Death takes a Spanish holiday

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Two contract killers, their mark, a seductive woman. A philosophical road trip towards death, though it’s not entirely clear who will die and who will live. Psychological games, tense stand-offs, sudden violence. You may not be able to name any specific title, but it still sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Tarantino, McDonagh, or indeed Hemingway. Cheap suits, hidden guns, strong language: hitmen make for very effective cinema.

The Hit Continue reading

The Rear-View Mirror: GTA V (2013)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

If I ever were to write a GTA-themed memoir of a gamer, it’d have to be titled Driving in Cars with Criminals.

GTA V

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If only you could talk to the mobsters

At this year’s San Diego Comic Con, Marvel once again planted a big, wet kiss on the fans’ mouths, with new footage and casting information covering everything from Captain Marvel (yay for female superheroes, double yay for Alison Brie) to Doctor Strange (nice-looking trailer, even if it looks a bit too much like a mashup of The Matrix and Inception). There were also a couple of titbits for those following the Netflix series, including an action-packed teaser for Luke Cage. I liked the character in Jessica Jones and I thought it’d be interesting to have a new Marvel property with a strong, individual style, so the promise of a blaxploitation-inspired series combined with a more modern sensitivity intrigued me.

Cue the teaser, which has Luke taking on a bunch of goons with the aid of his super strength and a car door, all biff-, bam- and pow-like. I’ve seen some fan reactions, and they all seem to agree: this is shaping up to be a badass series for a badass character.

Myself? I found it boring. Continue reading

Bloody. Unpleasant. Hateful?

I used to be a big Tarantino fan. In fact, I’d still consider myself one; I can still remember the exhilaration I felt after first seeing Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill (both parts) or Inglourious Basterds, and they still feel fresh and exciting to me now. Even Death Proof, which many of his fans were, let’s say, ambivalent about: the film puts a big goofy grin on my face.

The Hateful Eight Continue reading

Disappointment. The ‘D’ is silent.

Waltzing with ChristophI want to say, “It’s not you, Quentin. It’s me.” But I couldn’t say it with much conviction.

What’s happened? Why the sad face on my part? It’s this: ever since first watching Pulp Fiction, I’ve been a Quentin Tarantino fan. This doesn’t mean that I love everything the man’s been involved in – I wasn’t too keen on From Dusk Till Dawn or Natural Born Killers, for instance – but I’ve greatly enjoyed his directorial work. While most people would go, “Yeah, I dig Reservoir Dogs, but fuck Jackie Brown, man, what a bore!” or “Kill Bill Part 1 rules, Kill Bill Part 2 drools,” I came away from all of them with a big grin on my face. Yes, even Death Proof, apparently the litmus test for Tarantino fans.

So what was wrong with Django Unchained? Let’s mention the positive first: I found the film very entertaining. It was funny, it had its tense moments, it was well crafted, it had good performances. Christoph Waltz was a joy to watch, Jaime Foxx was effective in the part, Samuel L. Jackson played a very different role from what I’m used to seeing. It’s just… I expect more than “very entertaining” from Tarantino. I remember sitting in the cinema for Jackie Brown and being hooked in the very first scene, thanks to the perfect combination of actress, visuals and music. I remember being pulled into the film immediately when Kill Bill started with a black and white close-up of the bloodied Bride and Bill doing his “Do you find me sadistic?” monologue, followed by the blackout and Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”. With Death Proof it took longer – up until the halfway point I was prepared to hate the film for, well, finding it sadistic, but then things fell into place in the second part. And the first scene of Inglourious Basterds is pretty much perfect in how it creates tension and then ratchets it up to unbearable levels.

I felt giddy about all of Tarantino’s earlier films, sometimes due to the sheer exuberance of what he was doing, often because of the virtuoso way in which he remixed styles and genres to amazing effect, usually because the films had a sharp wit and intelligence that might not be apparent at a first viewing. Django Unchained, though? I never felt giddy. I never felt excited at what Tarantino was doing. The closest the film came was Christoph Waltz’s character and performance, which were pretty much pitch perfect, but other than that the film was strangely flat. No surprising juxtaposition (and no, it’s not enough to have Ennio Morricone and 2pac on the same soundtrack any more), not much in the way of subtext. Especially after Inglourious Basterds, which did some pretty intriguing things with its revenge plot(s), Django Unchained is strangely, disappointingly straightforward – and often it’s the lack of straightforwardness, the eagerness to stray of the most direct path, smell the daisies and cut them to shreds in an ironically postmodern homage to grindhouse gardening (“Alan Titchmarsh stars in The Gardener and his Hoe!“) that make Tarantino’s work stand out.

I’m wondering whether some of my disappointment comes from slavery being much more of a cultural issue in the States, and accordingly it wouldn’t resonate with me in the same way that it might with an audience that is still confronted with its racial past. Perhaps that adds an element that simply wasn’t there for me. Or perhaps Django Unchained is Tarantino light, at least with respect to the things I like best about Tarantino. Anyway, I’m in no particular hurry to see the film again (I saw both Kill Bills three times each at the cinema), but perhaps the film will grow on me if/when I sit down to watch it again. And in the meantime I’ll finally see what Pulp Fiction looks like on my TV…

Better than being hit over the head with a baseball bat

Quentin Tarantino loves cinema. If anyone ever doubted that, fifteen minutes of Inglourious Basterds should put that doubt to rest.Also, Quention Tarantino knows cinema. He knows its history, he knows films, he knows how to construct a scene, how to film it, how to make it work. As I’ve argued before, he is in control of his material like few other directors.

He may also just be the most radical of the big-name film makers working in Hollywood today.

Now, “radical” does not mean “independent” – or, more aptly, “indie”. The current indie film scene in the US, while gems keep coming out of it, is disappointingly generic, with quirky comedies about geeky weirdoes we’re supposed to love having become as predictable and stale as mainstream romantic comedies. What makes Quentin Tarantino radical is he doesn’t pander to his audiences. In the end, he makes films entirely for himself. If the audience enjoys them, all the better, if not, well, fuck them.

Which may go some way towards explaining why Tarantino is one of the filmmakers who is either loved or hated. If you don’t like what he’s doing, his films will grate like mad. There are no compromises for a broad audience. Tarantino is a lucky bastard (or “basterd”) who can be indifferent to what test audiences may say about his films. (Actually, I’d be curious as to what test audiences would make of his movies.)

Not a Basterd in sight...

One of the things that is most striking about Inglourious Basterds is how little the Basterds are actually in the movie, and how, in the end, they are not the heroes of the film. That honour goes to Shosanna Dreyfus, played to perfection by Mélanie Laurent. The Basterds themselves are pretty much a team of goons and thugs, a bunch of self-admitted terrorists, and they are only seen as the good guys because they go after Nazis (or “Nat-zees!”, as Brad Pitt insists with over-the-top relish), perhaps the easiest target in cinematic history.

And that’s where the second intriguing thing comes in: while the Basterds remain cartoony and one-dimensional, Tarantino takes a number of “Nat-zees” and humanises them. He doesn’t make them into the good Nazi, they’re not Germans with hearts of gold who happened to end up, against their will, wearing Wehrmacht uniforms – but they become human beings. While the surface of the film is all about Our Heroes wreaking terrible, deserved revenge on the Hun, the subtext – which may even be more prevalent than the text – is much more ambivalent.

In occupied France, the Germans would get their kicks by sticking post-its on their foreheads. Silly foreigners...

And that’s what may be most radical about Tarantino: he’s managed to fool a large part of critics and audiences into thinking he’s a B-movie geek with an affinity for trash and violence, when his films are intricatedly crafted, wittily written, much more complex (and much less violent) than they’re given credit for. Many people have watched his films and seen only slickly made trash. He’s been hiding with incredible success that he’s that most elusive of cinematic beasts: an auteur. God bless his narcissistic, self-centred, infuriatingly post-modern little heart – and may he make many more films!

More series business

How many different series can a person watch and still keep them all apart? Right now we’re watching Angel, House  M.D., Carnivale and Heroes and Grey’s Anatomy, I’m rewatching Six Feet Under, Battlestar Galactica and Life on Mars, we’ve just finished Fringe and we’re waiting to continue The Sopranos and Buffy. Well, at least no one can accuse me of being a total elitist snob when it comes to telly series…

I enjoyed Fringe because it fulfilled my post-X-Files FBI-investigating-weird-shit cravings. Is it a good series? Not particularly – it’s repetitive, some of the acting is dubious and with half the episodes I think that I’ve seen them before, only Mulder and Scully did them better. It’s great turn-off-your-brain TV fast-food, though, and I’m looking forward to more Leonard Nimoy in season 2. “It’s all lies. But they’re entertaining lies. And in the end, isn’t that the real truth?” (Damn you, YouTube, for not having a clip of that scene!)

The answer is, "No."

Grey’s Anatomy has been something of a guilty pleasure of mine, and throughout much of season 4 it wasn’t all that much of a pleasure, to be honest. The series’ problem – well, main problem – is that they’ve got a number of very good actors and even the middling actors know their parts by now, but the writing (especially with respect to character development) covers the whole range from maudlin to obvious to plain bad, with the occasional strong scene. If the series could decide to be a comedy, it wouldn’t matter that most of the characters are written to be highly unprofessional so much of the time (typical example: some patient is dying and needs urgent care, and doctor X decides that this is the right moment to ask doctor Y why they didn’t have sex the previous night – remind me not to get ill in TV Seattle…). It takes very good writing to make the constant jumps from quirky comedy to serious (melo)drama work if the characters aren’t to come across as nincompoops at the mercy of the script. Season 5 had many of those weaknesses, but it had enough strong moments to keep me watching. Still, there are some developments and storylines that just annoy the hell out of me: a resident at a big Seattle hospital going more or less bankrupt from one day to the next because Daddy cuts her trust fund? Swapping one interesting lesbian character for cute but eternally bland blondie because you want eye candy rather than an actual character? Derek Shepard yet again going all pompously self-righteous, and still no one takes one of those circular saws to his perfectly coiffed head?

If we all gang up and stab him with scalpels, it shouldn't take too long...

In the meantime, I’m rather enjoying where Angel season 3 is taking us. Yes, there were a couple of false steps – Gunn and Wesley going all mooney over Fred wasn’t cute, it was just annoying, and having it go on for several episodes made me want to go Angelus on them all – but it’s fascinating to see how Angel, Cordelia and especially Wesley develop during the season. Just 2-3 more episodes to go until season 4 – and I’m ignoring all those people who say that it’s one of the worst seasons ever in the Whedonverse, because it’s something we have to get through before season 5 and “Smile Time” and the (wait for it) bitter-sweet finale. (Yes, Lucy, I put that there just for you…)

Oh, before I forget: gotta love this recent article in The Onion: Next Tarantino Movie An Homage To Beloved Tarantino Movies Of Director’s Youth.

Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight, fight, fight. How many fights is that? A lot.

And finally: I’ll be writing a weekly entry at The Best Shows You’re Not Watching, alternating between Six Feet Under and Life on Mars. You can find the first one here. Let me know what you think!