Once Upon a Time in Quentinland…

As the European release of Tarantino’s latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, looms over us during these warm summer days, and as the writer-director himself has been generously handing out interviews left and right stating that this may very well be his last cinematic work (it is no secret that Tarantino had always wanted to limit himself to ten features, retire and dedicate the rest of his life to writing about film and for theater), I began reflecting on what I will miss the most about one of the most unique voices to grace the silver screen in the last thirty years. The answer in itself surprised me. As I sat down and rewatched for the sixth time my personal favorite of his, Jackie Brown from 1997, I realized how profoundly Tarantino’s work has resonated with me and my peers for different reasons.

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The blaxploitation icon herself, Pam Grier, playing Jackie.

First thing that pops to mind when one thinks of QT is blood. Lots of it. Blood, action and the endless, perfectly colorful dialogue that elevates his movies from simple entertainment to something much more special. Something that has a distinctive ring to it that many have tried and still try to this day to emulate. Yet, nobody has ever come close to perfecting it the way Tarantino has done over the last few years, especially in his recent dialogue-heavy Hateful Eight, where eighty percent of the movie takes place within the confines of one single location, turning the movie into something almost identical to a theater play.
But… blood and dialogue do not work unless you have characters that make you care about those two elements. If you do not care about a character, then his death will not affect you. At the same time, if you do not find the character itself interesting, then why should you care what she or he has to say? That’s what I’ll miss most about Quentin: his characters, and the world they inhabit.

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Hanging out with Louis and Ordell.

Jackie Brown may be Tarantino’s least popular film mainly due to the fact that people like to label it as the least Tarantino film the writer-director has made to date. After all it’s QT’s only adaptation (from Elmore Leonard’s crime novel, Rum Punch), how can the characters be his? It seems like a tricky question to answer, yet every time I watch Jackie Brown I find myself completely sucked into a world that can only be described as a world out of Tarantino’s mind. In fact, if a first time viewer were to ask me which Tarantino film he should start from, I would immediately point to Jackie Brown. Not because it’s hip or because I want to be a snob in not recommending the likes of his more popular works such as Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill, but because I truly believe that the essence of what makes a QT movie so special and vibrant can be found in his 1997 vehicle, where each quality of his is on full display.
Yes, the film can feel slightly constrained when compared to his other movies, perhaps due to the respect Tarantino wanted to show to the source material since there is almost no action involved, little to no blood and zero inaccurate historical reconstructions. You will not find Hitler’s head popping off here, nor will you have to sit through Biblical lines recited by the one and only Samuel L. Jackson as he prepares to execute his next victim, nor will you need to worry about watching characters blow each other to pieces like in Reservoir Dogs and Django Unchained. Instead, what you will get is exactly what Tarantino considers to be his favorite kind of movie, namely what he calls ”the hang-out” movie.

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De Niro having the time of his life.

Characters are the true obsession for QT. By now everyone knows that you do not improvise lines in a Tarantino film as every single line that is on the page has the purpose to support the character speaking those lines. Every line, every monologue or speech is meticulously planned out according to the character’s backstory that only Tarantino himself is aware of. Before ever setting pen to paper, Tarantino envisions each character and the character’s place in what fans like to call Tarantino’s universe. In Jackie Brown, as stated before, this universe is not so clear as it is still Elmore Leonard’s territory. But Tarantino does a brilliant job of merging the two worlds together.
The titular Jackie, played by Pam Grier, was in fact a white chick in the novel. Her storyline and motivations somewhat different from the cinematic middle-aged black woman, once the most beautiful girl on the block, now a tired, heartbroken flight attendant of Cabo airlines, a regular victim of unfriendly circumstances and a simple pawn in the hands of a pimp and arms dealer (Samuel L. Jackson). Jackie is, more than anything else, the defining creation of Tarantino, who puts the novel aside and decides to empower the unlikeliest of protagonists, turning Jackie into a smart con artist, ready to do anything in order to get her revenge on the ones that set out to hurt her. However, unlike Uma Thurman’s sword-swinging Widow from Kill Bill, and well before Melanie Laurent’s ambitious Shoshanna from Inglourious Basterds, she relies on wit rather than physical talent and resilience to reach her objective.
In Django Unchained Tarantino took the chains off a slave’s feet and handed him a rifle to blow the heads off of those that tried to unjustly exert their power over him and his family. In Jackie Brown Tarantino goes against all conventions and gives Pam Grier, the queen of 70s blaxploitation cinema whose stardom had faded away as cinema moved on from the genre in the 80s and 90s, the keys to one of the most intriguing and inspiring female characters in movie history.

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Jackie is smart and practical.

James Brown sang ”It’s a man’s man’s man’s world…,” which seems like the soundtrack that Tarantino listened to right before adapting Leonard’s novel because of the environment Jackie has to deal with. And here is where I disagree with most QT critics who argue that Tarantino likes to manipulate his female characters to the extent of reducing their power position (the example that is often pointed out is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character of Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight, a character that is violently mistreated, often for laughs, by her male counterparts over most of the movie’s runtime); there is no manipulation in Jackie Brown. Jackie is the one calling the shots. And she is fooling every man that steps in her way.
It’s not a coincidence that the film opens up with the melody of Bobby Womack’s street anthem ”Across 110th Street,” where one of the line reads ”Across 110th Street / Pimps trying to catch a woman that’s weak.” Grier’s flight attendant is trying to cross that very same street while avoiding the traps set by men like her coke addict ex-husband, the arms dealer she works for (Samuel L. Jackson), his associate (Robert De Niro), an ATF officer investigating her (Michael Keaton) and eventually, the bail bondsman (Robert Forster) that falls in love with her.

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Jackie will not back down.

Let’s go back to the idea of a ”hang-out movie.” Tarantino has often said his favorite films are films where you just want to hang out with the characters as long as possible, where the viewer experiences a feeling of understanding and thrill with the characters on-screen. The movies he mentioned on numerous occasions to support this argument are two major ensemble pieces: Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and John Sturges’ The Great Escape. Both films are characterized by the presence of film stars of great magnitude such as John Wayne, Dean Martin, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, and a sense of camaraderie among these characters. Like most Hollywood movies from that era, the moments you cherish the most in Rio Bravo and The Great Escape are those where all major characters share scenes together and you get to experience the classic star power of that time.
In Jackie Brown, like in most Tarantino films, you get scenes where characters exchange lines of dialogue about regular life and the mundane activities that characterize such life. But they do it so effortlessly that you are immediately transported into another dimension, where the mundane (who can forget the conversation about cheeseburgers in Pulp Fiction?) becomes cinematic. In one of the first scenes of the movie,  Ordell and his partner, Louis (played by Robert De Niro who is clearly having the time of his life playing a genuine fuck-up) sit in the living room, watching a TV show for gun aficionados and talking about how much money one can make off of selling guns in the US. The atmosphere is so genuine, as well as the conversation, and most importantly, each character fits perfectly the reality that Tarantino has created for them. That is what sets QT apart from every one else.

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Even a regular cup of coffee tastes exquisite in a Tarantino movie.

Think of all the times you told yourself or a friend while exiting a cinema theater, ”I liked the movie but some of the characters just didn’t work for me,” or ”I just couldn’t buy into that character, you know?” That is not the case with Tarantino. His world, and whatever follows afterwards, like the story or the main plot of the film and the twists and turns that happen along the way, are completely dependent on the characters that inhabit it. And even though most characters that appear in QT’s filmography seem to be so over the top (just think of Samuel L. Jackson’s ridiculous ponytail in Jackie Brown) they remain grounded in the film’s reality and are, oddly enough, fully believable from a viewer’s perspective.
Tarantino’s fetish for weird, over-the-top appearances (did anyone forget the gimp in Pulp Fiction? or Eli Roth’s skull-crushing Bear Jew in Inglourious Basterds?) comes with total commitment to the character’s development that include the character’s origins, motivations and flaws.
An example of this in Jackie Brown is De Niro’s character of Louis Garza, a man with an absurd horseshoe moustache who’s just been released from prison for bank robbery. The whole irony of the film works around the fact that Garza is incredibly stupid and has a hard time managing the simplest of things, including hanging up a telephone. Yet, even with the little screen-time this character has, Tarantino paints Garza as a deeply proud criminal who does not tolerate insults (eventually resulting in his downfall) despite his constant shortcomings as the associate to the movie’s main villain. When someone insults his intelligence and questions his criminal record, Louis is genuinely hurt. At each rewatch, I find myself pitying this idiot more and more as I figure he is just having great difficulty adapting to the life of a free man. In other words, even though he appears as this clownish figure, a supporting sidekick meant to deliver the laughs and be the butt of the joke, De Niro’s Garza reveals himself to be a deeply troubled character. This is screenwriting 101.

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”Is it this aisle, Louis? Louisss?”

To end it here, I chose Jackie Brown to make my argument because it is one of the few works by Tarantino that is not wrapped up in some sort of genre (unlike his later work that ranges from martial arts cinema, to war movies and westerns) and thus, allows most viewers to easily grasp the essence of what Tarantino is all about. Despite it being an adaptation of a famous novel, the writer-director and Hollywood native manages to do wonders in terms of character-building. The interactions always feel genuine, the motivations always seem real and instinctive, and the world these characters inhabit is as palpable as they come.
Nobody knows if this is the end of the road for Tarantino. According to his retirement policy he still has one movie left in the tank after the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but just like with the twists in his movies, QT is a bold, unpredictable provocateur. Whatever path he’ll choose, it will make sense. Judging his work has always been difficult, and critics have always found pleasure in targeting his use of language, blood and violence, but despite all of this noise, Tarantino is one of the few people in the business who has remained true to his vision, sometimes even going a little bit over the top (not that it is a surprise by now), and for that, as a viewer, I am extremely grateful. Over the years I have had my own doubts about some of his movies; The Hateful Eight irritated me, Kill Bill annoyed me, Death Proof bored me, Inglourious Basterds rubbed me the wrong way on my first watch, and yet here I am, genuinely saddened at the thought of a cinema deprived of QT’s hang-out movies. If this is Tarantino’s last dance, it’s been groovy.

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And women’s feet, obviously.
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And the Oscar goes to…

Today’s topic: this year’s Oscar nominations. Many people tend to ignore the Oscars, simply considering it a celebrity event, and even more people don’t care about Oscar status as a whole. Rightly so. However, it is important to remember that being nominated for or even winning the prestigious golden boy often leads to more possibilities for the ones involved, salary raise, better connections and more responsibilities. It’s a chance for small, indie films that normally would end up going under the radar, to shine and prove the world wrong. It’s a chance for disadvantaged contenders, such as minorities, to become an example for the rest of the industry. Well guess what. The Oscars like to forget about that. Every once in a while they remind themselves like that time when they took a chance at wonder boy screenwriter Quentin Tarantino back in 1995. Or that time they awarded in both acting categories two black actors: Denzel Washington and Halle Berry in 2002.  Or even that time they finally recognized Martin Scorsese for his lifelong career handing him the way overdue Oscar in 2007 for The Departed. And sometimes, Oscars manage to reach the unreachable level of stupidity, like last year… and this year.

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After 40 years in the business and countless nominations…

The concept of women winning or even being nominated in a male dominated category is quite rare to say the least in the film industry. After Kathryn Bigelow won best picture and best director for the Hurt Locker in 2010, the Oscar voters decided to take a step back and let the big change fall flat again. Last year, they ignored the talent of Ava DuVernay who directed the mediocre but in directing terms roaring Selma, the story of Martin Luther King and the impact his politics had on the streets in the US. That day they also decided to ignore Oyelowo’s performance as MLK, a convincing and powerful portrayal of a man who found himself cornered by his own decisions and policies. Why? Because in 2014, 12 Years a Slave won best picture. It had to. It sure wasn’t the best picture of that year but Oscar voters couldn’t turn away and ignore it because its message was too powerful. And that was it. No more diversity for the next two years and counting.

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A forgotten duo, DuVernay and Oyelowo.

Have you people heard of Beasts of No Nation? Probably not, since it only came out via Netflix and in a few theaters in the US back in October, but let me tell you: the story of a child soldier, Agu, in an African country who kills in the name of his beloved commander is one of the best films of this year. Under the direction of Cary Fukunaga, the man behind the acclaimed first season of True Detective, this film is one of the most brutally honest portrayals of war I’ve ever seen and yet the Academy decides not to give it a chance because of its online distribution. Shouldn’t movies be about change? About modernization? About heading forward? About exploration? Well, for the voters the answer is NO. Idris Elba, star of the British TV drama Luther, gives a terrifying performance as the black leader who numbs the African youth and manipulates them into thinking he is, in fact, a true god, someone who’ll lead them to glory and make them forget about the past. His mannerisms, his voice, the thick African accent he applies to his own speech, these are all signs of a great actor giving a great performance. Yet it’s not enough for the Academy to recognize him as a possible candidate for Best Supporting Actor. Shame.

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A performance for the ages. Make it justice and watch it.

You’d think then, if the Academy goes white,  it does it in proper style. Not even close. This year’s choices have been cruel. Let Jennifer Lawrence, star of the empty Joy, get her fourth nomination while you ignore Charlize Theron for her incredible performance as Furiosa in Mad Max Fury Road. Why is Lawrence there? Not only was Joy one of this year’s worst films, following every worn-out form of narrative we’ve all seen countless times under David O. Russel’s underwhelming direction, it was also a big office flop. It’s unusual because the Academy tends to go for the big hits. This time it’s the name that counts. Jennifer Lawrence. Enough of her already. After the tough performance she gave in the truly deserving Winter’s Bone, the Academy handed her one for Silver Linings Playbook and nominated her in another head scratching movie, David O. Russel’s American Hustle, making out of a simple twenty year old actress a true Hollywood diva, the highest paid actor in all of the industry with a salary of $26 mln (ironically she speaks out about pay inequality towards women). This celebrity status makes it easier for the Academy because this way they nominate the same famous name all the time and they don’t have to worry about other performances going under the radar. Simple as that, right? Yes, Theron was better. Theron gave in my opinion the best female performance of the year, playing a beautiful character (George Miller’s invention) in a not so beautiful post apocalyptic world. Her shaved head, her robotic arm, her fiery eyes turned what could have been another action blockbuster into an intimate portrayal of human strength and more precisely, women’s strength. However, Oscars like to miss the small stuff, and like to focus on the big stuff: in this case, explosions, real life stunts and roaring action sequences. Well, damn. Shame.

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A real queen.

Okay, now if you like to ignore small stuff why don’t you go for Benicio Del Toro’s career best role as Alejandro in Sicario? Not only did they  choose to ignore the movie as a possible best picture/ best director/ best original screenplay contender; the voters also decided to ignore what is to me and to many reviewers, one of the best revenge driven characters in recent film history. Del Toro went all in, a silent, deadly man who’s suffered too much to tell. A man who’s seen hell and back and doesn’t want to show it. A man who’s set himself an objective. And he’s fighting for it. That too, to the Academy means – nada. No nomination for you, Benicio. It wasn’t fancy enough. Your name hasn’t been so relevant since you played Che Guevara in 2008′ Che, the four hour long biopic of the most revolutionary leader of the twentieth century. These are the brakes, says the Academy. Luckily let’s hope this performance leads Del Toro to take on many more of these complex, tough as hell roles, because he nailed it. That’s that. Shame.

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Next time, Benicio, next time.

Of course, after so many fans and critics felt irritated after The Dark Knight was snubbed for best picture back in 2009,  the Academy decided to make ten slots for best picture nominees instead of five. That way independent movies and even blockbusters like The Dark Knight itself could have the chance to be nominated in that hard fought category with the best of the best. Yeah, not really. Although I have to hand it to the Oscars for giving Mad Max Fury Road and Room a chance to prove the world wrong, the Academy decided to leave two slots empty, nominating only eight movies instead of ten. Was it so hard to decide? Carol, a work of art by acclaimed director Todd Haynes with great performances given by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, a story of a forbidden love in a forbidden age, one of the movies that was considered sure Oscar material has been totally forgotten. Haynes’ direction as well, sadly. Okay, well you’d think they’d go with someone they know and trust. Like Tarantino and his three hour long epic – The Hateful Eight. Guess what, too much violence. Too much blood. Too much profanity. And it all takes place in a stage-like environment. Not too attractive for the voters. They decided to ignore Quentin’s passion for the Western genre, they ignored the artistry in his Sergio Leone inspired close-ups and oddly enough, they decided to ignore his screenplay – a tribute to a whole world that only Quentin knows so much about, and that is the world of movies. The Hateful Eight is a mix of the macho characters of the forties and fifties played by tough guys like Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen. It’s a mix of Western TV series like Bonanza and Rawhide. It’s his final say to his endless love for The Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West. The Academy doesn’t see it. Well, shame.

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They want Quentin to be more conventional. That’s not going to happen, is it?

Honestly, this year was bad, but there were also tiny bright spots – youngster Brie Larson nominated in the best actress category and old timer Charlotte Rampling nominated in the same one as well. Rachel McAdams, usually considered a sex symbol with movies like The Notebook, Mean Girls and About Time under her belt, was given a chance to prove she can act her heart out with her performance in this year’s Spotlight. The incredible determination in Tom Hardy’s amazing performance as John Fitzgerald in The Revenant was finally recognized by an award show other than the usually reliable BAFTA. That’s good.

Let’s keep in mind. These award shows, like DiCaprio said, are not the reason movies are made. An award is an award, it’s film that stays forever.

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The Revenant sure will stay forever. It’s gold.

 

Pulp It

Today’s topic: violence. Yeah, sure we can say a lot about violence. In a certain sense if violence didn’t exist cinema would be running short of movies. But by violence I don’t mean Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop or Rush Hour 2 type of violence. Why not? Well, violence has its own, specific voice and one of the most famous directors still hot in the business can be called the Godfather of violence. That man is Quentin Tarantino.

Violence can be shown on film in many different ways. Very often it’s vulgar, over the top or even madly sadistic. It can look childish like Jackie Chan swinging his fists at a pack of thugs or even Bruce Willis jumping through a window firing two revolvers and a shotgun at the same time, yet it still is the same old stupid cliché. What stands out in Tarantino’s films is the way he deals with portraying in an elegant, meaningful way the bloody art of violence. In fact, when you all hear the name, Quentin Tarantino, what do you think of? Let me guess; the bloody opening to Reservoir Dogs, or the famous quote from Pulp Fiction “Oh, man! I shot Marvin in the face!”, or the Crazy 88 stand-off in Kill Bill Vol. 1, or the Jewish scalp hunters from Inglorious Basterds, or even the monumental finale of Django Unchained? 

Can it get any more violent?
Can it get any more violent?

The point is this: Tarantino can paint with violence. He can create images so gory, so gut wrenching yet always pleasant to look at. Perhaps it’s his delicious, suspenseful dialogue that keeps us glued to the screen. Or perhaps it’s his ability to pay tribute to his favorite directors in a very fun way for the viewer to enjoy. Or perhaps it’s his memorable characters that we love and follow anywhere be it the moody Mississippi or the French farm fields. He can easily turn a scene upside down from what we’d expected and still get away with it. Remember the scene from Inglorious Basterds that takes place in a cafe called La Louisiane? The scene starts off in a very innocent manner. The Jewish rebels, dressed as Nazi officers, are supposed to meet an informant who will give them key information for their next mission. Little details, like a German soldier having a party because of his son’s birth, or the card game organized by some of the customers, or even the sawed off shotgun kept under the counter by the suspicious bartender, all of these elements manage to have an impact on what will follow. Bloodbath. That’s right. Unexpected bloodbath. But with Tarantino, the bloodbath isn’t a simple bloodbath. It’s a classical western stand-off, where two rival sides are waiting for the right moment to act and when it’s on… well, it’s ON! Guns go off, people die.

You never know what's about to happen.
You never know what’s about to happen.

But how in the world can Tarantino get away with it? Why can he create such weird, unique situations and end them the way he does? Well, I know for a fact that the writer-director doesn’t like when people go sniffing around his work, trying to crack open his words and I understand that. I do.  However, sometimes I just can’t resist.

Tarantino is known for being a strong gun-control supporter and a man who’s against drug use. You wouldn’t know that if you were basing your information on Pulp Fiction or Death Proof. But, that’s the truth. In his movies, this is how I interpret his work, Tarantino shows us that no matter how odd, how regular, how ordinary we and our lives are, anything can happen. Kill BillBride at the beginning of the movie is a simple woman who wants to get married, have a family, watch her child grow, and then what happens? Her wedding turns into a massacre and she, on the other hand, becomes a highly trained assassin who wants revenge at all costs. This is Tarantino’s trademark: life’s oddities. Violence can become anyone’s hobby. We can walk down the street, catch a bus, go to work, or– we can go to a biker club and start a brawl, ending up in the hospital at the end of the day. The titular character from Tarantino’s Jackie Brown is a working class black woman caught up between an evil arms dealer and two annoying cops. To get back at her rivals, she becomes a determined con with a plan that only she knows to perfection. That’s that. Easy, right?

Don't mess with Jackie.
Don’t mess with Jackie.

And in fact, this is what it’s all about. Violence is not supposed to be considered as a brain-dead excuse for making a movie. It’s not supposed to be treated with disgust and anger. It’s a part of life. It’s something that takes place all over the world. It’s something we can all relate to, because when it comes to what’s important and worth the struggle, we all act.

Violence is the unexpected, the great mystery that keeps poking our world. Deal with it.