Tag Archive: Western


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The moral spectrum of pre-Clint Eastwood Westerns (High Noon being a notable exception) is fairly easy to delineate. The criminals wear black hats; the heroes wear white hats; and all is right at the end of the day. If there are Indians, they are the bad guys as well. 1953’s Hondo attempts to be a thematically complex film in the vein of High Noon, and while what it believes to be its own enlightened attitude is actually dated and somewhat offensive by today’s standards, Hondo‘s take on the eternal Western conflict between white settles and Native Americans is years ahead of its time. With a constantly surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Apache, despite their place as the film’s villains, Hondo is a frustrating film that makes steps forward in Native American portrayal in American cinema while also still indulging in racist Hollywood stereotypes.

John Wayne (The Searchers) plays “Hondo” Lane, a half-Apache loner making a living riding dispatch for the United States army in the Western territories as the peace treaty between the U.S. and the Apache has fallen apart because the U.S. broke the treaty and killed Apache without cause. After being ambushed by an Apache patrol, Hondo loses his horse and wanders on foot with his loyal dog Sam into the ranch of abandoned wife Angie Lowe (The Pope of Greenwich Village‘s Geraldine Page) and her young son Johnny (Lee Aaker). Angie’s husband is a worthless layabout and months ago he left Angie and Johnny behind to drink and gamble away his days in a nearby town, leaving Angie to the mercy of any natives who would happen upon her ranch.

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Despite Hondo’s warnings to abandon their ranch because the Apache are on the warpath, Angie and her son stay and Hondo rides off to continue his job. In his absence, an Apache war party led by the noble Vittorio (Michael Pate) invades the Lowe ranch. Angie tries to invoke the friendly relationship her family has had with the Apache in the past but it is to no avail. She and her son are only saved when her son tries to kill one of the Apache warriors to save his mother. Vittorio recognizes the courage of the young boy and makes him an official Apache warrior and leaves mother and son in peace though he tells Angie that she has until the next planting season to choose an Apache husband. And when Hondo realizes that the Lowe’s are in the path of the Apache, he makes his way back towards their ranch with Angie’s jealous husband in his wake.

I say that this film is progressive for the early 1950s but still terribly offensive by modern standards because it gives context for the Apache being pissed off and murdering people as well as creating an almost heroic Apache figure, but it also indulges in many of the worst “noble savage” stereotypes of Western storytelling and once Vittorio disappears from the film, the Apache devolve into a crazed murderous horde with seemingly no direction. But, when Vittorio is around and he’s testing both the Lowe family as well as the values of the half-Apache Hondo, the film seems like it actually has something to say. That thematic energy not only disappears upon his second act death, but the film loses any sense of context or meaning.

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Geraldine Page was nominated for an Academy Award for this film, and although I don’t know if I thought there was anything particularly Oscar-worthy about her performance, she was certainly a better performer than John Wayne. The only thing John Wayne’s ever had going for him was presence, and unlike The Searchers, he doesn’t get the opportunity to put his presence to a more subversive effect. The film also has Gunsmoke‘s James Arness in a smaller bit part, and it was clear just from his few lines that he was going to be somebody later on. John Wayne’s status as one of Hollywood’s most enduring icons has always been something that’s confused me. He’s not a great actor or even a particularly good one, and Hondo most certainly doesn’t rank in the top tier of Wayne roles.

Hondo starts off ponderously slow although it does thankfully take that time to establish the details of life on the Lowe farm as well as Hondo’s past living with the Apache. The action does eventually kick up once Hondo leaves the farm for the first time and realizes that Angie and Johnny being in danger isn’t something he can turn his back on (especially since her husband won’t be doing anything to help them). And for a while, Hondo becomes a surprisingly enjoyable old-fashioned oater. But, it sadly falls apart by the film’s end and the progressive stances it was trying to make early on become merely an interesting afterthought in the story of Hondo. For fans of Westerns, it’s worth a watch. Everybody else can skip out.

Final Score: B-

 

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I have a confession to make. I am a Westerns junkie. I obviously don’t think it’s the best film genre, but whether I can intellectually rationalize it or not, Westerns are my ultimate guilty pleasure genre. The elegant simplicity of the Old West mixed with gorgeous on-location shooting and the most mythic of American heroes, the Western gunslinger, make for a reassuring and consistently enjoyable experience. Even when it’s a by the books “oater,” I still find myself able to sit down and enjoy a movie and turn off the critical faculties that I’ve trained myself to have on at every juncture with other films. 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is very much a traditional and conventional Western with virtually no regard for historical accuracy, but as far as classic Westerns go, it’s a fun take on the Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday legend.

I really can’t overstate enough just how little historical accuracy is portrayed in this film. It’s virtually non-existent. Other than the fact that Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp were real people (as well as Wyatt’s brothers) and the fact that there was indeed a gunfight at the O.K. Corral with the Clanton brothers, I’m pretty sure that most of the stuff that happened in this movie was totally made up. That didn’t actually bother me any when I was watching it because at the end of the day, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a fun little “oater.” But, if you want a little historical accuracy in your films about real people, you should probably keep that in mind if you sit down to watch this movie.

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In the late 1800s, lawman Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) finds his way into the town of Fort Griffin chasing criminal rustler Ike Clanton. While there, Earp saves gambler/gunman Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas) from a lynch mob after Holliday kills a man in self-defense. Later, Earp settles down in Dodge City, Kansas where becomes the town Marshall and it isn’t long before Doc Holliday makes his way there as well. Doc Holliday feels he owes Wyatt Earp his life, and he repays his debt by becoming Earp’s deputy and saving Wyatt’s neck on more than one occasion. After catching wind the Clantons have set up shop outside of Tombstone, Arizona, Earp and Holliday make their way to Tombstone which sets up the titular gunfight that serves as the film’s historical climax.

Kirk Douglas was fantastic as Doc Holliday. I’m not sure if his performance was as great as Val Kilmer’s almost effete take on the character in Tombstone (which became arguably the finest performance of Kilmer’s career), and it’s weird to me (as a kid bred on Tombstone) to never hear anybody say “I’ll be your huckleberry,” but Kirk Douglas finds the darker and mercurial side of the Holliday character. As opposed to Wyatt Earp’s more moralistic traditional hero, Kirk Douglas plays up how much of an anti-hero Doc Holliday really was. And there are scenes where he allows himself to become angry with his prostitute girlfriend Kate (Jo Van Fleet) where Douglas becomes legitimately menacing. It’s easy to see where his son Michael got his acting chops. Burt Lancaster was good as well although the part of Wyatt Earp required much less.

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I’ll keep this review short because I want to maybe try to finish Season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation today and I honestly don’t have much more to say about this movie than I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot although I also recognize that there’s nothing special or unique about it (other than Kirk Douglas’s performance). So, if you’re a fan of classic Westerns and white hats versus black hats (though ironically enough, Wyatt Earp wears a black hat the entire film), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a fun way to pass two hours. And on one last side note, I just did some quick research about the actual events leading up to and surrounding the titular fight, and it’s kind of hilarious just how inaccurate this film is.

Final Score: B

 

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Oh Quentin Tarantino, why do you tease me so? When was your last truly consistent film? Jackie Brown? Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Inglourious Basterds (especially Basterds) are overflowing with brilliant moments, but they are either flawed in some structural way (Basterds) are simply, intentionally not serious (Kill Bill and Basterds). I honestly believe that he hasn’t been able to put together a consistently perfect film from beginning to end since his Jackie Brown/Pulp Fiction heyday. His penchant for excess and for cartoonish genre caricatures have taken over his rock solid characterizations and peerless ear for quotable dialogue. As a long-time fan of the Western genre and Quentin Tarantino, I’ve long awaited Django Unchained, and while the film is literally perfect for an hour and fifteen minutes (possibly the best work Tarantino has ever done for that time frame of the film), Tarantino’s juvenile sensibilities and lack of an internal editor turned Django into a bloated, imperfect “what could have been.”

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the film. Django Unchained is an unquestionably great film. The missteps it takes generally remain in the shadow of the moments of true inspiration in the film although they are just glaring enough to consistently draw you out of the picture. The stretch of the film where Tarantino nails the themes he’s trying to capture (more on that later) are dark, complex, morally ambiguous, and consistently subversive in a way that only Tarantino seems to be able to achieve. But because the film decides it has something to serious to say, it’s general inability to see through on those grand statements and it’s constant devolvement into slapstick-levels of comedic violence creates a frustrating and ultimately immature emotional dichotomy for the movie that begins to tear itself apart from the inside as Django progresses.

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Two years before the beginning of the Civil War (which lends a dark fatalism to the timing of most of the film), German bounty hunter/retired dentist King Schultz (two time Oscar-winner Christoph Schultz) makes a living killing criminals for the U.S. Government. They may be wanted “dead or alive,” but dead is easier to transport. As the film begins, Dr. Schultz is hunting the Brittle brothers, three former foreman on a large slave plantation. Schultz’s only lead is Django (Horrible Bosses‘ Jamie Foxx), a slave from that same plantation who has been separated from his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Schultz buys Django (in a classic Tarantino cold-open) with the promise that if he can help him find the Brittle Brothers, Schultz will give Django his freedom and $75. And the hunt for the Brittle brothers is only the first act of the film.

After Django and Schultz score the Brittle Brothers Bounty (I can’t possibly imagine that being a spoiler), the real meat of the film begins when Django joins Schultz to become a bounty hunter in his own right so that he can buy the freedom of his wife. And after a winter of hunting criminals, Django and Schultz track down Broomhilda’s new owner, a Francophile slave master and slave fighting ring baron, Calvin Candie (The Departed‘s Leonardo DiCaprio). Understanding that Candie won’t sell Broomhilda at a reasonable price willingly, Django and Schultz concoct a plan to infiltrate Candie’s plantation, “Candieland” (I shit you not), to free Django’s beloved. And if that means that Django will have to go undercover as a black slaver (the lowest of the low in the 19th century black community), so be it, although the real threat may not be Candie but Candie’s scheming head house slave Stephen (The Avengers‘ Samuel L. Jackson) who immediately loathes the free Django.

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Like every Tarantino film before it, Django Unchained‘s greatest strength in addition to its stellar dialogue is the absurd depth of its cast. Jamie Foxx’s performance is probably the slightest out of the primary characters (well, Kerry Washington’s performance is fairly forgettable but she’s rarely on screen and her characterization is intentionally paper-thin), but even he finds the steel and anger that transforms Django into the force of pure revenge he becomes by film’s end. Christoph Waltz won an Oscar for playing King Schultz (his second for a Tarantino film) and while Schultz isn’t nearly as compelling or complex as Basterd‘s Hans Landa, but Christoph Waltz is one of the best foreign actors to grace American screens in decades so I’ll forgive Tarantino if he couldn’t make this role quite as great as the past one (though Philip Seymour Hoffman should have won for The Master. Him or Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln).

Funnily enough, I don’t even think that Christoph Waltz gave the best performance in the film. That was either Leonardo DiCaprio’s Candie or Sam Jackson’s Stephen. I know that’s an unpopular opinion but both characters were far more complex and better written, and they required more talent to play, and both actors seemingly totally lost themselves in the part. I might even go as far to say that Candie is possibly the best performance of DiCaprio’s career. He took to the bad guy so much better than I could have ever expected. Candie has a slick, charming side, but DiCaprio also displays the fierce evil and anger rooting in his heart. And Sam Jackson… just Jesus. In the entire Tarantino canon, Stephen makes a strong case as the most despicable/brilliant villain yet (only behind Hans), and Sam Jackson’s devotion to brutalizing every classic Uncle Tom stereotype ever is insane. DiCaprio and Jackson were robbed of Oscar nominations.

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And, as I’ve said, the film’s second act is perfect. Literally. It’s probably the best hour or so any Tarantino film ever made. And that’s saying something since I worship the man. It has something serious to say about slavery, revenge, and the moral inequities we are willing to commit in the name of something good. Unlike a lot of films about slavery, it is not watered down in this movie whatsoever. In fact, its portrayal of slavery is so dark (and accurate) that it may come as a shock to many modern audiences. And Django nearly loses himself in the character he has to portray in order to enter Candie’s farm. He allows slaves to die and be beaten and he is as awful to them as the whites just to rescue his wife. It’s moral ambiguity at it’s finest, and up to a climactic dinner where Django and Schultz are on the cusp of freeing Broomhilda.

Which makes the rest of the film such a frustrating affair. Don’t get me wrong, I could watch the film’s final forty minutes over and over again. I could watch Jamie Foxx kill slave-owners in an orgiastic display of blood lust all day, but what makes that explosion of violence different from Basterds is the lack of a metatextual subtext shaming the audience for enjoying the gore so much (i.e. Inglourious Basterds eventually became a satire of overly nationalistic war films). Django is simply a revenge fantasy played brutally straight. Except not because it’s a cartoon in live-action for gore-chasing grown-ups. I understand that something can be both serious and juvenile, but Tarantino doesn’t toe that line as well in Django as say Woody Allen or even Chasing Amy-era Kevin Smith. And because of the movie’s constant mood whiplash, you can never tell when you’re supposed to be taking a scene seriously and when you’re supposed to be laughing at the silliness of it all.

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I loved Django Unchained. When it was done, my dad and I talked about how much I enjoyed it but I also had to immediately temper it with the various criticisms that I laid down before. I would have loved to see a version of this film that Tarantino plays more seriously. I think that could have been the best movie Tarantino had ever made. As it is, Django Unchained has all of the hallmarks of a great Quentin Tarantino film. Sharply realized characters, quotable dialogue, a distinct visual style, and a never-ending supply of fun. But it also falls prey to all of the curses facing his most recent crop of films, mostly an excess of violence removed from a serious context. It’s not enough to make me not love this movie and I’m sure I’ll watch the hell out of it like I have every Tarantino film, but it fails to reach the apex of Tarantino greatness because it doesn’t seem to know exactly what movie it wants to be.

Final Score: A-

P.S.: It may however have the best Tarantino soundtrack ever for what that’s worth.

I’ve opined in the past on here about films that have been deemed “classics” over the years that I feel are undeserving of that title. Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey are arguably the two most high-profile films I’ve dubbed as being over-rated throughout this last year, but there are plenty of other films from the pre-1980’s era whose legend I have never been able to fully appreciate. As a matter of fact, when it comes to pre-1970’s dramas, only foreign films from masters like Kurosawa, Fellini, and Bergman have really been able to impress me as our American body of work seems too “safe” and conventional by modern standards. Isn’t it exciting then when you finally watch movies that are deserving of the legend that surrounds them? 1952’s High Noon is always brought up in conversations for “the greatest Western of all time” and while I may still feel as if that award should go to Unforgiven (and if books/TV are permitted in the discussion, then Lonesome Dove), High Noon remains a refreshing and (remarkably still) radical take on the most American of film genres.

On the day that he has married his young bride Amy (Grace Kelly in her film debut) and is set to retire and move away, Marshall Will Kane (Oscar winning Gary Cooper) faces the unexpected return of notorious criminal Frank Miller (Ian McDonald) on the noon train. As Frank’s friends and fellow outlaws (including a young Lee Van Cleef) wait at the train depot for Frank’s arrival, Kane tries to find a group of deputies to help him keep his town safe one last time. Taking place almost entirely in real time (with constant shots of clocks to remind how close it is til noon), we spend Kane’s last hour or so in town as slowly but surely, the cowardly residents he had spent his life protecting begin to turn their back on him. Whether it’s his top deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), a smooth-tongued politician, a gung-ho glory hound who chickens when he realizes it would be just him and Kane, or any of the other men in town who are too afraid to put up a fight, it quickly becomes apparent that it will just be Kane versus Frank Miller and his men. As the clock rushes down to high noon, will Kane turn tell and run like everyone in town (including his wife) begs him or will he stay and fight (and most likely die) to be the hero this town doesn’t even deserve.

It’s really hard to even begin discussing the technical brilliance of this movie. At a time when black and white was just starting to lose its hold over mainstream cinema, High Noon remains one of the most gorgeously shot films in history. Every shadow and play of light was intentionally staged for ultimate dramatic effect. Whether we’re speaking about gritty close-ups of the bad guys at the train station or the long aerial shots of Gary Cooper striding alone through town, each shot was set up to perfection. The film’s editing was a marvel and at a mere hour and a half running time, High Noon remains one of the best Hollywood examples of delivering an intellectually and emotionally satisfying story in an efficient length. With plenty of great dramatic cuts back and forth between people and locations in this small town, the camera never stayed stationary for too long, and while this is certainly not the most fast-paced Western ever made (it’s arguably one of the slowest), people who appreciate the ins and outs of movie making can get lost in the craftsmanship on display here while still appreciating one of the most impressively psychological and suspenseful Westerns ever made.

Gary Cooper won the second Oscar of his illustrious career for this movie (the other was Sergeant York), and it’s very easy to see why. Will Kane may not necessarily be the most complex part for an actor. He’s an almost archetypical heroic Western lawman. As far as one can surmise from the movie (having not read the short story the film is based on), he was virtually without flaws. So, it says something about Cooper’s performance that such a flat character as Will Kane can be so emotionally engaging. Like a hero out of an ancient Greek morality play, Will is this force for good in a town where no one else is willing to do what’s right. Gary Cooper seems to embody the classic leading man virtues and heroic strengths while at the same time letting us see into those moments when Will is starting to doubt if this road is the right one. And as it begins to dawn on Will that no one else in this town is going to support him, Kane’s heartbreak and frustration is etched on every single line of Gary Cooper’s face. Gary Cooper’s performance in this film is perhaps the prime example of great acting transforming an otherwise average character.

Unlike most Westerns out there, High Noon avoids the normal conventions of cowboys versus indians, man against nature, or even the genre staple of regular action sequences. The film does end with one of the most satisfying shoot-outs in the genre, but the ending works because you spent the rest of the movie waiting for all hell to break loose. When the criminals finally come striding into town, you care more about what happens to Will Kane (and the inevitable fates of his foes) because you saw every desperate second of the build-up to this fight. There is only one action sequence in the movie (unless you count a fist fight between Will and Harvey), and that is okay because the film has made it such a sweet payoff. After watching this whole town turn its back on Will and yet he manages to bear this burden even when he could have easily skipped town and no one would have blamed him, there is a catharsis that one bland gunfight after another would never have been able to provide. The film has a very deliberate ethical and moral message that it wants to make, and while I usually find such moralizing in “classic” films stale and boring, the film wisely lets you understand why the men of the town wouldn’t want to go on the same suicide mission that Will has chosen to undertake and therefore it manages to not come off as too preachy.

For fans of Westerns, this is one of the seminal entries in the genre (along with others such as The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven, andThe Searchers), and if you’ve managed not to see this classic deserving of the name, you need to make it a top priority. Even for non-fans of the Western genre, this film does away with so much of the bloated action, excess that bogs so many of those films down (and that results in them being guilty pleasures of mine rather than films I can celebrate enjoying) that you, too may find something to appreciate in this brilliant work of popular fiction. The fact that this film lost to The Greatest Show on Earth (the worst film to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars) for Best Picture remains one of the greatest crimes of the Academy Awards. As a Western fan, this is one of the movies that reminds me why I fell in love with the genre in the first place and there aren’t many movies in this realm of cinema that can come close to topping its delights.

Final Score: A

Before high school, for reasons that were probably no more rational than me just being difficult, I hated Westerns. There was something about watching men ride around in black and white movies on horses fighting Indians that just held no favor for me. However, during my sophomore year, my dad sat me down and forced me to watch Lonesome Dove, and I’ve been in love with Westerns ever since. Not all of them are great, and a lot of them tell practically the same black hat vs. white hat story over and over again, but if you put a half-decent Western in front of me, I can pretty much guarantee that I can sit down and enjoy it in some way. The movie I just watched, the original 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma wasn’t a great Western, but it was still entertaining enough and original in its own way for me to enjoy it.

3:10 to Yuma is the story of two entirely different men. One is Dan Evans (Van Heflin), a farmer whose family is suffering due to an extreme drought, and he doesn’t have the money to keep his cattle watered and alive. The other is Ben Wade (Glenn Ford), a notorious bandit that has terrorized the county with his gang. Dan witnesses Ben and his gang robbing a stagecoach and murdering the coachman. Dan and some of the town’s locals capture Ben, and due to the reward money, Dan volunteers to take Ben to another town to put him on a train to a prison. When Dan finally realizes how tough the odds are of finishing this assignment, he must decide whether his honor is worth as much as his life.

 The story and pacing of the film aren’t anything particularly special, although it was refreshing to watch an older Western that was as intent on exploring the character and psychology of the men on screen as it was on big shoot-outs or fight scenes. This is honestly probably the slowest moving Western I’ve watched since High Noon, but I mean that as a compliment since it wanted to be more than just an action movie. Glenn Ford did a spectacular job as the charming and fast-talking Ben Wade. I think this might be the first Western I’ve watched that had him in a leading role, but I can’t wait to see more. Despite the fact that he was a cold-blooded murderer, you couldn’t help but like him.

If you like Westerns, you should check this one out. My dad tells me that the remake from the 2000’s with Russel Crowe and Christian Bale was better, but I haven’t had a chance to see that one yet, so I can’t make that judgment call. This was no Unforgiven or The Outlaw Josey Wales, but not every movie can be an all-time classic. If you’re just wanting to see an old time good guys and bad guys action-drama, you could do a lot worse than this one.

Final Score: B

I actually watched this movie like two days ago, but by the time my room-mate and I finished it, I was ready to go to bed cause I had to work the next day, and then the next day, I had class, and then went straight to work, and then by the time I got home, I was exhausted and once again ready for bed. I had today off though so I was finally able to give this review the time and care it deserved. While I’ve always considered the first Kill Bill a lesser Tarantino work, my first return to Kill Bill: Vol. 2 since I saw it for the second time when it finally came out on DVD, was as much fun, style, and dialogue it was the first time around.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2 picks up pretty much immediately after the first one left off, with The Bride on her way to kill the remaining three people on her list, Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah), Bud (Michael Madsen), and Bill (David Carradine). While the first film primarily played on the martial arts and kung fu genres (and this film still has its moments, especially with all things Pai Mei), this film almost feels like an intentional call-back to the best films of the spaghetti western genre, with a good mix of neo-westerns as well. Every scene involving Bill and Budd makes me almost expect to hear the main theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly start playing at any moment. And then out of nowhere, the final act of the film plays out like Tarantino’s sick, twisted take on a family drama, and it is glorious.

This entry into the series finally gives Keith Carradine’s Bill his little bit of screen-time, and just like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, a career that had long been deemed dead was resurrected in an absolutely spectacular fashion (it’s a damn shame he committed suicide a couple years ago). The only supporting performance in one of Tarantino’s performances that was even remotely better than this one was Christophe Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. It was a power-house performance. His scenes with Uma Thurman in the film’s final moments are some of Tarantino’s best-written conversations. This film is chock-full of some really classic Tarantino-style dialogues. It is much, much slower than Kill Bill: Vol. 1, and I’ve always used this film as a litmus test for true Tarantino fans. If they’re not real fans, they prefer volume 1. If they’re real Tarantino fans, they know this one is much, much better.

After two films worth of revenge, dismemberment, and the five finger point exploding heart technique, the series comes to a very satisfying end. For the film series that introduced my Quentin Tarantino, I may have learned that they aren’t necessarily his masterpieces, but I still love the hell out of these movies. Quentin Tarantino is the undisputed master of the “genre picture”. If you want a loving send-up to all of the old B-style movies that you used to love as a kid, you don’t need to look any further than Quentin Tarantino, and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 will not disappoint.

Final Score: A-