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Movie Review: Grindhouse

Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
The Weinstein Company

The collaborative process of directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino has yielded mixed results in the past. In 1995, they along with Allison Anders and Alexandre Rockwell directed the segmented Four Rooms. The movie was overall disposable, but the two star directors’ segments were the best ones. Then came From Dusk Till Dawn, a Tarantino script directed by Rodriguez, a truly fun vampire film. They didn’t do anything together again until Sin City, mostly a Rodriguez film but Tarantino helped out. Some people will put that down as another successful venture, but I absolutely hated Sin City.

So I had my reservations about Grindhouse even though it looked like a fun time from the trailer. I also had reservations in that filmmakers can rarely intentionally make homages without dancing in spoof territory. The same goes for intentionally making a cheesy movie for laughs; the best kind are the inadvertently funny. Also, were the two movies that came packaged in Grindhouse going to be able to stand alone? In other words, could “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof” get released without all the “Grind House” hype and still be entertaining on their own terms? Rodriguez and Tarantino had a tremendous balancing act to perform here. I think it’s safe to say they stuck the landing.

Yes, it’s two movies in one, and filmgoers might finally be getting a real deal when they go to the multiplex this weekend and pay that extravagant ticket price because Grindhouse is some of the best fun you’ll have in a movie theatre. Plus, add trailers from Hostel’s Eli Roth, Shaun of the Dead’s Edgar Wright, and The Devil’s Rejects’ Rob Zombie, and well, you get your money’s worth.

We start off with “Planet Terror,” Robert Rodriguez’s horror flick about a government toxic chemical that changes a small town into a bunch of murderous mutants. In an interweaving narrative, Abby (Naveen Andrews), a ruthless man of science, is trying to track down canisters of the lethal stuff and is cutting guys’ balls off when he doesn’t get his way. Enter Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis), also trying to locate the canisters and unleashing bloody carnage when he’s not satisfied.

Then we have go-go dancer Cherry (a superb, and extremely fetching, Rose McGowan), who runs into old flame Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) before they get attacked by mutants and have to deal with Sheriff Hague (Michael Biehn!), who thinks Wray is a troublemaker. The mutant attack leads to a hospital, where, adding dimension to the plot is Dr. William Block (Josh Brolin) and his wife Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), who have a troubled marriage entering into the psychotic: when William finds out his wife has been cheating on him, he wants her dead.

As the mutants grow in number, Wray (who you’ll see is a badass, and has a nickname of “El Rey”) makes amends with the Sheriff and they try to form a last stand, eventually leading to a military base. You’ve seen the trailer: Cherry loses her leg and eventually gets fitted with this military weapon that, believe me, won’t ever disappoint you when the action gets hot.

Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” will have you snug in your theatre seat knowing that you’ve gotten your full dollar out of the experience. But wait, there’s more. How many other movies can say that? Nevermind you’ve not only seen one movie, and a hilarious trailer for a fake movie called “Machete,” you’ve got another hour and a half coming.

Serving as a sort of intermission, if you really want to get up, are the guest directors’ trailers. Rob Zombie’s is “Werewolf Women of the SS,” which might have the funniest cameo ever, then Edgar Wright’s “Don’t Scream” is a sublime movie trailer that I won’t spoil for you, and Eli Roth’s much-ballyhooed “Thanksgiving,” another piece of fun that I know has been edited a bit for the MPAA, but it certainly gets its point across. I’d love to see the full version.

Onward to Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof.” After the manic high of “Planet Terror” his trademark dialogue-driven film may seem like a bit of a downer at first. We follow a group of chicks: Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), Shanna (Jordan Ladd), and local Austin radio DJ Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier, yeah, Sidney’s daughter). They’re going to have a night on the town, barhopping, unknowingly being followed by a psycho, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell).

Mike visits one of the bars and gets another hottie thrown into potential victimhood: Pam (McGowan again), who asks him for a ride home. Mike spends the night slowly being creepy but harmless to Pam and later, the three friends. As the night comes to a close, Pam gets into his car, a stuntman’s car without a real passenger seat and that he claims is “death proof,” that the old stuntmen used to use it before the days of CGI and came out of impossible wrecks unscathed. Pam’s a goner, of course, and so are the three friends when he catches up to them on the road, using his car as a weapon.

“Death Proof” is pretty much two movies in one in its own right, because it switches gears to another group of fine females: Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Kim (Tracie Thoms), Zoe (Zoe Bell, who stunt doubled Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, and looking at her, you’ll sometimes swear it’s Uma herself), and Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). They are in Lebanon, TN (Home state of Tennessee, represent! Of course, Tarantino was born in Knoxville and occasionally gives a shout-out to the homeland) to shoot a movie: Abernathy is a makeup artist, Kim and Zoe do stunts, and Lee is an actress. As we find out, these are the wrong chicks for Stuntman Mike to mess with.

Zoe has an ulterior motive for being in Tennessee: to buy a special car that has the exact specs of one driven in the 1971 film Vanishing Point. Zoe and Kim, with the help of Abernathy, get the owner of the car (Jonathan Loughran) to allow them to “test drive” it, with Lee as collateral. What Zoe wants to do is some stunt called “Sailor Mast,” and this is where Stuntman Mike comes in.

“Death Proof” is an engrossing picture mainly because Tarantino always has a way of planting an idea in your head and making you want to see it through. When Zoe talks about “Sailor Mast” she doesn’t explain it away like you see in most movies: you have to see for yourself. This is the way Tarantino draws you in, and he’ll supply you with little nuggets of dialogue until he gets to the action. But of course, his dialogue really is action, so you won’t be bored during the ride.

If I had one qualm with “Death Proof” it’s that Stuntman Mike becomes a really whiny victim when the tables are turned. I know that the old revenge films back in the day would turn the tables and so forth, and the hunter would become the hunted, but after the buildup of the car being “death proof” and the cocky confidence of Stuntman Mike rule the first half of this segment, it’s kind of a letdown to see him cower in fear later.

Performances across the board are excellent. You have a lot of actors here who probably aren’t expected to do much when they get work who step up their game for these two directors and show absolute glee at being in their movies. But if I had one actor to pick out of all this (and believe me, this is hard), I’d pick Tracie Thoms. Thoms has the authority of Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, and she tears into her role with verve. But you can’t forget Rose McGowan either. I knew she had the chops after Scream, but we haven’t really seen her much in big movies since. And look, it’s a parade of women ruling this movie: Marley Shelton is unforgettable.

So is this big resounding yes to see this movie? Hell yeah, see it several times in fact. It’s likely to get richer the more you see it, and while it’s in theatres, enjoy the ambience of a ramped-up crowd. It’s a rare film that can be both a great theatre experience and translate well to video. Slam dunk guys…let’s hope this rules the box office so we can see a sequel.


Comment from KW
Time: April 6, 2007, 2:39 pm

Awesome. I was beginning to worry that you weren’t going to review this one.

I really haven’t read much in the way of negative press on this movie, and that’s not really surprising. Although…it does seem a little violent.

Someone said to me the other day, “All Tarantino movies are some sort of self-indulgent homage to an obscure genre of films I’ve never seen or heard of.” And you know what? That’s pretty much true.

But I don’t care. It’s a testament to his filmmaking abilities that he consistently makes me love a movie that is itself an homage to films I’ve never seen. I haven’t ever seen a Grindhouse film…never been to a grindhouse. But I betcha I love this movie.

Comment from The Projectionist
Time: April 6, 2007, 7:18 pm

Yeah, Tarantino has the knack for finding the best of those films and making them his own. “Death Proof” isn’t his best work by any means, but it’s certainly worth watching. Meanwhile, Rodriguez has made one of his best films with “Planet Terror.” It’s just a great time.

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