Movie Perfection: Quentin Tarantino

I’ve written three blog posts in my “Movie Perfection” series where I focus on scenes in movies that represent, in my mind, the best that films can be: the finale of Seven, the sing-along to “Tiny Dancer” in Almost Famous, and the montage set to beautiful music of Carl and Ellie growing old together in Disney’s Up.

This next entry into Movie Perfection is not about a scene. It’s about a person.

Quentin Tarantino.

Just looking at his name floods my memory with indelible scenes from his movies. Snippets of his dialogue. Performances from his films.

He’s been at it for 20 years now. There is probably no blog post I could write that properly expresses my love and appreciation for his work. I’ll try anyway.

Reservoir Dogs.  Pulp Fiction.  Jackie Brown.  Kill Bill – Volume 1.  Kill Bill – Volume 2.  Grindhouse.  Inglourious Basterds.  

In my very first blog post (way back in October 2012) I described the first time I saw Reservoir Dogs and fell in love immediately with the movie. That was in 1993 (it was released theatrically in limited form in 1992). This led me to anticipate 1994’s Pulp Fiction in a way I’d never anticipated a movie before or since. And when I did see Pulp in the theater in October 1994 on opening weekend, I’d never had a film experience like that before… and haven’t since. My expectations for that film were about as high as movie expectations can be… and Pulp Fiction exceeded them. I would see it in the theater eight times and countless times more on VHS and DVD.

These expectations were at the level they were because of the brilliance of Reservoir Dogs.    This movie was a total revelation to me. I’ve seen it many, many times. Looking back now, maybe the most amazing thing about is that it’s about a robbery. And, as an audience, we never see the robbery. We see the before and after of the robbery. Of course, the film is shot out of order, which is pretty much a staple of Tarantino. He doesn’t follow the linear pattern that 99% of films follow and a lot of directors have copied that since, but not near to effect that Quentin does it.

A regular movie would’ve been about the robbery. Reservoir Dogs is about what the characters talk about in a diner before the robbery, which includes the meaning of Madonna’s song “Like A Virgin” and arguments about why people should tip or not tip waitresses. All handled with dialogue that only Tarantino can do. Brilliant writing.

Reservoir Dogs uses the obvious formula of one of the robbers being an undercover cop. A regular movie would’ve made the undercover cop the focal point and used that character as the hero stopping this horrible robbery. Not Reservoir Dogs. Nothing is obvious when Tarantino is writing the film. Instead, we see a brilliant sequence where the undercover cop, played by Tim Roth, has to rehearse telling a story to the other robbers that will convince them he’s one of them. The story involves having drugs on him and walking into a bathroom where some law enforcement officers and a drug-sniffing dog just happen to be. It’s an incredibly well-done and exciting sequence that has you on the edge of your seat and we know the whole time it’s completely made up. Only Quentin.

Pulp Fiction continues those themes in many ways. When John Travolta and Sam Jackson are on their way to find that suitcase and kill the people who stole it, the preceding scene isn’t about them discussing how to handle those guys. It’s them talking about Travolta’s character Vincent being in Europe and what they call a Big Mac there. And a Whopper. But, as we all know, Vincent didn’t go into a Burger King, so he doesn’t know. And then as they prepare to enter the thieves apartment, it turns into a discussion on whether it’s appropriate to give another man’s wife a foot massage. This is after they discuss that certain TV shows that are filmed never become shows because the pilots don’t get picked up.

The point is this: Tarantino revolutionized dialogue in movies. His writing doesn’t serve the  idea of simply moving the plot along. Tarantino’s scenes take the bold step of having interesting characters talk like people actually talk from time to time. About movies and television. About food. About how people tip waitresses. About making up stories to impress people you need to impress. He’s one of the first writers that had his characters make movie references. Sounds normal now, but Tarantino really made that acceptable. Before him (for the most part), if you watched a movie, the writers would have you believe none of their characters had ever watched another film before and didn’t have the film knowledge to reference them. Tarantino’s characters talk about other movies and TV shows.  This is likely because, if you read anything about him, Tarantino is described as a walking encyclopedia of film history. He’s seen everything. He LOVES movies.

And I think that’s why people who LOVE movies so much LOVE Tarantino. He doesn’t hesitate to borrow from other films and pay homage to other directors. And when he does, he’s not ripping them off. He’s putting his own spin on their work with the kind of amazing dialogue that no one else seems capable of writing. The fact that Reservoir Dogs was an indie hit and then Pulp Fiction became a phenomenon two years later has given Tarantino the ability to do whatever he wants. Few directors get the kind of creative freedom he does and he uses it to the max.

No one casts movie like Tarantino and how he does that has been revolutionary. His deep knowledge of movies and actors makes him cast unconventional choices for roles and it’s resurrected many a career and started others. The most obvious example is John Travolta, whose career as an A list actor had been dormant for over a decade. From the early 80s to the mid 90s, Travolta’s biggest contribution to film had been a trilogy of talking baby movies. Tarantino credited Travolta’s great performance in 1981’s Brian De Palma thriller Blow Out as his inspiration for casting him as Vincent Vega in Pulp and it catapulted him back to A list territory.

It’s not just Travolta. He turned Samuel L. Jackson from a character actor to a leading man. He resurrected the career of 70s blaxpoitation star Pam Grier by giving her the title role in Jackie Brown. He directed longtime B movie actor Robert Forster to an Oscar nomination in that same film. The same can be said for David Carradine, the late Kung Fu actor who gave the performance of his career in the Kill Bill movies. He gave Kurt Russell one of his best roles in Grindhouse. He directed little known European actor Christoph Waltz to an Oscar win in Inglourious Basterds. And there’s Tim Roth. And Michael Madsen. And Uma Thurman. And Ving Rhames. And Michael Fassbender. And Christopher Walken’s brilliant scene in Pulp. And B movie actor Lawrence Tierney chewing up the scenery in Reservoir. And Steve Buscemi. Get the idea?

No one uses music as effectively as Quentin does in movies. The examples are many, from the Reservoir Dogs walking to “Little Green Bag” by the George Baker Selection to the ear-slicing scene in that movie played to “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel. There’s “Misirlou” by surf guitarist Dick Dale over the opening credits to Pulp Fiction. Travolta and Uma Thurman dancing to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell”.  Bruce Willis singing along in his car to “Flowers on the Wall” by the Statler Bros. Samuel L. Jackson executing Chris Tucker’s character to the tune of “Strawberry Letter 23” by the Brothers Johnson in Jackie Brown. Jackie singing along to “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack in her car at the film’s close. The characters of Jackie and Forster’s bail bondsman bonding to “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time)” by the Delfonics. Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” over the credits to Kill Bill Volume 1. The brilliant use of Ennio Morricone’s Western scores in both Bill features. Kurt Russell killing the four girls in the car crash to the tune of “Hold Tight” by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mich & Tich in Grindhouse. And the preparation of Hitler’s visit to the movie theater as David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” plays in Basterds. Much like his encyclopedic mind with movies, Tarantino’s the same way with music and he makes amazing choices that cause his soundtracks to be must-owns, just like his films.

Beyond the movies he’s directed, he wrote the screenplays for 1993’s fantastic True Romance, which contains one of the best scenes in the last 20 years with between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper.  And there’s 1996’s From Dusk Til Dawn, which is a helluva fun crime thriller/vampire flick.

I could continue to go on and on. The bottom line is this: I could pick from countless scenes in his films. Countless lines of brilliant dialogue. Countless amazing uses of music. Countless career-best performances that he’s directed his actors to.

I won’t. Quentin Tarantino is Movie Perfection. He’s the most important and influential director of the past two decades. People who truly love movies in a deep way love Tarantino. And that’s because he deeply loves movies, has studied them, and figured out a way to make them better than anyone else. And with that – enjoy the videos!

 

Movie Perfection: Growing UP and Growing Old

For my third edition of the Movie Perfection series, I wanted to concentrate on a pair of scenes that not only embody Movie Perfection, but really came out of nowhere when I viewed the film I’m about to speak of.

When we watch a film of a certain genre, we come into it with certain expectations at the most elementary level. If it’s a comedy, we want to laugh. If it’s a big budget superhero movie, we want to be wowed by kick ass action scenes and maybe get some good character development in between. And so on and so forth.

Like most movie goers, the story of Pixar and their rapid ascension to kings of animated features has been a joy to watch. From the Toy Story series to Monsters Inc. to Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, this is the studio that seems to hit it out of the park every time. When we know the animated film is Pixar, we expect quality. We expect brilliant animation, a good story, fun characters, and even some moments of emotion (see Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo).

In 2008, Pixar seemed to up its game in many ways with Wall-E, a feature that seemed geared almost as much for adults as it was for their children. And there were emotional moments in that one, too.

But nothing – NOTHING – prepared me for Pixar’s follow-up to Wall-E, 2009’s Up. Let’s get this out of the way first – it’s my favorite Pixar feature. And I knew the reviews were wonderful (as they nearly always are with the company’s films). So when I rented Up shortly after its DVD release, I expected to be highly entertained.

What I didn’t expect was the emotional powerhouse that it was. And nothing shows this more than a montage early in the film that shows the lives of the film’s main character Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) and his wife Ellie. There are no words, just the beautiful musical score of Michael Giacchino (who has scored other Pixar features and the TV show “Lost”). Those few minutes of seeing these character’s lives set to that music threw me for a loop when I saw it. This sequence is for the adults in the audience. It’s about the love of two people. It’s about promises they’ve made to each other. It’s about how promises can be broken because regular life gets in the way. It’s about life not living up to the lofty expectations we make when we’re children. It’s about seeing your loved one’s health decline. It’s about life and death. It’s mature film making at its highest level. And it’s most emotional level.

The sequence of Carl and Ellie meeting as children, getting married, and growing old together is a beautiful sequence. And I won’t lie – my reaction to it did not involve dry eyes. The first time I saw it, I felt like a fool watching it, getting emotional about two animated characters. But we forget they’re animated characters while we’re watching it. That’s what great movies can accomplish. You forget you’re watching a movie and the emotions we feel remind us of times in our own lives and of people we know and love. That’s what Up does in that sequence better than almost anything else I’ve ever seen.

After that amazing musical sequence, we get into the plot of the movie, which involves Carl going on an amazing adventure with his balloon-powered home. The rest of the movie is fantastic.

Later in the movie, though, we return to the story of Carl and Ellie. In the sequence I’ve spoken of, we see The Adventure Book, where the couple are going to chronicle all their adventures all over the world. During most of the film after Ellie’s death, Carl can’t bring himself to look at it because of his intense disappointment in not going on those adventures he and his wife had dreamed of as children. When Carl finally takes a look at the book, he accidentally discovers that before her death, Ellie filled the book in with pictures of their life together. As Carl looks at the book and his eyes well up with tears, he recognizes that those pictures do show the adventures he and his late wife experienced together. And he finally realizes that Ellie was grateful to have such a loving husband in her life. As he looks at the Adventure Book, it closes with a handwritten note from her: “Thanks for the adventure. Now go have one of your own”. Emotional stuff that is handled brilliantly in the movie.

I am not someone who gets teary-eyed a lot during movies, but Up did the trick during both of those scenes… and have every time I’ve watched it since. In the years since I’ve seen it, I have definitely discovered I’m not the only one who had a similar reaction to that movie after talking with friends who sheepishly admit they teared up as well.

Up is Pixar’s masterpiece so far in my opinion and that’s saying a lot. That gorgeous score by Giacchino would win the Oscar, Grammy, and Golden Globe. Up would be nominated for Best Picture. These sequences are the epitome of Movie Perfection. If you’ve seen Up, enjoy this YouTube video of the two sequences cut together. If you haven’t seen it, you need to.

Movie Perfection: Tiny Dancer

There are times in life where we’re presented with something so wonderful and perfect that all we can do is smile very widely in appreciation. We’re not trying to smile. It’s just comes naturally because of what is occurring.

From time to time, we experience that in a movie. I experienced that in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. I experienced it because of brilliant writing, from Crowe as a screenwriter. Just as importantly, I experienced it from another writer, Bernie Taupin. And from great performers in the movie. And from another great performer – Elton John, who sings Taupin’s words in one of my favorite movie scenes ever.

Almost Famous takes us on the journey of a teenage writer who lands a gig with Rolling Stone magazine. It’s autobiographical – director/writer Crowe had just that job before moving on to direct Say Anything and Jerry Maguire. 

In the film, we see this wide-eyed teenage kid William go from worshiping the records of Zeppelin and Dylan and Bowie to being a part of that world, following around a fictional band named Stillwater. And he meets Penny Lane, a “band aid” (not groupie, that’s insulting according to her), played by Kate Hudson who gives the best performance of her career.

Because of Crowe’s background, Almost Famous feels entirely authentic. We suspect that the good times and bad times we see behind the scenes of Stillwater’s concert tour is based on real-life experiences. And like Crowe’s greatest work, the writing is first-rate and emotionally satisfying.

The band is going through some rough times and on the verge of breaking up when the star of the band, guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup) takes William to a high school party in Topeka, Kansas because he wants to hang with “real people”.

The scene at the party is fantastic. Russell drops a whole lot of acid, proclaims himself “a Golden God!” on top of the roof of the house of the party, and jumps into the pool, much to William’s chagrin.

The drama that we’ve seen in the past few minutes of the movie — the band breaking apart — leads the audience to believe the movie may go down a darker road. Russell and William are picked up from the out-of-the-way house party by the band and its tour bus. In the immediate scene following, we witness the band members, William, Penny Lane, and the hangers-on of the band all sitting uncomfortably on the bus heading to the next non-descript gig.

And, then one of the greatest scenes in recent film history unfolds. Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” starts to play over the scene. As an audience, we assume that it’s simply what we’re used to in movies — a song trying to dictate the tone of the scene. About a minute into the scene, one of the Stillwater band members begins to sing along to the track. We, as an audience, realize that everyone in that bus is also listening to the song. Within a few seconds, almost everyone on the bus is belting out Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s timeless classic. The final holdout is Russell, who finally gets a huge smile on his face and sings along with everyone else. All the drama we’ve witnessed in the last acts of the film is resolved. For all the drama these characters have between each other — music unites them.

As if the emotion of all that isn’t enough — the last part of the scene has William turning to Penny Lane. He’s frustrated with his writing assignment and his process of trying to interview the band. He expresses his thoughts to her: “I need to go home”. Penny looks at him, smiles widely, and replies: “You are home.”

William and the audience experience the same reaction at the same second: this is where William belongs. This is his destiny. And this is why Almost Famous is one of the best movies in recent memory. And this is why I can’t listen to “Tiny Dancer” without thinking of that scene.

And this is why that scene is Movie Perfection.

Movie Perfection: The Final Act of SEVEN

So now after my rambling first post, I felt it necessary to post something about a specific movie. This led me to start a category on this blog entitled “Movie Perfection” where I give examples of when a movie seems to do everything exactly right.

I didn’t have to think about it much for my first example and that would be the final act of David Fincher’s 1995 now-classic Seven. And, by final act, I’m referring to everything that happens the moment after a bloody Kevin Spacey shows up at the police station and turns himself in to Detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman).

First, some context to younger readers who may not recall when Seven came out. The movie basically came out of nowhere upon its release. Its director, Fincher, had done one film: 1992’s Alien 3. At the time of that movie’s release, it was critically panned and considered a total inferior product to 1979’s Alien and 1986’s Aliens. Truth be told, it is a much inferior film than its two predecessors, but it’s actually a pretty decent movie if you ask me and it definitely showed that this first-time director had a lot of skill. Brad Pitt was a major movie star by this point and was coming off two giants hits in a row, 1994’s Interview with the Vampire and Legends of the Fall. Morgan Freeman was fresh off Shawshank Redemption. The two leads alone made it a movie to go see, but it didn’t look a whole lot different than your run-of-the-mill serial killer procedural thriller (something like The Bone Collector or Taking Lives or Murder by Numbers that followed in later years and were heavily influenced by the movie I’m talking about).

And, for the first two-thirds of Seven, it is that procedural thriller. It’s just much better than most of the other ones. We get involved in the characters of Mills and Somerset. We are fascinated by this unseen killer who murders according to the Seven Deadly Sins. Most importantly, what sets Seven apart is the direction, its dark look that has been copied over and over since, and how far its willing to go to disturb us (when we discover the manner in which the prostitute was murdered in the S&M club… wow). In a movie that wasn’t as great, the final act would have found Mills and Somerset discovering some convenient clue that led them to the killer and taking him out before he achieves his ultimate goal of completing the seven murders.

However, that is not what screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker had in mind. In nearly all serial killer movies, there’s a “twist”. Usually that “twist” is not that shocking. Sometimes we see it coming a mile away. Sometimes we don’t, but even when we do discover it, it’s not  that shocking. When Kevin Spacey’s character walks into that police station and surrenders, it is truly SHOCKING (like Janet Leigh getting killed a half hour into Psycho SHOCKING). Like Charlton Heston seeing the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes SHOCKING. You don’t see it coming. You don’t understand. At all.

The other thing many younger viewers may not know is that the actor who played the serial killer character was kept completely under wraps before the film was released. Kevin Spacey, in 1995, was regarded as a terrific character actor who had been in a few movies. This was four years before he won an Oscar for American Beauty. It was before L.A. Confidential and Pay It Forward and The Negotiator. He was not a movie star yet. He was, though, coming fresh off another now-classic, The Usual Suspects. That movie was released one month before Seven. It was garnering him Oscar buzz, for which he would end up winning Best Supporting Actor for it that year.

So, when you saw Seven in the theater, not only were you shocked that the SERIAL KILLER WAS TURNING HIMSELF IN (?!?!?!), but equally shocked that the serial killer was Kevin Spacey!! I’ve figured out that by that point, I’d only seen him in three movies: 1992’s brilliant Glengarry Glen Ross, 1994’s comedy The Ref, and 1995’s monkeys-get-everyone-sick thriller Outbreak. To this day, I wish I’d seen Usual Suspects before Seven. I certainly knew who Spacey was at the time, but it would’ve been even cooler to watch Keyser Soze walk through that station.

When Spacey’s character appears, the movie rises to a different and greater level of accomplishment. As an audience, we are totally confused and absolutely on the edge of our seat as to what will happen next.

And… what happens next is all kinds of amazing. It starts with the car ride between the three characters to the location where the serial killer said they must go to solve the case. You’ve all seen the movie (and, by God, if you haven’t… WHY ARE YOU READING THIS???) – so I won’t recite lines, etc… But the dialogue is both tense, surprising, funny, and unsettling. We hear Spacey’s character present his case for why he’s done what he’s done. There are times during the scene when you think like Pitt’s character thinks – this guy’s just a complete wack job. What the hell kind of a brilliant scheme is he talking about that people will puzzle over? Yeah right…

When the characters reach their destination, I remember being literally hunched over in the theater. I simply had no idea what was going to happen next. How many times can you say that when watching a movie? Where you truly have no clue what is going to take place next and the suspense is killing you to find out?

The delivery truck driver. Oh, the delivery truck driver!! Remember watching that for the first time?? Edge-of-your-seat.

A box is delivered by the scared driver. What on Earth could possibly be in there??? That’s what Morgan Freeman is thinking too. He has no idea. WE HAVE NO IDEA!!

The conversation between Spacey and Pitt juxtaposed with Freeman opening the box. We figure out what’s in the box. We figure out that Spacey has fulfilled the sixth of the seven murders. Our heart breaks by the discovery of what that sixth murder is. It dawns on us that the seventh murder must come from Pitt’s character in order for Spacey’s wishes to come true. We see Pitt discover that his wife was pregnant, which leads to one of the most memorable moments in this film or any film… Spacey’s surprised reaction to Pitt’s reaction… “Oh, he didn’t know!”

At this moment, as an audience, we are practically drained from everything that’s occurred in the last three minutes. We know that by Pitt shooting Spacey, it gives the serial killer exactly what he truly wants. It completes his set of murders. It gives him a victory. At the same time, how can Pitt not just blast him in the head??? And he does, but just before Spacey closes his eyes with a serene look on his face. He’s accomplished his goal.

I’ve never seen a movie where you literally felt like you got punched in the gut when the credits start to roll. Except Seven. It’s an absolute masterful final act that catches us off-guard and makes us completely tense. We stay that way for about the last 30 minutes of the movie! When I saw Seven in a crowded theater, there were a lot of people who didn’t even move for several minutes when the credits started rolling. I don’t think they could. They were still trying to process what happened.

Since 1995, I’ve watched Seven a number of times. The emotions I’ve described in that final act? I still get them watching it today. It’s movie making at its highest level. Its most visceral level. Movie perfection.