Tag: Tarantino

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Pulp Fiction

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(Audio’s got a little something extra in it this week.)

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I wasn’t planning on starting a Tarantino series. Really, I wasn’t! However, there was a snafu at my local Netflix distribution center, and Crash ended up arriving at the same time as Pulp Fiction. Having just watched Reservoir Dogs last week, and waiting to get final confirmation of everything related to the special request for Crash (for which I’m extremely grateful), the thing that tipped the scales for me picking Pulp Fiction this week was that my wife hadn’t seen it end to end yet. Well, that and the quick Twitter poll I did, because as I’ve said, this isn’t about me, folks, it’s about you. So gird your loins, we’re wading back into the profanity-strewn pop-culture-reference-littered world of Quentin Tarantino.

Courtesy Miramax

Pulp Fiction is one of those cases of a film being exactly what it says on the tin. There was time when you could wander into a corner store or through an airport kiosk and find little novels with thick, cheap paper that chronicled the adventures of hard-boiled detectives, leggy dames, ruthless gangsters and dirty cops. Pulp fiction is considered by some to be a ‘low’ form of storytelling, just like horror, gangster and kung fu movies are very rarely mentioned in the same breath as big-budget blockbusters or arty Oscar bait films. Still, in the course of this film, Tarantino lays out three different stories about the lives of various people caught up in the underworld of Los Angeles, and while he certainly hasn’t set out to deliver a compelling message about the power of friendship or the heartbreak of losing a loved one or anything like that, he continues to demonstrate the versatility of film as a forum for storytelling.

I really can’t say much more about the stories themselves, since I to try not to be terribly spoilerific for the benefit of those who haven’t gotten around to seeing or reading something. So let’s talk about something more general about the movie. There’s a big difference between this film and Reservoir Dogs that didn’t occur to me until watching them again, one very soon after the other. Pulp Fiction‘s cast is much more diverse than that of Tarantino’s first film. In Reservoir Dogs race relations are touched upon and women only mentioned sparingly. Not so in Pulp Fiction – two black men take on powerhouse roles and the ladies step up to be just as memorable, funny, poignant and immersed in their parts. It’s another ensemble work that doesn’t suffer from having the size of the cast from the modest eight of Reservoir Dogs to the dozen characters whose lives weave into, out of and around one another over the course of Pulp Fiction.

Courtesy Miramax
“What does Marcellus Wallace look like?”

Despite this being an ensemble work, two of the actors really stand out in the film. One is Samuel L. Jackson. Hey, other filmmakers? Take a note, here: Mister Jackson needs to portray some emotion when he’s acting. As much as you might want to appeal to the hip crowd by casting him as a Jedi Master or a driven hunter of teleporting twentysomething arrogant dickbags, they aren’t the right roles for him. He delivers intense, well-paced dialog and is at his finest when he’s doing so in a role meant to intimidate or perhaps preach. There’s a world of difference between Jules in Pulp Fiction and his roles in A Time to Kill or Black Snake Moan, but those other films work due in no small part to Jackson’s performances because this talent of his is utilized to its fullest despite the differences in the roles. Jumper and the Star Wars prequels, on the other hand, fall utterly flat. While I don’t think Mister Jackson could have saved those flicks, it just provides more evidence that stoic and bland ain’t his style. Look no further than Pulp Fiction if you’re thinking of putting him in your movie. Having Mister Jackson take a role in your film is like buying a gun: if you don’t learn how to use it properly and know when to take the safety off, either nothing’s going to happen when you need it to, or you’re going to make one hell of a mess.

On the other hand, this is also the first film I remember seeing that included Uma Thurman. Other than hooking her up artistically when Tarantino, we see Uma in turns being both masterful and vulnerable, dignified and all but ruined, verbose and speechless. None of it feels contrived or affected, but rather natural and spontaneous. The same could be said for just about every line spoken in the film, since this is Quentin Tarantino we’re talking about and the man knows how to write and shoot good conversations. However, Uma in particular inhabits Mrs. Mia Wallace with personality that is at once very real and quite memorable. Uma’s roles after this tend to be on the more esoteric side of things, and I don’t think she’s been miscast quite as often as Mister Jackson. Then again, I could be wrong. I could go into more laborious detail about any member of the cast. They’re all excellent. But I think this is starting to run a little long and fan-wanky as it is.

Courtesy Miramax
A face only a mother could love. And critics. And movie-goers. And Uma Thurman.

A question I’ve been asked, other than the ever-present “What the hell were you THINKING??” is related to Tarantino’s ‘message’. “What is he trying to say about film?” you might ask. I would reply that Quentin Tarantino, from the very start, has been a defender of film as an art form and a medium of story telling. He came into film-making after working several years as a video store clerk, and from that vocation he brings a deep love of cinema in all its forms. High art pieces, big budget blockbusters, mainstream novel adaptations – those bases are covered. But the little, “low” films, like gangster flicks, kung-fu movies and horror films tended to get marginalized. Tarantino was and is resolved to make sure that audiences and critics understand that film is a vibrant and potent way of telling stories, regardless of the subject matter of a particular film. We’ve seen jewel heist movies before and after Reservoir Dogs, but how many of them have characters that talk and act like real human beings, with believable reactions that range from deeply human fear and doubt to the coldly psychopathic? Pulp Fiction shows us that hitmen, young wives, washed-up boxers and petty crooks are all just people and are a lot more interesting when they’re written as people, not just cardboard cut-outs to spout one-liners or look shocked in front of a green screen.

Pulp Fiction is a rarity. It’s a film that fires on all cylinders at all times without diminishing any of the power, humor or pace of its stories. It’s composed of scary good writing spoken by perfectly cast actors in real situations on real sets. It holds up to repeated viewings because, on top of all of the technical and artistic aspects that make it so singular, it’s just a damn good movie. Now, I know there are some people who might get turned off by some of the things in Pulp Fiction, given its roots in the sort of schlock dime novels I mentioned before. To be certain, the gratuity of the film sometimes verges on the ridiculous, which to my mind just makes it all the more fun to watch. Anyway, just so you know, there’s copious drug use, a couple truckloads of violence, a torrent of swearing that puts the Niagra Falls to shame and even a little sodomy. If you can get past all of that, I think you’ll find that Pulp Fiction, as a film, an exercise in pulp storytelling and a showcase of the sort of writing and acting that all films to should aspire to, is one of the best ever made.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Reservoir Dogs

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Every now and again, when you start taking on work as a critic, it’s beneficial to remind yourself of what’s good in your chosen medium and why it’s worth defending. It’s why I’ve been playing Half-Life 2 again lately. That’s also the reason why Reservoir Dogs was bumped to the top of my Netflix queue. Well, that, and there’s the fact that my wife hadn’t seen it yet and she’s even more critical of films than I am. If something can get past her radar, it’s pretty damn good. And Reservoir Dogs passed with flying colors.

Courtesy Miramax
From right to left: Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino), Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), Joe (Lawrence Tierney), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) and Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi)

An independent film darling & cult classic, Reservoir Dogs depicts the events leading up to a jewel heist and its aftermath. LA gangster Joe Cabot and his son, Eddie, have put together a team of six men to intercept a shipment of Israeli diamonds from the shop serving as a way station. The team are all instructed to use aliases, based on colors and picked out by Joe because, as he points out, having four guys fight over who gets to be Mr. Black isn’t a good way to start a caper. Of the six men who undertake the job, Mr. Brown & Mr. Blue are killed, Mr. Orange is mortally wounded but in the care of Mr. White, Mr. Pink stashes the goods and Mr. Blonde abducts a cop. Mr. Pink suspects an informant, but Mr. White’s concern is the survival of Mr. Orange. With Eddie and his father en route to resolve things, Mr. Blonde interested in ‘entertaining’ his guest and any one of them possibly being an undercover cop, the disparate stories are set on a collision course with one another.

Courtesy Miramax
“Donny, you are out of your element!”
(Whups, wrong movie.)

This is where it all began for Quentin Tarantino. This was the film in which he demonstrated his skills as both a writer and a director. As a writer, there are certain hallmarks to his work other than the liberal profanity. His dialog tends to weave in and out of itself as much as his storylines do, but never seems to feel unnatural or even overly rehearsed. Despite some of his characters being unashamedly larger than life, they talk the way normal people talk. Both his characterizations and the references to movie pop culture underscore a deep love for all thing cinema but especially for the likes of Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen and other so-called ‘low’ film genres.

This affinity also informs the way in which Tarantino directs. While one might dismiss some of his films as ultra-violent cuss-heavy fodder for the masses, his camera work and shot composition reveals a deeper meaning to his films. Tarantino isn’t really overly concerned over what these characters do, but who they are. Sure, sometimes he can get a little self-indulgent and gratuitous in some of his work (I’m looking at you, Kill Bill vol. 1) but overall, while action and gratuity exist they don’t normally do so for their own sake. Quick cuts during action sequences compared to long, intimate shots of conversations show that this is an artist who’s not only exercising his talent, but also trying to convey a message, even bearing his soul from time to time.

Courtesy Miramax

All of these elements are present in Reservoir Dogs, and while it isn’t as quotable a classic as Pulp Fiction, it is an extremely solid work with excellent acting and a great pace. While the story highlights Tarantino’s trademark nonlinearity, it never becomes hard to follow. We come to know most of these men pretty well in the short time we spend with them. Everybody’s flawed and nobody’s heroic, making this a great ensemble work instead of a lead actor with good supporters. Quentin Tarantino tried some things here that, at the time, were pretty new in this realm of cinema, and to this day people are emulating his work.

There’s nobody to whom I can’t recommend this film. Noir fans are going to love this throwback to the days of dime novels with hard-boiled manly figures moving from scene to scene with square jaws and black ties. Film students will find a lot of inspiration in the writing, cinematography and overall directorial sense. Fans of the actors will see them at their prime, working off of one another for extremely natural and well-done scenes. The violence can be visceral at times, and in fact, at the Sundance screening Wes Craven and special effects artist Rick Baker walked out, considering the violence to be unnerving due to its high level of realism. So the only people who won’t be seeing Reservoir Dogs are squeamish folk and those who aren’t fond of people using a lot of cuss words. However they are seriously missing out. As I said, this is the kind of thing I watch just to remind myself of what good film-making is all about and why it’s a delight not only to see good new films but also to rip bad films a superfluous orifice. As a matter of fact, from now on when I talk about this film, I’m going to drop ‘cult’ from its descriptor. Reservoir Dogs is a masterful, singular and balls-out classic.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Inglorious Basterds

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The 2010 Academy Awards are a fading memory. By now most of the Internet has moved on to more interesting things, like porn stars playing D&D. However, if I might indulge your attention for a few minutes, I’d like to discuss one of the films that was in contention for best of the year. Now, I don’t wish to give the impression that I like The Hurt Locker any less. I still stand by everything I said in my review of that movie. However, comparing it to the film I’m about to discuss will require me to point out some things that fall on the negative side of things when it comes to Ms. Bigelow’s magnum opus to date. The Hurt Locker‘s a fantastic film, and I’m so glad a woman won Best Director for it because she deserves the hell out of that award. But I’m not here to talk about that film again. I’m here to talk about Inglorious Basterds.

Courtesy Universal
What a bunch of basterds. The Americans can be a bit mean, too.

The film begins “once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France.” This sort of phrasing is par for the course when it comes to the film’s mastermind, Quentin Tarantino. I know there are a few people out there who just hear that name and immediately want to move on to something else, but bear with me, gentle readers. The trailers and adverts, for the most part, focused on the Basterds themselves, an octet of Jewish-American soldiers brought together by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) to form a covert resistance unit working behind enemy lines in France the way the Apaches worked along the frontier during America’s expansion westward. This includes brutal beatings, scalpings and other means of revenge that verge on the gruesome but are somewhat palatable due to the fact that, let’s face it, the Nazis are perhaps the greatest punching bags of all time.

However, these boys are only part of the film’s overall story, which encompasses the lives of disparate characters from all walks of life, from a Jewish refugee living incognito in Paris all the way up to der Fürher. The refugee, played excellently by Mélanie Laurent, owns a cinema that will be hosting a gala premiere of the latest Nazi war film created by infamous propagandist Joseph Goebbels, and when the guest list featuring most of the German high command is leaked to the Allies, the Basterds are tapped to provide on-the-ground support for an operation that could, if successful, alter the course of history by ending the war in a single evening. The biggest potential wrench in the works is a nefarious SS colonel played with flourish and poise by Christoph Waltz who is best known by his nickname, “The Jew Hunter.”

Courtesy Universal
This was another Oscar well-deserved.

Back to Tarantino. Along with his apparent propensity for violence, he is known for taking parts of a film’s plot and mixing them up at the expense of linear progression for the sake of scene construction and character-building. When we see the first chapter heading, I think some could be excused for expecting the next ‘chapter’ to jump ahead only to have the one following jump back. However, the plot unfolds linearly, and the pacing of the story never feels schizophrenic or even rushed. As in all of his films, Tarantino leaves his scenes long, focusing us on the characters and the situations rather than the action or spectacle. Scenes of violence, in Inglorious Basterds, are handled with brutal speed and visceral cutting, and it never feels as if Tarantino is lingering on the violence for the sake of the violence. Instead, the violence happens, as it does in war, and we move on. The violence is a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself. While Tarantino is no stranger to violence being its own end, with Grindhouse under his belt, here as in some of his other films the violence is treated with brevity so that we can focus on perhaps the strongest aspect of his filmmaking: the characters.

Courtesy Universal
This could be Brad Pitt’s funniest accent performance since Snatch.

With characters come dialog. Sometimes you can get away with establishing and building characters without it; Wall-E and Up being the best examples in recent memory. However, Tarantino is known for his dialog as much as he is for violence, if not moreso. Here, he definitely focuses on the words spoken by these characters, rather than simply their actions. Eli Roth’s Sgt. Donowitz is a bit of an exception, as he conveys a great deal without speaking, but he’s still part of an intricate network of characters who all have something to say. Even minor characters, like the farmer we meet in the beginning of the film and the refugee’s assistant in the cinema, are given tightly-written, well-acted dialog that helps draw us into the experience. Despite the overarching theme of the film, and the ways in which the Basterds exemplify it, the characters never feel artificial or cardboard. They feel real.

MovieBob has already discussed what I’m about to bring up at length, so let me just touch on it and then tie it into how I began this review. Quentin Tarantino, a man who’s never been ashamed of his deep love for film of all forms but especially for “lower” forms of the medium, has created a movie that is, among other things, a treatise on the power of movies. The Basterds especially show us what sort of people are inspired by the macho heroes often shown battling evil with their bare fists on the silver screen. The naive young Nazi war hero played by Daniel Brühl comes from the other end of the spectrum, a man haunted by what he’s done on the battlefield but willing to serve as that sort of macho inspiration to his country in Goebbels’ film. In the midst of the audience cheering his exaggerated exploits, he is visually disturbed by both what he’s seeing in the final cut and how people are reacting to it. With these characters, along with the German double-agent movie star, the British special ops soldier who’s also a published film critic, and all of the references to the films of the late 30’s and early 40’s, Tarantino makes the mission statement of Inglorious Basterds perfectly clear.

Courtesy Universal
As much as I love the Basterds, this is your heroine. Right here.

Films are powerful things. They are often dismissed as mere escapist fodder, a waste of time and money indulged in by those with insufficient imagination to pick up a book or go for a walk instead. However, when a good filmmaker decides to tell a story in the mixed media of sound, sight, dialog and theme, a film can do more than simply wow the masses with shallow spectacle and beautiful stars. Inglorious Basterds sets out to not only tell us this is possible, but also shows us. Films can inspire, enrage and spur discussion and debate. Films can touch people from all walks of life in very different ways, and they can even change people. I’m not sure if a film has ever truly changed history the way Basterds‘s film-within-a-film does, but seeing this movie demonstrates how possible it really is, and speaks directly to the power of film.

This brings me to why I felt it necessary to bring up the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture. The Hurt Locker is a great film, as I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion, but when you get right down to it, the narrative & theme are pretty straightforward. As involved as we are in the story as it happens, caught up in the visceral and intimate feel of the scenes, we’re not left thinking about much beyond what we just experienced. When you stop and think about it, it wasn’t overly complicated. This simplicity works for it, certainly, but beyond the lives of the characters and what it tells us about modern warfare there isn’t a lot more The Hurt Locker has to say. Inglorious Basterds, on the other hand, isn’t just a sprawling and involving cloak and dagger story set in World War 2, it’s a thought-provoking and well-crafted exploration of the true power of film. Considering that the Academy Awards strive to celebrate and promote the power of film, when they’re not playing politics or padding their ceremonies with musical numbers and extra advertisements, I’m afraid there’s only one conclusion I can draw given the outcome of this year’s Oscars.

When it comes to the award for Best Film of 2009, Inglorious Basterds was completely and totally robbed.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

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