Reservoir Dogs (1991)

This is a collection of sketches/scenes.  The reason, I think, that there are flashbacks and then flash forwards and then more flashbacks and then flashbacks FROM the flashbacks…is that Tarantino wanted an excuse for the film to be ragged and non-linear, intermittently interesting and dull.  Try to find the “story” here, if you want…but it’s not about diamonds. 

To me, this is Quentin Tarantino’s rough draft of moviemaking for ‘Pulp Fiction’, a much better and more polished effort.  Just like ‘Pulp’, this has some funny scenes, some bloody scenes, some macho scenes, etc etc etc…but unlike ‘Pulp’ they’re not strung together in very interesting fashion.  It’s almost like he wrote a dozen different scenes and then asked someone to pull a Terry Gilliam and link them together, because he had no friggin idea how.  Also perhaps because he was short on funds (Notice Keitel’s bad attempt at cigarette-lighting that makes the final cut).

All that being said, this is good for what it is.  What is it?  It’s a macho movie with lots of confrontation, arguing, fighting, shooting, bleeding, and so forth.  There are SCENES that escape this formula, but not enough to lift it out of formulaic…although the ending is certainly fun to watch with a sort of grim fatalism.  Is this worth watching?  Yes, if only as a document of Tarantino’s progression, much like “Tangerine” to “Stairway To Heaven”.  Worth owning?  I don’t believe in owning Steve Buscemi movies.  

Inspirational Quote: “Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie…or are you gonna bite?”

Grade: B-

9/1/14: “Tarantino’s rough draft of moviemaking for ‘Pulp Fiction’”.

Well, I did say (and still think) ‘Pulp’ was a bit too slick. So, this is a bit too raw…still a good movie. Grade: B

Unforgiven (1992)

Clint Eastwood’s anti-western is so successful in displaying character development, motivation, morality and Human nature that it can be forgiven for, at times, being extremely boring.

The idea, so it seems, was to make a film that debunked the traditional Western cliches made famous by John Wayne, among others (including Eastwood himself).  There is no white hat here to indicate the good guy and black hat to indicate the “bad guy”…in fact, the distinction becomes marginal in portions of the film and disappears altogether at others.  Which is EXACTLY why it’s so effective.

Eastwood plays William Munny, a “reformed” thief and murderer trying to make ends meet on a run-down pig farm with his two young children.  The theme of loyalty/devotion is established here, at the very beginning of the film, and continues throughout, never losing its position as the primary focus of the movie despite powerful scenes involving brutal violence because even in those scenes, there is a form of loyalty on display.  Munny was “reformed” by his wife, Claudia, who apparently saw something beneath the cold-blooded exterior and was instrumental in bringing it to the forefront.  When she passes on, however, Munny doesn’t immediately revert to his previous state.  He HAS changed, and if he wants to survive perhaps he’ll have to change again, for better or worse.

The limitations of most people’s loyalty can be seen as Munny slowly begins to concede one thing after another to his previous incarnation, always resisting out of love for his wife’s memory but slowly (surely?) reverting nonetheless.  Munny was, even by his own accounts, a horrid person before he met Claudia, but in the film he comes across as more of a “good guy” than most of those that are SUPPOSED to be “good”.  Because, in his own way, he is true to what he believes…he doesn’t lie, he doesn’t steal, he takes care of his children, he speaks only when he finds meaning in the words…whereas most of the other male characters in the film are portrayed as either cowardly, stupid, or just plain vicious.

Another theme of the movie is the fascination with violence and with violent people that is without a doubt prevalent in our society.  The story revolves around Munny, and we should hate him…by what he admits he has done, he is a vile person.  But in the beginning he’s more intriguing than he is revolting, and even as he regresses towards the person he was before he maintains that intrigue.  Some of the other characters are much nicer, more honorable, etc…but I don’t think many people care.  In this way Eastwood is skewering the Western cliche of a purely good character against a purely evil character.  Munny is good, AND evil.  So, perhaps, is Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), a lawman who seems to take more pleasure from punishing than from protecting.  The character of WW Beauchamp, I believe, is intended to reflect the feelings of the majority of the audience:  Simultaneously repulsed by and irresistibly drawn to people that are most certainly not of the truly “decent” type.  Munny is designed to garner sympathy and Little Bill designed to lose it, so when the inevitable confrontation occurs, it’s difficult to know who to root for.

Philosophical analysis aside, this is a very good film containing first-rate performances but also some fairly unimportant and boring scenes.  Perhaps this is also intentional, a poke at the Spaghetti Western in which something is ALWAYS happening…or perhaps the script just has holes.  Either way, it can be difficult at times to trudge through the lows…but the highs are so high that it’s worth it.

I’ve never liked Westerns, but I’m glad I own this one…a triumph of substance over formula.

Inspirational Quote: “”Deserve”‘s got nothin’ to do with it.”

Grade: B+

2012: Grade: A-

Carlito’s Way (1993)

Al Pacino and Sean Penn are the only two names featured on the front cover (IN BIG LETTERS) of the VHS tape I own of this movie (Sad, I know…) and it’s for good reason – They ARE the movie.
They carry the movie both by what they do, how they do it, and most importantly (for Pacino’s Carlito Brigante) WHY they do it.

Pacino plays Carlito Brigante, sentenced to 30 years in prison but freed after serving only 5 due to blatant procedural errors made by the District Attorney.  He has Dave Kleinfeld(Penn) to thank for this, and immediately professes his undying gratitude to anyone that will listen.  The thing is…unlike most characters (people?) that make such promises and lavish such praise, he MEANS it.  Every word.  And therein lies the most interesting part of the story.

As the movie goes on, you can see the pivotal relationship (Kleinfeld and Brigante) slowly get more and more strained as Kleinfeld becomes more dependent on Brigante, asking for more and more…and Brigante, feeling he “owes” him, gives more and more.  The other characters and incidents are interesting but basically sidetracks to the real story – Carlito’s trying to get “out”, and Kleinfeld trying just as hard to keep him “In”, to benefit himself.

Theme: Loyalty, rewarded.  Treachery, punished.  It’s fairly simple but it’s so well acted out that it overcomes the cliches that do occur in the movie, especially near the end.  Liken the predictability to a really good CD that you listen to over and over again…you know what you’re going to hear (see), but you don’t mind, because it was SO good.

Lots of great lines/scenes here…some fairly boring ones, too.  But definitely worth watching.  I don’t care if it’s “derivative”…Led Zep was derivative.  It’s also really good.  Not GREAT (it ain’t Zoso) but really good.

The voice-overs are a bit irritating at times, but I suppose they’re necessary in certain instances.  The ending, also, is a bit cliched and not nearly as exciting as it should be.  But in general this is a well made, well acted, enjoyable and thought-provoking movie.

Inspirational Quote: “Yeah, I had a dream Charlie…but now I’m awake.”

Grade: B+

2012: Grade: A-

1/5/15: Penelope Ann Miller also deserves a mention for good acting, as does John Leguizamo (in a small but typically well-done part).  And there’s noone that really stinks…even the most extra extra fits in believably.  But yeah…flaws are still as noted above.  Grade: A-

American History X (1998)

There are a lot of different ways one could look at this movie.

For racists (white, black, etc…) it can be deemed a rather sappy morality play that just isn’t true.

For positivists, it can be deemed a call for acceptance and “brotherhood (and sisterhood) among men (and women)”

For realists, like myself, it can be deemed to be a story of what happens when horrible things happen to you, you feel anger/hatred because of these things, and then you have a choice: Become what you hate, thereby rendering your objections irrelevant, or overcome your gut instincts and behave as you always felt you should.

The movie starts with a differently-edited version of a scene that appears later in the movie…and right away, Ed Norton(as Derek Vinyard) shows why he’s a great actor.  Being in bed with Fairuza Balk (naked, yet) and then being able to quickly detach (emotionally, that is) and focus on a more pressing concern is hard to sell, but Norton does it perfectly.  His character is multi-layered, extremely intelligent, charismatic, and a True believer.  The only problem is WHAT he believes…

The story, then, is about his redemption, his willingness to leave his past behind, to be content with what he has and not destroy what he has that is right by trying to make EVERYTHING “right” (in his eyes).

The transformation from bitterly hateful racist Anti-Semite to tough but sweet guy is quite a change, but at no point does it seem faked…you get the feeling that, in Norton’s shoes, you might do the very same things once jailed, given his personality.  And given his intelligence and “belief”, it’s not surprising what happens when he discovers the other “believers” in jail aren’t real.

A bit of irony exists in the most interesting exchanges of the movie, between Norton’s character and a black man that he initially, of course (given his philosophy) looks down on but who gradually wins him over by the simple plan of being decent.  Funny, too.

Norton’s performance carries this movie.  It is ferocious, compelling, powerful, subdued when appropriate…very nuanced and quite an achievement.  All the other merely “good” performances are completely overshadowed by Norton’s masterful portrayal of an intelligent, sweet boy turned cold-blooded hatemonger by events and, to be fair, his own choice.

Derek Vinyard’s big realization that you should take care of who you care about based on THEM, not based in any way on their skin color seems remarkably simple to me, but for his character the complexity is understandable.

A hell of a lot better than ‘Fight Club’ (couldn’t resist the dig).  The idea that there are perfectly legitimate reasons to love/like/dislike/hate people on an INDIVIDUAL basis is put forth here, and I do in fact agree with it.

Inspirational Quote: “You prey on people, Cam!  You use them!  I lost three years of my life for your fcken phony cause but I am on to you now you fcken snake!”

Grade: A

2012: Brilliant. Grade: A+

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

“Scary As Hell” – Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

Response:

“That’s a reach…that’s a reach.” – Joel Hodgson, MST3K

By now you’ve either seen it or forever sworn not to because you’ve been told that it sucks.

That’s not exactly accurate…it doesn’t suck.  It isn’t anywhere near the “phenomenon” it was made out to be, and the huge lines at theaters during the early time of its release were unfounded.  But it’s not bad…not that GOOD…but not bad. 

Supposedly a documentary about a research project gone horribly wrong, it’s actually (SPOILER ALERT!!! Yeah right…like you don’t know by now) just a fake documentary about an imaginary myth (???) made to appear as realistic as possible and whose “realism” was enhanced at the time of (and prior to) release by the insinuation of the filmmakers that it was, in fact, real.  A great piece of propaganda…really annoying, but not totally destructive to the viewing process if you can get past it.

The “acting” is very good exactly because these aren’t actors and they aren’t acting.  They were given a bare-bones script, yes, but they improvised a lot of it, including their reactions to creepy/weird/annoying/freaky events while thirsty, hungry, tired, and generally annoyed and pissed off at each other and themselves.  So it looks “real” when they act scared or distressed because it IS…they ARE.

Unfortunately, you’re not.  The film isn’t the least bit scary, not by today’s standards…or any day’s standards, really.  What it IS is creepy.  It’s a study in the gradual collapse of a mini-society (three people) who get along wonderfully at first and are happy and peppy but who slowly become more and more worn down by events until they’re literally screaming/crying at/with one another.  The directors use sound effects and props to good effect, and it IS certainly weird.  But I never was “scared”…it’s more interesting than it is terrifying.

Still, as a historical document of the effectiveness of mass marketing, it ain’t bad.  Worth watching if not owning.

Inspirational Quote: “AHHHHH!”

Grade: B-

3/25/14: “B-“?  That’s a reach…that’s a reach.  Grade: C+

Crimson Tide (1995)

This is the story of what happens when two Alpha Males go head-to-head.

Also, some submarine scenes and other actors are involved, but that’s secondary.

‘Crimson Tide’ is the rare Simpson/Bruckheimer film whose strengths far exceed its typical weakness (Macho Bullsh1t).  Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman play the Captain and Ex-O (Executive Officer) of the USS Alabama, whose unfortunate mission it is to travel just off the coast of Russia after an Ultra-Nationalist Russian government dissident manages to seize power in a small area of the country, which just HAPPENS to contain a naval base, which just HAPPENS to house ICBM’s (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles…I love showing off) which just HAPPEN to be armed with Nuclear warheads.

Needless to say, with a Simpson/Bruckheimer film, very little is done to actually ESTABLISH this or maintain the exact logistics of it, etc…it’s merely a convenient vehicle to get two great actors on the same set and have them fight for control of the audience and of the submarine.  Neither one backs down, and given the two personalities here, that is a problem…I won’t give away the resolution if you haven’t seen the film yet, but they may have both been humming Don Henley’s “I Will Not Go Quietly” along with Axl.

In all fairness, the supporting cast is excellent, they just simply aren’t the focus.  James Gandolfini and Viggo Mortensen both appear in roles they would never accept now that they’ve scored with ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’, respectively.  Very good acting, very good tension, very interesting submarine “conflict” scenes…not just “battle”, mind you.

All in all, despite the macho BS, Washington and Hackman’s performances are far too powerful to ignore, and this is a very good-to-great film.

Inspirational Quote: “At birth they’re not white…they’re black”

Grade: A-