I first discovered him in college twenty years ago, getting my first real taste of what cinema was all about. We delved into deep esoteric films, the sort that never showed up at your friendly neighborhood Blockbuster. They were directed by men with complex Eastern European names and featured content designed to alternately expand and confound our expectations. Class after class, semester after semester, we studied them with all the seriousness our young minds could muster. They were Important. They were Art. We needed to understand them if we hoped to grasp the secrets that this medium held. Then, in the middle of it all, my friend Shanan knock on my door, gripped me by the coat lapels and spoke in the soft, serious tones one normally associates with rooftop snipers. “We went to this movie called Reservoir Dogs. You have to see it. Right. Fucking. Now.” Hit the jump for my full review.
So it was that the bombshell of Quentin Tarantino landed in my lap. Every film fan in the world has a similar story, whether it was Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction or one of his later works. Something changed with his arrival in 1992. You didn’t have to like it (the man has his share of haters) but no one could deny it. In the ensuing two decades, we’ve excitedly discussed what it meant, how it changed us, and whether or not anything could ever go back to the way it was. Tarantino just kept making movies: some of them better than others, but all of them unmistakably his.
The reasons for his remain elusive. Few directors possess the kind of willful self-consciousness that Tarantino does: a way of both sending up and lionizing his subjects that no one else quite managed. He loved the low-brow in the most high-brow manner possible. He revealed the hidden pleasures of Z-movie crime dramas, and showed us how wonderful and beautiful they could be. He toyed with self-reflexivity, but never at the expense of the story.
Was he riffing on genre tropes? Most definitely. But his films weren’t just goofs, nor did they limit themselves to knee-jerk postmodernism. He revitalized them with his energy and enthusiasm, filtering them through his unique sensibilities until they felt brand new. This applied most directly to his characters – the way they moved, the things they said, their balance between reality and construct – but easily spilled out across the entire spectrum of his filmmaking. Above all, his movies loved the medium. They reveled in their own cinema-ness, which somehow felt more real than less self-aware pictures ever did. They reflected their creator’s passion for the movies and sought fervently to share them with us. Every filmmaker of his caliber feels the same way, but he’s the only one who ties it so deliberately into his own work.
And his films couldn’t possibly be mistaken for anyone else’s. He’s an auteur in the truest sense of the word, with a singular point of view that no other filmmaker can match. Plenty have tried, however – more than perhaps any other director – and their failures only further emphasize his unique stamp. At times, that status has bit him in the ass, as self-expression gives way to self-indulgence and “look how cool I am” becomes the purpose of the exercise. Thankfully, those moments are infrequent… and the remainder of his work ranks as some of the most vibrant and lively filmmaking ever conceived. It’s even spawned its own adjective – Tarantino-esque – which anyone who’s seen his films will instantly recognize.
As usual, we’re going to do a quick breakdown of the films in this new collection, starting with the first and moving in chronological order.
Though Pulp Fiction remains Tarantino’s masterpiece, the first real sign of his genius arose with Reservoir Dogs. It was comparatively simple from a plot standpoint: the aftermath of a bungled robbery featuring a band of criminals who know nothing about each other. But from the get-go, it didn’t feel like your run-of-the-mill crime story. In the first place, he refused to follow a linear format, jumping back and forth from the robbery’s set up to its aftermath. He didn’t even show us the robbery itself, something no other filmmaker would dare. Not only did the tactic work, but it felt absolutely perfect. Including the central event in this timeline would feel wrong somehow… and how many movies can you say that about?
Beyond that, the film brimmed with Tarantino’s signature flourishes: the beautiful hard-boiled dialogue, the pitch-perfect music (will we ever hear “Stuck in the Middle” the same way again?), the labyrinthine study of loyalty and betrayal, and above all the sheer passionate joy of the journey. Pulp Fiction is probably a better movie, but Reservoir Dogs is probably his purest… and a wonderful sign of the things to come.
This one’s a bit of a head-scratcher. Tarantino didn’t direct it; he only wrote the screenplay and his influence was not yet strong enough to command the helm himself. So it went to the late Tony Scott, who delivered it with his usual blend of filters, jump cuts and extreme close-ups. It’s inarguably Scott’s film – one of his best, in fact – but Tarantino’s influence still shines through. It recounts the tale of a comic book clerk (Christian Slater) who falls in love with a prostitute (Patricia Arquette), then inadvertently steals a suitcase full of cocaine while murdering her pimp. The crime stuff feels like par for the course – topped by one of the most brilliant exchanges ever written between Slater’s father (Dennis Hopper) and the mob boss pursuing them (Christopher Walken) – but for all its hipster credentials, it retains a surprisingly sweet core. These two kids really do love each other, and we believe in their love despite all the hyperactive mayhem surrounding them.
That still doesn’t explain what it’s doing in this Blu-ray set… or more pertinently, why it’s here when other Tarantino penned movies like From Dusk Till Dawn and Natural Born Killers aren’t. For that matter, why leave out Four Rooms, which contains a sequence that the man actually directed? It’s a curious choice that highlights the set’s incomplete nature… though it’s also a pretty awesome movie, so we won’t complain too loudly.
We’re still sorting through the ramifications of Pulp Fiction, which landed in 1994 and fundamentally shifted the cinematic landscape. The indie movement that began five years earlier with sex, lies and videotape came to a frenzied head with this multi-layered crime drama focusing on the various denizens of the L.A. underworld. Tarantino upped the ante with more characters, more plot threads and more Tarantino-isms that have become pop culture icons.
At the center stood a pair of hit men played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson; the former revived his career in one fell swoop, while the latter became an overnight superstar and has never relinquished the position. Such was the potency of the material on display: crimes, cover-ups and double-crosses thrown into a blender and delivered as something no one had ever seen before. Once again, Tarantino focused on the poetry of cinema, whether it was the dialogue, editing or music (all delivered at a machine gun’s pace). Once again, loyalty and betrayal served as the focus, as each of his three interwoven stories ended with an unspoken pact between two characters. Forrest Gump smashed it at the Oscars that year, but while Robert Zemeckis’s opus has aged like a roadside possum carcass, Pulp Fiction only grows in popularity and influence.
Tarantino faced a challenge with Jackie Brown, as overexposure and sky-high expectations set a bar he couldn’t possibly meet. He responded by backing off: adapting an Elmore Leonard novel instead of working from his own screenplay and toning down the postmodern pyrotechnics. It was a smart play, and resulted in a solid, respectable movie that’s held up just as well as its more celebrated predecessors. It also gives Tarantino crush object Pam Grier the role of a lifetime, as a down-on-her-luck stewardess caught between a crazy gun runner (Jackson) and the law. The film forms a nice contrast with True Romance, as Tarantino directs someone else’s material instead of having someone direct his. It’s all his, unlike True Romance, though you can see flashes of Leonard’s (equally brilliant) voice cropping up here and there.
Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2
Having throttled back with Jackie Brown, Tarantino cranked the volume to 11 with Kill Bill, a movie so big it took two movies to show it all. He ramps up the outlandishness, as well as providing another choice role for his leading lady (Uma Thurman in this case). She plays a former assassin betrayed by her mentor and left for dead, only to return and hunt down his minions one by one. It’s a hell of a ride, bolstered by the fact each fresh act of revenge feels like a movie in and of itself. It also shows the first real signs of the director’s self-indulgence, with scenes that linger a bit too long and an overall structure that demands a certain amount of patience. Thankfully, Thurman makes a marvelous heroine, and like most of the director’s work, this one holds our attention no matter how many times we’ve seen it.
The closest thing Tarantino has to a flat-out failure arrives with this second half of the Grindhouse double feature. We won’t get into the mangling of that project over the past five years – how separating Death Proof from Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror really defeats the purpose of the exercise – and instead focus on the movie as a stand-alone endeavor. He wastes far too much time on pointless conversations, failing to develop an already slight notion about a stuntman (Kurt Russell) who uses his muscle car to murder hapless women. The first hour spins its wheels dreadfully, and you can sense the need for a real miracle if the director hopes to pull out the win.
Surprisingly enough, he does: deploying secret weapon Zoe Bell for a how-is-this-legal ride on the hood of Russell’s Dodge Challenger that has become the stuff of legend. Her white-knuckle seat-gripper that simultaneously salvages the whole endeavor while lending the previous slog far more interesting as a result. It still can’t stand up against Planet Terror, but if this is the worst he ever does, we don’t have much to worry about.
It was probably only a matter of time before Tarantino turned his eye to the World War II epic, and as usual, the results were anything but ordinary. Another complicated storyline finds a band of hard-core Jewish-American soldiers (headed by Brad Pitt) out to slaughter every Nazi they see in 1944 France. They cross paths with a runaway Jew (Melanie Laurent) planning an elaborate revenge against the Nazi High Command. It carries all the tropes we’ve come to expect – great speeches, postmodern riffs, a fascination with the plasticity of fiction – while retaining the emotional core of the characters. Things get flabby in the middle when the director seems to lose his way, but a rousing finale and key performances from the likes of Michael Fassbender and Christoph Waltz (who scored a well-deserved Oscar) quickly rescue the proceedings, however. That makes Inglourious Basterds a notable if imperfect entry into the Tarantino canon.
Naturally, most fans have probably already gathered these films on Blu-ray by now, which means this new set probably won’t have much to offer. Yes, it contains two bonus discs worth of material – including five hours of critical discussions (some of which have appeared on earlier discs), a feature-length retrospective and a Q&A session regarding Jackie Brown, as well as some promo material for Django Unchained. The remainder of the set consists of repackaged Blu-rays, identical in all respects to those released as individual movies. So it’s not the balls-out ultimate-set-of-doom that Tarantino’s fans may want (and which will certainly come along sooner or later). Double-dipping is probably not the best way to go here.
That said, it still has a lot to recommend it. The case is sturdy and doesn’t rely on those horrible sleeves to keep the movies. The films themselves are all terrific, and few of them (notably his first two) stand as modern classics. There’s plenty of additional material on each disc – repeated from earlier prints, but no less welcome for their presence. Current prices are quite cheap, and come out to less than $10 a disc in some places, making it easy enough to pick up for the price. Hard-core fans don’t need to double dip on this one, but folks hoping to create a collection in one fell swoop or replace their DVD with an upgrade should be quite satisfied with what this set provides. 20 is an arbitrary number it’s true, but it’s as good a time as any to celebrate this iconic filmmaker. Tarantino XX is a decent set at a reasonable price. It doesn’t quite blow our socks off, and it really doesn’t have to: the movies inside can handle the job quite nicely.