Monday, July 15, 2019

The Films of Quentin Tarantino - Introduction

For the last few years, I have been meaning to do a re-watch of Quentin Tarantino films – and yet, I’ve always hesitated a little bit. Tarantino, along with Oliver Stone, was the first director I fell in love with as a young teenager – and his films helped to open the whole world of film to be (from Tarantino led to Martin Scorsese – and from there, pretty much everyone else). And I’ve never stopped liked Tarantino’s films- I know the criticisms of his work, and I understand them, but I’ve never really been on board with them – the criticisms of his personality and some of the things he has said are much more valid for me – even if it hasn’t affected my opinion of his work.
My hesitation has been simple – films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown meant so much to me as a teenager, and I still count them among my favorite films. I also haven’t watched any of them in probably about 10 years (after seeing them a couple dozen times each in the 1990s and early 2000s). I know those films inside out and backwards – and yet, I cannot help but worry that as I age, perhaps I won’t love them like I once did – and it will somewhat tarnish my memory of them. (this by the way is the same reason I keep putting off my David Fincher re-watch – because of Fight Club, a film I loved as an 18-year-old, but I cannot help but think certainly hasn’t helped toxic masculinity in the two decades since it came out – even if it’s because of idiots misreading the film).
This has happened to me before – to a certain extent. When I embarked upon my re-watch of Stanley Kubrick’s films about 5 years ago, I was of the opinion that 2001, Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange were easily his three best films – and almost of equal greatness. When I was done the re-watch, while I still really liked A Clockwork Orange, I was more of the opinion of others (not quite Roger Ebert, but I finally understood where he was coming from) – in that I felt more on the outside of that film watching it as a 30-something year old married father of two, rather than a frustrated teenager. And when I redid my rankings for Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange fell not just behind 2001 and Dr. Strangelove – but also The Shining, Barry Lyndon, Eyes Wide Shut and probably even Paths of Glory. The flipside has also been true though – in that when I did my Coen brothers re-watch a few years ago, I loved Fargo as much as ever – perhaps even more. But even there, there were some significant changes (Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There moved into the upper echelon of Coen masterpieces for me, The Big Lebowski, Miller’s Crossing and O Brother Where Art Thou moved down a little).
Anyway, with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood coming out, I figured I couldn’t put this off any longer – and decided to dive in headlong. I decided to include every film Tarantino directed (not included that scene in Sin City) – meaning his segments in Four Rooms and Grindhouse will get full treatment (as they should) as well as the two complete screenplays he wrote, but others directed – True Romance and From Dusk Till Dawn. I am not including Natural Born Killers – a film he wrote the original screenplay for, before Oliver Stone came on as a director, and completing changed it. I think Stone’s film is a masterpiece – but I also don’t really think it’s a Tarantino film in any way anymore, so I’m not sure what value there would be in watching it in this context.
As always, below is my ranking of the 12 films (counting Kill Bill as two films, because, why not?) that will be part of this series. I know my number 1 isn’t the consensus best film from Tarantino – and really, few seem to rank it anywhere close to this high (it’s usually somewhere in the middle) – but I have always thought it was the perfect mixture for Tarantino – using his love language as an actual driver of the plot. I will be very interested to see if watching all of these in close proximity will change my mind. It usually does. I will wait until after I see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to do my re-ranking.
12. Four Rooms (Allison Anders & Alexandre Rockwell & Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino, 1995) – I still don’t really understand why omnibus films don’t work very often – because in theory, you’re gathering a bunch of talented filmmakers and having them make a film on a common theme, so the result should be fascinating. But it so rarely is. This film gathered for well-regarded directors coming off of some level of indie success – Anders with Gas, Food, Lodging, Rockwell with In the Soup, Rodriguez with El Mariachi and of course, Tarantino. Each film told a story in a hotel room – the only common link is Tim Roth as a chipper bellboy. Perhaps had Roth’s character not been foisted upon this film, it could have worked. But the result is a mess really. I do remember enjoying Rodriguez’s segment – and being mildly amused by Tarantino’s (although it felt like something he tossed off in a few minutes). But I’ve only ever seen it once – more than 20 years ago. So, here’s hoping that perhaps it’s a misunderstood masterpiece – I doubt it.
11. From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996) – Back in 1996, From Dusk Till Dawn worked as a way to scratch that Tarantino itch as we waited to see what would be his real follow-up to Pulp Fiction. It’s a kind of Tarantino-esque crime drama/road movie that morphs into a vampire action film in the last half. I always enjoyed the first half more than the second – but in general, find this movie to be an entertaining hoot. Disposable entertainment to be sure, but fun. And Rodriguez seems to be able to get on Tarantino’s wavelength as a director as well. I really do kind of wish that Tarantino had made a true horror film of his own at some point – but we’re still waiting.
10. True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993) – True Romance is a film that has grown on me over the years – and I think so much of it is great. The ensemble cast is wonderful – even if the supporting characters are far more interesting than the leads, and when director Tony Scott relaxes, and lets Tarantino’s dialogue to play out in long stretches, it is aces. But Scott doesn’t always allow that – so it’s the one film on the list where you kind of feel Tarantino’s vision compromised a little bit – and I don’t mean that in an entirely negative way, because some of what Scott does is fascinating. It’s always been a film that doesn’t quite get over the hump into greatness – but it’s still really good.
9. Death Proof (2007) – Grindhouse was such a box office disappointment in 2007, that the film has been unfairly called an artistic misfire as well. The misfire was really trying to marry the two films together, with a bunch of trailers as an ode to forgotten films from the 1970s, into an over three-hour package and expecting it to be a hit. But Tarantino’s film was always a blast (I liked Rodriguez’s half, but it always played to me like Rodriguez was trying to recreate those films precisely, whereas Tarantino was trying to make his own version of those films). And as a stand-alone film – with an extra half hour of footage – Death Proof is even better. So if you dismissed the film, or skipped it (even Tarantino seems to dismiss it) – go back and watch it again. It’s wonderful – and I cannot wait to see it again.
8. The Hateful Eight (2015) –I actually haven revisited Tarantino’s three hour, ultra-violent chamber piece since I saw it in theaters, so I’m fascinated to do so. Only he would come up with something like this, and then actually be able to get it made. I feel it is Tarantino reaching for something more than he has ever done before – reaching to address the calls of racism and misogyny in his own work, and the work he loves – and coming up with a very strange film. I loved it the first time through – and am interested to see how it plays again.
7. Kill Bill Volume II (2004) – The second half of Kill Bill wasn’t the unexpected jolt the first one was. The first film was Tarantino’s first film in 6 years, and he went ahead and pretty much made an ultraviolent action film with the most impressive setpieces of his career, and shifting formats and styles – and really felt like he was pushing himself to extremes. The second film is much more of a typical Tarantino film – but a great one at that – with a killer finale, and great performances.
6. Django Unchained (2012) – The question about whether Tarantino really should be a filmmaker to tackle a slavery movie is a real one – and yet, I think he tackled the subject in a way only he could. It is a revenge fantasy – an alternate history, like his previous film Inglorious Basterds – and in its way tackles (imperfectly) America’s long history with racism. The ensemble cast is excellent – so excellent in fact that Christoph Waltz who won his second Oscar for a Tarantino film is probably only the third best male supporting performance in the film (I would have rather DiCaprio pick up an Oscar for his villain turn here than for the overwrought The Reverent – although I think Samuel L. Jackson is even better). The film is at once Tarantino at his most entertaining and violent – but also reaching for something greater than he normally does.
5. Reservoir Dogs (1992) – In many ways, Reservoir Dogs is Tarantino’s least ambitious feature film – and that is precisely why it works. Here, Tarantino is doing nothing more than a genre riff on the heist film – but a heist that we never really see, we just see the bloody aftermath (and eventually, the lead up). The film established Tarantino as a master of dialogue, and a director pure skill – and someone who has a way with actors. It’s the perfect debut film, since he doesn’t try to do too much – he just does what he does perfectly.
4. Kill Bill Volume I (2003) – As I mentioned in my recap of Volume II, Kill Bill Volume I is a jolt of pure adrenaline when it opened back in 2003. It is much pretty much a pure action film from beginning to end, with Tarantino experimenting more than ever before, and all those risks paying off. The anime sequence is pretty stunning, and the fight sequence that pretty much makes up the entire back half of the film is one of the best sequences of its kind in movie history. Yes, It’s Tarantino getting off on the films of his past that he loves – but what’s wrong with that?
3. Jackie Brown (1997) – Jackie Brown represents the only time Tarantino ever adapted someone else’s work, and it turns out that Elmore Leonard is the perfect author for him. This is also the most plot driven of any of Tarantino’s films – with a complicated plot full of twists and turns, double crosses and triple crosses – and Tarantino pulls it all off effortlessly. The film is also a perfect blend of Leonard and Tarantino’s style and dialogue. I remember some being disappointed back in 1997 – but there is a reason why this film has become only more beloved over time (I think it’s the go-to favorite for people who generally aren’t Tarantino fans). It is worthy of that praise.
2. Pulp Fiction (1994) – Pulp Fiction is the film that justly made Tarantino a legend with only his second film. It’s impossible to describe what it felt like watching this film back when it first came out – and as a young film fan, not really knowing even what Tarantino was referencing. It felt like a jolt of pure originality, something unlike anything that had ever come before it. I know now that isn’t precisely true – but I will be forever grateful for this film. This is really the one I almost dread revisiting the most – because I know it the best, and I really fear it not living up to my memory of it. Still, even if I think that, it will not diminish the films significance – or place in film history (or place in my personal history).
1. Inglorious Basterds (2009) – I remember in 2009 being nervous about Inglorious Basterds – this was the first time Tarantino really seemed to be making a movie about something other than his love of movies – and the history aspect I wasn’t quite sure if it would work. It ended up being Tarantino’s masterpiece for me – a film that combines everything that Tarantino does well, and pushes him outside his comfort zone a little bit. It is a film where language becomes a major driving force for the plot. It also has one of the best ensemble casts of any Tarantino movie. Christoph Waltz is brilliant in the movie (you kind of have to remember we didn’t realize he was a one trick pony at this point – but still, he’s is great at that one trick). The movie ends with Brad Pitt saying “I think this may be my masterpiece”. It is Tarantino’s.

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