Quentin Tarantino Retrospective

I was really pleased to have some reader requests on the subject of my next retrospective article. Firstly it meant that people are reading and enjoying them and secondly because they picked a director whose work I enjoy but whom I had not actually considered for one of these pieces before.

Tarantino famously worked in a video store and has a huge knowledge and love of film. His first foray into film making was a low budget film made over four years called My Best Friend’s Birthday. A film that originally was meant to run at around 70 minutes but due to a lab fire only has 36 minutes of footage that still exists. The basis of this film’s plot would later be turned into True Romance, which along with Natural Born Killers and From Dusk Till Dawn are probably the most famous films he has a story or screenplay credit for that are not made by him. These were made by Tony Scott, Oliver Stone and Robert Rodriguez respectively.

As with all my other features I am going to be focusing on the films directed by Tarantino rather than those he has other credits for. This delineation is made clearer by the interesting branding that he started using on his films with Kill Bill. Volume 1, which included the credit “The 4th film from Quentin Tarantino” at its beginning.  More recently The Hateful Eight broadcast on its poster that it was “The 8th film from Quentin Tarantino” and the upcoming Once Upon A Time In Hollywood states it is “The 9th film from Quentin Tarantino”. This is interesting for a few reasons. Firstly it discounts the films mentioned above that were written by him and the likes of Sin City and Four Rooms that were partially directed by him. Secondly it considers Kill Bill as one film, despite it being released theatrically as two – more on this in my reviews.

Personally I really like this branding. If there is anything that Tarantino wants to be known as it is for having a certain panache and this adds to his branding. The one thing I find slightly concerning and just hope is further bravado is the comments he has made in interviews that he only wants to make 10 films. Which I think would be a shame.

So what is he known for? Expect to see plenty of the following:

  • Amazing soundtracks – mostly filled with songs rather than score
  • Stories told out of sequence
  • Characters waxing lyrical and at length on mundane and extraordinary subjects
  • Stylised violence
  • Cameos from himself in every single one of his films (If we count Kill Bill as one film)
  • The re-invigoration of actors careers
  • The prodigious use of the N word

And the only difficulty I had in putting this piece together is the number of late nights I needed to watch them as my wife hates his films. Considering them to be masculine wish fulfillment filled with pointless and overlong dialogue. An opinion I totally understand but one that I can not agree with, possibly because they fuel the part of me that really enjoys exactly what she dislikes about them.

Reservoir Dogs (1992) 

Six strangers are enlisted to commit a jewellery heist and when it goes wrong the survivors begin to think there may have been a rat.

I’m not entirely sure when I first saw Reservoir Dogs. I know for a fact it was not when it was released as I was eleven. But whether I saw it before or after Pulp Fiction (a video store rental) I can not say. What I do know is that every teenage boy I was friends with was obsessed with it. We quoted it, we had haircuts like Tim Roth and my word did we rock black suits with thin black ties at school prom! Its impact on us was indelible.

Since its release I must have seen it dozens of times and at least twice at the cinema at anniversary or special screenings. And it’s still really great. It sets up all of Tarantino’s trademarks as well. We have a story told out of sequence, violence, pop culture references, a great soundtrack and incredibly verbose characters discussing things at great length.

The story is now pretty iconic. Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) put together a team of six men to perform a heist. Unbeknownst to them, one is an undercover cop. Taking inspiration from 1974 film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three they are given colour coded names to ensure they remain strangers. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Brown (Tarantino) and Mr. Blue (ex-felon Eddie Bunker). The heist itself is never shown with the story unfolding via the aftermath in a disused warehouse and flashbacks setting up the characters and preparation. Tarantino has said that he wanted to make a heist movie like Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing.

Almost everything comes together to make a great film. The cast are all round superb. Keitel and Roth build an almost touching friendship, Madsen makes a worryingly good psychopath and Buscemi’s continued insistence that the group behave like professionals is hilarious. The conceit that there is a radio station playing 70’s music is fantastic. K Billy’s super sounds of the 70’s with Steven Wright introducing the songs as our characters listen helps immerse us in their world. Particularly when Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” contributes to making the cop torture scene so difficult. The sequencing of the story also makes a straight forward affair much more interesting.

It features some famous Tarantino moments as well. The opening conversation about Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and tipping waitresses is still hilarious and how many times have the slow motion credits of the actors walking along a street been copied? It was also fun to spot a conversation praising future collaborator Pam Grier on this watch.

If I were to look for negatives I think I could find two worth some thought. Firstly, some of the conversations are mannered. But if this is an issue for you here, Tarantino films are not going to be for you as it escalates very quickly as his films release. Secondly, why on earth is there an undercover cop in this crime ring? They seem pretty innocuous in the grand scheme of things and certainly not covert enough that a less high risk police investigation would bear fruit. This is grasping at straws though in a blisteringly good debut.

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Pulp Fiction (1994) 

Pulp Fiction opens with a definition of the word pulp, before telling us three (or four depending on how you see it) interconnected stories that take place across four days. As with Reservoir Dogs the stories are told out of sequence but here, aside from it being cool and building tension as to how things resolve it is used as a mechanism to show us the outcome of moral behaviours.

As mentioned earlier in my Reservoir Dogs review, my first ever viewing of Pulp Fiction was via a video rental. I suspect given the gaps in cinema and VHS releasing that would mean I watched it in 1995 at the grand old age of 14. I vividly recall that my brother and I ended up watching it on our own in the middle of the day as my parents walked out after a very short time with “better things to do”. I suspect this worked in our favour as had they stayed till the drug overdose scene we may not have got to complete our viewing! As with Reservoir Dogs this film was virtually a bible to all teenage boys I knew and being able to quote it was a badge of honour. I have seen it since at the cinema and many times on dvd/blu-ray and watching it again for this article I was blown away by just how good it is. It is far and away Tarantino’s best film.

Our main protagonists are Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta), a couple of hit-men working in the employ of Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). Stories we encounter involve a loving couple robbing a diner (Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth behaving very much like Clarence and Alabama from True Romance), Jules and Vincent completing a job and requiring the assistance of Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel who unfortunately is ruining the character on British Television using it to advertise an insurance company), Vincent taking Mrs. Wallace (Uma Thurman) out to dinner on the request of his boss (Steve Buscemi cameos as a waiter in this sequence) and journeyman boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) being asked to take a dive in his next fight.

It is almost too difficult to try to convey how good a film is when it has entered the mythology of pop culture so heavily. The music over the opening credits, a song called “Misirlou” is indelibly linked with the film. The number of recognisable scenes and quotable lines in the film is dumbfounding, in fact I think you would be hard pitched to describe a scene in the film that is not known to most cinephiles. And whilst we now watch and find the cast filled with huge stars, some of their careers spring boarded from this film. Travolta was the first actor to be discussed as having a career reinvigorated by Tarantino, whilst Jackson and Thurman both got their big breaks after solid work elsewhere.

As alluded to at the beginning, this time Tarantino seems to have a larger meaning to his interconnected stories. At the centre of them we see three characters making moral decisions and it directly effects the trajectories of their lives. Vincent and Jules witness a miracle or a freak occurrence depending on who you believe whilst Butch has to decide if he should throw a fight and run from a dangerous situation. Using the non-linear structure gives us the opportunity to see the outcomes of those decisions in a manner that gives them greater impact.

Superlative in every way.

One final thing. Technically I think this may have been the first cinematic universe that Samuel L. Jackson starred in as Michael Madsen has often talked about the possibility of their being a Vega Brothers film. Madsen’s Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs real name was Vic Vega and the apparent brother to Travolta’s Vincent Vega.

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Jackie Brown (1997) 

My first Tarantino film viewed at the cinema on its theatrical release and one that I have a bit of a soft spot for. Possibly because it was my first at the cinema on release, possibly because of my adoration for Robert DeNiro in my teens, but on this re-watch I think because it is the most grown up film Tarantino has made and I suspect this is because it is based on an original novel by Elmore Leonard called Rum Punch, rather than an original screenplay.

At the time of writing Leonard has had 26 of his works adapted for TV and Film with the most famous (aside from Jackie Brown) being Get Shorty and Out of Sight. The plot here, told for the first time in a linear timeline in a Tarantino film, is about an ageing flight attendant who is caught between the criminal she smuggles money for and ATF agents trying to turn her against him. The plot feels much more rooted in reality, drives along at a slower and more careful pace and encompasses themes about the insecurities of ageing.

Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) is a seasoned criminal and is currently making a whole heap of money selling guns. Something he loves to brag about to his partners in crime Lewis (Robert DeNiro), a slacker ex-convict and Melanie (Bridget Fonda), a slacker beach bum. The issue he has is that the majority of this money is in Mexico and he needs flight attendant Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) to help him bring it in. All of this is brought into jeopardy when loud mouth Beaumont (Chris Tucker) is caught driving a car with a concealed weapon and ATF agents Ray Nicollette (Michael Keaton) and Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) get his scent. When Robbie needs to bail both Beaumont and Brown from jail he uses the services of Bail Bondsman, Max Cherry (Robert Forster), who taking a shine to Jackie decides to help her.

Just the act of writing that plot synopsis makes me set it apart from other Tarantino films. The crime plot is dense and the characters all well rounded. In fact the performances here are universally great and with a script that is much more low key from a Tarantino perspective they all feel more real. In terms of the script it is only a scene near the beginning of the film where Samuel L. Jackson gets to elucidate the virtues of AK-47’s that really feels like a typical Tarantino speech pattern. And whilst everyone does a great job, Robert Forster (another actor that could consider having a career boost from a Tarantino casting) really steals the show for me. He is measured and thoughtful and seems to be able to convey a whole lifetime in his looks.

Elsewhere it features an absolutely belting soundtrack headed up by the Delphonics and Bobby Womack (I defy you not to be singing “across 110th street” after watching this film) and some much more assured and interesting camera moves. It is the first time Tarantino starts to use split screen and the opening credits are confident scenes of Pam Grier striding through an airport. But perhaps the best moment is one where a camera tracks a car from its parking spot to an adjacent empty parking lot, with the music from the car fading in and out of earshot. And whilst the film is shot in linear order, the final money exchange sequence is shown from three different perspectives with a clock on the screen to help us put it together.

Overall I think it is a supremely accomplished crime story. With the only detraction being that it might not be Tarantino enough for everyone and as a result its running time at 154 minutes might feel too long.

I will leave this review with the note that Michael Keaton who plays the role of ATF agent Ray Nicolette so well got to reappraise his role in the excellent 1998 film Out of Sight, also adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel. Which I think is a really cool piece of trivia.

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Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004) 

Initially when I set out to watch all of Tarantino’s films again I had every intention of reviewing Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and 2 separately. But as I watched them back to back on a rainy day I found myself constantly comparing the two and considering how they complement and contrast with each other. To the point that I decided my review needed to be written as one.

Tarantino of course considers these to be one film in his branding. Vol. 1 begins with the credit “The 4th film from Quentin Tarantino” and Vol. 2 does not have any such credit. I did some research and found that in 2004 a re-cut version of the films was shown at Cannes and has since been known as Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair. This print was also shown at the New Beverley Cinema in Los Angeles in 2011. Tarantino of course owns this cinema and it was the Cannes print with French Subtitles that was screened. Otherwise, apart from Tarantino’s assertions that he wants to update this version with another animated sequence and release it on Blu-ray nothing else has materialised.

Based on a character conceived by Tarantino and Uma Thurman whilst on the set of Pulp Fiction Kill Bill was advertised as a “roaring rampage of revenge”. Thurman plays “The Bride”, a character whose name is hidden from us for the length of the first installment. Awaking from a coma after four years she seeks revenge on the people who put her there, The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad and their leader Bill. A squad she was once a member of and her ex boyfriend.

Vol. 1 is action packed and full of invention, following The Bride as she takes revenge on two of the members the squad, Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) and O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). This film features split screen, narration, an animated segment, a black and white sequence and ultimately feels bursting with ideas. It also features a fight scene in the House of Blue Leaves that took eight weeks to film and was the only section of either film I truly remembered from my previous viewings.

Vol. 2 on the other hand is far more reflective. Whilst The Bride killed approximately fifty people in the first film, I think here she technically only kills one. Her revenge this time is on the remaining two members of the squad, Bill’s brother Budd (Michael Madsen) , Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) and Bill (David Carradine) himself. This time though the film is focused more on The Bride’s training, her overcoming difficulties and her relationship with Bill.

And it is the above contrast that really made me want to write these reviews together. Vol. 1 taken on its own is style over substance. There is virtually no plot and it is filled with visual flourishes and contains a great action sequence in The House of Blue Leaves. Vol. 2 taken on its own could be considered slow and ponderous. It is laying out much more of the backstory and character for the two most important characters; The Bride and Bill. Both films lack the key qualities that the other has and watching them together helps that deficiency. From my research, The Whole Bloody Affair does not resolve this issue, as it essentially plays in the same sequence, but removing the cliffhanger from Vol. 1 and the introduction in Vol. 2 with some added violence (apparently it removes the need for black and white during the House of Blue Leaves which was inserted to get an R rating, a stylistic choice forced on the director that I think I would miss. Additional note – you can see this sequence in full in colour in the Japanese DVD.). But the key thing is that taken as a whole the film contains both the plot and the flair that it requires to feel complete.

What makes Kill Bill so much fun then? At its heart it is Tarantino presenting approximately four hours of his love for oriental martial arts films and culture. This is on screen in the form of:

  • An anime segment in vol. 1 directed by Kazuto Nakazawa depicting O-Ren Ishii’s childhood
  • 1970’s martial arts legend Sonny Chiba appearing as Hattori Hanzo, a master samurai sword maker (among many others who I fail to recognise I am sure)
  • The Bride wearing a yellow outfit similar to Bruce Lee in Game of Death
  • A homage to the Shaw Brothers Studio, famous for martial arts films in the opening credits
  • Another 1970’s martial arts legend Gordon Liu appears in Vol. 1 as Johnny Mo, leader of the Crazy 99’s and in Vol. 2 as Master Pai Mei
  • And of course a huge helping of martial arts and samurai sword action (including The Bride happily taking her sword on a plane and through an airport)

Elsewhere, Tarantino returns to his non linear structure with the films playing out in chapter segments that are out of sequence and at this point was able to pull together an incredibly interesting cast. Originally Warren Beatty was wanted for the role of Bill which I think would have been very interesting but due to the leaning toward martial arts Carradine was asked and does a great job, even if only really in Vol. 2. Oh and Samuel L. Jackson appears in Vol. 2 in a small role.

It clearly has issues caused by it being separated, but it is still a whole heap of fun.

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Death Proof (2007) 

Tarantino followed up one film that was split into two by another. Death Proof was supposed to be the second segment of a double feature called Grindhouse made with Robert Rodriguez and I think it’s quite important to qualify what film I’m reviewing versus its original vision.

Grindhouse is an American film industry term which refers to cinemas that would specialise in screening exploitation films in double, triple or continuous bill formats for low admission fees. Generally speaking the image and artistic quality would also be low in line with those prices. Grindhouse cinemas died out in the 1980’s and 90’s in the main due to the impact of home video. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino wanted to create a film going experience for modern audiences to match this.

What was created was a 191 minute theatrical cut featuring Robert Rodriguez directed Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantino directed Death Proof as the main features with fake trailers for other grindhouse films made by other directors. Those fake films were Machete directed by Robert Rodriguez, Hobo with a Shotgun directed by Jason Eisener, Don’t directed by Edgar Wright, Thanksgiving directed by Eli Roth and Werewolf Woman of the SS directed by Rob Zombie. The first two of those have since been made into actual films.

This theatrical version was only shown at cinemas in the U.S. and Canada. Due to incredibly poor Box Office and the fact that grindhouse cinema houses only existed in America the decision was made to release extended length versions of both films separately elsewhere in the world. Oddly, the Grindhouse double feature appears to only ever been released in its original incarnation on DVD in Japan. So, as with Kill Bill Japan has a more interesting DVD opportunity.

I own both the Planet Terror and Death Proof extended version DVD’s and something that perhaps hints at my cinema experiences of the two was that my Death Proof DVD was still in the cellophane. Death Proof runs at 127 mins as opposed to its apparent 100 minute version in the Grindhouse double bill.

The plot is basic. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) drives a death proof car and stalks and kills girls by staging car accidents. It is very much a film of two halves.

The first half is almost unbearably bad and features all the hallmarks of the grindhouse milieu. The title appears for a split second as Quentin Tarantino’s Thunderbolt before changing to a generic Death Proof title. This apes the idea that cinema owners would change the titles of underperforming films to trick people into coming to see them. And the entire first half has been visually altered to make it appear as though the film print has not been looked after by projectionists as it’s been moved around screens and cinemas. It features crackles and lines appearing throughout, along with sound pops, missing frames and choppy editing.

In terms of plotting the first half follows Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier), Shanna (Jordan Ladd) and Pam (Rose McGowan) making their way to a bar, talking a lot and then meeting Stuntman Mike. Tarantino’s normal verve for unique and fun conversation deserts him in this section. It’s interminably long and dull. And made worse by cameos from Tarantino and Eli Roth, who are both far better behind the camera than in front. It also features law enforcement in the form of Earl and Edgar McGraw played by Michael and James Parks who have appeared in Kill Bill, From Dusk Till Dawn and Planet Terror as the same characters.

The second half of the film drops the visual style and features conversations much more akin to a Tarantino film. Its crisp, clear visuals are such a breath of fresh air following the first half of the film and our new group of girls have much better dialogue and some fantastic stunt work to back them up. Although Tarantino can not resist a little stunt casting with Zoe Bell as herself, the stunt woman responsible for Uma Thurman’s Kill Bill work. Alongside her are Rosario Dawson as Abernathy, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lee and Tracie Thoms as Kim.

Kurt Russell seems to be having much more fun with his role here, the conversation fizzes much more and the vehicle stunts at the very end are great.

If the additional 27 minutes added are all in the first section of the film I would gladly see them all excised again here. The visual style, initially fun grates very quickly and the script and acting are risible. Regardless of whether Tarantino is trying to match the exploitation low quality films he is paying homage too it’s not fun to watch.

If I’m honest the idea behind the project and all of its history is far more interesting than the extended DVD release and the film I saw at the cinema. I can only wonder whether the original version would work better for me.

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Inglourious Basterds (2009) 

The Inglourious Basterds are a group of Jewish American soldiers in Nazi-occupied France led by Aldo “The Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt). Their main aim to kill and scalp Nazi soldiers and instill fear into their ranks. When given a secret mission that involves the assassination of high ranking Nazi leaders their story intersects with that of Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), a Jewish woman who escaped the Nazis who is now a Cinema owner and Colonel Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa (Christoph Waltz), the man Shosanna escaped from as a teenager.

Feeling very much like the beginning of a new era for Tarantino after the disappointing Death Proof this is a return to form with brilliant dialogue led set pieces, intriguing characters and an audacious and controversial ending. Whilst told in chronological order Tarantino does return to his chapter marked story telling technique, with 5 chapters making up this 153 minute film.

Ostensibly a World War 2 film about men on a mission it is actually much more a film about films with the titular Basterds not as front and centre as you might think. Tarantino is a big fan of Italian film maker Enzo G. Castellari who made the 1978 film The Inglorious Bastards that Tarantino took inspiration from for his title. The 1978 correctly spelled film is a loose remake of The Dirty Dozen and other than the title and the World War 2 setting has nothing in common with Tarantino’s film. Tarantino did give cameos to both Castelleri and Bo Svenson, the star of the 1978 film. The plot of Tarantino’s film in the main follows an Allied secret mission to use the premiere of a Nazi propaganda film as a focal point for an attack. This means that we get to see the inner workings of a cinema, get a lesson on the flammable nature of film stock and are treated to glimpses of a fictional German propaganda film (directed by Eli Roth who also stars).

Where this film excels though is in its casting and script. It is filled with excellent acting and dialogue. A lot of which is in French and German with subtitles making it feel more authentic. Back in 2009 this was the first time I recall seeing the likes of Christoph Waltz, Michael Fassbender, Daniel Bruhl, Diane Kruger and Melanie Laurent on screen and all of them deliver fantastic performances. My favourite performances in the film come from Waltz, Fassbender and Pitt. Waltz won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role and it is very much deserved. The opening chapter of the film is dominated by him and he delivers a frightening character and keeps the scenes he is in filled with tension. Fassbender only appears in a few scenes, but the set piece in the basement bar is one of the best in the film and this is very much down to his performance. Pitt on the other hand is just having an awful lot of fun wrapping his vocal chords around a southern accent and scaring Nazi’s. Elsewhere it is worth noting that we hear the voices of Tarantino favourites Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel.

Given that we are probably used to the stylised violence used by Tarantino at this point the most controversial aspect of the film is probably the revisionist aspect of the plot. Historical accuracy is out the window and wish fulfillment and making a cool, funny film are very much the agenda.

Overall it is a lot of fun.

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Django Unchained (2012) 

If Inglourious Basterds was Tarantino’s tribute to an Italian film maker’s World War 2 movie this is his tribute to an Italian film maker’s spaghetti western. 1968 saw the release of Django, written and directed by Sergio Corbucci, a spaghetti western featuring Franko Nero in the title role. Aside from the title the two films share only a theme song and a piece of music from Ennio Morricone. Elsewhere Unchained features the credit “And with the friendly participation of Franko Nero” and a cameo from the man himself. Otherwise, just like with Inglourious it is a very high profile way for Tarantino to show his film history credentials.

The film opens with bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) buying and freeing Django (Jamie Foxx) from slavery in order to use his knowledge to track his latest bounty, the Brittle Brothers. As they form a friendship Schultz learns of Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) and thanks to his German heritage explains to Django the legend of Siegfried and Broomhilda and they set out to rescue her from her captor. Which is where we come to the devils of the film, plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

Django Unchained has a lot happening in it. It is a film based in name on another Tarantino Italian favourite, the plot bares some relation to the Wagner Opera Siegfried whose legend is discussed, it is set in 1858 three years prior to the civil war and is very much about slavery, the treatment of black Americans and features the Ku Klux Klan. Oh and the N word is said over one hundred times. But whilst this sounds complex and controversial it is actually one of Tarantino’s more straight forwardly enjoyable films in some time and there are a number of reasons for that.

Firstly, none of Tarantino’s non linear story telling devices or chapter marks are in place. The story is told in a linear straight forward manner with occasional use of flashbacks and the use of text to convey the passing of some time. We can just sit back and let the story unfold without needing to slot together the jigsaw pieces.

Secondly, the 165 minute running time is divided neatly into three main sections that receive injections of momentum from the introduction of key characters. The opening section is all about Django and Schultz forming a friendship, completing Schultz’s bounty and training Django. The middle section introduces us to the gloriously evil villains Candie and Stephen and we have the cat and mouse situation of who will win. The final section is all about revenge and probably Tarantino’s most bonkers cameo in any of his films. I think his accent is meant to be South African and it definitely is a bad performance and yet it does not derail the film.

Thirdly, the performances from everyone else involved and the script they are reading from are brilliant. Foxx has real swagger and absolutely commands the film in the lead role. Waltz won his second consecutive supporting actor Oscar working for Tarantino with another erudite performance. With Hans Landa and King Schultz already in the can I would not be surprised to see Waltz continue to be a regular for Tarantino. Samuel L. Jackson gives a difficult and intriguing performance as a black man who works against his people and then we have the utter genius of Leonardo DiCaprio. Calvin Candie is one of the most evil people to appear on screen and his introduction in a crash zoom sets him up as the pantomime villain that he is. And this is before we talk about the smaller roles. Jonah Hill and Don Johnson (Tarantino career revival attempt?) have a hilarious segment involving Ku Klux Klan uniform and Walton Goggins and Kerry Washington make their mark in small roles as well.

Aesthetically we get to see Tarantino’s first efforts at Western scope, are treated to the usually great soundtrack with old songs and in this film Tarantino adopted ultra violent fountains of blood caused by gunshots. If you thought his previous films featured some claret you have not seen anything yet!

Django feels like a film with a director completely confident in his own game and unchained himself.

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The Hateful Eight (2015) 

Watching The Hateful Eight at the cinema in the UK on release was slightly trickier than it should have been. Thanks to a dispute with the distributor over the Odeon getting exclusive rights to screen the 70mm print in Leicester Square both Cineworld (including their subsidiary Picturehouse) and Curzon elected not to screen the film at any of their cinemas across the country. Perhaps it was the fact that I was disappointed not to be able to see the 70mm screenings or the (slightly) additional journey time and cost but I found my cinema experience to be mostly fine, but not as exciting a prospect as it should have been. After all, this was Tarantino making a western with an Ennio Morricone score in 70mm. How pleasantly surprised I was then to find my home cinema viewing so much more satisfying.

The first thing to discuss should be the running time and difference in versions. The version I saw at the cinema was 187 minutes long. It included a 4 minute overture, a 12 minute intermission and approximately 6 minutes of footage not in the home released version which runs at 167 minutes. Obviously there is nothing to miss in the overture and intermission, these are things that Tarantino clearly thought would add to the cinema experience he was aiming for. Although personally I recall a screening of about twenty people all wondering what to do with themselves during an intermission that might have generated more buzz in a packed out screening. Tarantino himself excised the other snippets of scenes feeling they didn’t add to the plot and were more suited to the larger format release. For me, the shorter version without the break was infinitely better.

Given the decision to film in 70mm and create a western with a Morricone score the plot is a little surprising. Returning to his chapter format the film plays out mostly in a single cabin. Over six chapters, the penultimate of which rewinds us in time in typical Tarantino non-linear fashion we are played the story of how eight hard bitten characters hole up in a cabin during a blizzard in post civil war America. With only a few sections set outside in the blizzard we get little time to appreciate the ratio it is filmed in, with the opening titles being the best example of classic western vistas.

John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is taking his bounty Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock. With a blizzard setting in he and his driver O.B. (James Parks) are heading to Minnie’s Haberdashery for shelter when they encounter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) on the way. When they arrive the other guests are Bob (Demián Bichir), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). Unsure of who to trust the film plays out like a murder mystery where you know someone is more than they seem but you can’t establish who.

The result is Tarantino’s flare for characters talking distilled down to its purest form with the majority of the film set in one location with the characters feeling each other out. And if you enjoy Tarantino’s character interplay then this is a treat with some really great performances.

Tim Roth probably gives my favourite performance in the film with a gloriously over the top British accent. Jennifer Jason Leigh picked up an Oscar nomination for a role that requires a huge amount of physical acting and humour. Her pantomime winks and gestures bringing big smiles to my face. Kurt Russell plays a blustering and mean man with an amazing moustache. Dern is curmudgeonly and bitter. Goggins is outstanding in an incredibly interesting role, a racist southerner who puts the law and justice above his beliefs. And of course Jackson whom Tarantino gives two of the best stories to tell in the Lincoln Letter and the story of a man who came to hunt him down. It is only Madsen and Bichir of our key eight characters who seem to blend in.

When outside the film looks fantastic with spectacular shots. When inside the film feels suitably claustrophobic and tense whilst utilising the new fountains of blood method for any gunshot wounds used in Django Unchained. Musically Morricone provides a new score as well as using his own music from The Thing and Exorcist 2. And as with all Tarantino films he uses a few songs as well, notably The White Stripes’ “Apple Blossom” to start the film and Roy Orbison’s “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home” over the end credits.

Tarantino’s cameo in this film comes in the form of narrator for the moments immediately after where the intermission would have been. Without the intermission it is not as odd as you might think as it also coincides with the beginning of chapter four in the story. It is definitely one of Tarantino’s better cameos as it enhances the murder mystery feel to the story.

Of course the biggest negative of this film is that it is nearly three hours of a small group of characters talking. If you are not a fan of Tarantino dialogue or the characters involved it will wear out its welcome fast. For me, it is highly enjoyable stuff.

hatefuleight

Summation

I knew going into this project that I liked many of Tarantino’s films but it’s really clear to me from watching the films in sequence that he has gone through three phases in his career. The first phase encompasses three crime movies. The seminal Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and what for me might be my favourite Tarantino, Jackie Brown. The second phase is the experimental and I imagine disappointing phase of having his films separated. This covers the fun but flawed Kill Bill and the misfire of Death Proof. The third phase covers his most recent efforts that all seem to be revisionist love letters to genre movies. Both Inglorious and Django borrow their names from older films and all three are Tarantino versions of genre movies. And whilst all of his films have merit it is only those in the first and third phase that really speak to me.

The other thought that came to me was that from a plot perspective all of his films are lightweight. There is little deeper meaning involved. But what makes them so much fun is the script and the storytelling techniques deployed. The easiest examples of this are the non linear narratives of his first two films. If someone edited Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction into chronological order they would destroy the magic entirely. And what Tarantino excels at is script-writing. At his best it is a joy to listen to his characters talk and the result is that he can get the best actors to deliver those lines.

One thing I think Tarantino has suffered from over the course of his career is editing. The length of his films regularly exceed 150 minutes, with only Reservoir Dogs and Death Proof under this running time if you consider Kill Bill as one film. But I think that Tarantino considers his films to be events and knows that his conversation between characters is his strength and as a result does not consider the running time to be an issue. Although I think The Hateful Eight pushes this theory to the absolute limit.

As with most directors I admire Tarantino returns to actors quite regularly for his films. Samuel L. Jackson appears in six of his eight films in one form or another. Whilst the likes of Michael Madsen, Harvey Keitel, James and Michael Parks, Tim Roth, Uma Thurman, Kurt Russell and Christoph Waltz have appeared more than once. And of course stunt woman Zoe Bell impressed him so much that he has given her starting roles in his films as well as stunt double positions.

One really interesting fact I came across in my research is that Tarantino owns his very own cinema now. The New Beverley Theatre in Los Angeles which is committed to showing films on 35mm with real projectionists. It is one of the only places to have ever shown Kill Bill in its full form and it is worth checking out their website if you are interested in the sort of films he programmes into their screenings. It is certainly a place I would like to visit if I were ever in LA.

In my opinion, a fantastic film maker. But certainly one I can understand people disliking. Male wish fulfilment and cool for the sake of cool might be an over exaggeration but if you find his scripts tedious and his stylised violence over the top then you are never going to get on with his films.

In terms of my rankings I found myself in the odd position where probably my favourite Tarantino does not make the Essential grade. Jackie Brown has its flaws and is not the quality of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction but I think it is my preferred slice of Tarantino.

Quentin Tarantino Ranked 

Essential  – A must watch for everyone

  • Reservoir Dogs
  • Pulp Fiction

Good – Exactly that, a good film worth watching

  • Jackie Brown
  • Kill Bill: Vol.1 and Vol. 2
  • Inglourious Basterds
  • Django Unchained
  • The Hateful Eight

For fans of their work – Fans will still enjoy these, less so for casual observers

None – although on a good day Death Proof could be here and on a bad day The Hateful Eight

Eminently missable – Even fans might struggle, for completionists only

  • Death Proof

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