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Not a Review of Kill Bill

I was disappointed by Kill Bill in one important way. I enjoyed the music. I liked the characters. I was interested in the story. The action was fairly good, with a few distracting excesses. No, the only problem was the director. It's an adage in trades like editing and visual effects that you have succeeded in your job if the audience doesn't even notice your work. The same can be said for directors. There are quite a few great directors, and when you see one of their films, you are certainly aware that it originated from its director. The style, the tone, the subject matter – something clues you in that the scene you're watching comes from that director's oeuvre (with the exception of the dog-motorcycles in A.I. – those will never fit in Spielberg's oeuvre). However, there is a difference between that awareness and the imposition of the director into every scene. In the case of Spielberg, Hitchcock, or Truffaut, the director approaches the scene with his unique vision and selects the tools from his arsenal which best support the story. In the case of Tarantino, he approaches every scene with the intent of twisting it to fit his one-note glib, smirking style. But this is not a review of Kill Bill.

One of the most important elements of a film or TV show is tone. If the director can establish and maintain a certain tone, the piece has a cohesive feel and the audience is engaged. The tone can be anything. It can be unique and interesting, or it can be a time-tested old favorite. The piece can be about the tone, or tone can merely add atmosphere to the story and characters. This is why Alias is successful while Jake 2.0 is not. Sure, Alias has elements of humor and romance (or so I hear... I haven't seen it in two years – ha!), but the tone is consistent. Even when Sydney is making a joke, the show maintains its determined, cold-as-steel flavor. Good directors adapt their personal style to the material and find the most appropriate tone to serve both. Tarantino just has one style, and he's not willing to compromise; whether it serves the material or not, it's in there. He's too excited to reliably choose which elements should go in the scene and which should not. He just wants them all in. And it really does a disservice to Kill Bill, which has an engaging tone – a mix of brutal determination and personal honor. But this is not a review of Kill Bill.

There are plenty of scenes in Kill Bill which are great on tone. Uma Thurman is great on tone. She should have directed the film. She shares story credit with Tarantino and delivers her best performance so far. Her character resonates because she maintains a consistent personality throughout the winding story. She doesn't get goofy when Tarantino throws comedy into the scene. She doesn't get crazy when he ratchets up the action. She maintains a dignified grace that is truly the heart of the story throughout the film. She's not compassionless, but neither is she emotional. She pursues her revenge with – yep – brutal determination and personal honor. Uma understands tone. Tarantino does not. Whenever the film diverts from the central story, he takes a sharp turn with the tone and disrupts the film with his wisecracks. I'm not against him on everything. I think his choice to shoot exteriors of Thurman's airplane in flight using not-quite-convincing miniatures was a wry and fitting direction. But interrupting an emotional scene between Thurman, her victim (Vivica A. Fox) and the victim's daughter by bleeping out Thurman's name when spoken (we know her only as "The Bride," formerly "Black Mamba") is ludicrous. And you can be sure Tarantino was chuckling to himself when he asked the prop master to set the EKG readout in Thurman's hospital room to a steady 69. What a child. He's so full of himself that he refuses to just make a good movie; he has to make sure he's still the center of attention. (Even that "4th film by Quentin Tarantino" from the TV ads makes its way into the opening credits.) But this is not a review of Kill Bill.

I was just thinking about Kill Bill a little this week, as I noticed myself being unimpressed with entertainment fare at a frequency to which I'm not accustomed. (And, by the way, I did like the movie. I thought it was a solid A-minus film dragged down to C territory by Tarantino's grandstanding.) Am I losing my youthful naïveté about loving every movie and TV show I see? Is my palate at long last becoming refined? Or do movies just suck these days? While waiting for Kill Bill to get underway, we saw a trailer for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King or The Lord of the Rings: Special Victims Unit or The Lord of the Rings: You Forgot My Pancakes – whichever one we're up to now. My god, was I gagging. A while back, I agreed to see The Two Towers with a friend because he's fun to see movies with and I was curious about all the fuss over that motion-capture character. The film bored me to tears. Now, certainly I'm not the target audience; these stories have a greater appeal for fans who revel in the strong imagination that Tolkien and his ilk have for minutiae. (Which, I would argue, is not necessarily a talent. Whenever I read one of those books, it seems like it would be really easy to write. As opposed to a normal book where you have to focus on story and characters, in the sci-fi books it's all about "the world." The author can just sit and describe every facet of a scene, making up unusual things as he goes along. Who couldn't do that?) But I still say the films are weak. They begin with a story which could be somewhat interesting. Power struggle, the little guy with the burden of saving the universe, love, and war. But then they whip it all up into this frenzied excess, chasing after an "epic" feel in an era when it's harder to impress movie audiences. There's a scene in the trailer for LOTR: YFMP where somebody (it's probably Viggo, but I couldn't bring myself to care) is getting ready to lead a bunch of troops into battle. And when I say "bunch," I mean "roughly five trillion." There are enough computer-generated extras in the scene to populate an entire solar system. And MaybeViggo is running across the front line, getting his Braveheart on, shouting words of inspiration. I couldn't help muttering, on behalf of the soldier about three miles back, "Uh, could you speak up? We're losing you in the back." And, yes, Gollum is impressive. But no more impressive than Buzz Lightyear, really. I understand that it's a more photo-real character, but more wrinkles doesn't make it better animation. The expressive character comes from the skill of the animator, and that's true of Nemo as much as Gollum; in fact more, because Nemo's just a fish so the expressions become much more figurative (no fingers, etc.).

We also saw a trailer for Timeline, which already features one of my favorite moments. (Man in Booth with Microphone: "We need you to help get him back." Me: "Uh, could you come down here and say that?") Timeline is based on a Michael Crichton book which was not my favorite, but had a solid concept. I enjoyed it, but I'd put it about a third of the way down my list of his books. It's directed by Richard Donner, who I always liked until Conspiracy Theory when I fell in love with him. And it has Neal McDonough which means I will definitely see it. (It also has Frances O'Connor, who stands in for Frances McDormand as my Mom from time to time because of how great she was in A.I. Nobody else has Franceses.) In the trailer, however, there is an animated readout on the screen which quickly scrolls backward from 2003 to 1357 while the "five young archaeologists" are traveling backward through time. Oh my, how I hope that is just a trailer device. Because if that's in the movie, I might have to walk out. That's worse than having the characters fly past a bunch of clocks. At least in Bill and Ted and The Simpsons it's played for comic effect. If a "serious" time travel movie has a little decrementing readout, it'll send Einstein, Hawking, Zemeckis, and Crichton spinning in their graves – and, yes, I mean it'll kill Zemeckis, Hawking, and Crichton first!

And it's not just the movie trailers that have gone off the deep end. On The West Wing this week, a North Korean pianist on a goodwill trip secretly asks the president to help him defect. It's a cute set piece the way they do it: he hands Bartlet a CD and pretends to autograph it, but it turns out he actually writes "I WISH TO DEFECT" – okay, I'm with you so far – followed by "!" What? Who taught this guy to write English, Elaine Benes? I won't qualify this as necessarily a Jump the Shark moment, but certainly the tip of the water ski is grazing a dorsal fin. Who writes "I WISH TO DEFECT!"? First of all, I just don't see why. I would think he would want to write as few characters as possible, and from what I know of oriental cultures, showy displays are frowned upon. Also, the exclamation point is a tad presumptuous. "I KILLED YOUR FATHER!" is at least passable because the message contains the necessary drama. But an exclamation point on the end of "I WISH TO DEFECT" implies "I wish to defect, and it's the biggest thing that's going to happen to you today." Bad form. I mean, Keanu didn't even use an exclamation point when he wrote "BOMB ON BUS" – that's showing restraint.

(Okay, two separate Keanu references in one column. Now I know something weird is going on!)

Also this week in TV's moments that woke the shark from a gentle nap, on Joan of Arcadia (a show I continue to love, love, love!) Joan was visited by god in the form of an actual stranger on an actual bus. This is cheap anyway, but doubly so because the show made the ruefully uninspired choice to use Joan Osborne's "One of Us" as the main title music. Besides being expensive, this is a little on the nose. I like the song, but it can get on your nerves quickly, especially the way Arcadia imposes its guitar riff onto the end of each episode's teaser. Anyway, it got me thinking. As a result of TiVo, I'm eminently more aware of episode titles than I ever was before. The West Wing puts them on the screen, but most shows don't. I was pretty much ignorant of the titles except for The Simpsons, where I would see them on the Simpsons Archive website. But now I see them all the time, so I know that some shows (typically comedies) really like to have cute little running gags with their episode titles. Like Seinfeld, where every title except the second one started with "The," as in "The Marble Rye," "The Yadda-Yadda," or "The Little Kicks." Or Friends, where it's always "The One With" something. (Still Standing, an almost-unnoticed sitcom that continues to impress me every week, does it cuter: their titles are always "Still" something, like "Still Cheerleading" or "Still Shoplifting.") So, here's my proposal: Joan of Arcadia is so excited about the Joan Osborne song. Why not make their episode titles "What If God" something? Like "What If God Was Tracking a Cop Killer?" or this week's "What If God's Mom Got Raped in College?"

And in other news, my hero W. G. "Snuffy" Walden has betrayed me. His theme for The Brotherhood of Poland, New Blahblah is so grating and so overused on that show that it is permanently etched on my cochlea. "deedle-deedle-DING-dum-ta-DING deedle-deedle-DONG-doo-ta-DUM deedle-deedle-dah-dee-dee-DUM-da-da-doo" – it's way too lilting and twee, and Poland is one of those shows that likes to keep playing the theme in every scene, just changing the tempo. So, when we learn that a missing girl's psychologist is actually a sex offender pretending to be a therapist, the show is all "deedle deedle DINGGGGGGGGGGGG dum'ta DONNNNNNNG." Puke.


Programming Note: Don't miss The Elegant Universe from Nova, airing on PBS tonight and next Tuesday (check local listings). It explores the topics of Brian Greene's book of the same name, specifically string theory and our concept of what the universe is, where it exists, and how it came to be. Also not to be missed: what was there before the universe, and what is currently outside of it? Greene was on Letterman a week or two ago, and I had to stop and throw up four or five times from the mind-bending concepts they discussed. He has an easygoing, relatable manner much like my hero Carl Sagan, and I'm sure The Elegant Universe will be a fascinating and accessible journey.

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