(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) The trouble with re-watching classics is the tension of judging whether it’s still a classic. I first saw Pulp Fiction, like every twentysomething at the time, in the mid-nineties on VHS—a good friend had brought it home and took delight in seeing me react to specific moments in the movie, whether it was the infamous watch speech or the “Garçon!” time-fixing moment. I filed away Pulp Fiction as a great movie and didn’t think about it. Now that I’m consciously re-watching big hits of the nineties, though, the question was: Did Pulp Fiction hold up, once past more than twenty years of imitators, Tarantino’s evolution and popularization of what (non-linear storytelling, witty dialogues, etc.) made it so special back then? What I clearly had forgotten about the movie was how long it was—at more than two hours and a half, the film is a daunting prospect, and the non-linear structure means that there’s almost an entire unexpected act added to a normal running time. Pulp Fiction, admittedly, doesn’t have the impact of surprise: Tarantino’s shtick is a known quantity by now, and seeing his characters go off on lengthy tangents isn’t surprising, nor seeing full sequences play in nearly real-time. The fractured chronology is still effective—I guarantee that even twenty years later, you will remember a lot of the film’s individual highlights … but not necessarily in which order they’re placed. I had near-verbatim recall of much of the John Travolta storyline, quite a bit of Bruce Willis’s segment (how could I forget the taxi driver, though?) but not much of Samuel L Jackson’s act. Fortunately, the dialogue still works, the dark comedy still feels solid, the cinematic flourishes (from “square” to the dance sequence to Harvey Keitel) still work very well and the movie still impresses by the mastery of its execution. It’s daring, sure, but it’s more importantly put together nearly flawlessly. Pulp Fiction has been endlessly imitated over the years, but it remains a solid best-of-class representation of its own subgenre. It’s well worth a revisit, especially if it’s been a while and yet you’re sure you remember most of it.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) As a confirmed Quentin Tarantino fan, I was expecting The Hateful Eight with a bit of cinephile glee, curious to see what he had in mind. After all, each of his movie is usually an event, doing thing with cinema that other filmmakers usually don’t try. His newest offering makes the unusual bet to transform itself in practically a theatre piece by putting eight characters in a snowbound lodge. The suspense is notable, as most of these characters have backstories and plenty of secrets to reveal in the film’s lengthy running time. By the end, the film becomes graphically violent as tensions erupt in all-out shootouts, poisoning and hanging. The dialogues are good and the performances terrific (with particular applause for Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason Leigh), with some assured direction from Tarantino. And yet, and yet… The Hateful Eight doesn’t quite amount to something as good as it could have been. For all of the dialogue’s deliciousness, the film does feel overlong and far too busy for its own good. As the complex plotting and counterplotting accumulates, it’s easy to disengage from the experience of the film. The conclusion is also particularly grim, which doesn’t help. As a result, it feels less interesting than (say) Django Unchained and not quite as meaningful either. Still, even a lesser Tarantino film can feel far more fascinating than other films by more pedestrian authors, so let’s count our blessings that the film exists and wait for Tarantino to come up with something new.
(Second viewing, On TV, May 2016) Even twenty years later, From Dusk Till Dawn still holds up as a reference point. It’s one of the first titles in any “which movie changes genres midway through?” discussion, it still presents a fine collaboration between Quentin Tarantino (who also stars) and Robert Rodriguez, it showcases a prime-era Salma Hayek and it’s completely crazy when it counts. I thought I remembered quite a bit from a first viewing in the mid-nineties, but it turns out that I had forgotten a lot since then. There are more lulls than I remembered (it doesn’t help that the plot is straightforward), the special effects are a bit cheaper than in my mind and I had somehow managed to forget that iconic final shot. I had also forgotten how dark-haired George Clooney carries the picture through sheer charm and energy, and how insufferable Tarantino’s character is. The moment where the true nature of the film is revealed still carries a punch, and the film’s constant succession of gags from that moment on is still enjoyable, much like the dialogue carries quite a bit of the film. (I’m fond of “I don’t … believe in vampires, but I believe in my own two eyes, and what I saw, is … vampires.”) There is a good rock-and-roll rhythm to the film that propels From Dusk Till Dawn forward even today, and I’m glad I got to revisit it with just enough memory blur to make it fun again.
(Video on-demand, April 2013) Over the past year, I have willingly forgone an almost-exclusive diet of theater films in favour of extensive sampling from premium cable channels, with the pernicious result that I am seeing a far wider variety in the quality of the films I watch. From made-for-TV stinkers to big-budget critical darlings, I now watch everything and my expectations are now lower (ie: more realistic) than they used to be. These personal considerations are prologue to one stone-cold fact: When such a great film as Django Unchained makes its way inside my brain after so many undistinguished movies, the sheer cinephile pleasure of it seems increased. I’ve long admired nearly everything directed by Quentin Tarantino: his love of moviemaking is so infectious that every single film he makes is a treat for jaded movie fans, his script are unlike anyone else’s, his direction makes the familiar feel fresh and the depth of his films is such that you can spend a long time discussing them. As a gleefully revisionist historical revenge fantasy, Django Unchained feels like a natural follow-up to Inglourious Basterds: It exploits the strengths of exploitation cinema to deliver a fully satisfying entertainment experience, putting power back in the hands of the oppressed and allowing for a graphic depiction of wrongs being righted. It makes full use of a talented cast in order to provide unique moments of cinema. Jamie Foxx is sheer charisma as Django, while Christoph Waltz completely owns his role. Leonardo diCarpio turns in a rare but effective villainous presence, while Kerry Washington singlehandedly raises the emotional stakes of the film. It takes its time in order to build single-scene suspense of a sort seldom seen in more average films. But the exploitation/entertainment label that is so easily affixed to Django Unchained can mask something far more interesting: in fully showing the viciousness of slavery required for vengeance to be so effective, Django Unchained goes farther than most similarly-themed movies in graphically condemning this ugly chapter of American history. It takes an exploitation film like this one to go where more serious films won’t dare, and this one is gleefully unrepentant in allowing the downtrodden to punish their exploiters. When you combine such crowd-pleasing intentions with top-notch filmmaking skill, the result is irresistible and quickly climbs up year’s-best listings. Django Unchained is, warts and slavery and self-indulgence included, a sumptuous cinematic feast and a splendid piece of entertainment. Don’t dare miss it.
(On Cable TV, April 2012) Sketch comedy seldom works in movies, and Four Rooms isn’t much of an exception to the rule. Four stories loosely set on a busy New Year’s Eve at a Los Angeles hotel; it’s a mash-up of four writer/directors with different sensibilities and a long list of actors playing small parts. Only Tim Roth provides a bit of continuity as the bellhop who ends up becoming the unwitting protagonist of the film, but his tendency to play the role at full intensity as a perpetually-manic oddball can be as grating as it is peculiar. The four segments aren’t created equal: From the sex-romp of the opening segment’s coven of witches, we go to a twisted game of role-playing between a married couple, turbulent kids playing while their parents are away, and a small group of rich men having too much fun with a lighter and a butcher’s knife. Robert Rodiguez and Quentin Tarantino, collaborating together years before Grindhouse, each bring their recognizable style to their segments. Interestingly, the film seems to have been shot in TV-style 1:1.33 aspect ratio, perhaps as homage to some of the source material. The humor is definitely quirky, and while some of it feels forced, other gags seem funnier. Tarantino fans will also appreciate a little bit of his motor-mouth dialogue in the last segment. Otherwise, Four Rooms exists as an increasingly-historical curiosity, the kind of intriguing idea that falters in production. Not a disaster, but of primary interests to fans of the directors.
(In theaters, August 2009) Quentin Tarantino is, if nothing else, a film-lover, and that’s why his movies are always worth seeing by those who feel let down by the rest of American cinema: There’s always something interesting in what he does. This doesn’t mean that his material is always successful… but that too is part of the fun. Few would expect Inglourious Basterds to be such a surprising film, for instance: The film promised by the premise and the trailer (American Jewish soldiers go killing Nazis in occupied France) is replaced by a talky drama that manages to make World War Two hinge on a movie showing. Characters die when one doesn’t expect them to, and even the fabric of history isn’t immune to the twists. One can quibble with the film’s casual regard for historical fact, but on the other hand it’s hard to dismiss a film that dares push a revenge fantasy to its logical extreme. It’s easy to say that Inglourious Basterds is too long at two hours and a half, but at the same time the dialogue seems so tight that it’s difficult to say exactly where snippets should be cut: the deliberate atmosphere of the film is such that when character engage in a round of game-playing, we can rest assured that we’re going to see the entire thing play out. Oh well; fans of Tarantino’s usual violence will be reassured that the bloody incidents are few, but explicit in all of their head-scalping, skull-batting, forehead-slicing gore. The result is both satisfying and unfulfilling: While the film we have seen is a good chunk of cinematic goodness (and the performance of Christoph Waltz as the Nazi antagonist is simply magnificent), it wouldn’t have hurt to actually see the film promised by Brad Pitt’s superb southern cadences. But, hey, my feeling is that Inglourious Basterds is going to be even better once the fully-loaded DVD edition comes out. Which, considering Tarantino’s glacial pacing when it comes to special-edition DVD, may not be anytime soon.
(In theaters, April 2007) Seen as part of Grindhouse: “In comparison, Quentin Tarantino’s subversive Death Proof is far less even: it dawdles along on Tarantino’s usual verbal pyrotechnics, then delivers a jolt of exploitation adrenaline. But then the movie resets to another format, turning the cards and screwing around with audience expectations. It’s a ride and a half, perhaps too conceptually clever for its own sake.”
(In theaters, April 2007) For a movie industry that is renowned for not taking risks and always presenting the same thing, American cinema can still be surprising from time to time. Case in point: the wonderful cinematic experience that is Grindhouse, complete with two full-length movies, fake trailers, fake film damage, “missing reels” and intermission cards. (Canadian theatres even got the bonus trailer Hobo With A Shotgun). It’s long, it’s self-indulgent, it’s hyper-violent… but it’s a trip and one of the best prepackaged movie-going experience I ever had in a multiplex. The movies themselves aren’t all that special, but it’s the whole experience that makes the show. Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is by far the most entertaining film of the duo: A self-aware parody of zombie films, it’s crunchy-delicious in its avowed awfulness, and never misses an outlandish beat when it sees one. In comparison, Quentin Tarantino’s subversive Death Proof is far less even: it dawdles along on Tarantino’s usual verbal pyrotechnics, then delivers a jolt of exploitation adrenaline. But then the movie resets to another format, turning the cards and screwing around with audience expectations. It’s a ride and a half, perhaps too conceptually clever for its own sake. Still, the entire package that is Grindhouse is a success and a great big gift to movie geeks. Whatever you do, don’t miss Don’t!
(In theaters, April 2004) I’m surprised: After condemning so many recent movies for being far too long, this bloated self-indulgent monstrosity of a second half drags on for more than two hours… and I didn’t want it to end. Yes, there are tons of useless scenes, loose dialogue, extended scenes and annoying pauses. But it’s handled with such a deft hand that by the time the “Last Chapter” title card is dropped, you can only go “Whaaa? Already?” Beautiful direction, inventive twists and turns, uplifting ending (unlike other recent revenge films, this one suggests a hint of personal redemption if not -for lack of a better word- progress) and excellent acting all contribute to a unique cinema experience. Interestingly enough, Kill Bill Volume 2 is quite different from Kill Bill Volume 1; more talkative, less spectacular, but as good in its own way: It’s going to be hard to wait until the inevitable combined edition of the film. Film geeks of all stripe will once again go nuts for this latest offering from Quentin Tarantino. More mundane viewers may not care as much, but that’s hardly relevant: the film isn’t for them anyway.
(In theaters, November 2000) The first time I tried to watch this film on TV, I drifted off fifteen minutes later, distracted by housework. This time, stuck in a second-run movie theater, I had no choice but to keep on watching, and I must that that the end result isn’t bad at all. A lot of famous names and faces (including one good sequence between ever-dependable Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper) plus an odd script from the pen of Quentin Tarantino, built around only a few sequences that last a long time each. Some surprises, a good action finale and crunchy dialogue make up for ridiculous plot development seemingly lifted from teenage fantasies and a roster of largely unsympathetic characters.
(On VHS, September 2000) Considered without preconceptions, this is a standard crime film with some interesting moments. Disappointment set in as soon as we’re reminded that it’s “Directed by Quentin Tarantino” during the end credits. This isn’t the fantastic piece of cinema that could be expected from the wunderkind auteur of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. At best, it let itself be watched with interest despite its lengthy duration. At worst, it’s a regrettably boring adaptation of a lousy book. Few cinematic pyrotechnics, and the main event (a caper told from three perspectives) seems more gratuitous than organically useful. Robert de Niro’s character is nearly superfluous. Samuel L. Jackson is good, but routine, a description that might be applied to the film as a whole; unspectacular, but competent. Rather long, though.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, October 2018) I don’t often “catch movies on cable” (my tool of choice for mass movie consumption is the DVR), but when I happened to see Jackie Brown playing while I was doing other things around the living room, I left it on … and became increasingly mesmerized by the film. When I first saw it in 2000, it simply didn’t click for me: It felt dull and anticlimactic from Quentin Tarantino after the more explosive Pulp Fiction, and there wasn’t much in the film to remind us that this was from the same whiz-kid auteur. Nearly twenty years later, I’m far more sympathetic to the film: It’s a solid crime drama, well told in a more grounded way than what would be called the “Tarantino style”. Pam Grier is spectacular as the middle-aged protagonist of the story, using and manipulating three separate parties to get what she wants. Robert Forster is almost as remarkable as a grizzled bailsman, with good supporting performances from actors such as Robert de Niro (playing a second fiddle, refreshingly enough), Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson in his inimitable persona. Tarantino keeps things moving, keeps his own excesses to a minimum and the result still stands, twenty years later, as his most grown-up piece of cinema. As for myself, I’m far more receptive to older characters, to solid crime drama (now that those are far less prevalent now than in 1997) and to the idea of damaged character somehow trying to make the best out of what they’ve been given in life so far. Disregard my first take on the film—I’m much better now.
(On VHS, December 1999) In retrospect, a rather promising debut by a guy named Quentin Tarantino. It’s also surprisingly theatrical, for such an obviously cinematographic film. Steadily -though blackly- amusing throughout, with great performances by Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi. A solid rental.
(On DVD, February 2009) This talky crime thriller has aged pretty well, all thing considered. The dialogue gets better, the lack of action isn’t as surprising, and the cut-ear scene seems positively restrained given the excesses that Tarantino and his imitators have committed ever since. The 15-year-anniversary DVD edition is filled with interesting material, from interviews with/about the fascinating personalities involved in the project, a look at the impact of the film on the indie circuit and other assorted tidbits.