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If you measure your movie value by time spent watching, then Grindhouse is certainly the best bang for your buck. Clocking in at just over three hours, this "double-feature" hearkens back to the days when crap movies were still considered crap and we liked 'em anyway. It's a labor of love, and when it's content to be just that, Grindhouse provides a lot of fun.

Everyone involved seems to be having fun, and in a way that doesn't shut out the audience. From the first pulse-pounding trailer for the disappointingly non-existent Machete, Grindhouse has us. Robert Rodriguez directs this as well as the first feature, Planet Terror, and both pieces weave in and out of his little Rodriguez-verse, referencing other works from Troublemaker Studios (Danny Trejo played Machete in the three Spy Kids movies, too, though as a much more endearing character than the trailer indicates here).

Rodriguez also does the best job of capturing the spirit of the project, filling Planet Terror with weird low-budget touches and letting the film look heavily stressed, burned and scratched. Partner Quentin Tarantino starts Death Proof that way, but loves his imagery too much to keep that beat-up look long.

Basically a zombie film, Planet Terror features over the top performances, weird weaponry and hot women in peril. It also makes little expositional sense, coasting on flair and strangeness. Ironically, this makes for one of Rodriguez' more focused efforts. Relieved of the need to tell a tight story by the conceit of the project, his script binds all the subplots together neatly anyway; he even throws in awkward political commentary, and it fits.

Where both directors may confuse audiences is in that modern commentary. Both features (and the trailers) all look from the seventies, but constantly reference today's culture. It may be that Texans look and feel thirty years behind Californians, but somehow that seems doubtful.

Tarantino acknowledges the time gap a bit with his villainous Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell). Once a top double in television (or at least claiming to have been), Mike brags to people who are too young to remember his work in shows like Vegas and High Chapparal. (Man, what Tarantino could have done for Bob Urich if he were still alive...) Still oozing charm, Mike inexplicably likes to kill young women In car crashes.

A giddily unpleasant plot worthy of a dollar house, Death Proof has trouble rolling because Tarantino likes the sound of his dialogue way too much. For the screenwriter, it's all about the rap, and to be fair, he does write snappy dialogue. But he also has directed his actresses, including Rosario Dawson and Sydney Poitier (Sidney's daughter) to be a bit stiff, as if they were C-list actors barely off the streets. The end results in boring conversations about the requisite nothing really important anyway.

When Tarantino gives things over to his plot, they do really hop, though he also counts on not having to explain very much - or at least being not willing to explain. He, too, borrows characters and actors from Planet Terror, which is a little disconcerting, especially as they create a subplot he never gets around to resolving. Then again, perhaps a lot of real grindhouse movies have that sloppy a structure.

He also takes a risk in casting top stuntwoman Zoe Bell as herself. She's a decent actress and a hell of a risk taker, and it's obvious why Tarantino likes her. But it's strange to see her just being herself surrounded by overtly fictional characters. It's hard to know what level of reality to apply.

Again, when the rules are clear, you can just sit back and enjoy. The trailers in between are hilarious, with Eli Roth's disgusting Thanksgiving come-on hitting home well. To quote Lon Lopez, "He did not just go there, did he?"

With the exception of Machete, the trailers don't seem like something we'd want to see turned into full-length films, but the jokes work. There's really nowhere to go with She Wolves of the S.S. anyway. To Rob Zombie's credit, though, he does manage to draw more than one joke out of the concept.

Grindhouse may not be the true heir to a lost time; the direct to video market has been feeding the junk film junkies for years. But this collaboration does show respect for all of its parts, and makes a pretty good distraction. The two ten-year-olds who snuck in and sat nearby claim to have loved it.


Derek McCaw

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