"...the films fail to separate what made drive-in shockers good-from what made them bad..."

Two Films in One and Only Half the Fun

(101307) "Grindhouse" is a passionate ode to Mondo Culto exploitation movies from indie auteurs Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Like a lot of love letters, it contains more ardor than common sense.

Unless you live in a publicity-proof cave, you're aware that "Grindhouse" is a double feature. Rodriguez leads off with "Planet Terror," a whirligig parody in which nerve gas turns most of Earth's population into pus-faced monsters. Then, after a handful of trailers for nonexistent movies, the best of which is “Thanksgiving Day”, Tarantino presents "Death Proof," a loving homage to '70s stalker movies, with a stuntman who uses vintage muscle cars to kill young women. The filmmakers so adore the energetic trash that inspired them as teenagers that they assume camp nostalgia is enough to carry viewers through a three-hour-plus double bill.

For film geeks who know the difference between "Macon County Line" and "Jackson County Jail," maybe it is. For everyone else, it's doubtful. Too often the films fail to separate what made drive-in shockers good (unapologetic bad taste and an ability to generate excitement on a shoestring) from what made them bad (the kind of self-indulgence that homogenized studio products filtered out.)

One thing the production gets right is the pacing. It comes roaring out of the gate with a preview of "Machete," a gory revenge movie that distills 90 minutes of hard-R action and overacting into 90 seconds of pure pulp poetry. It's an ideal appetizer before Rodriguez's first course, an apocalyptic rave-up that somehow manages to combine pole dancing, motorcycles, brain-gobbling mutants, high-caliber weapons and the best chili recipe in Texas.

Rodriguez captures the skittish visual vigor of cheapo movies, which covered up shoddy sets and gaps in logic with a lot of distracting jump cuts. Though he shot his film digitally, Rodriguez made it look like an aged celluloid print with scratches, pops and missing frames. And he uses the gimmick creatively. When Rose McGowan is introduced, doing a sizzling go-go dance, Rodriguez has the film "burn up" in the projector.

The story is demented, but so shamelessly illogical that it makes us co-conspirators. The action unfolds in a small Texas town where everyone seems to have an absurd, plot-advancing connection to everyone else. McGowan and Freddie Rodriguez play ex-lovers who rediscover their feelings in the midst of a zombie attack. Josh Brolin and Marley Shelton are married doctors whose bad relationship gets a lot worse, adding a murder/adultery subplot. Naveen Andrews, wearing a gloriously tacky thrift shop wardrobe, is a mysterious scientist who knows how to stop the plague, and is extremely proficient with automatic weapons for a biochemist. By the time a rescue helicopter zooms low, its rotors decapitating a score of the stumbling undead, you're willing to go with it.

Tarantino's contribution isn't awful but by comparison it's awfully slack. Kurt Russell is the ideal actor to play Stuntman Mike, a homicidal lecher who stalks women in supercharged hot rods. Russell can switch from charming to chilling with the cant of an eyebrow, and he brings a proud history as the antihero of many a John Carpenter thriller. Here he preys on two posses of women, first attacking a quartet of helpless damsels in Texas, then setting his sights on a trio of much-tougher women in Tennessee. It seems they're on location shooting an action film themselves, and two of them are hard-as-nails stuntwomen. They fight back in a metal-mangling chase scene that ends in a bloody, giddy victory dance of female empowerment.

Tarantino packs the film with his favorite things -- obscure pop songs, close-ups of shapely female feet, cascades of colorful dialogue -- but his segment suffers from sluggish pacing as the characters are introduced. He eats up precious screen time with epic swaths of girlish gossip that will have action fans impatiently drumming their fingers. The stunts are impressive, especially an extended sequence with real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell hanging on the hood of a 1970 Dodge Challenger as it careens at top speed. But the story takes forever to get out of first gear. Stunt professionals have a motto: "Screw dialogue. Let's smash something." Tarantino should have listened.

PLANET TERROR:    Directed & Written by: Robert Rodriguez
 Starring: Danny Trejo, Rose McGowan, Freddy
DEATH PROOF:    Directed & Written by: Quentin Tarantino
 Starring: Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa
Released:    04/06/07 (USA)
Length:    191 total minutes
Rating:    R for strong graphic bloody violence and gore,
 pervasive language, some sexuality, nudity and
 drug use.

GRINDHOUSE © 2007 Dimension Films
All Rights Reserved
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