Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tarantino's War

After seeing Inglourious Basterds (a day before I did), my dad predicted: "The debate on this one ought to be good." Indeed, varying, polarizing, and downright heated opinions have been flying everywhere, even amongst my own ranks. (My dad generally disliked the movie; my mom loved it.) Yet nearly everyone seems to agree that the best exchange of ideas has been between Dennis Cozzalio and Bill R. Both love the movie, yet each has his own distinct impressions on it, and a few heavy-hitters (namely esteemed professional film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and Esquire culture critic Tom Carson) entered the fray in the comments sections. Here are links to their extended four-part discussion: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Meanwhile, Ed and Jason Go to Nazi-Occupied France -- with a few prior stops through the whole Quentin Tarantino directorial oeuvre -- reportedly this week at The House Next Door. The Howard/Bellamy conversations are always fun and this one promises more of the same. I will post links to the two-part discussion when they arise here and here.

For what it's worth, here are my own capsule reviews of QT's body of work:

Reservoir Dogs (1992). Tarantino burst out of the gate with this swaggeringly confident and savagely funny heist flick in which the heist happens offscreen, showing us instead the events that occurred before and after. Most of his grand obsessions (with one notable exception: women) begin here: bluffing machismo; movies; music; crime; loyalty; torture; Mexican standoffs; the relativity of time; and the delirious pleasures of talk. Grade: A-

Pulp Fiction (1994). Whereas Reservoir Dogs was an impressive debut, this deeper, twistier, more resonant take on L.A. lowlifes was positively revolutionary. Three darkly funny stories and a couple of digressions wrap around and intersect. Tarantino's tough guys (who aren't as tough as they think they are), led by John Travolta's major comeback, are in ample supply; but this time a handful of female characters (namely Uma Thurman's gangster's wife) add dimension and nuance. The film is also loaded with QT's love of contradiction: renowned for its explosive bursts of violence, Pulp Fiction ends with its most horrific killer (a magnificent Samuel L. Jackson) keeping the peace. Grade: A

Jackie Brown (1997). Faced with the pressure of high expectations (and a likely critical smackdown), Tarantino wisely went small-scale and adapted Elmore Leonard's leisurely crime novel for the screen. A meme that's been floating around the last few years claiming this to be better than Pulp Fiction I find absurd: Jackie Brown is a bit static and poky; in places you can almost sense the director's hesitancy and weariness. But it's also one of his most touching pictures, anchored by the middle-aged near-romance between Pam Grier and Robert Forster. "I've never seen a young filmmaker alive to an older woman's beauty in quite the way Tarantino is here," wrote Charles Taylor. "It's not coarse; but it's not a chaste appreciation." Ditto the movie. Grade: B+

Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003). Part One of the pinnacle of QT's Uma Thurman preoccupation departed from his earlier films in actually being as bloody as some viewers accuse all of his pictures of being. The action scenes are extravagant but a little relentless, and there's a nasty undercurrent to the enterprise (most notably a near-rape scene) that initially left for me a bad aftertaste. Yet the movie improves retroactively after seeing Part Two, its cartoonier aspects acquiring substance. Grade: B

Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004). Tarantino cleverly undercut expectations with a climax to his grandiose two-part revenge flick that featured minimal violence. Memorable set-pieces (a swordfight inside enclosed quarters, a harrowing escape from a grave) are scattered throughout as before, but this time the characterizations and themes grow deeper. Taylor called this "a comedy about fidelity," and David Carradine's Bill is less a mythic monster than a wounded Shakespearean patriarch, never more so than the look in his eyes when he knows the jig is up.  Grade: A-

Death Proof (2007). Originally the second-half of a Grindhouse double-feature ode to scuzzy exploitation films, this idiosyncratic picture is itself split in half. The first hour, following Kurt Russell's stuntman/serial-killer's casual stalking of a quartet of small-town women, ends with a graphic and disturbing climax where the killer's muscle-car becomes a deadly weapon. In the second hour, however, another foursome -- all in the movie business, two of them stuntwomen -- turn the tables and defeat the predator at his own game. At times deliberately tedious, Death Proof is ultimately fascinating and revelatory (and, with Russell's climactic screams, bloodcurdlingly funny). To paraphrase Mel Brooks, it rises below exploitation. Grade: B+

Inglourious Basterds (2009). Tarantino rides the whirlwind in this staggering war movie without war, an artful crowd-pleaser. I just saw Basterds a second time, and as I suspected its dizzying array of characters, stories, ideas, styles, languages, visual references, musical cues, and moods all settled into something coherent and substantial. The underlining theme beneath the surface of all of QT's films that he consciously began to map out in Death Proof -- the transformative power of cinema -- is fulfilled and then some here. Don't miss this enthralling, one-of-a-kind masterwork. Grade: A


Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the mention, Craig. The first part of our QT conversation is up now.

Your comments about Tarantino's films are interesting, but I'm one of those who for quite a while thought Jackie Brown was his best picture, and also his most emotionally affecting. Then I came to think that the formalist Death Proof was his best. Now I think Inglourious Basterds is his masterpiece. The guy just keeps getting better, mainly.

I also think Kill Bill is best considered as one film. Yeah, on its own, Vol. 1 threatens to feel a little pointless, but when you realize that its violence is deliberately exaggerated in order to play off of the comparatively languid Vol. 2, it makes sense in terms of pacing and themes for the epic as a whole.

Craig said...

Ed - don't get me wrong, I like "Jackie Brown" a lot. But to me there's no comparison with what came before it. I'd also rank "Death Proof" in the lower-tier of a very good track record to date, though I also think it's one of his most interesting movies. But, yeah, "Basterds" may well be his best.

Hokahey said...

I like your comment about Death Proof being "deliberately tedious." It is! When the action starts, it's brilliant, but the tedious parts detract. For Basterds, I think, Tarantino restrained his self-indulgence and made a film with no tedious parts.

Your encapsulations of Tarantino's other films are great. Your grades are fair, I think, but none of these films clicked with me. I have always admired Tarantino's passion for films - but I always felt his self-indulgences got in the way of story.