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Movie Reviews:

Friday, May 13, 2005

Thus far, I’ve been really enjoying my time off. I feel great, having so few responsibilities, and I’ve been able to get huge amounts of stuff done on side pet-projects (and I’ve done more pleasure reading in the past month than in the previous two years combined…) Unfortunately, getting lost in my leisure like that has lead to me neglecting my blog.

Sorry.

My GF has been bugging/pleading with me for some time now to write a review for Kill Bill (Vol. 1-2), after I briefly mentioned one night my take on the ideology of the movie. Well, I guess talking about this is as good a place to start as any.

Caveat 1: I don’t like these movies, but after seeing the first one two years ago, I wasn’t entirely sure why I didn’t like it. So, I went on-line and read comments made by other people (some critics, some folks on RPG.net) about the movies, and continued doing so until I figured out what it was that didn’t sit right with me. So, many of these observations are borrowed from other people, and did not spring wholecloth from my overly-large brain, however the sources are much too varied to credit each and every one (particularly since I did this search so long ago). It’s worth noting, however, that the overwhelming majority of those whose ideas I draw upon enjoyed the movie, so don’t think I went out looking for purposefully biased sources to get my own synapses firing.

Caveat 2: I expect this to be really long and, at times, a numbingly close-reading exegesis of the movies. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Kill Bill

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Kill Bill is a basic revenge tale along the lines of classic revenge movies a la spaghetti westerns and Blaxploitation films (and, of course, kung fu films.) Uma Thurman, playing the Bride (whose name is, for a reason that escapes my understanding, unrevealed until the second movie), becomes pregnant and attempts to leave her life as an assassin behind by going into hiding and getting married, but her old boss/lover and his cadre of elite assassins take exception to this and kill the entire wedding party. The Bride herself is not quite killed, but left in a coma. Upon awakening years later, she has but one thing on her mind: revenge. The movies follow her attempts to hunt down those responsible for her tragedy one-by-one, cutting down anyone who gets in her way in the meantime.

So, there’s the summary. Next, let’s talk about the ideology, then go on to the actual review.

Ideology

To read this section, you need to divorce yourself from the idea that authorial intent matters much in terms of meaning. If you can’t buy into this, then do yourself a favour and just skip down to the next section of this review. I’ve helpfully bolded the title of the section facilitate skimming.

Additionally, in a text (and for the purposes of this discussion, anything can be a text, from an actual book to a painting to a television commercial), meaning is created through association and pattern. Basically, if you find an association in a text once, it’s probably nothing; twice, and you’ve got an argument. Three times? Your position is pretty much a rock-solid interpretation. If you can’t buy into this, again, just skip to the next section; you’ll be doing us both a favour.

If you can buy into both of these premises – that meaning can be produced entirely within a text, and outside of the purview of any authorial intent – then read on.

To a large degree, Kill Bill is about how men see women. According to this movie, men consider there to be two kinds of successful women: the bad kind, who kill their fathers, and the good kind who are their fathers’ sons.

“Buh?” you say. “How does that work?” The Bride, at first blush, appears to be the symbolic daughter/lover of Bill; at first, this is true. However, she divorces herself from Bill and his incestuously paternal position over her, reinventing herself as the “son” of two of Bill’s own fathers – specifically, Hatori and Pei Mei. Both of these father-figures acknowledge her, and not Bill, as their true heir – even Bill’s third father figure acknowledges this, which is why all three aid her in killing him in the end. The Bride’s surname (Kiddo, the kind of nick-name one might use affectionately for one’s child, especially a son) even speaks to her status as heir.

Contrast Elle’s interactions with Pei Mei against the Bride’s, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

You’ll note that I’m painting the protagonist and antagonists in masculine terms – referring to them as “sons,” etc. This is quite purposeful on my part, since for a movie in which the majority of the warrior characters are female, it is a highly antagonistic toward the idea that a woman can be violent and still be a woman; witness, for example, the battle between Elle and the Bride, in which the Bride turns the tables on Elle (and sets herself up for her ultimate victory) by striking Elle in the groin. Also note the way the film ends, which I’ll get to later, since it’s pretty much the centrepiece of my argument here and therefore deserves a little building-up-to.

Of course, reconstructing themselves as men is necessary for them to survive in this man’s world of danger. You may think I’m stretching a bit here, but the movie is pretty consistent in its depiction of where masculine power lay: If you’ll let me wax a bit Freudian for a moment, then I’ll point out the way that Bill wields the power of truth over the Bride by injecting her with his magic juice. If you’d prefer I avoid the Freudian angle, okay, I’ll just mention the point at which Pei Mei blocks the bride’s deadly kick, grapples her, and throws her.

With. His. Testicles.

It’s hard to get more phallologocentric than that, even if the movie rejects regular narrative chronology (much like all of Tarantino’s films do.) It is only by learning from their male mentors and following in their footsteps that the female characters are able to succeed, much less dominate, the dangerous world of men.

The second volume is notable in that it presents a cycle of violence distinct from that presented during the first volume; while the first volume is all about schlock and campy gore, the second volume is much more visceral in its violence. For the second volume, violence becomes intertwined with humiliation. Early in this movie, for instance, we witness Budd being humiliated by his boss. Fast-forward and Budd is burying the Bride alive, taunting her all the while. Elle, for very unbelievable reasons, then poisons Budd and humiliates him as he dies. The Bride blinds Elle and leaves her screaming and rolling about the floor, no doubt to die at the hands of the same snake that she used to kill Budd. Pretty much the entirety of the training sequence(s) with Pei Mei follows this vein. It becomes quite clear that this world that the Bride has re-entered for the purposes of her revenge is one characterized by a cycle of pain, death, and humiliation.

Ultimately, for a movie to have a happy ending (which this one attempts to have), this cycle of violence must be escaped. The Bride tried to do so before by getting married, but that didn’t work. So, how does she manage to finally achieve her escape/redemption? She becomes a mom after settling all her debts (which is the main difference between her and Vivica Fox’s character in the first movie – they both attempt to escape the same, but Vernita Green aka Copperhead still had debts outstanding.)

Luckily, the Bride, despite being a hardened killer who lived nothing even approaching a normal life, is well-equipped in an essentialist sort of way to be a mom. When she first encountered a child in the first movie in the highly ambivalent death-scene of Copperhead, she spoke to that child as she might an adult. When she finally confronts her five-year-old daughter for the first time, however, she knows exactly how to act – instant mother. No doubt thanks to the magical bond that exists between mother and child, no matter what the obstacles.

Puh-leeze.

So, in the end, the movie’s ideology states that for a woman to be successful at life, she must step off the path of danger (which properly belongs to men like Pei Mei and Hatori – though not Bill, since he was responsible for bringing women into it in the first place and therefore has to be killed) to become mothers, which is what they’re biologically and emotionally designed for anyway. It’s possible for a woman to be successful on the path of danger, to a point, but only by reinscribing themselves to become what men want them to be… and even then, you’ll likely end up dead.

The Review Itself

Having said all that, however, ideology alone is not a reason to like or dislike a movie. It can certainly help (or hurt), but I’ve enjoyed many a movie whose ideology has rubbed me the wrong way. So, let’s set the deeper reading aside and look at what the movie is setting out to do, and how well it succeeds (or doesn’t) toward that goal.

This film is full of homages to other films and, more broadly, a number of genres. Of these, the primary homage is to kung-fu movies – there’s blaxploitation influence there, but the movie lacks a lot of the language of those genres (there’s no comic relief sidekick, no inevitable Hassled By The Man? The big pissed-off sistah, or the tough cop who gives the protagonist a break are nowhere to be seen.) Likewise to noir, which is even less present (here’s a hint, QT: Noir is more than black & white film alongside really poorly-delivered overblown dialogue.) Even some overt homages to spaghetti westerns and anime are squeezed in there at points. Of course, much like the film’s ideology, the fact that the movie is largely an homage doesn’t make it good or bad. That’s just what it is. However, it plays into where it does fall short, at least for me.

Now, I’ve often said that one of the most common shortcoming found in movies today is that they so often don’t know what they actually want to be. Homage films make perfect canvases for deconstruction/reconstruction films. Take Unforgiven, which has a lot of similarities to Kill Bill in terms of what the way they try to treat their respective source materials; throughout that film, the western genre is pulled away from the realm of myth. The western hero is struggling to make ends meet on a pig farm, can’t shoot, and is thoroughly deromanticized. When the protagonists begin killing, it’s pretty brutal and not particularly appealing for the audience – a far cry from the sanitized westerns of yesteryear where people just fall dead clean, the violence throughout is made to make the audience feel uncomfortable. What’s even worse by western genre standards, the protagonists go about ambushing people and shooting them in the back to get their job done. Much like the story of the “Duke/Duck of Death” that is destroyed by Little Bill’s take on events, the majority of the film takes the western as a genre apart piece-by-piece.

That is, until the viewer reaches the end of the film. Suddenly, we see Clint Eastwood reinscribed in myth; he performs feats worthy of any great western shoot-‘em-ups, taking on twenty gunfighters single-handedly and coming out of it without a scratch. The cycle is complete – what the western was has been taken apart, and then put back together again in a form ready for the present day.

At first, Kill Bill seems like this is what it’s trying to do; indeed, the film is full of deconstructionist imagery and themes. The first film opens up with a battle between the Bride and Copperhead, in which they agree to meet for a kung-fu knife-duel (in the playground, no less), and yet the battle is ended before it even begins. Similarly, there’s the battle with the Crazy 88’s, which is pretty much a re-envisioning of Alice in Wonderland (“Why, you’re nothing but a pack of cards!” said Alice. Hell, they’re even called the Crazy 88’s; it’s hard to get more unsubtle than that), save that Alice is now full-grown and wields a katana. The battle between Elle and the Bride borders on the comical, and follows the deconstructionist vein; while the previous scenes, in homage to classic spaghetti Westerns, follow the Bride’s trail over wide-open spaces with breathtaking scenic views. Once the actual violence comes, however, it takes place in such cramped quarters neither of the women are able to draw their swords.

None of this would be a problem (indeed, it would be a feature) if they could be presented cohesively. As mentioned above, Unforgiven completes its deconstruction/demystification before it reinscribes itself as myth. Not so with Kill Bill, which sprinkles its deconstruction of the genres with periodic genre tropes and mythical elements. Thus, we have the Bride using the ancient board-busting technique taught to her by Pei Mei to escape her coffin, and the sword-giving ceremony in which Hatori gives the Bride her indestructible katana, and the admittedly gorgeous battle between the Bride and O-Ren Ishii.

The perfect example of this sort of ambivalence toward genre is the film’s anticlimactic battle against Bill; rather than a moonlight katana-fight on the beach, the battle is over almost as soon as it begins, and it takes place entirely at the dining room table. Classic deconstruction, that. And yet, Bill is killed with the legendary five-fingered heart-exploding technique, which is a remystification if I’ve ever seen it. In other words, the film is trying to do both things at once, and as a result fails at both. It doesn’t know how it wants to treat its source material; it has no strategy, and as a result ends up as a thematic mess.

Furthermore, by following this sort of non-strategy, the film betrays the very genres to which it is attempting to pay homage. The sceptic, while viewing a kung-fu film, will sit back and wonder, “Well, why the hell doesn’t the bad guy just get a gun and blow the good guy away? Or vice-versa? Surely that would be easier?” Most kung-fu films answer this pretty simply: because that’s now how things are done in a kung-fu universe. True Warriors (and everyone wants to be a true warrior in a kung-fu universe) solve problems with their fists and feet, not with guns. (Well, okay, directors like John Woo and action stars like Chow Yun-Fat alter this somewhat with the addition of gun-fu to the genre, but that’s really another matter, and not the sort of movie Tarantino was using as his source.) The first film attempts to operate in this sort of universe; the bad guys meet the protagonist’s steel with steel, and all is as it should be.

The problem is, then we get to the second film and Budd takes the Bride out with a shotgun blast. In a true kung-fu universe, this Would Not Happen. The Power of the Bride’s Kung Fu (as displayed in the previous battle scene against O-Ren) would make her impervious to bullets, but the film doesn’t know whether it wants to shore up its myth or tear it down, so we end up with these sorts of inconsistencies of theme.

Ultimately, the problems with matters of genre are secondary to both films’ problems with characterization. Revenge flicks, in order to be successful, must make the audience connect with the protagonist. If this doesn’t happen, the film has no chance of success. In the first film, we learn almost nothing about the protagonist; her role is almost completely silent. Bill is, at best, a moderately interesting off-stage figure, but even that’s being pretty generous (David Carradine is not the name that pops into my mind when talking about great character actors.) It’s telling that arguably the best actor in the first film was the legendary Sonny Chiba in a supporting role (practically a cameo, in fact) as the aged swordsman Hanso Hatori. No matter how much ketchup Tarantino throws at the screen, it’s not enough to make the viewer care about the characters.

This is where Tarantino betrays his own skills as a director. I’ll admit, the only Tarantino film I really thoroughly enjoyed was Pulp Fiction, but even with Reservoir Dogs I could appreciate what he was doing in terms of dialogue and character. These films played with genre and were chock-full of homages, but that’s not why they worked; they worked because they made us identify with the characters, and evoked from us emotional responses even when we were least expecting it. It’s not unsurprising, given Tarantino’s directorial strengths, that the highlight of the first film is the Bride’s conversation with Hatori-the-sushi-chef. If there were more of these sorts of scenes, the first film would have been salvageable.

Unfortunately, the first volume barely even has a script, much less a full helping of Tarantino dialogue. Mostly it feels like he’s just trying to do the minimal amount of work necessary to give Thurman the excuses necessary to provide vague emotes of “angry” or “grief-striken” as she gets on with the violence. The film has some very nice scenes, visually – O-Ren Ishii and her posse walking down the corridor to the song “Battle without Humanity or Honour” both looks and sounds undeniably cool – but these scenes are sequenced, not plotted. Violence is all fine and good, as is coolness for its own sake, but this particular film, without a plot, characters, or even any real ideas to be found therein, is sort of watchable but ultimately forgettable and even a bit tiresome.

None of this is to say that Tarantino doesn’t genuinely love his own work or the source material from which it draws. In fact, his love for both shines through both overtly and subtly (note the Charles Bronson poster on Budd’s wall.) It’s just that alone, that love is not enough. Without a story, without characterization, you have the meaningless chaos of the 60's experimental films – even worse, you arrive at it accidentally.

Which brings us to the second movie, which has more going for it but ultimately suffers from just as many problems, albeit of a different kind than the first. While the first film lacked Tarantino dialogue, the second film overflows with it, to the point it becomes cinematic verbal diarrhea. This film drags to the point of being soporific. Tarantino obviously refused to make any difficult editing decisions, instead opting to include every single indulgent minute of his moviemaking.

The characterization problem is still there, but it results from a different source. We learn all about the Bride and Bill, and the motivations of both, and both talk a whole lot, but they don’t end up saying much in their own voice so neither of them seem believable (particularly in terms of the Bride and her magical connection with her daughter… but now I’m edging closer to the realm of the film’s ideology, which I’ve already covered, so I’ll back off from that.)

What do I mean by “their own voice?” Well, in the previous Tarantino movies (even the ones I didn’t like), I genuinely believed that the characters were saying the things they said; I believed that they were that interested in McDonald’s in France, or how good their coffee is. Here, when Bill starts his exercise in pop psychology using a Superman analogy it’s painfully obvious that this is not Bill talking, it’s instead Tarantino waxing geek through Bill.

It’s fairly remarkable that the part of Volume 2 that sticks out as classic Tarantino in my mind is a scene I feel tempted to lay credit for not at Tarantino’s feet, but at the actor’s. Michael Madsen as Budd is, of all the Really Bad People, about the only one I end up feeling any sympathy for; despite all his ruthless, vicious nature he’s disarmingly sweet. When he talks with his big brother, Bill, about how he figures he deserves to die, but so does the Bride so he’s just going to let her come and see how the chips fall, in that moment the film quite elegantly provides a remarkable insight into the character (made all the more remarkable by its rarity) and summarizes his motivation in the ensuing scenes in a believable way. That’s the sort of dialogue that earned Tarantino his reputation, and yet it’s strangely missing from the rest of either film.

What’s truly ironic is that the entire scene, despite how powerful it is, seems largely superfluous. After all, Budd’s only function in the movie is to die; even giving him a backstory plays against genre (though, again, the movie doesn’t know whether it wants to rip genre apart or glorify it.)

Taken together, the films are marginally more satisfying, since they suffer from the fact that they were chopped in half with nary rhyme-nor-reason beyond studio greed – charging twice for the same movie, that is. (Miramax claims that money wasn’t an issue, and that they merely wanted to be true to Tarantino’s vision. Tarantino himself has backed up this claim in interviews. If true, they should have given out coupons for free viewings to those who saw the first film. Otherwise, I reserve the right to call it a shameless grab for more money on the parts of both director and studio). Really, there’s no reason this film couldn’t have been a single movie; every scene in the first movie is too long by five or ten minutes and begins to drag, while the second movie isn’t much better in this regard; both have more than their fair shares of scenes that go on too long and seem too indulgent. The movie would have been helped a great deal by a less forgiven editor than Tarantino himself, someone who might have gotten the film under three hours so that it could have been showed at once. Or at least, if they were dead-set on making it in two parts, ensuring that each film had a beginning, middle, and end in its narrative structure, rather than being artlessly sliced in twain – nobody goes home from the Lord of the Rings feeling like they’ve only seen half a movie, after all. Even Lucas is better at this.

Credit Where It Ain’t Due

Now, the review itself is pretty much over; this section is merely an editorializing footnote in which I’ll take the opportunity to set a couple of frequently misunderstood points straight. See, Tarantino is frequently given credit where it isn’t due when it comes to his films; this is particularly true when it comes to Kill Bill.

Both films have some impressive fight scenes (more the first than the second), and Tarantino is commonly lauded for them. However, the fight scenes in Kill Bill were not Tarantino’s. He placed them together after they were made, but they were choreographed by the legendary Yuen Wo-Ping. Similarly, he gets a lot of credit for his use of music. Well… sorry, Robert Rodriguez (director of Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Sin City) is more responsible for the arrangement of music Kill Bill than Tarantino is (he even wrote some of the music himself.)

In fact, while I’m on this here soap-box and railing against windmills, I might as well mention something else Tarantino-related that has irritated me to no end, even though it has nothing to do with Kill Bill. Rather, this has to do with Hero.

Now, what I’m about to do is a bad thing for a film critic, professional or amateur, to do: I’m about to attack a director as a person. Really, this sort of thing has no place in any movie review, and is Very, Very Bad. Bad Jesse.

I’m-a-gonna do it anyway.

Tarantino had NOTHING to do with Hero. NOTHING. It was a movie he liked. He helped bankroll its second release in North America. And yet he attached his name to it, so that it was marketed as “Quentin Tarantino presents Hero” or even sometimes “Quentin Tarantino’s Hero.” He attached his name to a work that insinuated he had creative input, when in fact he had none.

That, my friends, is the surest sign of a hack, and an arrogant one at that. The man styles himself as a true “auteur,” an outsider working in Hollywood, uncorrupted by the greed and cannibalistic navel-gazing that personifies so much of movie-making today. This may have been true before, but the moment he did that with Hero, he made them without-a-doubt untrue.

That sort of thing pisses me off, particularly from a director I used to like.

Anyway, I'm done now, at long last.

Normally, this would get 2 CWR’s. However, I’ll throw in an extra half-a-CWR, for the sake of Hatori and Budd, and if I’m being fair, the sheer stylishness of O-Ren. But only because I’ve been having such a great time since the school term ended, so I’m feeling generous. It's not a horrendous film, just somewhat below-par and terribly, terribly overhyped.



Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 7:19 PM
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+++++


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