Jack and Terry (Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern) are an unhappy couple stifled by years of sullen barely concealed rage Jack's inertia and Terry's drinking. Their friends Hank and Edith (Peter Krause and Naomi Watts) are similarly miserable with each other which they act out through barely concealed affairs. As Jack and Edith begin their illicit tryst they instinctively seek to pair up Hank and Terry partly to make it easier for them to sneak around but mostly to alleviate their own guilt. So the two couples basically substitute one rut for another wheels spinning in the muddy morass of their own confused attempts at adulthood. Through it all their children become a sort of juvenile Greek chorus for their parents making the kinds of precocious pronouncements that are only uttered from the mouths of screenwriters.
As joyless as the movie is to sit through the acting is brilliant. Krause (Six Feet Under) tosses his nonchalance around as an impenetrable shield caring so little that he's impossible to wound. Ruffalo (Collateral) who is the most (and probably the only) human of the quartet provides the only thing approaching a moral center. And even in this company Dern manages to act circles around them. Her Terry is a definitive portrait of the party girl who finally wakes up hung over one morning only to discover she's got two kids to feed a house to clean and a husband who'd rather talk than make love. To her love means always having to admit you're desperate. So it's sad and chilling to watch her begin her affair with Hank only because in her own twisted way she thinks her husband wants her to.
Watts is still the most compulsively watchable actress working today summoning reserves of inner turmoil on cue and yet always making it look effortless. It is interesting to contrast her role here with her work in the far superior and brilliantly written 21 Grams. Both characters are deeply unhappy people trying to make sense of the cruel world. And yet 21 Grams which is much unhappier and more despondent achieves a sublime grace as each character discovers their humanity in their desperation. In this movie you just hope that at some point the four main characters will jump in an SUV that has faulty brakes.
The two men are college professors and the movie makes the most of that milieu with flirtatious students college bars and long leafy runs providing the backdrop. But most of the movie's plotting feels like its been done on graph paper. Jack and Terry make love. Cut to Hank and Edith making love. Jack talks to his daughter. Cut to Edith talking to her daughter. The rhythm of this duet becomes numbing. The movie is directed by John Curran an Australian making his first American feature. But the impetus for the story comes from screenwriter Larry Gross adapting two short stories by Andre Dubus who wrote In the Bedroom. Dubus' movie characters are all variations on the same emotionally stifled yuppie theme although In the Bedroom saved itself by turning into an old-fashioned revenge melodrama. We Don't Live Here Anymore is one of those movies and there have been oodles where the characters are so inert that the suspense if one can call it suspense is who will act first to break the circle of despair. And so the children of course are trotted out as pawns on the chessboard forcing the kings and queens to choose. I don't know which is more depressing: that this movie cliché has been used so often or that there are undoubtedly thousands of couples in the world who act exactly like this.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 picks up where the first installment left off with The Bride (Uma Thurman) delivering a "refresh your memory" monologue as she drives to her next victim Budd (aka Sidewinder). These shots are cut through with flashbacks that tell the whole story of the "Massacre at Two Pines " and it's instant-gratification city. First we meet the wedding party the reverend and his wife and Rufus the piano player (Samuel L. Jackson in a cameo role). But most importantly we meet the elusive Bill (David Carradine) for the first time. (He appeared in the first film only in voiceover.) You know from the start that this movie isn't going to rely on the same suspense devices the first film did and you soon learn it doesn't rely as heavily on the blood and gore that so distinguished the first installment. The creatively shot and intelligently constructed opening scenes make Tarantino's epic of evil gripping right from the start in its own right. Amazingly considering the way she ripped her enemies apart in the first film The Bride doesn't always get her man in this one; Budd (Michael Madsen) actually gets the best of the Bride--at least temporarily--and entombs her in "The Lonely Grave of Paula Schultz " one of the most horrifying scenes of burial alive ever. Flash back to "The Cruel Tutelage" of kung-fu master Pei Mei (Gordon Liu) who taught The Bride how to break through wood planks with her fists from three inches away (which comes in handy now) and the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart technique (which will come in handy later). Freeing herself from her makeshift grave to do battle with her victims once more the Bride dispenses with both Budd and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) who's conveniently appeared on the scene and it's on to the greatest battle of them all--it's time to Kill Bill
Thurman proves her calm cool collected mettle once more as The Bride (aka Beatrix Kiddo aka Black Mamba) plucking out eyeballs bloodying her fists punching wood exploding hearts and the like. But we also see her completely vulnerable during flashbacks to the time she spent in a coma after the attack (some gnarly stuff happens in the hospital but no spoilers forthcoming from this reviewer). And there's a softer side to Black Mamba when she's awake too. In another flashback we see The Bride on her last assignment before she quit the assassination business to become a wife and mom--the stick in her EPT has just turned blue when a rival assassin comes knocking through the door and it's a poignant moment (with a Tarantino edge) as she tries to protect her unborn child. Carradine's Bill is somehow less menacing than one might have expected but there's enough creepiness in the character for an audience to imagine what a real hard case he must have been in his glory days. Hannah enjoys a splendid comeback role as The Bride's fellow assassin and she's regal in her adherence to the warrior code they share. Madsen wears Sidewinder's cowboy hat and slouchy jeans like he was born to them and swills whisky like a ranch hand yet he still captures the wistfulness of the once-great fighter if somewhat ironically.
Fans of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction can start rejoicing. He's finally made a film that lives up to the standard he set back in 1990. All the influences on the first film are still very much in evidence here--Asian martial arts films in particular--but each chapter in this installment as in the previous has its own look creating a mix n' match patchwork feel that somehow manages to work in spite of itself. If there's one criticism it's that it indulges a bit in its own cleverness and that makes it a little too long. But Vol. 2 shouldn't see the big criticisms aimed at Vol. 1's dark gory violence; instead Vol. 2 finds kinship with its creator's first big hit in its story and characters. Sure it's overblown; sure everyone is evil on some level. That's the fun of it. And every now and then a little compassion comes through or a little humor and it captures the ridiculousness of human nastiness whether it's the petty arguments you had all day at work or all the slaughter that's been perpetrated with a Hattori Hanzo sword.