Long-legged woman

Charles Taylor reviews 'Jackie Brown' directed by Quentin Tarantino and starring Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Forster.

Topics: Movies,

PAM GRIER IS, as they say, one tall drink of water. “Jackie Brown,” the new Quentin Tarantino movie in which she stars, was made because Tarantino had loved Grier in ’70s blaxploitation pictures like “Coffy” and wanted to find a starring vehicle for her. This adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel “Rum Punch” changes the central character’s name, from Jackie Burke to Jackie Brown (presumably a tribute to Grier’s role as “Foxy Brown”), and her race. Jackie is a flight attendant in her 40s who supplements her peanuts pay by smuggling money into the U.S. for a gun runner named Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). When she’s nabbed by an ATF agent who’s out to get Ordell, Jackie comes up with a scheme that will hand him over, keep herself out of prison and, with the help of a bail bondsman named Max Cherry, enable her to skip away with the half million Ordell has stashed in Mexico.

Grier has appeared in movies since her blaxploitation days, most memorably as the scary hooker junkie in 1981′s “Fort Apache, The Bronx,” but she’s never been the star she is here. Long-legged, cool and with cheekbones to kill for, Grier commands the screen as if it were hers for the taking, naturally, without a trace of showiness. She has the confident magnetism that draws us to movie stars and the yielding quality that causes us to invest ourselves emotionally in them. Facing down the ATF agents or calmly pulling a gun on Ordell, Grier’s Jackie is unshakable. Catching a glimpse of herself in a dressing-room mirror in the minutes before she puts her plan into action, she shows us something much more uncertain and vulnerable. Grier gets the poignancy of a middle-aged woman who’s held onto her looks but is fast realizing she has to trade on her brains to get out of her dead-end life.



In Leonard’s novel, Jackie is a blond dream girl in snug jeans who looks younger than her years. Tarantino doesn’t try to hide the fact that Grier’s figure has become more womanly in the two decades since she first appeared on-screen. I’ve never seen a young filmmaker as alive to an older woman’s beauty in quite the way Tarantino is here. It’s not coarse, but it’s not a chaste appreciation. To put it another way, he’s as in love with Grier’s hips as he is with those almond eyes. Some of the best moments in “Jackie Brown” are when he simply allows his camera to watch her, as she’s carried along a moving airport sidewalk while Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” plays on the soundtrack or simply as she’s sitting enjoying a cigarette. These moments are about how a filmmaker pours all the reasons he wants to make movies into a performer’s face. There’s an ardent devotion to them that goes beyond fan worship and that I would not have thought Tarantino capable of. He wanted to give Grier a role worthy of her, and he has. If only he’d given her a movie worthy of her as well.

Leonard’s novels are so tightly constructed that next to nothing is expendable. So it’s not surprising that it takes two-and-a-half hours for Tarantino to tell this story. What is surprising is that it takes that long after he’s streamlined the plot. The big sequence where Jackie’s plan is executed is a technical marvel: Tarantino keeps replaying the scene, each time adding a new character and showing it from his or her point of view. Watching the scene, you realize he shot the whole sequence from three or four angles simultaneously. But it brings the movie to a dead halt at what should be its most tense moments.

If “Jackie Brown” lost 45 minutes, it might have been a snazzy entertainment. As it is, it wears out its welcome well before the end. But at its best, “Jackie Brown” has a shambling funkiness that I found easier to take than any of Tarantino’s other work. I’ve lost track of how many people have said to me something like, “I don’t usually like violent movies, but I like Tarantino.” It’s easy to see why — Tarantino doesn’t call up the sense of complicity or dread that Sam Peckinpah and Brian DePalma do, or even the kinetic charge that’s John Woo’s forte. Holding most of his characters at arm’s length, Tarantino robs the violence of any emotional force and turns it into the deadpan punch line to a sick joke. For me, the effect of “Pulp Fiction” isn’t much different than the effect of any big, impersonal action picture. The audience knows from the start that everything has been set up for effect and that there’s nothing to believe in or care about.

The put-on quality in “Jackie Brown” didn’t grate on me, perhaps because the material didn’t originate with Tarantino, or maybe because the characters are all scamming one another, or maybe because the violence is quick and discreet (instead of drawn out and lingered over). There’s nothing offensive here, like the rape sequence in “Pulp Fiction,” and much of the dialogue, especially when it’s delivered by Jackson, is undeniably funny (only some of it is from Leonard). Tarantino has an ear for lines that play like gutter-life verbal slapstick (though to get laughs he still relies too much on the word “nigger” for my comfort).

But the troubles here are some of the same as in “Pulp Fiction.” Visually, Tarantino isn’t much of a filmmaker. The photography, by Guillermo Navarro, has a blah, washed-out look, and Tarantino relies either on close-ups or on two-shots (cutting back and forth between two people engaged in a conversation) that kill the actors’ performance rhythms. And though he clearly loves his cast, he’s not very good at directing them. With Bridget Fonda as Melanie, Ordell’s stoned surfer-girl moll, and Robert De Niro as Louis Gara, his slow-witted ex-con accomplice, he’s given his actors notions for characters rather than characters.

There is one actor, other than Grier, whose role and presence sums up what’s likable about Tarantino. That’s Robert Forster as Max Cherry, the 50-ish bail bondsman who helps Jackie fleece Ordell, and whom Tarantino cast largely because he liked Forster in the 1970s TV show “Banyon.” At first, Forster looks like every hard-ass high school gym teacher you ever had, a straight arrow without a surprise in him. Then Tarantino shows Max drinking Jackie in as she emerges from prison while Bloodstone’s “Natural High” plays on the soundtrack. As he looks at her, you see Forster’s stone face admit the possibility of the heavenly romance that song promises — something everything else about the way the man carries himself, the office he works in, even the cheap spy thrillers he reads, tells you he’s excluded from his life.

Tarantino shortchanges Forster by eliminating the romance Leonard devised for Max and Jackie, and by tacking on a sentimental ending not in the novel. But when Max is driving around singing along with the Delfonics, Jackie’s favorite group (Tarantino has great taste in black pop), and glowing whenever she’s around, Tarantino seems to be saying that it’s never too late for the dreams pop can stir up in you. It’s never too late to be transported by the Delfonics singing “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time?” or for Grier to be treated like the star she is.

I don’t know of any young filmmaker who’s used his success to boost the actors and filmmakers he loves as passionately as Tarantino has. That we once again have the pleasure of going to the movies and seeing John Travolta is largely because Tarantino cast him in “Pulp Fiction.” Tarantino wants to repay the pleasure he’s found in the pop music and movies he loves. What he hasn’t figured out yet is a way to translate what he loves into a vision of his own rather than just a fan’s tribute. I respect the enthusiasm and love that motivates Tarantino. I hope someday I can respect him as a filmmaker.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>