The Quentin Tarantino Report Card

I don’t know if you can call Tarantino the best director of all time. He’s not even the most original director of all time. The man rips scenes and plot elements from many films and calls them tributes and homages. Let’s be realistic, most of the general movie audience won’t be able to pick up 95 percent of the references and nods he includes in his films. Until reading it, I thought Hattori Hanzo was an original character created by Tarantino, and I originally thought the final stand off involving the shadows in The House of Blue Leaves was amazing until I read it was a basic shot for shot copy of a scene in “Episode One.” Fans of Asian cinema have even claimed Tarantino remade “City of Fire” and simply renamed it “Reservoir Dogs.” Many film critics and knowledgeable film buffs have conceded that Tarantino does indeed fancy himself an auteur and blatantly pilfers obscure cult films and directors.

But the questions linger: Is there a certain line where an homage becomes outright plagiarism? And does plagiarism automatically devalue the artist behind it? Hell, even Tarantino has admitted to taking from other films to form his own stories and confesses to it proudly. And yet in spite of his self indulgence, egomania, and rather self-aggrandizing temperament the man is still a very popular filmmaker in Hollywood. What about the man appeals to even the most cynical cineaste? Is it his unabashed enthusiasm? His roots as a school drop out turned film fanatic? Or the fact that he knows how to competently structure stories?

Even in spite of the derivations and blatant plagiarism Tarantino is still very well loved and has even inspired College courses and dissertations and has prompted many to debate about what his true impact on film will be and whether or not he is still just a fad. His words and influence certainly are powerful in spite of his retractors, and his films continue to inspire many aspiring filmmakers. Being a casual fan myself, I thought with his recent success of “Inglourious Basterds” and his recent bid of respect for his roots by purchasing the ailing New Beverly Cinema, that it’d be interesting to look at the films he’s directed. The man certainly will leave a legacy behind him because in spite of lacking originality, he really knows how to make movies.

RESERVOIR DOGS (A)
[1992]

Takes From: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, City of Fire, A Better Tomorrow II

One of the glaring flaws of “Reservoir Dogs” is that there’s not much characterization when it comes to our principle characters. Sure Mr. Brown is focused on before he goes undercover, but other than that we never quite learn enough about everyone to bring us in closer. It seems intentional on Tarantino’s part to keep us at a distance since all of the men are also unaware of what they’re comrades did before they were involved in this heist but bringing us a little closer may have helped us connect with these characters more.

Because what we see on screen is more a battle of dominant male archetypes and not actual fleshed out characters. Still the same, “Reservoir Dogs” is arguably Tarantino’s best film and one that was unfortunately forgotten when “Pulp Fiction” stormed the box office. Tarantino’s rather underrated gem is a classic heist film, one that involves varying plot threads that slowly brings together the events that led to the disastrous jewel robbery that brought the surviving members of this gang to a warehouse trying to make sense of what happened and who betrayed them. Tarantino enlists his disjointed narrative device he demonstrated in “Pulp” here starting from the beginning of the crime, then individually introducing the men and then bouncing back to the aftermath of the failed robbery. As is typical with Tarantino there are a slew of little quirks and memorable scenes that will keep movie geeks talking for hours.

From Steven Wright’s radio DJ, to Lawrence Tierney’s grizzled Joe Cabot arguing with his men about their nicknames, to the infamous ear cutting scene that launched Michael Madsen in to the hearts of movie fans everywhere, this is a near flawless entry that isn’t as smug as the rest of Tarantino’s filmography. Rather than relying totally on pop culture nods–which Tarantino does–he instead stands back and lets these fine actors do their job and deliver some great dialogue. Obviously low budget, Tarantino makes good use of the limited scenery, and the atmosphere ultimately makes the film feel like a stage production. This limitation helps the film in the long run because Tarantino is able to focus solely on the acting instead of jumping back and forth between sub plots. Guys like Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, and Chris Penn just shine in these performances. There’s no room for Tarantino to fuck around and try to be hip so the film ultimately feels like raw uninhibited filmmaking at its core and really does deserve more attention than it receives.

Movie Notes: Allegedly horror effects artist Rick Baker walked out of a screening during the infamous ear cutting scene. Now that’s effective filmmaking!
PULP FICTION (A-)
[1994]

Takes from: Bande à part, The Killers, Charley Varrick

Tarantino’s claim to fame is quite possibly one of the most self-indulgent, smug, irritating, and obnoxious pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen and yet… I love it just the same. Granted it took numerous viewings for me to eventually come around to loving it, but it’s become one of my favorites from Tarantino’s library. It’s a lot like that cousin you have who talks your ear off, never stops bragging about his style and annoys you to no end and yet you still like being around him. In spite of the various flaws, “Pulp Fiction” is a movie that you take the good with the bad. Tarantino’s monologue is so utterly over the top, but then there’s Samuel L. Jackson’s excellent performance.

The exchanges between Mia and Vincent is hipper than thou garbage but then Harvey Keitel is absolutely hilarious here. And of course there’s Tarantino’s liberal use of the word “nigger.” The problem with Tarantino has always been that he’s incredibly self-aware… or maybe so egotistical that he’s not aware that he’s self-aware… anyway, the point is that these characters are so distracting that they pull you out of the movie more times than you can count. I mean no one in the world talks like these people! I don’t care how cool you are. Either way Tarantino’s film became a basic trademark for the man because it represented how he told his stories.

Through a series of vignettes that seem basically disconnected but are brought together by examinations of belief in a higher being and the power of karma. There’s also the famous Macguffin, the mysterious suitcase that, to this day, movie fans and critics continue to debate about. Tarantino never quite reveals what is in the suitcase. Is it gold? Elvis’s suit? Or crime boss Marcellus Wallace’s soul? I’m prone to believe in the latter because the film’s primary theme is belief in higher beings and it takes the code 666 to open the case. Not to mention when in the presence of the suitcase Vincent and Jules are able to survive a surprise attack with a gun by one of their victims. In either case, the entire film boils down to the belief in some higher force and knowing when to listen to it and quit while you’re ahead. And of course Tarantino squeezes in a cool dance number as well.

Movie Notes: How in the hell did Samuel L. Jackson not win the Oscar for this?

JACKIE BROWN (A)
[1997]

Takes From: Truck Turner, The Graduate

Once again displaying what a hardcore film fan Tarantino is, he taps the blaxploitation genre with “Jackie Brown,” a film that is one of his most underrated. Adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel, Tarantino takes elements from Leonard’s story and–as per usual Tarantino fashion–creates his own version of the tale setting the focus on Jackie Brown, a woman who smuggles money back and forth in the country due to her low paying job in a Mexican airport.

While the plot does hearken back to the classic noir films of the past with an intricate story involving money smuggling and crooked bail bondsmen, the real show is with Tarantino’s ability to bring the best out of his cast. Pam Grier is back in her prime as Jackie Brown the conflicted smuggler who is reduced to basically being a mule as she slowly spirals in to less and less job opportunities and is ultimately faced with a hard decision looking down the throat of her boss Ordell and the potential for a long life in jail. Tarantino succeeds in pulling great performances from the stars and even manages to make Chris Tucker tolerable.

There are also the likes of the sexy Bridget Fonda as the utterly obnoxious Melanie, there’s Robert Deniro breaking his routine of playing mob bosses to take the role as a less than bright henchman for Samuel L. Jackson’s Ordell and of course there’s Robert Forrester who is the love sick bail bondsman Max who falls for Jackie and decides to violate his code of ethics to help her bring down the slimy Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson in his usual greatness). Using his vast knowledge of music, Tarantino enlists some rather incredible classic R&B here and devotes most of the movie as a love letter to Blaxploitation and the appeal of Grier who is at her best here.

While Tarantino doesn’t always have the ability to focus on characterization, he knows how to build strong female protagonists and Brown is definitely one of the best he’s ever put to film. “Jackie Brown” is also one of the few films Tarantino’s directed that derives from another source but you can sense here that he takes what he needs from Leonard’s novel and just branches out on his own to devise a more essential fan boy nod rather than a straight up crime drama. It’s one of Tarantino’s most overlooked efforts and should be seen since it’s one of his more subtle low key flicks. It’s not as flashy as “Pulp Fiction” or “Kill Bill” but it’s definitely a great little film.

Movie Notes: Though “Foxxy Brown” is the more popular film, “Coffy” is far more superior.

KILL BILL: VOLUME 1 (A -)
[2003]

Takes from: The Bride Wore Black, Lady Snowblood, Episode One

What I never understood about “Volume 1” is that Tarantino spends so much time profiling villainess Oren Ishii and she’s basically just in the movie for fifteen minutes. Meanwhile we hardly ever learn the back story behind Elle Driver or Vernita Green. Yet there’s at least a good ten or fifteen minutes where we learn everything about Oren. How she grew up, where she grew up, who her parents were, how they died, who killed them, how she grew up, how she got revenge, etc. And then basically we only get to see her in the climax where she battles The Bride. You can make the argument that she’s the central villain here, but she simply doesn’t have enough presence.

Tarantino never quite gives her one. We see the Crazy 88 gang and Gogo but damned if we see Oren much. Not to mention it’s never explained why she went to work for Bill when it’s hinted that he was the swordsman who killed her father in the flashback. Aside from that glaring flaw, “Kill Bill Volume 1” is a pop culture orgy, one rife with endless nods to Bruce Lee, Japanese music, kung fu films, The Switchblade Sisters, Brian DePalma, Blade Runner, The Green Hornet, and Charlie Brown. Originally intended as a three hour story (but split in half due to length and to increase the chances of high grosses), “Volume 1” is the first leg in an epic revenge tale that involves the Bride, a nameless but utterly merciless force of feminine nature who comes back from a coma to wreak pure havoc on her ex-comrades the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.

Tarantino implements his knowledge of obscure music and his knack for clever engrossing dialogue and puts it to good use comprising a basic chop socky splatterfest filled with cut off limbs and gore galore courtesy of Gregory Nicotero. Featured is a brilliant guest spot from Sonny Chiba, and a wonderful soundtrack by the RZA. Tarantino claims he gave the script for this to Uma Thurman as a birthday present and I’d say it was well worth the gesture because Thurman is powerful as the Bride who is sly, quick and presents the precise amount of vulnerability to allow us to sympathize for her. There’s not a single noble person in the bunch, yet our alliances are quickly split once we get the down low on what took place before The Bride received a bullet in her brain.

Movie Notes: Zoe Bell was the stunt double for Uma Thurman and went on to star in “Death Proof.” Oddly enough she also was a stunt double in “27 Dresses.” Work is work, I guess.

KILL BILL: VOLUME 2 (A)
[2004]

Takes From: The Searchers, Thriller: A Cruel Picture, Once Upon a Time in the West

The second leg in the Tarantino revenge tale is more an homage to the classic noir and Italian Westerns that cult fans have come to love over the decades. Rather than splashing blood on the screen, Tarantino instead paces himself and turns the Bride (now revealed as Beatrix Kiddo) in to more of a detective. Sure she’s still as vicious and lethal as ever, but now she’s more focused on finding Bill. Tarantino is more reliant on narrative this time around giving us the entire weight of how it all started. The late David Carradine is in rare form as one of the coolest villains in cinema as he finally tracks down Beatrix and then discovers why she left him, why she’s remarrying and why she’s pregnant.

This causes Bill to unleash the rest of the Squad on her resulting in the Massacre at Two Pines. Here Tarantino calls on his usual suspects with a great appearance by Michael Parks, a slick cameo by Samuel L. Jackson, and of course Gordon Liu. Shifting the story back and forth in time in usual Tarantino fashion we’re able to further explore the relationship between Beatrix and Bill, we learn of Beatrix’s abilities through her training by the rather vicious Pai Mei (played the fantastic Gordon Liu), and of course we’re given a surprise twist that Tarantino fashions in such a manner that it hits like a bombshell. Thankfully the entire Assassination Squad is structured in which each person is rather unique.

Michael Madsen is great as Bill’s brother Budd who submits Beatrix to the worst kind of death imaginable, and Daryl Hannah is delightfully sadistic as the patched Elle who finally meets her match with Beatrix and suffers a cruel fate thanks to Beatrix’s trick learned by Pai Mei. The movie really picks up though in the finale where Kiddo finally meets Bill face to face and engages in a battle of words and emotions. True Tarantino could not create a traditional sword fight thanks to time and budget constraints, but I think the low key exchanges and final confrontation between Beatrix and Bill in the patio of his beach house is quite compelling and Carradine has never been better. It’s a very classy finisher to a rather incredible series of films.

Movie Notes: About the possibilities of a third one, Tarantino claims: “Oh yeah, initially I was thinking this would be my “Dollars Trilogy”. I was going to do a new one every ten years. But I need at least fifteen years before I do this again. I’ve already got the whole mythology: Sofie Fatale will get all of Bill’s money. She’ll raise Nikki, who’ll take on The Bride. Nikki deserves her revenge every bit as much as The Bride deserved hers. I might even shoot a couple of scenes for it now so I can get the actresses while they’re this age.”

DEATH PROOF (C+)
[2007]

Takes From: Les Girls, The Getaway, Vanishing Point

One thing you can say about Tarantino is that he has interesting taste in music. In all of his movies you’re guaranteed to hear a song you’ve probably never come across before, regardless of how in to music you actually are. Thanks to “Death Proof” I was able to discover the fantastic cover of “Baby It’s You” (one of my favorite songs of all time) by the band Smith. Truly, it’s rather incredible. As for the movie itself, this is definitely Tarantino’s weakest cinematic input to date. It’s not his insane foot fetish that seems to disrupt the movie (the man loves feet!), but the fact that the movie takes absolutely forever to get going. Before we actually experience story progression there are endless self indulgent conversations, masturbatory word for word reciting of lines from cult films, and an introduction in to our main villain that goes absolutely nowhere at times.

While one of Tarantino’s biggest advantages is his ability to write dialogue, here it actually hurts the movie because ultimately it feels like two films. First we get a look at a group of obnoxious girls (featuring the insanely gorgeous Sidney Tamiia Poitier) who are on the way to a weekend vacation and find themselves murdered viciously by Stuntman Mike and then we switch gears to another group of women who rant endlessly about their experiences in Hollywood and will not stop talking about “Vanishing Point.”

Sure the movie is great, but do we need to hear it mentioned fifty times in an hour? And sadly in spite of Stuntman Mike being a twisted and rather entertaining villain, “Death Proof” was not the comeback film for Kurt Russell even if fans wanted it to be. There are two versions of “Death Proof,” both of which are rather difficult to sit through, but the truncated version is better because there’s a large section of the story that’s not needed that’s thankfully not included. The uncut version sadly includes immense filler and makes the movie drag even more. It’s a shame because most of the cast are fantastic in it and the car chase in the finale is absolutely epic, but the movie as a whole is broken.

Movie Notes: In the context of the “Grindhouse” universe, Tarantino hints that this story took place shortly before the events of “Planet Terror.” Imagine Zoe Bell fighting zombies. That’d be epic.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (A+)
[2009]

Takes from: The Inglorious Bastards, Hi Diddle Diddle

There was a lot of misinformation upon the release of “Inglourious Basterds,” particularly the claim that this was a remake of 1978’s “The Inglorious Bastards,” and while the premises are quite similar in some respects, they’re vastly different films. “Inglourious Basterds” was somewhat of a surprise because it is probably the most mature film Tarantino has ever made and it’s likely his best. The man doesn’t just give us a series of nods to pop culture, but instead prefers to tell a story with multiple narratives, an endless stream of memorable characters, and a slew of fantastic performances.

From Diane Kruger to BJ Novak, to a wonderful cameo by Mike Myers, there’s not a single chink in the armor. Melanie Laurent is particularly elegant as Shoshanna Dreyfuss one of the film’s protagonists who takes it upon herself to indulge in film as a form of therapy after managing to barely escape the clutches of Nazi intruders who annihilate her family. It’s all interrupted when the Nazi’s begin to seize European countries and she’s forced to confront the demons of her past whether she wants to or not. The casting of Brad Pitt as the alpha male Lt. Aldo Raine is a stroke of genius because Tarantino manages to finally convince me that Pitt is actually an actor worth watching.

And Pitt looks to be having a blast as this eccentric snuff addict. And of course there’s Eli Roth as the scene stealing “Bear Jew” who is given one of the best scenes in the entire film. And who can forget the brilliant Christoph Waltz as the utterly maniacal Hans Landa? While the movie is in essence a period piece, it’s prime Tarantino as he not only manages to rewrite history by staging the death of Hitler and Goebbels in a typical over the top gory manner, but makes his movie revolve around the love of film. The love for cinema fuels every single character involved in the plot to take down the Nazi regime and there are engrossing exchanges about classic cinema and European masterpieces and Tarantino forms a basic love letter to films of all kind.

He recognizes that film has the power to enthrall, to enrage, and to manipulate and it becomes the key plot point that leads us to the utterly insane climax. Tarantino drops all pop culture junk and just sticks to expanding characters and keeping his story at a brisk pace in spite of its lengthy running time. And as is a prerequisite with Tarantino’s creative inputs, the final scenes involving Aldo and Hans is absolutely extraordinary in its simplicity. Love him or hate him, the man knows how to make a movie and with his masterpiece he proves that he’s here to stay.