Grindhouse; The Hoax

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Grindhouse is an exuberant double feature by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. It's an evocation of the horror flicks that used to play in moldering theaters with flypaper floors. In that spirit, a go-go dancer's leg goes missing during a zombie attack, and the action is occasionally interrupted by title cards that announce "Missing Reel." Not much else is missing from this work of wild-eyed archaeology--not the slime or drool, spurting blood, throbbing engines, screeching tires or jeopardized women. But some significant value has been added -- the most thrilling car chase ever committed to film. That sequence also shows, by cutting to the psychosexual chase, why fans embraced the seedy genre in the first place.

The whole thing slightly over three hours, goes by very quickly, contains countless film references and includes hilarious fake trailers. The first half of the program, Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, is set in a small Texas town where zombies have been spawned by a chemical experiment gone awry. Unless you're partial to pustules, needle sticks and necrotizing lesions, you'll find plenty of dull spots in the elaborately choreographed loathsomeness. But Planet Terror is enlivened by the bizarro husband-and-wife doctors played by Josh Brolin and Marley Shelton, and especially by Rose McGowan's Cherry, the dancer whose munched-off limb is replaced first by a table leg and then by a machine gun. As heroines go, Cherry is in a class by herself, and a grind house emblem straight out of Krafft-Ebing--a beautiful babe who's both maimed and all-powerful.

Quentin Tarantino's film, Death Proof, is much the better of the two -- it's a high-speed hybrid that juxtaposes comedy, jeopardy, a psycho killer and an action climax of remarkable emotional intensity. The story starts in an Austin restaurant, where three attractive young women are making sweet music out of casual conversation. (No kidding; the flow of language is truly musical and intricately feminine.) The psycho killer, Stuntman Mike, is played with malign brio by Kurt Russell. He sits watching the women from the bar, while his lethal weapon -- his muscle car -- sits waiting on the street.

More than one chase ensues, and more women become involved. One of them is played by a real-life stuntwoman from New Zealand, Zoë Bell -- she was Uma Thurman's stunt double in Kill Bill. The stunts she does here look too preposterously dangerous to be real, but none of the action is fake. Neither, in the end, are the nuclear explosions of rage and revenge that make Thelma and Louise look like rogue Girl Scouts. Those are the kind of real feelings that fueled the grind house furnace.

Truth takes a holiday in The Hoax. This study of world-class mendacity stars Richard Gere as Clifford Irving. He's the writer who faked an authorized biography of Howard Hughes in the 1970's, telling bigger and bigger lies about his access to the reclusive billionaire.

Richard Gere is an actor with a quick wit and a nimble mind, and he gets at this sociopath energy wonderfully well. It's fascinating to watch Irving trying to channel Howard Hughes as he writes his bogus bio. Marcia Gay Harden channels Shelley Winters as Irving's wife, and Alfred Molina is sensationally funny as Irving's co-conspirator and Sancho Panza, Dick Susskind; that almost amounts to a co-starring performance. But the narrative engine leaves the rails when Irving, like Hughes, plunges into confusion and paranoia and the style turns to the sort of intensely manipulated surrealism that Charlie Kaufman practiced, not successfully, in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. If truth be told, this story works best when it's allowed to tell itself.