Archive for the ‘tarantino’ category

The Hateful Eight

January 3, 2016

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Quentin Tarantino’s justifiably cocky new film The Hateful Eight unfolds on a wide, wide canvas — enormously wide, epically wide. Yet most of the action plays out either inside a moving stagecoach or inside a tavern during a blizzard, and most of that action is talk — ruminations about who can be trusted, or disquisitions on such topics as the ignominious last moments of a hapless bounty hunter or the taste of stew relative to its maker. This stew certainly tastes like Tarantino cooked it, and viewers whose palates have adjusted to the loquacious maestro’s style will sigh with pleasure. The hellfire-in-mahogany images (shot in 70mm Ultra Panavision by Robert Richardson) and knife-edge sound design ground us in a stark reality that Tarantino eventually gleefully stomps on.

The people onscreen may be hateful but the movie, like all Tarantino’s films, is a work of love, a grindhouse-deluxe act of devotion. The timbre of a seasoned actor’s growl, the authoritative clunk of a gun hitting a wooden floor, the creak of a heavy boot on a stagecoach step — all of these elements get such lavish attention that The Hateful Eight could almost be a radio play. But the sounds consort beautifully with the Jackson Pollock blood spatters and the white hell of snow-torn Wyoming and the chafing left on a woman’s wrist by handcuffs. The woman, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is being taken to the town of Red Rock by bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), called “the Hangman” because he sees that all his prisoners dangle. Ruth wants to deliver Daisy alive, but he isn’t above bashing her with a gun butt or an elbow.

Misogynist? Not the movie — Tarantino hands the film to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who hungrily bites into the patented Tarantino Comeback Role, nasally drawing out the syllables of her trashy dialogue like a razor across a strop. Daisy is as much a cackling agent of chaos as the Joker was, and in a way the harsh treatment of her is anti-sexist. I was reminded of the mobster in Ghost Dog who shoots a female cop; when his partner blurts “You just shot a broad,” the mobster ripostes, “I shot a cop. They wanna be equal, I made her equal,” and so Daisy, who can take as well as mastermind hard punishment, is equal.

The same can’t be said for black people, not in the movie’s timeline some years after the Civil War, and not now, either, Tarantino is saying. Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren (probably a nod to western writer/director Charles Marquis Warren) is a former Union soldier turned bounty hunter, a complicated and perhaps not very noble man, someone possibly as deformed by the racism of his time as Jackson’s character Stephen was in Django Unchained. The “N-word” is, as in that prior racially charged Tarantino western, said maliciously or casually or merely descriptively, even by a Union veteran like John Ruth. The people in this movie aren’t yet over the Civil War. Tarantino doesn’t think we in the 21st century are, either.

Warren is brought into Ruth and Daisy’s sphere by the weather, and together Ruth and Warren must figure out who in Minnie’s Haberdashery — everyone’s stopover destination to ride the storm out — has conspired with Daisy to free her and leave however many corpses to harden in the snow. This aspect of the story has been likened to Agatha Christie, but it’s less a whodunit than a who’s-gonna-do-it. Among the many ironies is that the most innocent one in this situation may be a foul old Confederate general, although his past is far from innocent. Whose is? Nobody’s, says Tarantino. Yet The Hateful Eight, for all its heavy negativity, is not a nihilist work. There’s too much life in the execution, too much irrepressible affection for the snowy milieu, which, like Kurt Russell’s slyly distrustful performance and Ennio Morricone’s score, harks back to John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Jackson’s bitter gaiety in the face of white hypocrisy holds this long, strange trip together right up to the end, when heads are blown off, an arm hacked off, blood gushing and puddling on the floor. He’s eventually matched by the great character actor Walton Goggins, whose Chris Mannix claims he’s to be the new sheriff in Red Rock. We never find out for sure; perhaps Mannix is using his position to fuel his hatred the way Warren fuels his. The other actors — including Tim Roth, Demián Bichir, Bruce Dern, and Michael Madsen, who’s aging to look and sound like Nick Nolte — are more two-dimensional, and give somewhat one-note performances, but their characters are conceived as pieces on a chessboard. Ruth, Daisy, Warren and Mannix take turns believing they can win the game, but in the end two opposite numbers on either side of the racial divide are united over shared contempt for lies — life-saving ones as well as death-dealing ones. I don’t know if The Hateful Eight has much to offer the uninitiated, but for me the worst news about Tarantino’s gorgeous and gory “8th film” is that there are only, according to him, two more to go. I hope not.

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Django Unchained

December 30, 2012

django-unchained-jamie-foxxLike most of his other films, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained feels like a summing-up, a resuscitation of forgotten subgenres, another thick volume of The Portable Quentin Tarantino — which, given the writer-director’s penchant for lengthy movies, isn’t quite portable. But that’s okay: the time always flies, and Tarantino gives us a lot of movie for our money. Django Unchained is another historical revenge epic on the order of Tarantino’s 2009 Inglourious Basterds, in which the insulted and injured get bloody satisfaction; in this case, the wronged party is Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave passing through antebellum Texas. Django encounters a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), and the two men become partners, Django assisting Schultz on various jobs until Schultz decides to help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from a Mississippi plantation.

Previous Tarantino revengeploitation (Kill Bill, etc.) was set in made-up, stylized worlds, but this movie and Basterds unfold against real-life backdrops of cruelty (and deep collective shame), so Django Unchained has sparked considerable controversy. Some African-Americans take issue with a white filmmaker’s using slavery (not to mention “the n-word”) so freely in service of a popcorn movie. Others find it empowering, as their ancestors also found blaxploitation cathartic in the ’70s. I’ll just say that the movie is structured as a spaghetti-western Niebelungen, in which the dragons this Siegfried must slay are slave owners and all the hillbillies and Uncle Toms who enable them. Django’s journey brings him to Candyland, an elaborate plantation run by the noxiously self-satisfied Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Hanging on his master Calvin’s every casually racist word like Gollum is house negro Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), who can tell straight away that Django and Schultz aren’t really there to buy “the right nigger” for mandingo fighting.

Trying to catch Broomhilda in a lie, Stephen asks her why he’s scaring her. “Because you’re scary,” she replies, and indeed he is; Jackson atones for many easy Samuel L. Jackson Auto-Pilot performances with a creepy, cobra-like menace. Tarantino has always been an actor’s director, evident here from so many people willing to drop in for tiny roles; at times the movie is an anthology of character actors from exploitation or TV. Foxx’s Django is iconic and stoic except where his beloved Broomhilda is concerned, while Waltz’s Schultz, familiar with violence up to a point, is gradually sickened by seeing firsthand the ruthless machinery of the slave economy. DiCaprio doesn’t overdo Candie’s sadism; in fact, in order to be sadistic you have to have some awareness that what you’re doing is wrong, and Candie, born into his position, sees nothing evil in it. It’s the water he’s always swum in. Someone like Stephen, who should see the evil but overlooks it out of expedience, is far more treacherous.

Starting with Kill Bill, Tarantino became a born-again action director, and the many shoot-outs here are staged with over-the-top gusto, with blood spurting and misting and puddling. When we’re supposed to enjoy the brutality, we do; when we’re not (say, when Candie unleashes dogs on an escaped slave), we don’t. Tarantino’s use of violence here seems fair and organic: If you profit from human misery, your death will be a joke to energize the audience. Tarantino’s great theme, hooking into his preoccupation with revenge sagas over the last decade, has always been “Actions have consequences.” When this is applied to America’s guilty past, Django Unchained comes to feel like an act of radicalism, which connects it to Tarantino’s obvious influences here, the sardonically political spaghetti westerns of Sergio Corbucci (The Great Silence and the original Django).

Other than showing off the first Django (Franco Nero) in a cameo, Tarantino’s Django shares no particular plot overlap with Corbucci’s, any more than his Inglourious Basterds cribbed its narrative from Enzo Castellari’s. The soundtrack is gratifyingly eclectic and defiantly anachronistic; Ennio Morricone and Jerry Goldsmith consort uneasily with Rick Ross and Jim Croce, and somehow it all works. As always, Tarantino is like a kid playing you his favorite albums and movie clips, but as he’s gotten older, with this and Basterds, he seems to have concluded that all his passion and enthusiasm should be put to use for grindhouse-history lessons — that is, history as seen through the filter of grindhouse, not the history of grindhouse, though it’s that too. The movie takes its time and stretches its legs and lets people reveal character through monologues. It also knows when to blow people sky-high for a laugh and when to step back in revulsion when other people who don’t deserve it are butchered. The tension between the two forms of violence may be the key to the movie’s controversy, but it also makes Django Unchained the season’s most vital filmmaking, bringing all of cinema’s manipulative possibilities to bear on a cracking good tale.

15 Years Later: Natural Born Killers

August 26, 2009

Fifteen years ago today, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers landed shrieking onto the American consciousness like some demented, misshapen eagle. I went to see it twice — once on opening weekend, again a week or so later — and both times vaguely feared for my life.

I was right at the tail end of NBK‘s target demographic, 18-25 (I’d recently turned 24). The theater was packed with people in my age group, and many of them were high. There was a pungent Dionysian party vibe. People came to NBK already fucked up, prepared to get more fucked up by the film itself. A humid air of potential violence — a fistfight, maybe worse — filled the room, and the movie itself both fed on this vibe of incipient hostility and perpetuated it. I did not feel safe. The film did not feel safe, and was not intended to be. Something in the whole of its seething blend of styles and tones was larger than the movie’s parts: dark, evil, ugly. The bog-standard trailer predicted none of this. We knew it was going to be a wild ride, but we weren’t expecting a meta-horror movie cackling at the gory downfall of man.

Natural Born Killers, of course, was not initially envisioned this way. Fledgling screenwriter Quentin Tarantino framed it as a gritty 16mm satire, a road movie that focused at least as much on tabloid-TV reporter Wayne Gale as on Mickey and Mallory Knox, the homicidal lovers who cut a psilocybin-laced swath of death, notoriety and cult celebrity across America. Through complex circumstances best left enumerated by coproducer Jane Hamsher’s enormously entertaining book Killer Instinct, Tarantino more or less ended up selling the script and washing his hands of it, while Oliver Stone and collaborators David Veloz and Richard Rutowski made the script more expansive and weird. The result — right down to the appearance of an Indian shaman*, a de rigueur touch for Stone’s movies in the ’90s — is really more an Oliver Stone film than a Tarantino film.

Does it succeed? Fifteen years on, I’m still not sure. The movie is nothing if not heavy-handed — Stone apparently considers it “subtle” — and on some level I can’t help but agree with a friend who said that once you’ve watched NBK up through the infamous Rodney Dangerfield sitcom scene, you’ve essentially seen the movie’s bag of tricks, and the remainder, though dazzling in parts, just reiterates the opening fifteen minutes on a loop for two hours. Yet no movie had ever looked, sounded or played quite like NBK. The corrosive eye-candy effect achieved by the use of many different film stocks and lighting schemes had been tested by Stone in The Doors and JFK, but NBK was his master’s thesis in this Cuisinart style. It was perfect for a channel-surfing Generation X too hip to believe in cultural heroes; the closest thing they’d had ate a shotgun the previous spring.

As you can tell by Warner’s hopelessly square trailer, NBK was never expected to be a runaway hit, and it wasn’t one. It did open at #1 with $11 million, barely edging out the behemoth Forrest Gump (which was in its eighth week of release) but handily butchering its new competitors, Camp Nowhere and Wagons East. It also enjoyed by far the highest per-screen average of the weekend. The buzz worked. But it wasn’t enough to propel it beyond a modest hit. After a surprising second weekend in which it only dipped 6%, NBK settled down to more standard numbers, finishing its domestic run with $50 million and change — about the same as Angels in the Outfield and The Crow.

It continued to provide tabloid fodder, though, well into the ’90s and beyond. For a while, it seemed as though every maladjusted lump of young white trash who killed anybody pointed to NBK as an inspiration. (That or Marilyn Manson.) Lawyer turned hack author John Grisham, whose friend had been killed in one of the supposed copycat sprees, crusaded against the film, laughably comparing works of art to defective breast implants. I’m of two minds about whether NBK, or any work of fiction, can be directly causally linked to real-life horrors. It’s certainly possible that if a film, book, album, etc., can inspire good, it can also inspire evil. But only if the capacity for good or evil is already there. NBK may have given young idiots a narrative to emulate, but it didn’t hypnotically (or psychotronically) change average viewers into the sort of people who would emulate that narrative. You don’t walk into NBK as a God-fearin’ Boy Scout and walk out as Dylan Klebold. A lot of stuff has to happen along the way before you get to the point where you’re hunting humans.

Aside from the controversy, has the film endured — has it transcended the controversy? It doesn’t seem to have become much of a cultural marker — not nearly as much as the other Tarantino-penned film later that same year, Pulp Fiction. Not that it matters a whole lot, but it got no Oscar nominations — not even for Robert Richardson’s whirligig cinematography or the crazy-quilt editing by Brian Berdan and Hank Corwin.

Though it keeps getting blamed for real-world brutality, NBK would seem to have been a very of-the-moment phenomenon, coming as it did on the heels of the Menendez brothers, Tonya Harding, and O.J. — all of whom get trotted out at the end. The thing is, Stone wanks on the same murderer-as-celebrity point over and over again, a point that had already been made just a few months earlier in John Waters’ Serial Mom, which itself was something of a kinder, gentler rewrite of Waters’ Female Trouble from twenty years before. Even stylistically, NBK hasn’t aged well, since its then-outrageous format has been bitten by everything from commercials to Tony Scott films.

If it holds up on a deeper level, it’s as a retch of disgust at a specific cultural moment — a queasy snapshot. Beware those who try to tell you NBK is “more relevant than ever.” Serial killers aren’t lionized, they’re demonized. The media — including the internet, which wasn’t around (or at least not in many homes) when NBK was released — chews everything, spits it out, and goes on to the next movable feast. My feeling is that the media fever broke when Princess Di got killed. It didn’t make paparazzi look in the mirror and confront the void where their souls should be, but it did signal a shift in what America was interested in. Americans felt bad about the role they had played in Diana’s death. The tabloids are still fixated on bullshit and scandal, and nauseating “reality shows” are everywhere, but all of it just seems like background noise now. In short, the conditions NBK railed against don’t really exist any more. America sweated out that sickness. And I’m not wholly convinced that America’s fascination with OJ, Tonya, and the Menendez brothers was due to their glamorous outlaw status; it was because they’d gotten caught. I would attribute the fascination more to schadenfreude than to a morbid fixation (although there will always be a subset of murder groupies). If there were an actual Mickey and Mallory out there somewhere, the nation would be terrified, not smitten (and this was the case back in ’94, too). Again, Tarantino was tweaking the tabloid-TV true-crime shows, which mostly profiled already-captured serial killers or the occasional unsolved crime.** People will always want to gawk at killers and try to figure out what’s going on in their heads, but that’s a lot different from turning them into rock stars. It’s more like picking up a rock and staring with transfixed disgust at whatever is squirming underneath.

A viewer who was born in 1994 — he or she would be fourteen or fifteen now — might look at NBK and find it as quaint as people of my generation found once-radical films like Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate once we finally got around to renting them. NBK is the ultimate you-had-to-be-there film; it was made for a very specific audience, who responded eagerly and then moved on to Pulp Fiction, which drew a wider audience. After Reservoir Dogs, his calling card, Quentin Tarantino only made magnum opuses (the just-for-the-hell-of-it Death Proof was an aberration). NBK wouldn’t have fit into his scheme — he intended it as a fast, dirty drive-in picture with satire here and there. Oliver Stone zeroed in on the satirical elements and added to them until it metastasized into an unruly, unholy Grand Statement on Where We Are Now in 1994.

Of the three Tarantino scripts directed by other hands — Tony Scott’s True Romance and Robert Rodriguez’ From Dusk Till Dawn being the others — NBK probably has the least rewatchability (and it’s certainly not as quotable). Its rabid-wolf groove feels too hysterically beside-the-point, its satirical darts blunted by time. It is, however, the closest of the three to art, and certainly the most ambitious. Unpleasant and thorny to the touch, it is uncompromisingly what it is. I tend to doubt that a large portion of its audience took its satirical message away with them; it was a freak-out, and was probably honestly received as such. Yet the chaos is often beautiful, even at its ugliest — especially at its ugliest. It’s tailor-made for home video, where you can watch your favorite insane bits of business. As if to mark its fifteenth birthday, Warner is unveiling a Blu-ray in October containing Stone’s preferred cut (the theatrical cut hit Blu-ray last summer). Having seen both versions, I don’t really know which one I favor. The thrill of the R-rated print was in witnessing what (in 1994) Stone could get away with and still avoid the dreaded NC-17; the uncut version offers little besides added gore, for those who dote on such things.

Of the many actors playing to the back seats, the most genuine and frightening performance belongs to Tom Sizemore as the corrupt, psychotic detective Jack Scagnetti, who kills hookers, writes hard-bitten James Ellroy-esque true-crime books glorifying his various busts, and sits in a miserably horny flop sweat when he’s finally alone with his dream girl Mallory. Sizemore, who would later make his own tabloid headlines, seems to be not only in a different movie but on a different plane of reality. It’s great work from a fine actor who in recent years has drifted into insanity and oblivion. If Robert Downey Jr. deserved a career do-over — and he did — so does Sizemore. Where’s his Marvel Comics superhero movie?

As I’ve said before, sometimes a work of art breaks free from the artist’s intentions and becomes its own willful beast. “A filmmaker can say things about his movie,” I wrote about Michael Haneke’s 2008 remake of his own Funny Games, “but the film itself might rudely contradict him.” Everyone involved in NBK expressed surprise that it could be taken as anything other than a stern condemnation of the media celebrating outlaws. This is disingenuous. The audience has been both terrified and enthralled by screen violence going at least as far back as 1902, when Edwin S. Porter had a robber fire his gun directly at us in The Great Train Robbery. To believe what NBK‘s makers claim, we would have to believe that the film, and its marketing (including a successful Trent Reznor-dominated soundtrack album), somehow exist outside “the media.”

Oh, heavens no, we’re not glorifying Mickey and Mallory, the filmmakers objected; we’re actually doing the opposite, and if you interpret the film another way, you just don’t get it. I think we “get it” more than the filmmakers did. At no point are Mickey and Mallory revealed, narratively or stylistically, to be the squalid, toxic little shitheads they would be in real life. Nor are we asked to identify with their many victims — indeed, at times we are asked to laugh at the grief of those who knew the victims (I think of Dale Dye’s cameo as a cop weeping copiously, with obvious fake tears, over the death of a fellow cop in a meant-to-be-cheesy re-enactment). We are also asked to sympathize with Mickey and Mallory’s soul-crushing childhoods. By “satirizing” the media adoration of Mickey and Mallory, NBK blunders into the old trap of becoming what it’s supposed to be excoriating.

Then again, by all accounts it was a pretty insane shoot, even by Oliver Stone standards. People partied hard and went to dark, weird places in their heads while working on the film. I think the film reflects that. Jane Hamsher quoted Stone as saying once, “There’s a demon on this set.” There may well have been. There’s something sulfurous and chaotic about the movie. Drugs were taken, spirits were summoned. It’s the sort of movie that usually has a curse attached to it, like Poltergeist. In this case the curse might be the copycat killings. Some portal was opened and something bad got out. I’m not proposing any of this literally, I’m just saying … the whole energy of the film is rancid, ominous. I honestly believe the filmmakers had the best intentions and the movie just got off its leash and got away from them at full speed.

It sure is fascinating, though, watching the film flail around trying to be one thing or another, making its “points” while the whole of the experience bulldozes any such points. It’s a mesmerizing folly made by people who don’t truly seem to know what they’re making. In an unused alternate ending, Stone had Mickey and Mallory get their comeuppance via a fellow prison escapee (Arliss Howard, pictured above in a moment of foreshadowing in the film’s opening scene — said foreshadowing was rendered moot after Stone went with a different ending), who comes on to Mallory and then shotguns them both. Here was the perfect way to turn the killers’ brutal caprice back onto them — a bland monster who just ends them for no very good reason. Stone ultimately went with a denouement in which Mickey and Mallory are seen raising their own children, who will, we assume, be reared with more love than Mickey and Mallory were. So the killers get away and live happily ever after. Stone may have seen this ending as more hip and subversive than the crime-does-not-pay ending, but all it does is leave the audience, which for two hours has been following Mickey and Mallory with interest and sympathy, on a high note rather than a bummer. Some may say, once again, that this is a satire of a happy Hollywood ending. I say it just is one.


*The Indian was not in Tarantino’s original script, which simply had Mickey and Mallory getting captured at a Circle K. In the film, Mickey’s ‘shroom-addled accidental killing of the Indian is what leads to the couple’s downfall, since they get bitten by a snake in the same place and they seek an antidote at Drug Zone, which is where they finally get nabbed.

**It is interesting in retrospect to note that Mickey and Mallory, like the Basterds in Tarantino’s later Inglourious Basterds, always leave one person alive to tell the tale.

Inglourious Basterds

August 23, 2009

inglourious_basterds_ver7In Inglourious Basterds, the quintessential Quentin Tarantino scene unfolds again and again: a long, sinister conversation between someone with power and someone without. Usually, but not always, the powerful person is a Nazi, imposing on someone’s time at excruciating length; it’s rambling as triumph of the will. None of this is as boring as it may sound: Tarantino plumbs these sequences for considerable suspense. When will the Nazi get to the point, or go away, or just kill someone and break the tension? The menacing one-sided chat goes on and on, while the listener sweats and tries not to give up whatever information is being demanded. In Tarantino-land, the Nazis don’t have to torture you; they talk to you.

Brad Pitt and his merry band of “Basterds” are less loquacious (though Pitt, too, uses the chatty method of extracting info). This group of Jewish-American soldiers, led by Pitt the Gentile hillbilly, prefers to rough up their Nazi prey, often for the sheer bullying fun of it. A glowering Boston Jewish bruiser, played by Hostel director Eli Roth, emerges from the shadows with a baseball bat and ends a frightened German soldier rather messily. The Basterds’ story is interwoven with that of a French Jewish girl (Mélanie Laurent), who escapes the Nazis early on and winds up managing a Paris movie theater; she has violent plans of her own. Pitt and Laurent are two sides of the same vengeful coin, with movie-love giving it a hot spin.

Tarantino always sets out to make The Ultimate Movie of Everything Quentin Loves. Inglourious Basterds is his brutal-cool reverie on war, though until the very end he stops short of wholeheartedly enjoying the sadism — the young, terrified German soldiers Pitt mutilates are humanized as much as the victims of the Nazis, and sometimes we feel that those German soldiers are victims of the Nazis, unpolitical kids conscripted into an insane system they might not believe in. The chief villain is an elaborately inquisitive “Jew hunter,” a Nazi colonel who in saner times might have been a great detective; sportively played by Christophe Waltz, this Nazi is allowed depth of motive and layers of feeling about what he does. He’s also a bit of a boor, endlessly impressed with himself.

The marquee star is Brad Pitt, and he turns in a one-note performance — malevolent amusement, mostly — though the note is consistently entertaining. The 26-year-old Mélanie Laurent, an actress to watch, sprinkles her deadpan with barbs of rage and grief. Once again, a woman walks away with a Tarantino film, and he cheerfully lets her take it. Inglourious Basterds is a long, strange pop artifact, studded with instant-classic moments and sealed with a legitimately great image of a laughing face swathed in fire and smoke — even if the entire film were junk, it’d be worth it for that shot alone, an immaculate essay-in-pictures about the power of cinema. As always, Tarantino works with a heady mix of playfulness and classical rigor, and getting out of L.A. and America — as he also did with Kill Bill — adds a pleasant old-world gravitas to his play. He may appreciate the Basterds on a bad-ass Lee Marvin level, but the French girl who shows movies — and shows that the dream Leni Riefenstahl helped build can be blown apart the same way — is his true hero. I don’t know whether Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s masterpiece (it’s too early to say), but it proves he’s still a master.

Grindhouse

April 6, 2007

The trailers for grindhouse movies were always better than the films themselves. Sadly, the same is true of Grindhouse. Directors Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) and Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) share a deep love for the cheezoid drive-in-and-Times-Square exploitation flicks they devoured as budding movie geeks, and together they have made a three-hour, double-feature monument to their celluloid guilty pleasures. It’s the strangest, biggest, most expensive case of director indulgence ever to open in multiplexes across America. I applaud the idea of it, but in practice the hip, knowing crappiness becomes depressing. Directors talented enough to make such a loving tribute to grindhouse should probably be doing better things with their time.

Rodriguez has apparently always wanted to make a zombie movie in a vague John Carpenter style, and that’s what he does in Planet Terror, sort of. Stuffed with youngsters (heroic Freddy Rodriguez, erotic dancer Rose McGowan, harried doctor Marley Shelton) and grizzled veterans of exploitation (Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey, Michael Parks), the movie has been painstakingly run through a digital wringer to achieve the chewed-up look and stuttering rhythm of a weathered grindhouse can of film. But the illusion is ruined by guest stars such as Bruce Willis and Tarantino himself (as a rapist soldier). Planet Terror is also too ugly conceptually to be any fun — people are always oozing disgusting substances — and it reaches its climax when Rose McGowan receives a machine gun in place of her missing leg, reminding us that the actual grindhouse flicks of old wouldn’t have had the budget to achieve that effect. It feels like something of a cheat; Rodriguez should’ve decided on a bygone year when the movie was supposedly filmed, then held himself to the available technology of the era.

Planet Terror is hectic but unmemorable, and after a few amusing faux trailers (Planet Terror is preceded by Rodriguez’ fake Machete trailer, which packs more legitimate grindhouse punch than the feature that follows), we enter the Tarantinoverse, complete with garrulous, beside-the-point dialogue about movies and scoring weed. Death Proof concerns a stubbly, scarred maniac named Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), who likes to kill women with his invulnerable car. He meets his match in a trio of spitfires (including Rosario Dawson and Zoe Bell, the stuntwoman profiled in the entertaining documentary Double Dare). The entire segment, which feels much longer than it is, is redeemed somewhat by watching the he-man misogynist killer at the mercy of three tiny women.

Rodriguez and Tarantino already made a fun grindhouse double feature of sorts twelve years ago — From Dusk Till Dawn, which began as a Tarantino-esque crime spree filled with chatty menace and took a hard left into Rodriguez’ playpen of vampires, strippers, and bad-ass Mexicans. For all its movie-geek fervor, Grindhouse remains a private party, an event that was probably more fun to make (and to market) than it is to watch. In these movies’ intentionally two-dimensional reality, there’s little dramatic meat for the actors to chew on; Rose McGowan brings her goth insouciance to her dual roles (she also plays a victim in Death Proof), and Kurt Russell gives Stuntman Mike a hearty malevolence that detours into cowardice, as if he were a boy playing roughly with dolls, and started crying when they bit him.

But grindhouse fare isn’t generally about depth of character, or depth of anything, and Grindhouse is a regression for both Rodriguez, who took his stylistic brio to a new level in Sin City, and, God knows, Tarantino, who is becoming more famous as a voracious movie nerd than as a moviemaker. I don’t speak from an ivory tower, either: my DVD shelves are full of real grindhouse movies, which tend to have a scrappy, low-budget charm — something like Tarantino’s and Rodriguez’ first films, come to think of it — that Grindhouse mostly lacks. Watching it is a bit like watching slick, high-powered modern comics artists do a tribute to old corny comic books of the ‘30s, or listening to accomplished musicians covering goofy novelty songs from decades ago: We can appreciate the affection and effort that go into the homage, but we’re left wondering whether it was worth doing when the original fun junk is right there to be enjoyed.

Kill Bill Vol. 2

April 16, 2004

Now that all four hours and eight minutes of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill saga have unfurled, it’s easy to see the bridge between the two halves. If Vol. 1 was about action, Vol. 2 is about consequences. Having indulged in an orgasmic display of sword carnage near the end of the first part, Tarantino knows he can’t top himself, and he doesn’t try; he slows his pace considerably, drawing out lengthy dialogue sequences, which are really more like duelling monologues. The people in this film feel the need to defend themselves verbally as well as physically; when an enemy is down and helpless, that’s the best time for a declamatory speech at his or her expense.

I realize that makes Vol. 2 sound leaden, but nothing could be further from the truth. As always in Tarantino’s work, character bubbles up from the streams of words. When our wrathful heroine the Bride (Uma Thurman) finally tracks down her nemesis Bill (David Carradine), he favors her with a sprawling theory about superheroes and their secret identities. It’s pure Quentin, but it also tells us about Bill and his esteem for the Bride. Bill’s ne’er-do-well brother Budd (Michael Madsen) gets the drop on the Bride at one point and prolongs her agony with his own chatter, and later on another assassin, Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), will do the same to him. The defining Tarantino moment concerns the victim who isn’t just killed but is forced to listen, like the unfortunate cop in Reservoir Dogs or the doomed Brett in Pulp Fiction.

Both wit and dread gather around these long exchanges, with sadism and violence never far from the surface. Should Tarantino ever want to make an all-out horror movie, he proves himself capable in a near-unbearable sequence, played mostly in pitch black, in which the Bride is buried alive; for what seems like an eternity, all we get from the darkness is the Bride’s terrified gasping and the thunder of dirt being dumped onto her coffin. A close-quarters fight between the Bride and Elle is tremendously vicious, the polar opposite of the elegant spatial harmony of the face-off between the Bride and O-Ren Ishii in the first installment. Though Vol. 2‘s body count is of necessity smaller than that of its predecessor, the brutality hurts more here, and counts for more.

We get a peek at the Bride’s earlier life with Bill, her mentor and lover; we see her training under “the cruel tutelage of Pai Mei” (Gordon Liu), an ancient Chinese master with flowing white hair, beard, and eyebrows. (This character, like Vol. 1‘s swordmaker Hattori Hanzo, is cheerfully stolen from existing Asian cinema.) David Carradine ambles into the film, carrying a flute and years of associations with martial arts and B-movies. Tarantino obviously worships him, and Carradine rewards him with a portrait of a callous man driven to destroy the one person who broke through his armor. What Carradine brings to Bill, which isn’t necessarily scripted, is a becalmed sense of honor. We look at Bill and, despite what he’s done, we never think “evil”; he’s something else, something larger and harder to pin down, like Hannibal Lecter.

Uma Thurman’s performance, too, acquires shadings in this second half. The Bride’s pregnancy, her grief and rage at losing her baby, cease to be exploitation plot points and become the basis for a person. There’s an interesting little anecdote in which the Bride, having just taken the home pregnancy test, has a run-in with a female assassin, and what follows is just weird enough to be plausible. Mercy is possible here, if not redemption; murderers remain murderers, and even when Budd or Elle express pangs of regret, it doesn’t mean they’re not who they are. What separates the Bride from the rest of the pack of killers? Well, she chose to nurture life over death. The point is less political than mythical: it’s the priestess of violence learning that her body can create as well as destroy. In total, the Kill Bill movies expand the story far beyond grindhouse-cinema homage. Vol. 1 was energetic fun, but Vol. 2, in its digressions and philosophizing, actually has the payoff.

Kill Bill Vol. 1

October 10, 2003

Forget what you’ve heard, the good and the bad: Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill – Vol. 1, the geek master’s first movie in six years, neither reinvents the cinematic wheel nor reveals its author at a low point. It’s not a great movie — not the great movie Pulp Fiction was — but it’s great fun. Tarantino has assembled an adoring remix of everything he’s ever loved in movies on the theme of revenge: some spaghetti Westerns here (ever seen 1967’s God Forgives, I Don’t? You can bet QT has), some Asian standards there, mixed in with Truffaut (whose The Bride Wore Black informs Kill Bill more than a little, though Tarantino has denied seeing it; I doubt this) and nasty X-rated Swedish exploitation (They Call Her One-Eye, an influence on the heroine and one of her betrayers). I would’ve loved to have seen it all in one mammoth, glorious, three-hour-plus gulp (Miramax, imitating the heroine at the House of Blue Leaves, cleaved the film into two parts); as it is, Vol. 2 can’t get here fast enough.

Trembling and bloodied, Uma Thurman’s Bride (known by no other name in this volume; her real name is bleeped three times) chokes out four last words before Bill (David Carradine), the eponymous focus of her vengeance, blows her brains out. Well, almost. That’s the first shot of the movie, and we learn that the bullet knocked her into a four-year coma. She escapes an aborted bedside murder attempt by Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah, cold and mean as a knife here), one of Bill’s minions. “Don’t you ever wake up,” Elle snarls, but eventually the Bride does snap out of it; you know this is an exploitation picture because she has to kill two loutish rapists within five minutes of her resurrection. Willing her coma-stiffened legs to function, the Bride takes off, Death List in hand, and sets about her course of action: slashing through each of her former cohorts on Bill’s Deadly Viper Assassination Squad — including Elle, the domesticized Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), and the fearsome O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) — before tracking down Bill.

Thurman spends most of her screen time seething with scarcely repressed homicidal rage, though she’s got a cheerier moment here when she poses as a bubbly American tourist who just happens to have stumbled into the sushi bar of retired-and-in-hiding master swordsman Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba, whose name Tarantino can now cross off his list of Movie Gods I Want to Put in My Movies). Hanzo fashions the Bride a sword sharp enough, one imagines, to slice the thoughts of air molecules. It slices, all right; in the designed-to-be-legendary Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves, it drenches the floor, ceiling, and walls in hissing, gushing arterial spray as the Bride carves her way through O-Ren’s cadre of assassins (the Crazy 88s) as though they were soft ice cream.

Kill Bill is a temple of worship — a devout hymn of praise to crap cinema (which isn’t always crappy). Tarantino, a generous filmmaker if ever there was one, pelts us with stylistic jabs as well as flying body parts. O-Ren’s origin story, for instance, is told as a spectacularly gory anime cartoon, and that’s pretty much what you’re watching all along. The movie, though, retains Tarantino’s preference for long breezes of rhetoric (though shortened somewhat and honed to a point here — most of the wordiness here is on the part of those hoping to avoid the Bride’s wrath) as well as quiet, still moments. Tarantino, who’s seen everything and knows how it works, isn’t trying to subvert anything this time out. His goal, it’s clear, is to make the ultimate revenge movie with the ultimate sword battle scene.

The latter might well occur in Vol. 1, but never fear, more impressive stuff is on tap for Vol. 2 (from what I remember of the script, which, like many, I’ve read online). Tarantino ends this first part with a line from Bill obviously intended to get people to come back for the second part (effectively giving away a surprise that had originally been saved for the saga’s last act), but it’s hardly necessary. You want to see what happens next with the Bride — not whether she gets her revenge, but how, and what toll it may take on enemies and innocents alike. I’ll miss Lucy Liu as O-Ren, smugly cocooned in her stature and acumen, and Chiaki Kuriyama as O-Ren’s psychotic bodyguard Go-Go Yubari; but we have more Daryl Hannah coming up, and more Michael Madsen (barely glimpsed here) as Budd, the team’s only male Viper; and we’ll get to meet Bill and see for ourselves whether we — and the Bride — still want him dead.