Tag Archives: Quentin Tarantino

Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)

There’s a lot of great moments in Pulp Fiction. There’s not a lot of great filmmaking–the taxi ride conversation between Bruce Willis and Angela Jones is about as close as director Tarantino gets to it–but there are definitely a lot of great moments. There’s the chemistry between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. There’s the Christopher Walken monologue, which is hilarious.

It’s also beyond problematic in terms of Tarantino’s force-feeding of racism to the audience; at a certain point, very, very early on, the viewer either has to accept Tarantino’s conceit racist language doesn’t make one a racist or just stop watching the film. Because the real racists are actually literal monsters, something the criminals of Pulp Fiction usually aren’t (at least on screen). Oh, and Tarantino’s wife in the film is black. So his slur-laden monologue–terribly delivered, of course, as Tarantino’s a horrific actor–means he really isn’t racist. It’s just supposed to be funny. You know, agree with him about it.

There’s probably lots written about Tarantino and racism. Lots excusing him, I’m sure. But Pulp Fiction doesn’t want to talk about racism or much else. It’s another stool Tarantino steps on to deliver the film. It’s not about the real world or real people, it’s about Tarantino’s version of “pulp fiction,” which involves magic and so on. Anyway, I’m off topic. A look at the film’s place in mainstreaming “post-racial” racist humor deserves a serious discussion, which I’m going to do here.

Wow, after that lede, how do I get back on track with saying a lot of nice things about the film and Tarantino’s writing….

He gets phenomenal performances from Travolta and Willis. Travolta somewhat more than Willis, even though Willis gets better material to himself. Travolta’s good solo, but nothing compared to when he’s with Jackson and Jackson gets the only real character role in the film. Everyone else plays a caricature or worse, but Jackson gets to stop and look around at the world and figure out how to live in it. He’s amazing, whether he’s delivering Tarantino’s comical expository dialogue, the tough guy threatening, the soul searching; Jackson does it all.

There’s some solid support from Maria de Medeiros as Willis’s girlfriend. The film’s in three sections–Travolta goes on a date with crime boss Ving Rhames’s wife, Uma Thurman in the first, Willis rips off Rhames and is on the run in the second, then the third part is just an amusement chapter for Jackson and Travolta. de Medeiros is barely in the film, doesn’t get to leave a crappy motel room set, yet she still makes more of the character than Thurman makes of hers.

You can say Thurman’s got a well-written role, but you’re wrong. Sorry. Tarantino doesn’t want to ruminate on masculinity, but he gets in the ballpark (Willis as the classic Hollywood hero). The female characters, Thurman in particular, get thin material. You need to think about it. Pulp Fiction is, like I said, rather problematic. It doesn’t help Thurman her wig has to do most of the acting with the way Tarantino directs her. His direction of her talking heads scenes with Travolta is his worst work as a director in the entire film. Like I said, problematic. It’s a good, very problematic motion picture.

Would it be better if cinematographer Andrzej Sekula weren’t really boring? Maybe. Sekula lights the picture to emphasize the performances, which is fine, only it’s not all close-ups or medium shots where it’d be appropriate. The solid, but not startling, editing from Sally Menke helps things a little though. There’s an energy to the film and when it goes slack, Fiction gets a little too long in the tooth. Since it’s three separate chapters, it’s particularly annoying when it goes slack right off with Thurman and Travolta’s date. Willis and Rhames’s story immediately saves the picture. Jackson and Travolta basically coast through on the last one.

Oh, and Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer aren’t good enough. Some of it’s the writing, some of it’s the directing, but quite a bit of it is their performances. It’s a strange misstep too, since Tarantino’s attention to narrative tone is one of the best things about the film.

Pulp Fiction is a solid, often troubling film. Tarantino doesn’t bite off more than he can chew, however–it’s assured, but not ambitious in anything but its length and bravado–because he doesn’t chew off much of anything with it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Quentin Tarantino; screenplay by Tarantino, based on a story by Tarantino and Roger Avary; director of photography, Andrzej Sekula; edited by Sally Menke; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Lawrence Bender; released by Miramax Films.

Starring John Travolta (Vincent Vega), Samuel L. Jackson (Jules Winnfield), Uma Thurman (Mia Wallace), Bruce Willis (Butch Coolidge), Harvey Keitel (The Wolf), Tim Roth (Pumpkin), Amanda Plummer (Honey Bunny), Maria de Medeiros (Fabienne), Ving Rhames (Marsellus Wallace), Eric Stoltz (Lance), Rosanna Arquette (Jody) and Christopher Walken (Captain Koons).


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Reservoir Dogs (1992, Quentin Tarantino)

The least violent part of Reservoir Dogs is the bloodiest. One of the characters is in a pool of blood, slipping on it as he delivers his dialogue. Director Tarantino finds a moment of Shakespearian tragedy and builds a film to it. He uses stylish ultra-violence, Dogs is visceral with the blood, but the action itself implies a far more frugal production. He uses seventies music, but not the trendy stuff. His somewhat fractured narrative, which owes something to classic film noir, wants to be an updated version of seventies crime. And he succeeds with it. Tarantino would never be able to get away with Dogs having actual tragedy if he weren’t able to sell everything else he packages with that tragedy.

Dogs acknowledges the idea of being outlandish exploitation but the film’s so tightly constructed, Tarantino never lets anything get wild. The film’s most “uncontrolled” sequence, as Michael Madsen does a freestyle torture dance to “Stuck in the Middle with You,” turns out to be Tarantino’s most controlled sequence in the film’s primary location, where everything is controlled. But with Madsen’s dance, Tarantino takes the time to acknowledge the various realities of the situation. He breaks the movie magic, not because he wants to offer commentary or deconstruct genre, but because the film needs reality. The tragedy doesn’t work with reality. Without the reality, Dogs wouldn’t be difficult. It’d be amusing, sure, but it wouldn’t require the viewer to mentally engage with the film.

And Tarantino starts with those demands on the viewer right off. The first scene of the film demands the viewer make some value judgements on the cast. Harvey Keitel has to be likable, same goes for Tim Roth, even Lawrence Tierney a little. Certain actors just get to be actors, certain actors have to do a bit of a feint, but the scene has a whole bunch to do. It’s the hook. And it’s not in Tarantino’s monologues, it’s how the characters talk to one another, how they react to one another. The rhythm isn’t in one actor’s voice, but in how the banter works.

Many of the actors do get great scenes, some even get great monologues–Harvey Keitel, for instance, just gets tons of great stuff to do in the film. Right from the start, he gets the hardest work opposite Tim Roth and then Steve Buscemi. When Keitel and Madsen finally get around to facing off, there’s so much built up energy, anything seems possible. Of course, anything is not possible, because Tarantino is trying to get things somewhere specific.

Most of the film’s runtime takes place in a warehouse. Most of the film’s present action, once the flashback structure establishes, takes place in various locations. Tarantino takes forever to open up the film. It takes Dogs forever to get to a daytime scene without violence. Tarantino puts off letting the viewer identify with any of the characters. Because Dogs, for the viewer and for the characters, is about sympathy with the devil, taking responsibility for that sympathy and even requesting for that sympathy. It’s really, really good.

Andrzej Sekula’s photography is fine. Sally Menke’s editing is phenomenal. The sets are the real star. David Wasco’s production design. Tarantino shoots on cheap but Dogs never looks it. Wasco and Tarantino make it look like there’s no other way to see this film, no other angles. Tarantino holds his shots, making the hanging clothes or the wash basins extremely important–they burn into the viewer’s mind. Especially in the first act. The film implies a larger world outside itself, in no small part thanks to the set design and decoration; Tarantino asks a lot of the viewer.

And he does reward it. He promises it right off with the actors. Keitel, Buscemi, Chris Penn. They’re doing dynamic, sensational work. Even though the introduction of these characters and their development throughout the film might make them less sympathetic characters, the performances are magnificent. Especially Keitel and Buscemi. And Michael Madsen’s really good. Everyone’s really good. Except Tarantino. He’s really bad at acting. He gives himself a bad part, which is kind of good. Kind of. He’s still bad.

Tim Roth’s great.

Nice support from Randy Brooks and Kirk Baltz. Stephen Wright’s unseen DJ is almost an essential compenent.

Reservoir Dogs is never startling. Tarantino isn’t trying to exploit his viewer, he’s trying to tell a story. It’s not a big story. It’s not a grand story. It’s something of a tragic anecdote. Something tragic that happened to these guys when they were doing a job.

It’s an outstanding film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; director of photography, Andrzej Sekula; edited by Sally Menke; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Lawrence Bender; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Harvey Keitel (Mr. White), Tim Roth (Mr. Orange), Michael Madsen (Mr. Blonde), Steve Buscemi (Mr. Pink), Chris Penn (Nice Guy Eddie), Lawrence Tierney (Joe Cabot), Edward Bunker (Mr. Blue), Quentin Tarantino (Mr. Brown), Randy Brooks (Holdaway), Kirk Baltz (Marvin) and Steven Wright (K-Billy DJ).


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True Romance (1993, Tony Scott), the director’s cut

The best thing about True Romance is some of the acting. The biggest problem with the film is who’s doing that great acting. It’s not leads Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette, who the film eventually just ignores in order to further its supporting cast (which is sort of fine, as they’re better–especially than Slater–but it doesn’t do the film any favors).

Instead of it being Slater and Arquette amid this awesome supporting cast, instead it’s Slater and Arquette moving from place to place to encounter further awesome supporting cast members. Eventually, the film’s just bringing them in without the leads. At that point, however, it’s stopped being about Slater and Arquette, if it ever was about them.

The film opens with Slater, then immediately goes to a voice over from Arquette. Her narration, which suggests a far better character than she gets to play and a far better film, comes back at the end. In between, Dennis Hopper, Bronson Pinchot, Michael Rapaport, Saul Rubinek, James Gandolfini, Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, Tom Sizemore, and Chris Penn all get great scenes. Supposedly Gary Oldman gets one too, but not really. If there’s not material for the actor to connect with, it’s not like director Scott helps make the performance. He doesn’t do much of anything, except not know how to direct this movie. Not its action, not its cast, none of it.

All of the aforementioned actors have excellent scenes. Sometimes two, at least one. Arquette almost gets a few good scenes, but not really. After beating her up, in an exceptionally violent sequence (Scott’s got no subtext to his action, he’s painfully oblivious to questions of genre and viewer expectation), her character pretty much stops speaking. It’s weird.

The script’s oddly paced–an hour build-up, thirty minutes of play (not counting Arquette and Gandolfini’s vicious scene), thirty minutes of violent wrap-up. That front heaviness needs to define Slater and Arquette and it doesn’t. Slater, for example, can’t hold up against Hopper. The film goes off its rails, something even Scott seems to get. Of course, he just keeps going with it instead of making any adjustments, leading to a lot of humorous moments, some decent dialogue, but a really lame story.

It isn’t until the finish everything collapses under its own weight. Maybe if Michael Tronick and Christian Wagner did anything with the editing, or if Hans Zimmer’s music was any good (though he does rip off the Badlands theme to some success), but the film’s a technical yawn. Jeffrey L. Kimball’s photography is more than competent, Scott just doesn’t do anything with it.

Still, even if Scott were better, the script’s got problems with how it treats the leads. Especially Slater, who becomes less and less sympathetic as times goes on. Just like Romance itself.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Tony Scott; written by Quentin Tarantino; director of photography, Jeffrey L. Kimball; edited by Michael Tropic and Christian Wagner; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Benjamín Fernández; produced by Gary Barber, Samuel Hadida, Steve Perry and Bill Unger; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Christian Slater (Clarence Worley), Patricia Arquette (Alabama Whitman), Michael Rapaport (Dick Ritchie), Bronson Pinchot (Elliot Blitzer), Saul Rubinek (Lee Donowitz), Dennis Hopper (Clifford Worley), James Gandolfini (Virgil), Gary Oldman (Drexl Spivey), Christopher Walken (Vincenzo Coccotti), Chris Penn (Nicky Dimes), Tom Sizemore (Cody Nicholson), Brad Pitt (Floyd) and Val Kilmer (Mentor).


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Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)

Tarantino will probably never make a film as good as the good parts of Inglorious Basterds again. Possibly because the good parts of the film–even with the Sam Jackson narration–seem so unlike Tarantino, it’s impossible to imagine him making them. It’s like, all of a sudden, an adult magically appeared and took his place. Unfortunately, the real Tarantino returns for the last twenty or so minutes, when Basterds collapses.

But I’m going to try to talk about the good things. The Tarantino conversation scene is nearly twenty years old. It’s never been used as well as it is in Basterds. The film opens with one, an unbelievably affecting scene (with a lot, in the end, owed the Searchers). It’s like Tarantino finally learned his “chapters” work better as real time vignettes, instead of jumbles of location shooting and stunt casting.

Besides his excellent writing–since it’s mostly non-English, Tarantino doesn’t bother going for cool sounding dialogue–Basterds succeeds because of Mélanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz. The rest of the cast doesn’t really matter (they’re all great, except Eli Roth, who went to the Quentin Tarantino school of lousy acting). The great film inside Basterds is about Laurent. The silly one Tarantino delivers is, unfortunately, not.

He does some really stupid stuff at the end, the kind of nonsense one would do if he didn’t want to make a real movie, but a joke.

It’s a shame Tarantino keeps growing as a director, but never as a filmmaker.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; director of photography, Robert Richardson; edited by Sally Menke; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Lawrence Bender; released by the Weinstein Company and Universal Pictures.

Starring Brad Pitt (Lt. Aldo Raine), Christoph Waltz (Col. Hans Landa), Eli Roth (Sgt. Donny Donowitz), Michael Fassbender (Lt. Archie Hicox), Diane Kruger (Bridget von Hammersmark), Daniel Brühl (Fredrick Zoller), Mélanie Laurent (Shosanna Dreyfus), Denis Menochet (Perrier LaPadite), Sylvester Groth (Joseph Goebbels), Mike Myers (Gen. Ed Fenech) and Rod Taylor (Winston Churchill).


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