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Success is a double-edged sword as we all know. Tomorrow, Miramax releases one of the worst films in its history, a misbegotten comedy called "Duplex" that stars Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore in a pale rip-off of "Meet the Parents."
On the other hand, three weeks from tomorrow the company will finally give us Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill: Volume 1." I've seen this much-anticipated film and I can tell you that it is absolutely brilliant, a real tour de force.
And it raises interesting questions: Why can Miramax only make this kind of film? Why are they unable to make high-concept Hollywood films? "Duplex" falls in the dubious category of "Kate & Leopold," "Serendipity," "A View from the Top" and "Bounce."
Oy! If only someone knew the answer.
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But let's address "Kill Bill," which is the story of a character called The Bride (Uma Thurman), a hit woman who avenges her newlywed husband's bloody murder at the altar. The enemy is Bill, her former lover and employer and his squad of vicious killers known as the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, or DiVAS. They are played by Daryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox and Michael Madsen.
You know this is a movie that's going to be a flash point for all the cinema-geek-Internet-whatever writers. Tarantino is a cult figure. His every move is dissected by these 'experts.' God love them, to have the time and interest for this minutiae. Some want him to fail. Some want him to succeed. Me? I really liked "Jackie Brown," so go figure. I have not watched the special edition DVD of "Pulp Fiction" over and over in slow-motion.
Three-and-a-half years ago Tarantino surfaced from a long absence on the scene during Oscar weekend 2000. He'd been someplace in the Caribbean for a while and was with a mysterious woman whom he'd met down there. He was supposedly working on a World War II movie. For some reason I can't remember, we were sitting on a piano bench at a party. All of a sudden he told me he was working on a script called "Kill Bill" that would star Warren Beatty and Uma Thurman. The rest is history.
Eventually Beatty, who I guess couldn't figure out exactly what was going on, dropped out of the project. He was replaced by "Kung Fu" star David Carradine.
I remember seeing Tarantino chewing the ears off of Thurman and her husband Ethan Hawke at the Miramax pre-Oscar bash that year -- almost to the point of distraction. In fact, I wrote about it in this column. He was so excited about "Kill Bill" and Thurman's participation that he ignored the skits being performed on stage by that year's Oscar nominees.
Ironically, this February, Tarantino and Thurman may be asked to perform similar sketches.
I will admit I'm not a fanatic expert on the subject of samurai movies, 'grind house' pictures, spaghetti westerns or Japanese anime. (The latter all looks like "Speed Racer" to me.) Until I read the extensive press notes for "Kill Bill," I assumed a "duck press" was something served a la orange or with plum sauce. But I do know that "Kill Bill, Volume 1" is the hippest thing I've seen on screen since "Pulp Fiction."
From the opening credits (which are in Japanese) to the big finale in a place called "The House of Blue Leaves" (sorry John Guare), "Kill Bill" is full of visual knockouts. There are set piece homages to Tarantino's favorite Japanese films, which are going to be parodied and copied as slavishly as "Pulp Fiction."
It's "Crouching Tiger" and "The Matrix," mixed together and served with hot sauce. What a meal these three films will make some day at a revival house!
What surprised me most about "Kill Bill," though, was Thurman. She's had an iffy movie career, with some good stuff ("Pulp Fiction," "Dangerous Liaisons," "Hysterical Blindness") and some famously bad stuff ("Gattaca," "The Avengers," "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues").
In a way, she's perfect Tarantino material -- someone we think of as a star whose resume is littered with junk. Tarantino taps into that very insightfully. "Kill Bill" sort of marries these two ideas together for Thurman. Now she'll be a star like never before. Her performance is just stunning, a really glorious piece of physical, witty exertion.
I'll tell you more about "Kill Bill" as its release date (Oct. 10) approaches. But these were the impressions I was left with after the screening: that it rocked, that the violence and spurting blood was cartoon-like fun, that Lucy Liu was the best she's ever been.
I also thought that "Kill Bill" succeeded on every level that "Charlie's Angels" didn't. And that I really wanted to see Part II as soon as possible (I'm told it's not finished yet), but that I was happy there was a break.
Oh yeah, and one more thing: The soundtrack is simply amazing.
Elvis Costello -- who appears tonight on A&E's "Live by Request" at 10 p.m. -- is never less than interesting. On his last American date before heading to Japan, he lived up to his reputation. Wednesday night's show at Town Hall in Manhattan was full of Elvis -- the man, the music, the crooner.
That's right: Costello, who was the original angry young man of punk rock circa 1976, loves to croon. He's turned his voice into something of a weapon in the process, sometimes sounding like a dog in heat and other times coming close to a sweetness his fans -- me among them -- could not have expected in those early days.
We love him either way.
Prolific to a fault, Costello has just released a new album which is called "North" but should have been named "I Absolve Myself." That's because two years ago he fell in love with jazz performer Diana Krall, but let his longtime wife get the word through the press. He's just put their $1 million-plus Dublin estate on the market, too. The songs in "North" are all about being in love with Krall because he can't help himself.
But Krall shouldn't feel too comfortable. Costello included his "I Still Have That Other Girl In My Head" toward the end of Wednesday's show.
Most of the songs on "North" have the kind of pithy lyrics Costello is famous for, but nearly all of them lack the melodic strengths of his usual work.
Oddly enough even these songs came across pretty well in concert, because Costello has become -- and really, I would have lost this bet back in 1991 -- playful, dramatic, and engaging on stage. As my grandmother might say, "Can you beat it?" Back in 1991, Costello appeared on stage looking like Jerry Garcia's worst nightmare, with long unruly hair, bloated, a mess. It felt like he might shoot the audience. Something happened in the late 90s -- Prozac, maybe -- and now we have the new, happy Elvis.
This show, to keep costs down, consisted only of Costello and his faithful pianist/accompanist Steve Nieve. Against a barely composed backdrop the pair ran through some of the new numbers, mixing in Costello favorites. They dropped Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me" into the middle of Costello's "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," which had the pleasing effect of eating a Valhrona chocolate dessert. Costello also polished off Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," as well as grand renditions of "All This Useless Beauty," "45" and "A Man Out of Time." They were spine tingling in the best way, which is something to say about a 48-year-old performer who's been at it since Gerald Ford was president.
So what about "North?" It might cause people to fall asleep at the wheel if played in a car. But that's a cheap shot.
Even when Costello is ponderous he isn't boring. I take "North" as a notebook for future work. After all, it wasn't more than 18 months ago that he gave us "When I Was Cruel," an album so good that it got no mainstream awards of any kind. And "North" is not without its gems. In "Still," Costello actually comes close to the compositions of his heroes: Burt Bacharach, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers. And that's saying a whole lot.
What next? I'd say we're headed toward the Elvis Costello Broadway musical, like it or not. And I'm going to like it.