Tarantino’s Way with Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown - poster

As a big Tarantino fan, Jackie Brown was the odd one out, the one film in his oeuvre that I had never seen.  And it’s about what I expected and nothing more.

Which is a little bit of a disappointment.  Because when it comes to Quentin Tarantino, I’ve come to expect something more, an added dimension which will lift his pictures above and beyond.  I did not find that in Jackie Brown.

Now, it’s perfectly good entertainment; a linear crime story told with steady drama that doesn’t let up.  But that story is too simple for its 154-minute running time.  Tarantino did not try to ascend any summits in Jackie Brown; his flatland course is set and he stays on that course.  He does construct a life-or-death scenario which is very effective, and it’s good storytelling.  But nothing more.

Jackie Brown - text blockI’ve always given Tarantino credit: with the incredible success and groundbreaking nature of the masterpiece Pulp Fiction, many a lesser movie maker would have been tempted to recreate that winning formula, or worse, make an outright sequel.  I’m sure there was some pressure to capitalize on Pulp Fiction‘s success by essentially copying it.  But Tarantino wasn’t interested in doing Pulp Fiction part II.  And he realized that Pulp Fiction’s formula would not translate to any other film.  Nobody was every going to copy Pulp Fiction, including Tarantino himself.  So he followed it up with the very different Jackie Brown.  It’s one of his weaker pictures, but he did it his way.

Being the exceptional talent he is, Tarantino, taking his time, eventually made another truly great film, Inglourious Basterds, and followed that up with one more great, Django Unchained.  Two movies that are completely different from one-another and Pulp Fiction, and yet fully accomplished on all levels.  Did they reach the rarefied air of Pulp Fiction?  No, but that’s a near-impossibility for any filmmaker.

Jackie Brown will hold you engaged for its entire running time, which is no easy task.  But I wanted more.  6/10

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Don’t Mess with el Machete!!

click for high-res

click for high-res

I watched Machete in the theater when it was released, and I don’t remember exactly how much I liked it.  As such, I cannot give a recommendation per se, but I think you’ll probably have a good time if you like the trailer.  This is one of those movies where you know if it’s up your alley.  Mainly though, I just wanted to post a high-res image of the awesome poster!

Don’t Get American Hustle’d

A new Christmas tradition is in the works: me watching a crappy David O. Russell film.  It is a tradition that I sincerely hope does not become too firmly established.  Now I am being a little too harsh — American Hustle is not exactly crappy, it’s American Hustle - posterjust not good.  About half-way through, I thought to myself — “hey, I think this is that new film by the Silver Linings Playbook director.”

I thought this not because it is bad, but because of the manner in which it is bad.  I forget what scene it was that triggered my association to last year’s picture, but, despite the very different subject matter, these two films have a similar feel — that feel of a story not coming together.  It’s as if Russell read a manual on how to put together a movie, and said, OK, let’s add this piece to this piece, and throw in some 70’s fashion and music, let good actors do their job and we’ll have a good movie.

With a Tomatoemeter score of 94%, it has succeeded where it wanted to.  To me, it felt like four great films — Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino, and P.T. Anderson’s fabulous Boogie Nights, blended together and spit out the other end, resulting in a film just under half the quality of any of one of those.  After stumbling out of the starting block, American Hustle finally got to a point where I was enjoying a couple scenes, but faltered again down the stretch.  I walked out thinking what a non-story, really, what a non-movie that was.

As to the critical acclaim?  Critics think the acting was stellar here.   Christian Bale gained a lot of weight for the role, even the more impressive remembering his weight loss for The Machinist.  But something about his character, and to some extent, those of Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams, somehow didn’t ring true to me.  Hard to put my finger on it, but perhaps it was the context of the poorly executed film.  The performances seemed as arbitrary as the plot elements.

Also arbitrary: otherwise fitting 70’s-era popular music.  These are all great tracks, but except for the disco scene (Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”), the songs seemed completely disconnected from anything happening in the picture.  They were thrown in in the same dishonest way that Silver Linings was marketed with a song that did not appear in the movie.

Amy Adams and Christian Bale

Amy Adams and Christian Bale

That brings me to the other reason critics liked this film — they were taken by the vintage fashion, music, culture, and historical context of Abscam.  To me it’s a big snow job.  American Hustle is a simpleton’s movie.  It’s a good movie for people who are blinded by the facade.

You might think that I really hated this movie, but there were moments that became more and more enjoyable as the movie finally began hitting its stride.  I would have liked to see more Louis C.K., who was great here.  But in the end this was a deeply dissatisfying film.  Those critics applauding the film?  The only thing they or anyone else is going to remember about this movie five years from now is, oh yeah, that movie where Christian Bale was fat and bald.  4/10 

Topical Tuesday: Brazil and the Boston Bombings

I saw a posting on Facebook yesterday in reaction to the Boston bombings: “When will the violence end?”  My answer: never, or at least not in our lifetimes.  Hate to be so morbid about it.  That posting stuck in my mind for a while, and later last night I drew a connection to a movie in which terrorist attacks are a de facto part of everyday life which everyone accepts and deals with the best they can: Brazil.

In Brazil, our hero Sam Lowry is eating dinner with his mother and a fixed-up date in a posh gourmet restaurant — though the quality of their gastronomic indulgence might be questioned as they are served what appears to be something like cat food, or at best baby food.  In one quadrant of the restaurant an explosion goes off, and the dining party complains briefly but then go on with their repast as the four-piece orchestra resumes play and wait staff bring in a partition so as to reduce their exposure to the casualties.  This scene is a good and typical example of the way in which Brazil is a masterpiece of the highest order.

Brazil_console_computer

Jonathan Pryce and Ian Holm in Brazil

A tremendous amount of written material exists about this landmark film.  The Times’ Janet Maslin:

TERRY GILLIAM’S ”Brazil,” a jaunty, wittily observed vision of an extremely bleak future, is a superb example of the power of comedy to underscore serious ideas, even solemn ones.

and Kenneth Turan of the the L.A. Times called it (citation from Wikipedia) “the most potent piece of satiric political cinema since Dr. Strangelove.”  I previously praised the film’s invention of “hackneyed apparatuses,” and went on to say:

Brazil is a gorgeous, exceptionally rich film, a great cinematic masterpiece.  It is the magnum opus of director Terry Gilliam from the Monty Python school.  I had become certain that it was a version of Orwell’s 1984, but I’ve read that the writers did not have that in mind at all.  There are enough differences, but the over-arching storyline is identical as far as I am concerned.  This film, as I said, is rich – a visual feast.  Humor Brazil Posterruns throughout the film, and not generally dark, but more farcical.  The comedy plays in complementary relief to the more serious tones of the film, which surround a great, romantic, compelling story.

That story, very briefly, involves our hapless hero Sam Lowry (Pryce), a bureaucrat stuck in the midst of one of the several ministries which comprise the giant overbearing government.  On a field trip to return a payment to a citizen, he catches a glimpse of a girl, becomes enraptured, and the romance begins.  At the same time he becomes snarled up, literally, in the government tangles that he has shown to be adept at managing.  As I said, the general storyline follows 1984, but less the hopeless oppression and with enough differences to keep you wondering what will develop next.

Brazil in my mind is an ‘essential’ just as much as Casablanca, Blue Velvet, 2001, or Pulp Fiction.  If you have not seen it, try to do so with the best viewing technology available (Blu-ray), and stick with the original theatrical release [Amazon link] — avoid the alternate versions available on the Criterion Collection release.  10/10

A good quality trailer I cannot find in internet-land; this one will suffice:

Films of a Bygone Era

email 20 Nov 2008

And The Bygone Era is the 1980s.  There were a group of films that came out around the same time period where I see connections.  I’ve written of this before, connections of one film to another that others may have not made — connections which would seem tenuous or abstract if you just wrote the titles on a list.

First on the list is a movie I first glimpsed on TV in my dorm room freshman year at Tropicana Gardens, Brazil (1985, Jonathan Pryce, Robert DeNiro, other stars).  I saw just a few minutes of it and thought, what is this?  My suite-mate Dan Gibbons (whom I wrote of in my college stories) commented on the various gadgets depicted in the film as things that never quite worked being brought to the center of this society’s technological paradigm.  What specifically he was speaking of were the magnifying screens placed in front of CRTs; this film is lush with such hackneyed apparatuses. Continue reading