REVIEW: “Kill Bill: Vol. 1”

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Quentin Tarantino’s fourth film “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” is in many ways the craziest of the nine (or ten depending on how you look at it) he has made thus far. And I realize that’s truly saying something considering every one of his movies from “Reservoir Dogs” to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” embrace at least some degree of craziness.

Released in 2003, “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” could be defined as a spaghetti western meets chopsocky theater. But even that description seems too narrow considering how much Tarantino stuffs into this picture. We see the influences of blaxploitation and grindhouse cinema. We even get a lengthy flashback in full Japanese anime for goodness sake! And of course there are pop-culture references galore, one of the truest Tarantino signatures.

For the most part the plot is as bare-bones as they come. It’s essentially a blood-soaked revenge tale that is set in motion from the very first frame. The opening sequence is shot in vivid black-and-white and mostly focuses on the bloody and battered face of a young bride. Outside of her pained pants, all we hear are the condescending tones of a mysterious man’s voice as he asks “Do you find me sadistic?” These are the first words spoken in the film and you can almost hear the notorious filmmaker posing that very question to his audience.

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Uma Thurman plays the young woman who we simply know as the Bride. The voice of the unseen man belongs to Bill (David Carradine), the head of a hit squad known as the Deadly Vipers. The Bride was once part of Bill’s crew but now she lays the victim of their brutality. He and several of his remaining assassins kill the young woman and the unborn baby she is carrying.

Or so they think…

Fast-forward four years. The Bride is very much alive and on a personal mission to kill everyone on her hand-written hit-list. One-by-one she will check them off until finally getting to her main objective – Bill himself. But she will have her work cut out for her. The Deadly Vipers have since disbanded and tracking them down won’t be easy. And when she does find them they certainly won’t go down without a fight.

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Tarantino has always been a fan of non-linear storytelling and he fully embraces it here. He hops back-and-forth on his timeline and for the most part it works. There is one particular sequence that seems rooted in an apparent desire to make the Bride’s experience even more agonizing. In a flashback we see her lying comatose in the hospital following the attempted murder. What follows is disgustingly vile and cruel and if that’s the desired effect I guess it works. For me it felt like needless torturing of a character who already possesses a strong enough motive to fuel her thirst for revenge.

Aside from that slight foray into repugnancy, Tarantino keeps his eyes on the road. Things get really nutty in the final third and I say that as the highest compliment. The spaghetti western and kung fu influences take over and Tarantino loses himself in a hyper-violent collage of carnage. Amid the sprays of blood and severed limbs is a fascinating array of visual flair, a motley blend of music, and one intensely effective Hattori Hanzo Samurai sword. It’s a hyper-homage in its truest form but with plenty of individuality from a filmmaker truly in love with what he is creating.

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When looking at the acting you almost need an entirely new measuring stick. Each performance leans on rich personality and an intense yet graceful physicality far more than simple line delivery. Uma Thurman is the perfect choice to carry the workload. She’s strong, steely, and as expressive as she is committed. Compare that with the lethal elegance of Lucy Liu’s O-Ren Ishii, tops on the Bride’s hit-list, second on Tarantino’s manic timeline. Or Vivica Fox’s more volatile Vernita Green (aka Copperhead). Both offer really fun supporting turns.

“Kill Bill: Vol. 1” ends on a rousing note, setting the table for the inevitable Vol. 2 (hint: it takes the Bride more than one movie to get through her entire hit-list). It’s a fitting ending for a movie that revels in pulpy, old-school escapism. Tarantino runs wild showing an unquenchable love for genre filmmaking and an almost callous disregard for the squeamish. The result is a sensationally bloody revenge yarn full of cinematic wizardry and driven by a filmmaker’s insatiable appetite for the movies he grew up with. To be honest, it’s astonishing that this kind of crazy throwback even exists.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Hateful Eight”

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Quentin Tarantino. A mere mention of that name sparks a fire in the hearts of his devoted and vocal fanbase. It immediately brings praises of excellence, grandeur, and eminence. It evokes a level of enthusiasm within fans that no level of criticism can quell. Quentin Tarantino is considered by many to be a cinematic master, the greatest working filmmaker, a peerless screenwriter, America’s premiere auteur. Considering all of that, why is it that I still haven’t bought into the Tarantino hype?

Make no mistake, Quentin Tarantino is an auteur. He has defined himself with such a heavy yet specific style of filmmaking that genuinely feels foreign to all other visions. He dabbles in all sorts of genres and his love for cinema, all kinds of cinema, finds its way into every one of his pictures. But he has such a strong allegiance to the aforementioned style and I often find his films rely too heavily on it. And the response to his style is overwhelmingly positive which leads to Tarantino often getting passes when it comes to his shortcomings particularly in his writing.

Still, no one can deny that a new Tarantino release is an event filled with pomp and pageantry and that brings me to “The Hateful Eight”. It’s Tarantino’s eighth or ninth feature film (depending on how you look at it) and his second western in a row. As with every one of his pictures “The Hateful Eight” draws inspiration from all directions. Where “Django Unchained” drew from the spaghetti western genre, Tarantino says this film takes more from the television westerns of the 1960s although I would say very lightly.

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The story is broken up into six  chapters although that is more of a stylistic choice. Individually each chapter is more or less the same. It opens shortly after the Civil War with a rough and surly bounty hunter named John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell) on a stagecoach escorting his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the Wyoming town of Red Rock to be hanged. Along the way he meets an old acquaintance and fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Once the two meet Tarantino wastes no time developing a racial tension that will permeate his entire film. It is only magnified when they pick up Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins) a Yankee-hating Confederate renegade claiming to be Red Rock’s soon to be new sheriff.

With a strong blizzard approaching, the three men, the prisoner, and the stagecoach driver (James Parks) take shelter in a remote lodge called Minnie’s Haberdashery. Inside are four other characters seeking refuge from the storm. A Mexican named Bob (Demián Bichir) is watching over the place while Minnie is visiting her mother. Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) is a chatty Englishman who also happens to be the territory’s hangman. General Smithers (Bruce Dern) is a cranky old Confederate officer. And then there is Joe Gage, a soft-spoken cowboy on his way to see his mother for Christmas.

The title is a reference to these eight men trapped in the lodge together until the storm blows over. It’s here the story becomes somewhat of a mystery after John Ruth randomly discerns that someone in their company is there to rescue Daisy. The film then begins its looooong trek to discover who isn’t the person they claim to be. And when I say long I do mean long. The majority of the film is confined to this big one-room lodge so Tarantino can’t fall back on his vivid visual style of storytelling. Therefore his script has to carry much of the load and, as with some of his other films, that is the movie’s greatest weakness.

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In a nutshell “The Hateful Eight” is insanely overwritten. Tarantino can undoubtedly write good dialogue and there are exchanges here that are fantastic. At the same time he bogs his movie down with pointless and sometimes repetitive back-and-forths that drag the movie to a halt. I didn’t see the full 187 minute roadshow version, but the 167 minutes I did sit through definitely had its lulls. Even more surprising were some fairly obvious plot holes particularly in a pretty important flashback segment.

And some of his dialogue is certainly suspect. Again, I’ll grant that Tarantino wants to make some kind of statement on racism, but frankly his constant flippant use of the N-word didn’t offer me any meaningful commentary and what may be there is thinly represented. I give filmmakers a ton of room for expression, but I can easily see where his use of such incendiary language could be offensive. Same with the brutality towards the main female character some of which is played for laughs.

Also QT’s obsession with jarring, over-the-top content is here as well which in this case isn’t a positive. We get it through sudden bursts of gratuitous violence some of which was just too silly to appreciate. And the worst comes in one absurd flashback sequence narrated by Major Warren. It’s a bizarre and over-the-top scene that felt much more at home in “Pulp Fiction” than “The Hateful Eight”. It took me out of the moment and felt terribly out of place.

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But so as not to completely slam the movie it’s worth noting the positives. The film looks really good. Again, I didn’t get to see the 70mm roadshow but this version had plenty of nice visual flare even though the majority takes place in a one big room. I also loved what we got of Ennio Morricone’s original score. Unfortunately he isn’t allowed to score the entire film, but what he does is superb. And despite my misgivings with much of the script, Tarantino gives us some wonderfully unsavory characters that each have their moments.

I also think all of the performances hit the right notes. Jennifer Jason Leigh is getting a lot of awards buzz and she’s really good despite mainly serving as Tarantino’s physical and verbal punching bag. Kurt Russell is a surly hoot sporting the burliest of handlebar mustaches and Walter Goggins is surprisingly great in what is one of the film’s meatier roles.

It may not sound like it, but I do appreciate many of the ideas Quentin Tarantino plays with in “The Hateful Eight”. Unfortunately those ideas are weighted down by an indulgent and overblown script that wastes too much time trying to be clever and edgy. Even Tarantino’s signature humor misses more than hits its mark. I’m sure Tarantino die-hards will love it, but for me “The Hateful Eight” comes across as an hour’s worth of good material stretched well beyond its limits.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS 

2.5 stars

REVIEW: “Django Unchained”

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My initial reaction after first viewing Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was incredibly mixed. So many critics and movie viewers loved the film while I struggled to get a true sense of my feelings towards it. In fact, my confliction was such that I never wrote a review for it. Now I have wrestled with this critical darling and I ask myself if my reservations still feel justified and is the film worthy of the massive amounts of accolades and praise heaped upon it?

One thing you have to give Tarantino is that he is a filmmaker with a definite style. But personally speaking it’s often his style that is both a strength and weakness of his films. I think that’s the case here as well. “Django Unchained” has a smart and instantly engaging blueprint. But there are stylistic choices, all signatures of Tarantino’s filmmaking, that are distracting and do more to promote his brand than actually strengthen the narrative. Many people love that about his pictures. I think it sometimes works against him and takes away his focus.

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The story begins two years prior to the Civil War. A man named Django (Jamie Foxx) along with four male slaves is being driven like cattle by two slave handlers. They run into a German dentist named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who ‘acquires’ Django and hires him to help find a group of outlaws known as the Brittle brothers. Django reveals to Schultz that he was married but was separated from his wife by a wicked slave owner. Schultz offers to help him find his wife in exchange for Django working for him through the winter. While together they run into a wild assortment of people, none more heterogeneous that a plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

“Django Unchained” has been called Tarantino’s spaghetti western but we only occasionally see the similarities between his film and those Italian westerns that became popular in the late 1960s. This is really just a revenge tale with plenty of fancy dressing. The story starts up nicely and the opening 30 minutes or so sets a very interesting table. But then the film slows down a bit which begins drawing attention to its 165 minute running time. It picks back up once Candie appears and then falls into a stew of truly great scenes, uncomfortable but hilarious humor, goofy and outlandish graphic violence, and jarring injections of that Tarantino “style”. It makes the last third of the film range from fascinating and intense to messy and indulgent.

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When Tarantino’s focus is on the right thing he can create some of the most mesmerizing scenes ever put to film. The opening sequence in “Inglourious Basterds” is a prime example. We get several instances of that in “Django Unchained”. There are moments when the dialogue is sharp and flowing which in turn creates scenes that turn out amazing. A long dinner table sequence at Candie’s plantation is one of my favorites. It’s crisp and fluid while also soaked in perfectly developed tension. There are a few other scenes where the humor hits with perfect timing and I found myself laughing out loud. QT is also always impressive with his camera. He can get a tad carried away at times but this film, like many of his others, looks great and there are several unforgettable shots.

But there are flipsides to almost all of these positives. While some scenes are brilliant and the dialogue strong, others drag out too long and some of the dialogue is annoying. For example, Tarantino has a fascination with certain language and we see it here. There are times where certain characters sound like they belong in “Reservoir Dogs” instead of a spaghetti western. Then there are the aforementioned style choices. Take the music. QT has always liked to incorporate unique music into his films which I appreciate. But here he goes from a musical homage to the theme from “Two Mules for Sister Sara” to bass-pounding rap music. For me it did more to take me out of the setting than enhance the film. And then there is the much talked about graphic violence. Tarantino definitely soaks the audience in copious amounts of blood, but it’s hard to take it serious. I was neither turned off by it or impressed with it. It was so ridiculously over the top that it was neither humorous nor did it add any intensity to the action. Any impact it had quickly wore off.

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I do have to give props to the cast. I’ve never been a big fan of Jaime Foxx but he does a nice job here. He does stumble over the occasional bits of poorly written dialogue but as a whole this was an impressive performance. Christoph Waltz is just a tremendous actor and he always seems to fit nicely into Tarantino’s weird worlds. Leo DiCaprio has an absolute blast playing this twisted francophile wannabe slaver with bad teeth and a deceptive charm. He steals several scenes by going all in and you can’t take your eyes off of him. Samuel L. Jackson is a hoot playing possibly the most despicable character in the movie. He’s also undeniable funny at times and more than once I caught myself in uncomfortable laughter. And Kerry Washington is very convincing in one of the film’s few emotionally steady roles.

So what to make of “Django Unchained”? I understand that many absolutely adore the movie. For me it is another Tarantino project that shows bits of greatness that it never can sustain. The good moments are really good but each of them are bookended by one questionable narrative choice or a blast of QT style that doesn’t always help the film as a whole. To call “Django Unchained” uneven would be an understatement. It has its share of problems. But it also features fabulous performances, a wonderful visual flare, and a handful of purely brilliant sequences. Those things save it from completely drowning in Tarantino’s indulgence.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

“DJANGO UNCHAINED” – Breaking down the trailer…

Everyone has probably seen the new “Django Unchained” trailer that is supposed to hit big screens in front of tomorrow’s “Prometheus”. It’s the new film from Quentin Tarantino that’s set to be released this Christmas. This is a highly anticipated trailer from a highly anticipated film. In fact it’s #8 on my “Most Anticipated Films of 2012” list. But I have to admit, I have mixed feelings when it comes to Tarantino and I also had mixed feelings after seeing the trailer.

Some view Tarantino as a visionary and a filmmaking genius. For me, he has an undeniable style. His visual presentation is very impressive and the way he crafts his stories show off a slick and unique flare for storytelling. But while I think Tarantino is a solid director in terms of style, I’ve never seen him as the writing genius that others have. I think he is a case of style over substance. Now don’t misunderstand me. Not ever movie has to be thick with complexity. There’s nothing wrong with making simple but stylish films. Some have made the case for the underlying themes found in many of Tarantino’s pictures. Some I can see while others are a bit of a stretch. If their were more deeper meaning to his films, they didn’t connect with me. I tend to see his movies as hyper-violent exercises broken down by clever and unique forms of storytelling. In other words, a simple story told with a slick visual style.

This brings me to “Django Unchained”. I was really anxious to see this trailer for several reasons. First, I was interested to see how Tarantino would present the “old west”. Say what you will about him, but Tarantino is a film lover first so the fact that he would invest in creating a modern-day spaghetti western really appealed to me. That brings me to the second reason I was excited about this trailer (and film). I love the spaghetti western genre. Sergio Leone remains one of my favorite directors of all time and his spaghetti westerns remain my favorite westerns of all time. “A Fistful of Dollars”, “For a Few Dollars More”, “The Good, the Bad, the Ugly”, and “Once Upon a Time in the West” are wonderful films and seeing Tarantino tip his hat to them is great.

That being said, the trailer left me feeling mixed. Now let me preface this by saying that I know you don’t judge a movie by a trailer. Just look at the first trailer for “The Avengers”. It was slow and pretty lifeless yet the movie was a fun action romp that I loved. But there were things with the “Django Unchained” trailer that really left me scratching my head. One key issue I had was the jarring shift in tone after Django is, well, unchained. The James Brown music kicks in which I thought was a little self-indulgent. The movie seemed to be flaunting it’s cleverness and style at the cost of setting the mood and tone. I was also surprised at some of the cheesy lines that, again, seems more aimed at a comedy that a spaghetti western. On the flip side, the production value looks fantastic and it doesn’t look as if Tarantino is going to shy away from the grit you’ll find in many of the great spaghetti westerns. Then there’s the fun assortment of characters. Let’s take a look at the big three:

DJANGO – (Jaime Foxx)

My biggest question mark for this entire production was the casting of Jaime Foxx. It’s said that originally Will Smith was sought after for the part but I’m not sure he would be a big step-up from Foxx for this type of role. Foxx is a decent enough actor. I liked him in “Ray” but not as much as most people. I actually thought he was better in “Collateral Damage” and in his sketch comedy work on the TV show “In Living Color”. There are elements to each of these past performances in the “Django Unchained” trailer. But the trailer did nothing to really sell me on Foxx as a genuine western buttkicker. At times it seemed like he was doing straight parody and it didn’t really work for me. Can Foxx handle this role remains the biggest question for me moving ahead.

 DR. KING SCHULTZ – (Christoph Waltz)

I love Christoph Waltz. He was the very best thing about Tarantino’s last film “Inglourious Basterds”. So naturally I was drawn to the idea of him playing a German bounty hunter in the wild west. Waltz seems to have a wide range and I have no doubt he will be able to handle this material. He looks right at home with the Schultz character and even with his exposition-heavy contribution to the trailer, I found myself drawn to him. Unfortunately he looks to be softer and friendlier than I hope he turns out to be and he features a gun draw so slow that he would never live through a Sergio Leone duel. But Schultz looks to be an intriguing character and it’s still unclear whether he’s to be trusted or not.

CALVIN CANDIE – (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Talk about an actor that has really shown a range. DiCaprio has proven to be more than capable of handling a wide assortment of roles and he certainly was an interesting choice to play the evil plantation owner Calvin Candie. The first thing we quickly notice is that DiCaprio is having tons of fun with this role. He clearly has a ruthless side but there is a suave and sophisticated charm about him as well. In the trailer DiCaprio shows us a character that seems completely self-absorbed but yet mesmerizing. Plus he has the best line of the entire trailer: “Gentlemen, you had my curiosity, but now you have my attention”. Of all that I saw in this trailer, DiCaprio’s character and performance excited me the most.

So there’s a few thought’s on the trailer so many are talking about. Have you seen the “Django Unchained” trailer yet? What were your thoughts?

THIS WEEK IN MOVIES (May 11th)

“DJANGO UNCHAINED”

“Django Unchained” is the highly anticipated next movie from director Quentin Tarantino. The director has had the ability to line up all sorts of acting talent to star in his films….at least until now. The movie has been plagued with cast members dropping out of the project. Early it was reported that both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Kevin Costner had to drop out of the film due to conflicts. This week we found out that Sacha Baron Cohen has left the film. It turns out his role was fairly small but the other bit of news is a bigger problem. Kurt Russell (who has signed on to replace Costner) has now bowed out of the movie. No reasons were given but his role was much more important than Cohen’s. This is pretty unusual since Tarantino is known for his great casts. I’m anxious to see how this affects the film and it’s release.

“THE AVENGERS”

Well, I can’t help it. I have to throw in another bit of Avengers news. “The Avengers” shattered the record for biggest opening weekend previously held by the last Harry Potter picture. It brought in a domestic total of $200.3 million shattering the previous record. Those are monster numbers but that doesn’t even consider the money it’s brought in overseas. The movie has made almost $750 million worldwide easily justifying it’s $220 million budget. Is it any surprise that news also came out of the planned sequel?

NEW IN THEATERS (May 11th)

  • “DARK SHADOWS” (PG-13) – Comedy
  • “FOOTNOTE” (PG) – Drama/Foreign

It’s a light week at the theaters as everyone is scared to take on “The Avengers” even in it’s second weekend.

“THIS WEEK IN MOVIES” (APRIL 13th)

 The Weinstein Company has released what’s being called the first “teaser poster” for Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming western film “Django Unchained”. Other than a brief and vague synopsis, little is known about the film and we’ve yet to see the first trailer. As you can see below, the “teaser” poster doesn’t offer much more information but it does looks pretty cool. “Django Unchained” stars Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, and Kurt Russell and, of course, it’s directed by Quentin Tarantino. Look for it in theaters this December.

Director Christopher Nolan and Warner Brothers have released several new images from July’s almost guaranteed blockbuster “The Dark Knight Rises”. Nolan’s final installment in his brilliant Batman trilogy has a lot of promise but also a lot of questions. In one of the images we get to see Bane seemingly in control of a stock exchange and in another Selina Kyle in full Catwoman garb checking out an empty safe. “The Dark Knight” will be a tough act to follow but with Nolan leading the way, it’s bound to be good. 

Tom Hardy as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises

 

Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (Catwoman) in “The Dark Knight Rises”

What are you thoughts on “Django Unchained” and “The Dark Knight Rises”? Both are attention getters in movie circles and both promise to have a lot of people talking about them.

 

NEW IN THEATERS (April 13th):

  • “THE CABIN IN THE WOODS” (R) – Horror
  • “LOCKOUT” (PG-13) – Sci-Fi Action
  • “3 STOOGES” (PG) – Comedy
  • “THE RAID: REDEMPTION” (R) – Foreign Action
  • “IN DARKNESS” – Limited Release  (R) – Historical Drama