06. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)
Runtime: 1 hr. 52 min.
Pitch: The Bride was about to get married, but was then betrayed by the band of assassins she called kin and shot execution style while pregnant on her wedding day. When she wakes up from the resulting coma years later, the revenge-minded bloodshed starts in the hospital room and ends in a second, separate movie. This is the first five chapters of a 10-chapter story.
Cast: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Sonny Chiba, Julie Dreyfus, Chiaki Kuriyama, and Michael Bowen
T Gonna T: It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to imagine that the film’s instantly iconic, controversial “House of Blue Leaves” sequence is what the inside of the filmmaker’s head looks like on a given day. It’s beautifully shot, drapes its entire set in Argento Reds as The Bride lays waste to seemingly all but one of the Crazy 88 (the last is let off with a spanking) and literally opens a door from one genre into another, right around the time that the film follows The Bride from the ‘70s wuxia interiors of the restaurant to the snowy, classical Japanese garden outside. Eventually, that ends up covered in blood as well, but it’s still the best illustration of the film’s many influences both high and lowbrow.
The Revival: The standout here is longtime Japanese star Sonny Chiba as Hattori Hanzo, the legendary swordsmith who emerges from a self-imposed retirement to fashion one more sword with which The Bride can exact her vengeance. Obligatory, because it’s one of Tarantino’s best-ever lines: “This is my finest sword. If on your journey you should encounter God, God will be cut.” While Chiba is best remembered stateside for The Storm Riders or The Street Fighter, the absurdly prolific Toei mainstay has been active in pushing the form of the martial arts movie forward for decades, as both actor and filmmaker.
The Master Himself: He’s one of the many casualties the Crazy 88 suffer during their ill-fated attempt to stop The Bride from her appointed rounds. It’s one of his more innocuous appearances in his own films.
Kill again? For years, Tarantino has publicly mulled over the idea of a third Kill Bill film (which would have to be called Kill Beatrix, right?), but has made no moves. While it’s frustrating given the film’s perfect setup, which as he puts it would cast Nikki, Vernita Green’s daughter who has to witness her mother’s death firsthand in Vol. 1, on her own cyclical journey of revenge against her mother’s killer, it only speaks to its director’s habit of lingering on projects for years before returning to them or wholly discarding them. As of now, it’s probably not happening, but then The Hateful Eight was supposed to be scrapped after its script leaked, and now it’ll be in theaters at the end of this week. Who knows?
“Now would be the time to say it”: If you watched the film and noticed that Chinese actress Lucy Liu was playing a Yakuza boss, a Japanese tradition, well, that was on purpose. The actress’ heritage was written into O-Ren’s character upon her casting and ends up changing quite a bit about her interactions with the fellow bosses.
Analysis: Vol. 1 is wildly entertaining as its own standalone film. If anything, it’s the purest distillation of his grindhouse urges into a still-effective film (see: Death Proof for the inverse). While the film’s emotional core isn’t really established, Tarantino simply gets to flex his abilities to jump from one genre to the next by the chapter and to zealously recreate the visceral thrills of each. It’s Tarantino at his film geekiest, evidenced in everything from Chiba’s appearance as a sort of deity handing a sword to Tarantino’s own chosen protagonist to the employment of the RZA, himself an avid enthusiast of the martial arts subgenre, to assemble the film’s kicky, anachronistic soundtrack.
It’s also some of the most thrilling cinema he’s made. Given the nature of the two-part movie, he’s able to linger on scenes that might not make it through the final pass of a single movie, such as the playful banter between O-Ren and The Bride before their showdown or the triumphant urgency of The Bride’s hospital escape. (“Wiggle your big toe.”) It’s a bloody, breathless action film that still gets to take the time to indulge in all the little side interests and digressions that characterize so much of the director’s work. Best of all worlds, really.
05. Once Upon a Time in.. Hollywood (2019)
Runtime: 2 hr. 41 min.
Pitch: It’s 1969 in Los Angeles. The sun is out. The stars are beaming. But there’s change in the air. Facing those tailwinds is Rick Dalton, an aging talent who’s contending with a future that may not belong to him; his trusty stuntman Cliff Booth, whose behind-the-scenes wizardry may also be heading for the hills; and rising icon Sharon Tate, whose permeable lifestyle involves danger that dwells beyond the silver screen.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Al Pacino
T Gonna T: When Sharon Tate stops in to the Bruin Theatre to see herself in The Wrecking Crew, you can almost catch a reflection of Tarantino grinning in the film’s framed poster outside. Like Tate, he’s reveling in the moment, not only for the magic of the theatergoing experience, but the time itself. It’s telling in the way he amiably cuts back and forth from the screen to Tate’s bedazzled reactions. He’s like McFly with a Delorean, trying his damnedest to soak up the moment by relishing all the nitty, bitty details, from the hammy trailer for biker joint CC and Company to the specific Wrecking scenes that Tate mimics with charming delight … and, naturally, to her feet.
The Revival: Christ, take your pick. There’s the troubled Emile Hirsch playing Tate’s lovable hairstylist Jay Sebring. We haven’t seen him in awhile. The late Luke Perry pops up for a minor bit as Wayne Maunder. Spencer Garrett offers a humble take on a fictional TV personality in Allen Kincaid. Hell, even Cobra Kai sensei Martin Kove cuts the screen as a Bounty Law villain. Blink and you’ll miss a fringe celeb doing their thing.
The Master Himself: Hard to say. On a first run through the film, the guy’s nowhere to be seen — and that’s probably wise, especially after that narration from The Hateful Eight — but it’s possible he’s lingering somewhere in the background. Maybe at Spahn Ranch. Or better yet, the Playboy Mansion, where everyone’s frolicking around. Of course, you’ll have to look past Damian Lewis’ distracting cameo as Steve McQueen.
California Dreaming: Kudos to production designer Barbara Ling for her stylish recreation of ’60s Hollywood. Given the tumultuous times, and the expansive nature of this story (not to mention the scope of the whole goddamn thing), it would be nigh-impossible to actually capture the era in full and to perfection. Yet Tarantino and Ling bring justice to the proceedings by recreating a dizzying array of vintage settings that feel lived-in. What’s more, they’re all practical. They’re all physical. And they’re never too glossy. Unlike so many winded trips back in time, Tarantino actually did his fucking homework, and his attention to detail, and the fact that he revisited so many past haunts, only embellishes the idea that this is a “love letter” to the city and the times.
Hurdy Gurdy Man: Don’t expect to see much of ol’ Charlie Manson. Although Tarantino cast creepy lookalike Damon Herriman as the late cult leader, he only makes a minor appearance. It’s an eerie one, though, and while Herriman never appears again, his presence is felt. Sincerely. Like The Shape in John Carpenter’s Halloween, Manson’s influence thrives in the corners of the film. He’s a crusty menace that often punctures the sun-soaked serenity that everyone’s shuffling under. It’s a smart move on Tarantino’s behalf, and certainly a pointed one, especially when the film comes to blows at the end. We won’t spoil anything, but know that Tarantino is hardly a fan of the “Family.”
Analysis: Tarantino’s working through something with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. It’s not a crisis, per se, but it’s an evaluation of sorts. There’s admittedly a strange connection going on between the freewheelin’ times of yesteryear and the trouble ahead today for Hollywood. Think about it: Tarantino is an anomaly in 2019. He’s making events out of adult dramas at a time when adults aren’t a priority in the industry. Like DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton or even Pitt’s Cliff Booth, he’s contending with the fact that he may be old hat, a rusty gun, a forgotten relic.
But he’s not giving up. The fact that this film is Tarantino at his most tranquil suggests that the auteur has never been more comfortable. There’s a sagacious quality to the way he cruises through Hollywood that insists upon some kind of acceptance on his behalf. If anything, he’s indulging in the playgrounds he can still create, and the way he portrays the star-gazing Tate only embellishes that argument. Having said that, there’s an underlying bitterness that peeks through every so often, particularly in the end when he’s at his most vitriolic. But it’s never severe. It’s comical. Dreamy even.
This is Tarantino’s most poetic “What if?” yet.
04. Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Runtime: 2 hr. 33 min.
Pitch: In this revisionist action-comedy-drama, a ravenous band of Jewish US soldiers – the Basterds – and a vengeful theater owner concoct plans to destroy the Third Reich from the top down.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, Diane Kruger, Michael Fassbender, Eli Roth, Daniel Brühl, and Til Schweiger
T Gonna T: That Tarantino managed to make concepts of film and fandom so integral to Inglourious Basterds, a WWII period piece, makes the film so distinctly of his oeuvre. The final showdown takes place during a film premiere, one of the leads owns a movie theater, another is a propaganda film star, and another soldier is recruited precisely because of his deep knowledge of German cinema. Couple this unique focus with long, intimate scenes that take place not on the battlefield but in cramped tavern basements and you’ve got a war film that was made by someone whose tastes are much more cinematic than idealistic.
The Revival: It’s not a revival, necessarily, but with Inglourious Basterds Tarantino introduced American audiences to the beam of heavenly light that is Christoph Waltz. Before Inglourious Basterds, Waltz was a fairly successful fixture of British, German, and Swiss television and theater. He’s since racked up two Academy Awards for his Tarantino collaborations. If I were Waltz, I’d stay put. It’s also of note to mention that Inglourious Basterds is the only non-Shrek movie Mike Myers has acted in since his much-maligned The Love Guru. He’s great, too.
The Master Himself: You won’t see Tarantino’s face in Inglourious Basterds, but you will see his hands. When Waltz’s Hans Landa strangles Diane Kruger’s Bridget von Hammersmark, it’s actually Tarantino’s hands in the shot. “What I said to her was, I’m gonna just strangle you, alright? Full on, I’m gonna cut off your air, for just a little bit of time,” Tarantino said. “We’re gonna see the reaction in your face, and I’m gonna yell cut.”
Hitlers on Film: Filmic depictions of Hitler have become more nuanced over time, especially in the numerous “in the bunker” films – Downfall, The Bunker, Liberation – that chronicle the dictator’s last days. Downfall, especially, was praised for its even, humanistic take. And then there’s the Hitler of Inglourious Basterds. Played by German actor Martin Wuttke, this Hitler is a gross caricature, loud and hilariously childish, at one point even cackling at images of death as if it were a Yosemite Sam cartoon. This approach is much more in line with the films, skits, and cartoons of the ‘40s, however, when non-German movies relentlessly mocked Hitler, depicting him as a buffoonish maniac. The Three Stooges filmed several skits of this type, though Charlie Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel from the 1940 film The Great Dictator is probably best remembered.
That Title, Tho: “I’m never going to explain that,” Tarantino said of the film’s hilariously misspelled title. “When you do an artistic flourish like that, to describe it, to explain it, would just … invalidate the whole stroke in the first place.” He was badgered more and more, retorting with claims that it was a “a Basquiat-esque touch” and that “that’s just the way you say it: Basterds.”
Truly, there isn’t really anything to explain. Honestly, the title itself is indicative of the general milieu of the Basterds, a rough-and-tumble bunch of misfits who aren’t renowned for their intelligence or articulation but their fearlessness and brutality. They don’t give a fuck about proper spelling, and neither does this movie.
Analysis: Tarantino grew up on “men on a mission” war movies like The Guns of the Navarone, The Dirty Dozen, and Where Eagles Dare, but when it was time to make his own, he fortified his approach by indulging in an entirely different war sub-genre. Propaganda films of the 1940s, made in Hollywood by foreign directors living abroad, presented Tarantino with an altogether different approach to the war movie, one that centered more around action and humor than what Tarantino calls “the ponderous, anti-war, violin-music diatribes that we’ve seen in war movies since the ’80s.”
And Inglourious Basterds isn’t anti-war. It’s not pro-war, either. And that’s precisely why it works as well as it does. In a climate where we can’t make a war movie without it being so intensely about war, Tarantino made a hilarious one about revenge. It’s oddly intimate, really, this movie, focusing on individuals with an axe to grind. It’s not one’s country or humanity who gets revenge in this film, but the specific people who’ve lost someone. As big as Inglourious Basterds gets, it never zooms out so far that we lose sight of the hearts (and laughs) at the center of this story.