03 June 2007

Tarantino (1987-1991)

1987 - My Best Friend's Birthday - Due to a fire, only half of this film survives. Though it doesn't have any titles or credits, the extant portion seems to be the first half of the film. It's a comedy in which the main character -- played by an Elvis-pompadour-sporting Tarantino -- keeps trying to do nice things for his best friend on his birthday and those things end up backfiring on him.

Even if you didn't know this was a Tarantino movie -- and somehow didn't recognize his distinctive mug in the form of Clarence, a disc jockey at K-Billy -- you'd notice his influence in the film right away. Fresh out of the gate, he's already peppering his movies with watchable characters, good songs from prior decades and lengthy conversations about pop culture. The dialogue in this movie is just as entertaining (or annoying, depending on your view) as it will be in his future, more successful films. There are deep conversations about Eddie Cochran's tragic death, Elvis' acting ability and De Palma's Dressed to Kill. Clarence's inexperienced negotiations with a prostitute -- sorry, a call girl -- as a gift for his friend was nicely done. Clarence's line "I AM IN HELL!" after accidentally snorting some itching powder was one of the funniest things I've seen in a while.

Outside of the writing, the filmmaking isn't quite there. The camera was largely stationary. When it decided to move, it appeared to be just to play around. One shot slowly rotated around two characters talking, but a pool table lamp obscured their conversing faces for most of the time. The editing is pretty sloppy, too. I noticed a few instances where it appears that they stitched two takes from one shot directly together without cutting to something else to cover for the transition. But, that's just the type of thing you're forced to do when making a cheap movie.

Amateur, half-movie though it is, it's still a lot of fun. C and I were laughing up a storm. It's worth tracking down if you're a fan. (7/10)

1991 - Reservoir Dogs - It was one of the films that helped bring independent cinema to the mainstream's attention. It helped propel both Tim Roth and Michael Madsen's acting careers. It spawned a spate of hipster, ultra-violent crime flicks over the following decade. Not too bad for a kid who's first film got half-destroyed in a fire after working on it for three years.

Watching the movie again this time -- and maybe it was because I cranked the volume to appreciate the new DTS mix found on the 15th anniversary DVD -- I really noticed the music. Here's what I like about Tarantino's taste in music: it's not the same old shit. It's oldies music, but he rarely ever uses songs that you'd hear on your local oldies channel. In fact, looking over the artists who wrote the songs featured in the movie, I don't recognize a single one. Though he may be choosing the tunes partially for their nostalgic value, I get to listen to a variety of quirky, never- or seldom-heard songs like the fantastic "Little Green Bag" in the title sequence.

Casting is another of Tarantino's strengths that shines in this film. Tim Roth's performance as the undercover policeman is fantastic. His is the yardstick with which to measure anyone's portrayal of bleeding to death from a belly wound. Michael Madsen is just a good as the psychotic, cool-as-a-cucumber Mr. Blonde. Lawrence Tierney, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Harvey Keitel: there ain't a dud in the group. Tarantino also wisely kills off the weakest actor early: Mr. Brown departs shortly after his "Like a Virgin" monologue.

After the movie, we watched Who Do You Think You're Fooling?, the infamous short showing the similarities between RD and the Hong Kong action flick City on Fire. I'll reserve judgment until CoF arrives from Netflix, but I suspect accusations of plagiarism are far too severe. I tend to think of Tarantino as a bebop musician of film, riffing on a variety of cool stuff he's seen others do, while mixing in his own style of story structure, tone, humor and dialogue.

Useless trivia: years ago, Robert Kurtzman came to my college to talk to a handful of film students and he brought The Ear with him as a show-and-tell item. It was a piece of latex.

C says: "I still think this is Tarantino's best movie." I think that honor belongs to the next one, but we'll see. (8/10)