A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 448 – Kill Bill vol. 1

Kill Bill vol. 1 – May 22nd, 2011

I’ve got mixed feelings when it comes to Quentin Tarantino. I think he’s a brilliant guy who knows movies like few other people do. He has a recognizable aesthetic and he can do homage and reference while keeping the result distinctly his own. He has a good eye and an excellent ear and hearing him talk about movies it’s clear just how much he loves watching them, absorbing them and then making his own. And that’s all great. But he’s also got an ego the size of Jupiter and he can get so wrapped up in his own cleverness and image and reputation that things get overdone. Death Proof lowered him a lot in my eyes, but I have to reconcile it with this movie, which is an entirely different creature. So, like I said, mixed feelings.

This is probably one of the most obvious revenge quest movies I can think of. There’s no attempt to disguise it and that’s the point of the whole thing, that it’s righteous and bad-assed. There is never any question of who you should root for here. The Bride, whose name is omitted whenever it’s spoken, is your hero. She’s been put through hell and she’s going to get her revenge and if you’re not going to help her then she’s going to ignore you and if you hurt her then you’re as good as dead. She was beaten and shot on her wedding day, pregnant and trying to escape her former life as an assassin. We meet her as she tells the man shooting her – Bill – that it’s his baby. Just before he shoots her in the head. Now that? That is some potent backstory for a revenge plot.

I like how this movie is put together. Sure, starting out by going forward in time and then back is a bit of a gimmick but I don’t really mind. The Bride makes a list of people she needs to kill and we meet the second one first, but it’s a fast bit of action, all things considered, and it serves to introduce the character’s skills, lack of weaknesses and a good amount of her background. We hear she would have had a daughter. We get a bit about the assassination squad she was part of. We see a lot here, including action and a good amount of blood (but nowhere near as much as we will see). So I like it as an introduction. And by the time the movie ends we know what the Bride’s already been up to before she even got there.

It’s a fairly episodic movie. Yes, we see the last episode first, but otherwise it’s all clearly delineated by location. She starts in Texas, she wakes up in the hospital, she goes to Okinawa, she goes to Tokyo, she comes back to the US. Each section is well defined and within the section in Japan we get a complete style change to animation to show the backstory of one of her opponents: O-Ren Ishii. Now, the animation and storytelling there? I’m not so keen on. I can see its purpose, but it seems to be there more because Tarantino thought it would be cool than because it’s necessarily required for the plot. I’m not sure I care enough about O-Ren to see her childhood trauma and her own revenge story. And the animated style of it defines it as not a part of the rest of the movie’s storyline, but it also serves to separate it out and keep it from fitting into the movie as well as it should. And I find that frustrating. Whereas the rest of the episodes in the movie fit together as part of the Bride’s story, O-Ren’s doesn’t. It’s there for style more than substance. But that’s sort of how I see Tarantino: He has the potential for such fantastic substance, but gets distracted by style sometimes.

The other thing I really like about this movie, aside from the excellent cinematography and directing and all those things I expect from a Tarantino film, is that it’s not wall to wall violence. Oh sure, once the fight scenes start they’re relentless – as they should be – but there are other scenes where there’s little to no violence whatsoever. Specifically there’s the Hattori Hanzo scenes. Those are some fantastic bits that serve both as homage, with Sonny Chiba playing a role that’s a clear reference to a television show from the 80s, as well as character development for the Bride. She’s not a mindless assassin who uses a sword because it’s cool. She has a reverence for it and for its history. And it shows here. It’s a nice bit of quiet in a movie full of noise and I appreciate the pause it creates in the middle. It’s sort of a calm before the storm that is to come in the teahouse later on when she faces off with O-Ren and her gang.

This movie? Is not for young audiences. In fact, I’m impressed that the tricks that were used to land it an R instead of an NC-17 actually worked. And it gets shown on television! Every so often I flip past it and I usually pause to watch for a little while because I enjoy it quite a bit. But oh is it funny how it gets altered to make it “safe” for television. I’m often amused by these things (when we review The Breakfast Club I’ll share my favorite example) but this one is up there near the top of my list. I can’t speak to exactly how much blood and gore gets removed, but the most noticeable change is that “pussy wagon” is changed to “party wagon” and the line “My name is Buck and I’m here to fuck” gets changed to “My name is Buck and I’m here to party.” As if that at all hides the fact that Buck’s been selling her body while she was comatose. And there’s just something so ridiculous about trying to clean up this movie by changing the terminology but not the content.

Aside from the animated section I really feel that this is a tightly put together movie with a clear idea of where it’s going and what it wants to do and how it’s going to do it all. The Bride is a strong character, willing to do whatever it takes to get to Bill and kill him and take down the rest of her former teammates as she goes. Sure, she’s had horrible things happen to her, but the movie doesn’t seem to delight in showing them to us, which is a huge difference for me from Death Proof (also a revenge story but one in which the revenge cannot be enacted by those harmed the most because the movie just had to show how much they were harmed). The Bride faces off with a number of other strong characters, ones who have lives and backgrounds of their own and who can certainly go toe to toe with her. It’s paced well, populated well, written well. It’s full of darkly humorous lines in the midst of the revenge. And all the homage and reference are combined well to make it something different. I honestly think it stands fairly well on its own, but it’s only part one and ends on a cliffhanger, so we’ll have to finish talking about it tomorrow.

May 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kill Bill: Volume One

May 22, 2011

Kill Bill: Volume I

We keep saying, as we’re watching various films in our collection, “We should watch Kill Bill soon.” On Friday, for example, when we reviewed Sonny Chiba’s Dragon Princess, we commented on how the plot of a woman seeking revenge was so compelling even if the execution in that particular case was muddied by a poor translation and dub for American audiences. When we were watching Five Superfighters we were also reminded of this movie, because that sort of kung-fu staple is what inspired this movie.

Quentin Tarantino is completely straight forward in talking about this movie as homage to the samurai, kung-fu and spaghetti western movie he enjoyed growing up. In the making featurette that is on the DVD he says that in his mind Kill Bill is to the martial arts films of the seventies what Indiana Jones is to the adventure serials of the forties. In many ways I can see that, but it’s not a completely perfect analogy. Kill Bill doesn’t concern itself so much with having a continuous narrative. Instead it takes the form of isolated chapters, each taking cues from a particular genre of film. They are held together by a flimsy revenge plot and by some fantastic characters and actors, but they do not really make a complete whole. Indeed so disparate are the styles and looks of the different segments of the movie that even though events are shown out of sequence (in a very Pulp Fiction style) it doesn’t really impact the story telling.

We start out with “The Bride” (our anonymous heroine played fantastically by Uma Thurman) beaten and bloody on the floor of the chapel where she was to have been wed. Her vengeful ex Bill, whose face we never see in this movie is the head of an elite squad of killers, and together they all slaughter the wedding party and leave the Bride for dead. But she doesn’t die of course.

The movie jumps way forward now, and we see the Bride reuniting with one of her tormentors, who now lives in an unassuming suburban house with her husband and four year old daughter. She used to be Vernita Green but now she’s just Mrs. Bell. Until the Bride shows up and abruptly tries to kill her. It’s a knock down dirty vicious knife fight. This is the most brutally realistic part of the movie and the most hard-hitting. Perhaps that is why this is how Quentin chooses to start things out.

The next portion of the movie involves the four years the Bride spent comatose after her shooting. An evil one-eyed Daryl Hannah comes to her in her hospital room, but Bill calls her off before she can ignobly kill the Bride in her sleep. Eventually, of course, the Bride wakes up to discover that her comatose body has been pimped out by a slimy nurse in the hospital for the sexual gratification of awful perverts. Naturally she kills the client who has come to rape her, and kills the nurse Buck (who according to the television edit likes to party, but likes to do something more crude in the theatrical cut.) Yeah, that sets the mood for the movie right there. Awful people who deserve to die being killed.

As the Bride recovers in Buck’s truck (the Pussy Wagon) from four years of catatonia which has left her weak and almost paralyzed, we learn about the first person on her death list – O-Ren Ishii. This segment of the movie is an awesome and bloody anime short which details the young life of O-Ren as she is raised on a Japanese army base to her Chinese father and American mother. An evil mob boss kills her parents while she is hiding under the bed, and eventually an eleven year old O-Ren kills the mobster in revenge, thus beginning her career as an elite killer. In the time since O-Ren participated in the slaughter at the Bride’s wedding she has risen to the top of the Japanese underworld to be the head of all organised crime in Japan.

The next segment of the film is by far my favorite part of the whole movie. The Bride travels to Okinawa where she seeks out the retired sword maker Hattori Hanzo. Sonny Chiba portrays Hattori Hanzo, a character he has played for decades and whom Quentin Tarantino loved in his youth. This is a simple, comedic, spiritual interlude in a bloody and overwhelming movie and as such it’s an island of calm. The Bride needs the ultimate sword to exact her vengeance and apparently Hattori was once a mentor to the mysterious and nefarious Bill, so he agrees to come out of retirement and do that which he had sworn an oath never to do again: make a thing which kills people.

After this the movie returns to pure fantasy violence. The entire remaining third of the film is one long extended action scene as the Bride confronts O-Ren Ishii in a Japanese night club called the House of the Blue Leaves. She takes out the “Crazy Eighty-Eight” (O-Ren’s gang) and their masked commander as well as O-Ren’s sadistic schoolgirl bodyguard and finally faces O-Ren herself in a climactic swordfight.

This movie is all about capturing a series of visual moments. There are a few quintessentially Quentin moments, such as the “walking down the hall” scene at the House of the Blue Leaves. There are some amazing and complex camera shots, such as the lengthy steadycam shot that follows the Bride through the House of Blue Leaves, sweeping along beside her, up over walls, back through the crowd, over the balcony, picking up O-Ren’s multi lingual secretary Sofie as she walks down the stairs and completely unawares into the restroom where the Bride is waiting. Most of the time, however, the movie concentrates on evoking a particular cinematic mode. Each chapter has a distinctive style and soundtrack. Each part is a homage to an entire genre of film. As such this is actually a whole series of short films all starring the same indomitable character and all centered on a theme of vengeance.

They’re all great films though. Brilliant and well made and most of all just plain cool and fun to watch. The action is extreme, the blood is plentiful and the soundtrack is the pinnacle of awesome. Tarantino has done exactly what he set out to do – he’s distilled kung fu, spaghetti westerns, blacksploitation films and samurai movies into a single super action-fest and it is good. He pays homage and gets some of the great names to participate. Fight choreography by Yuen Wu-Ping. Sonny Chiba. This was the movie that convinced me that I completely loved Lucy Liu, who is completely awesome and kickass as O-Ren. My only regret is that I never saw this movie in the theater and had to enjoy it on the small screen. It’s a grant big action movie that deserves better.

May 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment