Grindhouse (Planet Terror & Death Proof)

(2007) *** R
192 min. Dimension Films. Directors: Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez. Cast: Danny Trejo, Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton.

Generations of moviegoers who have never been to a B-movie double feature in a seedy, dirty, scary, rundown theatre may be somewhat befuddled by the structure and style of Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Southern-fried homage to exploitation flicks. The filmmaking buddies each helm a half of this "double feature" spackled with '70s interstitials and faux trailers that either come from actual "grindhouses" (those sticky opposites of movie "palaces") or are meant to look as if they did.

Like a pair of fashionably distressed jeans, Grindhouse comes complete with film scratches, bad splices, missing reel, and damaged soundtrack. Rodriguez kicks things off with his own very funny bogus trailer, for a non-existent Mexican exploitation picture called Machete. If you need me to tell you that it stars ex-con-turned-movie-star Danny Trejo, you haven't been paying attention. Rodriguez's feature, Planet Terror, must be the most balls-out chaotic picture ever bankrolled by a (mini-)major studio. That's not to say that it isn't necessarily too much of a bad thing.

Whether you'll find Planet Terror bearable is strictly a matter of taste, but Rodriguez clearly intends to turn bad acting, bad editing, bad music, and, yes, bad taste into virtues. As such, his movie is effectively beyond criticism. It's already bad, no matter what anyone says about it—it's supposed to be bad. The plot concerns a zombie-infection gas that's a sort of War on Terror Agent Orange. Rodriguez isn't shy about tossing around references to Osama Bin Laden and Iraq; at one point, Biehn describes the war zone by barking, "Don't shoot yourselves, try not to shoot each other, but especially—don't shoot me." Planet Terror plays, then, as a hybrid of George Romero and John Carpenter, two guys who graduated from "B" to "A" movies.

Freddy Rodriguez and Rose McGowan play estranged lovers thrust back together during the mayhem, which bounces around Texan hotspots from a strip club to a military base to a hospital to a B-B-Q joint called The Bone Shack. A true-blue Tex-Mex auteur, Robert Rodriguez revels in his B-movie fetishism by penning a Carpenter-esque synth-and-guitar score and hooking castoff actors like Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn, and Michael Parks for showy supporting roles. In acknowedgements of who's running this show, Tarantino has an indulgent cameo, his Pulp Fiction star Bruce Willis pops in and out, and the soundtrack includes infusions of growly Pulp sax.

Both filmmakers cheat the Grindhouse concept in certain ways. Though the duo have obviously agreed to be anachronistic by setting their films in a time-warped modern-day, each populates his film with retro fashions and shoots and edits to evoke a bygone style. Rodriguez particularly flaunts a paradoxical budget and effects (kept manageable with humble casting choices) while aping films made on a shoestring. Rodriguez has a rep for creative end-runs around bloated budgets—such as hiring himself to shoot, edit, and score—but Planet Terror's gleefully gonzo, non-stop effects sequences (some live, thanks to makeup artists Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger) are more seamless than seamy in the manner of the film's old-school-homemade forebears.

Rodriguez's pulsating pustules, geysers of blood, amputations, and explosions give way to Tarantino's brighter, earthier film, a model of restraint by comparison. Only by comparison, of course. Death Proof (Color by Deluxe) has its own indulgences, and its own cheats, including a bona fide star in Kurt Russell. Russell's role in Death Proof evokes his proud association with John Carpenter while standing the tough-as-nails Russell anti-hero on end. For starters, his Stuntman Mike is a serial killer without a cause beyond his own sick sexual gratification (when Michael Parks' pissed-off sheriff explains this theory, believe him). As Stuntman Mike himself claims, "I ain't stalking you, but I never said I wasn't a wolf."

Later on, Russell gets to flip backwards over his own performance—a delirious acting stunt that could win him a legitimate supporting-actor nomination if the academy deigns to sit through a movie that confesses to be trash. Speaking of stunts, Tarantino casts stuntwoman Zoë Bell in a crucial herself (for a good time, rent the doc Double Dare, in which Tarantino hires Bell to double Uma Thurman in Kill Bill). Tarantino's cast overlaps with Rodriguez's: here again are Parks, McGowan, Marley Shelton, the Babysitter Twins (don't ask, 'cause I'm not tellin') and, yep, Tarantino. Among the buxom babes of Death Proof are Rosario Dawson and Sydney "What Must Daddy Think?" Poitier.

To say much more about Death Proof would be a mistake. On the one hand, its perversely protracted foreplay can be maddening, but if not for it, the cinematic ejaculation that is Death Proof's climax couldn't be so nut-busting. Death Proof is vintage nutty Tarantino: a hugely inappropriate Robert Frost quote shares time with obscure references to The Virginian and Gavilan. Tarantino may have been born in Tennessee (where Death Proof's climax unfolds) but he was raised in radios (Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich), TVs (Duel), and grindhouses (Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry). Serving as his own director of photography and soundtrack producer (but of course), Tarantino hasn't been so productively loose since Jackie Brown.

The adrenaline jolts and sickly humor of the features become concentrated in the intermission-reel parody trailers by Rob Zombie (brashly amusing), Edgar Wright (spot-on hilarious), and Eli Roth (happily obscene, with a split-second shot that narrowly avoided the cutting-room floor). It's all enough to give the religious right multiple, massive heart attacks this Easter-weekend (Mom and the kids might prefer to stay home). The irony clearly isn't lost on the filmmakers, who exploit it for what should be huge returns: we've been dressing up this beloved garbage for years, and now these two glory in feigning to dress them back down.

Grindhouse isn't great cinema, but it is a genuine event picture, a rare good reason to venture out on a Friday night with a big crowd and the necessary wad of cash. Rodriguez's enthusiastic parody and Tarantino's hybrid of exploitation with his own verbally meandering style makes a weirdly complementary double-feature, a cinematic workout that's exhausting but satisfying. Feel the burn.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1, 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 3

Audio: Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 12/16/2008

Distributor: Genius Entertainment

Genius Products has released Grindhouse on Blu-ray and DVD in separate editions for Death Proof and Planet Terror. Both feature exceptional high-def transfers that present the film exactly as intended by the filmmakers, lovingly applied scratches and all. The Planet Terror Blu-ray adds an additional "'Scratch Free' Version...from Newly Discovered Negative" that presents the film in a more customary modern image, emphasizing sharpness and steadiness.

The Death Proof disc kicks off its extras with "Stunts On Wheels: The Legendary Drivers Of Death Proof" (20:38). The behind-the-scenes doc's interviewees include Tarantino, stunt coordinator Jeff Dashnaw, Kurt Russell, driver Buddy Joe Hooker, stuntwoman Tracey Keehn Dashnaw and stuntman Terry Leonard, among others; there's also plenty of stunt footage, and Tarantino chats about his car-flick inspirations.

"Introducing Zoe Bell" (8:58) profiles the stuntwoman/actress, with Bell, Tarantino, Mary Elisabeth Winstead, Rosario Dawson, Russell, and Hooker. "Kurt Russell As Stuntman Mike" (9:33) does much the same for Russell, with Tarantino, Dawson adding their comments to those of the man himself. "Finding Quentin's Gals" (21:18), details casting the female roles, with Tarantino, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Rose McGowan, Dawson, and Bell. "The Guys Of Death Proof" (8:14) evens the score with Tarantino, James Parks, Michael Parks, Eli Roth, Omar Doom, and Michael Bacall.

"The Uncut Version Of 'Baby It's You' Performed By Elizabeth Winstead" (1:48) is self-explanatory, while "Quentin's Greatest Collaborator: Editor Sally Menke" (4:38) profiles Menke with comments from her and her director. Also included are the "Trailer" (2:36) for the highly recommended documentary Double Dare, which profiles stuntwomen Zoe Bell and Jeannie Epper; "Death Proof International Trailer" (2:20), an International Poster Gallery and a jukebox of three Extended Music Cues. Lastly, the disc includes a BD Live hookup for more content online.

The Planet Terror 2-disc Blu-ray features an extended and unrated cut of the film in two versions, along with two special audio options: an Audience Reaction Track with laughter, "ooh"s and "ah"s, as well as a feature commentary by writer-director-composer Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez reliably delivers another "film school in a box" in this detailed track as well as the special features that follow. A BD Live hookup is also made available from Disc One.

Disc Two's "10 Minute Film School With Robert Rodriguez" (11:50, HD) explains his cost-cutting measures in special effects and so forth. "The Badass Babes Of Planet Terror" (11:49) and "The Guys Of Planet Terror" (16:30) resemble the similar features on the Death Proof disc, working their way through the male and female players. "Casting Rebel" (5:33) is an interesting featurette about Rodriguez's tricky decision to cast his own son. "Sickos, Bullets And Explosions: The Stunts Of Planet Terror" (13:18) deals with the action scenes and stunt work, including comments by Rose McGowan and Freddy Rodriguez. "The Friend, The Doctor And The Real Estate Agent" (6:44) introduces us to Rodriguez's friends Felix Sebates, Tommy Nix and Skip Reissig, all of whom appear in the film. Last up are an International Trailer (2:17) and an International Poster Gallery.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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