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Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Quentin Tarantino has been playing in the realm of genre filmmaking for much of the last twenty years. He’s made highly artful, Oscar-winning variations on B-movies and grindhouse exploitation pictures. There are some film fans that wished he would return to the time of the 90s where he was telling more personal, grounded stories. His ninth movie, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is Tarantino returning to the landscape of his youth, the Hollywood back lots and television serials that gave birth to his budding imagination. Tarantino has said this is his most personal film and it’s easy to see as a love letter to his influences. It’s going to be a divisive movie with likely as many moviegoers finding it boring as others find it spellbinding.

In February 1969, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is struggling to recapture his past glory as a popular TV star from a decade prior. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is Rick’s longtime stuntman, personal driver, and possibly only real friend. Rick’s next-door neighbor happens to be Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a rising star and the wife to famed director Roman Polanski. All three are on a collision course with the Manson family.

The thing you must know before embarking into a theater to see all of the 160 minutes of Tarantino’s latest opus is that it’s the least plot-driven of all his movies, and it’s also in the least hurry. This feels like a hang-out movie through Tarantino’s memories of an older Hollywood that he grew up relishing. It’s very much a loving homage to the people who filled his head with dreams, with specific affection given to the life of an actor. Tarantino is exploring three different points of an actor’s journey through fame; Sharon Tate is the in-bloom star highly in demand, Rick Dalton is the one who has tasted fame but is hanging on as tightly as he can to his past image and wondering if he’s hit has-been status, and then there’s Cliff Booth who was a never-was, a replaceable man happy to be behind the scenes and who has met his lot in life with a Zen-like acceptance. Each character is at a different stage of the rise-and-fall trajectory of Hollywood fame and yet they remain there. This isn’t a movie where Rick starts in the dumps and turns his life around, or even where it goes from worse to worse. Each character kind of remains in a stasis, which will likely drive many people mad. It will feel like nothing of import is happening and that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is more a collection of scenes than a whole.

What elevated the film was how much I enjoyed hanging out with these characters. Tarantino is such a strong storyteller that even when he’s just noodling around there are pleasures to be had. Tarantino movies have always favored a vignette approach, unwieldy scenes that serve as little mini movies with their own beginnings, middles, and often violently climactic ends. An excellent example of this is 2009’s Inglourious Basterds where the moments are brilliantly staged and developed while also serving to push the larger narrative forward. That’s missing with Hollywood, the sense of momentum with the characters. We’re spending time and getting to know them, watching them through various tasks and adventures over the course of two days on sets, at home, and on a former film set-turned-ranch for a strange commune. If you’re not enjoying the characters, there won’t be as much for you as a viewer, and I accept that. None of the central trio will crack Tarantino’s list for top characters, but each provides a different viewpoint in a different facet of the industry, though Sharon Tate is underutilized (more on that below). It’s a bit of glorified navel-gazing for Tarantino’s ode to Hollywood nostalgia. There are several inserts that simply exist to serve as silly inclusions that seem to be scratching a personal itch for the director, less the story. I was smiling at most and enjoyed the time because it felt like Tarantino’s affection translated from the screen. I enjoyed hanging out with these people as they explored the Hollywood of yesteryear.

DiCaprio hasn’t been in a movie since winning an Oscar for 2015’s The Revenant and he has been missed. His character is in a very vulnerable place as he’s slipping from the radars of producers and casting agents, filling a string of TV guest appearances as heavies to be bested by the new hero. He’s self-loathing, insecure, boastful, and struggling to reconcile what he may have permanently lost. Has he missed his moment? Is his time in the spotlight eclipsed? There’s a new breed of actors emerging, typified by a little girl who chooses to stay in character in between filming. Everything is about status, gaining it or losing it, and Rick is desperate. There’s a terrific stretch where he’s playing another heavy on another TV Western and you get the highs and lows, from him struggling to remember his lines and being ashamed by the embarrassment of his shaky professionalism, to showing off the talent he still has, if only given the right opportunity. DiCaprio is highly entertaining as he sputters and soars.

The real star of the film is Pitt (The Big Short) playing a man who seems at supernatural ease no matter the circumstance. He’s got that unforced swagger of a man content with his life. He enjoys driving Rick around and providing support to his longtime friend and collaborator. He has a shady past where he may or may not have killed his wife on purpose, but regardless apparently he “got away with it.” This sinister back-story doesn’t seem to jibe with the persona we see onscreen, and maybe that’s the point, or maybe it’s merely a means to rouse suspicion whether he may become persuaded by the Manson family he visits later in the movie dropping off a hitchhiker he’s encountered all day long. The role of Cliff seems to coast on movie star cool. There is supreme enjoyment just watching Pitt be. Watch him feed his dog to a trained routine, watch him fix a broken TV antenna and show off his ageless abs, and watch him navigate trepidatious new territory even as others are trying to intimidate him. It’s Pitt’s movie as far as I’m concerned. He was the only character I felt nervous about when minimal danger presented itself. There’s something to be said that the best character is the unsung one meant to take the falls for others, the kind of back-breaking work that often goes unnoticed and unheralded to keep the movie illusion alive.

There aren’t that many surprises with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as it moseys at its own loping pace. It reminded me of a Robert Altman movie or even a Richard Linklater film. It’s definitely different from Tarantino’s more genre-fed excursions of the twenty-first century. It’s a softer movie without the undercurrent of malice and looming violence. There is the Manson family and Tarantino knows our knowledge of the Manson family so we’re waiting for their return and that fateful night in August, 1969 like a ticking clock. It wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without an explosion of bloody violence as its climax, and he delivers again, but I was shocked how uproariously funny I found the ending. I laughed throughout but as the movie reached its conclusion I was doubled over with laughter and clapping along. There’s a flashback where Cliff and a young Bruce Lee challenge each other to a fight, and it’s so richly entertaining. The phony film clips are also a consistent hoot, especially when Rick goes to Italy. It’s a funnier movie than advertised and, despite its ending, a far less violent movie than his reputation.

As Tarantino’s memory collection, the level of loving homage can start to eat the narrative, and this is most noticeable with the handling of Sharon Tate. The initial worries that Tarantino would exploit the horrendous Manson murders for his own neo-pop pulp was unfounded. Tate is portrayed with empathy and compassion, and as played by Robbie she nearly glides through the film as if she were an angel gracing the rest of us unfortunate specimens. She has a great moment where she enters a movie theater playing a comedy she is a supporting player in. The camera focuses on Robbie’s (I,Tonya) face as an array of micro expressions flash as she takes in the approving laughter of the crowd. It’s a heartwarming moment. But all of that doesn’t make Tate a character. She’s more a symbol of promise, a young starlet with the world at her fingertips, the beginning phase of fame. Even the Manson clan doesn’t play much significance until the final act. Charles Manson is only witnessed in one fleeting scene. I thought Tarantino was including Tate in order to right a historical wrong and empower a victim into a champion, and that doesn’t quite happen. I won’t say further than that though her narrative significance is anticlimactic. You could have easily cut Sharon Tate completely out of this movie and not affected it much at all. In fact, given the 160-minute running time, that might have been a good idea. The movie never really comes to much of something, whether it’s a statement, whether it’s a definitive end, it just feels like we’ve run out of stories rather than crafted an ending that was fated to arrive given the preceding events.

The Tarantino foot fetish joke has long been an obvious and hacky criticism that I find too many people reach for to seem edgy or clever, so I haven’t mentioned it in other reviews. He does feature feet in his films but they’ve had purpose before, from arguing over the exact implications of a foot rub in Pulp Fiction to Uma Thurman commanding her big toe to wiggle and break years of entropy in Kill Bill. However, with Hollywood, it feels like Tarantino is now trolling his detractors. There are three separate sequences featuring women’s feet, two of which just casually place them right in the camera lens. At this point in his career, I know he knows this lame critique, and I feel like this is his response. It’s facetious feet displays.

When it comes to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, if you’re not digging the vibe, man, then there’s less to latch onto as an audience member. It’s a definite hang-out movie reminiscent of Altman or Linklater where we watch characters go about their lives, providing peaks into a different world. It’s a movie about meandering but I always found it interesting or had faith that was rewarded by Tarantino. It doesn’t just feel like empty nostalgia masquerading as a movie. It’s funnier and more appealing than I thought it would be, and even though it’s 160 minutes it didn’t feel long. The acting by DiCaprio and Pitt is great, as is the general large ensemble featuring lots of familiar faces from Tarantino’s catalogue. I do think the inclusion of Sharon Tate serves more of a symbolic purpose than a narrative purpose and wish the movie had given her more to do or even illuminated her more as a character. However, the buddy film we get between DiCaprio and Pitt is plenty entertaining. It might not be as narratively ambitious or intricate or even as satisfying as Tarantino’s other works, but Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a fable for a Hollywood that may have only existed in Tarantino’s mind, but he’s recreated it with uncompromising affection.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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The Hateful Eight (2015)

the-hateful-eight-posterThe Hateful Eight almost didn’t happen thanks to our modern-day views on copyright and privacy. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino sent the first draft of his newest script to three trusted actors, and within days it had spread to the outer reaches of the Internet. Tarantino was so incensed that he swore to shelve Hateful Eight and never film it. After a staged reading in L.A. with many of the eventual actors for the film, he changed his mind, to the relief of his sizable fanbase and actors everywhere. The Hateful Eight is a drawing room mystery with plenty of Tarantino’s signature propulsive language and bloody violence, but it’s also the director’s least substantial film to date.

In post-Civil War Wyoming, famous bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is taking the outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to hang for her crimes. Along the way, he meets up with Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter who served in the North and carries a letter written to him from none other than Abraham Lincoln. They’re both heading to Red Rock to extract their bounty earnings. Due to an oncoming blizzard, they’re forced to make a stay at Minnie’s haberdashery, except Minnie isn’t anywhere to be found. There’s Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir) who says Minnie left him in charge, a foppish hangman Oswaldo Moblay (Tim Roth), a quiet cattle driver Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a Confederate general, Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the son of a Confederate rebel who claims to be the newly designated sheriff of Red Rock. Over the course of one long night, everyone’s true identity will be learned, because someone is not who they seem to be and is secretly waiting to free Daisy and kill the rest.

Even as lesser Tarantino, The Hateful Eight is still an entertaining and talky stage play put to film. The setup is strong and invites the audience to play along, to scrutinize the assorted characters and determine who is telling the truth. There are plenty of twists and turns and some violent surprises to keep things interesting. The conversations of the characters are such a pleasure to listen to; I want to luxuriate in Tarantino’s language. His wordsmith abilities are unparalleled in Hollywood. There’s a reason every star is dying to snag a part in a Tarantino movie, especially now that they’ve caught Oscar fire as of late. That’s somewhat crazy to think about. Cinema’s ultimate indie voice with his encyclopedic knowledge of the medium, high and low art, has become an institution within the system and his violent period films are now looked at as year-end prestige pictures. Tarantino’s M.O. has been to take B-movies and to transform them into A-movie level talent and intelligence. Never has a Tarantino flick felt more B-movie than The Hateful Eight. It was inspired from episodes of TV and it’s easy to see that genesis in its execution. It’s a self-contained mystery that comes to a head. It’s a limited story that’s likely taken as far as it could possible go, pushing three hours. I’m a tad befuddled why this was the movie Tarantino insisted on filming in “glorious Panavision 70 millimeter.” It’s almost entirely set in that one-room interior location. The extra depth that 70 millimeter affords would appear to be wasted, unless you enjoy looking at general store items on shelves in the background. Still, The Hateful Eight is a movie that doesn’t feel like three hours and harbors enough intrigue and payoffs to hook.

I tried to diagnose why this felt like lesser Tarantino, and it’s because over the course of almost three hours we don’t have much at stake because the people inhabiting the movie aren’t really characters but tough-talking facades. Tarantino is often cited for his uniquely florid dialogue, and nobody writes dialogue like Tarantino and his naturally stylized cadences, but another of the man’s skills is how great he can write a coterie of colorful characters that pop from the big screen. You might not be able to remember many lines from Hans Landa or Vincent Vega or Django, but you remember the vivid characters. Tarantino is preternaturally skilled at building characters that feel fully realized with their own viewpoints and flaws and prior experiences. He can make characters stand out but he also has the great ability to make the larger-than-life characters feel real, which is truly genius screenwriting for characters so flamboyant. The older romance in Jackie Brown is perfectly captured and felt. It’s downright mature. This is the first time I would say Tarantino has disappointed when it comes to his characters.

There are broadly drawn folk aplenty onscreen and they still talk in that wonderfully florid language of Tarantino’s that actors must savor like a fine steak, something they can sink themselves in for and enjoy every morsel. However, the characters onscreen have never felt this empty before. They are what they are and the only real change that occurs is that many will be dead before the end credits. They don’t have arcs per se but end points. It’s all about unmasking and identifying the rogues in a room full of rogues. Beyond Warren and Mannix, we’re left with precious little for characterization beyond bravado and nihilism. The effect of how empty they are would be felt less if we weren’t stranded with them for near three hours. Trapped in a room with a group of suspicious characters can only go so far, and ultimately it’s a parlor game that cannot sustain longer staying power. I doubt I’ll ever watch this with the frequency of other Tarantino flicks.

“You keep talkin’. You’re gonna talk yourself to death,” says one of those hateful numbers to another member. I’d pay to listen to Tarantino rewrite the phone book, that’s how excellent the man is with his dialogue. The man likes to hear his words and I like listening to them too. The problem is that The Hateful Eight has no reason for its gargantuan running time. As stated above, the characters we’re getting are nowhere near as complex or interesting as previous Tarantino escapades, so the talking can grow weary. Tarantino has patented a new formula from 2009’s Inglorious Basterds that involves characters playing a game of I-know-you-know-I-know while they suss out the truth, all the while the tension finely simmers until it blows. It’s a long fuse of suspense that can pay off rich rewards, like the near-perfect tavern scene in Basterds. The dinner table scene with Candie and the skull of his favorite house slave is another good example. Once our titular eight have gathered at Minnie’s, the entire movie is this sort of scene. It may be broken up into chapters and flashbacks but it feels like one long scene.

There’s also far less at stake than there was with Basterds or Django Unchained, even Reservoir Dogs, and that’s because the protagonists had goals and we had built up far more allegiance and time with them. When they were in danger, it mattered. The danger doesn’t feel as immediate because so little else is happening. There are plenty of comparisons to Dogs, which also utilized a hidden identity and a confined location. I think the difference was that, besides it being Tarantino’s first foray as a director, the tension was felt more because the danger was immediate from the start and we cared about character relationships. I cared about Mr. Orange and Mr. White and their bond. I can’t say I cared about any of the characters in Hateful Eight. I found them interesting at points, sure, but they were all a bunch of rotten bastards with little variation short of a burgeoning understanding between Mannix and Warren. The wait at Minnie’s feels like the Basterds tavern scene on steroids, pushed to the breaking point, and yet absent the urgency.

The acting is yet another tasty dish served up by Tarantino, and it feels like the actors are having the time of their lives playing their lively scoundrels. Jackson (Kingsmen: the Secret Service) settles in nicely and always seems to elevate his game when he’s reciting Tarantino’s words. He’s icy cool in scenes where the other characters are trying to do whatever they can to fire him up. He’s less bombastic than we’ve come to expect from Jackson. For bombast, there’s Russell (Furious 7) who cranks his performance to the broad heights of his bellicose lawman. Goggins gives a sly and extra caffeinated performance that answered the question of what it would sound like if you dropped his character from TV’s Justified into a Tarantino movie. Roth (Selma) feels like he’s doing his best manic Christoph Waltz impression. Dern (Nebraska) is a racist codger with a soft spot for his kin. Madsen (Kill Bill vol. 2) seems somewhat wasted as a taciturn “cow puncher.” Bichir (The Heat) gets some laughs as a seemingly aloof caretaker. It’s Leigh (Anomalisa) who steals the show, especially in the film’s second half. Daisy is a character that relishes being bad, and Leigh takes every opportunity to enjoy the fun. Her character plays a bit of possum during the first half but it’s the second half where she lets loose and becomes unhinged, and her exasperated and grotesque responses are often played for great sputtering comic effect. It’s a boys movie but it’s the lone woman who will prove most memorable. Tarantino’s last two movies have won acting awards and Leigh just might make it three-in-a-row.

20150511105106982878uThere are also some uncomfortable elements that can deter your viewing enjoyment, which isn’t exactly a foreign charge against Tarantino’s career. At this point you can probably repeat the oft-cited accusations: flagrant use of the N-word and exploitative violence. At least the historical background provides a context for the other characters unleashing the N-word, and I’d argue it tells us something about the characters as well. The characters that use the N-word when referring to Warren are the ones with allegiances to the Confederacy and those viewpoints don’t vanish even after you lost a war. They’re dismissive and intolerant and view Warren as sub-human. It also doesn’t approach Django Unchained-levels of excess, so I let it slide (I know my perspective as a white male makes my opinion on this effectively meaningless). It was the violence that got to me, specifically the violence directed at Daisy. Tarantino’s penchant for violence goes all the way back to his ear-slicing debut, so it’s nothing unexpected. He often tells stories about violent men and women fighting their way in a world governed by violence. I accept that these characters are bad to their core. That doesn’t excuse behavior. Violence on screen can be tempered with authorial commentary, but it’s the association that bothered me with Hateful Eight. For the entire movie, Daisy is put through the physical wringer. Our very first image of her is with a black eye. She’s a nasty woman and Ruth often expresses his distaste of her by punching her in the face, which is played as dark comedy. This happens repeatedly. We’re meant to recoil from much of the bloody violence on screen but repeatedly we’re meant to laugh at the violent suffering of Daisy. Tarantino has often used over-the-top violence as dark humor, and I’ve laughed along with it. This was one instance though where I stopped laughing and starting shifting uncomfortably in my seat.

Even lesser Tarantino can still be plenty entertaining and superior to most of what Hollywood usually cranks out as product. The Hateful Eight can be exciting, funny, surprising, and plenty of things, but what it can’t be is more than a lark. Tarantino has taken stories that would seem like larks, particularly the Kill Bill series, and infused them with pathos and meditation and soul to go along with all that snazzy genre stuff. It’s disappointing that Hateful Eight isn’t more than what’s on screen, but what’s on screen is still worth watching, though I don’t know whether it’s worth watching a second time.

Nate’s Grade: B

Bloodrayne (2006)

Bloodrayne is based on a video game of the same name that follows a svelte, red-haired vampire with two long pairs of swords she wields on her arms. In the video game she fights against Nazis in World War II. Now that is a movie I would love to see. Everyone hates Nazis (well, most everyone), and to see a sexy half-naked vampire run around and kill them … that just spells awesome. Plus I have a thing for redheads. But then along came director Uwe Boll and his German financiers. Boll has turned back the clock and made his Bloodrayne an origin tale set amongst some old European landscape dotted with castles and vampires. He filmed in the real Transylvania in Romania. I don’t know if this location added any more authenticity. It couldn’t have made the film any worse.

In some place centuries ago, there’s a dhampir named Rayne (Kristanna Loken). A dhampir is a half-human, half-vampire hybrid, and we’re told most do not survive conception. Rayne has become a circus sideshow, where her captors torture her and then feed her blood, observing her nimble body heal itself. The Brimstone society is an organization devoted to fighting vampires. Vladimir (Michael Madsen) leads a small group, including Katarin (Michelle Rodriguez), on the hunt for Rayne. They believe she could help them defeat Kagan (Ben Kingsley), the most fearsome vampire in the land for some reason. Kagan is on the hunt for three guarded objects (an eye, a heart, and a rib) that will give him power beyond imagination. Rayne breaks free from her circus life, thanks to killing just about all of them, and joins the Brimstone group. You see, she’s got a score to settle with Kagan. He raped her mother and years later returned and killed her while Rayne watched. Complicating matters is the fact that he’s also Rayne’s biological father.

If Bloodrayne had merely been a straight-faced, mystical, Medieval gore fest, I might have even credited it for being a decent genre flick. But it’s the assorted anachronisms and rudimentary scope that chafe Bloodrayne, never letting it settle. Take for instance the weirdest scene in the entire movie. Now, for a movie about vampires, prophecy, secret orders, and Michelle Rodriguez even attempting a British accent (one word of advice: don’t), the strangest moment is Billy Zane’s “special appearance.” The opening credits in Bloodrayne call it that, but how does someone have a “special appearance” in an open-and-shut narrative? This isn’t an ongoing TV series. Zane has two scenes. The first has him dictating a letter like a mid-level executive, straining and stretching to fill an inter-office missive. He actually says modern phrases like “No, scratch that,” and “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, signed Your Father.” That’s it. That’s the scene. It serves little purpose other than to make you think Billy Zane sucks when it comes to personal skills.

Boll fails to curtail these anachronisms that hurt Bloodrayne’s tone and execution. His lack of interest in details or sense also puts the film at a disadvantage. There’s a late scene where Katarin suddenly is wearing a modern purple women’s jacket, like she just got it off the rack from TJ Max. Why does Vladimir wave his sword around all the damn time, but when it comes to actual combat he tosses it back and forth in his hands like a hot potato? A character has a hidden room of weapons, but it’s not much of a secret room when the lever to open this space is dubiously displayed for all to see. Domastir (Will Sanderson, making his fifth appearance in a Boll film) has a hilariously bad haircut that looks like crop circles were shaved into his head. Why, after Rayne has joined the Brimstone fighters late in the film, do we need her in a training montage? I’m pretty sure by that point Rayne can hold her own when push comes to shove.

Kagan is never examined as to why he is so dangerous. We have no understanding why the film’s villain should even be feared. He’s on a quest for super power but what Bond villain isn’t? In fact, Bloodrayne has an altogether ho-hum view on vampires. In this movie they’re vulnerable to water as well as sunlight, but they’re also just as vulnerable to steel. The vampires fight with swords and die by them just as easily. One wonders what the allure of vampirism even is if this is all you get. There’s a scene early on where Rayne spots a female vampire chatting away in the open. She makes a come-hither motion with her finger and the lady vamp follows along obediently. Then Rayne bites her neck and drinks her dry, while the lady vamp does nothing but gets bug-eyes and goes limp. Apparently, the lack of sunlight must have negative effects on brain power and deductive thought. What Boll needs to learn is that if you’re going to have a movie where humans and vampires battle, at least give the vampires something beyond pointy teeth and bad hair. Seriously, was there a mullet discount at the wig store?

Then there’s the goofy series of one-scene actors. Meat Loaf appears as slovenly vampire pimp Leonid, surrounded by nubile nude women. He speaks like he’s taken a bottle of Quaaludes and has, what can best be described as, a dead and bleached muskrat on his head. The scene gets worse when Leonid is battling our Brimstone fighters. They take out several of the windows in his parlor and destroy Mr. Loaf by the influx of natural light. Now how stupid of an interior decorator did Leonid have? You would think a vampire running a blood parlor and place of otherworldly gathering would attempt to obscure very breakable windows. It’s the ignorance of these details and more that makes Bloodrayne ridiculous while still being pitiful of scope. If Boll is going to tell such a dull and cut-and-dry story, it’s not encouraging that he can’t even be bothered to get the details right.

The movie is poorly plotted from the start. Bloodrayne is aimless and doesn’t so much conclude as it does run out of bodies to kill. The ending will leave most scratching their heads not because it’s confusing but because the movie just peters out. More than most, Bloodrayne feels structured like a video game, with its plot points regarding the search and acquisition of super items that Kagan is after. The screenplay is credited to Guinevere Turner, co-writer of the American Psycho adaptation and frequent collaborator with director Mary Harron. I refuse to believe Turner’s responsible for the mess left on screen since Boll has the habit of rewriting whole scripts. The dialogue is unintentionally hilarious, with clichéd nuggets like, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” and, “He wants a fight and a fight he shall get.”

The direction is shamelessly derivative. There’s a lot, and I mean a lot, of long exterior scenes where we see people on horseback riding along the substantial wilderness. It’s like Uwe Boll watched the Lord of the Rings series and said, “I can do that … but crappy.” These long exterior scenes conflict with the movie’s small playing field. Every town and every castle feels like a stone’s throw away, and the world feels like it’s populated by about 100 people. Boll never makes it clear what the setting of Bloodryane is. It feels like Vague Europe Land.

Boll doesn’t even manage to get his action sequences right. He’s got a bigger stage this time and some more money for effects, but the results are still the same. To hide the fact that his actors had no time for fight training, Boll edits his fight scenes to the disorienting millisecond. The intent is to hide the stunt performers doing all the work. The result is that you can’t even tell what the hell’s going on in Bloodrayne. This also hamstrings his action choreography making it little beyond two figures clashing and one falling dead. The explosions of blood are overdone, with every gash shooting showers of red like the human body was connected to an off camera fire hose. Agreeably, there are a lot of splashes of blood but nothing too memorable or gruesome. It kind of has the feel of what bored teens would come up with during a sleepover with their dad’s camcorder. The violence and vampire angle are the two things that will appeal most to teenage men, but neither aspect is properly explored or satisfying. Bloodrayne presents a simple fable and doesn’t even bother to control its simple world of extraordinary creatures.

I thought the sex scene in Boll’s Alone in the Dark was preposterously out-of-the-blue, but the gratuitous sex scene in Bloodrayne puts it to shame. Rayne is plagued by nightmares of her vampiric urges, as well as her mother being killed by Kagan. One night she has a vivid nightmare where she relives slaughtering her circus. She’s startled awake. What’s her first instinct? She grabs Sebastian (Matthew Davis), pins him against her cell bars, and proceeds to ride him like she has the upper body of a weight lifter. Maybe this is the lone benefit of being a vampire: a wider selection of sexual positions. The sex is sloppy and unerotic in its ludicrousness. Boll also manages to make sure his camera gets every loving detail of Loken’s nipples being lapped at. Boll figures that this gratuitous sex scene (it really couldn’t get any more gratuitous if they were skydiving) is meant to bond the characters into a romantic relationship. This forced romance is, like many elements in Bloodrayne, also inept. It stretches believability when this moment is all we have to go on why Rayne and Sebastian feel for one another. When they part Sebastian is crestfallen, though I think it’s more because he just lost the only girl he’ll ever meet that can perform gymnastic sex. Talk about a perfect score on the parallel bars.

The acting in Bloodrayne is about what I’d expect from a Uwe Boll movie. Loken (Terminator 3) is an attractive woman, yes, but the figure of Rayne is more a fetish fantasy than a flesh-and-blood character. There’s more attention to her revealing wardrobe than her character. Loken overplays her one facial expression, which looks precisely like she just caught wind of a fart. Her English accent is also very droning. Madsen (Species, Kill Bill) seems drunk the whole time. Rodriguez (SWAT) can do little more than scowl, but in Bloodryane she gets to scowl with a comically bungling British accent. And then there’s Sir Ben Kingsley. He spends most of his screen time confined to a throne as if he’s subconsciously trying to pass this movie like a stubborn bowel movement. He looks more like a terminally ill founding father with a penchant for silks than the evil Lord of vampires. Kingsley hasn’t exactly been judicious with some of his film choices (Thunderbirds, A Sound of Thunder, Suspect Zero) but you’d think an Oscar-winning actor would have better sense than to work with Dr. Boll.

Bloodrayne is the best of Boll’s troika of video-game adaptations, but even that statement is without praise. This lame sword-and-sorcery tale is merely bad, instead of absurdly bad like most of Boll’s oeuvre. The difference is one tiny adverb, folks. The film is limited in scope but still careless and absent-minded with its details. The action sequences are heavy on blood and short on orientation, edited within an inch of their life. Bloodrayne is full of Boll’s typical lapses in plot and characters, and there’s plenty of stupid to go around for everybody. The plot is made up of nonsensical guest shots by slumming actors, and the villain himself seems as menacing as someone’s toilet-bound grandpa. In the world of film it’s tricky to judge films on a scale of badness, because that scale is surprisingly varied. Bloodrayne is clearly bad, but it’s also more entertaining than his previous films. Maybe Boll is learning after all, though at this rate of progression he’ll reach “tolerable” by the time the sun explodes.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Sin City (2005)

Like film noir on steroids. Director Robert Rodriguez has made the most faithful comics adaptation ever; giving life to Frank Miller’s striking black and white art. The visuals are sumptuous but the storytelling is just as involving, a perfect mix of noir/detective elements and subversive, highly memorable characters. Sin City may be the most violent studio film … ever, but the over-the-top tone keeps the proceedings from becoming too nauseating, even after limbs are lost, heads roll (and talk), and dogs pick away at living bodies. This is a very ball-unfriendly movie; lots of castrations. The blood even looks like fluorescent bird crap. The stories become somewhat repetitious (anti-hero saves distressed woman), but Miller and Rodriguez keep their tales tight, pulpy, comic, and unpredictable. My girlfriend turned to me after it was done and said, “That was a great movie.” I could not argue.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004)

When last we left The Bride (Uma Thurman), she had reawakened from years of coma, traveled to Japan to acquire the finest sword ever created, and crossed off two names from her list of those marked for death in the name of bittersweet vengeance. O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Lui) and Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) fell under the hand of The Bride in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. Now, the only members left of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DiVAS), the group our heroine was once a part of, are the one-eyed Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), Budd (Michael Madsen), and the titular ringleader, Bill (David Carradine).

Kill Bill, Vol. 2 takes a very sharp tonal shift from the previous film. Kill Bill, Vol. 1 was a head-spinning orgy of blood and stylized carnage, and it could be argued that its actual plot was wafer-thin. But it seems with Kill Bill, Vol. 2 that Tarantino had answered every critical concern about the first film before they were even brought to his attention as the two films were shot and cut in one grand effort. This film has a much more genial sense of pacing and numerous moments of drawn-out monologues, a far cry from the breakneck pace and terse dialogue of its forerunner. Fans of the relentless hack-and-slash of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 may be disappointed that this film lacks the chopped limbs, geysers of blood, and senseless, yet immeasurably thrilling, slaughter. In fact, whereas the body count for a lone sequence of Kill Bill, Vol. 1 may be in the fifties, Kill Bill, Vol. 2 has three total murders. It is the quieter, more adult half of this revenge opus. Kill Bill, Vol. 1 was an homage to chop-socky grindhouse Japanese films. Kill Bill, Vol. 2 is Tarantino’s homage to spaghetti Westerns and their languid pacing and showdowns.

The acting is superior to what you would expect from a revenge movie.

Thurman has always been as good as her director, and under the hands of a master like Tarantino she excels. In Kill Bill, Vol. 1 she was a hurricane of rage and an unstoppable warrior. Here we see the human being inside the warrior’’s armor, and she performs with amazing assurance and a ragged, raw delivery. When she’’s crying on the floor, face and body red and strained, aching, you believe everything this woman does and is capable of doing.

Carradine, with his gaunt features and face like leather, gives the standout performance of the film. Whereas Bill was an unseen menace in Kill Bill, Vol. 1, with the final installment he becomes fully realized as both a figure of terror but also one of great tenderness. He has a lengthy speech about Superman, masks, and the mythology of comic books that is spellbinding. Madsen gives a fine performance steeped with surprising pathos. He’’s the only former DiVAS member who feels remorse for his actions at the Two Pines Wedding Chapel that triggered The Bride’s rampage. A large subplot displays Budd’’s current life slumming it as a bouncer at a sleazy strip club and getting verbally berated by people he could easily kill. You come away with the idea that it’s Budd’s version of penance.Madsen mixes his remorse with sadistic grit, like when he gives The Bride a choice between a flashlight or a can of mace, and this is before he buries her alive.

Hannah seems to relish every moment as the one-eyed right hand to Bill. There’’s a scene where a character is suffering from venomous snakebites thanks to her and she sits down and reads a list of Discovery Channel-esque information she looked up on the Internet about the snake and painstakingly copied onto a notepad. She performs with such gleeful insincerity that it is hard not to start to like her for being so good at being so bad.

Perhaps the person that steals the movie though is Gordon Lui, who plays the cruel master Pai Mei that teaches Thurman all her moves. He has eyebrows like cotton balls and a long, whispery beard he loves to flick around. It’s a shame that this hilarious character is not in the film longer. Kill Bill, Vol. 2 also boasts one of the greatest child performances I have ever seen. The actress that plays the daughter of Bill and The Bride has such a natural quality to her acting that it is amazing she isn’’t coming up with her lines, reactions, and movements on the spot.

So does a longer, slower, talkier concluding half mean that Kill Bill, Vol. 2 plays it too safe or loses any of its steam? Hell no. Tarantino fills in all the rough spots and unanswered questions from the first film, and the result is drawing the audience further into the story.

We open the film with another perspective of the events that took place at the Two Pines Wedding Chapel that left a wedding party dead, and a bloodied, pregnant Bride shot in the head. We also discover how The Bride became the deadly warrior she is, why she chose to leave the business of hired killing, why Bill reacted in the extreme manner he did, and we even learn to our delight how Elle Driver lost her eye. The result of knowing the full story are characters, which in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 were more archetypal than living and breathing, that have become fully fleshed out, rounded, and incredibly complex figures full of remorse and vulnerability. The Bride and Bill transcend their descriptions as adversaries, and their relationship becomes more intensely complicated when mommy returns home to find her daughter still alive.

Despite all this fancy talk about “character building,” Kill Bill, Vol. 2 does not disappoint in action and thrills. A fight between The Bride and Elle inside a cramped trailer may be the most brutal, bone-crushing fight sequence I have ever seen between two women. Every strike that connects breaks something, be it furniture or bones. The final showdown between Bill and The Bride is a fitting and satisfying end for both warriors.

Tarantino’’s concluding half of this story long in gestation is a highly entertaining, stylish, thrilling, engrossing, eye-plucking good time. There is so much to talk about. This is the first film since, perhaps, Gladiator that I have seen at the full-price theaters three times. In total, I have seen the Kill Bill saga five times in theaters, and I find something new and rewarding every time. Tarantino has given the masses a masterpiece and everyone should take the opportunity to see it.

Nate’s Grade: A

Kill Bill vol. 1 (2003)

Breathtaking and stylistically amazing. That’s all there is to it. Can’t wait for part two.

Nate’s Grade: A

Die Another Day (2002)

Pierce Brosnan returns for his forth outing as super-spy James Bond, this time trying to thwart, here goes, a former North Korean militant who has switched genes to look like a wealthy Anglo-Saxon playboy. And what does this stupid evildoer want? To erase minefields in Korea with a giant reflective mirror in space that channels a giant solar beam… of DOOM! Commence smacking of the forehead.

And what about Halle Berry as the requisite Bond girl? Well Berry may have an Oscar for crying but she is not terribly great in Die Another Day. She is so awful that if she sucked anymore she would physically implode. Here’s an example: she literally stabs someone with a book and glibly says, “”Read that, bitch.”” Ugh. Want another? When asked by a diamond-studded baddie, whom sent her, Berry’’s defensive reply is, ““Your Mama.”” How in the world did this person become a secret anything?

The Bond series has always been great escapist fare but its age is becoming much more apparent. Die Another Day starts with a montage of Bond being tortured in Korea. When’ he’’s released our dapper gentleman looks exactly like the American Taliban, with flowing hair and beard. He’’s been abandoned by his people out of the fear he has confessed vital info while under 14 months of torture. Yes, that’’s right folks, 14 months of torture. You think an agent like Bond, who has foiled devious plots 19 previous times, would be worth retrieving.

Brosnan is dandy and a charming actor but even he is showing some gray. It may be time to tap another into the martini-swilling shoes. Dame Judi Dench and John Cleese provide stable supporting bits, but what is Michael Madsen doing in this?

Director Lee Tamahori has directed one of the best films on self-abusive relationships ever (Once Were Warriors) and also directed one of the worst thrillers ever (Along Came a Spider). Tamahori surprisingly brings some slick touches to Bond and seems to be trying to tinker with the stagy formula, and when he gets away with it Die Another Day is thrilling. A car chase set atop a glacier is visually stunning and pulse pounding. Then this chase continues into a melting ice palace. Brilliant if not a tad bizarre. What do ice palaces go for on the open market? What’s the upkeep like?

Die Another Day is the most self-conscious of the Bond franchise with numerous homages and in-jokes. Berry’’s introduction is a direct reference to Ursula Andress classic bikini-clad ashore entrance in Dr. No. Bond confesses his relationships with women never seem to make it to second dates, despite the vigorous sex, and a female agent (Rosamund Pike) even jabs, ““I know you, sex for dinner, death for breakfast.”” The flaccid villain runs a diamond company and actually has a magazine headline that states: “”Diamonds Are Forever.”” At least the multiple writers were having some fun.

The producers that hold the Bond rights are likely as stingy about following set guidelines as the ones behind the scenes at Harry Potter. Yes James Bond always has one foot planted in the fantastic, and the emphasis will still be on girls, gadgets and gargantuan explosions, but this formula cries out for some tinkering before more damage can be done. The robust derring-do occasionally lightens Die Another Day but the franchise is starting to look like it needs mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if it is to survive in our Mountain Dew, XXX world of tomorrow.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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