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A Beginner’s Guide to Pedro Almodóvar

August 21, 2019

Over at One Room With a View, I’ve written an overview piece on the films of Pedro Almodóvar, ahead of the release of his 21st feature film, Pain and Glory. Link here:

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

August 21, 2019

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie

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Synopsis: Hollywood on the eve of the 1970s. Washed up TV actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), is on a career downturn, resigned to playing bad guys in B movies or heading over to Italy to star in Spaghetti Westerns. His friend and stunt double, Clint (Brad Pitt), ambles around the fringes of Rick’s life, and even gets drawn into some of the hippy antics around the city. Next door to Rick, live Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and one night in late August 1969, all these plot strands converge at the homes of Rick and Polanski.

Review: This rich, indulgent and ultra baggy film from Quentin Tarantino is almost impossible to qualify, as there are so many things at work in all its little fibres and sinews, and there are different meta-referential ways of receiving the film too. On an allegorical level, it’s almost Tarantino’s lament for the end of the old, boy’s own Hollywood that he grew up on. Remember, right up until the end of the ’60s, the western – both on TV and the big screen – was the prime storytelling staple, so there’s a lot of resonance in the centring of the story around a faded TV cowboy star, slowly coming to terms with his own obsolescence as the very genre he works in becomes cannibalised or largely disappears.

The use of Sharon Tait as a literal and figurative cipher for this golden haze of glory is cleverly realised and tastefully done by Tarantino. There’s a poignancy in the way Tarantino zeroes in on the tragic refuse of Tait’s life, by having her as this prelapsarian figure of pure wonder. The tracking shot when she arrives at the Playboy Mansion party brilliantly encapsulates her dazzling ephemerality, and the scene where she shyly sneaks into a screening of her latest film to wander in awe at her own stardom and its reception by the unassumung punters, is a lovely touch too.

Giving Rick and Cliff a ‘heroic’ cowboy ending is a clever riff on the conceit utilised by Spike Jonze in Adaptation where the actual narrative takes on the tone and verve of one of the film’s intra-stories. And having Rick meet Tait in the closing scene does almost seem to be a metaphorical transference of Tarantino himself to his inspirations of yesteryear. My only reservation about the much publicised ironic ending is less any offence at the violence depicted per se, just more that the violence itself is gratuitous and that the scene doesn’t really work as humour or satire.

And therein lies my slight reservation with some aspects of Tarantino’s work here. As ever with recent Tarantino, there are so many interest things going on in the corners of the film: his cinematography is excellent as it frames the neon allure of an interconnected Los Angeles through some brilliant shots of Brad Pitt’s character driving around the city, and the films within films of Dalton on-set are, by and large, intelligent and illuminating. But there’s still the sense that Tarantino is feeling for profundity and import in a barrage of long, wordy scenes that don’t always cohere. I’d still take something like David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. as a more sophisticated attempt at what Tarantino is trying to do here, and Shane Black’s underrated The Nice Guys as a more irreverent, humorous version. But that’s not to denigrate what I feel is Tarantino’s most interesting film since perhaps his early trio of near perfect crime tales. (August 2019)


Death Proof

August 20, 2019

Death Proof (2007)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Actors: Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito

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Synopsis: Psychotic Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) stalks two groups of sassy young women in his ‘death proof’ car.

Review: Tarantino’s homage to the exploitation genre is this ‘grindhouse’ feature, Death Proof – part of a double-bill alongside Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. If, in truth, it’s all a bit juvenile and unmemorable, the closing, climactic car chase does give the film an appropriately adrenaline-filled kick to the slow-burn talky scenes that proceed the action, and, to some extent, contextualise it.

All Tarantino’s faux grindhouse tics that he evidently thinks are so amusing are present, but it’s not a particularly rewarding conceit to frame a movie around. There are the purposely ropy pans, the burn marks to mark spliced reels of film, unintentional jump cuts, and there’s even an intentionally weird edit in the first scene in the Mexican bar that showcases Tarantino at his most playful – almost imagining that a section of his film had gone missing.

The film does rely, to quite a large extent, on the sass of his dialogue and the subtext of having a voyeuristic stuntman procuring sadistic pleasure at the maiming of pretty young women. Sure, Tarantino makes nods towards equality with the evening up of things at the end, although the final scene of Stuntman Mike getting set on by the women is a touch silly and tame. (August 2019)


Quentin Tarantino Films Ranked

August 19, 2019

To mark the release of Tarantino’s ninth film (or is it his tenth, as I see Kill Bill as two separate works), I’ve added QT to my list of directors’ rankings. Feel free to comment below if you agree/disagree…

10. Django Unchained (2012)

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As ever with Tarantino, there are flashes of inspired genre interplay and some seriously smart socio-historical politicking. The problem is the narrative. It is, at times, demonstrative, unwieldy, and contains some annoying little inconsistencies.

Full Review:

9. Death Proof (2007)

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Tarantino’s grindhouse homage isn’t especially ingenious or amusing. Though not a huge lover of car chases in films, Tarantino’s climactic one here does kind of save the film – not just because it’s thrilling, but due to the fact it’s the literal release valve and raison d’être of the film itself.

Full review:

8. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)

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Tarantino tried to inject a gravitas and solemnity into his enjoyable kung fu pastiche of the first movie, and it seemed a reductive move. The strived for emotion and pathos of the climactic scene doesn’t really come together.

Full Review:

7. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

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There’s some real wit and ingenuity here, but it was a sign of Tarantino going down the baggier and more demonstrative route dramatically. Am I the only one who doesn’t think the opening scene is quite as brilliant as the cultural zeitgeist would have you believe?

Full Review:

6. The Hateful Eight (2015)

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Tarantino’s always displayed elements of the dramatist, and never was that more on display (and tested!) than in his spare premise here. All the film’s successes and failures boil down to Tarantino’s relative skills and flaws as a writer inherently interested in structure and dialogue.

Full Review:

5. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019)

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Tremendously textured ode to the inspiration of old Hollywood that Tarantino adored. It’s baggy, has some scenes that don’t cohere and the violent ending is a rhetorical error, but it also features some of Tarantino’s best cinematography, and it’s arguably his most moving film too.

Full Review:

4. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

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Tarantino’s last great film. A riotous homage to various genres (kung fu, manga, western, revenge, yakuza), while also being a cracking, colourful story, brilliantly told in its own right.

Full Review:

3. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

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One of the great cinematic debuts, Tarantino took a well-worn genre and re-energised it with a newfound verve for the cadences of everyday dialogue, and the ingenuity of his scenario and directorial realisation.

Full Review:

2. Jackie Brown (1998)

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Proof that Tarantino could have made a superlative genre director. The pulp fiction of Elmore Leonard proved a match made in heaven for Tarantino and his scabrous sensibility. In a body of wonderful performances for Tarantino, Samuel L. Jackson’s turn here as Ordell Robbie was his finest piece of work.

Full Review:

1. Pulp Fiction (1994)

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An American masterpiece. Almost every part of its narrative and the dialogue that accompanies it is iconic. Tarantino’s möbius strip of a story is masterly too.

Full Review:

Kill Bill: Vol. 2

August 13, 2019

Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Actors: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen

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Synopsis: ‘The Bride’ (Uma Thurman), now identified as Beatrix Kiddo, continues on her revenge quest against members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, culminating in a showdown with their overall leader, Bill (David Carradine).

Review: There’s the law of diminishing returns about this, Quentin Tarantino’s second part of his Kill Bill diptych. The cartoonish martial arts theme feels less novel this time around, and Tarantino’s attempt to inject a more solemn tone as the narrative reaches its climax creates an awkward mesh with the proceeding pulpiness.

There are no real cinematographic or dramatic flourishes we’ve come to know Tarantino for (probably the best is the contingency sequence of The Bride trying to escape from being buried alive), and the strived-for wit and gold-dust in the long, earnest monologues, from Bill in particular, come across as ponderous and inert.

I’m not quite sure for the film’s downturn here in Vol. 2. I’m wondering if it’s that Uma Thurman and David Carradine are better icons than they are actors, and they struggle to achieve the tension and pathos Tarantino is asking of them – especially in the film’s final act. The preponderance of style and content that Tarantino essays here marked the shift to the longer, more expository tone that characterises his later films. I, for one, feel his tighter and more propulsive first four films are comfortably the best movies he ever made. (August 2019)

Kill Bill: Vol. 1

August 13, 2019

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Actors: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox

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Synopsis: The Bride (Uma Thurman) awakens from a four year-long coma that came about after being brutally assaulted by her ex-boss, Bill, and his group of deadly assassins. She sets about gaining her revenge on the five members of this Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, starting with O-Ren Ishii (Uma Thurman) and Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox).

Review: Kill Bill: Vol. 1 marked, in many respects, the last time that Quentin Tarantino made a tighter, more disciplined film, and it’s all the better for that; it’s certainly stronger than the languorous and baggy Kill Bill: Vol. 2.

All the playfulness and ingenuity that showcases Tarantino at his best is on display here. There’s the continual jumbling of chronology (marked by evocative chapter markers) and the familiar Tarantino theme of contingency is present throughout – probably the best example being how Uma Thurman’s ‘The Bride’ has to somehow drive without the use of legs, as, obviously, it would take some time for her limbs to work having been previously comatose for four years.

The opening scene with Vivica A. Fox’s assassin is a real highlight; not just of this film but the entire Kill Bill diptych. It’s not The Bride’s first revenge attack in the chronological story-world, but it is nigh-on the first sequence of the first film, and it cleverly juxtaposes the brutality and skill of the assassins’ violence with this film’s female-centred slant on that. In fact, there’s a circularity to the pathos of Fox’s character’s soon-to-be orphaned daughter and the climactic scene of the second film where The Bride is finally reunited with her long-lost daughter, although under the villainous watch of Bill himself.

Tarantino’s cinephilic indulgences are more permissible in this first film, than the second. The shift to a Yakuza genre for the Japanese section is great fun. The manga montage that documents the origin of Lucy Liu’s O-Ren Rishii is a brilliant touch, and the long yakuza fight that acts as climax to the film is superbly realised through various cinematographic flourishes: black and white photography, use of a nightlight silhouette, and the chromatic use of colour as the yellow-clad Bride cuts a brutal, bloody red swathe through her would-be assassins. (August 2019)

Inglourious Basterds

July 26, 2019

Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Actors: Christoph Waltz, Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent

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Synopsis: Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) escapes the brutal slaying of her Jewish relatives at the hands of infamous SS colonel and ‘Jew hunter’ Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) in 1941. In 1944, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) creates a rogue army of Jewish-American soldiers, the ‘Basterds’, who kill and scalp Nazis on their way through occupied France. All three characters converge on Paris and a climactic showing of a Nazi war movie at Shosana’s own cinema.

Review: Inglorious Basterds really is classic Tarantino with his signature of tensely ironic set pieces, loquacious characters with their distinctive mannerisms and motifs, lashings of blood and violence, and of course the numerous meta-cinematic references.

The film is also clever, riotously amusing in parts, and does have some salient points to make about the relativity of the acceptance of violence: Are the Basterds’ brutal killings and scalpings more righteous because of what happened to the Jews and that the majority of the film’s audience will be from ex-Allied countries? Do two wrongs make a right?

Just a matter of personal taste, but I responded more to the film’s comic moments than its pretensions to something dramatic. At times, Tarantino lets his plot exposition get too baggy where he over-explains his conceits (a familiar paradigm from Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight). For example, would the ‘cinderella’ scene where Landa applies the missing shoe to Bridget von Hammersmark, essentially implicating her in the conspiracy, have been more shocking had we not seen Landa find the shoe previously? Also, are we to seriously believe that the previously infallible Landa would make the climactic mistake of (spoiler alert) assuming he can trust the Basterds when he offers himself up for immunity just before the Allies take back Paris?

More unquestionable is Tarantino’s fantastic ear for dialogue, use of ingenious motifs, and scabrous sense of humour. Tarantino plays wittily with the conventions of his multi-national array of characters (and, by extension, actors?) He conceives of a very funny and taut way to get round Michael Fassbender’s unusual Ulster-German accent, and the scene where Landa just happens to know Italian, thereby exposing the Basterds who thought they could pass under the radar as Italian film industry types, is nigh on comic genius. It’s a sign that few are still as witty on the big screen as Tarantino. (July 2019)