I have often been known to comment on movies that I think are particularly well made by saying something to the effect of, “that is on my list of X films you must see before you die.” Truth be told, there is no such list as it would be too voluminous to be contained in any one printed or otherwise published volume. If I ever did sit down to make such a list, however, one director would be responsible for more entries on it than any other. George Lucas may spring to mind for those who know my fanboy status concerning his Star Wars franchise (and yes at least three of those flicks would make the list… perhaps even four, since the story of how Anakin Skywalker eventually became Darth Vader is now a valuable piece of film lore), but Lucas has proven himself something of a hack in my eyes, so it is not of him I speak. Other good guesses would be Steven Spielberg (who can argue against the genius of films like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan?), Kevin Smith (Dogma FTW), and Robert Rodriguez (come on, the same guy made From Dusk Til Dawn, El Mariachi, Sin City, AND Spy Kids!?), but these guys also play second fiddle to the one man who I feel has been one of the most interesting and impressive filmmakers of the past two decades, Quentin Tarantino. Ok, you knew it was him because there’s a big picture of him right there on the left.
Tarantino burst on the indie film scene in 1992 with the still impressive Reservoir Dogs and hasn’t looked back since. The film features everything that we’ve come to love about Quentin: it deals with unsavory characters as protagonists, has scenes of over-the-top, gut-wrenching violence, some hilarious examples of black humor, and dialogue as only Q can write it. The film made us fall in love with actors like Steve Buscimi (Mr. Pink), Harvey Keitel (Mr. White) (Sure, Harvey had been around for a while, but I bet fewer people remember him from films like Scorcese’s Taxi Driver than do for his performances here and in Q’s next film, Pulp Fiction), and Tim Roth (Mr. Orange) who doesn’t get nearly as much work as he deserves.
Reservoir Dogs may have been Tarantino’s first (and, arguably still one of his best) films, but the flick that really got him noticed (and won
him an Oscar) was 1994’s Pulp Fiction. This movie really is Tarantino at his best. Every character in that film is memorable, whether its John Travolta’s heroin-shooting gangster Vincent Vega or his foul-mouthed partner Jules Winfield (masterfully portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson), Bruce Willis’ getting old boxer Butch or Ving Rhames’ mob boss Marcellus Wallace. Oh yeah, Uma Thurman had a small part in there somewhere as well, didn’t she? Pulp Fiction took everything we loved about Q already and multiplied it threefold. Who can forget the dialogue between Travolta’s character and Jackson’s?
Vincent: Want some bacon?
Jules: No man, I don’t eat pork.
Vincent: Are you Jewish?
Jules: Nah, I ain’t Jewish, I just don’t dig on swine, that’s all.
Vincent: Why not?
Jules: Pigs are filthy animals. I don’t eat filthy animals.
Vincent: Bacon tastes gooood. Pork chops taste gooood.
Jules: Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I’d never know ’cause I wouldn’t eat the filthy motherfucker. Pigs sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I ain’t eat nothin’ that ain’t got sense enough to disregard its own feces.
Vincent: How about a dog? Dog eats its own feces.
Jules: I don’t eat dog either.
Vincent: Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?
Jules: I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy but they’re definitely dirty. But, a dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way.
Vincent: Ah, so by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, he would cease to be a filthy animal. Is that true?
Jules: Well we’d have to be talkin’ about one charming motherfuckin’ pig. I mean he’d have to be ten times more charmin’ than that Arnold on Green Acres, you know what I’m sayin’?
Tarantino’s next film was Jackie Brown, released in 1997. He spent the years in between the films doing TV appearances (including a memorable appearance hosting Saturday Night Live) and smaller directing gigs including an episode of e.r. for NBC. He also directed a segment in the compilation film Four Rooms (the film credits four directors, Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Allison Anders, and Alexandre Rockwell) which starred Tarantino alum Tim Roth as a beleaguered bellhop trying to keep a number of increasingly eccentric guests happy in an upscale hotel. It was in this time frame that he also appeared in the Robert Rodriguez film From Dusk Til Dawn, a campy vampire flick that features Harvey Keitel and Michael Parks, both actors who have become known for working with Quentin.
Jackie Brown is the single Quentin film that may not necessarily make my list. It’s not a bad movie by
any steretch of the imagination, but, for me, it doesn’t quite hold up compared to the rest of his work. But that’s the awesome thing about Tarantino: he doesn’t give a fuck. He makes the kinds of movies that he likes to watch. Where a director like Guy Ritchie (his Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Rock’n’Rolla both make my list and, come on, does it get any better than Brad Pitt in Snatch?) has seemingly abandoned his style of Cockney gangster films in favor of the big-budget Sherlock Holmes flicks, Tarantino makes films as homages to the genres he’s always loved. His adoration of the 1970’s “Blaxploitation” films like Cleopatra Jones led him to make Jackie Brown, going so far as to cast the queen of the genre, Pam Grier, in his title role. Jackie Brown also features memorable performances from Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Forster, but features bona-fide stars like Robert DeNiro and Bridget Fonda in minuscule roles. DeNiro has played smaller and supporting roles plenty of times (Angel Heart, Stardust), but they’re usually memorable. Watching him in Jackie Brown just made me ask, “What the hell is Robert DeNiro DOING in this movie?” That’s not the sort of thing you should be wondering when Bobby D is on the screen.
Tarantino was relatively silent again after Jackie Brown for several years, finally releasing Kill Bill Volume One in 2003. Where Jackie Brown was Tarantino’s homage to black cinema, Kill Bill demonstrates his love for the kung-fu films that came out of Hong Kong in the 70’s. In discussions about the Kill Bill films, Tarantino has stated that he and star Uma Thurman had been having discussions about a revenge film featuring a character they referred to only as “The Bride” as early as during the shooting of Pulp Fiction. Originally intended to be one long film, Tarantino realized that he simply had too much footage and too much story to confine his vision to only one movie, thus was Kill Bill Volumes One and Two born. Staying true to form, Tarantino hired some of his heroes from the genre he so loved, such as Gordon Liu playing Pai Mei (a character that has appeared in countless Kung Fu movies, played by many different actors) and Sonny Chiba (of Street Fighter fame) as the legendary swordsmith Hattori Hanzo. The films also feature David Carradine (from TV’s Kung Fu) as the titular character Bill. He’s the one she’s trying to kill, if the title didn’t give that to you already.
Again it would be several years before Tarantino released another film, although he did play a small part in making Robert Rodriguez’s masterpiece Sin City (he is billed as a “special guest director” along with Frank Miller – Miller didn’t actually “direct” a frame of Sin City, but Rodriguez felt that the film’s look drew so heavily from the visual style of Miller’s original graphic novel that he gave Miller the directing credit, much to the annoyance of the Director’s Guild.
Tarantino’s next actual release was the Death Proofsegment of
Grindhouse, another homage to the exploitation (though not racially segregated this time) films of the 1970’s. The brainchild of Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, Grindhouse was intended to be reminiscent of the classic drive-in movies of the 70’s and was a double-feature of sorts, featuring Tarantino’s Death Proof along with Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. Rodriguez’s film is a campy zombie horror-comedy starring Rose McGowan as a stripper turned heroine (she loses a leg at one point, but gets it replaced with a machine gun!) and features Michael Biehn (The Terminator, Aliens) as a small town Texas sheriff. Tarantino’s film Death Proof stars Kurt Russell as a murderous former stuntman and features a bevy of female costars including Rose McGowan (yes, she’s in both films… so is Tarantino), and Rosario Dawson. Perhaps the most memorable thing about Grindhouse, however, is neither Tarantino’s nor Rodriguez’s films, but the fake trailers that were shown in between them. These seemed as if they were ripped right off the screens of bad 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s cinema and included Werewolf Women of the SS by Rob Zombie and Machete by Rodriguez. Machete proved to be so popular that Rodriguez wound up actually releasing a full length version, giving a starring role to his perennial bit-player Danny Trejo and even offering a ,memorable role to Lindsay Lohan, of all people. Lindsay does get nude in the flick, horndogs, but in most scenes her tresses cover her breasts.
Next Tarantino made what I think is probably his best film to date, 2007’s Inglorious Basterds. The story of an all Jewish WWII commando squad led by Lieutennant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) working behind enemy lines near the end of the war to wreak havoc with German morale, Basterds is a World War Two film the likes of which has never been seen before. Sure, there was a film released under the same title (with the correct spelling of “Bastards,” however) in 1978 (it starred Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson who, incidentally, also appeared along with Tarantino in From Dusk Til Dawn), but Tarantino’s film has little to do with it beyond that similar title. Much of the film must be read, as Tarantino chose to have his Germans speak German and his French speak, well, French, and Brad Pitt speak (hilariously) Italian. While its a stroke of moviemaking genius, it wreaked havoc with me the first time I tried to watch the movie. Having missed it’s initial run in the theater, I watched an illegal bootleg of the movie online. The thing is, at least the first thirty minutes of the movie is in French. The copy I was watching was shot with a camcorder or cell phone in a theater in Russia. So I got to hear French dialogue (which i don’t understand) coupled with Russian on-screen subtitles (which i also do not understand). You’d think I’d have learned my lesson after a similar experience with the film District 9 which features subtitled alien dialogue through most of the movie.
Well I’ve just realized that I’ve been sucking Quentin Tarantino’s dick for nearly two thousand words now, but I guess I just needed to pay him a little homage. I just like his movies that damn much. Each of them is worth watching and most (save Jackie Brown – and that’s just my opinion, you should formulate your own) should be required viewing. Man, I can’t wait for Django Unchained!