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Killing Them Softly

The good and bad of Kill Bill: Vol. 2.

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Quentin Tarantino has always been a particularly musical director -- both in terms of his sharp use of pop music (the desperate, striving "Across 110th Street" to open Jackie Brown is a personal fave) and the essentially musical satisfaction that comes from his films' twisty structures. But Kill Bill, the two-"volume" opus that began last fall and concludes this month, takes this connection a step further: It's movie as mixtape, a cinematic compilation of the director's favorite bits from other movies (including his own). With the Vol. schtick, the films are even titled the way you might title a series of related mixtapes.

Now that Kill Bill: Vol. 2 has completed the project, the films remind me of one of the greatest commercially released "mixtapes" ever: Oldies but Goodies, a series of compilation albums from the early '70s that repackaged rock-and-roll hits from the '50s and early '60s by dividing each record into a "Rockin'" side and a "Dreamy" side.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 was clearly the rockin' side of this movie mixtape, containing an epic, bloodletting battle scene, psychic-seizure-inducing whips in emotional tone, and a bravura detour (the anime chapter, "The Origin of O-Ren Ishii"). Vol. 2, by contrast, seems to be Tarantino's attempt to close out his bloody fable with a dreamy side: The pace is slower, the tone is more reflective, and not a single character dies by the sword.

Though the triumph of the understated (and criminally underrated) Jackie Brown might suggest otherwise, the juxtaposition of the two Kill Bills reveals Tarantino to be a more talented DJ when going for the dancefloor jugular than when bringing everyone down at the end of the evening. Tarantino goes all out to humanize Uma Thurman's revenge machine in Vol. 2, but none of the plot twists and motivational underpinnings here achieve this nearly as well as the moment in Vol. 1 when Thurman's Bride awakens from a four-year coma and clutches her empty womb.

Vol. 2 opens just like Vol. 1 did: with a tight black-and-white shot of the Bride, bloodied after an attack on what turns out to be her wedding rehearsal, her former boss and beau, Bill (David "Kung Fu" Carradine) speaking to her from off-camera before he takes aim at her head and fires. But from there, Tarantino reaches out for a whole new list of genre influences and references to play with. While Vol. 1 was very Asian in its embrace of anime and chop-socky, Vol. 2 also incorporates elements of film noir, horror (a tremendously gripping buried-alive sequence), and westerns spaghetti or otherwise. (One shot seems to be a direct homage to The Searchers.) But Tarantino doesn't exactly abandon the kung-fu obsession at the heart of these movies. There is still plenty of talk about Hattori Hanzo swords, and there is an extended aside (which operates as background much like Vol. 1's anime sequence did) in which we see the Bride's training as a comic nod to '70s martial arts films.

So, there's plenty to look at and think about in Kill Bill: Vol. 2, which is certainly richer with visual and even verbal content (a return to vintage Tarantino form, chatterwise, has a character making the case for the bumbling Clark Kent as Superman's commentary on the human race) than the vast majority of movies that will be seen this year. But the film is a disappointment nevertheless.

Too much is left unexploited: Samuel Jackson's cameo as an organ player named Rufus (because he once played with Rufus Thomas: "Y'all got a song? 'Love Me Tender,' I can play that," he says to continue a string of Memphis references) demands more screen time. Michael Madsen's Budd has settled down as a bouncer in a "titty bar" called the "My-Oh-My Club," but this potentially interesting location gets abandoned as quickly as it's introduced. The action scenes are more subdued and intentionally so, with novel climaxes designed to pack intellectual or emotional payoffs instead of just visceral ones, which is laudable in theory, but you still miss the string of cinematic sugar highs that made Vol. 1 "rock." And most disappointing of all is an intentionally sappy ending (again, fine in theory) that apes warmth more than creates it.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2 ends with closing credits that reintroduce characters from both films: We see snippets of the Crazy 88s from the House of Blue Leaves, of teen-vixen psychopath Go Go Yubari, of ruthless Yakuza leader O-Ren Ishii, and of Vernita Green back in her sun-dappled California kitchen. It's a nice way to tie the movies together as one object, but its immediate result is to provoke nostalgia for the more rockin' side.

-- Chris Herrington

In Connie and Carla, Connie and Carla (Nia Vardalos and Toni Collette, respectively) are lounge singers. Not just any lounge, though -- the lounge of O'Hare airport. Their act: musical-theater medleys (moving seamlessly from Oklahoma! to Yentl to Cats). They're not terrible, but they're not good. And they sure don't know the difference. When they witness a mob hit, they decide to go on the lam in L.A. They accidentally wind up in a gay bar and, in doing so, stumble on the opportunity to audition for an upcoming drag act.

That's the perfect disguise, right? Two over-the-top women dressing up as men dressing up as women. Connie and Carla, a musical-theater female version of Heckle and Jeckle, find immediate success with their act (mainly because they sing, rather than lip-sync, their songs) and soon become gay Hollywood icons. Meanwhile, new friend Robert (stage actor Stephen Spinella) is rebuilding his relationship with his brother Jeff (David Duchovny) after years of estrangement and fear that Jeff won't accept Robert's crossdressing. Jeff tries to understand and, in the process, comes to know some of Robert's drag buddies, including Connie and Carla. Connie takes a shine to Jeff but doesn't want to blow her cover. So she mildly courts him as a man dressed as a woman.

Connie and Carla is an extremely mixed bag and not for every taste. Some people who love musicals want them pure. In the perfect musical, characters sing only when spoken words are insufficient to express a thought, feeling, or idea. To lampoon the sublime is a blasphemy.

Vardalos, who caused a minor sensation writing and acting in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, has an extremely likable, easy charm, and her years as a Second City sketch artist have paid off in her quick wit and charming self-deprecation. The versatile Collette acquits herself more readily as a man in that every drag bar has a thin, bug-eyed, grumpy queen who straddles the line between prettiness and grotesquery. Collette fits that bill, but neither performer can overcome the silliness or implausibility of the scenario, which is essential if any of the "touching" brother reunion stuff or the romance are expected to work. At least there are a few genuine guffaws to be had, as when a mobster, searching through every dinner theater in America, watches the same musical number in Mame again and again until he knows all the words. Also, there is a drag duo called "Peaches N'Cream" and the latter's name is actually "N'Cream." Anyway, by the time Debbie Reynolds arrives (as herself) at the end to sing and strut, it's like the cherry on top of a sundae that already has melted into sweet, syrupy globs.

Connie and Carla is a feature-length sitcom in the Will and Grace mold, with Tootsie, Some Like It Hot, Sister Act, and To Wong Foo thrown in for taste. If you're willing to pay for that, you'll probably like the film. If, however, you are a purist, stay home with Chicago. That's the real sister act. -- Bo List

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