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Love It Cheesy? Try Tarantino and Rodriquez's 'Grindhouse'

'Grindhouse' features zombies with bubbling skin lesions, a woman with a machine gun leg and a chance to see Tarantino with his drawers down. Fans will love it, but what about the rest of us?
 
 
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Grindhouse is longer than Apocalypse Now. End of comparison.

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have created two full-length movies, each a tribute to the 70s-era "grindhouse" films -- ultra-cheap exploitation movies full of girls, gore, and ghouls -- and released them as a drive-in style double bill, complete with trailers for phony movies, ads for local Tex-Mex restaurants, "missing reels" and melting film. Rodriguez kicks it off with a zombie tale called "Planet Terror," and Tarantino closes the show with "Death Proof," the story of an old boy and his car. For fans of the directors, or of the campy genre, Grindhouse is review-proof. But will it jump to the box office A-list?

Attempting a ready-made cult film is tricky. Self-conscious smirking tends to spoil things. Rodriguez' 2005 Sin City paid such intense tribute to the conventions of film noir that it turned into a sort of cinematic karaoke. "Planet Terror" fares better, for the most part. It's generally a lot of fun -- at least until Tarantino drops his pants.

"Planet Terror" stars Freddy Rodriguez as Wray, a mysterious loner secretly known as El Rey. Rose McGowan is Cherry Darling, soon to lose her leg and become known as Peggy, later to acquire a machine gun gam and become known as Whatever You Say, Ma'am. Josh Brolin is nasty Doctor Block, who never quite gets around to killing his wife, girl-happy Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton). Bruce Willis shows up unannounced as a creepy military man somehow involved in the testing of a heinous, zombie-creating weapon. Many un-credited zombies appear to show off bubbling skin lesions that burst in gratuitous geysers of gore. As they should.

Quite enough Quentin

Tarantino appears in both movies, spreading his unpleasant screen presence liberally. It is when he drops his drawers in "Planet Terror" that my tolerance level for this sort of trashy tribute was exceeded. Fun's fun, but a depiction of Quentin's oozing, supurating sexual equipment doesn't qualify. The intentional bad-print effects can also be annoying, but at least both directors squeeze a laugh out of the "Sorry -- missing reel!" gag.

Grindhouse offers built-in protection for pesky questions. You may find yourself wondering: how exactly is Cherry Darling pulling the trigger on her Gam Gun, anyway? And then you will answer yourself: It's a machine-gun leg, fool. If it didn't shoot, there wouldn't be a movie.

Many will avail themselves of the between-film break to hit the biffy. To quote the name of one of the trailer films: "Don't." The trailers, directed by the likes of Rob Zombie and Eli Roth and featuring Nicholas Cage among others, are a hoot. Trailers also precede the film, and many will be disappointed that they will be unable to see Hobo with a Shotgun. One of the phony films, Machete, starring Danny Trejo, has apparently made the jump to reality -- Rodriguez claims he has a deal in place to make it.

Yada yada

"Death Proof" is up second. It's a Tarantino movie. Really. A tribute to cheap exploitation flicks it may be, but most of all it's a Tarantino movie, full of his trademark touches. Too full, in fact.

Kurt Russell stars as Stunt Man Mike, a psycho killer whose car, he claims, is "death proof." How do you make a car "death proof?" Lots of padding. Tarantino certainly offers that. Death Proof is larded with those trademark Tarantino bull sessions, in which characters prattle on entertainingly about very little. Just as all Woody Allen's characters tend to sound like Woody Allen, Tarantino's stars seem to channel each other. Tracie Thoms (as Kim the Stunt Driver) sounds just like Samuel Jackson in Jackie Brown, while Rosario Dawson, playing Abernathy, occasionally channels Uma Thurman from Pulp Fiction, and so on.

A tip for the ass-weary: go ahead and watch the between-movie trailers, and then light out for the facilities as soon as Thoms, Dawson, Zoe Bell, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (as Lee, the starlet) sit down in a diner and start talking about a big ditch. Take your time -- you won't miss much.

Never mind

And you'll want to be back when things do get rolling. A climactic car chase is Tarantino at his best. More questions may intrude -- when did Stunt Man Mike's death-proof car lose its mojo? -- but are best dismissed. Other questions may intrude sometime after the closing credits when you suddenly recall that a very creepy plot thread involving Winstead's character was simply never picked up. It's an intentional error. Tarantino's ending is so totally artless, it must be art.

Movies like this don't have themes, but they do have personalities. Tarantino's is elegiac. Using the aging Russell -- a weirdly likeable psychopath -- Tarantino recreates conversations he must have had with pretty young things born too late for his obscure cultural references. The Virginian? Vega$, the 70s TV series? Robert Urich? Sorry, old man. Never heard of them.

Both Rodriguez and Tarantino pepper their scripts with sly references to B-favourites like Killdozer and, especially, Vanishing Point. Although it's all a very long inside joke, the directors generally take care to make their movies work for those not of the film-geek persuasion.

Box office boffo? It may be too long and too cheesy for that. But unlike Kill Bill Vols. I and II, at least Grindhouse will be a single rental. And you can pause it.

Steve Burgess reviews films and TV for The Tyee .

 
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