Uma Thurman

Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)

There’s a lot of great moments in Pulp Fiction. There’s not a lot of great filmmaking–the taxi ride conversation between Bruce Willis and Angela Jones is about as close as director Tarantino gets to it–but there are definitely a lot of great moments. There’s the chemistry between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. There’s the Christopher Walken monologue, which is hilarious.

It’s also beyond problematic in terms of Tarantino’s force-feeding of racism to the audience; at a certain point, very, very early on, the viewer either has to accept Tarantino’s conceit racist language doesn’t make one a racist or just stop watching the film. Because the real racists are actually literal monsters, something the criminals of Pulp Fiction usually aren’t (at least on screen). Oh, and Tarantino’s wife in the film is black. So his slur-laden monologue–terribly delivered, of course, as Tarantino’s a horrific actor–means he really isn’t racist. It’s just supposed to be funny. You know, agree with him about it.

There’s probably lots written about Tarantino and racism. Lots excusing him, I’m sure. But Pulp Fiction doesn’t want to talk about racism or much else. It’s another stool Tarantino steps on to deliver the film. It’s not about the real world or real people, it’s about Tarantino’s version of “pulp fiction,” which involves magic and so on. Anyway, I’m off topic. A look at the film’s place in mainstreaming “post-racial” racist humor deserves a serious discussion, which I’m going to do here.

Wow, after that lede, how do I get back on track with saying a lot of nice things about the film and Tarantino’s writing….

He gets phenomenal performances from Travolta and Willis. Travolta somewhat more than Willis, even though Willis gets better material to himself. Travolta’s good solo, but nothing compared to when he’s with Jackson and Jackson gets the only real character role in the film. Everyone else plays a caricature or worse, but Jackson gets to stop and look around at the world and figure out how to live in it. He’s amazing, whether he’s delivering Tarantino’s comical expository dialogue, the tough guy threatening, the soul searching; Jackson does it all.

There’s some solid support from Maria de Medeiros as Willis’s girlfriend. The film’s in three sections–Travolta goes on a date with crime boss Ving Rhames’s wife, Uma Thurman in the first, Willis rips off Rhames and is on the run in the second, then the third part is just an amusement chapter for Jackson and Travolta. de Medeiros is barely in the film, doesn’t get to leave a crappy motel room set, yet she still makes more of the character than Thurman makes of hers.

You can say Thurman’s got a well-written role, but you’re wrong. Sorry. Tarantino doesn’t want to ruminate on masculinity, but he gets in the ballpark (Willis as the classic Hollywood hero). The female characters, Thurman in particular, get thin material. You need to think about it. Pulp Fiction is, like I said, rather problematic. It doesn’t help Thurman her wig has to do most of the acting with the way Tarantino directs her. His direction of her talking heads scenes with Travolta is his worst work as a director in the entire film. Like I said, problematic. It’s a good, very problematic motion picture.

Would it be better if cinematographer Andrzej Sekula weren’t really boring? Maybe. Sekula lights the picture to emphasize the performances, which is fine, only it’s not all close-ups or medium shots where it’d be appropriate. The solid, but not startling, editing from Sally Menke helps things a little though. There’s an energy to the film and when it goes slack, Fiction gets a little too long in the tooth. Since it’s three separate chapters, it’s particularly annoying when it goes slack right off with Thurman and Travolta’s date. Willis and Rhames’s story immediately saves the picture. Jackson and Travolta basically coast through on the last one.

Oh, and Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer aren’t good enough. Some of it’s the writing, some of it’s the directing, but quite a bit of it is their performances. It’s a strange misstep too, since Tarantino’s attention to narrative tone is one of the best things about the film.

Pulp Fiction is a solid, often troubling film. Tarantino doesn’t bite off more than he can chew, however–it’s assured, but not ambitious in anything but its length and bravado–because he doesn’t chew off much of anything with it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Quentin Tarantino; screenplay by Tarantino, based on a story by Tarantino and Roger Avary; director of photography, Andrzej Sekula; edited by Sally Menke; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Lawrence Bender; released by Miramax Films.

Starring John Travolta (Vincent Vega), Samuel L. Jackson (Jules Winnfield), Uma Thurman (Mia Wallace), Bruce Willis (Butch Coolidge), Harvey Keitel (The Wolf), Tim Roth (Pumpkin), Amanda Plummer (Honey Bunny), Maria de Medeiros (Fabienne), Ving Rhames (Marsellus Wallace), Eric Stoltz (Lance), Rosanna Arquette (Jody) and Christopher Walken (Captain Koons).


Batman & Robin (1997, Joel Schumacher)

I’m not going to defend Batman & Robin. It’s not so much a matter of the film being indefensible, it’s just a matter of it being a pointless exercise. And, by defend, I don’t mean identifying who gives the least embarrassing performance (Michael Gough) or who is just jaw-droppingly bad (Chris O’Donnell). Watching Batman & Robin, you can see the trailer moments, you can see the toy commercial moments, you can see the Happy Meal commercial moments. These moments aren’t hidden–Batman & Robin invites the audience to reveal in its brand possibilities.

It’s so blissfully unaware of itself, I almost don’t want to disturb that delusion. At the time of the film’s release, a friend of mine said, “if Schumacher wanted to do the TV show, they should’ve just done the TV show.” He was correct. Throw in the Neal Hefti “Batman Theme” and Batman & Robin would’ve been… well, it would’ve still been awful, because director Schumacher is making a movie for kids and trying to throw in adult stuff to make it appear grown-up.

Sure, the film’s objectively bad. Arnold Schwarzenegger is awful. Akiva Goldsman’s script is awful. Stephen Goldblatt’s photography is flat and boring (though everything except establishing shots being done on sets might have something to do with that boredom). The film’s so bad, you can’t even tell if it’s poorly edited or if it’s everything else about it. Elliot Goldenthal’s music’s awful though.

I should do a word count on “awful” for this post. But, see, I didn’t defend it. The film is a perfectly natural extension of where the franchise was going. It’s not about franchise fatigue or anything lofty; suspension of disbelief isn’t just plot holes and bad casting, it’s also about the work’s basic agreement. With Batman & Robin, Schumacher and company just told the viewers what they thought of them.

There’s nothing interesting to watch in Batman & Robin. I was sort of hoping Alicia Silverstone secretly gave a good performance or something wacky, but not really. She’s better than O’Donnell but so’s the guy who played Bane and he didn’t even have any dialogue. And it is interesting to compare George Clooney in this film to his later work. But none of those expectations or inquiries have anything to do with the film.

When you gaze long at Batman & Robin (and you do, because it’s endlessly long), Batman & Robin also gazes into you.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Schumacher; screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on characters created by Bob Kane; director of photography, Stephen Goldblatt; edited by Mark Stevens and Dennis Virkler; music by Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, Barbara Ling; produced by Peter Macgregor-Scott; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mr. Freeze), George Clooney (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Chris O’Donnell (Robin / Dick Grayson), Uma Thurman (Poison Ivy / Dr. Pamela Isley), Alicia Silverstone (Barbara), Michael Gough (Alfred Pennyworth), Pat Hingle (Commissioner James Gordon), John Glover (Dr. Jason Woodrue), Elle Macpherson (Julie Madison), Vivica A. Fox (Ms. B. Haven), Vendela Kirsebom Thomessen (Nora Fries), Jeep Swenson (Bane) and Elizabeth Sanders (Gossip Gerty).


Jennifer Eight (1992, Bruce Robinson)

Jennifer Eight ought to be a lot more tolerable, but writer-director Robinson hinges everything on Andy Garcia being likable. Garcia starts out all right, but he can’t sell–or doesn’t even try to sell–his police detective (or crime lab technician, it’s unclear). Garcia becomes obsessed with a case. It’s his first case at a new job, surrounded by new colleagues. They all think he’s annoying and irrational.

And neither Garcia’s performance, nor Robinson’s script, gives anyone any reason to think otherwise. Robinson just pretends Garcia is going to sell it and he doesn’t.

The film is full of character actors giving good performances–Lance Henriksen, Kevin Conway, Bob Gunton, Kathy Baker, Graham Beckel. Working actors who bring something to thinly written roles. The outliers are Garcia, leading lady Uma Thurman (as a blind witness he inexplicably romances–they have zero chemistry) and John Malkovich. Thurman’s good too, lack of chemistry aside.

But Garcia doesn’t just bring something to the role. Robinson gives the character all sorts of ticks–playing with his lighter, sniffing liquor since he doesn’t drink anymore–and they all seem intended to distract from Garcia not being able to sell any of the part. He’s not convincing as an obsessed detective, not convincing as a love interest for Thurman. It’d be a mess if there was any enthusiasm.

Sadly, there’s some good production work–great photography from Conrad L. Hall, a nice score from Christopher Young–and not bad composition from Robinson.

It’s just lame.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Bruce Robinson; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Conrad Buff IV; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Richard Macdonald; produced by Gary Lucchesi and David Wimbury; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Andy Garcia (John Berlin), Uma Thurman (Helena), Lance Henriksen (Freddy Ross), Kathy Baker (Margie Ross), Kevin Conway (Citrine), Graham Beckel (John Taylor), Lenny von Dohlen (Blattis), Bob Gunton (Goodridge), Paul Bates (Venables), Perry Lang (Travis), Bryan Larkin (Bobby Rose), Nicholas Love (Bisley), Michael O’Neill (Serato) and John Malkovich (St. Anne).


Paycheck (2003, John Woo)

Didn’t John Woo used to have a style? I mean, I know he had birds and he had the guns pointed at each other, but didn’t he have some style? He’s got no style in Paycheck, which ends up being one of the best movies John Badham never made.

It’s a complete time waster, the kind of thing people used to grow up on seeing on TV, fueled by competent direction (without style, Woo’s inoffensive most of the time and only stupid–the birds–once or twice) and a fine leading man performance from Ben Affleck. While he’s never going to be believable as super genius (the idea of Uma Thurman as a PhD is as hilarious as Will Smith as one), he’s sturdy as an engineer.

Most of the supporting cast–Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore, Joe Morton–is solid. Aaron Eckhart’s not doing anything special here but he isn’t being terrible either. The script isn’t deep enough to let him. Michael C. Hall and Kathryn Morris are both pretty bad, but neither are in it too much. Peter Friedman appears to be wearing a lot of make-up. He’s not good, but the make-up distracts.

The script’s problematic–the concept isn’t cool as a near future movie and would have worked much better firmed up in reality–but serviceable. John Powell’s music is rather effective.

The whole movie hinges on Affleck being a movie star and Affleck is a movie star and it works.

It’s a fine diversion.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John Woo; screenplay by Dean Georgaris, based on the short story by Philip K. Dick; directors of photography, Jeffrey L. Kimball and Gregory Lundsgaard; edited by Christopher Rouse and Kevin Stitt; music by John Powell; production designer, William Sandell; produced by John Davis, Michael Hackett, Terence Chang and Woo; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Ben Affleck (Jennings), Aaron Eckhart (Rethrick), Uma Thurman (Rachel), Paul Giamatti (Shorty), Colm Feore (Wolfe), Joe Morton (Agent Dodge), Michael C. Hall (Agent Klein), Peter Friedman (Attorney General Brown) and Kathryn Morris (Rita Dunne).


Beautiful Girls (1996, Ted Demme)

Of the principals, only Michael Rapaport is under thirty (Beautiful Girls hinges on a ten-year high school reunion) and much of the running time can be spent wondering how the viewer is supposed to believe Timothy Hutton isn’t thirty-five years old (he’s actually thirty-six). Hutton gives one of the film’s best performances, frequently transcending the script and its severe deficiencies (almost every event is a sitcom trope). His best scenes are with Noah Emmerich (whose performance is shockingly broad, even in this cast) and Natalie Portman. In their scenes together, both Hutton and Portman stumble through the awkward dialogue and create the film’s only (comparatively) honest relationship.

That relationship doesn’t have to be too real, since every other one in the picture is a hackneyed mess. Screen-“writer” Scott Rosenberg seems to fancy himself a more WASPy Kevin Smith with all the pop culture references. Only Ted Demme’s incredible direction–and it really is fantastic in every area except the film’s writing–saves the film. Besides Demme’s fantastic choice of look and sound for the picture (Adam Kimmel’s photography and David A. Stewart’s score), he also gets a lot of solid little moments in. Max Perlich has almost no function in the script, but under Demme’s direction, his occasional asides are some of the best moments in the film. Rosie O’Donnell basically gets a couple big monologues (I believe these were ghost-written for her; Rosenberg’s unabashedly sexist script doesn’t indicate he’s a feminist), but has some good little moments as well.

Beautiful Girls‘s greatest failings are all script-related, but having some terrible performances doesn’t hurt much either. The three worst performances are from Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman and Lauren Holly. Holly’s got what’s probably the film’s most difficult role and instead she plays it like a poorly articulated mannequin. I know I just got done complementing Demme with actors… but Holly doesn’t have any room for asides. Her character’s all epical, as is Dillon’s. Dillon’s so goofy in the film, it’s like he’s lampooning a former teen actor who can’t catch a break. His character is terribly written (none of the main characters make any sense being in their late twenties… it’s clear they’ve only existed since the end of the opening logo), but even so… Dillon still does a real bad job. Both he and Hutton lower their voices to make them gruff for whatever reason. Hutton it doesn’t work with, but there’s a still a performance backing it up. Dillon doesn’t have that luxury.

Thurman actually should be all fluff material, but the script places so much weight on her character, it’s hilarious to watch her. She’s absolutely incapable of creating even the semblance of a human being. Every one of her scenes is painful to watch.

The best performance is probably Mira Sorvino. She doesn’t have much of a character, but Sorvino essays the role brilliantly.

Otherwise… I guess Martha Plimpton and Pruitt Taylor Vince are both okay. They aren’t bad and they don’t embarrass themselves (why Miramax put Rapaport in this one, I can’t even imagine–he doesn’t have an honest second here).

The only real draw is Demme and his superior talent.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ted Demme; written by Scott Rosenberg; director of photography, Adam Kimmel; edited by Jeffrey Wolf; music by David A. Stewart; production designer, Dan Davis; produced by Cary Woods; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Matt Dillon (Tommy), Michael Rapaport (Paul), Martha Plimpton (Jan), Mira Sorvino (Sharon), Lauren Holly (Darian), Timothy Hutton (Willie), Annabeth Gish (Tracy), Natalie Portman (Marty), Uma Thurman (Andera), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Stanley), Anne Bobby (Sarah), Rosie O’Donnell (Gina), Noah Emmerich (Mo) and Max Perlich (Kev).


Gattaca (1997, Andrew Niccol)

I guess I forgot about Gattaca, because I was worried about it….

Which was stupid.

Gattaca is, in my non-brother-having opinion, the best film about brothers ever made. East of Eden was about fathers and sons and I can’t think of any other good examples right now. I’m transferring over a bunch of old Stop Button reviews right now for the planned site upgrade (which is probably pointless, since none of the site counters report any readers) and I came across a review for THX 1138. It said something along the lines that I couldn’t talk about THX 1138 properly, so I wouldn’t even try. I also came across my Superman review, which was brilliant, so maybe I’ll say some more about Gattaca….

Rarely can you point at a film and say, “Look, that’s his brother then and that’s who’s become his brother now but there’s his real brother and it’s all about these relationships between men and the beauty of them.” I got teary at Gattaca and I can’t think of another film about men I’ve gotten teary about. Heat, maybe? I can’t remember.

I’m not going to waste energy talking about Niccol’s directing or the film’s style–it’s perfect, but lots of films have perfect direction and style and fail (and lots have neither and succeed… to some degree, anyway). Niccol’s created a situation where one can appreciate the truly beautiful things people can do for each other. And, hey, if you have to set it in the future in a genetic engineering thingy, I’m with it. I haven’t seen a human being do a beautiful thing for another human being in my entire life (that’s why there are movies and books). The real world just doesn’t have the Michael Nyman score going for it.

This is the point when all those blogs I think I’m superior to but actually have readers say things like: discuss. Well, for now (don’t know about the upgrade), don’t waste your time discussing, just go see this film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol; director of photography, Slawomir Idziak; edited by Lisa Zeno Churgin; music by Michael Nyman; production designer, Jan Roelfs; produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Ethan Hawke (Vincent), Uma Thurman (Irene), Gore Vidal (Director Josef), Xander Berkeley (Lamar), Jayne Brook (Marie), Ernest Borgnine (Caesar), Alan Arkin (Detective Hugo), Blair Underwood (Geneticist), Loren Dean (Anton), Jude Law (Jerome), Tony Shalhoub (German) and Elias Koteas (Antonio).


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