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‘Kill Bill’ and the Five Styles of Fighting in Tarantino’s Kung Fu Opus

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Quentin Tarantino Spotlight

If Tarantino’s films of the 1990s announced the writer-director as a phenom for writing formidably snappy dialogue that enhanced characterization, his films of the 00s, while continuing to demonstrate the aforementioned writing prowess, suggest that he is equally adept at staging and filming wonderful action scenes, be they brawls, gunfights or contests of martial arts skills. Death Proof and Django Unchained have their share of impressive set pieces representing unique visions of what, in the case of the former, a cinematic car chase can be like, and, in the case of the latter, what a cinematic gunfight shoot out can be like. In essence, pretty darn sweet.

In both cases, even though Tarantino and his crack team definitely put their own spin on such action set pieces, the ingenuity that went into both was inspired by movies which made names for themselves in the annals of film history. As is often the case with this most flamboyant and divisive of filmmakers, a lot of what we saw on screen were hipper, snappier, more contemporary versions of scenes from the past. Impressive as those two examples may be of Tarantino stretching his directorial muscles for some adrenaline-pumping scenes, the most complete and, dare it be argued, complex examples came in form of his two Kill Bill chapters. Let us take a closer look at the variety of fight scenes Tarantino serves up and where some of his inspiration might have come from.

Gordon Liu and Uma Thurman

1-The training

Every protagonist who faces the tallest of obstacles ahead of them in order to achieve their ultimate objective is required to hone their set of skills, otherwise, failure shall stare them squarely in the face. All hopeful martial artists, therefore, must pass a series of gruelling series of training sessions that demand unrelenting physical, psychological and sometimes even emotional investment of the highest order. It begins with the training after all. Without the dutiful practice to perfect physical feats and usage of a wide variety of weaponry, there is no chance at success, especially not against the most terrifyingly proficient foes.

Taking important cues from some legendary Shaw Brothers pictures which themselves have earned top marks in the hearts and minds of kung fu film fans everywhere, Tarantino offers audiences a loving homage in the second volume of the Kill Bill story, when Bill leaves Uma Thurman’s Bride with his former teacher, Pai Mei, played with infectious glee by Shaw legend Gordon Liu. Those two elements right there, the fact that Gordon Liu plays a kung fu master and the appearance of Pai Mei (a character who appeared in a great many Shaw films, among them Fists of the White Lotus), are in of themselves delicious references to the history of such films. Tarantino would be remiss to stop just there. The training itself is the real meat of this sequence and also brings long-time fans back to the films of yesteryear.

Kill Bill

Apart from Fists of the White Lotus, the most obvious film this chapter harkens back to is the 36th Chamber of the Shaolin, often referred to as the greatest martial arts film of them all. Starring Gordon Liu (not as a priest, mind you, but rather a young, ambitious martial artist looking for redemption), it features one of the longest and best training sequences in any movie. There is so much going on and each of those elements is lovingly reproduced in Kill Bill vol. 2. There is the physical strain the Bride must go through, which we see when she is forced by Pai Mei to punch through thick wooden planks as well as carry large buckets of water up an endless flight of stairs. To pass the physical test, mental strength is of equal importance, yet another thing that the Bride and Liu’s characters must discover. Mind over matter, as the saying goes, which helps her overcome the fear of pain when repeatedly smashing her hands against wood.

The Bride is also the target of her master’s scorn. Usually said animosity might derive from the teacher’s natural predilection to despise whatever colour or creed his student is, or simply because he sees no potential to bear fruit from. In any event, Pai Mei displays an unshakable disdain for the Bride at first, mocking what he sees as her amateurish capabilities, and mocking her because she’s a whitey who can’t speak proper Cantonese. The bubbling tension influences dinner time as well. After practicing long and hard at ripping through those wooden planks with her fists, the Bride is unable to eat her steamed rice with chopsticks. Upon grabbing some of the delicious food with her bare hands, Pai Mei tosses her bowl to the floor, berating her disrespectful gesture, claiming that is she so desires to eat like a dog, then she best chow down from the floor. In 36th Chamber of Shaolin, the Liu character goes through some similar circumstances, with one elder continuously doubting his potential to the point where they engage in a contest at one point. As for the food-related scenes, due to Liu’s impertinence, he is the last one to arrive for lunch and thus must satisfy himself with the paltry leftovers.

2-Close quarters, one-on-one combat.

Now that our heroine has merited her master’s blessings, here comes the hard part: actually vanquishing her foes in a multitude of settings, each demanding that the protagonist dig deep into her kung fu knowledge. First comes the grittier, less gracious sort of encounter, the type which pits opponents in some unreasonably close spots, with less room to maneuver and utilize their weapons as they would like. These battles typically see the mutual enemies both make use of and work around the restrictive environment.

At the very start of the Kill Bill vol. 1, the Bride arrives at the home of Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) in a California suburb. It is a lovely little home, perfect for a new family, although far from ideal for two deadly fighters to have a go at it. When Vernita opens the door and discovers nonother than her former partner, long presumed to be dead, things go haywire quicker than O-Ren Ishii can decapitate dissenting Yakuza clan members. What follows is more a brawl than a martial arts fight, with both characters getting tosses onto and in some cases through furniture. The finesse one would normally discover in such battles is lacking in most part due to the unhelpful setting. Of all the fights depicted over the course of the two films, this looks and sounds like the most bone-crunch inducing. Even though this fight is rather bloody, it has a bit of a Jackie Chan element to it, what the enemies thinking on their feet by using regular house objects as weapons and showing off kung fu moves while avoiding (or not) various hurdles around the living room and kitchen. Interestingly enough, their duel comes to a swift and unexpected ending once Vernita surprises the Bride by firing a pistol through a cereal box in the kitchen just as tempers were seemingly cooling down. She misfires, providing our heroine with barely enough time to toss a kitchen knife into her chest. Never bring a gun to a kung fu fight, bitch.

The second significant-close quarters battle occurs in the second volume, between Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) and the Bride. This one is even more impressive for two notable reasons. First, the setting is even more compact than was the Bride-Vernita contest, seeing as it transpires within Budd’s (Michael Madsen) modest trailer house. With such restrictive space to do battle, the complications are numerous. Nevertheless, that does not prevent Elle from opting to cut down her opponent with a Hattori Hanzo sword. The reality of the situation is that there is not enough space to properly manipulate the blade, and thus as Elle continuously attempts to release the sword from its holster, the end keeps banging on walls. By the end of the fight, Budd’s trailer home is in utter shambles and Elle has lost her only remaining eye, although the latter bit is of the Bride’s doing.

3-Slow and steady swordsmanship

Thankfully, not all battles will force contestants to adapt not only to their opponents but the distractions of the surroundings. Sometimes, the conditions for attacking one’s enemy are ideal: open space with nothing but air between the heroine and her target.

This type of encounter happens at the very end of Kill Bill vol. 1 when the Bride, fresh off of vanquishing the Crazy 88s, finally comes face to face with their leader, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). Both are skilled in the art of the samurai, and therefore their contest is a slower, more methodically paced affair. Each movement is either a step closer to death or to victory. The slightest step, the slightest gesture with the arms, every detail matters in a fight of this kind. The inspiration here is less Shaw Brothers lore and more the Japanese samurai film. Much like the high noon standoff in American westerns, it typically does not make for the most flamboyant sort of duel. It is more a matter of out waiting and out thinking the other swordsman. When the opportunity for the perfect blow arrives, an expert will take advantage and see their rival fall lifelessly to the ground. Akira Kurosawa was one such director who made wonderful stories of the samurai who either served lords or were masterless, although his samurai movies were more epic in scope and involved some rather high octane battles, at least so far as samurai sword fights are concerned. Harakiri, from director Masaki Kobayashi is perhaps a better example, or even Sword of Doom from Kihachi Okamoto, which even has a standoff between two fighters in a snowy setting similar to the one in Kill Bill vol. 1.

4-Outdoing the ‘special weapon’

Once the Bride has announced her presence to O-Ren and the crazy 88s at the Blue Lotus restaurant, all bets are off. The time for lurking behind motorcycle masks and hiding in bathroom stalls is over. However, before even getting a chance to kill O-Ren, the Bride is forced to reckon with her special crew, the Crazy 88s, and her personal guard, Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama), a sick, demented teenager who dresses up in private school girl attire and wields one of the deadliest weapons scene in the film: a razor equipped metal ball attached at the end of a chain. Having trained herself with this weapon of choice, Gogo can whip the sphere wherever and however hard she pleases. With far more covering distance than a samurai blade (and just as deadly!), Gogo may be the most unexpectedly difficult foe the Bride does battle with.

There are so many points of comparison to be made with Gogo’s pseudo ‘ball and chain.’ The Shaw Brothers classics of old were replete with enemies and heroes who made names for themselves across the land with the help of some custom made weapons which caught opponents off guard before someone eventually learned how to work around them. The hooked sword in The One-Armed Swordsman, the metal paws from The Avenging Eagle, the titular golden blade from Vengeance is a Golden Blade, and yes, even though Goomba Stomp editor Ricky D and I disagree on the cool factor of the weapon, even the famous flying guillotine. In each case, the heroes are on the disadvantage until they either claim the special weapon for themselves or discover the weapon’s weakness. The Bride-Gogo fight in Kill Bill vol. 1 is among the most tension-filled in the entire two-part story because Gogo and her specialized weapon feel like the most legitimate threats the heroine has to face. After she takes a few nasty shots of the metal ball to the chest, a viewer can be forgiven for asking themselves if the protagonist will even live through the encounter.

5-One against a legion

Of all the examples reviewed above, most would be quick to claim that the most spectacular instance of kung fu ass whooping is when the protagonist, either alone or with a small band of allies, are greatly outnumbered by their enemies and whose only hope for survival is by fending all of them off. While the tension level might take a drop in scenes such as this (typically the heroes emerge not only victorious but unscathed for the most part) they do in fact make for the most fun action scenes.

Immediately following the death of Gogo, O-Ren calls upon her Yakuza team, the Crazy 88s. Equipped with a Hattori Hanzo sword, the Bride sees herself circled by a small army of men wearing thin black masks across their eyes and foreheads, all pointing their own swords straight at her. Led by Johnny Mo (Gordon Liu, doing double duty in these films), the onslaught begins. The acrobatics involved in this stunning sequence are most impressive, with a fair share of the credit going to stunt-woman Zoe Bell who steps in for Uma Thurman for the more risky shots. Tarantino also called upon the help of Yuen Wo-Ping for fight choreography and this Blue Lotus battle is arguably the most glorious example of his contributions to the two films. Enemies are offed in any number of ways. Some go down in vintage samurai fashion by remaining immobile on their two feet for a moment, as if stunned, before dropping dead, while others, unfortunately, have their limbs hacked off. Decapitations, eyeballs ripped out of sockets, even one poor sap who is split into two from the head down!

The fight in the diner from Come Drink With Me and the climactic stairwell battle in Have Sword Will Travel are but two of the many classic Shaw films from which the Blue Lotus might have found inspiration from.

With that, I hope fans of these two films will want to explore some of the earlier movies referenced in this article and then re-watch Kill Bill with a different perspective. Tarantino took inspiration from the very best martial arts movies to then make his own high-octane version of them. Some would call it plagiarism. Others would call it learning from the masters.

-Edgar Chaput

A native of Montréal, Québec, Edgar has been writing about film since 2008. At first relegated to a personal blog back when those things were all the rage, he eventually became a Sound on Sight staff member in late 2011, a site managed by non-other than Ricky D himself. Theatrical reviews, festival coverage, film noir and martial arts flicks columns, he even co-hosted a podcast for a couple of years from 2012 to 2014 with Ricky and Simon Howell. His true cinematic love however, his unshakable obsession, is the 007 franchise. In late 2017, together with another 00 agent stationed in Montreal, he helped create The James Bond Complex podcast (alas, not part of the Goombastomp network) in which they discuss the James Bond phenomenon, from Fleming to the films and everything in between. After all, nobody does it better.

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10 Years Later: ‘Inglourious Basterds’ Showed Us a Brand New Way to Root Against Nazis

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The tradition of Nazis being villains in movies — and those movies inviting audiences to cheer for those Nazis’ defeat — is one that goes back nearly as long as Nazis themselves. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) mocked Adolf Hitler before the U.S. had even entered World War II, and Hollywood didn’t wait for the fighting to be over before it started making dozens of movies about the struggle against the Nazis. This included Casablanca — with its corrupt Nazi viceroy, Strasser — and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be, both released in 1942.

Movies about World War II continued to be produced in the ensuing decades, with mockery of Hitler a continued theme in the work of director Mel Brooks, who mockingly staged a pro-Hitler musical called Springtime For Hitler in 1972’s The Producers, made his own version of To Be Or Not To Be in 1983, and revisited The Producers with a musical play and second movie years after that. Serious World War II movies also had a brief resurgence in the late 1990s, with Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan arriving in 1998, but no film has had a take on the Nazis quite like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which was released in August 21, 2009.

Inglourious Basterds Hitler

Tarantino’s sixth film, Inglourious Basterds is set in Nazi-occupied France during World War II, and provides the sort of revisionist, fictionalized version of history that would become a trademark in the second half of the director’s career. It even includes something the director would later do again: the phrase “Once Upon a Time…” both as the title of the first chapter, and in the film’s marketing materials, and used as a way to fudge the actual facts of history.

For instance, Adolf Hitler himself does indeed appear in Inglourious Basterds (played by German actor Martin Wuttke), but it’s a small role, and one in which the Fuhrer is treated as a comedic foil, repeatedly screaming “nein! nein! nein!” and seen as the butt of jokes right up until his ultimate, ahistorical demise. Tarantino and Wuttke’s take on Hitler is definitely of a piece with that of Mel Brooks — or even of the series of Internet memes based on the 2004 movie Downfall — that became popular in the years prior to the release of Basterds.

The main Nazi villain in Inglourious Basterds is Hans Landa, the fictitious SS Colonel nicknamed “The Jew Hunter.” Played by Christoph Waltz in an Oscar-winning turn (and as an actor that was likely unfamiliar to most audiences at the time), Landa is a different kind of movie Nazi — one who’s as erudite as he is menacing. He’s also unusually self-aware, commenting on his “Jew hunter” nickname much the same way that a Nazi character in Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be mused on his moniker, “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.”

At the film’s end, we see Landa betray the Nazi cause, and then get betrayed himself, as the Basterds, rather than killing him, ruin his plans for a peaceful stateside retirement by carving a swastika into his skull. Between that, the death of Hitler, and the entire Nazi command burning in a Paris movie theater, it’s fair to say that Inglourious Basterds dispenses with its Nazi villains in an entirely different way than every other World War II film ever made (though Tarantino, for good measure, would include another scene of a roomful of Nazis getting torched in one of the movie-within-a-movie scenes from 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).

Inglourious Basterds has multiple plot strands concerning payback as well — with the key ones including Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) seeking revenge against the Nazis who murdered her family, as well as a platoon of Jewish-American soldiers (the Basterds of the title) on the prowl to collect the scalps of Nazis at the behest of their commander (Brad Pitt) — that made it part of a mini-trend for films of its time period (following Steven Spielberg’s Munich and Edward Zwick’s Defiance), dealing with historical Jews taking up arms and getting revenge. (Though Tarantino, unlike the other two directors, resisted the urge to inexplicably cast Daniel Craig as a Jewish character.)

Inglourious Basterds scalping

However, that’s an aspect of Inglourious Basterds that’s worthy of re-examination: it doesn’t really interrogate itself in any way about the morality of what the Basterds are doing. Sure, it’s beyond satisfying to see Nazis defeated, especially during the war (and by extension, during the Holocaust), but we see the characters doing certain things — executing prisoners after their capture, carving swastikas into foreheads, scalping heads — that in real life would likely be classified as war crimes. Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which arrived four years earlier, was another story of Jewish revenge, but —  contrary to Seth Rogen’s famous monologue in Knocked UpMunich was almost entirely about the moral questions connected to that revenge, and the effect carrying it out had on the people doing it.

So, how does Inglourious Basterds fare on re-examination? It remains a notably uneven movie. Yes, Waltz’s turn as Lanza is one of the best performances in any Tarantino film, the writer-director’s central metaphor about Nazis living by and eventually dying at the movies is one that ultimately works, and the film’s exploration of the Nazi-era German film industry, one later explored in the 2018 documentary Hitler’s Hollywood, is compelling.

However, the film is at times also excruciatingly slow, with several scenes that seem to slog on forever. The tendency to let scenes drag towards the 20-minute mark was probably Tarantino’s biggest weakness as a filmmaker in the period of his career between Kill Bill Vol. 2 in 2004 and The Hateful Eight in 2015. Going for the slow burn is understandable, but if the dialogue isn’t popping like it did in Tarantino’s early films, the scenes can be a chore to sit through.

Yet, Quentin Tarantino is in love with film history like few other directors, and the more long-ago and obscure, the better. It’s virtually certain that he knows the entire history of World War II movies, and was aware every single trope that he’s extolling and subverting in Inglourious Basterds, as is likely certain with so many of his other films (he even paid subtle homage in Christopher Walken’s famous Pulp Fiction monologue to the 1943 film Air Force, with reference to that film’s main character, “a gunner named Winocki”). With Inglourious Basterds, he used that knowledge to create a film that fits in with the history of the genre, while going off into an entirely different direction.

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How ‘The Wizard’ failed Nintendo

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Wizard movie Review

Although e-sports have reportedly been a part of video game culture since the early ’70s, competitions saw a large surge in popularity in 1989 when Universal Pictures produced The Wizard, about a trio of kids who make their way to a national Nintendo video game championship (Video Armageddon) for a grand prize of $50,000. The charismatic and rising star of television’s Wonder Years, Fred Savage, stars as Corey, a boy who escorts his deeply traumatized younger half-brother Jimmy (Luke Edwards) away from a group home and sets off on a cross-country trek, chased by their father (Beau Bridges), their older brother (Christian Slater), and a child-finder, hired by their mother to bring him back home. Along the way, they meet Haley (Jenny Lewis) and discover that Jimmy is a real prodigy when it comes to video games. They make a stop off in Reno, hustle at some arcades, gamble at a casino and do whatever it takes to get to their destination on time. There’s a ridiculous comic subplot involving the child detective maliciously trying to stop Bridges from finding his sons and a secondary side-story about a competitive gamer named Lucas Barton, always getting in the way.

The Wizard Movie Review 1989

Nintendo didn’t really need a boost in advertising back in 1989. The Nintendo Entertainment System was the best-selling gaming console of its time and helped revitalize the US video game industry following the video game crash of 1983. With the NES, Nintendo introduced a now-standard business model of licensing third-party developers and authorizing them to produce and distribute titles for Nintendo’s platform. More importantly, they placed a priority on their exclusive titles making the likes of Zelda, Link, Mario and Luigi household names. Nintendo was everywhere. Kids had lunch boxes, watches, t-shirts; even magnets on their refrigerators. The next logical step was the big screen and Nintendo’s plan was to use The Wizard as a catalyst to publicize the release of Super Mario Brothers 3 and the Powerglove. Arguably the most famous scene in the entire movie involves the Power Glove controller, and the infamous line reading: “I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad”. What’s more, this section of the story culminates in a video game tournament that shows the first footage of Super Mario Brothers 3 before the actual release of the game.

The Wizard

The Wizard became one of the first movies to explore commercial advertising opportunities targeted at gamers within a film and ironically for a film that has an awful lot to do with interactive entertainment, director Todd Holland wasn’t a huge fan of the medium. Super Mario Bros. 3 went on to become one of the best selling games in history and there wasn’t a gamer who watched The Wizard that didn’t want the Powerglove. The movie, however, was a box office flop and was panned by critics nationwide who called it nothing but a giant promotional tool. But the truth is, Nintendo was refreshingly hands-off with the film-making process; it wasn’t even their idea to put the Powerglove into the film. Sure Nintendo sought to profit from the project, but if anyone is to blame for the poor quality of the picture, it isn’t them.

The Wizard 1989 Movie REview

 

The Wizard is not only poorly scripted, acted and directed, but a blatant knockoff of the Oscar-nominated Rain Man, released a year earlier, with an added touch of Tommy (minus the music). If the borrowed plot sounds like the most unforgivable thing about The Wizard, think again. From a critical standpoint, it’s one of the most shameless films ever made. It’s not so much a movie, as it is an infomercial – but an infomercial for what exactly?

Despite the premise and repeated scenes of characters playing video games, this isn’t a 100-minute video game commercial for the Japanese multinational consumer electronics company. Universal Pictures milked The Wizard for all they could be promoting a bevy of partner brands, including Hostess, Cosmopolitan, Vision Street Wear, the music of New Kids on the Block, and Universal Studios (The last part of this Universal film takes place at Universal Studios in California, and amounts to an extended advertisement for the studio tour). Nintendo isn’t responsible for how disappointing The Wizard is; Universal Pictures is.

The Wizard is hackneyed and shallow and whatever merits it has, clash against the gross commercialism.

The Wizard is also one of those strange 80’s family films that you just can’t make these days, featuring gambling, death, violence, and mental health issues. The runaways’ actions provide anything but responsible role models for the children who make up the film’s target audience and the trek to California is accomplished primarily by illegal activities and a series of violent encounters between the kids’ father and the bounty hunter. WarGames was a massive hit at the time, and Tron and The Last Starfighter enjoyed modest success, but Universal Pictures never truly had faith in their premise. They were given a chance to revolutionize the video-game movie, just as Nintendo revolutionized the home-console market – and instead, they completely failed.

Wizard movie Review

All that said; while the film is poor in many respects, it’s difficult to hate. There’s something wonderfully nostalgic about watching the kids play Double Dragon, Turtles in Time and Ninja Gaiden, both on the NES console and at the arcade. Sure The Wizard is full of 80s cheese, but for gamers, it’s also a perfect escape to a much simpler time when gamers grew up on old 8-bit Nintendo games that seemed impossible to beat without subscribing to Nintendo Power, as opposed to multi-platform deals whose secrets can easily be found while surfing the World Wide Web. Years before silver screen adaptations of Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Pokemon, and Super Mario Bros., it was extremely rare to see video games featured in the film, much less mentioned. The Wizard didn’t do much to change this fact, nor did it go down as a timeless, cinematic classic, but it did develop an understandable cult following as the years went on, and it’s easy to understand why.

– Ricky D

The Wizard 1989

Trivia:

There was a reunion with the cast and director in 2008 at the Alamo Draft House. There, Tom Holland revealed that an hour of footage was cut from the movie — which explains many of the plot holes.

Sadly, the film wasn’t the massive financial success that Universal had hoped for. It cost $6M to make, but only made $13M at the box office.

Many NES games appear in the arcade scenes. Contrary to popular belief, this was possible since Nintendo had an arcade cabinet called Play Choice Ten. These machines would let the gamer choose between a number of NES games and alternate freely between them until time ran out, at which time the gamer would have to insert another coin.

The sounds made by Lucas’ Power Glove as he punches its keys are the famous five tones from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

The version of Double Dragon (1987) that Jimmy is playing at the bus station is not in fact the arcade version of the game, but rather the Nintendo Entertainment System version of Double Dragon.

Participating theaters would distribute issues of “Pocket Power” a pocket-sized version of “Nintendo Power” magazine.

When Jimmy, Corey & Haley are hustling the teenagers at the restaurant, it shows the game Jimmy is playing as F-1 Dream but the actual game Jimmy is playing is Top Speed (1987).

Tobey Maguire makes a cameo as one of Lucas’s henchmen. It was his first acting role.



Games that are featured in The Wizard:

  • Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
  • China Gate
  • Contra
  • Dr. Chaos
  • Double Dragon
  • F-1 Dream
  • Mega Man 2
  • Metroid
  • Ninja Gaiden
  • PlayChoice-10
  • R.C. Pro-Am
  • Rad Racer
  • Rampage
  • Super Mario Bros.
  • Super Mario Bros. 2
  • Super Mario Bros. 3
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Full Throttle/Top Speed
  • Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Wizard

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Ranking Quentin Tarantino’s Films

Tarantino has crafted an oeuvre ripe for debate…

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Quentin Tarantino is back with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his most unabashedly emotional movie ever— but how does it compare to the rest of his filmography? We decided it might be fun to look back at Quentin Tarantino’s trajectory over the course of 20-plus years helming films and try to agree on what his best film is. It quickly became obvious, this was no easy task.

Before we get to the list we should mention that although Tarantino has contributed to other projects such as Four Rooms, Sin City, True Romance, ER, and CSI to name a few— we’re ranking just the theatrically released feature films he has directed. And yes, while Tarantino does consider Kill Bill one movie, it was unfortunately released both theatrically and on home video as two separate films, and so for the purpose of this list, we are splitting them up (not to mention, it’s still nearly impossible for most people to see them as a single entity).

With that out of the way, please accept our definitive ranking.

10) Deathproof

Tarantino’s homage to the road demon genre may be one-half of a double bill, but the film also works as two movies in one. You see, Death Proof offers two incarnations of the same story: two separate sets of beautiful women are stalked at different times by a psychotic stuntman who uses his muscle cars to execute his murderous plans. In other words, Death Proof is essentially two slasher films, since the second half (which takes place a year later) works as a sequel, with four new voluptuous victims for our murderous villain, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), to terrorize. The claustrophobic first half of Death Proof takes place on a dark, raining night amidst a dingy Texan bar, intact with neon lights and a soulful soundtrack of rare ’70s pop tunes. The second half takes place mostly on the open road, in bright daylight, and features sun-baked cinematography and a twangy score in place of the soundtrack. Much like the two sets of women, the two halves work as contrasting doubles. In tone, Death Proof begins as a dark thriller, but it quickly shifts gears and becomes a non-stop action film. In fact, everything about the two halves is completely different, from the pop culture references, photography, automobiles, visual effects, music, and clothing, to the hairstyles, props, etc.

Death Proof is also deliberately atmospheric and very patient taking its time getting to know each character and Death Proof gets the bragging rights of landing Kurt Russell, the iconic star of many beloved genre films. Tarantino’s gift for resurrecting the careers of iconic actors said to be past their prime is once again on display, as Russell turns in a tour-de-force performance as the smooth-talking tough guy who gets his kicks from vehicular homicide. With Russell and Tarantino working together, we see a movie star and a director in perfect harmony.

Some call it a masturbatory fantasy project, but Tarantino’s kinetic action sequences and his avid love for cinema in all its incarnations make Death Proof a work of art. More importantly, Death Proof doesn’t simply comment on its genre inspirations – it adds to their very legacy. The car crash that ends the first half is worth the price of admission alone. It’s a breathtaking slice of gory mayhem shown four times from various points of view, and ten times more frightening than anything you’ll see most horror movies. And while Tarantino may lack the budget of bigger action films, he does not lack the talent to skillfully direct a car chase and capture the horrifying aftermath of a car wreck. The extended car chase is a bona fide old-school tour de force, a sheer brutal and primal statement on the new power balance of the sexes. Jammed with astonishing stunt work (absent of CGI), the climax will have you gripping to your armrest. Obviously, Death Proof is shaped by such films as Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and Steven Spielberg’s Duel, but Death Proof is influenced by more than just vehicular horror; it’s a grim stalker picture, a slasher film, and a blaring anthem to female empowerment. It’s also a small masterpiece and the Frankenstein creation of a movie fanatic of exploitation cinema. Tarantino’s sadistic ode to muscle cars and real-life stunt work is sheer genius. (Ricky D)

9) The Hateful Eight

Less the epic spaghetti western it initially comes off as and more of a chatter-filled murder mystery, The Hateful Eight nevertheless feels grandiose, presenting a sprawling cast of unforgettable characters teeming with infamous reputations and potential lies. And that’s really the draw for Tarantino’s eighth film — just what exactly is the truth, and is anyone telling it?

Though it’s a satisfying enough whodunit revolving around an octet of grizzled manhunters, brutish outlaws, conniving desperados, and mysterious cowpokes snowed in at a remote mountain general store, The Hateful Eight is really a story about telling stories. Everyone’s got one, and they’re used for all manner of things; a sordid tale of a tortuous journey across icy peaks is clearly meant to provoke hurt and outrage, while a former Johnny Reb spins an unlikely tale of accepting a new position as Sheriff of the nearby town in order to gain trust enough to be invited for a stagecoach ride. Bloody Civil War battles are recalled for the sake of establishing camaraderie, and a detailed explanation is offered for the absence of the store’s proprietors in order to allay suspicions. But are any of these intricate narratives true, or just manipulative yarns?

Some may be turned off by the preponderance of lengthy monologues, but those with a love of language and violence will be riveted by this deadly, high-stakes poker game of bluffs and tells. These killers are the stuff of legend, poking and prodding at their opponents with words, before unleashing more gruesome attacks. And never mind that The Hateful Eight isn’t Tarantino’s most ‘cinematic’ film by a longshot (despite being handsomely photographed on 70mm film); he makes the most of the rustic interior setting with expertly staged action and brilliant performances, unraveling his story through careful speech and chronological shifts that keep things fresh — all the way to the rotten end. (Patrick Murphy)

8) Django Unchained

It’s hard to describe why Tarantino’s Django Unchained is such an odd and interesting entry into the director’s filmography. On one hand, it has all the hallmarks of a classic Weinstein production: excessive blood and violence, dark and irreverent humor, and a strange sadistic fascination with race and gender relations that overshadows the whole film. On the other hand, the film truly ups the ante and turns all of these narrative dials up to eleven, telling a disturbing story of slavery, interracial violence, and greed to illuminate the depravity of the human condition in the antebellum south in new and inventive ways. Somewhere wavering between these two elements lies the true spirit of Django Unchained: a movie that both screams characteristic Tarantino and yet still constantly surprises audiences with its unorthodox approach to the cowboy film category.

Part Spaghetti Western and part Blaxploitation narrative, Tarantino’s Django Unchained births a new genre with its unique portrayal of American life, dubbed by Tarantino as “the Southern.” While the film’s plot isn’t as complex as a majority of Tarantino’s work, Django Unchained relies heavily on the incredibly strong performances from its all-star cast of characters. Following up his Academy Award-winning performance in Inglourious Basterds, Christopher Waltz nails his role as the whimsical and enigmatic Dr. King Shultz, earning himself another piece of hardware for Best Supporting Actor for his talent. Jamie Foxx also does a spectacular job of selling the almost cartoonish superhuman character of Django, being both sternly humorous and deadly serious when the situation requires to bring life to one of the darkest of Tarantino’s creations. Even the interplay between the unlikely duo of Samuel L Jackson and Leonardo Di Caprio serves to elevate the film, and the pair make memorable villains that serve the narrative well.

Although it was relatively controversial with the media because of its subject matter, Django Unchained achieves its goal of making audiences incredibly uncomfortable by viscerally articulating the violence and depravity of Southern slavery in film. Through his portrayal of Django, Tarantino effectively counters this racial trauma with full force, creating a brutal and nuanced character that comes to epitomize the revenge that the audience craves for the wrongs of the past. Within this struggle lies the heart of the narrative, reminding viewers that the wrongs of the past are always present in the social fabric of today and that even fantasy retribution can’t fully cleanse the sins of the South’s forefathers. Watching from cozy California, the film feels like an odd history book fever dream, but from a theater in Mississippi, Django must feel like something else altogether. (Ty Davidson)

7) Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Although Quentin Tarantino intended Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and 2 to release as a single film, there are distinct differences between the two volumes. Where Vol. 1 was a very visceral, action-packed film, the second half of the Bride’s quest for revenge opts for a slower, more meditative approach. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is a film that likes to linger on the tragedy of the story; instead of flashing back into an action-heavy backstory, the film dedicates nearly half an hour to Bud’s miserable life after the Vipers’ failed assassination attempt on the Bride.

Through Budd, Kill: Bill Vol. 2 eases into some much-needed emotional reality after the bombastic back-half of Vol. 1. Budd becomes endearing in a way that O-Ren wasn’t, something both Elle and Bill ultimately share. Vol. 1 may have had one great villain through O-Ren Ishii, but Vol. 2 features Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, and Bill Caradine acting against Uma Thurman in one of her best roles.

The more introspective approach on storytelling doesn’t mean Vol. 2 isn’t devoid of action either. While nothing’s quite as exciting as the Bride’s final duel with O-Ren at the end of Vol. 1 — let alone her massacre of the Crazy 88 — the Bride squaring off against Elle is a magnificently claustrophobic battle, and flashback scenes detailing the Bride’s training help to keep the action a constant presence without needing to elevate the stakes as often as the first film.

When it comes down to it, however, it’s the finale that makes Kill Bill: Vol. 2 such an incredible conclusion to the Bride’s story. Where the first film ends in an epic sword fight, the second ends with a quiet conversation — the dissection of a relationship, of history, and the duality of man. It’s a philosophical note to end such an intense film on, but it’s to Kill Bill‘s credit, remembering that it’s characters who drive the action. (Renan Fontes)

6) Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

In 1994, Quentin Tarantino performed an act of cinematic resurrection by casting a thoroughly washed-up John Travolta in Pulp Fiction and revitalizing his career (if only for a time). It was confirmation that Travolta still had all his talent intact — he just needed the right filmmaker to unlock it. Prior to his latest film, Quentin Tarantino was, if not as down in the dumps as Travolta, at least in a serious and deepening slump. Inglourious Basterds was formally stunning and graced with wondrous lead performances, but the film was flippant in its portrayal of one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th Century. Its revenge narrative was as tasteless as it was thrilling. Django Unchained suffered from a similar lack of introspection, but this time the compelling characters he’d become known for never quite materialized. By the time he made his horror Western/chamber revenge film The Hateful Eight, Tarantino seemed to be relying on pure sadism to fuel his vision.

With the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it becomes clear that latter-day Tarantino needed a better director all along — in this case, a better version of himself. It doesn’t hurt that he’s jettisoned the now-tired revenge plots, despite telling a story that could easily have been converted into a tale of vengeance. But Once Upon a Time also marks the first time since at least Kill Bill — and maybe Jackie Brown — that Tarantino makes his audience feel deeply connected to his characters, and moved by their hopes and failures.

The film reunites him with both Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, sharing leading roles as, respectively, a formerly successful TV actor whose career has floundered just as he tries to ascend to making films, and his trusty stunt double whose sense of devotion prevents him from becoming bitter at his subordinate status. Margot Robbie fills out the edges of the film as Sharon Tate, fresh off her star-making turn in Valley of the Dolls. Even further on the margins are the festering followers of Charles Manson, who is glimpsed only once.

Once Upon a Time impeccably blends the pleasures of a Tarantino hangout film with a mounting sense of dread, minus the tiring speechifying (which even Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown suffer from in hindsight). There’s also a measurable dose of loss pervading the movie — for a bygone glamorous Hollywood felt by the industry in 1969, for the seemingly limitless possibilities of that area by present-day Tarantino, and for Tate, who would be brutally murdered by Manson’s followers on August 9, 1969. All are gone now. It’ll be a terrible folly if Tarantino sticks to his plan to stop making movies after his tenth feature, but if he had decided to call it quits early and stop after Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it wouldn’t have been a half-bad way to go. (Brian Marks)

5) Jackie Brown

There are few experiences greater for a cinephile than seeing a director they previously knew to be a master produce a follow-up that expands their already considerable talents in stunning new ways. Jackie Brown is just such a film, one that capitalizes on the promise of Pulp Fiction while proving that Quentin Tarantino wasn’t a one-trick pony.

Adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1992 crime novel Rum Punch, Jackie Brown is a film at war with its own contemporary setting. The movie takes place in 1995, yet it’s filled with vintage cars, outfits, and mannerisms harkening back to the 1970s — Tarantino’s favorite decade for cinema. To a certain extent, it’s intentional and reflects the time-warp status of Los Angeles’ South Bay at the time, but someone watching an isolated scene who wasn’t already familiar with the movie might have trouble pinpointing exactly what decade it was trying to approximate.

As he had rescued John Travolta’s career, Tarantino gave two other ‘70s icons their biggest roles in decades. Pam Grier, of Blaxploitation classics Coffy and Foxy Brown, stars as the eponymous character. She’s a middle-aged single woman who barely makes ends meet as a flight attendant for a third-rate budget airline that flies from LA to Mexico. In order to pad her earnings, she smuggles cash for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a drug runner branching out in gun sales. But when an errant bag of cocaine puts Jackie on the radar of the LAPD and the ATF, she enlists bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) to double-cross all involved parties.

After the formal inventiveness of Pulp Fiction, Tarantino wisely chose to adopt a more conservative approach to this crime story. Had he continued in the vein of that previous film, with its short story–like chapters, shifting protagonists, and fantastical touches (the glowing briefcase, Uma Thurman’s air drawn–square), it might have signaled that he was incapable of telling a compelling story without the techniques — that they were crutches rather than garnishes. Aside from some deceptive editing in the bravura mall sequence, he mostly plays it safe. Of course, “safe” for Tarantino still includes complicated shots, expressionistic framing, compelling performances, and virtuosic (if overly verbose) dialog.

What makes Jackie Brown not just an excellent film but one of Tarantino’s best is the obvious compassion he displays toward Jackie. Her fears about having to start over might seem mundane compared to the problems of his other leading characters, but the everyday nature of those struggles makes her more real than any of Tarantino’s other leads.

His newest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, seems closest in structure and tone to Jackie Brown, which, not coincidentally, is why it’s such an improvement over his other recent films. Whether or not Jackie Brown influenced him anew, here’s hoping he never forgets its lessons. (Brian Marks)

4) Reservoir Dogs

Featuring a tightly woven script, clever directorial style, cracking dialogue and a superb cast who populate his picture as morally ambiguous criminals, Reservoir Dogs is a testosterone meltdown that gleefully immerses itself in love of outlaws, profanity, violence and pop culture. It’s aggressive, intelligent, visceral and unforgettable. Decades years later, perhaps what stands out most is Tarantino’s camera work. There is not a single dull shot in the movie, from the opening scene continuously circulating the breakfast club, to the slow-motion Wild Bunch credit sequence, to the brilliant pan-away during the cutting of the ear, and thereafter when the camera follows Blonde outside the warehouse to his car, and back inside again. There’s a method to Tarantino’s style; every frame is calculated, and every line of dialogue serves to set the action in motion. The film never slows down, and Tarantino makes great use of dozens of long tracking shots. Even more impressive is that the film boasts a timeless quality since it is unclear as to what decade they’re in. From the pop tunes from the ’70s to the 60’s black and white suits and skinny ties, to the 80’s automobiles, Reservoir Dogs may as well take place in some strange parallel universe. A small, offbeat, extremely well-crafted crime caper with terrific surprises sprinkled over top.

At once a tribute to traditional notions of trust, loyalty, honour, and professionalism, and a stylish, ironic pastiche inspired by the likes of Woo, Peckinpah, Melville, Ringo Lam, Kurosawa and many more, Reservoir Dogs may have not been original but it is raw and a one-of-a-kind, and has since been often imitated. (Ricky D)

3) Kill Bill: Vol. 1

Exploding onto the scene as the first part of Quentin Tarantino‘s 4th film, the hyper-stylized Kill Bill was his most ambitious and audacious film yet. The film follows Uma Thurman as The Bride, a betrayed ex-assassin on the hunt for the four comrades, and their leader, who tried to kill her on her wedding day. As The Bride herself later says, she roars, rampages, and gets bloody satisfaction (emphasis on the bloody).

Packed with the snappy dialog, memorable characters, and brutal violence that have come to trademark Tarantino’s films, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is also home to some of the best fight scenes in the history of action filmmaking. Particularly impressive is the frenetic climax, which sees The Bride face off against 88 sword-wielding criminals in a Japanese bar.

Basically, QT’s love letter to some of his favorite samurai action films, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 nonetheless succeeds as its own beast, and is still fondly remembered as one of his best films. (Mike Worby)

2) Inglourious Basterds

Kicking off with a “Once upon a time…in Nazi-occupied France,” Inglorious Basterds lets viewers know right away that this isn’t really a World War II movie — it’s a Tarantino playland fantasy, where the good guys are cool, steely knights, and the bad guys are rotten, devious ogres to be beaten, shot, torched, and dynamited in spectacular fashion. Yes, it’s in many ways a movie about movies, but it’s also a work of gleeful imagination. Aldo Raine, Shosanna, Archie, the Bear Jew, Bridget von Hammersmark, Hans, and Frederick Zoller are wielded like toys by a director and script that on the surface wants little more than to show good utterly destroying evil in the most awesome and satisfying ways. Which it totally does.

Of course, part of getting to that sweet release is the masterful way in which Tarantino builds up and draws out suspense, often using lengthy conversation duels to withhold longer than seems possible, until finally unleashing his absurd violence in gushing massacres that more than satiate the audience’s need for closure. As usual, the stream of dialogue isn’t just there for pacing or self-indulgence, but creates rich, distinct characters that can then (probably) die in unforgettable ways — like in a tavern standoff involving incorrect hand signals, “speaking the King’s,” and a pistol to the groin.

No, Inglourious Basterds isn’t revisionist history. It’s not even historical fiction. It’s pure fairy tale, with darkness and light, feats of depravity and derring-do, and a cast of heroes and villains who all know their place in the story, and are only too happy to fulfill such with a wink and a smirk. It’s wonderfully fantastical entertainment, filled with the kind of vicarious thrills that kids used to get with G.I. Joes, and might just be the most fun you can have watching Hitler explode. (Patrick Murphy)

1) Pulp Fiction

A sensation that helped draw attention to and shape independent cinema in the 90s, Pulp Fiction might not always work as a sum of its parts, but boy have those parts been engrained into the moviegoing consciousness. Taratino’s L.A. crime opus is full of meandering conversations, gruesome encounters, and moments of supercool quirkiness that seem completely besides the point — until you realize that they are the point.

Mixing various intersecting stories via a jumbled-up chronology that serves the film’s dime-novel tone, Pulp Fiction takes a leisurely stroll across the seedier parts of town, never getting too anxious to stop and chat for a game of eeny, meeny, miney, moe in the prison-like basement of a perverted pawn shop, a discussion on bedroom furniture when needing to clean up brains and skull from the back seat of a car before Bonnie gets home, or praise for a tasty burger when mopping up a deal gone sour. There are very few awkward silences here; Pulp Fiction is often a symphony of gab. That constant flow sometimes overpowers a budding visual style that eschews the darkness of its subject matter for bright colors and sunny days, but those who pay attention to such things will notice some inventive staging and techniques.

Still, the stories of Vincent, Mia, Marsellus, Butch, and Jules are all about the spoken song. Full of memorable rhythms and shockingly violent punctuation, that symphony never gets old. Since then, Tarantino has certainly gone on to create bolder visions with a more confidant hand at the director’s helm, but despite that increased ambition and polish, few have managed to achieve the iconic status granted to this groundbreaking film. Pulp Fiction injected a shot of adrenaline into the heart of indie filmmaking, courted controversy and acclaim, and inspired a bevy of wannabes, all aiming to be as cool. Few have achieved such. (Patrick Murphy)

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Fantasia Film Festival

‘Ready or Not‘ Derives a Fair Amount of Mileage out of its Simple Premise

A rich family hunt the bride in a very bloody game of Hide And Seek

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Making its World Premiere at the Montreal genre festival, Ready or Not is a blood-spattered, tongue-in-cheek horror comedy that features plenty of gore and a sense of humour as dark as the terror on display.

Anyone who has seen the trailer is already familiar with the simple premise. What is best described as a cross between The Most Dangerous Game and Clue, Ready or Not stars Samara Weaving as Grace, a young bride who marries into the wealthy but strange Le Domas family that made their fortune in the board game industry. When it comes time to consummate the union, the bride is told that the marriage won’t be complete until she participates in an unusual family ritual: before the strike of midnight, the newlywed bride must draw a card from a mysterious box which will dictate which game they play into the night. Grace pulls the one-and-only cursed card that reads “Hide and Seek.” But this isn’t the traditional children’s game we are familiar with; in this deadly version, she is hunted by her soon-to-be-revealed psychotic in-laws wielding heavy weaponry like crossbows and shotguns.

A surreal cat-and-mouse chase ensues, with Alex ostensibly trying to help his bride survive while the rest of the La Domas clan remains dead-set on sacrificing her through the mysterious ritual. Their motive is simple: the La Domas believe that they must kill her before dawn as part of a satanic pact agreed upon years ago, otherwise they will have to repay their debt with their own lives. As to whether or not there actually is a satanic pact is unknown; as far as Grace is concerned, these rich folks are batshit crazy and out of their goddamned minds.

Directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who are collectively credited as Radio Silence (V/H/S, Southbound), Ready or Not has a lot to offer in wit, style, and entertainment. It feels tailor-made for a midnight audience, as the bloodthirsty relatives arm themselves to the teeth in a wedding night filled with crossbows, shotguns, decapitations, a car chase, and a level of gore I didn’t expect given the marketing. The climax is especially memorable — an all-out gore extravaganza that left the audience laughing hysterically.

There’s a lot to like here, from the score by composer Brian Tyler to the cinematography by Brett Jutkiewicz, but the reason this film works so well is because of the talented cast they’ve assembled, most notably Alex’s alcoholic brother, Daniel (Adam Brody), who serves as the family’s moral core. And of course there’s also Samara Weaving, (Mayhem, The Babysitter) who pretty much sacrifices her body in blood-soaked scenes of action and terror. The actress is fully dedicated in her role, turning into her own version of Ripley while tearing apart the upper-class society, their ridiculous traditions, and their silly superstitions.

I don’t want to oversell Ready or Not; it’s a great B-movie (albeit a big studio B-Movie, but a B-movie nonetheless). The quick pace, simple concept, and terrific performances are what carry it through the 95-minute run time. Ready or Not is simply put, a lot of fun — a horror-comedy that offers a ton of laughs, delivers the action, and cements the star power of Samara Weaving. The best compliment I can give is that I’m ready to see it again. It’s the perfect movie to watch with a group of friends on a stormy night, and a late-summer surprise for genre fans everywhere.

  • Ricky D

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 25, 2019, as part of our coverage of the  Fantasia Film Festival.

 

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Film

‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ Celebrates the Ambitious

‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ explores what happens when the creative can’t create, and delivers an incredible performance from Cate Blanchett.

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Where'd You Go, Bernadette

From The Before Trilogy to Boyhood to Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater is about as prolific of a filmmaker as they come. In one year he could release an experimental indie film, and the next he’s doing School of Rock. Then there are those films in between that feel like personal stories that Linklater just needs to put his mark on. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is just that type of movie, and falls somewhere between his more Hollywood comedies and something like 2017’s Last Flag Flying. Much in that same vein, Linklater tells a story of creative people driven from their passions for one reason or another, and in the process of doing so brings to life another fantastic performance from Cate Blanchett as a character both lost and unaware that she is lost.

Bernadette Fox (Blanchett) spends her days hiding away from people in her big, always-under-construction house, with her only form of contact being between her, her family, the occasional wealthy parent, and her digital assistant that orders things for her from Amazon at a rapid rate. One might look at her life and see things in shambles, as she always seems anxious, stressed, or simply at the end of her wits. Her husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup), works at Microsoft, and spends more time at work than he does with his family. Meanwhile, their daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), is preparing to go off to boarding school of her own volition, but wants to go on a trip to Antarctica with her family while they have some time together. No one objects, including Bernadette — a shock to her husband and daughter alike.

What ultimately follows is a deeper exploration of Bernadette’s character, as she tries to wrestle with her anxieties and worries about going on a trip of this magnitude, while also making sure that she doesn’t let her daughter down. Where’d You Go, Bernadette has one large hurdle that audiences will likely have to get over, and that is its affluent main characters. Elgie is a tech wiz, Bernadette is a retired architect, and Bee is going to private school, and somehow the entire family can justify going on a trip to Antarctica with only five weeks notice; they’re the kind of rich that’s absurd, and if this movie was about anything other than creativity and creative types, it would buckle under the knowledge that most problems could be solved by money. In fact, even when a disaster occurs that damages someone’s property, Bernadette throws money at it as a solution. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a movie about rich people that are surrounded by rich people who have normalized being rich people.

Where'd You Go Bernadette

Yet once again, even with its characters being who they are, Linklater still mines Maria Semple’s book-of-the-same-name for themes and ideas that can hit hard to the right type of person. As the title (and marketing) suggest, there is a mystery component to Where’d You Go, Bernadette that has other characters exploring Bernadette’s life and why she just up-and-disappears. Surprisingly, however, the movie’s title does not just emphasize a physical disappearance, but also a mental one. Where is the Bernadette that would move the world to create something she so passionately wanted? That question is where Linklater finds something personal to latch on to, and why other creative people will want to explore the quirks of the titular character to find out why she has stopped creating.

Though saccharine to a high degree, the cast and Linklater’s knack for writing engaging conversations and beautiful moments tends to help audiences take in all the sweetness without gagging. It’s a very cute, whimsical film that really leans into it by the time it ends. That tone is mostly what gives the movie its momentum, however, along with some of the neat directorial decisions that help paint a fuller portrait of Bernadette’s family without slowing things to a crawl and sacrificing that momentum. Blanchett provides the right blend of motherly love and manic obsessiveness to carry the entire film on her shoulders, but fortunately Crudup and Nelson give plenty of support, as do some of the briefer appearances from the likes of Judy Greer, Kristen Wiig, and Laurence Fishburne. Moments that are kind of silly sometimes clash with attempts of being more serious in the scene, but it feels like that’s kind of the point to a certain extent. If Crudup feels like he’s playing the scene more seriously, it’s because his character is attempting to be the serious one in an outlandish scenario.

Those scenes that take the absurdity to new heights or suddenly fall into melodramatic territory are also the most memorable moments, because they often have their tone dictated by the perspective. If the perspective is Bernadette’s, it might lean more on the anxious, tense side of things, where it’s unknown how the scene will end or what a character will do. With Bee it’s often a sweet, loving moment. Almost anything involving Elgie tends to involve a sense of urgency, and takes things far more seriously than the others. Where’d You Go, Bernadette holds a lot of power in the way it presents a side of a story, and walks a very fine line on who is right and who is wrong in any given scenario. 

As with any Linklater movie that isn’t experimental in its narrative, there will be those who can’t get behind the sweet, caring portrait of a character often at odds with the rest of the world. He’s proven he can do those characters with films like School of Rock and Bernie, but he’s perhaps best known for capturing a feeling or a time and place. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is fairly straightforward, and won’t surprise many going in (it’s unapologetically heartwarming) but provides an illustration of someone who has a lot to offer the world, and the ways we may inadvertently — and unknown to them — stifle their ambitions.

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Freelance Film Writers

Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Film, TV, Anime and Comic writers.

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