Kill Bill Vol. 2: Diet Jolt with half the good stuff all around yet the same bitter taste

kill-bill-vol-2-posterCall me shallow.

For my generation the four food groups were caffeine, sugar, pot and Ritalin. I was brought up on Twinkies, punk rock and Kung-Fu Theatre, and wanted to be a bionic ninja like every other kid my age.

I accepted director Quentin Tarantino as a kindred soul, and his Kill Bill Vol. 1 was the finest example of the conquest of cool over content I can remember. It was a high-speed, take-no-prisoners, adrenalin-soaked ride through the trash culture of 1970s and ’80s that left me giggling for weeks.

Unfortunately, Kill Bill Vol. 2 is a little too slow and too plot-driven to measure up to its predecessor. Call it Kill Bill lite – Diet Jolt with half the good stuff all around yet the same bitter taste.

Someone must’ve gotten to Tarantino, convinced him that the first film was too fast and furious for American audiences. Applying their own yardstick to the film, some critics whined that the first Kill Bill lacked, like, a compelling plot, believable characters, yada, yada, yada, as though films were justly critiqued using the same standards as an eighth-grade book report.

So T-Bone went back to his laboratory and churned out this film, which is not so much a novel recombination of the styles, codes and conventions of a cheesy martial arts film as a cheesy martial arts film itself. Is it a better film? Only if your idea of what a movie should be has hardened into formula where every ‘i’ needs to be dotted and every ‘t’ crossed, but if you’re this anal you probably wouldn’t enjoy a kung-fu film anyhow.

The second film takes up where the first left. In the first Kill Bill the Bride (Uma Thurman) had exacted revenge against two of the three gangsters who had left her for dead on the floor of an El Paso church. The three members of the gang that remain – Bill (David Carradine), Bud (Michael Madsen) and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) – now know that the Bride has awaked from her coma and is out for them. 
The plot is marginal, very straightforward, and, frankly, a nuisance. The first film was character-driven, using action as a linchpin, and provided actors the opportunity to put a toe over the line as a test of authority. Although he kept a straight face, it wasn’t difficult to see Tarantino was playing with his topic, affectionately toying with conventions. Here he reproduces stock characters to engage a rather conventional plotline, sacrificing fun for cohesion.

In this film we learn the details leading up to the Bride’s relationship with the mysterious Bill; are invited into the pathetic and depressing world of Bud, a one-time samurai assassin turned tobacco-chewing redneck bouncer; and return to earlier days, when the Bride was still just a budding killer training with the eccentric martial arts master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu Jia-hu).

What we really learn from these flashbacks and carefully stilted dialog is that these characters are truly as one-dimensional as we thought. Occasionally they are even less deep than we imagined. The Bride’s biologically driven motives, for example, leave me wishing she was just a good, old-fashioned natural born killer.

The flashbacks involving Pai Mei are a welcome diversion from the present-day, reality-bound portion of the film, providing the kind of goofy tribute to the genre that should be embedded throughout. Pai Mei is hilariously over the top, the sort of character instantly recognizable to the legions of geeks who, like me, decided to watch grainy Kung-Fu Theatre rather than Saturday Night Live in the ’70s and ’80s.

Carradine is a pleasure to watch in his old age and the rest of the crew does what it can with pretty skimpy characters. Madsen undoubtedly has the hardest chore, revealing a potentially interesting character as more or less a cliché. This wouldn’t normally be a problem, but T-Bone has made Bud a central character, and Madsen has to carry nearly a third of the film on the back of this loser. It’s an unenviable position and we hope him a speedy recovery.

Tarantino is usually adept at weaving realistic (trite) dialog into his plots, but the language in Kill Bill Vol. 2 is stiff, wooden and mechanical. Even the words characters speak must somehow serve the supercilious plot, and rather than revealing some interesting psychological detail they just add another layer of superficiality to the film. The film’s conclusion is a textbook example of bad storytelling with characters reiterating the plot in case folks can’t understand how a kung-fu film is supposed to work out.

Kill Bill Vol. 2 is less frantic and revolutionary than the first film. It has no large-scale battles, less humor and takes far fewer chances with its material. The rough edges have been sanded clean in the second film and the characters are fleshed out and developed, but what’s the point? Do we really need justification in a trashy kung-fu film? Why should we worship at the altar of traditional filmmaking? Who the heck needs a plot, anyhow?

In Kill Bill Vol. 2, Tarantino is like Picasso doing portrait paintings at a mall. All the details line up perfectly, but the picture just isn’t right anymore.


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Sad, Sweet and Sort of Like Life

gen-x-review-eternal_sunshine_of_a_spotless_mind.jpgLove is an accident waiting to happen – A once-in-a-lifetime collision so mad it makes everything else seem sane, so dangerous that no one can survive it intact.

Walking alone on a snowy beach, Joel (Jim Carrey, Bruce Almighty) wonders how he will ever meet someone when he is unable to even make eye contact with the only other person in sight, a young woman in a bright orange sweatshirt. Here certainly is a kindred spirit, another lost romantic alone in the world, but Joel does everything in his control to control the situation, lost in his own inner dialog.

When Clementine (Kate Winslet) approaches him at the train stop, Joel shyly looks away or sketches in his notepad. But Clementine is pushy, complex and difficult, inviting intimacy while punishing him for wanting to be close. He tries to pull away from this stranger, but is paradoxically drawn to her. Joel knows that being alone might be difficult, but being in love is devastating.

He should know, since this isn’t the first time he’s met Clementine, or the first time he’s fallen in love with her.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the sort of film that will return to haunt you when you’re passing coffee across the breakfast table to your partner or catch a stranger’s glance at the mall. It’s the sort of movie that reminds you what it’s like to be in love, how precious our memories are, and how inconceivable it is to imagine a world with or without love.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, who has given us psychological mind games like Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, had finally created a film as emotionally satisfying as it is intellectually challenging. Essentially the story of a difficult affair, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind feels like a love story written by Philip K. Dick or a kinder, gentler Vanilla Sky.

When Joel and Clementine’s relationship goes sour, they both wish they’d never met. Joel discovers that Clementine has had a procedure to erase her memories of him on the spur of the moment and decides to do the same, but he has second thoughts after the operation begins when he realizes how vital those memories are to him.

Most of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind takes place inside of Joel’s mind as he fights to keep hold of his memories of Clementine. Kaufman is familiar with the dark corners of the human mind, and plays with Freudian concepts of human development in the film just as he has done in the past, but his Eternal Sunshine has a big heart where his earlier films have seemed overly ironic and cerebral.

The procedure is a sort of designer brain damage, the work of a science that does not really understand what’s precious in life. When we erase our memories or one another, we ruin the better part of ourselves. As Joel tries to hide Clementine deeper and deeper in his unconscious he discovers how precious she is to him, how much their memories together make up who he believes himself to be.

Looking back over their relationship, trying to save just one bit of his memory of Clementine, Joel sees their love as a sort of catastrophe that mustn’t be avoided.

Carrey earns our respect in this role and Winslet is volatile, vulnerable and dangerous at the same time without falling into the familiar pattern of the damaged heroine. Director  Michel Gondry fuses Kaufman’s irony with a sort of tender remorsefulness, making even the ordinary seem somehow sad and beautiful.

The movie is deeply satisfying, poignant and intelligent: A striking story of difficult people doing difficult things to one another in the name of love. It’s sad and sweet sort of like life.

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