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Cult Actors, Deployed Cultishly
Tarantino has always enjoyed casting actors with a video-store legacy. In Reservoir Dogs, Old Hollywood tough guy Lawrence Tierney played the cut-from-granite crime lord Joe. Jackie Brown paired two actors from the counterculture era — blaxploitation star Pam Grier and Medium Cool leading man Robert Forster — in basically the only mature romances in the director's filmography. Kill Bill featured martial arts legend Sonny Chiba, bathed in heavenly light as the legendary Hattori Hanzo. And in the trailer for Django Unchained, you can spot Franco Nero, the spaghetti western legend who played the original Django almost 50 years ago.
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A Tale of Bloody Revenge
You could argue that vengeance was always present in Tarantino's work. Recall the criminals trying to find the rat in Reservoir Dogs or Marsellus Wallace's Pulp Fiction promise to ''get medieval'' on Zed's ass. But ever since Kill Bill, revenge has been Tarantino's essential cinematic plot point. Inglourious Basterds is centrally the tale of Jewish soldiers performing unspeakable acts on Nazis as a kind of wartime reparation; Django Unchained sets its hero on a mission to punish the men who took away his wife. Even Death Proof follows this model, with the women in the film's second half avenging Stuntman Mike's victims, and implicitly, the whole female gender.
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The Mexican Standoff
Variations on the ''Mexican standoff'' — the moment when three protagonists are all pointing guns at each other — appear throughout Tarantino's work. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction both end with one, although with different outcomes. (The former features a mysterious magic bullet.) More generally, almost all of Tarantino's movies feature a moment when two characters hold weapons on each other, therefore allowing them to say some good lines of dialogue before a final bloody showdown.
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Everyone's a Critic
If the adjective ''Tarantino-esque'' could be summed up, it most completely refers to the constant drapery of pop culture that runs throughout the director's work. Characters in Tarantino's films talk obsessively about movies, TV shows, and music — specifically, they usually talk extremely philosophically about junky pop culture. Reservoir Dogs kicks off with an extended inquiry into Madonna's ''Like a Virgin''; Fiction's Jules Winnfield sums up his spiritual awakening by describing his plans to walk the earth, ''Like Caine in Kung Fu.'' Even Inglourious Basterds gets in on the fun, with a sidelong analysis of King Kong as ''the story of the Negro in America.''
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Look, It's Mr. Tarantino!
Tarantino has appeared in almost all his movies, although he used to give himself bigger roles. He's the most talkative member of the Reservoir Dogs crew, and he's an irate friend of Jules (who spouts the n-word with startling frequency) in Pulp Fiction. Lately, the director has preferred doing quiet cameos, though he had a large role in Death Proof as Warren the bartender.
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Welcome to the Tarantino-verse
Continuity fetishists know that Tarantino has always layered in sly links between his movies. The most famous is his assertion that Michael Madsen's Vic Vega and John Travolta's Vincent Vega are brothers, which explains why they dress identically and both love dancing. (Tarantino long promised a spinoff, The Vega Brothers, which was probably a joke for a host of spoilery reasons.) The character Earl McGraw, played by Michael Parks, appeared in both Kill Bill and Death Proof; he also had roles in the Tarantino-penned From Dusk till Dawn and Planet Terror, both directed by Tarantino's pal Robert Rodriguez. Other links are more subtle, such as the how team of assassins hunted down by Uma Thurman's The Bride in Kill Bill bears a slight resemblance to the concept for the failed TV pilot Fox Force Five, which starred Thurman's Pulp Fiction character Mia Wallace.
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Chapters and Episodes
With the noteworthy exception of Jackie Brown, all of Tarantino's movies feature an episodic structure. Many of them are literally marked off into different chapters. Reservoir Dogs flashes back to follow three different main characters. Pulp Fiction features three separate stories, along with a prologue and an epilogue. Kill Bill follows the road map set by The Bride's death list, with frequent tangents. Death Proof tells the same story twice, with a different outcome. And Inglourious Basterds features chapter headings, including the immortal '' Revenge of the Giant Face.''
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Movie Characters, Making Movies
Tarantino's characters don't just talk about movies. Many of them are actively involved in the dream factory, in one way or another. Pulp Fiction's Mia Wallace is a failed actress. In ''The Man from Hollywood,'' Tarantino's segment of the misbegotten indie-auteur anthology Four Rooms, the director plays a director. Much of the meta-filmic fun of Inglourious Basterds comes from Joseph Goebbels, imagined as a fussy filmmaker desperate for Hitler's approval. And the ladies in the second half of Death Proof are a make-up designer, an actress, and two stuntwomen — the perfect combatants for the film's villain, Stuntman Mike. (Who, we should stress, is a stuntman.)
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Dialogue As Interrogation
The florid nature of Tarantino's dialogue has inspired plenty of horrifying imitators. But characters in these movies aren't just showing off. Most of the director's most memorable dialogue scenes are actually pointed interrogations, usually with one party desperate to keep a secret from another. Every interaction in Reservoir Dogs is a test: Who ratted out the bank heist? Sometimes the interrogation is more less serious: In Pulp Fiction, the whole Mia Wallace/Vincent Vega flirtation plays out as Mia demanding more information from Vincent. The final scene between the Bride and Bill in Kill Bill is similar, with both parties in an old romance searching for answers. But Tarantino reached new heights with Inglourious Basterds, a movie in which essentially every interaction is an interrogation with someone's life at stake.
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Foot massages in Pulp Fiction. Bridget Fonda's toe ring in Jackie Brown. Pretty much every actress's bare feet in Death Proof. Uma Thurman, introduced feet-first in Pulp Fiction. Uma Thurman, repeating ''Wiggle your big toe'' over and over again in Kill Bill. Feet! He loves 'em.
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Imagery from Classic Films
Some of Tarantino's visual swipes are just fun, like how the Bride wears Bruce Lee's yellow tracksuit from Game of Death. But some of them are genuinely complex and complicate our reading of the movies as genre riffs. We all know that Jackie Brown is a blaxploitation riff. So why does the movie open with an exact replication of the first shot of The Graduate? It immediately deepens our understanding of Jackie's character arc. And, yes, it's pretty fun.
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A Bit of the Old Ultraviolence
Tarantino's '90s films had a bloody reputation, but they usually built up gradually to gory moments. Something shifted in the last decade, though. Kill Bill played up its violence in ever-more-outlandish ways (witness: a decapitated head causes a geyser of blood). Conversely, the equally brutal Inglourious Basterds had a more complex vision of violence. (It's been noted that, bizarrely, the Nazi characters in Inglourious Basterds perform considerably less violence than the heroes.) Django Unchained promises to split the difference, with images of blood splattering across white flowers mixed with horrifically visceral scenes of slave gladiator matches.