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Washtenaw Flaneurade
30 January 2011
High-Octane Ennui
Now Playing: Wolf Parade--"Two Men In New Tuxedos"

I first saw Pulp Fiction in the theater in late 1994. It was a very strange time for me; I'd just gotten back to college (in Virginia) from a family funeral, it was the middle of the weekend and my friends were all off doing other things, so I found myself at looser ends than usual. For lack of anything else, I drove down to the Grandin Theater in Roanoke and saw that Pulp Fiction was playing. Why not, eh? The girl at the counter (who I recognized from campus as a friend of friends) asked me if I'd seen it before, and the sly look that passed across her face at my "no" was alluringly alarming. I went in, sat down, and was promptly blown away. I remember being a Tarantino nut for a year thanks to Pulp Fiction, even to the extent of reacting rather sharply to my John Woo-loving friend's tearing apart plot holes in her own criticism of the film (pot kettle black, of course, when it comes to John Woo, but I should have been more sportsmanlike about the whole thing). I had earlier encountered QT in Reservoir Dogs, which I'd seen with my friend Rob that summer, but somehow didn't really link the two together (it's gone steadily down in my estimation since then). After Pulp Fiction, I didn't keep careful track of the man's movements, and his screechingly annoying segment in Four Rooms--which at least has a happy ending, I guess--pretty much dampened my enthusiasm for good. Since then, he became something of an artistic figure of fun for me (even though I heard--and hear--that 1996's Jackie Brown was really good).* I had--and have--no desire to Kill Bill, and one may well ask what possessed me to revisit his work in the past couple of weeks. I honestly can't remember. 

Inglourious Basterds (2009): "Ah-haaaa! He got the spelling wrong! Oh... oh, yeah. It's '"'"'"'ironic.'"'"'"' Go to hell." On a superficial level (not that there's really anything else here), Tarantino's Second World War orgy of self-indulgence is a remake/homage of Enzo G. Castellari's 1978 actioner Inglorious Bastards, with Bo Svenson, Fred Williamson, and Ian Bannen (and just the mere typing of that cast does make me want to see it a little). Curious to see what the great middlebrow authority Leonard Maltin (formerly my film Moses) thought of it, it looks like the verdict was "great scenes in search of a movie." There's a fair amount of truth to that, although I don't think many of them were all that great. A group of Jewish GIs (including the majestically obnoxious Eli Roth, The Office's B.J. Novak, and--huzza!--Freaks and Geeks' Samm Levine), led by Appalachian mystery man Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt)--well, I wonder where that name came from. I think QT may have seen old movies before and enjoyed them. Let me start over. A group of Jewish GIs, etc. etc. are dumped into Festung Europa in 1944 to basically massacre Nazis in conjunction with the big invasion. They, and a gutsy Jewish resistance fighter named Shoshanna (the excellent Melanie Laurent, who deserved better), find themselves in opposition to the wily SS Colonel Hans Landa (the Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz), and lots and lots and lots of people get killed, including Goebbels and Hitler under circumstances that, spoiler alert, do not match the historical record. I'd heard that last bit was going to happen, and I was fine with it, in much the same way that I loved A Knight's Tale, despite the fact that people in the fourteenth century didn't enjoy Queen or David Bowie for obvious reasons. My problems with Inglourious Basterds lay elsewhere. If Donnie Darko was the kind of movie I (all other things being equal) would have made at seventeen (not necessarily a bad thing; I was fascinated as a result, probably more than the movie deserved), Inglourious Basterds is the one I would have made If I'd been pumped full of knowledge of interwar European cinema (about which people talk, and talk, and talk)? There's no real believable link between various scenes, and the vaunted "time-shift" qualities of Tarantino's script are really just a result of screenwriting diarrhea. Pitt is fun, and the acting is all generally fine (I think Roth's character is supposed to be obnoxious, and he's also really, really... from Boston). It's especially good to see Michael Fassbender (so good in Centurion, and so amusing in the great but really depressing Eden Lake) as the posh Brit agent who comes along for the ride. Not only do we get Hitler, but we also get Churchill, played by a much (personally) loved leading actor of the 60s I didn't even know still lived. Sadly, he has to share the screen with another relatively low-billed, and supremely off-putting cameo (the cameo actor probably reacting to the job with the same glee that drove QT to make this travesty). Waltz is great, but nowhere near the marvel he was touted in the media. This is understandable, I think, as his achievement is akin to dropping a live-action Paul Scofield into an episode of Jabberjaw. There's no emotional investment in any of the characters, and the standard goalpost-shifting many critics habitually do when it comes to Tarantino movies left me feeling a little depressed (albeit a lot more sanguine about my relative lack of attendance at the theater these days).

Death Proof (2007): He really ought to be doing more stuff like Death Proof. The second half of Grindhouse, his retro collaboration with Robert Rodriguez to resurrect the feel of 70s drive-in cinema (down to the "feature presentation" titles), Death Proof actually pleases both on a visceral level and the anything-goes cartoon world of Tarantino's cinematic influences. A party of young women in Texas are out on the town, and attract the unpleasant attentions of a mysterious stranger known as "Stuntman Mike" (Kurt Russell) who drives around in a black Chevy Nova with a skull on the hood. Things get hilarious, then tense, then grisly, and soon Mike's back on the road again, tangling with a new bunch of ladies in Tennessee--only this time things don't go quite according to plan. It's great, trashy fun; some of the dialogue, especially in the early scenes, is comically unrealistic, but one expects these things from QT. The film starts out purposefully grainy, and there are a few other entertaining gimmicks for "historical authenticity" (despite the film's taking place in the present) that would normally piss me off but which actually come off as rather endearing. The acting is a trip--Russell is an absolute blast, from start to finish, and the women are by and large terrific. Rosario Dawson, as ever, is a delight, and Vanessa Ferlito shines as Arlene (aka "Butterfly). There are great jobs done, too, from non-actors like stuntwoman Zoe Bell (who spends much of the film sprawled atop the hood of a car going top speed down a highway). Tarantino himself inevitably shows up (and Eli Roth), but he's less of an onscreen annoyance than usual. The visual cues to other classic films (Vanishing Point in particular) are fairly apposite for a change, and it all somehow fits together. What's dangerous about Death Proof is that it might encourage me to stay halfway interested in Tarantino's work. Though the future will take care of itself, I worry.

*Things didn't improve after I read Killer Instinct, the hilarious 1997 memoir by Jane Hamsher and Don Murphy of their time spent as producers of 1993's Natural Born Killers, which Tarantino wrote (full disclosure--I hated Natural Born Killers). Hamsher, of course, would go on to greater fame in the past decade as the founder of FireDogLake, the problematic online scourge of centrist Democrats (I have profoundly mixed feelings on FDL myself), and Killer Instinct is unsurprisingly full of incisive, hilarious critique of the way things are done in Hollywood. Even better are the various stories about Tarantino and director Oliver Stone (the latter racing around the Arizona desert in a cape to throw any drug-sniffing cops off the scent). The book was subject to a few lawsuits, and Murphy and Hamsher apparently ended their partnership not long after as a result. Unfortunate, but I'll always cherish the memory of seeing QT's note he passed to Hamsher at some kinnd of meeting or awards dinner extolling her "pretty legs" in the prose style of a not-particularly bright second-grader. The picture was captioned along the lines of "a work of Academy Award screenwriting nominee Quentin Tarantino."

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 10:44 AM EST
Updated: 30 January 2011 11:39 PM EST
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