Posts Tagged ‘Uma Thurman’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 29th 2004: 

I don’t know about Daredevil 2… You’ll know my career is really on the slide when I start resurrecting the franchise. – Ben Affleck

For a writer who isn’t especially well-known out amongst the normal real-world public, Philip K Dick has achieved an odd sort of ubiquity when it comes to SF movies. Well, perhaps ‘ubiquitous’ is stretching it a bit, considering we’re talking about four movies in twenty or so years, but – off the top of my head – I can’t think of another writer in the genre with that kind of recent track record.

It doesn’t hurt that, broadly speaking, three of the four were quite well received – Blade Runner regularly scores in top ten popularity lists (although personally I haven’t much time for it and prefer the original cut – or, better yet, the source novel), Total Recall was a big smash hit, and Minority Report was rapturously hailed as a return to form for Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise. However, the latest Dick movie, Paycheck, has arrived on UK screens to be met with notices verging on the toxic.

As director John Woo has many cheerleaders in the States (more likely as a result of his terrific Hong Kong-based movies than the rather mixed bag he’s presided over since going Hollywood), and this film isn’t utterly wretched, one can only presume the knives are out simply because Paycheck stars Ben Affleck. Ah, Ben Affleck. For a while now I’ve found having a pop at Ben to be a bit of a guilty pleasure, because in interviews and the like he comes across as a decent bloke with terrible instincts as to which scripts he should make.

This time round Ben plays Michael Jennings, a highly-paid expert in taking things to pieces and copying them. This is a much valued ability in the world of industrial espionage, but for Ben the downside – or maybe not – is that he has to have his memory of each assignment wiped after completing it (you can imagine the scene – ‘While you’re at it, could you get rid of Pearl Harbor, Gigli, and that full-page ad to J-Lo I put in the national press, please?’). His trusty sidekick Shorty (Paul Giamatti) is responsible for microwaving his brain on each occasion.

Ben is recruited by his old mate Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) to do a special job that will take three years to finish but earn him nearly a hundred million dollars. Ben is happy to sign up, especially as he has a bit of a thing for another of Eckhart’s employees, hatchet-faced biologist Rachel (played by that leading grand guignol comedienne of our time, Uma Thurman, in an unflattering hairstyle). However three years and one memory-wipe later Ben is alarmed to find he has chosen to waive his fee in favour of a envelope full of junk. It transpires that the pre-wipe Ben has built Eckhart a precognotron for seeing into the future, and, having sneaked a peek himself, has realised that the junk comprises the objects his future self will need in order to avoid meeting a sticky end at the hands of his evil boss…

Well, yes, it’s hokum of the highest order, but it’s an engaging enough idea and not without its’ thoughtful moments. While the plot bears similarities to Total Recall (hero has his memory messed about with) and Minority Report (hero sees vision of future he’s not too keen on), it’s closer to the former in style. This is just as well, as the lack of Minority Report‘s ponderous self-importance makes the occasionally incoherent plotting a lot less annoying. On the other hand, this never quite takes flight as a Hitchcock-style ‘innocent man in peril’ caper, as Ben’s character just isn’t likeable (or innocent) enough at the start of the movie for the audience to really warm to him. Ben himself turns in another stiff-upper-lipped performance. (In fact a lot of the time his entire face is utterly immobile.) But there’s not much meat here for any of the actors – Giamatti goes into twitchy overdrive as the comic relief, before vanishing entirely for most of the second half of the film, while quite a way down the cast list Joe Morton and Michael C Hall are solid enough as FBI agents chasing Ben.

There isn’t actually very much here to distinguish Paycheck as a John Woo film, except perhaps several scenes revolving around people sticking guns in each others’ faces, and an inexplicable sequence with a dove. The action isn’t that great and a long car-chase is actually rather pedestrian. But, as action techno-thrillers go, this is really pretty competent stuff, rather retro in an odd way (the suits and hairstyles of many characters look like seventies-vintage), quite well paced and not without some interesting ideas about memory and predestination.

But Ben’s clearly going to have to come up with something else if he wants to arrest his slide towards becoming the 21st century’s answer to Charlie Sheen [written long before it became clear that Charlie Sheen still had a lot to offer the world. Sort of – A]. If, as seems the case, mediocre movies are now getting completely trashed simply because he’s in them, it’ll have to be something special. A serious rethink is called for, or he’ll be slipping on the red leather jumpsuit sooner than he’d like…

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 29th 2004: 

…onto new business and the second volume of Quentin Tarantino’s epic revenge melodrama Kill Bill. Attentive masochists may recall that I was less than taken with the first installment for all manner of reasons, and so I must confess to turning up for the second half with expectations that were less than stellar – to be honest, I was expecting to hate it. Well, I didn’t: but I’m not really sure how much of this is down to the quality of the film and how much is the result of my possibly figuring how Tarantino wants his film to be approached.

There’s a sense in which the plot of the Kill Bill movies is the least important element of the whole enterprise, but it’s as good a place to start as any. Uma Thurman once again plays a revenge-obsessed assassin known only as the Bride, and the film opens with her two-fifths of the way through her hit list of former colleagues (those who massacred her wedding party, for anyone who’s forgotten). Next up is redneck slimeball Budd (Michael Madsen), followed by the cyclopean Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) – and, finally, Bill (David Carradine) himself…

I say that Kill Bill‘s plot is the least important element of the film – and what I mean by this is that this isn’t a conventional film one should turn up to expecting to be drawn into a consistent and believable narrative with three-dimensional characters and so on. Kill Bill isn’t consistent and it isn’t believable, and it makes no attempt to be: it changes wildly in tone and style throughout the different ‘chapters’ that comprise it, and is by turns naturalistic, operatic, OTT, fantastical, repulsive, comedic, and theatrical (actors play multiple roles). In places it is also variously slow and wordy, and also rather pretentious. The bedrock of Tarantino’s career is his ability as a pasticheur, and that gets its fullest expression here, as multiple genres are reproduced one after the other. The key to enjoying this film is not to worry about the larger narrative and just appreciate what each segment has to offer.

Of course this has its downside too: the film is so upfront about its own artificiality that when it eventually attempts to be genuinely moving and emotional, it has a much harder job to do. It can’t be so cool and ironic for most of its length and then suddenly expect the audience to care about the characters as much as it would like. That it generates any kind of emotive punch at all is mainly down to Thurman’s performance, and particularly that of Carradine (displaying a reptilian charisma throughout).

And I’m still not wild about the offhand, faintly comic tone of the violence (much of it misogynistic) that punctuates the film. Tarantino’s fan-club will probably say that it’s only a film and that there’s nothing wrong with being entertained by or even laughing at this sort of thing – which presumably means it would be perfectly okay for the great man’s next offering to be a screwball comedy about paedophilia, assuming it was sufficiently stylish and witty (and contained enough obscure references to world cinema).

Anyway, while I’m still not entirely won over I am much more cheerily disposed to the project than I was. The action choreography is particularly spiffy, and fingers crossed Daryl Hannah will get a career bump off the back of this. The same goes for Michael Madsen, who gives a remarkable performance – somehow managing to be simultaneously worthless and repellent, but also weirdly sympathetic.

In the end the Kill Bill movies aren’t much more than the cinematic equivalent of a particularly eclectic and well-put-together set of compilation mix tapes – for every bit you can’t stand there’ll be another you’ll be delighted by, always assuming music’s your thing. They are, probably inevitably, less than the sum of their parts, and it’s still up for debate as to whether Tarantino’s decision to essentially invent his own new style of cinema is a mark of genius or just a way of avoiding being held to the same critical standards as everyone else – but he remains a film-maker of note. Kill Bill is a virtuoso display of his style – its limitations as well as its possibilities.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 23rd 2003: 

It is with a mixture of pride, alarm, and indifference that I look back and realise I’ve been writing reviews of various kinds for well over nine years now, on and off (mostly off). I started off as a theatre critic, and the first film I wrote about was, well, The Crow, which isn’t particularly relevant to this week’s topic. But not very long after that I reviewed Pulp Fiction, which is. The piece itself got spiked, which is probably just as well as the last paragraph started something like ‘What’s most exciting is that Quentin Tarantino is only 31 and still has decades of film-making ahead of him…’ Yeah, at the rate of one film every five years.

Well, anyway, the lad is back and he’s brought with him Kill Bill (Volume One), the first half of his latest project – a grindhouse epic split into two halves, solely to maintain that punchy, authentic exploitation movie feel, and in no way shape or form simply a ploy to double the box office of a massively over budget project. Those dismayed by Jackie Brown, with its tendency to focus on things like characterisation, depth, and credible plotting, will be relieved to learn that this is much more of a muchness with Tarantino’s first two movies.

This is the story of an assassin known only as the Bride (played, rather laconically, by Uma Thurman). She tries to retire and get married. Her boss, Bill (a largely unseen David Carradine) is reluctant to let her go and sicks the rest of his employees on her, slaughtering the wedding party and putting ol’ Bridie in a coma for several years. Eventually she wakes up and sets off to slaughter the lot of them in revenge, starting with petite Yakuza overboss O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). The exploits which follow are gripping, startling, funny, and in places quite extravagantly horrible.

As I mentioned, on the face of it this has a lot in common with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction – it’s a retro-styled film pastiche with a higgledy-piggledy narrative structure, some rather peculiar directorial quirks, many geeky in-jokes, a strong soundtrack, and a black sense of humour. There is also, to be sure, some very strong violence, although I personally think this is something of a departure, Tarantino hasn’t actually made an action movie like this before. The director’s mastery of style and soundtrack and gift for inspired casting are still very much in evidence, along with signs of a new talent for shooting and editing fight sequences (of which there are several, one lasting about twenty minutes all in all).

But where this film seems different to me, and here’s where my opinion will probably become quite outspoken, is in the way that underneath all the quirks and conceits and cartoon sequences and narrative shifts, there’s virtually no substance to speak of. (Maybe all the plot and depth is in Volume Two, but even so that’s not much use at the moment.) The characterisation is almost nonexistent, and the film has zero credibility when it comes to things like realism and credibility (Thurman carries a samurai sword onto a jet airliner as part of her hand-luggage, and we’re also led to believe a doctor can be brutally murdered in his own hospital without anyone raising the alarm for thirteen hours.)

Tarantino simply doesn’t seem interested in credibility or, indeed, in giving his film any kind of moral grounding or framework whatsoever. This is cinema stripped of any kind of context beyond other films, with no relationship to reality. Right and wrong, good and evil, are simply not factors in Tarantino’s universe. Instead he is only concerned with what is and isn’t cool: and what’s cool mainly seems to consist of extremely graphic violence and very sick jokes.

I read a review of Pulp Fiction back in ’94 which basically accused the director of perpetrating a pornography of violence – films which were made solely to revel in the depiction of violent acts, in the same way pornographic films are made solely to depict sexual activities. I didn’t think that was true then, but to me it seems like a fair description of Kill Bill. Violent films per se don’t bother me at all, so long as the violence serves the story. Here the story seems to exist only to serve the gore and slaughter, and the fact the audience is clearly intended to find this funny (and often did, at the screening I went to) really disturbed me.

Tarantino’s technical virtuosity, the skill of the martial arts team, and some impressive performances from Liu, Sonny Chiba, and Chiaki Kuriyama conspire to keep it extremely watchable, though, and I expect I will fork out five quid to see Volume Two (the movie’s closing twist is impeccably delivered). But for me Kill Bill only demonstrates Tarantino’s arrested development as a director – and, what’s more, he’s becoming the very thing his critics have accused him of being all along. Brilliant, but sick.

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