It sounded like a fun idea at first. Two movies in one, a prepackaged double feature, in emulation of, or tribute to, the Golden Age exploitation films of the Sixties and Seventies, the last of the B-pictures, the Joe Bob Briggs drive-in movies, the 42nd Street grindhouse fare. It would be called, bluntly, Grindhouse, though each of the two movies under that heading would have its own name, Planet Terror and Death Proof, directed by separate hands, and each would be preceded by one or more fake trailers for nonexistent titles such as Machete and Werewolf Women of the SS. So far, so fun. But the more I heard about it, and thought about it, the less fun it started to sound.
First off, the designated directors, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, those tasteless connoisseurs of cinema, looked to be bad bets to carry it off with straight faces and restrained egos. Hadn't they, in any event, done this already, Rodriguez directing and Tarantino writing, in From Dusk till Dawn, a schizophrenic graft of two distinct genres? And the reported running time of three hours and ten minutes -- a concrete measure of unrestrained egos -- sounded wildly excessive, even before I discovered, in the thick of it, the quaint device of the "missing reel" in each film, complete with apologetic title cards from the theater management: "Sorry for the inconvenience." This device, not just from the time-saving standpoint (another "missing reel" or two would not have been missed), is genuinely a good idea, redolent of Poverty Row moviegoing. So, too, is the simulation of scratched celluloid, splicelike skips, loose-sprocket jumps. But the modern settings of the films (text-messaging in both of them; a topical allusion to Osama bin Laden, the late Osama bin Laden, in the first one; the ludicrous casting of an A-list star, Nicolas Cage, as Fu Manchu in one of the fake trailers) transport these devices to the realm of the alternative universe, where badly beat-up prints with missing reels are still today showing in the shopping-mall multiplex, and where even the lowest budget can afford the swankiest CGI. In our present universe, as you will have noticed, the trash sensibility of yesteryear did not go underground; it came aboveground. Better funded, better promoted, better assimilated. Like Grindhouse.
The Rodriguez half of the equation, in addition to its torrent of end-to-end scratches, proves to be as grainy as a sandpainting. Nominally, it's a rudimentary post-Romero, sub-Romero zombie film, but the genre is neither here nor there. The film, more honestly, is an out-and-out comedy, not precisely a parody, and might actually be funny to those -- you know who you are -- who can take delight in exploding bodies, blown-off heads, severed limbs, ballooning boils, squirting pus, and, the pièce de résistance, a mason jar of castrated testicles. (The winks keep coming: the Michael Parks character, the Texas lawman Earl McGraw, is incestuously handed down from From Dusk till Dawn and Kill Bill, and then passed over, together with the Marley Shelton character, Dr. Block, into the second half of the twin bill.) Even if you cannot go along on the path it has chosen -- the jokey, the hyperbolic, the steroidal, the over-the-top -- you can at least see how it's connected to the starting point.
The Tarantino half of the equation, on the other hand, seems oddly to have not gotten the idea. Or anyway, to have gotten a completely different, divergent idea. (The Texas lawman who has been bagging zombies will understandably be a bit blasé about a mere multiple murderer.) Smoother and slicker on the surface, more primpingly and preeningly directed, this segment features two separate sessions of girltalk (smothered in sauce) among two separate groups of girls (one group of victims, another of avengers), each session concluded with a burst of automotive action to complement the reverential references to Vanishing Point, a pretentiously existential, and perfectly middle-of-
the-mainstream, nonstop car-chase thriller from 1971: "It's just one of the best American movies ever made!"
If the old-fashioned, computer-free stuntwork of the climax -- woman on the hood of a rear-ended and sideswiped speeding car -- arouses a certain admiration and anxiety (the woman, Zoë Bell, is a stuntwoman playing a stuntwoman: don't try this at home, kids), this is more than cancelled out by the infuriating lack of effort to find opportunities to get her safely off the hood. Tarantino's offering, in the final analysis, follows the form of neither the high-octane road movie nor the misogynistic homicidal-maniac movie. (Kurt Russell, as the scar-faced serial road-killer, certainly gives it his all, including an impertinent impression of John Wayne, and an amusingly unmanly reaction when the tables are turned.) Wordy, slow, schematic, and ill-proportioned, this second half occupies a personal limbo, outside any recognizable genre, where Tarantino is content simply to listen to the sound of his own writing. The three-hour-plus running time comes to seem increasingly inexcusable. (And at the same time, the hit-and-run trailers by different directors altogether, particularly the well-polished horror parody by England's Edgar Wright, start to seem a brighter idea.) Grindhouse in the long run is a grind indeed. Anyone wanting to relive the experience of Golden Age exploitation would do better to see Black Snake Moan. All it lacks are the scratches and a second bill.
The Page Turner is a slow-cooking revenge tale from France, and from the hitherto unknown director, Denis Dercourt. The heroine, as a little girl and aspiring pianist, gets thrown off in her scholarship audition when one of the judges, a female pianist of some renown, takes time out in mid-performance to sign an autograph. Right then and there the little girl, as the phrase has it, turns a page. She shuts away the bust of Beethoven in a cabinet and locks up the keyboard for keeps. Years later, now a big girl, she worms her way into the employ of this same pianist, first as the substitute baby-sitter for her piano-practicing son, then as the literal page turner for the pianist herself, who is readying a concert-stage comeback in a piano trio -- Shostakovich, Schubert -- two years after a traumatizing car accident. Our primary identification is with the avenger, even though we are not privy to her plan (what's the fitting reprisal for a dashed dream?), but our sympathy is much more with her emotionally vulnerable target, who reveals herself to be no simple prima donna. The avenger comes across as something more of a hypothesis than a human being, a limitation underlined by the flat, opaque, expressionless acting of Déborah François, so natural in her first film, the Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant, so numb in this second one. The limitation is underlined further by the nuance, the tension, the vibrancy of Catherine Frot as the pianist, and still further by the warmth and directness of Clotilde Mollet as the trio's violinist. These two demonstrate once again that for actresses of a certain age, the French cinema maintains the friendliest climate on earth.