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"R" They Kidding?

With new Tarantino flick, MPAA gets it wrong... again


Most moviegoers probably don't know Jack Valenti from Sacco & Vanzetti, but those of us with more than a fleeting connection to cinema know him all too well. Shave his head, we suspect, and you'll find "666" branded somewhere on that noggin.

Valenti's early claim to fame was as one of the members of John F. Kennedy's Dallas motorcade. Less than an hour after the murder, Valenti's good buddy and insta-Prez Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him Special Assistant to the President (small wonder that Valenti got nervous and began protesting too much when Oliver Stone's JFK hit theaters and accused Johnson of being involved in shady dealings). More recently, Valenti has earned notoriety for talking the major studios into stopping the practice of mailing out year-end screeners to Academy members and critics, allegedly to put a minuscule dent in digital piracy but in actuality hurting the Oscar chances of independent studios.

Valenti's best known, however, as the astonishingly inept head of the Motion Picture Association of America, a post he has held for 37 torturous years. The battles between Valenti's MPAA goons -- the folks who rate the movies we see -- and members of the film community are well-documented, as are the skirmishes between Valenti and the numerous critics (most notably Roger Ebert) who over the years have pointed out the misguided nature and sheer hypocrisy of this band of nitwits. The flap over the worthless NC-17 rating; the prejudice against black-themed films (one example: the original poster for the love story Jason's Lyric was turned down because it showed -- gasp! -- a naked black thigh); the tendency to go easier on major studio films with deep pockets than on low-budget indie fare -- the evidence is all there, folks. And now we can add Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 to the pile.

According to the MPAA, Kill Bill deserves an R rating. What bull. Anybody who sits through even half of the film can see that it obviously deserves an NC-17. True, there's no sex, and the language is probably no worse than what we hear in most R-rated features today (though it's pretty coarse). And the morally bankrupt characters can be spotted in movies helmed by everyone from the Coen Brothers to the Wachowski Brothers. But the violence! Arms getting lopped off. Heads getting lopped off. Heads getting blown off. Kids seeing their parents murdered in cold blood before their very eyes. Kids getting splattered by the blood of their murdered parents. Kids getting killed themselves. Characters being dismembered, disemboweled, and all but disintegrated.

The opening battle of Saving Private Ryan? The chainsaw sequence in Scarface? The punctured eyeball in Zombie? Hah! Tarantino pisses on all these moments of mayhem. Let them air as segments on Sesame Street: Tarantino ups the ante, and he's got the MPAA to back him all the way. After all, Tarantino's movies are produced by Miramax, the studio run by Hollywood kingpin Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein is one of the most powerful men in all of moviedom, and Valenti is notorious for looking the other way when the money men come looking for a favorable rating. This time's no exception.

Now don't mistake my diatribe as a shrill, Medved-esque tsk-tsk'ing of Hollywood's lack of morals. On the contrary, I wish studios would make more movies aimed at grownup audiences -- if it were up to me, we'd see an average of one adults-only picture released per week, films that speak directly to mature audiences without feeling the need to tone down anything for mass market consumption. Regardless of the quality, I fully support the existence of Kill Bill. What irks me is the hypocrisy of it all, the very fact that the MPAA goons present themselves as moral crusaders on behalf of our children when they're anything but.

As for Kill Bill, I don't mind the goriness of the piece, just the tediousness of that gore. Simple, straightforward, streamlined -- this is a revenge flick, pure and simple, with a woman known only as Black Mamba (Uma Thurman) seeking retribution against her former associates, a gang of low-lifes collectively known as the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Four years earlier, the Squad botched her killing and instead left her in a coma. Now she's awake, and she instantly sets out to eliminate her would-be assassins: Copperhead (Lucy Liu), Cottonmouth (Vivica A. Fox), California Mountain Snake (Daryl Hannah), Sidewinder (Michael Madsen), and the leader, Bill (David Carradine).

Clearly, Tarantino envisioned the movie as a loving tribute to the myriad Hong Kong flicks he's always revered, those martial arts and sword-swinging sagas that have been his obsession from his childhood years to the present day. And just as clearly, he was having too good a time cramming everything into one movie, to the point where Weinstein agreed that the picture should be released in two parts (Vol. 2 hits theaters next February). But truthfully, there's no reason this wafer of a story should be supported by multiple movies, not when the trimming of countless repetitious shots should have been encouraged and might possibly have resulted in one zippy, kick-ass film. But Tarantino's like a kid in a candy store, accompanied by a parent with a limitless credit card. Why settle for one shot of a body spewing geysers of blood when 20 can be included? Why settle for one flashback snippet that explains all we need to know when three or four more variations on the same moment can be added?

Tarantino wrote the lead role specifically for Uma Thurman, even delaying the start of shooting until she got back from having a baby. Thurman looks fit and fantastic here, and clearly she came ready to play. Granted, this sort of flick isn't usually conducive to allowing actors to strut their thespian abilities, but Thurman seems so alive on screen, it's a shame the part doesn't call for her to do much more than slice and dice the rest of the cast.

Tarantino's gimmicky approach (title cards, offbeat camerawork, an entire sequence drawn in anime style) initially serves the piece well, though like most other aspects, it becomes tiresome and repetitive. If the second volume is anything like this one, Miramax might want to consider changing its name to Overkill Bill.

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