Saturday, 19 June 2010

The Emperor’s New Clothes : Volumes 1 & 2

Since this is my first time blogging I thought I'd ease you in with a couple of oldie-but-goodies. This review appeared in the British Journal of General Practitioners back around the time Kill Bill 1 & 2 were stinking up the nation's cinemas. Enjoy!

The Emperor’s New Clothes : Volumes 1 & 2

I blame Robert Redford. It’s all his fault really. Fed up with constantly hearing about Paul Newman’s salad cream-funded good works, his impossibly handsome co-star in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting decided to get in on the philanthropic act.

But just what could a rich, impossibly handsome, liberal-lefty like Redford throw his weight behind? Who deserved his help most? Newman had already cornered the underprivileged, retarded kids market, Liz Taylor had AIDS (research, I mean) and between them Tippi Hedren and Virginia McKenna had the cute lion thing sewn up. Meanwhile Martin Sheen was probably being arrested for protesting about something worthy. All the good stuff had already been grabbed. Then, as luck would have it, a small, Utah-based independent film festival needed bailing out and the Sundance Film Festival was born. Since then Redford has turned Sundance into one of the most influential film festivals in the world, championing the best modern American and International independent film-makers, among them the Coen Brothers and Steven Soderbergh. And Quentin Tarantino.

A model of low-budget independent cinema (isolate a bunch of actors in one claustrophobic location and turn up the heat), 1992’s Reservoir Dogs was fresh, vibrant, funny and violent. A fairly conventional heist-gone-wrong thriller with more dead bodies than the last act of Hamlet, the film was a showcase for Tarantino’s pop-culture sensibilities, his perverse sense of humour and his cheerfully vulgar dialogue which amused and offended audiences in equal measure. And then there was the ear scene. Elvis impersonator Michael Madsen tortures a bound and gagged cop by dancing to a Gerry Rafferty song. And slicing off his ear with a straight razor. Unfortunately the cop still has one ear left and is forced to listen to the rest of the song. The scene was horrific. It was nauseating. Worse still, it has inspired drunken men under 35 to dance to Stuck in the Middle With You. The controversy surrounding that scene made the film and gave Tarantino a reputation as a dangerous young director surfing the pop-culture zeitgeist. So what if we found out later that the film was an unacknowledged remake (or rip-off) of Hong Kong director Ringo Lam’s excellent City on Fire. It was a homage, dude. Quentin was, like, paying tribute.

A motor-mouthed manchild who hadn’t taken his Ritalin, Tarantino was suddenly everywhere, telling anyone who’d listen his rags to riches story; his tough childhood, how he’d been a failed actor (a small role as an Elvis impersonator on The Golden Girls) and how he’d gone from lowly video store stiff to making his own movie. Passionate, arrogant and as excitable as a puppy in a room full of unhumped legs, you either loved him or you loathed him. He gave great interview, he had an opinion on everything and was determined to tell the world as many of them as possible. Everyone wanted a piece of him. His old screenplays, True Romance (comic-loving, Elvis-worshipping geek falls in love with hooker, goes on the run from the Mob) and Natural Born Killers (young pop-culture serial killers in love), which had languished in Development Hell for years were suddenly hot properties with A-list directors attached. He was 30 and he had the world at his feet. He made being a geek with no social life hip and cool. He was dangerous. No-one knew what he was going to do next. What he did next was Pulp Fiction. It jump-started John Travolta’s failing career and made a star of Samuel L. Jackson. It won him the Palmes D’Or at Cannes. It won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. So what if he had to share it with former friend Roger Avary whose story (about a boxer and his daddy’s gold watch) he’d filched and made the backbone of his movie? That’s just, like, nit-picking dude. And that bitch Avary should feel honoured to be associated with one of Quentin’s flicks.

When he accepted his Best Director Oscar for Braveheart, Mad Mel Gibson famously quipped that “like most directors what he really wanted to do was act”. Well Quentin could act too (did I mention Elvis impersonator in The Golden Girls?). Obviously he put himself in his own movies. If you had an ego bigger than your gargantuan chin, you would too. And it’s easier to remember your lines if you wrote them in the first place. But other people started using him too. And he proved to be quite versatile. He was a scumbag motor-mouthed thief who gets shot in the face in Reservoir Dogs. He was a scumbag motor-mouthed lowlife who gets shot in the face in Desperado. He was a scumbag motor-mouthed killer who becomes a vampire, gets shot in the face and staked through the heart in From Dusk Til Dawn. So maybe he was typecast a little, but here lies one of the guilty pleasures of any Tarantino movie. Audiences really enjoy seeing Quentin take a bullet between the eyes. Particularly if George Clooney follows it up by driving a table leg through his heart. In fact, the hope that someone may pop a cap in Quentin is the only reason to watch Sleep With Me, Destiny Turns On The Radio or Four Rooms. Unfortunately no-one does*.

In 1997 Quentin returned to directing with Jackie Brown, an adaptation of a novel by one of his heroes, Elmore Leonard. It had fans salivating at the prospect. A great cast including Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, Bridget Fonda and Michael Keaton. A QT script based on a novel by one of his biggest literary influences. And the now ubiquitous hip soundtrack which, after Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, was as much a staple of a Tarantino film as the gritty violence, the profane script or the disjointed timeline. Unfortunately, it was based on a novel that wasn’t very good. It was too long. And while he’d managed to save Travolta’s career with Pulp Fiction it would take a cull on Oscar night to kickstart the careers of Pam Grier (Tarantino’s favourite blaxploitation actress) or Robert Forster (the guy from The Black Hole), his two leads. The film was not a success and Quentin went off to lick his wounds and spend a couple of years battling writer’s block and (probably) watching martial arts films. But now he’s back, louder than ever, with his magnum opus, Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2.

Based, apparently, on several drunken conversations between Quentin and Uma Thurman while they were filming Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill is a sprawling martial arts epic charting the globetrotting vengeance wrought by The Bride (Uma Thurman), a pregnant assassin, shot and left for dead on her wedding day on the orders of her former lover and employer, Bill. Waking up from a coma 5 years later, The Bride is understandably a little bit peeved and sets out to get even with her former colleagues (Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Michael Madsen and Daryl Hannah) and Bill (David Carradine). Shot in the US, Mexico and China, and originally conceived as one film, Quentin and Miramax supremo Harvey Weinstein decided that the film they had was too good to edit down to a manageable length. So they chopped it in two and decided to release Volume 1 and Volume 2 six months apart. It’s a gamble that almost pays off.

We may have been waiting since 1997 for Tarantino to deliver his new film but time hasn’t curbed his magpie tendencies. Taken together the two films are something of a curate’s egg, veering wildly between surrealistic blood-letting, gritty violence, martial arts fantasy and black comedy. With his earlier films it may have been fun for film buffs to indulge in the geeky fanboy reference spotting that amuses Tarantino himself, but with Kill Bill it’s almost impossible not to spot the deliberate and wholesale plundering of cinema. Watching Kill Bill reminded me of the Gray’s Study Notes which have helped so many poor students through their exams in the past. The Iliad is all Greek to you? Can’t stay awake through Hamlet? Say “Goodnight sweet Prince” we have the edited highlights available at all good bookstores. Kill Bill is the cinematic equivalent. Never seen a Spaghetti Western or a Shaw Bros martial arts movie? Don’t worry. Quentin’s seen them all and he’s cribbed the best bits for you. Elsewhere he “pays homage to” (steals from) among others Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima and John Ford as well as less mainstream sources like the kitsch Japanese gangster movies of Seijun Suzuki and cult TV shows like The Green Hornet. So if you’re watching Kill Bill and suddenly you experience déjà vu, everything feels strangely familiar to you, like you’ve seen it all before, do not be alarmed. You have.

Of the two halves, I preferred Volume 1. The film opens with a quite literal bang; the battered, bleeding Bride begs (in crisp monochrome) for her life and the life of her unborn child before the unseen Bill shoots her in the head. Fast forward a couple of years in technicolour and we’re thrown headlong into the pitched battle between knife-wielding assassins the Bride and Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), one of her former colleagues, as they demolish Green’s suburban home. The scene is unlike any Tarantino’s shown us before; fast, brutal and violent, on a par with the best Hong Kong cinema has to offer us, as the Bride and Green hack and slash at each other, shrugging off crippling blows and snarling expletives at each other. But watch the background closely and, in a moment that’s quintessential Tarantino, you’ll see the ominous shape of the school bus as it stops outside the house and Green’s daughter arrives home, forcing the two opponents to delay their fight to the death and enter into an uneasy truce for the little girl’s sake. But it’s a truce that can’t last….

In the past, I’ve always found Tarantino’s films to be too static. Apart from his patented stylistic flourish of playing around with the narrative structure, his films take few chances. They’re stagy, dialogue driven pieces of fluff, long on quotable lines beloved by students but shockingly light on character. The framing and editing are pedestrian. They’re flabby. They don’t move. Well, whether it’s down to Tarantino or his action choreographer, the legendary Yuen Wo-Ping, Kill Bill Volume 1 moves. Tarantino’s direction is tight, as confident in the film’s violent martial arts action scenes as he was when John Travolta was talking about cheeseburgers in Pulp Fiction. Limbs fly, swords flash, geysers of blood spray and the camera dances around it all with almost as much energy as Uma’s vengeful harpy. While his narrative is as disjointed as ever, with the film being divided into five distinct chapters completely out of chronological order, the film is lean, pared to the bone. Gone is the playful dialogue and laidback delivery of the past, in it’s place characters spit terse lines at each other between kung fu kicks and blows. Elegaic samurai sword battles replace the tense gun-toting Mexican stand-offs. The film switches from black and white to colour to frenetic Japanese anime and back again climaxing with a stylised (and gratuitously violent) battle in a Japanese restaurant that’s right out of a Seijun Suzuki film.

At it’s centre, holding everything together in the best performance of her career, is Uma Thurman. Raw and sexy, tough as nails, Uma is a revelation. She’s in virtually every scene and her single-minded quest for revenge is the engine that drives both films. Never having been a big Uma fan, I was blown away by her. In the past I’ve often found her bland, passionless. While she looked great in that catsuit as Emma Peel in The Avengers, she was so wooden I’d have put money on her being cast in this Summer’s big budget feature version of Thunderbirds. And while her ethereal, untouchable beauty was put to good use as Venus in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the breathless virgin of Dangerous Liasions, her puzzled, doe-eyed turn as Henry Miller’s drunken, slattern bisexual wife in Henry and June was possibly the worst case of miscasting since Barbra Streisand played a beautiful high-class call girl in Nuts (be honest, you wouldn’t unless you were just out of prison). It was like watching a soft-core porn version of Bambi.

In Kill Bill she’s a raging, primal force, all too touchable as she reels from beating to beating, literally climbing over the corpses of her enemies to get at the titular Bill. In perhaps the best scene of the film, her scream of rage and grief upon waking up from her coma and reaching down to find her previously pregnant belly empty, is agonising and humanises her otherwise comic book superhero character. Tarantino’s genius for handling actors (let’s face it, before Pulp Fiction, Travolta’s last decent performance was in 1981’s Blow-Out) isn’t confined to just Uma. With the exception of the statuesque professional mannequin Daryl Hannah (laughable as a one-eyed killer), the performances in Kill Bill 1 & 2 are perfect. Vivica A. Fox’s murderous suburban mommy is perhaps the best foil the Bride encounters in either film and it’s a shame that she doesn’t feature more. Michael Madsen’s cool, laconic Budd is a trailer-trash cowboy cousin to his Mr Blonde of Reservoir Dogs, his fatalistic sense of honour balanced only by his almost Satanic viciousness. Lucy Liu is an impossibly dainty kimono-clad Yakuza boss as at home at a tea ceremony as she is lopping off heads, while Sonny Chiba’s gruff samurai is pure Kurosawa evoking the ghost of the majestic Toshiro Mifune.

While there is much to enjoy in Kill Bill Volume 2 (the revelation of the Bride’s name, the Bride’s hotel room negotiation, a pleasingly schmaltz-free mother and child reunion), it lacks the refreshing speed freak energy and expoitation movie values of Volume 1. It’s flabby and self-indulgent. The graphic but surreal blood-letting of Volume 1 gives way to the gritty, nihilistic viciousness of his earlier films. Volume 2 is over-long and reliant on the kind of tired Tarantino dialogue that was a notable, and very welcome, absence from Volume 1. The disjointed chapters of narrative drag, lacking the sheer kinetic energy of Volume 1’s animated origins of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) or the playful humour of Chiba’s swordmaster and his sushi house while the Western vistas of Volume 2 pale next to the kitsch joy of the House of Blue Leaves restaurant. Daryl Hannah’s one-eyed Aryan she-bitch is never the serious threat to the Bride that Volume 1’s psychotic fetishised Japanese schoolgirl Gogo (Chiaki Kuriyama) proved and nothing in the second film comes close to the lyricism and beauty of the final snow garden duel between the Bride and O-Ren Ishii which echoes the films of Kenji Fukasaku and Nagisa Oshima.

The most surprising thing about Volume 2 is just how good David Carradine is as Uma’s nemesis Bill. While the Bride dominates the first film, the second film belongs to Bill. An unseen menace with mixed feelings in Volume 1, he is revealed as both father-figure and jealous lover to the Bride, whose only chance of redemption lies in his restoration of her stolen daughter. Lean and weathered by age and experience, Carradine’s craggily handsome visage compliments Uma’s fallen angel beauty perfectly. His performance is measured, hypnotic, still exuding the catlike grace of his Kung Fu days, his tequila-roughened voice lending the worst, most banal lines Tarantino can put in his mouth a worth they don’t deserve. That Bill is such a palpable force in Kill Bill is purely down to Carradine. He invests Bill with a dignity and tragedy that just isn’t reflected by the script. I wanted to scream with fury and throw popcorn at the screen when at the climax of the two films, after around three and a half hours of carnage, Bill sits down and lectures the Bride on the merits of comic books and the relationship between superheroes and their arch-enemies. The scene is light-weight. It’s kitsch. It’s geeky. The scene is pure Tarantino. It’s an insult to both the audience and to Carradine. That Carradine almost pulls it off is a tribute to his long overlooked talent. That Tarantino ends his epic masterwork with dialogue this bad is proof that his talent is overcooked.

*Someone may have shot Quentin in Destiny Turns On The Radio but I fell asleep before the end.

No comments:

Post a Comment