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LAist Movie Review: Grindhouse

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I was lucky enough to score a couple of last minute tickets to last night's world premiere of the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez double feature, Grindhouse, at the Orpheum in downtown LA. I am happy to report that after months of festering anticipation, Grindhouse lives up to the hype.

Grindhouse, which is actually two feature-length movies in one (total running time: 185 minutes), begins with vintage title cards promoting "prevues of coming attractions." Then comes the trailer for Machete, a fake film featuring scarred, steely-eyed Danny Trejo as an outlaw looking for revenge and Cheech Marin as a machine-gun wielding priest. Strangely enough, the Machete trailer I saw on the web months ago, which was all mayhem and chaos, was better than last night's trailer, which for some unnecessary reason tried to elucidate the plot.

Then comes the main attraction or at least the first half of it, Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror. It's a fun, goofy, gory zombie movie with plenty of ridiculous special effects and intentionally comedic violence. The film lags at times (just like many of the 1980s-style grindhouse films, which were filled with long stretches of action between the violence and titties), but it stays watchable thanks to Rose McGowan and Freddy Rodriguez, who star a pair of former lovers rekindling their romance while fending off flesh-eating zombies.

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The huge supporting cast features an impressive assortment of great actors who will be recognizable to most filmgoers by face if not by name. Tom Savini plays an inept cop and Michael Biehn, a small-town sheriff, but the standouts among the supporting cast are definitely Josh Brolin, who possesses a menacing quality that I'd never imagiend and Marley Shelton, who imbues her role as Brolin's bullied but resilient wife with humor and pathos.

I had a lot of fun watching Planet Terror, but now that I've seen it once, I realize that most of my favorite bits are in the Grindhouse trailer (Rose McGowan's machine gun leg!).

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Tucked between the two features are a slate of trailers for movies that never existed made by a host of celebrity directors. Rob Zombie pulls off a credible imitation on Jess Franco with Werewolf Women of the SS, while Eli Roth's Thanksgiving Day with it's over-the-top violence and deliberately cheeseball effects earned plenty of laughs. But the best trailer by far was Edgar Wright's Don't. "If you're thinking about going to this house... Don't. If you're thinking about opening that door... Don't. If you're think about seeing this movie alone... Don't. Don't! Don't! Don't!" The man who directed Shaun of the Dead has made a trailer done it again; now I want to see Hot Fuzz even more.

Finally we get to Tarantino's half of this cinematic offering, Death Proof, a slice of small town life filled with hot girls, cool cars, great dialogue, colorful characters and an adrenaline-fueled car chase topped off by a surprisingly cathartic ending. While Planet Terror looks and feels like a 1980s exploitation flick, Death Proof mimics the 1970s grindhouse aesthetic all the way. Every setting, every camera angle, every song on the soundtrack is pitch perfect. Tarantino, who is credited as having shot the film himself (a first for the director), has taken great pains to recreate the look and feel of films from that era, and it's absolutely perfect. If anything, it's too perfect. The lengthy dialogue scenes are so well written and compellingly shot, they're more like a slick fantasy of a grindhouse movie than an actual grindhouse movie.

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Death Proof follows a posse of three beautiful women (Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd and Sydney Tamiia Poitier) as they tool around Austin scoring weed, talking shit and flirting with guys for free drinks. They end up at a local bar where they meet Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) a chewed-up, scarred-up former stuntman, who drives a menacing black stunt car emblazoned with a giant skull on the hood. Just as Butterfly (Ferlito) is about to give Stuntman Mike his long-awaited lap dance, the film cuts out -- a technique that Rodriguez also used in Planet Terror just as Rodriguez and McGowan's sex scene is about to get underway.

I don't want to give too much away about Death Proof, so let's flash forward to the second half of the film, where we meet another trio of ladies (Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who are hanging out with a visiting pal, stunt woman Zoe Bell playing herself. The ladies borrow a vintage 1970 Dodge Challenger to play Ship's Mast, a daredevil's game that involves Bell riding on the hood of the car while hanging onto belts strapped through the car's windows. But as the ladies happily race along the backroads, Stuntman Mike rolls up in his death's head car and rams the ladies.

After the long dialogue scenes that make up the bulk of Death Proof, the car chase offers a spectacular, tension-building set-piece that recalls classic 70s car chase films like Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, White Line Fever and Vanishing Point. Tarantino has shot the chase to maximize Bell's prowess as a stuntwoman, with lengthy shots that begin as close-ups then pull out wide as if to say, "Yup, it's still her." When the post-chase denouement finally arrives, it was so thoroughly and unexpectedly satisfying, it had most of the audience (including me) hollering with joy and relief. Now, that's a movie!

The other great thing about Death Proof is the soundtrack. Until the car chase nearly every moment in the movie is punctuated by music, and the choices are uniformly catchy. They run the gamut from Ennio Morricone's "Paranoia Prima" to a John Carpenter tidbit to "Hold Tight," a thundering classic rock song by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich to Joe Tex's vintage soul song "The Love You Save (May Be Your Own)." To cap it off the end credits are set to the tune of April March's "Chick Habit," a cover of Serge Gainsbourg's classic French pop song, "Laissez Tomber Les Filles." I couldn't think of a better way to end a movie.