Sunday, June 16, 2013

The QT Chronicles: Jackie Brown, Foxy Brown, Kill Bill, Lady Snowblood, Death Proof

Ah, I was hoping to have this done an hour earlier so that it could still technically be a tenth-anniversary post for the blog. Not that I want anybody to go back and read entries from its initial incarnation as "... is to write", but ten years... You've got to say something, right, even if it's wondering what you've been doing with all this time.

For the last two weeks, the Brattle's "QT Chronicles" series has been a big chunk of it. I didn't get to the whole thing; Django Unchained is still pretty fresh, as are Reservoir Dogs and The Killing. I wanted to do both Kill Bill double features, but knew that More Than Honey was going to knock out Volume 1. So, I figured I'd watch that at home and be roughly prepped for it's "influence" (Lady Snowblood) and the next night's double feature, Volume 2 and Fists of the White Lotus. So what happens? I have trouble staying awake through Lady Snowblood and just enough of a headache not to go the next night (I justified it to myself by noting that when I saw White Lotus at Fantasia, the print was in pretty bad shape and the only other available one was English-dubbed, and was either one worth being at the theater until midnight when I had to work the next day?). I actually wound up re-watching Volume 2 as I wrote the last few parts of this post, and it's interesting to me that it's clearly a better movie than its predecessor, but not engrossing in quite the same way.

Also interesting, to me, is how I'm approaching Tarantino (and cinema in general) differently now. I like to say that this blog is ten years of me educating myself about movies - I don't often get a chance to, but I do like to say it - and for better or for worse, I have gotten more analytical and actually skilled with that analysis where movies are concerned. Better at writing, certainly, even if cross-posting to eFilmCritic has given these reviews more of a set structure than they maybe should have. I wasn't a huge fan pre-Kill Bill - I never saw Reservoir Dogs until recently, considered Pulp Fiction energetic but gimmicky, and didn't see what the big deal was with Jackie Brown (I think I dug Michael Keaton crossing over between it and Out of Sight more than anything else in the movie). With Kill Bill, he turned more toward action, and while that certainly pleased the version of me that had just turned thirty and had been soaking up the various older movies that played the Brattle and Coolidge on occasion since moving to Cambridge, I argue below that it's where he becomes a full-fledged filmmaker as opposed to a guy who writes a lot of words and films people saying them. Not that I saw it that way at the time - in fact, the end of Volume 2 was possibly where I really started to grasp, vaguely, that action wasn't just there for its own sake, but how you tell a story: That having the whole final confrontation between Bill and the Bride happen while sitting down emphasized that conversation could be as deadly and dangerous as gunplay, and that ultimately the character died of a broken heart.

So, anyway, here's to Tarantino, who is a kindred spirit to many of us, taking in a ton of movies, pulling them apart to both save the pieces he likes the best and to see how they work. He may build Frankenstein's Monsters of movies, but at least the wholes are tending to be equal to the sum of their parts.

And here's to ten years of writing about movies and maybe starting to understand why I love them so much. It's kind of been a side effect - I started this blog to get better at writing by doing so every day, but don't think that really started happening until I abandoned that as the goal. Now I just keep track of the movie's I've seen and what I thought about them, and maybe, after ten years of that, I've actually got something worth saying.

Jackie Brown

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 June 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (QT Chronicles, 35mm)

The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA, just had a series where they paired each of Quentin Tarantino's movies with one of its influences, and Jackie Brown was one I wanted to see in particular, because I remember it being not such a big deal to me when it came out - just another movie. Fifteen years later, that's what makes it special - it is "just another movie", and in a career filled with formal trickery and genre homages, it's the one that shows what he can do without gimmicks.

It's also the only time he's adapted a single novel, Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch. Despite now being the title character, Jackie (Pam Grier) is initially shuffled off to the side as the focus falls on Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a small-time gun-runner whose associates - dismissive moll Melanie (Bridget Fonda), former cellmate Louis (Robert De Niro), and motormouthed dealer Beaumont (Chris Tucker) - aren't exactly impressive Indeed, he needs to use bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) to bail the latter out. It's when he also has Max bail out Jackie - the flight attendant who smuggles Ordell's money in and out of Mexico is less down on her luck than never up on it - that things get interesting: Max takes an immediate liking to her, and she sees an opportunity to not be the pawn that both Ordell and the Feds think she is.

Robert Forster had better send Quentin Tarantino a very nice Christmas present and card every year, because it's not difficult to imagine a parallel universe where he's got the dopey sidekick role and Robert De Niro is the co-star of the movie, rather than vice versa. It likely wouldn't have been as good - when was the last time De Niro was able to convey the sort of low-key, lived-in sincerity as Forster? - but you can easily see a studio wanting that, just looking at their star power at the time and the number of lines in the script for each. Fortunately, it didn't go down that way (although I seem to recall that when it was still being called "Rum Punch", Sylvester Stallone was attached to one of those roles; that might have been interesting). Forster is the working-class heart of the movie, delivering the solid support both Jackie Brown the character and Jackie Brown the movie need to accomplish bigger things without ever seeming less important.

And it's kind of sad that Pam Grier didn't get the same sort of career boost Forster did - she's worked since then, sure, and maybe she's had better roles than I think because directors don't often think to cast someone like her in a role she can kill unless they're specifically making something for a black audience, which doesn't get in my face very often. It's sad because, for as much as this movie reminded people of how awesome the young blaxploitation star Pam Grier was, she was much more pin-up than actress then, which is not the case here. She's fantastic, an utter joy to watch as she brings Jackie from this low place to the point where the audience realizes that she is always the smartest person in the room - and gets some delight out of how she's discovering this.

She's not working alone, of course. Consider the film's opening scene, where she's standing still on an airport people-mover, then has to run to catch her flight. Most of the time, the action on-screen moves from left to right, mimicking how the Western world reads, but here, depending on how you look at it, either she's moving right-to-left or she's standing still and the world is moving. It goes on a while and the credits run during that scene, so the audience really notices the odd rhythm of it, but still maybe doesn't quite make the connection to later in the movie, just before when everybody is trying to con each other, when Jackie is again walking right to left, but striding purposefully. She's the same woman, and she's still moving against the tide, but her attitude has completely changed. It's a great example of the way Tarantino is playing this movie - laid-back, adopting Elmore Leonard's style in many ways, but with purpose. He gives himself enough time not to build Jackie, Max, Ordell, and company up as more than they are but to still make them individually interesting without giving them easy quirks, and the cleverness isn't in which movie he's quoting, but in how this one is playing out.

For as good a job as Tarantino, Grier, and Forster are doing, the film still has its problems. The big one is that this is an indulgently long movie, and the scenes that don't center on Jackie and/or Max seldom deserve their length. Sure, you need Ordell, but Samuel L. Jackson is almost too cool for the role, too energetic and witty for the part the character plays, and he certainly doesn't need De Niro's and Fonda's never-interesting characters around just so that the final shell game can have some more moving parts. Chris Tucker, believe it or not, has the most entertaining secondary character, and he's (smartly) gone before he can wear out his welcome. There's a hitch toward the end that could be smoothed out without losing the movie's calm, experienced rhythm.

Now, maybe this is all wrong on the face of it - maybe both the virtues and faults of this movie are the result of Tarantino bolting a bunch of references onto "Rum Punch". Even if that's the case, though, Jackie Brown at least feels like it's less about itself than it is about its characters, and that's something one doesn't always get from Quentin Tarantino's work.

(Possibly dead link to) review on EFC

Foxy Brown

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 June 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (QT Chronicles, 35mm)

Huh - given how this movie is the one people usually bring up when talking about how awesome early-seventies Pam Grier was, I figured it came before Coffy, which was trying to recapture what made it work, when in fact Foxy Brown came out a year later (and was originally intended to be a sequel). Now, neither of those movies are really good, but imagine what they'd be without Grier: Even if she isn't really much of an actress yet and is getting parts mostly based on her bust, she's still got the sort of charisma that makes a B movie more entertaining than it has any right to be.

As this movie opens, Foxy Brown's good-for-nothing brother Link (Antonio Fargas) is in deep trouble, and needs his sister (Grier) to bail him out. She does, and while he insists he's on the straight and narrow - except that he had to borrow money from loan sharks to get there - it's not long before he realizes that Foxy's new boyfriend (Terry Carter) is the missing-presumed-dead informer (undercover cop, actually) with plastic surgery. Soon enough, he's back in the hospital and Foxy's looking for revenge. Fortunately, the people responsible - boss Katherine Wall (Kathryn Loder) and her chief enforcer Steve Elias (Peter Brown) run a prostitution ring, and that's something the curvaceous Foxy can infiltrate pretty quickly.

Let's be frank: Despite being plenty memorable, this movie isn't really good at all. Writer/director Jack Hill was working for Roger Corman's American-International Pictures, where the goal was to serve up sex & violence and cut whatever other corners can be cut. As a result, pretty much all the performances are terrible - Loder, in particular, makes for a flat, dull villain - and the story is tremendously haphazard, just dropping new bits in randomly. Plus, it is downright ugly at times, especially in how it treats its heroine, just not recognizing the line between fun action/enjoyable skin and the stuff that makes the audience want to take a shower.

But it's got Grier as Foxy, and she is fantastic as the stalwart heroine who is capable of anything that needs to be done once she's been roused from her hibernation. It's a better part than it might be; for all it's built as a woman using her sex appeal as her main weapon, it's just as much about her unwillingness to back down. That's pretty great. And while Foxy is such a wild card in her world as to be practically undefined - she's given no job, no friends beyond her boyfriend, and knows people but doesn't seem to have much of a history with them - Grier pours so much personality into her that it doesn't matter.

The film isn't quite all Pam Grier; like a lot of blaxploitation films, it's got a pretty fantastic soundtrack, this time courtesy of Willie Hutch. The automobile action is quite well done, with the sequence that opens the movie raising hopes higher than you might expect. And there's an energy to the movie that can't be denied that goes beyond Grier and her sex appeal. Don't get me wrong - finding ways to show her in various stages of undress is the motivation behind a lot of scenes, with Hill finding the happy border between doing it because he can and because that's where the story brings him. But the energy in some ways comes from being blaxploitation - this sort of movie has no illusions about what it is or who its audience is, and can really dive in without the restraint a more mainstream move might show. There's a palpable anger and contempt for its villains, whether they be rich white parasites or the junkies destroying a community from within, that more mainstream movies just can't easily match.

That go-for-broke nature is one of the best things Foxy Brown has going for it, rivaled only by a head-turning, charismatic star. Sometimes that's enough, and this is certainly one of those times.

(Likely dead link to) review on EFC

Kill Bill: Vol. 1

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 June 2013 in Jay's Living Room (QT Chronicles, Blu-ray)

Quentin Tarantino likes to present his films' events out of chronological order, so it makes perfect sense that I would review the first half of Kill Bill nine years after the second, right? Still, it's interesting to look at this movie in light of how his career has progressed since - as much as he'd always loved genre, who expected this to be just the start of a full-fledged dive into action filmmaking? Fortunately, he's a very quick study.

It seems like a strange thing to say about a movie that is so plainly built as a genre homage mash-up after three much-praised features, but this may be the movie where Quentin Tarantino became a great filmmaker. Oh, sure, he'd gotten a lot of praise for his screenplays before, and getting fine performances out of guys that nobody expected much from, but from the very start of this one, where Vivica A. Fox opens the door for Uma Thurman and they start wailing on each other, it's crazy action time, and that's great.

After all, before Kill Bill, Tarantino's films were known for their violence, sure, but it was always about how quick and shocking it was - "holy crap, that came out of nowhere!" - as opposed to the elaborate, exciting action scenes choreographed by Yeun Woo-ping (and animated sequence directed by Katsuhito Ishii). There are only a few of them, but they're great. More importantly, he's using action to let the audience understand these characters; from that first great fight, we learn about the Bride not just from what she's willing to do, but the relentless way she does it. Same for Vernita, O-Ren, and all her henchmen. And while it's easy for critics to talk about how the strength of Tarantino is in his dialogue - that's the part that's obviously writing, and thus easy for them to understand - the fact that he is really starting to get the job done with movement and action here means that he's mastering an essential tool.

It's not always a smooth transition to being a more action-oriented filmmaker; there are times when his pop-culture-referencing dialogue is as unreal as it usually is, but kind of lacking wit as it mimics the weaknesses of the movie's he's recreating, which doesn't quite work when you're trying to be fairly clever in other places. But, man, when this movie is on, it's on: It's hard to imagine a sequence that does a better job of pumping the audience up than the Bride's arrival in Tokyo, complete with model city, samurai swords openly displayed in the plane, brightly colored motorcycles, and the music from Battles Without Honor or Humanity on the soundtrack. And then you get a pretty darn amazing action scene after that, and the perfect cliffhanger.

It's easy to get a little lost amid all the action, but this is Uma Thurman's best role and she knocks it out of the park. She hits some of the standard revenge-movie beats well - the practically feral moments, the cool rage - but what makes this particular avenging angel unique, magnetic, and sort of scary are the moments when she's smiling: Sometimes it's a put-on, but even then it seems less a mask then a trace of the woman she could have been had Bill not, for reasons unexplained until part 2, destroyed her new life; other times it gives us the idea that despite the grimness of her task, she is on some level enjoying this, that her revenge is not hollow but does, indeed, give her some measure of satisfaction., both in the results and in using her skills. Most of the other characters she plays against are given quick, basic life by a nice ensemble - Vivica A. Fox, Daryl Hannah, Sonny Chiba, Michael Parks, Michael Bowen, and Chiaki Kuriyama are all memorable - with only Lucy Liu's O-Ren getting a real chance to be a worthy nemesis for the Bride. Liu gets both a fun monologue to show off with and the chance to embody the regal-but-vicious villain who the movie hints as being the Bride's dark reflection, embracing criminality compared to the Bride who tried to leave it behind.

Her filling that role is why, unlike a lot of films that have been split into two since, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 has a feeling of resolution and getting one's money worth even before Tarantino hits the audience with a perfect cliffhanger. That, and the action being worth it on its own. I should watch this thing more often, whether I see Part II afterward or not.

Full review on EFC

Shurayukihime (Lady Snowblood)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 June 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (QT Chronicles, digital)

As I mentioned earlier, I was in and out of this, so I can't really give it a fair shake. Crying shame, really, because I re-watched Kill Bill: Vol. 1 in order to be ready spot quotations and similarities. And, by coincidence, I'd read the new omnibus-sized edition of Kazuo Koike's Lone Wolf and Cub manga a day or two before, so I was primed for this. But, long day.

Still, I'll have to pick it up to watch again someday, as what I saw was pretty darn good. Koike came up with a great storyline here - a beautiful woman raised with no other purpose than to avenger her parents' death - and the filmmakers fill it out with a well-cast lead actress in Meiko Kaji, and plenty of well-choreographed violence, complete with plenty of gushing arterial blood as the limbs come flying off. It's classic Japanese blood & guts, and it's not hard to see how how it has come to be considered a classic of sorts.

Death Proof

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (QT Chronicles, digital)

I haven't seen this one since its original release as part of Grindhouse, and in fact even held out on getting it on video for a longtime because the Weinstein Company initially only made it and Planet Terror available in separate, extended cuts. I reviewed Grindhouse (second one down) when it came out, and spent most of the time talking about Tarantino's contribution.

My opinion on the movie's strengths hasn't particularly changed upon seeing it with a half-hour more footage; if nothing else, the two-hour extended cut certainly seems to emphasize that eighty-odd minutes is the appropriate length for this particular movie. That's especially true with most of the restored footage seeming to come during the film's Austin-based first half. That addition is even rougher the second time through, when the viewer knows just how much what happens here will really matter.

It does make for an interesting demonstration of how pacing can be a fragile thing, though. In the Grindhouse version, that first half is just long enough to get the audience interested in the characters, care about them in spite of how selfish and unpleasant they can be, and sort of recognize the genre trappings he's playing with. Here, it's easier to get annoyed with Sydney Tamiia Poitier's Jungle Julia and Vanessa Ferlito's Arlene, the actual lap dance isn't nearly as entertaining as suddenly cutting away from it. Plus, while Tarantino has never been shy about showing off his record collection or telling you his favorite movies, there are long stretches of this segment that are seemingly nothing but that, and it's annoying.

But then the second half kicks in, and the new crew is fun - I do love Rosario Dawson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Tracie Thoms, and Zoe Bell. It leads up to an insane car chase, all the more crazy because having Bell in the main role means they can do some quite frankly insane stuntwork, that's not actually quite as long as it seemed the first time through, but is still amazing, especially when you consider that Tarantino spent the film's first action scene telling you just how the musicians do their tricks - and now he's going to do them well enough that it doesn't matter.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 June 2013 in Jay's Living Room (QT Chronicles, Blu-ray)

Ugh, don't read what I wrote nine years ago. I mean, I haven't changed my mind about any of it, but... Well, I'd like to think I've gotten better at writing in the past decade.

It is interesting to look at that right after rewatching the movie and notice one thing - I said Volume 2 wasn't wall-to-wall action like the first, and, wow, that's not the case. In fact, I'd actually argue that the second volume has more action, with several well-executed fights, some noteworthy violence that doesn't rise to the level of a fight, and plenty of sparring, while the first actually bookends with action while the middle is actually fairly quiet.

Watching these two movies again makes me wonder just how much Tarantino had certain themes in mind before and after the split. The first movie is very much concerned with what might have been - the Bride confronts Vernita, who has the life that had been denied to her, and O-Ren, who is the sort of monster she might have become without the moment of clarity that came with knowing she was pregnant. Ellie is obviously another reflection, this time of what she was, while Budd... Well, that's where it breaks down, isn't it? I suppose one could say that Budd is an extension of Bill, so maybe it's fitting that the Bride doesn't exactly complete the dry run, while Elle does to him what she's wanted to do to Bill.

Maybe that means the movie merits another revisit, only all in one gulp this time. There'd be worse ways to spend an afternoon/evening.

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