Monday, July 27, 2009

The Rise & Foot of Quentin Tarantino

He's one of those few filmmakers who can get asses in seats with the mere mention of his name in a trailer. One of those infallible names where, if you're talking to a member of the opposite sex and film comes up as a subject, you can't help but look cool. Who is this wondrous Film Festival Favorite who also likes gangsters and ninjas and car chases? God, just read the title.

Pulp Fiction, along with Trainspotting, was a seminal film in my life. It was the first film I'd ever seen that really felt like it was a film for young people. There was an effortless cool that the film exuded, unbound by whatever the coolness norms of the time were. I don't know if it really was what Tarantino intended, but I always thought Pulp Fiction was set in some weird alternate universe where pop culture and fashion stopped around 1978 and people generally talked like slick motherfuckers.

It took me a while to get to see Reservoir Dogs because the networks always aired it around midnight and I never quite made it past the twenty-five minute mark. Fourth time was the charm, however, and I found I loved it about equally. This one being a bit more traditional than Pulp, I decided to introduce my parents to this weird and wonderful world. Sure enough, the Keitel/Buscemi/Madsen triumvirate did its work admirably.

Renting Jackie Brown somewhere around the year '99-'00, my friend and I were disappointed. Of course, by then we'd pretty much learned Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction by heart, so anything "less" than that was bound to let us down. I'm thinking I should probably revisit this one, since I literally haven't seen it since then, and some people whose opinions I generally trust assured me it was the last movie in which Tarantino exhibited some growth as a filmmaker.

Whoo boy, were they right.

After Jackie Brown, Quentin suffered from a burnout. Most likely, making a movie about people who're getting older and realizing they weren't the epitome of cool anymore was akin to coming to terms with his mortality for ole QT. It would take the man six years before he half-finished his next movie, the epic two-parter Kill Bill. For years I thought this was a shameless cash-grab from Quentin and his Weinstein masters, believing they could sell anything under boy wonder Tarantino's name. Recently, however, it was brought to my attention that Tarantino actually just kept shooting and shooting and the Weinsteins requested he give them SOMETHING to release. And hey, other than the head-scratcher that was the splitting of the two movies, I really liked Kill Bill. It was insanely over the top, it was funny, it had some sweet tunes, gory fights, hot babes, ... Hell, I still kind of like it simply by virtue of so much cool stuff being in it. The split is absolutely unnecessary.

Bill, the one who must be killed, is the leader of a top squad of assassins. One of them, the enigmatic Bride, was betrayed and left for dead by them and is now, in typical Revenge Movie fashion, coming to get them all one by one. Bill goes to warn his brother Budd, who works at a shitty strip joint. He doesn't come to warn him at his place of work or anything. We just follow Budd there for a while. For... some reason. The first volume has a ten minute animated sequence detailing the origins of squad member O-Ren Ishii, a character that dies (spoiler lol) almost the moment she's introduced outside of flashbacks. But hey, whatever, it's Tarantino, right? Let the genius work his magic!

That was Kill Bill. A movie with tons of fun stuff, but in desperate need of a harsh editor. Three years later, QT would return with his friend Robert Rodriguez and deliver a project that, by all accounts, sounded fascinating and daring. A return to the double bill exploitation features of yore, brought to you by two of the world's most wacky filmmakers + special guests who brought you crazy little extras. Awesome, right? Hell yeah! It sounded like a party in the cinema and everyone was invited! The whole project, called Grindhouse, didn't take off too well, unfortunately. A major bomb in the US, the Weinsteins decided to cut their losses and release the two films separately in Europe, hoping to just cash in on "THE 6TH FILM BY QUENTIN TARANTINO" at least.

Rodriguez did his part. His Planet Terror was basically what you could call a party. Just a filmmaker and his cast 'n crew having fun, doing silly things, generally delivering an entertaining experience. If Planet Terror were a party, there'd be plenty of booze, pot, and a few hours in some girls would start to make out. If Tarantino's Death Proof were a party, on the other hand, you'd find you'd only know one or two people there. Sure, talking to them is fun, but why is the host so insistent that you check out his anime collection? What's that weird smell? This beer tastes funny, and what does Schwanzenzaft* mean anyways?

By Death Proof, it had already been widely known among film buffs that Tarantino liked women's feet. Hell, in Kill Bill 1 we are "treated" to a good minute of staring at Uma Thurman's big toe. Death Proof starts out with a shot of bare feet and has several loving close-ups sprinkled throughout, including one shot of a pretty lady with astonishing disregard for personal safety as she hangs one leg out of the window of a moving automobile. Granted, there's a funny pay-off shot following this, but it's still pretty blatant.

The whole Grindhouse (a colloquial term for cinemas displaying mostly cheap, lurid B-movies) idea was to revive interest in and pay homage to exploitation cinema of yesteryear, most notably the seventies. The problem with this concept is that most grindhouse cinema is pretty bad. There's definitely some interesting stuff in there sometimes, but you really have to wade through an ocean of shit. Roger Corman may have made a gazillion movies a year, but that doesn't mean 500,000 of them are worthwhile.

Rodriguez is almost too talented a technician to pull it off. Renowned for his money-squeezing skills, Rodriguez manages to make a pretty decent-looking movie out of his budget and is creative enough in terms of gags and set pieces to keep the thrills 'n laughs going throughout. Tarantino does not fare so well. Characters text each other, listen to iPods, and halfway through the movie the fake "damaged film" scratches just kind of peter out. What are we left with? Well, there are some great car chases/crashes for about twenty minutes. The rest is 90 minutes of slasher victims talking. If you've seen any Friday the 13th movie, you know that is not good news. In fact, Death Proof kind of plays out like Quentin Tarantino's Friday the 13th. No matter how cool that sounds, believe me when I say it's not. We spend the first half of the movie following a group of girls who are oblivious to their impending deaths at the hand of Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell having fun as the movie's Jason, using a hot rod as his machete). Then they die. Spoiler, again? Look, believe me buddy, I'm saving you a whole lot of pain here. Then we follow a new group of girls, who are eventually also chased down by Mike. I'll be nice and not tell you what happens here. We didn't get a sequel, by the way. Between those two killing sprees, what you get to do is you get to hear two groups of girls talk. And talk. And talk. Nothing particularly insightful or plot-advancing. Rosario Dawson's character likes the movie Vanishing Point. Zoe Bell's character is agile like a cat. I guess that's kind of a planting. John McClane's daughter is in a cheerleader movie.

( O__O)

Oh, and sometimes you get good, long looks their feet. Just saying. I don't know if Tarantino was trying to be all meta by making his movie just as boring as a run-of-the-mill 70s/80s slasher whenever no killing was going on, but the amount of foot shots and talk of obscure movies makes me think Tarantino really thought all the stuff he was putting in there would appeal to people that weren't himself.

I'm still looking forward to Inglourious Basterds. It's not my NUMBAH ONE MUST SEE MOVIE or anything, but I'm still willing to give the guy a chance. He did make some really good movies once, after all. Then again, so did George Lucas.

*It means dick juice.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Day The Clown Lied

This depiction of Michael Bay as the tearful clown character Pierrot was meant to be a prelude to an article defending the sensitive artiste Bay everyone was so eager to tear down after his latest opus, Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen. After a bit of soul-searching, I decided to take it a few steps further than a mere review of the film. I had, however, already commissioned this simply lovely photoshop from my good friend Rutger "Wesley Gibson" Stevelmans, and I present it to you here in order not to let his hard work go to waste.

Suffice to say, I enjoyed Transformers II quite a bit. Internet critic Drew McWeeny from HitFix said it best:

Transformers II is Bay's White Album: it's overlong, not everything works, but everything in it is 100% pure, unadulterated Bay.

If you are like me (a freedom-loving patriot) you love everything that glorious son of a bitch stands for. He is a lulz-provider supreme, and his latest is no exception, even if it is indeed bloated and "a film with no adult supervision" as's Devin Faraci put it.

The last few days I'd been trying to piece together what exactly I liked about the film. As I stood there assembling engines (hey, even without tenure, ya gots ta pay the billz), I realised something rather important. There were things in Transformers II that actually worked for me beyond the "OH LOL BAY WHAT U DO NOW MAN" level. They mostly involved robot king Optimus Prime, his yellow buddy Bumblebee or puny human Shia LaBoeuf doing noble shit. There's something about that crazy over the top "goddamn give me six more insert shots and a fucking orange sunset hell yes" Michael Bay style, coupled with the overly earnest (voice) acting from LaBoeuf and Peter Cullen that just makes their scenes together click so well. Coupled with Steve Jablonsky's Hans Zimmer-lite score, I've pretty much booked a ticket to Soldsville. Cheesy? Hell yes. But it works.

But why? Why does it work? Why should I wonder? Eight hour work days are long, is one thing. If we take into consideration the basic plot of the movie, a lot is revealed. The transformers ran around the galaxy for millennia harvesting suns for their sweet sweet ENERGON (hahahaha). They were cool enough to let planets with life on them slide, though. One of the original seven OG's said fuck that, and wanted to harvest our sun. Us humans, being shitty ass pyramid folk back then, couldn't really stop him. So his brothers did! Lucky for us. He was put into stasis or some shit because they couldn't defeat him and later starts stirring up shit in our time, using his disciple Megatron (the first film's baddie) and his cronies. Talk about some petty shit: this big baby's brothers are long fucking dead and all he wants to do is get back at them by blowing up that dumb sun anyway. Neener neener!

On the other side, we've got Optimus and the Autobots (I know, I know) who think Earth is just swell. In fact, Optimus'll go on about it for quite some time if you let him. The conflict between the Fallen/Megatron's Decepticons (yes...) and the Autobots is never made more clear than in this exchange between Megatron and Optimus:

Megatron: "Is the future of our race not worth one miserable human life?"

Optimus: "You'd never stop at one."

Simple. Easy. Black and white. After that line, Optimus lunges at Megatron and I dare you not to think for even a single microsecond: "Fuck yeah, kick his ass, truckbot!". Because chances are you will, even though you might not want to admit being that into a movie so cheesy.

Transformers II has a few of those scenes of corny-as-shit-but-I'm-kinda-diggin'-it ultra-heroism. I'm a total mark for those scenes. Other examples include Gandalf and Eomer charging downhill in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the ride of the Rohirrim in The Return of the King, Spider-Man's return in Spider-Man 2, "Soo-oo-ooperman" in The Iron Giant, and I could go on. If the movie works, you want to be there. You want to charge down the hill with Gandalf, you wanna slap JJ upside the head for dissin' on Spidey, you wanna pull Oskar out of that pool (I'm treading dangerous grounds with that one, I'm sure), ...

You want to be there because those characters are fighting The Good Fight. And unfortunately, there is no such thing as THE Good Fight. There is no evil robot tyrant or orc horde to dive head-first into combat against. Again, thanks to long hours on an assembly line, I was reminded of a nazi propaganda film we partially saw in a high school history class. Hitlerjunge Quex (or Hitler Youth Quest) is a 1933 is a film detailing the noble sacrifice of a young Hitler Youth paper boy (!) nobly killed in action by socialists (!), giving his life to finish his nazi paper route (!!!). Here's the whole damn thing, if you want:

Now, Goebbels was a clever fella. He done whipped up all of Germany into a frenzy by '39 -- and probably sooner. He knew folks love a martyr -- the most powerful hero is the one that is ended in service of others. I tell myself history has taught us all valuable lessons and I would not be as easy a mark as that. But the thing is, this is some primal stuff.

Humanity has always had their saviors holding back The Night. But now there is scarcely any more Night you'd break out the capital N's for. In the times when Beowulf or even Gilgamesh roamed in the hearts of men rather than the minds of scholars, you'd go to sleep not knowing if the same amount of people in your village would be there in the morning. You see, there was The Night. To hold that back, you could slaughter a chicken to appease the spirits. Or maybe do a wild dance. Or maybe tell a story. Stories of men who faced The Night and came back triumphant, or died saving their loved ones. Did it help? Did telling stories stop a panther from stealing down upon the village and make off with a baby or something? Of course it didn't, most of that shit was just bold faced lies.

But you know what? It made people feel good. It made them feel stronger. Inspired them. Maybe one village's youngsters teamed up and killed that lion who'd been slaughtering cattle, emboldened by the shaman's tales. And so, while the night was still there, The Night had been beaten back, even if just for a bit. This makes the old wise man's lies something more than just lies. That's right. They become Lies.

If there is a form of magic mankind has mastered, it is the power of Lies. Every time you do something that is unnecessary for survival, but you just absolutely feel the need to do, you tell a Lie. A Lie is not a bad thing. In fact, you probably can't imagine a life without Lies anymore. Watch a movie, sing a song, dance, write, love, ... You don't HAVE to do these things to live. But oh, doesn't it all seem a bit less scary now that you have?