CINEMA / It's just a bloody farce: Quentin Tarantino: genius, or gore bore?

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The Independent Culture
QUENTIN TARANTINO is the cinema's foremost farceur. If you saw his directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs, and don't remember any plus-fours or revolving bedroom doors, you're right. Tarantino is a world away from Feydeau or Travers. For nobs and their wives, read slobs and their knives. But True Romance suggests his true gift is for cruel, mechanical, uproarious humour - for farce. Just as you expect a Ray Cooney play to end in a frozen moment with everybody's trousers down, in a Tarantino film we know to look out for a freeze with everybody's gun up.

The film isn't directed by Tarantino (Tony Scott does his usual ultra-slick job), but it was scripted by him, and his gory fingerprints are all over it. It's not just the self-satisfied violence, but the feel of craft rather than spontaneity, of being written from movies, not life. It's a model screenplay, but, especially in the early scenes, you can see the assembled parts. As in Reservoir Dogs, which opened with the hoods discussing Madonna's 'Like a Virgin', we start with amorous amateur pop criticism: Christian Slater's Clarence hymning Elvis, in a seedy neon-lit bar. Cut to a stock nightscape of Detroit and a doomy voice-over from Patricia Arquette - beautifully written but hardly original.

Tarantino only writes stand- out scenes. The plot moves from one brilliantly off-beat moment to the next. Arquette's Alabama (typically, the name feels both wacky and familiar) meets Slater at a kung fu film. They make love in a comic store. She reveals she's a call-girl ('not a whore - there's a difference'), and he goes to buy off her pimp (Gary Oldman), a white Rastafarian with a shark's-tooth necklace. By now the careful quirkiness is becoming wearing. When Clarence and Alabama, in her leopardskin coat and red velvet skirt, get married and skip down the registry-office steps, you wish you were having as good a time.

Soon you are, as the film finds some new characters and a head of comic steam. Clarence and Alabama head west with a suitcase of cocaine he picked up in the brothel. They shack up with a failed actor friend in LA and his gloriously doped-out friend (Brad Pitt). We're now pitched into a West Coast satire as the boys try to offload the drugs on a big-shot, big-snort producer (Saul Rubinek). The go-between, a polo-shirted college boy, is a marvellous neurotic comic turn from Bronson Pichot. The gags flow faster and funnier, and the plot spirals into heaven, as dealers, police and gangsters face each other in a Beverly Hills hotel room, all armed to the gills.

This comic climax makes you wonder whether the brutality on the way was necessary. Dennis Hopper, as Clarence's father, has his bound hand slashed with a knife by Christopher Walken's Mafia chief, a self-confessed 'anti-Christ'. Alabama has a vicious, bloody fight with one of Walken's henchmen and spears his foot with a corkscrew. It may be that we laugh so heartily at the farce as relief from the horror. But Tarantino may also be alienating his audience. He takes great pains to juggle his genres, never letting us settle into our feelings - the most horrific moments always have a grotesque humour. But True Romance suggests he could make us laugh even away from the shadow of the gallows.

Most directors film a car crash with a bang (several, if it's Tarantino). Krzysztof Kieslow ski does it with a whimper. His Three Colours: Blue (15) opens with a burble of traffic and the camera cowering behind the spinning wheel of a car. The road is a baleful blue and the foreboding is increased with tinfoil being held out of the window and buffeted by the wind. In a classic Kieslowski moment, we next see a child returning to the car from a roadside stop, shot from under the car: in the foreground, oil leaks away like the steady drip of fate. The car speeds down an open road beside fog-bound fields, where a boy plays cup ball. As he satisfiedly catches it, we hear a screech, a garbled scream, and turn, in deathly quiet, to see the car wedged against a tree, billowing white smoke, more absurd than horrific.

Juliette Binoche wakes in hospital from this crash to find that her husband and daughter are both dead. After a botched attempt to join them, she starts a new life with a listless lack of enthusiasm. She seeks to cut herself off from her former life, to find a freedom in rejecting it. This is the first part of a trilogy on the colours of the French flag and the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity. In Blue, Kieslowski starts with a simple idea, almost a platitude, that in freedom lies responsibility, and holds it up to the light for inspection from every angle. In forsaking her former life, with all its complication and pain - her lover, another composer, and the music-making which we come to see she may have shared - Binoche is giving up herself. It can't be done: the past will always claw you back with a memory or a feeling.

As in Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique, the plot flattens out almost into aimlessness, and characters, like the young prostitute who lives in Binoche's apartment block, flit in and out. But again the film is lifted by the force and inventiveness of its images, while Binoche holds the centre with her sad, enigmatic presence. And Kieslowski is once more indebted to a choral score of soaring spirituality from Zbigniew Preisner. Supposed to be the music Binoche's husband was writing, it's a setting of the lines from Corinthians about the worthlessness of living without love. As it plays Kieslowski draws together the strands of the film in a virtuoso sequence of gliding images as uplifting as anything he has shot.

It takes a good script to lure Sean Connery from the golf course these days. Rising Sun (18) is a compromise: it's half a good script, and Connery spends half the time on the golf course. He plays a Los Angeles cop who's spent time in the Far East and embraced Japanese culture (minimalist apartment), if not couture (Armani). He's learnt that Japanese business people will scratch his back, if he makes up a scratch foursome. Called in to investigate a woman on a Japanese corporation boardroom table - blonde, naked and dead - he works in tandem with a sceptical junior (Wesley Snipes).

Rising Sun is Michael Crichton's latest alarmist fantasy: first androids, then dinosaurs, now the Japanese are coming to get us. Philip Kaufman, a surprise thriller director after the languid brilliance of Henry and June and The Right Stuff, tones down the racism, and brings in some humour. It turns out a muddle: a buddy pic and a culture shocker as well as a thriller. Connery, his beard topiarised to a silvery point, bonds Bondishly with Snipes - gunpowder-dry gags and plenty of oneupmanship - but they never quite spark, leaving the film's Eastern promise unfulfilled.

The star of The Secret Garden (U) is a 10-year-old, Kate Maberly, with lonely black eyes and a sullen little face that looks already let down by life. Perfect for Mary Lennox, heroine of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic, starved of love by her socialite mother, Irene Jacob (I too would like to have seen more of her), then orphaned and sent to a forbidding Yorkshire pile, to be harried by housekeeper Maggie Smith. There she allies with local lad Dickon and morbid, crippled heir Colin, whom she revives along with the garden. The screenplay is by master metaphorician Caroline Thompson, author of Edward Scissorhands, and the images - nurture, the womb, class - sprout as rapidly as the garden. The film has charm, without wandering into the realm of magic.

For cinema times, see the new listings section, Review, page 98.

(Photograph omitted)

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