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April 18, 2007


What’s with all the movies I like flopping? Is my endorsement a kiss of death?

I was disappointed but unsurprised by the commercial failure of Zodiac, a brilliant film that (like all of David Fincher’s work) will be reappraised and exalted five to ten years from now.

But Grindhouse? This one should be money in the bank.

I admit that the 3-hour running time isn’t a great selling point. Needlessly long movies get on my nerves, too, though this one didn’t bore me for a second. And I probably vastly overestimated the ability of audiences to appreciate intentionally cheesy movies.

We Americans like our cheese straight-faced, as evidenced by Grindhouse’s virtual dead heat (huh huh) finish with the thoroughly unironic assembly line horror flick 
The Reaping
. The only positive review it got on read, “It’s an old testament Da Vinci Code!” and that’s supposed to make you want to see it.

But I can’t remember the last time I had more fun at the movies than I did at Grindhouse. It’s a film made to be seen in a packed house, which makes its initial failure so sad. I’ve gotten some flak over the years for singing the praises of a great home theater over a subpar multiplex.

But while a movie like Zodiac will find its audience on DVD and probably be even better with the perfection of digital media, Grindhouse will unquestionably lose something when taken out of the theater. Seeing it took me back to the glory days of popcorn movies like Jurassic Park and Independence Day, when being part of an enthusiastic crowd was an indispensable part of the overall experience. I’m sure I’ll buy the DVD, but watching it at home will be like seeing your favorite band live when nobody else showed up.

I’m sure everyone already knows the idea. Two complete movies, one by Robert Rodriguez and one by Quentin Tarantino, with fake trailers in the middle by modern horror luminaries like Rob Zombie and Eli Roth. Robert Rodriguez’s entry Planet Terror is easily the best movie he’s ever made (unless you count his co-direction with Frank Miller on Sin City), a stylish sugar rush that warps genre conventions into hilarious in-jokes.

Comparing this to his largely unremarkable work on early films like Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn exhibits how far Rodriguez has come as a filmmaker, from a workman to a showman, constantly experimenting with new media and controlling the audience like a pro. If Grindhouse ended here I would leave more than happy.

But you can’t leave, because it gets better. Much better. Zombie’s and Roth’s trailers are a lot of fun, but the real keeper here is Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright’s incomparable Don’t, in which an overzealous narrator warns us about all the things we shouldn’t do. “Don’t open the door, don’t look up, don’t look anywhere,” and so on to the point where he’s just saying “don’t” over and over again. It’s possibly the funniest and smartest parody of modern horror ever made.

And then, we come to Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. Tarantino is the one who got me interested in films in the first place, when I saw Pulp Fiction on its opening day and realized that movies could be more than dumb fun.

But every movie since then has proved that he’s no flash in the pan, deepening his character development with Jackie Brown and taking on an epic with Kill Bill. Death Proof is possibly the smallest film he’s ever made, but in many ways it’s the purest distillation of all his work: pairing the excitement of the lowbrow with the depth of the highbrow.

Death Proof, above all, is about movies, or more specifically the visceral thrills that the best movies can give. At first it’s a little talky, especially after two hours of nonstop action, but stick around and you’ll be a part of what is truthfully one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in a theater.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie where literally everyone got out of their seats and cheered at the very end. It rekindled not only a love of film but also the joy and camaraderie that comes with being part of the audience. And in a time when the gaps between films can feel more and more like eternities, it shows us how great a talent Quentin Tarantino really is.

I remember I first saw Pulp Fiction I talked about it for weeks afterward and had the soundtrack on constant repeat. Now I’m doing the same with Death Proof. Name another director who has that effect on so many people.



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