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" A woman’s heart is an ocean of secrets "
— Gloria Stuart, Titanic

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Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde offers an excitingly fresh and strong female lead. —Matt Anderson (review...)

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The experience of seeing Grindhouse is different from simply seeing the two movies that comprise it.

(For those who haven’t heard, Grindhouse is a double feature wrapped in a single movie. The first feature is directed by Robert Rodriguez, the second by Quentin Tarantino. The two directors also collaborated on From Dusk Till Dawn, Four Rooms, and Desperado.)

Hello, Movie House!

Biker chicks and explosions: just what the Grindhouse ordered
Biker chicks and explosions: just what the Grindhouse ordered

Grindhouse is not simply two movies in one. It is an homage to a time when you could see a double feature of B-movies down at the local one-screen cinema. Grindhouse is the smell of stale popcorn and cigarette smoke. It is the decision to see a double feature because you only have a few bucks. It is the thrill of seeing something cool and anti-establishment on a big screen.

Grindhouse is a piece of nostalgia for the way movies used to be presented, back before you were wanded by security personnel, before you were hassled for bringing your own popcorn. When the film was actually film, and not high-definition digital video. When the film was damaged by scratches and time, rather than by studio anti-piracy zealots. And when a car crash was guaranteed not to have been faked by a computer.

The two features in Grindhouse are filmed, lit, written, acted, and yes, carefully scratched and damaged to help recall the good ol’ days of cinema from Tarantino’s youth. But almost more important are the “bumpers” used to fill in the gaps. There are psychedelic “Previews of coming attractions” intros, a commercial for the Tex-Mex restaurant “next door to this theater,” and cartoon reminders that the following feature films are “Restricted.” There are also four trailers for B-movies (that don’t exist), each directed by some hip independent director (Edgar Wright, Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, and Rodriguez)

The whole scene is a delightful trip down memory lane for any movie lover, regardless of what you think of the features in Grindhouse.

Twofer

The features themselves are tributes to the sorts of B-movies that Tarantino notoriously loves. “Grindhouse” is a term I had never heard until recently (my 1996 copy of Cinemania doesn’t mention it either) — for more, check Wikipedia — but in short, it refers to exploitation films that feature excessive amounts of sex, violence and gore.

The two features in Grindhouse are Planet Terror, by Rodriguez, and Death Proof, by Tarantino. The former is a zombie movie with tons of blood, gore, and body parts. The latter is a car chase movie with a big-haired Kurt Russell as “Stuntman Mike” who drives a deathproof car.

Rodriguez’ forte is action, editing, and visceral button-pushing. In Planet Terror the military are dealing chemical weapons with smug foreigners. When their horrible poison escapes, it turns those who breathe it into pustule-covered monsters. The soundtrack offers lots of wet, squishy sound effects, loud explosions, and thundering gunfire. The editing is rapid-fire. The characters are quickly drawn. The plot isn’t very memorable, but that’s okay because the plot is just a line connecting all of the blood, pus, and action sequences that the movie is really about.

On the QT

Kurt Russell introduces Rose McGowan to his mom's car
Kurt Russell introduces Rose McGowan to his mom’s car

Death Proof reveals Quentin Tarantino to be a good writer with a knack for good characters, and a patient director who knows how and when to turn up the juice. Death Proof is practically two films in one. The first act features three women talking about love, life, and dreams, and the second act features four women talking about love and work. (If he wanted to, Tarantino could easily write and direct a chick flick — maybe he has with Death Proof.)

The exploitation comes in — not just when the lovely young actresses talk about sex — but when Kurt Russell’s stuntman character introduces us to his mom’s car. If I were a gearhead I could tell you what make, model, and engine size it was, but I only remember it being an American muscle car painted flat black with a skull and crossed lighting bolts. Let’s just say that the car gets put through its paces, twice, before the movie is over.

There is so much dialogue in Tarantino’s movie, that by the time the action starts in earnest, it’s really harrowing. By contrast, in Planet Terror, it’s easy to become accustomed to the noise and nonstop stimulation, which means that Rodriguez has to turn the amp up to 11 to get the audience to react. Tarantino has a more measured approach with greater contrast, so that when someone’s life is on the line in Death Proof, you fear death specifically, rather than laughing it off as just another exploding zombie or blown-away bad guy.

But Is It Real?

Along the same lines, and perhaps the neatest thing about Death Proof, is that one of the stars plays herself. Her name is Zoe Bell, and she was Uma Thurman’s stunt double in Kill Bill. The script calls for her character — a stuntwoman on a four-day weekend with some friends from the set — to do some amazing and dangerous stunts on the hood of a car (not Russell’s deathmobile, but rather a 1970 Dodge Challenger, white paint job, that, as a fan of Vanishing Point, she deliberately seeks out). By casting the stuntman as the actor, there is no question that the person on the hood of the car is the person whose life we fear for.

Granted, it’s still a fiction film with plenty of editing to exaggerate the real-world danger to the real-world Zoe. But Tarantino goes out of his way to cross the line between real and fake, and to bemoan the use of computer-generated fakery. The use of tricks to create fantastic images is as old as motion pictures. But I am more impressed when the filmmaker sets himself the challenge to cheat as little as possible, which is why I love Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton more than Jet Li and Charlie Chaplin (not to put down the talent of either Li or Chaplin). Where Rodriguez made a fantastic little zombie movie that made me squirm, Tarantino made a slower, less flashy film with more staying power.

How to Watch This Movie

Regardless of which part of Grindhouse you like better, I have two pieces of advice on how to see it.

First, do not wait until it comes out on video. That defeats the whole nostalgia angle of seeing the movie on film, not video, projected on a big screen, not on your TV, with all the smells of the theater, and not your own kitchen, and with the crowd of like-minded movie buffs, and not your own family.

Second, make a night of it. If you ever went to a double feature because you were young and poor, you stretched your entertainment as far as it would go. Don’t try to work in dinner, movie, and drinks afterwards. See it on the cheap with your friends, and make it the focus of your evening.

Tarantino and Rodriguez are offering film lovers a gift. It’s not just the contents of the gift that are the point — Planet Terror and Death Proof really are B movies — it’s also the thought that went into the gift, and the care with which it was wrapped.