E. Bennett Walsh

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The Kite Runner Review

Practically no other nation's modern history has been so rife with grief and shattered expectations as that of Afghanistan; a fact utilized to maximum effect by Marc Foster in his adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's book club blockbuster The Kite Runner. Starting in the relatively chaos-free years before the Soviet invasion and concluding in the middle of the Taliban's theocratic lockdown, the film manages the difficult task of tracking massive historical upheavals while keeping tightly focused on the people forced to live through such tumultuous changes.

The character who ties the whole narrative together is Amir, a spoiled brat of a kid who turns into a spoiled writer as an adult only to grudgingly submit himself to the rigors of becoming a hero near the conclusion. In the mid-1970s, the young Amir (Zekiria Ebrahimi) lives with his prosperous father, or Baba, in a nice house in Kabul. Amir lives a pretty decent and sheltered life, his best friend, the fiercely loyal Hassan (played with emphatic nobility by Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada), is the son of the family's head servant, and will do practically anything Amir wants. His Baba is a proudly educated and modern man, with his jazz records, turtlenecks, bottles of liquor, and well-kept Mustang; the last particularly beloved by the Steve McQueen-worshipping boys. Amir and Hassan are an excellent team when it comes to the fascinating Afghan take on kite-flying, where pairs of boys get into high-altitude duels, trying to cut the strings of their opponents kites (the sport was later banned when the Taliban came to power).

Continue reading: The Kite Runner Review

Kill Bill: Volume 2 Review


Editor's Note: Last year I let Sean O'Connell and Jeremiah Kipp go at it -- Tarantino style -- over the merits of Kill Bill: Volume 1. The results were classic: O'Connell loved it, Kipp despised it. With the second installment of the highly-anticipated flick, the tables are turned. Now O'Connell's got his blade sharpened, and while Kipp is hardly a convert, he at least has a few kind words for the movie. Ladies and gentlemen, enjoy round two of this battle royale!

Sean O'Connell: "the thrill has been completely abandoned"Movie geeks love comparing Quentin Tarantino's work to that of other celebrated directors, but the maverick filmmaker mostly reminds me of burned-out monster rockers Guns N' Roses.

Bear with me, because the analogy makes sense. In 1987, the astonishingly successful "Appetite for Destruction" turned G&R into global superstars, in much the same way that Pulp Fiction blasted Tarantino into the Hollywood stratosphere in 1994. Pressured to follow up their iconic works, both artists immediately cranked out forgettable fluff (see "G N' R Lies" and Jackie Brown, respectively). Eventually, though, each moved on to create overstuffed two-part epics - the "Use Your Illusion" albums for Guns and now the Kill Bill flicks for Quentin - that contain ingenious individual parts but don't add up to entertaining wholes.

The drop-off in energy, style, and coherence from last year's Kill Bill: Volume 1 to its bloated, disinteresting counterpart is so drastic and extreme that you can hardly believe they come from the same director, let alone conclude the same storyline. The tonal shift swings from playfully sinister to somber and sadistic, as Uma Thurman's revenge-seeking character The Bride spends two-plus hours being whipped, beaten, stabbed, shot and buried alive, all so she can repay Bill (a confident and friendly David Carradine), her former boss and infrequent lover who tried to murder her on her wedding day.

Say what you will about Volume 1 - and many commented on the copious amounts of bloodshed and violence - but it was never dull. The thrill has been completely abandoned in Volume 2, which trades its buckets of crimson blood for pages of dry dialogue that explore the history of these characters but bring us nowhere new. Tarantino loses us in mounds of useless exposition on regret, payback, and pain. It was far easier to swallow The Bride's bitter quest for revenge than this. Tarantino's self-adored mysticism, on display when Uma trains with kung fu master Pai Mei or finally confronts Bill, doesn't quite grab us as quickly or hold us as tightly.

Back to the "Use Your Illusion" analogies, which are endless. "Illusion I," if you recall, was known for its yellow cover (like Uma's yellow track suit in Volume 1), while "Illusion II" sported a blue cover (like the blue dress Uma wears to fight Bill here). Critics largely dismissed the "Illusion" albums as massive ego trips, though fans argued that you could collect tunes from each album and make one great record. I'd argue that you could take the better elements of both Bill films and streamline them into one terrific 2.5 hour vengeance ride. What happened to Harvey "Scissorhands" Weinstein? Can't he bear to stand up to his golden child?

Guns N' Roses broke up after the "Use Your Illusion" experiment without releasing another album of significance. Time will tell if a similar fate awaits the once-gifted but woefully unshackled Tarantino.

RATING: [][]

No swordplay at the dinner table!

Jeremiah Kipp: "even the steadfast may not feel rewarded"While Kill Bill: Volume 2 does not redeem its garbage predecessor, and indeed falls into many of the same pitfalls, it almost works as a domestic tragedy played against the backdrop of samurai swords and western shoot 'em ups. If Quentin Tarantino were able to resist his gleeful bursts of eye-popping sadism and his insatiable desire to reference all his favorite B-movies, grindhouse drive-in flicks, Japanese chop-socky actioners, John Ford, Sergio Leone, and whatever else he's stored up in his oversaturated junk food mind from those years at the video store, maybe he'd actually be able to deliver a human story and an allegory for a mismatched relationship killed by a broken heart.

The first volume completely failed, narratively and thematically and as entertainment, a mere aimless shuffle of Tarantino's reference-laden funhouse. This one starts off on the wrong foot with a goofball wedding rehearsal culled straight from The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee-Haw. Immediately followed up by a shot lifted from The Searchers, those who hated Volume 1 as much as I did may be bracing themselves for another two hours plus of the same "applaud if you're winking" chicanery.

That's when David Carradine shows up as Bill, and even though the scene inevitably climaxes with his gang massacring everyone in the wedding party, there's a moment of genuine life when he faces off against The Bride (Uma Thurman), a woman he loved that left him for another, and took his baby with her. Bill's a sadist and a killer, and stays true to his nature. But before that superficial action movie posturing takes hold, we're given a glimpse at real pain: a crack-up between two tough old bastards, Bill and the Bride, who can't admit how much this hurts them.

With his wizened features and gaunt frame, Carradine is a strong iconic presence. He conjures up memories of movie lore from his east-meets-west TV-series Kung Fu. The only other east and west comparisons are those drudged up by Tarantino's movie lore; Carradine is a part of that lore but his B-movie star presence has a bona fide history behind it. Sadly, Uma Thurman cannot hope to match it, and her performance still feels wrong. She doesn't convey charisma or ferocity, only a model's petulance and an ability to pose like a Charlie's Angel. No surprise that she faces off against Daryl Hannah as one of the assassins she has to kill before getting back at Bill. It's an aged, sun-baked version of the same thing: Looks pretty, can't act.

It's unfortunate that Carradine drops out of large sections of Volume 2, because those are the passages that flounder. Assassin Budd (Michael Madsen) is a bloated trailer trash monster that briefly turns the tables on the Bride, and puts her through an ordeal of being buried alive. This is Tarantino getting his kicks on watching his heroine suffer, compounded by a flashback where Bill's former trainer, an aged Cantonese master (Chia Hui "Gordon" Liu), does some Karate Kid training with the Bride that puts her through even greater humiliations: verbal abuse, physical abuse, mental torture, and a dog's misery. By the time The Bride escapes (we know this from the start, since she says she's wiped everyone out but Bill in the suspense-killing pre-prologue monologue), only to beat the living hell out of another woman character and give her a humiliating death scene. Tarantino never gives such low-down dirty treatment to the boys, who are too cool to die so pathetically, but he gets off on watching women get flayed. "Do you think I'm sadistic?" Bill asks before shooting his Bride after the wedding reception. Maybe Quentin is projecting, and he doesn't own up to it like Sam Peckinpah did in his finer works.

But those with indomitable patience may find some reward in the final half hour of Volume 2. Admittedly, that's a tall order. There are some very good scenes with David Carradine along the way, playing his tough guy as soft spoken and genteel. (He doesn't need to play up a character everyone else has been talking about for three hours.) But he and Kill Bill really come together at the grand finale, which doesn't play out as the kamikaze swordfight one might pre-suppose. When the Bride arrives to dispatch Bill, he has a few surprises in store for her that make her stay her hand.

This is followed by the appearance of a strange truth serum that feels practically Elizabethan in its use as a story device, as the former lovers get down to the real business of showing who they are. Tarantino throws in a pop culture monologue about superheroes, particularly Superman and Clark Kent, that manages to get beyond its geek surface and into nature vs. nurture, and true faces vs. false ones. Anyone who pretends to like their day job may be able to relate, and once this gets into the dynamic of being with another person, it grows messier, more complicated, and more real.

Genre fans will be happy about those final notes, though. Bill's final exchange with the Bride ranks up there with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro's climactic stare in Heat. It's an epic moment and a rare note of grace amidst the non-stop cartoon carnage (and cartoonization of rape, torture, and hatred of women) and smug hipster/movie brat shenanigans Tarantino bombarded us with -- and it's needless to have broken it up into two sections, or a serial. It's barely worth slogging through the wasteland of Kill Bill: Volume 2 to get there, and even the steadfast may not feel rewarded.

RATING: [][][]

The DVD includes one deleted scene, an extensive making-of documentary, and a live performance of the song that plays over the closing credits (and DVD gives you another chance to see just how self-indulgent this movie is -- the credits are 13 minutes long!).

Aka Kill Bill: Vol. 2.

Kill Bill: Volume 1 Review


Editor's Note: Once in a while a film comes along that's so popular the critics start lining up months in advance, begging to review it. Kill Bill is a case in point, and Tarantino would do well to turn his camera at the gory battles among the filmcritic.com staffers, what with all the limbs and blood flying everywhere. But Bill has also become another source of strife: It's the most contentious film we've reviewed in a long while, with lovers and detractors lined up on either side of a wide DMZ. So in the spirit of the kung fu flick, which inspired Tarantino to make Bill in the first place, we present our own knock-down, drag-out battle to the death. Enjoy.

Sean O'Connell: "writes itself into the Hollywood history books"Quentin Tarantino's fourth film, Kill Bill, reminds us why we, as a collective moviegoing society, wish he'd work more often than he does. The acclaimed director rocketed to cult stardom with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, cranked out an overlong homage to film noir in Jackie Brown, and then slid off the filmmaking radar for the better part of six years.

Well, he's back, serving as the director and screenwriter of a slight story built around a botched assassination and the ensuing desire for revenge. Plot-wise, Kill Bill couldn't be simpler. The execution, though, is so massive that Tarantino split the movie into two parts, which Miramax will release months apart from each other.

Tarantino may be receiving reams of press for his risky endeavor, but Bill's real star is Uma Thurman. She plays The Bride, a wispy blonde warrior left for dead by her former boss Bill (David Carradine). Four years later, she snaps out of a coma and swears vengeance on the fiends who shot her in the head. Tarantino asks the world of his leading lady, and Thurman delivers. She rolls her natural vulnerability and newfound butt-kicking passion into a steely ball of adrenaline. The right actress for this role, she effortlessly balances the physical demands of Bill with the lyrical demands of Tarantino's wordy dialogue.

All praise heaped on Tarantino's effort comes with a warning, though. Violent beyond comparison, Bill begs you to avert your eyes from the ceaseless bloodshed, and turns your stomach with its celebrated depiction of exaggerated brutality. The ear-slicing scene of Reservoir Dogs and the hypodermic needle sequence in Fiction still don't prepare you for the carnage Bill brings to the screen.

Yet for every one minute of time you spend revolted by Bill, you spend two minutes enamored with the risks Tarantino takes. An animated sequence only contributes to the onslaught, testing the boundaries of acceptable stylish slaughter. The lengthy fight sequence at The House of Blue Leaves writes itself into the Hollywood history books. Tarantino and legendary kung-fu fight choreographer Woo-ping Yuen repeatedly take Bill ten steps beyond the point of overkill. It's frequently elegant, but enough quickly becomes enough.

Right at the point you're ready to throw in the towel and write Bill off as a shameless gore fest, though, something occurs that pulls you right back into the fold. It could be Sonny Chiba's subtle performance as a samurai master selected to mentor The Bride. It might be Chiaki Kuriyama's deliciously deadly turn as a 17-year-old assassin dressed as a schoolgirl. More than likely, though, it's a visual trick conjured up by Tarantino's imaginative brain. Bill is gorgeous, but unwatchable. It's absorbing, then vile. With an ounce of restraint, Tarantino could've had a masterpiece on his hands. It certainly whets your appetite for Volume 2, though I'm thankful I've got until February to rest, wipe the blood off my face, and mentally prepare for another round.

RATING: [][][][]

Can you spear me now?

Jeremiah Kipp: "the epitome of soullessness"The Miramax hype machine was working overtime on Kill Bill, breaking Quentin Tarantino's epic pastiche of revenge into two volumes. Rather than serve this quasi-retro samurai saga in one three-hour heap, Kill Bill serves itself out in portions. Kill Bill reveals Tarantino as a sham auteur ripping off Hong Kong action flicks and 1970s B-movies for their surface frills. He's the cinematic equivalent of karaoke or bad photocopies, mindlessly adopting style while forgetting the basic precepts of storytelling.

The look of Kill Bill, courtesy of Oliver Stone's ace cinematographer Robert Richardson, neatly approximates the grimy drive-in quality of the Shaw brothers and whoever else Tarantino stumbled upon in the video store and the midnight showcase. But it only serves to highlight the vapidity of Kill Bill, a movie without characters and a plot in spin-cycle. Volume 1 offers us five out of the ten chapters detailing the revenge of a gung-ho assassin named The Bride (Uma Thurman). Her former teammates, led by Bill (David Carradine, mostly absent from Volume 1), attempt to blow her away at her wedding -- and kill all the wedding guests and her fiancée in the process. They fail, and when The Bride wakes up from her coma she's ready to kick some ass.

That's pretty much all you need to know about Kill Bill. The arbitrary chapters leap back and forth in time, and could be shuffled together in any order approximating the same thing: mindless, vapid slaughter. Chapter One: This bad angel swoops in to open up a can of whoop-ass on Los Angeles housewife/psycho killah Vernita Green (Viveca A. Fox). Before we've built up any interest or sympathies, The Bride and Vernita go mad-dog-crazy, smashing up furniture (and each other) in a domestic bloodbath.

Hold the phone for one moment. QT is getting a rise out of the slaughter, but there are at least five problems to be seen right off the bat. 1) He's replicating action scenes he's seen before, and working so hard at being cool (kittenish one-liners; been-there-done-that spin kicks; surprise gunshots) that you come to realize, you shouldn't have to work at being cool. 2) Vernita's four-year-old daughter wanders into the fray, and the two fighters politely stop and wait for her to go to her room. Its fake polite, and the child actor is directed so poorly it's as though she's an automaton. Mommy might get killed, but what's on TV? That's not just stupid -- it's simplistic. 3) Uma Thurman lacks the screen presence of a charged Charles Bronson or Bruce Lee; her aquiline nose and lanky body are better suited for modeling than dealing out death. 4) QT clearly gets off on girls fighting each other, but he lacks adult sensuality in favor of a teenager's drool. 5) The outcome of the match is inconsequential, since The Bride and Vernita are both presented as unsympathetic, detached, and cold blooded.

QT obviously learned nothing from the best scenes of Jackie Brown, which weren't the shootouts. They were the slow-developing relationship between screen icons Pam Grier and Robert Forster, who brought a warmth and humanity to QT's hipster-isms. That's drained bone dry in Kill Bill. Tarantino shows how much he's familiar with other movies, without crafting one of his own: The Bride drives around a gaudy car called the "Pussy Wagon"; villainess Lucy Liu slices off an enemy's head after delivering a lengthy monologue on mob etiquette; Liu's gang includes a Japanese schoolgirl minx. And at the end of the day, big deal! Tarantino assembles a list of his favorite things, and nearly breaks his arm patting himself on the back for it. His smugness infects every scene, and Kill Bill becomes a joyless joy ride through a fan boy's world. Who wants to see a movie made by Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons?

The epitome of soullessness is The Bride battling her way through Lucy Liu's gang in the already over-appreciated "House of Blue Leaves" sequence. Notorious? Hardly. It's a padded version of the Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with limbs and spurts of blood flying through the air as The Bride kills everybody. There's no recklessness to it. Everything's too prescribed, too self-aware, too cool, and therefore too aloof and detached to be actually, God forbid, fun. When Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu run through the "Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!" dialogue from Saturday morning cartoon commercials, it's a meaningless bit of hipster jargon that has nothing to do with anything. That's infuriating, because Kill Bill says in that moment that it's about nothing other than posing. Will audiences care, and will they line up for more flotsam and jetsam in Kill Bill Volume 2?

Don't give Harvey Weinstein, Miramax, and Quentin Tarantino the satisfaction of ripping you off. They're charging you twice as much for an incomplete movie, a soulless riff, a hipster machine coasting on the tired fumes of Tarantino's former glory. Jack Black talks about The Man in The School of Rock, saying that we should fight The Man and reclaim our independence. Well, independent film in the form of Quentin, Harvey, Miramax and Kill Bill is The Man. Don't let them sucker you.


Aka Kill Bill: Vol. 1.

The DVD offers scant extras, including two live performances by The 5, 6, 7, 8s (the trio of Japanese girls that perform at the House of Blue Leaves) and the usual making-of documentary, wherein Uma Thurman promptly misinterprets the movie by telling us it's about redemption. (Sorry Uma, it's about revenge. "Redemption" is doing something good to atone for past sins, not killing a bunch of people out of spite.) I guess you'll have to wait for the box set to get the real extras!

Stealth Review

Sometime in the near future, the Navy will develop extremely cool new fighter jets called Talons, and they will be piloted by moody ignorami in dangerous anti-terrorism missions all around the planet; that is, until an even cooler jet comes along and threatens to replace them in the whole blowing-up-baddies department, leaving said ignorami even moodier and more disgruntled. That, at least, is the thesis of Stealth, the newest slab of computer-generated tedium to be visited upon us by maestro Rob Cohen - who has slid so far downhill that his previous work, like the turbo-charged exploitation flick The Fast and the Furious, looks like classics compared to what he's shoveling out now.

Because studio execs are still strangely demanding that directors include human beings in their films, Stealth provides us three Navy test pilots who were chosen to fly the top-secret, experimental Talon planes. Played by Jamie Foxx, Jessica Biel, and Josh Lucas, they're sort of a holy trinity of hotness, flying their sleek craft in perfect formation, and eager for whatever life-threatening emergency gets tossed their way. Unfortunately, they've just been saddled with a fourth wingman: an unmanned plane named EDI, for Extreme Deep Invader, which sounds like something purchased by seedy men in certain disreputable shops on the dark fringes of the San Fernando Valley. The three are none too happy with having EDI along on the secret mission they're given early in the film: Take out a Rangoon high-rise that's empty save for a number of high-level terrorists. And they're resentful not just because EDI talks like HAL's drugged younger brother, but because they're worried about getting replaced by machines, which is just what their commander officer (Sam Shepard) wants to happen - with a little help from a shadowy buddy of his in D.C.

Continue reading: Stealth Review

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E. Bennett Walsh Movies

The Kite Runner Movie Review

The Kite Runner Movie Review

Practically no other nation's modern history has been so rife with grief and shattered expectations...

Kill Bill: Volume 2 Movie Review

Kill Bill: Volume 2 Movie Review

Editor's Note: Last year I let Sean O'Connell and Jeremiah Kipp go at it --...

Kill Bill: Volume 1 Movie Review

Kill Bill: Volume 1 Movie Review

Editor's Note: Once in a while a film comes along that's so popular the critics...

Stealth Movie Review

Stealth Movie Review

Sometime in the near future, the Navy will develop extremely cool new fighter jets called...

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