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By Admin | April 7, 2007

Let’s get this out of the way right now: “Grindhouse” is critic-proof. No matter what I say to the positive, most folks have not only already made up their minds to see it, chances are they’re also just going to respond with “Of course it’s awesome, it’s a bunch of grindhouse flicks!” Likewise, if I say anything negative, folks can easily respond with “Well, they ARE a bunch of grindhouse flicks. What did you expect?” The only criticism that seems to merit any real discussion is whether directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino actually did make real grindhouse-style fare. To which, I can easily say: yes, they not only made two on-point grindhouse films, they did them to painful perfection.

The Double-Feature
“Grindhouse” is split between two feature films, “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof.” The former, which leads off the double-feature, is directed by Robert Rodriguez and tells the tale of a biological weapon unleashed on a small town. This biological weapon reduces those who come in contact with it to pulsating viral “zombies,” who seem to crave the meat of the living or, simply, to infect anyone who is not among their crew. In typical “us against the world” fashion, the small group of heroes who run afoul of the creatures include mysterious loner Wray (Freddie Rodriguez), ex-stripper Cherry (Rose McGowan), doctor Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), BBQ restaurant owner J.T. (Jeff Fahey) and cops Hague and Tolo (Michael Biehn and Tom Savini).

“Planet Terror” is across-the-board, over-the-top excitement and insanity; Rodriguez at his action-friendy, can’t-catch-your-breath best. Those who were fans of the old school end-of-the-world, zombies and monsters films will find comfort in knowing that someone who may be as big a fan of them as you are, and a much better filmmaker, has delivered. If you’ve ever wondered what type of damage an ex-stripper with a grenade launcher-equipped machine-gun leg can do, well, this is your film.

“Death Proof,” on the other hand, is a much subtler affair. Telling the tale of two groups of ladies, a threesome celebrating a college reunion in Austin, TX and later a group of female film crew on-location, “Death Proof” enjoys itself more in creepy nuance and conversation than constant action. On top of that, both groups of ladies signify a different tone to the film, with only the appearance and interest of one Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), ex-Hollywood stuntman-turned-depraved lunatic, as a common thread.

Group one is made-up of local Austin radio-personality Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier), and her friends Shanna (Jordan Ladd) and Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), the final of the group being set-up by Jungle Julia as offering a lapdance to anyone who can deliver a certain phrase, and a drink, the right way. The group makes their way from Austin locales Guero’s to the Texas Chili Parlor (with a brief cameo by the greatest theater in the world, the Alamo Drafthouse) to unwind before heading out for a ladies-only weekend, and during their travels sparks the interest of one Stuntman Mike.

Group two is made up of a few film crew friends on-location, actor Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), makeup artist Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) and stuntwomen Kim (Tracie Thoms) and Zoe Bell (played by Zoe Bell). While on break from filming, Zoe convinces the crew to take her out to check on a 1970 Dodge Challenger similar to the one in the classic film “Vanishing Point.” While test-driving said Challenger, and trying a particularly unreal stunt on the hood, the ladies run afoul of a crazed Stuntman Mike, looking to play around a little.

More in the vein of a slow stalker film, Tarantino’s offering to the “Grindhouse” table is, no pun intended, a definite gear shift for the audience who has just finished “Planet Terror.” That said, however, it plays its genre to perfection, even when the film itself transitions from the slow-stalker groove to a more rocking car chase-turned-revenge film. Much like the Corman films of the past, “Death Proof” is sold to audiences on its action, though said action is only a small, and very spread-out, part of the film. Anyone who may be critical of its deliberate pace needs to see more of this type of film because this is precisely how they played. Either you go with Tarantino’s dialogue and accomplished cool groove or you don’t, but there’s no denying that he did it all 100% on target.

Not to say “Death Proof” lacks action. The final car chase action sequence is amazing to behold, and due to the tone shift, grips you much more than most of the action in “Planet Terror” (because, inside, none of us think we’ll be fighting zombies tomorrow, but we could easily get run off the road by a madman on the commute to work in the morning). Tarantino’s action is overwhelming, but it also has a claustrophobic feel to it because we’re trapped in these cars, for better or worse.

And so this doesn’t get lost in the Rodriguez-Tarantino adoration-a-thon I’ve got going right now, both films revel in strong female roles. Hell, these films are female-empowerment across the board, from McGowan’s ex-stripper on the outs who becomes uber-savior to Zoe Bell being, well, Zoe Bell (quite simply the most bad-a*s real-life film woman ever to play herself as a bad-a*s real-life film woman… and did I mention we share the same last name, making me bad-a*s by nomenclature-proxy). I’ll admit to a small personal intimidation when dealing with gorgeous ladies, and after seeing “Grindhouse” I not only fear that the majority of them can out-think and out-handle me Tarantino-style, but also that at any time they could pull a gatling-gun from beneath their skirt and blow me away (was this what Aerosmith was referring to in “Dude Looks Like a Lady”… no, OH, right). My point? Men, take your women. Women, take your men. There’s something at the “Grindhouse” for everyone.

The Experience
More than just an opportunity for two directors to make the grindhouse movies they loved growing up, this is an opportunity to re-create the grindhouse experience. From the scratched-up film ugliness of “Planet Terror” to the sudden title card change in “Death Proof,” “Grindhouse” constantly serves the audience up a heaping helping of rundown theater nostalgia. From the second the first faux-trailer plays for “Machete,” the tone has been set. You’re not in your world anymore, you’re in a weird parallel universe where the best directors of the day aren’t making Academy Award-worthy features, but instead are rocking the fun-boat. A world where you’re not in a multiplex, you’re in that $2 theater around the corner, or parked in a mosquito-friendly field listening to the audio on your crappy radio while the third or fourth drive-in film of the night unfolds.

The “Grindhouse” experience is so convincing that by the time the “Intermission” sequence comes up, you’re wondering if, should you leave for a pee or a smoke, someone’ll let you know when the second film is starting. Of course, if you leave for the intermission, you miss more fun, in the shape of the faux-trailers handed over by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth.

The Trailers
Edgar Wright’s trailer for “Don’t” is sheer absurdity, from the slow-paced narration to the flashes of “Don’t!” on the screen. If you can’t wait for “Hot Fuzz,” this bit of Wright will do you, um, right. And of course everyone and their mother now knows all about the grotesque entry into the slasher-genre that is Eli Roth’s “Thanksgiving.” Out of everything that shows in “Grindhouse,” this trailer still takes the cake for being the most outrageous. Rob Zombie’s trailer for “Werewolf Women of the S.S.” is almost entirely forgettable, however, save for a scene-destroying cameo by Nicolas Cage as Fu-Manchu.

If I have one criticism of “Grindhouse,” it’s that the directors behind the whole affair are too good. Grindhouse films in the past hinted at pulling these ideas off, but inevitably fell short (which was part of the mis-direct charm). “Death Proof,” for example, is so gorgeously photographed and the action-sequences so brilliant, if not for the subject matter, you’d forget you were at the grindhouse. But is this criticism anything to really boo-hoo the film about? No, so I’m going to shut-up already.

“Grindhouse” is, at the end of the day, simply a fun time at the theater. If people are shouting at your screening of “Grindhouse,” chances are you are too (show me one person who doesn’t groan noticeably (before smiling and then laughing) when that first “Reel Missing” card comes up). You’re supposed to get into it, supposed to go along for the ride. If nothing else, “Grindhouse” is easily three hours that will transport you completely out of your normal day-to-day life (and I’m real curious about those who catch this as a matinee and then walk outside to see sunlight… that’s a mind-f**k). Buy some milk duds, grab your best guy or gal and I’ll see you in the back row at the “Grindhouse.”

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