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Hey don’t believe the critics

One Friday a few months ago my office had “movie afternoon” where everyone received free passes to a matinee show at the neighborhood multiplex. It was a kind of a dead time for movies, right after Oscar winners made a second showing at theatres and the summer feel-goods had not yet released.

Last time we had movie afternoon we all saw that swashbuckling “Master and Commander,” but this time we decided to go our separate ways and go to different movies. Some of my work colleagues saw The Alamo; some saw Dawn of the Dead; some saw Hellboy, and I was left choosing between Ella Enchanted, Kill Bill 2, Walking Tall, Scooby Doo 2 and Home and the Range. I chose Kill Bill 2, not because I wanted to see the movie, but because I enjoy Uma Thurman’s presence (I saw her recently in the amazing film, Tape) and because Quentin Tarrentino is an entertaining talk show guest. I hadn’t seen Kill Bill 1, but actually that didn’t prevent me from seeing the sequel. Tarrantino is known for narrative discontinuities, so my state of confusion is unlikely to be any greater than it usually is.

Actually the best part of the film experience was the trailers, which looked entertaining enough. Kill Bill had gotten decent enough writeups in the mainstream press (by critics anxious to tell us the film references they recognized in the film).

Truthfully though, the movie was a bore. Lots of manipulating, silly violence, suspension of disbelief, and basking in kung fu cliches. All throughout the movie, I was wondering how Hollywood financiers and producers would flip over this film and eagerly bankroll this silly project. Here’s how their thought process probably went: A List director and Cast, Asian crossover appeal, teen demographic appeal: great, let’s give this “GENIUS” 50+ million dollars.

Roger Ebert writes,

Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 2” is an exuberant celebration of moviemaking, coasting with heedless joy from one audacious chapter to another, working as irony, working as satire, working as drama, working as pure action.

Isn’t the Hollywood blockbuster irrelevant to our culture? It seems to be a celebration of car crashes and Hollywood’s ability to depict gore and mass destruction in more lavish and expensive manners. My movie critic friend assures me that watching Kill Bill 1 first would have made Kill Bill 2 a more satisfying experience. Really? Perhaps when I get around to watching that first part I’ll have a more nuanced appreciation for the bludgeoning pseudo-death of Daryl Hannah’s character. (Hapax Legomenon once remarked in his Pleasure Manifesto, that “our sensibilities have evolved to the point where sadism is just another cinematic style.”) The reader might suppose that my disaste derives from moral squeamishness about onscreen violence. But I am more horrified at the collossal waste of money, marketing resources and talented people to bring to the world another violent adrelanin-pumping film. Tragically, our society faces a shortage of such films, and it’s a good thing we have a few
brave filmmakers still willing to take the artistic risks to use fistfights, Kung Fu stunts and gallons of fake blood.

Occasionally I’ve enjoyed and even admired the escapist blockbuster (Jaws, Terminator, Fifth Element). Every filmmaker has a few B-movies to get out of their system, and often these blockbusters can finance worthier projects. And it is sheer hypocrisy to pretend that high culture never stages elaborately constructed bloodbaths (see Kurosawa’s Ran) . But can’t we set a budget cap? For a campy film costing under $100,000 (see Rodriguez’s El Mariachi), one can enjoy a luxurious amount of bloodletting to satisfy the Marquis de Sade and still have enough left over to finance a Mechant Ivory miniseries. The filmmaking industry can’t resist throwing infinite sums of money at any director who hits upon a profitable formula. You may remember that American Wedding, (the second sequel to that masterpiece American Pie ), cost 55 million dollars to produce (think–55 million dollars!) and still made a healthy profit for Universal. And when a Hollywood launches a film for over 50 million dollars, everyone hears about it. There’s no escaping. The mediocrity of Kill Bill bothers me not as much as the fact that for a week or so every major media outlet is screaming the same thing: Jay Leno, Time Magazine, Charlie Rose, People Magazine, CNN, hundreds of movie reviews and fawning feature stories. Everybody everywhere is talking about Kill Bill, Tarrentino is a god, terrific performance by Uma, just look at those special effects (“Just how long did Uma have to train for that role?”), expected to be a gigantic world hit, popular in Asia, can’t wait for it to come to DVD, how was it like working with David Carradine? How much did it cost to stage that fight scene? How much did it cost? How much money is it earning? Was it really first place that week at the box office? How much money is it earning? Will there be a Kill Bill 3?

In the midst of this inescapable multimillion publicity machine, is it any wonder that the small productions seem more appealing? TV, for example, has done a far better job at presenting smallsize comedies and dramas (even though relatively cheap-to-produce hits like Seinfeld can earn studios and networks more money than a mainstream Hollywood bloodbath). Unfortunately ours may be the last generation of TV audiences to enjoy over-the-airwaves All-in-the-Family-Cheers-Third-Rock-From-The-Sun type of shows. On the other hand, online sites like Atom Films offer enough high quality/small budget films to keep anyone happy (see for example the hilarious In God We Trust). But who has time to search out the hidden gems when everyone (and I mean everyone!) is talking about Kill Bill?

A postscript. I sat through 2/3 of Kill Bill Vol 2, and just walked out and left. I said to myself, do I really need this? How is watching this making my life any easier or more enjoyable? It’s not. I peeked in several other movies on my way out. Hellboy seemed fun escapist comedy trying too hard; Ella Enchanted seemed syrupy, Scooby Doo 2–well, I passed by that quickly, and then I stopped inside a screening of a film I’d never heard of before, “Connie and Carla.” I had no idea what it was about, but laughed my head off. (And the 6-7 other people in the audience were doing the same). It was about 2 would-be singers running away from some gangsters and hiding in a nightclub for drag queens. The attitude towards drag queens and gay culture was a little cliched and condescending, and there was a terrible subplot involving Dave Duchovny, but all in all the movie was great fun; plus, there were some delightful renditions of old Broadway showtunes and great one-liners. (It reminded me a bit of Earth Girls are Easy , that classic campy musical comedy).

Now here’s the rub. This movie was universally panned by the critics. Why? Roger Ebert wrote, “The plot is creaky, the jokes are laborious, and total implausibility is not considered the slightest problem.” (Apparently, the Kill Bill scene where Uma Thurman is shot in the chest and buried alive, and has to claw through the several feet of soil didn’t bother him in the slightest). The movie was called “a retread of Some Like It Hot (says Ebert), and was accused of “steal(ing) an additional gender-bending twist right out of Victor/Victoria” (says Village Voice).

I see. When Quentin Tarrentino rips off Sergio Leone and King Hu, that’s ok, but when a movie about drag queens (who, incidentally, are in the very business of ripping off icons of mainstream culture) does it, we are supposed to turn up our noses.

Connie and Carla is no masterpiece. It lacks the edginess of independent films like American Movie or Eating Rauol, and I only watched it after stumbling in by accident (I also enjoy watching the random B Movie comedy on WB’s Sunday afternoons for precisely the same reason). But if I had read a writeup about the film beforehand (“starring Nia Vardalos of My Big Greek Wedding!”), I would have never deigned to see it. De gustibus non est disputandum. Going to the movies can be a crapshoot sometimes, and no matter how many reassuring reviews you read, there are no guarantees when the lights dim and the opening credits start rolling.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Daniel 4/19/2004, 11:15 pm

    It’s okay for Quentin Tarantino to rip off Sergio Leone and King Hu because that was the point of his film, to create a mixtape of cliches from different genres and making it feel fresh, new, and original. Connie and Carla on the other hand failed at what it tried to do, make a hilarious comedy.

    That’s my 2 cents.

    You hate KBV2, I loved it. No problem.

    Watch Kill Bill Volume 1, it is much more fast paced than Volume 2, way way more fast paced.

  • Andrew 4/20/2004, 8:10 am

    (Warning: references to Beethoven and Tarantino will follow… if the two together are too incongruous for you, stop reading here!)

    RJ —

    I recall a conversation we once had in college, where I stated that although Beethoven’s work as a whole was good, there were long stretches of his work that bored me to tears. Your reaction was pretty emphatic — how could anyone say such a thing! Every movement, every note must be brilliant! Yet for me, I just want to skip 90 percent and get to the good stuff, which in some symphonies for me, never appears.

    I’m not saying that Tarantino is to his field what Beethoven was to his, but a similar principle applies… the product as a whole does not rise above its production to have truly broad appeal, yet some people insist that it either does or should.

    KB2 is a good film, what I regard as a satisfactory work in a superior portfolio. But it leverages a lot of cultural references and preconceptions, and requires a certain type of humor… in this case, regarding kitchsy kung fu films.

    I thought the over-the-top vengeance sequences were wonderfully entertaining, and clever in a capacity that is beyond 99 percent of conventional hollywood directors. In particular, the sequence involving the training with the kung fu master (with his mythic combat techniques) was hilarious. The grainy film and the “swooping” asian style camera movements were spot-on, not to mention the character himself.

    And arcing across the film, who better to tie western assasin/gangsters to the asian martial arts than C list, direct-to-video, type-cast actor David Carradine? That was the best script he ever got, and probably the best acting he’s ever done… and you walked out before his grand showdown with the bride? Alas! And yet, had you stayed and not enjoyed it, it would be even more lamentable to me. But either way, it’s just the way it is, and I’m sure I’ll get over it.

    Finally, following up on Daniel’s comment, this movie was much more about dialogue than KB1. There is much longer and gratuitous violence in KB1. But in both movies, either you develop a fondness for the thoughts and motivations of very bad people, or you don’t.

    Andrew

    PS: my opinions seldom line up w/ Roger Ebert, and only slightly more with the late Gene Siskel. The trick is to find a critic who overlaps with your opinions as much as possible. For me, Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post is the most reliable indicator of whether I will enjoy a movie.

    PPS: here are the videos I have gone out of my way to own. Make of it what you will 🙂

    1: Singin in the Rain
    2: An American in Paris
    3: Reservoir Dogs
    4: Pulp Fiction
    5: Lord of the Rings trilogy (waiting on 3rd)
    6: Rocky Horror
    7: Doctor Who: Shada

    and at some point in the future:

    7: Kill Bill 1 & 2 extended DVD collection

  • Robert Nagle 4/20/2004, 12:05 pm

    About failing to make a hilarious comedy: the people in my audience seemed to love it.

    The difference in the film lies in their attitude toward mainstream values. Although the subject of Connie and Carla is alternative/drag/gay culture, in fact the values are mainstream and anodyne. The social messages are not really to be taken seriously.

    KB 2 on the other hand, tries to do its best to be as anti-mainstream values as it can possibly be. It goes out of its way to be gross and offensive in its depiction of violence.

    Andy, with regard to Beethoven, I don’t remember that conversation. I was such a pompous ass; you shouldn’t believe anything I said. On the other hand, as I listen to Beethoven more and more, I find myself appreciating the slower movements more and more (if only because I paid so little attention to them before).

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