of Roger Ebert's life, "I Spit on Your Grave." They all have the same plot: in the first act, women are sexually degraded (dedicated to the sex fiend men in the audience) and in the second act, those women take their violent and often sexually degrading revenge (for the crazy feminists in the audience). Meanwhile, rational people might enjoy the cinematic renaissance of Scorcese, Coppola, or Lumet.

I have to say that the second and third acts of "Death Proof" are a lot of fun to watch, certainly more than the rest of Grindhouse, but what bothers me is that — especially when I combined "Death Proof" with Kill Bill — I feel like Tarantino films like he can simultaneously copy the depressing cynicism of his inspirations and transcend it because his films have the artistic credibility that the old B-movies lack. His dialogue really helps feed that narcissism. Artistic credibility, in my mind anyway, is linked to the filmmaker's expression — Tarantino clearly expresses his admiration for the grindhouse soul, which like I said above, I find feeble — but beyond that, the film is hollow, and the more I see of him, the emptier he seems inside. Given his film record, his scenery-munching role on Alias, that episode of CSI he directed, and his multiple drunken appearances on Jay Leno, what on earth fascinates this guy besides womens' feet?