Tag Archives: Quentin Tarantino

Nostalgia, ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘The Hateful Eight’

“I started to cry.”

That’s what my wife said as we walked out of the theater after watching The Force Awakens. When that John Williams’ Star Wars theme kicked in and those yellow words started scrolling through deep space, I have to admit, I started feeling pretty warm and fuzzy myself, and I’m not the most sentimental of people.

It was a huge plus that The Force Awakens is an OK flick. Back when Episode I came out, my boss and I split five hours sitting in line in the south Texas heat to score tickets for opening night. Then we were treated to a raging shitfest of a “film” that would be best forgotten. Poorly written, poorly acted, poorly directed and with a focus more on scenery and settings than character development or story – thanks, George Lucas – The Phantom Menace made a mockery of the Star Wars franchise.

I think that accounts for some of the insanity surrounding The Force Awakens. Episodes I-III were so poorly done, so uneven, so tedious that the bar was set incredibly low for Episode VII. The Force Awakens introduces two great new characters – Rey and Finn – as well as setting up a number of potentially interesting strings that will be unraveled in the next couple of movies. Real scenery was favored over computer-generated worlds, there was character development, the dialogue was easily better than anything from the first three episodes and more.

But there’s plenty going on that’s just not that good. For example, Rey and Finn’s introduction to Han and Chewbacca. “Hey, there’s billions of people in the universe, billions upon billions of stars and planets, and billions upon billions upon billions of mileage in the galaxy, but pretty much the second Rey and Finn enter space, they run into the one person and one wookie they most need to run into.” The odds of that happening are pretty much like winning the Powerball and the Mega Millions jackpots, receiving a Pulitzer, getting elected president of the United States and being struck by lightning six times … all on the same day. And don’t try blaming The Force for defying the odds. It’s poorly done.

And then it gets worse. Abrams brings in Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2 for cameos in the scene right after the previously mentioned fortuitous meeting, when Han’s man-eating cargo escapes and starts slinging blood and body parts around his ship. Why cast two of the biggest martial arts badasses on the planet only to have them run around and scream like little girls playing “Bloody Mary” at a sleepover? Beyond me.

There are other things, as well. The dialogue and acting in the scene where Han and Leia reunite was hard to watch it was so poorly done. I’m not sure why everyone was so excited about Oscar Isaac. Loved him in Ex Machina, but in The Force Awakens, he’s an under-cooked, third-rate Han. Kylo Ren is a sullen, uninteresting douche like his Grandpa Anakin and not worthy of his Grandpa Vader’s helmet. The scenes at Leia’s base are poorly framed and look cheaply done. And so on.

This is when the insanity surrounding The Force Awakens kicks in. People are willing to forgive a lot because Han is back acting cocky, the shadow of Luke hangs over all of the proceedings, Leia is still running things and Chewy provides some laughs. Don’t get me wrong, I loved all of that. But the nostalgia is not enough to hide The Force Awakens weaknesses, and it’s surely not enough to make it the highest-grossing ever … at least, in my opinion.

I had similar feelings about Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Luckily, it’s a better film than The Force Awakens. Jennifer Jason Lee put herself back on the map with her performance as Daisy Domergue. The snowy shots of Wyoming, a terrific cast and the claustrophobic setting of Minnie’s Harberdashery were all solid.

But the story mostly benefits from its similarities to Reservoir Dogs, which I think is the superior film. Quentin Tarantino fans love seeing QT faves like Kurt Russell, Samuel Jackson, Michael Madsen and others getting all macho and manly and staring each other down. It’s like Tarantino made a three-hour film out of the Mexican standoff at the end of Dogs. At lot of classic Tarantino.

Which is the problem. I think Tarantino did a better job of building the tension in the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds than he did in Eight. I think the showdown in Reservoir Dogs benefits from a better build-up than Eight. I think the Bride’s story of revenge is superior to that of Major Warren. I think Madsen and Tim Roth were better in Reservoir Dogs and Russell is better in Death Proof. And this is the most Jules-like Jackson has been since Pulp Fiction. I was waiting for him to start screaming, “What does Abraham Lincoln look like? Does he look like a bitch?”

Again, though, that doesn’t mean Hateful Eight is bad. It’s probably a better film than Death Proof, Kill Bill Vol. 2, Django Unchained and 95% of what landed in theaters in 2015. And fully admit that I look forward to the day I go to see a stage production of Hateful Eight, because it’s just waiting to be adapted.

For me, though, both in the case of The Hateful Eight and The Force Awakens, the nostalgia doesn’t make up for the flaws. But judging from reviews and box office numbers, I may be alone in that.

So it goes.

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Don’t read this post about an awesome vampire movie

Just a girl out for a walk. Nothing to see here.

Just a girl out for a walk. Nothing to see here.

“You’re sad. You don’t remember what you want. You don’t remember wanting.” – The Girl

Wow. … OK, maybe that wasn’t emphatic enough. WOW! It’s not often I watch a movie, and I think, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” Sure, my teaser to this post drops a number of movie references, all of which seem justified. The pimp looks like he has purchased his living room decor from the Kohl’s Tony Montana collection. When The Girl is shown walking the dark, quiet streets of Bad City clad in her chador, she appears like Death from Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal … or possibly Death from Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, which featured a Death that was, in turn, and homage to the Bergman classic. Girl has its own unique, dark humor, which made me think of Tim Burton, especially when The Girl herself (Sheila Vand) has the big, black, expressive eyes, narrow face and haunting paleness of a Beatlejuice/Edward Scissorhands-era Winona Ryder. And Arash, in his white t-shirt and jeans, driving his classic Ford coupe, is the Iranian image of James Dean from his signature role in Rebel Without a Cause.

But this film is so much more than the sum of its references. Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour, who based the movie on her own graphic novel, has created a surreal parallel universe in Bad City, a bleak, lower-middle class city that is bordered by oil rigs that never stop pumping. Her characters adhere to archetypes making them familiar, yet each character is unique enough to stand on his or her own. Amirpour walks a constant tightrope, balancing between the stories she is trying to reference and the stories she is trying to tell. And she nails it.

Which brings me to Quentin Tarantino. That’s precisely what makes Tarantino compelling, his ability to re-invent genres using a mix of disparate references and his own perverse ingenuity to make something familiar yet not. So when Federale kicked in with Sarcophagus during A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, while many reviewers thought “Spaghetti Western,” I thought of Tarantino’s similar references in Kill Bill rather than the old cowboy flicks themselves. The song was a seamless fit, an envisioning of a unique moment that managed to be grounded in similar movie moments decades before Girl was developed.

Tarantino’s gift has resulted in some amazing cinema over the decades. I can’t wait to see where Amirpour goes with her talent.

I love the soundtrack. Again, this is something that sets A Girl Who Walks Alone At Night apart. It’s not the latest pop music, or tunes that sound sort of like the latest pop music. It’s not a period piece weighed down by its over-played hits. It is a mix of genres and languages. The music supports and enhances the images and the emotion, never cloying, saturating the film to the point of over-doing it.

The cat. The fucking cat. Heh.

Arash is a rebel, and he'll never, ever be any good.

Arash is a rebel, and he’ll never, ever be any good.

Thematically, the quote this piece leads with says it all. The pimp needs for nothing, yet really wants for nothing, either. He goes and does his job every day, to the best of his ability, just like a banker or garbage man. He is joyless in his routine. The prostitute clearly has wanted for more, at one point, saving to achieve that goal. But the goal is now lost in the darkness, in the moments with ugly, violent men with their clutching and demanding. She is just a hamster on a wheel, saving and saving, but saving for nothing, saving for the sake of saving, because that is what she does, what she’s always done. Arash’s dad Hossein is a junkie, torn apart by the death of his wife. He exists simply to exist, because he doesn’t have the guts to move on with his life, and he doesn’t quite have what it takes to end it all. The Girl herself is the prime example of this, a creature that lives forever solely to feed. She has only her sad pop music and the never-ending hunger to occupy her infinity, no hope for anything else to break the endless monotony of her existence. Even the endless pumping of oil on the outskirts of Bad City is no longer about want, just black blood filling a thirsty, endless addiction.

This is what sets Arash apart from his fellow Bad City residents. He wants. He worked to buy the cherry classic car that he desired and now loves so dearly. He wants to be noticed by the rich girl whose yard he tends, wants to dance with her, kiss her, feel her. He wants to break out of Bad City, get beyond his pathetic life that is all he knows. He wants to know the Girl, who to him is a fleeting image of freedom, an enigmatic darkness from which springs hope for something new and exciting. His desire, his want is what drives the film and what makes him so appealing to the Girl and makes him such a sympathetic character to the audience.

And that, folks, is the long and the short of why you should give this awesome vampire film a chance. I hope you enjoy it is much as I did.

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Notes from a ‘Breaking Bad’ latecomer

I came to Breaking Bad late for a number of reasons, none important, then decided to wait until the series was wrapped up to watch it straight through.

It was worth the wait.

The most Quentin Tarantino-esque character never to appear in anything by Tarantino is Mike Ehrmantraut. The scene above – which I couldn’t find in its entirety – may be the most Tarantino scene I’ve ever seen in something Quentin hasn’t written or directed. Mike releases the balloons to fly up to kill the power lines, then shoots his way through the business until his adjustment to finish off the baddie hidden behind the wall, all backed by funk music and all just screaming Tarantino. Add that to Mike’s “Half Measures” speech, and it’s amazing how Mike seems like a refugee from the Quentin-verse. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him smoke a Red Apple while chowing down on a Big Kahuna burger.

Many may not find that interesting, but if you lived through Pulp Fiction and its aftermath, you know many filmmakers spent the better part of the 1990s trying to become the next Quentin Tarantino, none with even a modicum of success. Kudos to Vince Gilligan and crew for finding that wonderful mix of danger, humor and bloodshed.

Why Breaking Bad might be the best show in the history of television. I say “might” for a reason. There are some problems with Breaking Bad, such as why a cautious, intelligent man like Gus Fring didn’t just put a bullet in Walter’s head the second Gale Boetteicher had even the vaguest clue about how to cook the blue glass. Fring’s on-going indulgence of Walter, even when he’s not being nice to Walt, makes zero sense to me in retrospect. Gus knew from the jump off what a bad idea it was dealing with Walt and ultimately paid for it with his life. It just seems out of character.

But enough about shortcomings. There’s one thing, to me, that elevates Breaking Bad to such lofty status: The end of Seasons 4 and 5. Because those two outcomes create two entirely different stories. If it ends after Season 4, Walt really is a hero. Yes, he’s done horrible things, mostly to horrible people (the main exception being the poisoning of Brock), but he accomplishes what he wants to accomplish: Keeping his family safe from his illegal activities while also creating an enormous nest egg to care for them should the cancer claim him. I’m not saying he’s absolved of his worst actions, but Walt still manages to come out a borderline hero. Season 5 changes that view of Walt entirely, as he actively jumps in to become a heavy hitter in the drug trade, not just a cook. He plans heists, he orders executions, he never thinks about taking a step back. He’s a full-on villain, even when achieving satori after his final fight with Skyler and Walt Jr. It was an amazing change in tone and a huge risk. It was also worth it, and shows a lot of guts pretty much no one else in network television has ever shown.

Why, Jesse, why? Why did Jesse stay with Walt? I understand the early attraction, the money, the drugs, getting a few laughs from making meth with a guy who flunked you in high school chemistry. But Walt was poison, period, and after a time Jesse clearly recognized that. Yet Jesse couldn’t say no to Walter until it was too late. I don’t know enough about abusive relationships to know whether or not Jesse followed that type of pattern, but it was another weakness of the show, that lack of a moment that cemented Jesse’s and Walt’s deep, unbreakable ties to each other that made Jesse cling to his former teacher until it tore him apart. It made for interesting television, to be sure, but it didn’t quite seem to make sense.

"Don't drink and drive. But if you do, call me."

“Don’t drink and drive. But if you do, call me.”

Better call Saul. I can’t wait for Saul Goodman’s spin-off. Saul was the enthusiastic if uneasy shyster, the guy who never thought anything was a good idea but was willing to hang in there in hopes of the big payday. Bob Odenkirk was the perfect choice, playing up the sense of humor to hide his insecurity about the depraved acts he was at least tangentially involved in. I think it will be interesting to see more of Saul the ambulance chaser as opposed to Saul the fixer.

I hate Albuquerque Nazis. Where Walt really went wrong: Getting involved with white supremacists. You’d think a guy like Walt who so coveted his anonymity would avoid guys with Nazi crosses tattooed on their necks, which doesn’t exactly exude subtlety. On the plus side, they made for a helluva ending.

Once again, we’re back to Pulp Fiction. As I worked my way through entirety of Breaking Bad, I kept thinking of Marcellus Wallace’s speech to the boxer Butch: “That’s just pride fucking with ya.” That could have been Walter White’s motto. Every time Walt thought about backing off, quitting, stepping away, something would anger him. Walt would perceive a lack of respect or his pride would be hurt, and he would in turn up the ante, to the point that, during the dinner scene at his in-laws, it seemed as if he might even admit to being Heisenberg to his DEA bro-in-law Hank. Walt’s only redemption is in the final episode, when he admits to Skyler that it was his pride that had pushed them to this low point. Powerful stuff, and a great way to end.

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Getting a grip on ‘Django’

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This is Django when he’s happy.

I tend to see movies or read something, and I don’t want to write about it immediately. I like to let it settle a bit, mull it over, slow cook it. Django Unchained is the latest to get that treatment. And I’m glad I was patient.

Because I don’t love Django. That’s a pretty big deal for me. Right now there are only two directors who – no matter what the title, genre, stars, reviews, etc. – automatically move me to pay theater prices. One is Christopher Nolan. The other is Quentin Tarantino.

Prior to this, the only Tarantino I’d say I didn’t really get into was the second Kill Bill. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Death Proof, Kill Bill the first, Inglorious Basterds (as well as the episodes of ER and CSI that he was behind). Even movies he’s written but not directed: From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, True Romance, Natural Born Killers. I love what Quentin does with language and his ability to re-imagine B-movie trash as arthouse fare. He’s earned my loyalty.

And Django does have a lot to love. The scene where Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who I’d love to see as a Bond villain some day) and Django (Jamie Foxx), a freed slave, go out to meet the marshal and his deputized townspeople after Schultz has killed the town sheriff is masterful. Schultz’s running monologue is humorous and telling of what to expect from the dentist-turned-bounty hunter. Django’s reaction to a white man chasing away another white man so he can have a drink with a black man is hilarious. And the Tom Wopat cameo, classic Tarantino. The building of tension as Schultz states his case and turns the situation around on the townsfolk is the sort of thing Tarantino does best, and is why he received such acclaim for Inglorious Basterds.

The problem is that Django is at least 20 minutes too long. The scenes where Django helps Schultz find and kill a trio of brothers for the bounty is unnecessary. We don’t learn anything about Schultz or Django, and when Schultz confronts the plantation owner and his crew about the bounties, it’s a watered-down version of what happened just minutes before in the scene I described in the last paragraph. Unlike the sneaky Wopat cameo, Don Johnson’s appearance as a slave-owning, Southern gentleman is so over the top I caught myself wondering if he was trying to channel Yosemite Sam. That incident could have been summed up in a couple of sentences, much like most of Django’s winter training was. It isn’t the only example of indulgence. Factor in the ripped-from-O-Brother-Where-Art-Thou? klan scene and Django’s escape from Australian slave traders, and you have a lot of fat. A leaner Django would have been a better Django.

I was also initially disappointed in what Tarantino had to say in Django. It has been said on several occasions that Bill Clinton was the first “black” president. Well, Tarantino is the first “black” arthouse director. From the not-so-good – his incessant use of the word “nigger” – to the good – the classic soul and hip-hop that dot the aural landscape of his films – Tarantino has always been fearless when it comes to adapting African-American culture to what he does.

So, naturally, in a film about slavery, I was ready for some real commentary from Tarantino about one of America’s darkest historical hours. He has deftly handled themes from the price of revenge (the Kill Bills) to just how important it is to choose the proper karmic path (Pulp Fiction). It was a big deal for me going in.

And then Tarantino … didn’t. I mean, I think it was an honest portrayal of just how disturbing slavery was, not just the enslavement but of the attitude actions of American caucasians toward blacks. But Quentin left it there. He presented it for the viewers to see and didn’t do anything to really put his stamp on it. It left me feeling a bit disappointed and empty.

But, well, that’s what the post-viewing cooling-off period is all about. The more I thought about Django, the more I realized Tarantino really did have something to say, it just wasn’t what I was hoping to hear. Django is a spaghetti western, set in the deep south during pre-Civil War America. But what it is about is the American attitude toward violence.

For example, the mandingo fighting scene where Django and the doc meet Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Yes, the fight between the two men is brutal, the desperation, fear and will to survive coming in waves off the two combatants. But it’s really no more brutal than, say, some of the rougher scenes from Fight Club. What is appalling is the attitude of everyone else in the room. Save Django and a couple of the slaves in the room, everyone else treats the bloody pummeling as if they were watching UFC on the big screen over the fireplace.

Extend that to the way being shot is portrayed through Django. Not much in the way of neat, clean holes except when tiny pistols are being used. Blood, tissue and bone explode, covering Django as he hides behind a dead body during a shootout. Every gunfight is brutal and incredibly destructive. Then you add in the beatings, the hot box, the near-neutering of Django, whipping and more. It’s all very naked and truthful.

For years, Quentin has been a target of the violence-in-media crowd. They say he’s made a living from glorifying violence. And I don’t know that he would argue against that. Few writers or directors understand exploitation better than he. However, in Django, Quentin chose the appropriate time and place in American history as a setting to get real. And for that, I think he should be applauded.

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