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Grindhouse (2007): ****

Directed by Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, and Edgar Wright

How is it that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino took a genre of film that is best known for producing crap, and managed to produce what is undoubtably going to be the best movie of 2007?

Grindhouse, in case you didn't know, is actually a double feature: Rodriguez's Planet Terror and Tarantino's Death Proof (in that order). These are supposedly homages to the low budget drive-in fare that they grew up watching.

Planet Terror: ****
Directed by Robert Rodriguez

Planet terror is the kind of crappy action/horror/sci-fi flick that would have been cranked out around 1980. Planet Terror is probably the best movie ever made in that genre. EVAR. It's chock full of pretty much everything you could ever want from a dumb zombie action flick. It's a non-stop, audacious series of outlandish events, all completely tongue-in-cheek but in the best possible way: it parodies dumb action flicks by being as accurate as possible to the genre. In fact the most shocking thing about Planet Terror is its accuracy. Everything from top to bottom, from the performances to the camera work, reeks of authentic bad 1980 cinema. There is a shot in a parking lot of a car driving away that is filmed exactly as it would have been filmed. But because Robert Rodriguez made this flick, it has an energy that's missing from most of the “real” grindhouse movies: Robert Rodriguez loved making this film, and his obvious enthusiasm seeps into every single frame. This may be one of my favorite Rodriguez movies. It's a glorious, glorious, flawless piece of crap. Wonderful.

Death Proof: ***½
Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Death proof is much less of a direct reproduction than Planet Terror. It's more “inspired” by the grindhouse style of movie than it is actually a grindhouse style of movie. It also seems much more like Tarantino's regular movies than PT seems like Rodriguez's regular movies. But all of Tarantino's movies have been heavily inspired by grindhouse films. Death Proof is just kind a a distillation of all of those influences in one movie. In fact, one of my only criticisms of Death Proof is that as it goes on it seems less and less like an actual Grindhouse movie. Even the film scratches and reel-switching errors gradually fade out, so that by the time the climax happens it looks and feels much like a regular, modern-day film. It was a strange choice, and one I don't quite agree with.

The only other real problem with Death Proof is that it is perhaps too much Tarantino. There are long scenes of dialogue where people argue about things for far longer than they probably should. It sometimes feels like padding. But in the end it does serve an important purpose: it makes these characters seem like real people, not like plot devices. In this way Death Proof is far superior to Planet Terror. Planet Terror's characters are all cartoony and stock and unbelievable, so you never actually care about any of them. Tarantino manages to create two entire sets of real people, so that their fates are actually important to you—particularly the second set of characters.

Because you know these characters so well by the time they're put in trouble, the tension during the climactic action sequence is ratcheted so far up as to be almost unbelievable. I was as scared to death as those women were. As exciting and fun as the action in Planet Terror was, it never gets anywhere near the same kind of visceral thrill as does Death Proof.

But, really, the presentation of this double feature is what makes Grindhouse pure gold. Before and between the movies are old-school 70s-style bumpers (“Coming soon,” “This film is not for children,” "Now our feature presentation," etc.) and trailers for movies that don't actually exist. In fact, these trailers are some of the best parts of Grindhouse. They are all made in different grindhouse styles:

Rodriguez himself made Machete, starring the incomparable Danny Trejo as a hitman for hire who gets double-crossed by his employers and sets out to get revenge on them. It includes a motorcycle with machine guns on it, plenty of explosions and bare breasts, and the announcer gets to say the line, “If you hire Machete to kill the bad guys, you'd better make sure that YOU'RE not the bad guys!” ****

Eli Roth (Hostel) directs Thanksgiving, an absolutely hilarious riff off of mid/late 70s slasher flicks, like Friday the 13th and Halloween. A man dressed like a pilgrim terrorizes a town during Thanksgiving weekend. Again, shockingly accurate, right down to the voice of the announcer. ****

Rob Zombie directs the over-the-top, Russ Meyer style Werewolf Women of the S.S. This one is pure, fun, goofy spoof. And bonus cameo from Nicolas Cage as Fu Manchu (seriously). ***

Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) directs Don't, a 60s/70s Hammer-style horror movie. The entire trailer consist of the announcer saying things like, “If you're thinking of opening the door... don't.” Then it would show someone opening a door and getting horribly killed. Then, “If you're thinking of walking down that hallway... don't.” Someone getting killed in a hallway. “If you're thinking of [performing a horror movie cliché]... don't.” Etc., and the whole thing builds and builds until the announcer is just shouting, “Don't! Don't Don't!” ****

As a total package, Grindhouse is a moviegoing experience like none other. Even though technically not a good movie (especially Planet Terror, which is a big mess), this was one of the most enjoyable times I've ever had just watching a movie.

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