The Films of Quentin Tarantino
Reservoir Dogs (January 14/13)
Quentin Tarantino's first film, Reservoir Dogs follows a group of criminals as they slowly assemble at an abandoned warehouse after a simply jewel-store robbery goes horribly wrong. There's little doubt that Tarantino gets things off to a spectacularly engrossing start, as Reservoir Dogs begins with a justifiably iconic sequence revolving around the various characters' coffee-shop banter - with this memorable, quotable stretch followed by an opening-credits interlude that remains one of Tarantino's best. From there, however, Reservoir Dogs segues into a watchable yet palpably uneven midsection that's been crammed with flashbacks exploring the characters' respective backstories. And while such digressions go a long way towards fleshing out the protagonists, the film's momentum isn't, as a result, quite as consistent as one might've hoped - with the inclusion of several seriously electrifying moments (eg Michael Madsen's Mr. Blonde tortures a cop to the strains of Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle with You") compensating for the otherwise erratic atmosphere. (It's worth noting, too, that the movie benefits substantially from the uniformly compelling performances, with actors like Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, and Tim Roth offering up stellar, standout work.) There's little doubt that Reservoir Dogs picks up considerably in the buildup to its captivating final stretch, which ultimately (and effectively) cements the movie's place as one of the most impressive debut features in cinematic history.
Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (April 15/04)
In retrospect, it might not have been such a bad thing that Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill saga was chopped into two parts. Supposedly, his original cut was somewhere in the neighborhood of three hours; the first volume was 111 minutes, while this one is 136 minutes. Combined, that equals four hours and seven minutes. It's probably safe to assume that there's no way Harvey Weinstein - the man responsible for cutting the saga in half - would have been willing to release such a long movie. As a result, both films are peppered with seemingly superfluous moments of character development - something that's even more true of the second one. If Tarantino were to retain only the absolutely necessary moments in Kill Bill: Vol. 2, the film would probably only run about an hour. Instead, the film is flush with quirky little diversions that - in the big picture - don't contribute a whole lot to the story, but certainly give us a better understanding of what these characters are all about. The film's threadbare storyline - The Bride (Uma Thurman) works her way through the remaining three assassins who left her for dead on the day before her wedding, with Bill (David Carradine) her last stop - allows Tarantino the opportunity to emphasize dialogue, much in the same manner as earlier films (ie Reservoir Dogs). Where the first volume was essentially a series of action-oriented set pieces, Vol. 2 somehow feels more cohesive; we have a lot more invested in The Bride's mission, particularly since the film opens with that infamous wedding massacre. Though the movie's lack of violence - all told, moments of action add up to no more than 10 minutes (a far cry from the first film's tally) - might turn off impatient viewers, Vol. 2 is ultimately a far more rewarding experience than its predecessor. The most important difference between the two films has to do with the characters; because Tarantino devotes virtually the entire movie to dialogue, we learn a lot about these people and what brought them to this point. From small tidbits - how Elle (Daryl Hannah) lost her eye - to bigger revelations, the film is packed with moments of character development. Of course, none of that would mean anything if Tarantino hadn't perfectly cast all the major roles, starting with the first substantial appearance of Bill (David Carradine). Though Warren Beatty was originally scheduled to play the part, the role obviously went to Carradine and there's no denying that he does an amazing job. For those that just know him thanks to his work on Kung Fu, Tarantino has once again managed to elicit an unexpectedly impressive performance from a previously typecast actor (ie John Travolta in Pulp Fiction). In Carradine's hands, Bill becomes so much more than just a villain; though we never quite sympathize with him (he did, after all, shoot The Bride in the head in Vol. 1's opening moments), it's hard not to feel a little sorry for him when he's finally vanquished (that is so not a spoiler; look at the title!) Aside from a short sequence featuring Bill regaling The Bride with a story about a legendary warrior, there's not a single moment in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 that feels out of place (something that couldn't quite be said about Vol. 1). It remains to be seen how the entire thing will flow when assembled as one movie, but on its own, Vol. 2 is pretty great.
Inglourious Basterds (August 20/09)
As relentlessly audacious and engrossing as anything within Quentin Tarantino's flawless body of work, Inglourious Basterds follows a series of characters through their WWII-era exploits - with a particular emphasis placed on a blood-thirsty group of Jewish-American soldiers (led by Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine) and a young woman (Melanie Laurent's Shosanna Dreyfus) with a serious grudge against the Nazis. It's not surprising to note that the film boasts an emphasis on dialogue that pervades its every aspect, as writer/director Tarantino - hardly encumbered by the historical setting - floods the proceedings with the mesmerizing chatter and laid-back pace with which he's become known for. Tarantino's decision to pepper Inglourious Basterds with a number of eyebrow-raising touches - ie the tongue-in-cheek introduction of Til Schweiger's Hugo Stiglitz (complete with narration from Samuel L. Jackson) - quickly ensures that the film has little in common with its thematically-similar brethren, although it's just as clear that the disjointed narrative and relaxed atmosphere prevent certain sequences from faring as well as others. This is particularly true of a mid-movie stretch set inside a German bar that follows famed actress Bridget von Hammersmarck (Diane Kruger) as she attempts to pass a pair of Allied soldiers off as Nazis, with the curiously uneventful nature of the scene essentially bringing the proceedings to a dead stop (as another critic has already noted, the interlude "feels like a 20 minute island unto itself in the middle of the flick.") It's a minor misstep for what is otherwise a consistently enthralling endeavor that's been jam-packed with jaw-dropping images and sequences, with the captivating efforts of a uniformly impressive cast effectively elevating the movie on an all-too-regular basis (and as easy as it would be to single out Brad Pitt and Eli Roth for their respectively stunning performances, it's lesser known folks like Laurent, Daniel Bruhl, and especially Christoph Waltz who establish themselves as the film's MVPs). There's subsequently little doubt that Inglourious Basterds' incredible (and appreciatively violent) finale instantly cements its place as an engrossing, thoroughly innovative spin on the war-movie genre, with Tarantino's almost aggressively irreverent sensibilities likely to win the film as many detractors as admirers.
At more than two-and-a-half hours, Django Unchained ultimately establishes itself as Quentin Tarantino's most uneven endeavor to date - with the impressively engrossing first half giving way to an erratically-paced latter stretch that's rife with padded-out and needless sequences. It's clear, however, that the film, which follows a recently-freed slave (Jamie Foxx's Django) as he attempts to rescue his wife (Kerry Washington's Broomhilda) from a plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie), remains compulsively watchable for the majority of its (admittedly overlong) running time, as Tarantino, as expected, does an astounding job of packing the narrative with spellbinding interludes and memorable characters. (There is, for instance, a captivating early scene in which Django and his partner, Christoph Waltz's King Schultz, effectively explain their rationale for murdering a beloved sheriff to an angry mob.) The stirring atmosphere is heightened by Tarantino's eye-catching visual choices and the uniformly impressive performances, with, in terms of the latter, Waltz's scene-stealing turn standing as an early highlight in the proceedings. (DiCaprio's character doesn't show up until around the midway point and it's immediately clear that the actor, who delivers what is perhaps the most gleefully broad performance of his career, is relishing every second of his screen time.) There reaches a very specific point - Django and Schultz arrive at Candie's opulent estate - wherein Django Unchained begins to lose its iron grip on the viewer, as Tarantino offers up a handful of sequences that overstay their welcome to an increasingly demonstrable degree (eg Candie threatens one of his slaves with a dog mauling) - with the less-than-consistent vibe generally allayed by the inclusion of palpably enthralling moments (like, for example, Candie's showstopping speech on phrenology). (It doesn't hurt, either, that the climactic stretch of the film contains both a gloriously violent shootout and a crowdpleasing finale.) The end result is a typically offbeat piece of work from an unapologetically irreverent filmmaker, with the movie's rough-cut feel, for the most part, rendered moot by Tarantino's pervasively engaging sensibilities.