Grindhouse

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If you were keeping score, it would be Quentin Tarantino 1, Robert Rodriguez 0. This scoring involves "Grindhouse," two new action-packed films masquerading as a double bill of '60s- and '70s-era exploitation flicks.

Each of the two writer-directors made a movie in the grand tradition of Samuel Z. Arkoff and William Castle. The package includes four goofball "Coming Attractions" for nonexistent B-movies, scratchy prints, missing scenes plus an ad for a local take-your-chances diner. The thing runs 11 minutes past the three-hour mark and nicely straddles the line between tongue-in-cheek spoof and genuine homage to the outrageous vitality and extreme situations moviemakers once crammed into cheap genre films that demanded sex, action and gore. The only things missing are sticky floors and a guy snoring in the seventh row.

Rodriguez fulfills his end of the bargain by turning in a deliberately bad zombie horror movie, "Planet Terror," with overzealous acting, paper-thin characters, scratches and splotches everywhere and absurdly fake gore. Bodies crumble with remarkable ease and gushing blood looks like raspberry jelly.

But Tarantino cheats. He actually makes a good movie. Oh sure, the characters in his psycho-car chase movie, "Death Proof," don't have the depth one finds in an Ingmar Bergman film, and it follows all the genre conventions. But in what low-budget exploitationer would you find a single take lasting untold minutes as the camera pirouettes around four characters in deep discussion at a diner? Or, for that matter, multimillion-dollar smash-and-accelerate car chases that go on forever? The print doesn't even look that scratched.

"Grindhouse" is, necessarily, an uneven and compromised movie adventure. Of course, no one can complain it's bad because that's the point. But how about, in the case of the overly repetitive, one-note "Terror," boring?

Paired together, the double bill will hit boxoffice gold. If the two are to separate, as they might in non-English-speaking markets, Rodriguez's movie could lose out, especially given the plethora of zombie movies in recent years.

In "Terror," the characters are all Id and action, and plot barely exists. A biological chemical escapes into the atmosphere in a small Texas town. As the virus spreads, nearly everyone turns into a bubble-skinned, flesh-eating fiend. Those resistant to the strain must fight off the ghouls.

The only remarkable character is the movie's heroine, Rose McGowan's Cherry, a go-go dancer whose leg gets torn off. Her boyfriend (Freddy Rodriguez) helpfully substitutes first a wooden stick, then later, most ingeniously, a machine gun. Thus, all the ex-dancer has to do is kick and point and she can eradicate dozens of zombies. Neat, huh?

There isn't much more to the film, other than to enjoy cameos by Bruce Willis and Tarantino and smirk at the acting on steroids. The film develops a bad habit of repeating lines, jokes and zombie bits many times. You wouldn't mind a few more missing reels.

The only problem with "Proof" is an unnecessarily protracted setup. You watch a group of sexy young women drink and party through several bars on a hot Austin night. They are stalked by a jigsaw-faced man who calls himself Stuntman Mike, played with grizzled smarminess by John Carpenter veteran Kurt Russell. Finally, he contrives a head-on collision between the women's car and his own "death proof" stunt car on a dark road that kills all the women. Tarantino shows the wreck four times so you can witness the destruction of the four women's bodies in slow motion.

Awhile later, Stuntman Mike is back on the prowl, stalking another group of women. Only this time, two are movie stuntwomen (Zoe Bell, an actual stuntwoman, and Tracie Thoms), and one packs a gun. So, deliciously, it's ladies' revenge time.

"Proof" is an exploitation, but then again it isn't. The women's characters in both groups have strong, vivid identities. The acting is purposeful and the car stunts are terrific.

The reference point of "Proof," of course, are such movies as "Vanishing Point," "Dirty Mary Crazy Larry" and even Steven Spielberg's TV film "Duel." "Proof" might lack the existentialism that some of those films wore with pride, but this mock film is a far cry from a cheap splatter film or sexploitationer.

The crews on all the films -- including the trailers made by directors Edgar Wright ("Shawn of the Dead"), Eli Roth ("Hostel") and Rob Zombie ("The Devil's Rejects") -- do terrific jobs at being awful, or maybe just being awfully good. Everyone gets into the spirit of the grindhouse. But Tarantino does cheat.

GRINDHOUSE
The Weinstein Co.
Dimension Films
PLANET TERROR
Credits:
Screenwriter-director-music: Robert Rodriguez
Producers: Robert Rodriguez, Elizabeth Avellan
Executive producers: Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein
Production designers: Steve Joyner, Caylah Eddleblute
Special makeup effects: Greg Nicotero
Costume designer: Nina Proctor
Editors: Robert Rodriguez, Ethan Maniquis
Cast:
Cherry: Rose McGowan
Dr. Dakota Block: Marley Shelton
Wray: Freddie Rodriguez
Dr. William Block: Josh Brolin
Tammy: Stacy Ferguson
Abby: Naveen Andrews
Sheriff Hague: Michael Biehn


DEATH PROOF
Credits:
Screenwriter/director/director of photography: Quentin Tarantino
Producers: Quentin Tarantino, Erica Steinberg
Executive producers: Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein
Production designer: Steve Joyner, Caylah Eddleblute
Special makeup effects: Greg Nicotero
Stunt coordinator: Jeff Dashnaw
Music: Robert Rodriguez
Costume designer: Nina Proctor
Editor: Sally Menke
Cast: Stuntman Mike: Kurt Russell
Jungle Julia: Sydney Tamiia Poitier
Arlene: Vanessa Ferlito
Shanna: Jordan Ladd
Kim: Tracie Thoms
Abernathy: Rosario Dawson
Zoe: Zoe Bell
Lee: Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Pam: Rose McGowan
Dov: Eli Roth
Nate: Omar Doom.
Running time -- 191 minutes
MPAA rating: R

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