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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+

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

Django Unchained (2012)

1904It’s an understatement that no one makes films like Quentin Tarantino, though after Pulp Fiction it seemed like everyone was trying. The famous writer/director is an audacious filmic DJ, taking samples from all genres and mixing and matching them into a new and elevated form of art; he takes low-grade B-movie concepts and genres and turns them into highly literate A-class films. My only quibble is that, while I heartily enjoy the man’s unique efforts, I don’t know if we’re ever going to see a different Tarantino anymore. Since 1997’s Jackie Brown, he seems intent on re-imagining exploitation films and B-movies and putting his articulate spin on them. I have yet to dislike a Tarantino film (I rate Jackie Brown the lowest but that’s still an A-) and I’ll be first in line for anything the man attaches himself to as writer/director. Django Unchained is Tarantino’s ode to spaghetti Westerns, and it’s every bit as violent and tense and entertaining as you’d hope it to be.

In 1858 Texas, an abolitionist bounty hunter, Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) frees a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) and enlists his help in tracking down a team of outlaws. They strike up a mentorship, gunning down outlaws for money. “Kill white folk and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?” Django reasons. After a successful season nabbing bad guys and training Django in the ways of shooting, the men come to a crossroads. Django is looking for his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). She was torn away from him and sold off to wealthy Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz and Django cook up a scheme to rescue Broomhilda. Schultz will pose as a rich power player wanting to enter the “mandingo fighting” game (think savage gladiatorial combat). Django will play a black slaver, and expert when it comes to picking out prized fighters. With a generous offer, the two get invited to Candie’s family plantation, dubbed Candieland. Standing in the way of their plan is Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s head of the house. Stephen is deeply suspicious of their guests and ready to expose them for who they truly are.

89366_galI’ve been dragging my feet writing a review of Django Unchained and I’m trying to determine why that is. Just after typing that sentence I spent 30 minutes checking my e-mail. I’m an avid Tarantino fan, so I’m left wondering what my hesitation is about. I certainly enjoyed the film, thoroughly, but perhaps my question is whether I should have enjoyed the film as much as I did given the historical reality of slavery. No movie will ever approach the true horrors of slavery; even the very act of owning another human is a detestable and crushing reality. Of course I’m coming at this movie from the perspective of a white male, so I feel like aspects of my commentary can only be minor. Is the backdrop of slavery too horrific for Tarantino to stage his spin on a revenge-filled Western? Spike Lee seems to think so via his critical public remarks. Tarantino has great glee in reveling in over-the-top movie violence, the kind that audiences (at least mine) cheer for. I guess the questionable angle is marrying the two realities and tones. You don’t want to take away from the brutality of slavery and at the same time you want to tell a compelling revenge-soaked thriller that satisfies with its buckets of blood. I’d say Django Unchained mostly finds the right balance to hit you in the gut one minute and the next have you clapping along.

It seems like the media is pressing every black celebrity for his or her personal thoughts on Django and especially Tarantino’s copious use of the N-word. Tarantino has gotten into hot water before with his penchant for the N-word, notably his own sequence in Pulp Fiction, but the N-word is entirely period appropriate for Django. Let’s face it, a majority of Americans, let alone Southerners, had really one word for slaves, and it wasn’t kind. This is the word that would have been uttered. However, after seeing the film a second time, I can see the complaints about the overwhelming use of the N-word. If you were to turn this into an awful and disrespectful drinking game, you’d probably pass out before DiCaprio even steps onscreen.

Like Inglourious Basterds, this movie is really a series of sit-downs that simmer with tension. The man has gotten so good with establishing the particulars of a scene, what the characters desire, and to push it to its breaking point when it comes to tension. While I don’t think anything approaches the highpoints of Basterds, this is still a movie that luxuriates in beautifully played tension and the danger lurking underneath Tarantino’s finely crafted words. And let’s talk about those wonderful words of Tarantino talk, the kind that seem so effortless to build sensationally interesting characters. The man sure enjoys writing his umpteenth variances on badasses engaging in verbal pissing contests (the literal kind are far less entertaining, at least for me). When you have character this sharply developed with such counter objectives, I could watch them duke it out all day. There are some pacing concerns with the movie, particularly once we get to Candieland, but when I’m engaged this much in a movie, I’d rather it go overboard than scrimp. Tarantino’s signature cool/funny/funny cool dialogue is alive and well. Every scene advances the plot, pushes it toward its bloody conclusion where bodies explode with sprays of red mist. It’s completely over-the-top in the Kill Bill vein, enough to draw snickers and laughter from a crowd, but Tarantino knows how to serve up a satisfying ending even with a body count to rival Hamlet.

89365_galI don’t want to give the wrong impression that Django Unchained is deadly serious given the subject matter and historical context. I don’t think it disrespectfully sanitizes the horrors of slavery, but Tarantino’s brand of humor finds opportune moments to poke through. There’s a sequence with an early version of the KKK, a group of Southerners on horses arguing over whether they need to wear the ill-fitting bags on their head they prepared (plus Jonah Hill cameo). I was laughing so hard I thought people around me were going to shush me. It may well be the funniest thing Tarantino has ever written. There’s also natural humor to be had in the awkward handling of race relations, something that hasn’t exactly been perfectly ironed out to this day. A wealthy plantation owner (Don Johnson) struggles to explain how his slaves should treat Django, presented as a freeman by Schultz. “You want me to treat him like white people?” someone asks. This is followed promptly with a curt, “No.” There’s also plenty of gallows humor to be had with the over-the-top violence that pervades in the finale. It’s all key moments to blow off steam, so to speak, and make the film more bearable.

Django Unchained follows a traditional Western plot; in fact I’d say what we watch is essentially Tarantino’s whacked out spin on The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexander Dumas is even referenced in the film by name). Our lead character, Django, is in the Clint Eastwood mode of the strong and silent type. Schultz is the one who does all the talking while Django learns and glowers. They make a terrific buddy team and you almost wish that Tarantino had just diverged his story and allowed them to keep doing their bounty business. But Django’s wife needs some saving and that’s where the movie slows down. I wish Broomhilda had been given more character development. She’s pretty much the princess that needs saving, much like the German folk tale we learn is where Broomhilda gets her uncommon name. My sister described Django Unchained as a love story and I think that’s being a little generous (Tarantino did cut much of her torture, physical and sexual, from his script). We certainly feel Django’s desire to rescue her, and we worry about all the plot machinations and masks the characters must wear to accomplish this feat. With that said, the movie still has plenty of sucker punch surprises, much like Basterds, where violence erupts and despicable characters are given arias to illuminate the depths of their depraved worldviews.

I do wish that Tarantino had been a bit more judicious with his editing (the first without longtime editor Sally Menke who died in 2010) and curtailed all his self-indulgent meta film homage nods. We get stuff like Amber Tamblyn (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) in one shot. Why you ask? See her father also stars in the movie in a small role, and he once played a character titled “Son of a Gunfighter.” So in his own credits, Tarantino lists him as “Son of a Gunfighter” and his daughter as, what else, “Daughter of a Son of a Gunfighter.” When all of that contorting is for an end credits gag and one shot in the whole movie, you feel like it was strictly masturbatory. Then there’s the original Django, Franco Nero, asking Foxx how to spell his name. Old Django asking new Django how to spell his name. I guess it’s supposed to be like a cinematic passing of the torch but it’s another moment that feels superfluous in a 165-minute movie. The movie can get a tad exhausting. The final 15 minutes, while still smartly written and boasting some terrific bloody comeuppance, feels like an add-on that wasn’t needed. It does manage to tie some elements back together but at this point the audience is ready for Django to ride off into the sunset, not have another obstacle to overcome in improbable yet badass fashion. At my first viewing, the kid behind me kept complaining to his parents that the movie had failed to end (“This is still going? It’s already been two hours!”). I also understand the fruitless and ironic nature of asking Tarantino to reign in his self-indulgences; that is, after all, what makes him who he is.

As expected from Westerns, the movie is a boy’s show. Foxx (Ray) has a steely screen presence that works very effectively for the character. The man’s quiet confidence and growing insolence play well, as he burrows into a role that boosts his confidence and assertiveness. Foxx’s journey from beleaguered and shell-shocked slave to mighty walking vengeance is definitely a full performance and one that Foxx delivers without any winks to the camera. Waltz (Carnage) will be dinged for playing a character similar to his Oscar-winning role in Basterds, but he’s still joyously entertaining, with that strange speech pattern of his that he plays like a musical instrument. He has a lot to say with plenty of theatrical flourishes, but that’s what makes him so entrancing. Simply put, Waltz and Tarantino are a match made in heaven.

93034_galDiCaprio (Inception) doesn’t appear until over an hour into the film but he’s worth the wait. At my first screening, I thought DiCaprio was good but was unimpressed. Upon a second viewing, I must say my appreciation grew for the man’s performance. Calvin Candie is certainly a vile man and DiCaprio is able to give him such an intriguing brio; he’s not the magnetic source of evil that Waltz was in Basterds, a man able to stay two steps ahead of his prey. Candie is easily taken for a fool. He’s not the smartest guy in the room but he can work up a pretty sizable fury; DiCaprio actually cuts open his hand during a confrontation and remains in character, undeterred. But the best actor in the movie is Jackson (The Avengers). There are far more layers to his head house slave than meets the eyes. It sure seems like he’s really the fist behind the glove. He may put on an act for company, but the man is far more calculating and sinister than anyone else in the film. You know he’s a good villain when the audience cheers the loudest at his demise (don’t act surprised, spoiler-phobes). I wouldn’t be surprised if Waltz, DiCaprio, or even Jackson get nominated for supporting Oscars.

It seems like Tarantino has also stumbled into a hidden lucrative subgenre at the box-office, namely the historical revenge film. Who doesn’t want to see a group historically shafted get some sweet revenge, the bad guys punished, and all with sparkling dialogue? In 2009, Tarantino went on a Nazi scalping spree and got to shoot Hitler in the face. With Django, a brutalized slave becomes the hero of his own story and kills some vile slave owners and traders. It’s essentially a Nat Turner-style rebellion from history, albeit with some harebrained scams and colorful characters. Following this lucrative model, Tarantino could take other maligned minorities and give them cinematic justice. Sadly, there are too many examples to count where Tarantino can take inspiration.

Django Unchained is a bloody, rollicking, talky, messy, exciting, surprising, uncomfortable yet satisfying movie and probably one of the oddest crowd-pleasers in recent memory. I saw it on Christmas day and my theater was a sell out. They loved it, soaking up every minute, laughing at the funny parts and wincing at the gruesome violence. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. It doesn’t whitewash the evils and viciousness of slavery, but at the same time Tarantino knows how to serve an audience and their demands for big characters, big set pieces, and big vengeance. Django is a sturdy Western/blaxploitation film, and whatever other genres Tarantino feels like tossing into his cinematic blender. Whatever you classify it as, Django Unchained is another Tarantino original specialty and his tremendous talent comes through loud and clear, even with a few false endings and self-indulgences at play. It looks great, has a great soundtrack, and presents great acting talent reciting Tarantino’s great words like they were prized possessions. It’s a bit long and a bit overdone, but when you’re enjoying yourself, who wants to leave the party early?

Nate’s Grade: A

The Man with the Iron Fists (2012)

In my lifetime, I’ve developed a fine taste for schlock cinema. I appreciate a jolly good bad movie that knows what it is. With that said, when you’re bad at being bad, then that’s a special case of bad, and such is the case of the hip-hop martial arts junk that is The Man with the Iron Fists. It looks like the kind of campy schlock I’d eat up, and with Russell Crowe as a murderous lascivious scoundrel to boot. The problem with this movie is that it has hip-hop artist RZA as a writer and director. It’s not horribly directed but RZA doesn’t have a firm grasp on action, relying too heavily on wires and spurts of graphic blood. But where the movie completely misfires is with a script that feels cobbled together with subplots belonging to other movies. There’s a basic vengeance storyline, but the first hour of this mess is awash in confusion with a flurry of characters and storylines that fail to coalesce.  It feels like everything is just rattling around waiting to be given greater significance. It has a few memorable moments but just as many tacky eye-rollers, like Crowe pulling out anal beads with his teeth. The Man with the Iron Fists just feels so flat overall, lacking a jocular tone or a distinct personality that would have given it a little life. I appreciate the detail that RZA put into his violent world, but I’d appreciate it more if he worked harder at developing a clear story that also was engaging. For all its exploitation elements and fantastic characters, the ultimate sin of The Man with the Iron Fists is that it’s just too boring for too long.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarantino has always been an artist that thumbs his nose at convention. Just as critics accused his last film, Death Proof, as wallowing in exploitation muck, here comes Inglourious Basterds, very loosely based on the correctly spelled 1978 Italian movie. War movies seem like a natural fit for the QT mold with their staunch violence, tough guy bravado, and vengeance-filled storylines. Tarantino has been working on the script for this film for over ten years, taking a break to produce the Kill Bill features. The finished product is a bloody alternative history wish-fulfillment fantasy with little conscience. This isn’t any sentimental, well-meaning, reflective war movie. This is war Tarantino-style and a celebration of war movies in general. Cinema becomes the weapon we win the war with.

In 1944, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is given a unique mission. He is to assemble and lead a crew of Jewish-American soldiers for one purpose — to kill Nazis. They will be dropped into German-occupied France and will use guerilla tactics to dismember Nazis and strike fear into the higher ranks. Aldo personally assigns each soldier with the task of collecting 100 Nazi scalps. “And I want my scalps,” he commands. The “basterds,” as they’re called, face steep opposition. S.S. Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) has earned the nickname “Jew hunter” for his terrifying precision at sniffing out Jews hiding along the French countryside. In the film?s terrific opening sequence, he systematically interrogates a French farmer into giving up the Jews he is hiding. Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) is a Jewish teenager who manages to miraculously escape this bloodbath.

Years later, she owns and operates a movie theater in Paris. The German high command wants to screen their newest propaganda masterpiece, Nation’s Pride about the exploits of sniper Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), in Shoshanna’s theater. Finally she can plot her vengeance, except that Landa will be providing security for the special screening. Meanwhile, Aldo and the basterds scheme to meet up with German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), who is secretly working with the British as a spy for Operation Kino. The top-secret mission involves attending the movie premier at Shoshanna’s theater and then killing all the high-ranking brass in attendance, thus ending the war.

Those looking for a rip-roaring good time of watching Pitt prance through the countryside dispatching evil Nazis will be disappointed to learn that Inglourious Basterds is, after all, a Tarantino movie. That means there is talking. Lots of talking, but it’s great, glourious talking with deep undercurrents of menace. The movie boils down to about six set pieces and most of that time involves long, drawn out conversations where the tension percolates underneath the surface. The characters play a cat-and-mouse game of deception, and the conversation transforms into a slow fuse waiting to go off. The characters engage in an “I know, and you know I know” bout of play acting, going about their business as if all is calm, when each is waiting for the next move. Tarantino turns dialogue scenes into slow-burning combat, and eventually those lit fuses do finally go off and the scene will erupt in a great splash of violence. Then we are left to assess the situation and collect our bearings, much like the characters if they are fortunate enough to be alive. This is a talky war movie, and Tarantino does fall in love with his dialogue rhythms and allow his characters to overindulge and circle the same plot points more than is needed, like the sequence with von Hammersmark in the bar, but the naysayers looking for an action romp that complain nothing goes on are missing the point. A tremendous amount is going on, you just have to look beneath the surface, lie in wait, and luxuriate in the simmering tension that Tarantino plays like a pro.

Tarantino has an encyclopedic knowledge of film that allows him to blend and deconstruct genres, and Inglourious Basterds feels like an homage not to World War II but war movies in general, with a dash of spaghetti westerns. When the French farmer watches Landa drive up to his home, linked with the great Enrico Morricone’s score, you definitely feel like you’re in a western transported into mid-twentieth century Europe. The conversations feel like high-noon showdowns. Tarantino’s direction feels less stylized and idiosyncratic this time. He still plays around with time and back-story, even recruiting Samuel L. Jackson to be a God-like narrator, but Ingloruious Basterds is mostly a literal and linear pop deconstruction of war movies. When Tarantino deviates sharply from the known historical timeline, it feels within reason given the cracked mirror world he?s created. Tarantino can turn World War II into a campy Warner Brothers cartoon, replete with goofy over-the-top caricatures of Hitler and Goebbles. He can also takes digressions and hard right turns with his story, allowing characters to chew over the finer intricacies of German silent cinema. It’s bloody, messy, but boy is it entertaining as hell.

Any conversation over Inglourious Basterds is inevitably going to gravitate to its fascinating central villain, Hans Landa. German actor Waltz plays the infamous “Jew Hunter” and he is astounding to watch; he enlivens every moment onscreen and won a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Landa is an extremely intelligent and polite inquisitor. He comes across almost like a diabolical S.S. version of Colombo: he’s three steps ahead, feigns ignorance, circles his prey, and finally strikes after mentally tearing down the suspect. Waltz is practically giddy in some sequences, enthusiastic for such sick endeavors. He likes to screw with people and make them nervous. And yet, thanks to the wily brilliance and magnetism of Waltz, you develop a perverse appreciation for the man. Despite the horrors he is responsible for, you may actually find yourself liking Landa. He has moments of great cunning, like his deliberate reasons for switching to English with the French farmer or his off-the-cuff destruction of von Hammersmark’s alibi. When he suddenly and fluently launches into his fourth language, it is one of the film’s finest “oh crap” moments. This is a truly memorable character that dominates every scene, and Waltz gives an astounding star-making performance destined to be remembered when it comes time to draw Oscar nominees.

The rest of the actors do well but no one approaches the planet that Waltz resides on. Pitt seems to knowingly be shooting for parody with his performance. His accent is twangy and coats every word in a honeyed glaze; you almost expect him to wink at the camera after each line. He’s still amusing to behold in the rather few instances that Aldo graces the movie. Laurent (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) and Kruger (National Treasure) both have intriguing albeit underwritten roles, and both actresses give the best performances in the film after Waltz. Eli Roth (writer/director of Cabin Fever, one of my favorite movie indulgences) looks the part as the commanding “Bear Jew” with his lean physique and Louisville slugger, but I couldn’t tell what he was doing with his accent. Is he supposed to be from New York or Boston? In war movies, there was usually a colorful collection of characters but Inglourious Basterds doesn’t really do much to accentuate its second tier players. The only basterd that leaves an impression is Til Schweiger (Driven, Far Cry), all humorless resolve and flinty stares. And what happened to the basterds in the final act? Where did everybody go? Yes, that really is Mike Myers doing one of his Austin Powers-esque British impressions.

What is truly surprising is that Basterds unflinchingly looks at all the ugly aspects of war. The movie doesn’t neatly categorize the villains and the heroes. Zoller is a German sniper that killed 300 Allied troops and yet he is portrayed as grounded and romantic, a film lover able to chip away at Shoshanna?s steely reserve. To the basterds, they refuse to see past the uniform and armband; there is no difference between a Nazi and a German soldier. They will mutilate both on principal. Tarantino also gives time to examining the collateral damage of war, watching innocents gunned down in the name of duty. Shoshanna’s plot for vengeance involves the horrific deaths of scads of people whose only sin may have been being German in Paris. Operation Kino is described by Landa as a “terrorist plot” and isn’t it, really? But then Aldo disputes that a “Nazi ain’t got no humanity” and that collaborators and bystanders are just as culpable. Aldo and his basterds march through France committing what could sensibly be described as war crimes, and these are the good guys! Even with all the camp and stylized violence, there may be moments where you want to cringe and ask yourself, “Am I supposed to be enjoying this??

There are those that bemoan that Tarantino is wasting away his remarkable talents on such low-rent enterprises. He is too caught up in genre filmmaking, they claim. He needs to go back to his earlier audacious works, like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, films of startling intelligence and playfulness. He needs to stop making collages of movies and go back to making real movies, they cry. Ingloruious Basterds will not please these critics. This is a verbose deconstruction of war movies that runs over 150 minutes and mostly involves characters seated and chatting. It will clearly not be for everyone, especially those sold into thinking Basterds was going to be a more graphic version of The Dirty Dozen. This movie is more Cinema Paradiso than The Dirty Dozen. If Tarantino wants to keep making high-gloss genre goofs, that’s fine with me as long as the end results are as creative and entertaining as this movie. Who else is going to make a World War II fantasy with excellent use of David Bowie’s song “Cat People”? No one makes movies like Tarantino. I rest my case.

Nate’s Grade: A

Grindhouse (2007)

The movie going experience isn’t what it used to be, and Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez want to do something about it. There?s no denying that the joy of seeing a movie has been watered down a bit; there’s soaring ticket prices, floundering product, and let’s not forget the influx of teenagers with cell phones. Rodriguez and Tarantino grew up gorging upon the exploitation films at their neighborhood grindhouse, where they could see kung-fu, blaxploitation, gory Italian zombie movies, and nearly anything that promised to be titillating and shocking. These movies dealt in copious amounts of sex and violence on a shoestring budget and teenagers lapped it up. Grindhouse was designed to be a double feature with Rodriguez and Tarantino each writing and directing an 80-minute movie. This three-hour plus movie is stuffed to the gills with 70s reverence, right down to cheesy retro clips telling us the film rating via an animated cat. If Rodriguez and Tarantino could, they probably would make the floors stickier just to round out the experience. But that’s the marvelous thing about Grindhouse –– it turns the filmgoing experience into an event once again.

First on the bill is Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. An outbreak is about to sweep across a small Texas town. A toxic green gas is causing people to break out in festering wounds that are spreading rapidly. Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) is a go go dancer who runs into an old flame, Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), a badass drifter with a dark past. They get attacked by a group of “sickos” who take Cherry’s leg as a chew toy. At the hospital we’re introduced in rapid succession to Dr. Block (Mary Shelton) and her creepy husband (Josh Brolin) she plans on leaving for the lovingly massive cleavage of Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas (she gets eaten and can, one assumes, be described as being Fergilicious). The sheriff (Michael Biehn) has an unsettled score with Wray and refuses to trust him, even though the town is slowly being overrun by what appear to be zombies. The survivors take refuge at a Bar-B-Q joint, run by the sheriff’s brother J.T. (Jeff Fahey), located only two miles away from the military outpost that released the gas.

Planet Terror is a great blast of fun, a perfect ode to schlocky B-movies. Rodriguez creates action movies closer to cartoons, and the more over-the-top and crazy things get the more joyous his films generally turn out. This is a gonzo world cranked up to a wonderfully weird wavelength, where Cherry can have a machine gun leg without any nagging question on how she even gets it to fire let alone why it would be more accurate. It doesn’t matter because this movie is all about 80-minutes of awesome, twisted, gloriously gory fun. Planet Terror isn’t the first zombie comedy, and its inspirations are quite plain, but the film establishes a wide-range of colorful characters effectively and then ramps up the chaos. Rodriguez amuses with even small touches, like a woman trying to operate a car with a anesthetized hands, a pair of skimpy babysitters who clobber a car with baseball bats, and a bio-chemical scientist (Naveen Andrews) that has a penchant for collecting and bottling the testicles of the men who fail him (hey, we all need hobbies). Even amongst an exaggerated canvas there’s still plenty of humor and adoration for the grindhouse experience, like when the beginning of a sex scene is interrupted with a “reel missing” sign. Rodriguez also intentionally downgrades the look of his film, adding hairs and scratches and pops in the film to look like it had been dragged across the floor. Planet Terror even has a dreadfully dated synth score to compliment the full-tilt celebration of splattery schlock.

Tarantino’s Death Proof is going to sharply divide audiences. The action in Planet Terror is relentlessly paced, which makes the adjustment to Tarantino?s half all the more hard. Rodriguez is all about genre relevance and making a film that would excel in the grindhouse era; Tarantino, on the other hand, is all about taking the genre and catapulting it into something ambitious and different and greater.

Death Proof is Tarantino’s take on the slasher horror genre, with the unique twist being that Tarantino?s roving killer takes out his prey with his car. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) is a stuntman of the old guard. The youth of the day have no idea of the TV shows he worked on or the celebrities he rubbed elbows with. The only lasting visages he has from those removed days are a long scar decorating the side of his face and his stunt car. The vehicle has been outfitted to be death proof, meaning that Stuntman Mike can get into any wreck and come out alive. A group of women are visiting Tennessee for a film shoot. Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) is a makeup artist, Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an actress, and Zoe Bell (herself) and Kim (Tracie Thoms) are professional stuntwomen. The stunt ladies are interested in test-driving a Dodge Charger, the same iconic car used in Vanishing Point. Zoe wants to play a dangerous game known as “Ship’s Mast,” which entails strapping herself to the hood of the car as it speeds along. This is when Stuntman Mike comes roaring with his death proof material and plays an extreme game of chicken.

The narrative structure of Death Proof is deliberately slow. The focus is on a group of Texas girls (including Sydney Poitier’s daughter named, rather unoriginally, Sydney Poitier). They dance to jukebox jams and drink. And they talk, and talk, and talk, and talk. The dialogue is clever but you worry Tarantino has been hypnotized by his own pithy writing. The movie drags a bit but mostly because it follows a film that had the pace of a runaway train. The slow buildup is an intentional correlation to slasher films, which would spend their first half hour setting up characters for the eventual slaughter. I liked how Stuntman Mike was seen playing with his prey and interacting with them. The wait is worth it, though, but then Tarantino turns around and repeats this same setup with a new batch of girls. Many will grow impatient going through the same process all over again and become irritated that they have to endure another round of talky pop culture diatribes in order to get to some more vehicular manslaughter. And at this point, the only character the audience has any affinity for is Stuntman Mike, so it’s a little tough to wait so long for his reappearance. When he does appear, the movie takes some unexpected turns and transforms into a female revenge thriller that left my audience cheering by its conclusion. My wife loved it. I married the right woman.

The makeup work is outstanding. Most of the effect work gets its spotlight during Rodriguez’s half, and Greg Nicotero and KNB have created the most gut churning, sickeningly inventive makeup work since John Carpenter’s The Thing. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is dripping in blood, and the gore is heightened to such an unrealistic, comical degree that it becomes more tolerable and, in the end, another element in the overall outrageous vibe of the film. Some memorable gore work includes makeup pioneer Tom Savini being ripped apart like a child’s jigsaw puzzle, soldiers whose faces undulate and bubble until they look like close relatives of the Elephant Man, and a truck smashing against bodies like they were made of paper and filled to the brim with Kool-Aid. This is the kind of movie where entire hoses of blood explode from single gun shot wounds. It is a gory, gruesome, sticky icky movie but that?s part of the fun.

Whereas the makeup work shines in Planet Terror, the stunt work in Death Proof is stupendous. Bell was Uma Thurman’s stunt double in the Kill Bill tandem, so by writing a part specifically for her Tarantino knew he could get up close and personal during the scary moments. Seeing Bell struggling to stay atop the hood of a car zooming at 80 miles per hour is nerve-racking and exhilarating, and you know there isn’t any computer trickery given how Tarantino’s own characters bemoan how computers have blunted action cinema output. That really is Bell and even though it’s all a movie a part of you does think, “Oh my God, this woman is going to die for real.” This killer bumper-car sequence in Death Proof will have you holding your breath. It takes much longer for Tarantino to rev up his action, but when he does he puts the pedal to the mettle.

But don’t get up for pee breaks once Planet Terror is over, because you may miss some of the best parts of Grindhouse. In between the feature films are three fake trailers directed by friends of Tarantino and Rodriguez, who made a fake trailer himself for Machete, about a Federale (Danny Trejo) out for revenge. The Machete trailer gave me the everlasting gift of a line, “They f***ed with the wrong Mexican.”

The best trailer, hands down, is Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright?s trailer for Don’t, a Dario Argento style horror film where a narrator instructs the audience lots of items not to do (“If you are thinking about turning this door… DON’T! If you think about going into the basement… DON’T!”). What makes Don’t so wonderful is that the trailer builds a thick head of steam, to the point where all wee see are bizarre rapid-fire images and the announcing repeating the message, “DON’T!” The momentum builds to a great comic high that left me giggling.

Eli Roth, who gave us Hostel and Cabin Fever, one of my all-time favorite filmgoing experiences, runs a close second with his slasher trailer for Thanksgiving. The concept is rather straightforward, a person dressed as a Pilgrim picks off residents around Turkey Day, and a great showcase for Roth’s sense of tongue-in-cheek homage and his warped sense of humor. This trailer has some gasp-inducing moments, chiefly among them a topless cheerleader who performs the splits right onto a knife blade. Wow. Then there’s a guy humping a stuffed turkey with a human head attached. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Roth is one sick bastard but he’s my kind of bastard.

Rob Zombie’s trailer for Werewolf Women of the S.S. sounds better on paper than how it turns out. There’s a subgenre of Naziploitation films (did you know you could add “-sploitation” to damn near any word?), most famously popularized by Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. Zombie?s trailer has got hairy wolf boobs, Nazis, shiny fetish outfits and S&M, but it feels too new and doesn’t work on the same vibe of Grindhouse. It feels too polished and too happy with itself; it spends more time telling you who’s in this fake movie than delivering anything juicy. The trailer is saved by a brilliant cameo by an actor whom I will not spoil, but suffice to say that I was left in stitches.

Honestly, I cannot say another movie released this year that provides more bang for your buck than Grindhouse. Tarantino and Rodriguez’s double bill will leave you giddy. This is the fastest 3 hours and 10 minutes of your life, folks. Unfortunately, the film hasn’t been doing as well at the box-office and this has caused the Weinsteins to contemplate splitting the films into two to make the most of their investment. I suppose Grindhouse was never going to have a 300-sized audience, since the idea of making a sloppy three-hour love letter to trashy cinema seems destined for a limited appeal. This is a high-art tribute to high camp, and you really do feel you get more than your money’s worth even if you pay, like I do, 10 bucks a pop for a show. I can’t imagine having a better time at the movies this year than the one I had during Grindhouse.

Nate’s Grade: A

Hostel (2006)

Eli Roth is a name that excites me. After watching his 2003 debut Cabin Fever, it was love at first sight. My friends were skeptical but one by one I convinced them that Cabin Fever was a campy, jaunty, unapologetically hilarious good time. I’ve made Roth disciples out of my fellow human beings. Naturally, I was looking forward to Roth?s follow-up, Hostel. I had heard the rumors that the flick was based on a true story of a South East Asian website, though said site can no longer be confirmed. Whatever the muse may have been, Hostel‘s got the added cache of Quentin Tarantino?s name slapped aboard as a “presenter” thus ensuring to the young male demographic that Hostel should be, “frickin’ sweet.” While not reaching the rapturous entertainment heights of his debut, with the grisly Hostel, Roth proves that he’s no flash in the pan.

Over in Amsterdam, Paxton (Jay Hernandez, Friday Night Lights) and his best friend Josh (Derek Richardson, Dumb and Dumberer) are living it up. They’re on the hunt for pot, poontang, and an endless array of good times and cheap thrills. They’ve got big wallets and big appetites. They’ve befriended Oli (Eythor Gudjonsson), an Icelandic horn dog willing to be their guide throughout their most excellent European adventure. While locked outside their stay, the trio learns of a mythical youth hostel all the way in Slovakia. The girls are buxom, beautiful, and go absolutely wild for boys with foreign accents, particularly Americans. This is an opportunity worth salivating over for our trio. They book a train for Slovakia and it looks like this hostel could be the Playboy Mansion of the former Soviet bloc. The women are frequently naked, open to most any suggestion, and eager to please the American visitors.

Ah, but things are not what they seem. The young Americans check in but they don’t check out, at least in one cohesive piece. Our Slovakian sirens are leading their horny backpackers to their doom. Tied with the hostel is a large, empty warehouse that a lot of high-pitched, ear-splitting screams seem to waft out of. Inside is a dungeon where those willing to pay the right price can torture, mutilate, eviscerate, and kill a person. Can Paxton, Josh, and Oli even hope of surviving such a place?

Even for a horror movie, Hostel has a lot of nudity. Normally, being a red-blooded American male with a fondness for the female form, this wouldn’t bother me, but the film does seem to be topped with an incredible amount of sex scenes and nudity during its sloshy build-up to the horrors that await. Many will cry “exploitation!” or “gratuitous!” and, though I’d agree with both, I must remind all fans of the genre that the bedrocks of horror are exploitation and voyeurism. Let me theorize why Hostel‘s first half is as it is. Sex and violence in horror movies are always linked, particularly the violence as retribution for wayward sexual indulgences. So then, if the second half of Hostel is a sickeningly display of cruelty, torture, and mankind at its most heartlessly gruesome, wouldn’t it make sense, in retrospect, to up the ante on the debauchery in the first half to even out the tone? Makes some sense to me but then again I’m not arguing over extra nudity for my dollar.

One of the most interesting elements of Hostel is how it makes you root for the ugly Americans. The first half of the film shows Paxton, Oli, and to a far lesser degree Josh, as booze hound backpackers interested in tasting the wares, be it through illicit drugs or illicit encounters with the local ladies. They?re stomping through Europe in an arrogant, obnoxious, near-reprehensible fashion trying to score some cheap thrills. Eli Roth doesn’t intend for an audience to align themselves with these tail-chasing characters, except for the more sympathetic Josh. And then once the boys enter Slovakia and become the cheap thrills themselves, Hostel turns on the surprise factor. After profoundly disliking these misogynistic party animals, we root for them to survive. This goes against most modern horror, particularly slasher flicks, where the audience is rooting for the grisly demise of its empty-headed horny teenage cast. The audience hungers for death and titillation. In Hostel, we’re presented with boorish backpackers and, despite everything prior, we really want them to succeed and get rescued from their dungeon of horrors. The last act only confirms this further. I don’t know about your theater, but mine was rollicking and roaring as they rooted for the home team to pull it out.

Truth be told, the set-up is a bit overly long, though nowhere near as boring and comatose as Wolf Creek (maybe Roth was smart to put in a lot of boobies). In Wolf Creek, we watched a group of uninteresting “characters” drive around and get lost for a whole friggin’ hour. That movie went from boring to “oh, is something happening?” to over. At least Hostel had movement and relevance to its set-up, including characters and situations that will be repeated later. Some of it is a bit heavy-handed, especially with the sex/violence link and a blowtorch torturer repeating, “Get your own room,” but Hostel finishes with a grand flourish. Roth weaves back different storylines and characters in clever ways and serves the audience vengeance on a platter, and we just gobble it up. I was jumping in my seat, pumping my fist, and, forgive me, shouting at the screen during Hostel‘s final act. It’s somewhat paradoxical for me to be disgusted by violent retribution so recently with Spielberg’s Munich and then a week later to be relishing it. I credit the tones of the films. While Munich is contemplative and realistic, Roth’s Hostel is a squirmy, over-the-top, dark comedy with some moments of cringe-worthy horror. Hostel‘s fabulous finish may erase any lingering doubts you had over the very Euro Trip opening.

Roth has a great sense of visual flavor with his shot arrangements but he also knows when to draw upon our dread. Hostel is really more of a survivalist thriller than a horror movie. Sure, torture and gore is prevalent but a lot of the violence and gruesome makeup is unexpectedly played down in limited appearances. This isn’t the shocking sadistic movie that outcries have made it to be. Without a doubt, I think Eli Roth is the most promising name in horror. Cabin Fever is one of my all-time favorite good-time flicks, and now with Hostel, Roth has proven that he can work miracles with a small budget and a giant, depraved imagination. Hostel is more disturbing than horrific but Roth knows exactly what chord to strike, what scenes to hit, and what sounds to echo to make you want to cover your eyes.

Roth’s best attribute, besides a pleasing visual sensibility, is his twisted sense of humor. Cabin Fever was more humor than horror, and also took an extended set-up before the gore was unleashed, but Hostel makes the flip and is more horror than humor. That’s not to say Hostel is without its dark, jovial jollies. Roth seems to approach his gore, outside of the torture sequences, with a macabre absurdity, like a character slipping on dismembered fingers only to chainsaw their leg off, or a character pretending to be dead and gets a severed hand placed on his face. Somewhere, Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi are nodding their heads in approval. Surely Tarantino is amused. Granted, Cabin Fever was more of a tongue-in-cheek fever dream homage to 70s horror, but Hostel has its share of twisted humor which elevates it far above most recent horror, either the boring and meandering (see: Wolf Creek) or the single-mindedly shocking (see: High Tension). This is what excites me about an Eli Roth horror movie: his lively, warped, depraved sense of humor. If people claim that Roth is one sick bastard, then I must also be one sick bastard for finding his movie funny and highly amusing in spurts.

There are so many moments that I loved, from the opening cleaning-up, to seeing the Slovakian sirens on their day off sans make-up and totally trashed, to the Bubblegum kid gang, to the Takashi Miike (Audition) cameo, to knowing that killing an American is the most expensive option, to seeing the ins and outs of a facility dealing in murder for money, to seeing the equivalent of the Dunkin’ Donuts guy (“Time to chop up the bodies…”), to the madcap, fist-pumping race to the finish. There?s so much Hostel does right, not just as a horror movie but simply as a movie itself. I wouldn’t mind taking another trip to Hostel with a big group of my less-than-squeamish friends. Oh who am I kidding, horror movies are more fun when you see them with the squeamish.

Eli Roth has crafted a dirty, depraved, but highly amusing horror film. Hostel is full of surprises, from an overly long set-up that couldn’t have more female nudity if it tried to, and actually making an audience root for the survival of the ugly Americans when things get dicey. The premise may be sickeningly realistic but the rest of the movie is on an overdrive of macabre fun. Roth’s twisted yet gleeful sense of humor is what makes him unique, and his attention to atmosphere and compounding dread is what will make him successful. There’s no faster rising horror name, in my mind, than Eli Roth. Hostel may not fully be the down-and-dirty horror film its ads have made it out to be; it’s certainly more of a thriller with a heaping helping of gore. This is one experience well-worth booking, especially if you have a strong stomach and a dark sense of humor. I can only imagine that the tourism industry for Slovakia is about to drop precipitously. Unless, of course, they add more naked boobs. Girls Gone Wild indeed.

Nate’s Grade: B

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

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