Movie of the Day: True Romance

Every time I watch True Romance, I can’t help but wonder, “What if Quentin Tarantino directed it?” What would its legacy be? Would it be held in the same esteem as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction? The story goes that Quentin Tarantino penned two scripts, Reservoir Dogs and True Romance and gave them to Tony Scott, who had previously directed Top Gun. Scott read them both, told Tarantino he wanted to make both and Tarantino told Scott he can make True Romance but he was saving Reservoir Dogs for himself. Scott got True Romance, and he made a very good film, but I can’t help but feel like under Tarantino’s direction, it could have been legendary. Tony Scott is a very respectable filmmaker, but he’s no Tarantino.

Patricia Arquette

The script is fabulous and has very witty dialogue, as you would expect from Tarantino. The heavy involvement of Elvis in the script, even from the opening sequence is just more evidence supporting Tarantino’s obsession with pop music, which I touched upon here. Tarantino describes the protagonist, Clarence, as his stand-in but he has mentioned that Scott’s vision of Clarence was much “cooler” than Tarantino envisioned. Christian Slater plays Clarence, and he plays it pretty well, capturing a little bit of the oddball character Tarantino was going for. Patricia Arquette plays Alabama, the hooker with a heart of gold although Tony Scott really wanted Drew Barrymore for the role, which I think would have been perfect, but she was unavailable. Slater and Arquette have unbelievable chemistry together which really aided the film, as I was truly convinced of their love.

“I know I’m pretty, but I ain’t as pretty as a pair of titties.”

Gary Oldman portrays Drexl, Alabama’s white pimp who thinks he’s black. It’s is a bit of a weird role to see him in, given his recent turns as the good guy, playing Jim Gordon in the recent Batman movies and George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. Samuel L. Jackson played a bit role, appearing in less than a minute of the film, but he continued his trend of featuring in almost all of Tarantino’s work. Even he had the good sense to avoid Death Proof though.

“I’m the Anti-Christ. You got me in a vendetta kind of mood.”

Christopher Walken plays mafioso Vincenzo Coccotti in a role portrayed so well and so powerfully that Empire Magazine named him 85th greatest character in movie history despite only featuring in the film for one scene. The late Dennis Hopper plays Clarence’s father, a recovering alcoholic and Walken and Hopper combine for what is without a doubt my favorite scene in movie history.  Controversial due to the racially charged nature of the dialogue, the scene features Walken pseudo-interrogating Hopper wabout the whereabouts of his son. Long before his iconic role as Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini played one of Walken’s henchman. Of the scene, Gandolfini says, “I was glad to just be observing Hopper and Walken. We were crowded into this little trailer when Hopper gets shot, so everyone was offered earplugs. I remember Walken didn’t ask for any, so, being very cool, I didn’t ask for any either. I couldn’t hear for three goddamn days.”

A young Brad Pitt

Michael Rappaport plays Dick Ritchie, a struggling actor and Clarence’s friend in Los Angeles. A young Brad Pitt plays his stoner roommate. With Reservoir Dogs just coming out, Tarantino was becoming a commodity in Hollywood. Pitt, who had just appeared in Thelma and Louise, called Scott and asked to play the role. Regarding the dynamics on the set, Gandolfini remarked, “Everybody was young and nuts. Brad Pitt was around, too. I don’t think he was “Brad Pitt” then, but he was great. I just had to watch him and say, “What a fuckin’ flake.” He improvised a lot.” Val Kilmer had initially wanted to play Clarence but Scott was not keen on the idea so Kilmer ended up playing Elvis.

Tarantino had actually written the great scene at the amusement park to be at a zoo but Scott changed it, thinking an amusement park would be more exciting. Rappaport and Bronson Pinchot, who plays Elliott, are both actually scared of roller coasters in real life, and Rappaport needed to take Quaaludes to get through the scene. The late Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore, before all his legal troubles, play two cops and are very effective in their roles.

One of the most violent scenes of the movie is Gandolfini’s character beating the hell out of Alabama (full scene below). The dialogue in this scene was particularly good, with Gandolfini recalling his transition into a killer in a menacing and incredibly believable way. Of the scene, Gandolfini said, “It was a little rough. There was a lot of throwing. You didn’t see that often with a man and woman. I ended up doing it a lot on The Sopranos for some reason.”

In the original script, Tarantino had Clarence die at the end and the innocent characters, Alabama and Dick Ritchie remain alive. Scott, who had fallen in the love characters, decided Clarence should live at the end. Tarantino later remarked, “I tried like hell to convince Tony to let Clarence die, because that’s what I wrote and it wasn’t open for conjecture. I made this big dramatic plea: “You’re losing your balls. You’re trying to make it Hollywood shit. Why are you doing this?” He listened to the whole thing and then convinced me 100 percent that he wasn’t doing it for commercial reasons.”

True Romance actually flopped at the box office but in the last decade it has achieved cult status. Saul Rubinek, who played Hollywood producer Lee Donowitz, had said, “The movie bombed. I don’t think the studio knew how to market this kind of movie. If they released it today, it would be a hit,” while Dennis Hopper remarked, “I was surprised. The movie had no theatrical life—it came and went in a week. Were people expecting a traditional love story?” Bob Dole, who ran against Clinton in the 1996 Presidential election, lambasted the film and regarded it as an example of a movie that “revel[s] in mindless violence and loveless sex.” After hearing Bob Dole’s comments, Tarantino said, “I knew Dole hadn’t seen True Romance or Natural Born Killers. I couldn’t believe that a guy running for president of the United States, the land of the free and the home of the brave, was condemning art he hadn’t even seen. You fucking asshole, you’d say anything to get elected.”

Don’t be confused by the title, this isn’t some sappy love story. It is a love story, but a different type of love story, a Tarantino love story. A love story disguised with tremendous violence, action, and profanity. I mentioned at the beginning that I thought it was only “very good” but over the course of writing this, I’ve convinced myself otherwise. It’s a great movie, but just not quite legendary. Tarantino later declared, “True Romance and Reservoir Dogs were the growing pains for Pulp Fiction’s success. Audiences were seeing something they hadn’t seen before—comedy and violence switching on a dime. They’d be horrified one second and laughing the next.”

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Movie of the Day: Mesrine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few weeks ago, I was scouring Netflix when I came across the two-part 2008 French gangster biopic Mesrine. Mesrine chronicles the life of arguably France’s most notorious modern day criminal, Jacques Mesrine, an anti-hero akin to John Dillinger. The film is split into two parts, Mesrine: Killer Instinct (L’instinct de mort) and, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (L’ennemi public n1). It is meant to be watched as one 4 hour epic, but on Netflix it is split into two films. It is directed and co-written by Jean-François Richet, whose only U.S. credit is directing Assault on Precinct 13, the 2005 remake of John Carpenter’s 1976 film starring Laurence Fisburne and Ethan Hawke. Part 1 is based on Mesrine’s autobiographical book L’instinct De Mort, while part 2 details Mesrine’s criminal career following his escape from prison. While a bit messy, Mesrine is certainly entertaining and while in my opinion the first part really outshines the second, it’s certainly worth a watch if you have a long attention span and 4 hours to spare.

Just as Saturday’s Movie of the Day featured  an underrated actor in Brendan Gleeson, Mesrine features the oft-underrated French actor Vincent Cassel in the title role. Cassel’s career has been extremely distinguished but in my opinion, his best roles have been in French films. I haven’t seen La Haine yet but his performance has been critically praised and he was nominated for a César Award for Best Actor, the French equivalent of an Oscar. In 2000, he starred alongside Jean Reno in Crimson Rivers and in the very next year his role in Sur mes lèvres (English title: Read My Lips) was nominated for another César Award for Best Actor. In 2002, he starred alongside his real-life wife Monica Bellucci in Gaspar Noé’s experimental film Irréversible. Irréversible was presented in reverse chronological order and while the idea was original, the novelty wore off quickly. In the end it came off a bit gimmicky and just didn’t do enough to enhance the power of the story to justify its use. I found myself wanting to like it a lot more than I did. With that said, Cassel’s performance was enthralling and his portrayal of a vengeful boyfriend was absorbing and at times, even haunting. His American credits include Ice Age, Ocean’s Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen, a brilliant turn as the unstable Kirill in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, and most recently as the ballerina instructor in Black Swan. Out of the movie’s I’ve seen of his though, Mesrine is his crowning achievement. He is absolutely riveting, his intensity comes through in every scene and his performance is truly masterful. He deservedly garnered the César Award for Best Actor his role as well as numerous other accolades.

As I mentioned earlier, I found part 1 to be the far superior film. It was much more character-driven than the second which relied more on action to carry itself. Some people prefer action but I favor the first part which developed Mesrine very well and truly delved into his shortcomings and complexities. Part 1 was based on Mesrine’s book and part 2 seemed to lack the storytelling ability of the first film. I found the movies to be messy and in a way a bit unconnected. Richet’s transitions were interesting as he didn’t seem to document any time passing (i.e. “Two years later”) and just jumped from scene to scene. While it certainly helped with the pacing and kept the movie going, in the end it resulted in a product that was slightly disorganized. In the same vein, the transition between both parts of the film is missing and time elapses between the end of the first part and the beginning of the second without the viewer being informed as to what happened. As a whole I felt the first part was a bit more focused, the second wandered a bit and the first part was paced much better and as a result, towards the end of part 2 my interest began to wane. I found the movies to be very good but not great as there were a number of faults. Still, not enough could be made of Cassel’s powerhouse performance. He had such a charisma and was so captivating that his role makes Mesrine well worth your time.

Movie of the Day: In Bruges

One of the surprise movies of 2008 was the dark comedy In Bruges, written and directed by Martin McDonagh. This was his first full-length feature although in 2006, he won an Academy Award for Best Short Film for his movie Six Shooter. In Bruges chronicles two London hitmen who seek shelter in Bruges, Belgium following a hit gone wrong and await instructions from their ruthless boss. It stars Ralph Fiennes as the aforementioned ruthless boss in an effective albeit absurd role with Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell starring as the hitmen. Farrell plays Ray, who’s guilt-stricken and would rather be anywhere else in the world but Bruges. It’s the best I’ve Farrell in any role by a fair margin and prior to this I never really took him seriously as an actor. Brendan Gleeson, one of the better actors who seem to have flown under the radar, portrays the other hitman, Ken. He has depicted Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter series but his list of credits is quite impressive and includes roles in Braveheart, Troy, and Martin Scorsese’s epic Gangs of New York. His depiction of Winston Churchill in the TV movie Into the Storm garnered him an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe nomination. Gleeson’s character was the more experienced hitman but at the same time, a more optimistic and romantic character than Farrell’s Ray. Despite killing people for a living he is able to sell the audience on the idea that he is a good guy who reluctantly does bad things. Gleeson starred in the lead role of the The Guard alongside Don Cheadle in one of my 5 favorite movies of 2011 and was particularly effective. The Guard was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, the brother of Martin.

Gleeson, left, and Farrell

In Bruges had a pretty good box-office showing in the UK and a mediocre showing at the U.S. box office but I’d argue that was due to poor advertising. If you watch the trailer you’d think that this was a light crime film in the mold of a Guy Ritchie movie and thus lacking any sort of significant depth. On the contrary In Bruges is far from shallow, and with an extremely witty script, explores issues of racism and views on life and death. I think it is a bit similar to Adventureland in terms of marketing failures. After viewing the trailer, you’d think Adventureland was a film akin to Superbad, but in truth Adventureland is only moderately funny and that humor is in the end superseded by a coming of age story and Jesse Eisenberg’s search for identity.

As I mentioned prior, the script was fantastically witty and clever, the dialogue especially poignant, and McDonagh received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. He does a good job as he navigates seamless shifts from light to heavy and silly to sincere. There are some truly stunning and eloquently beautiful shots in the film but more of that is due to Bruges picturesque natural beauty than any cinematic technique McDonagh employs although there is one truly brilliant nearly 5 minute tracking shot of Ken on the phone that McDonagh directs with supreme confidence. The score was also particular effective and helped cue the audience on which parts are light and which are serious and also aided in the effortless transitions between these phases. In Bruges was really a surprisingly great movie, truly unique and a prime example of the genre of dramadies, utilizing dark wit and an astute screenplay. In Bruges represents an extremely successful foray into feature films for playwright-cum-screenwriter and director, Martin McDonagh.

Movie of the Day: Undefeated

A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to see the documentary Undefeated. Chronicling the underdog story of the Manassas High School’s football team in North Memphis, Undefeated appeared on the public radar at South by Southwest Festival where it caught the attention of Harvey Weinstein who closed a reported 7-figure deal for the distribution and remake rights. Undefeated was also very well received at the Toronto Film Festival.

Filmmakers T.J. Martin, Left, and Dan Lindsay

Undefeated is directed by Dan Lindsay, 33 and T.J. Martin, 32. Neither had extensive experience prior and they met in 2008 while making Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong, which Lindsay directed and Martin edited.  While the film sounds juvenile, it is actually very well reviewed and is a story about a beer pong champion who has to grow up but is desperately clinging on to his past. That was Lindsay’s first full-length film while Martin had previously directed a film A Day in the Hype of America, which was about Y2K. Reading interviews, it was quite apparent that neither Lindsay nor Martin expected the film to receive as much publicity as it did.

Undefeated is the story of the 2009 season of the Manassas Tiger football team. Historically a very weak program, Lindsay and Martin follow as the Tigers seek to end their 110-year stretch without a playoff win. Manassas is almost all African-America and the majority of the players come from impoverished backgrounds.

Bill Courtney

There are four principal characters who Martin & Lindsay chronicle. The character that receives the most attention is Bill Courtney, a former high school football coach and current lumber salesman who began volunteering at Manassas as the head football coach in 2003. There were three players who received most of the attention. O.C. Brown, raised by his sister and his grandmother, was the most talented of the players. With a chance to play college football, Martin & Lindsay document O.C.’s struggle to qualify academically and his quest to improve his ACT score. O.C.’s story is actually what drew Martin and Lindsay to Manassas. Needing the help of a tutor, O.C. lived with an assistant coach during the week in a more affluent part of town because no tutors would travel to his neighborhood and one of their producers had seen a story of O.C. and his double life and presented it to them. It was only when they met Bill Courtney that they decided to broaden the scope of the film. Montrail, or “Money” as he was called, lost his father at a young age. Very intelligent, “Money” damages his ligaments and we watch as he attempts to recover in time to play his last game. The final spotlighted player is Chavis. Having returned to high school after 15 months at a juvenile penitentiary, Martin and Lindsay paint a portrait of a very angry troubled young man and take us through his transformation to a mature young adult.

O.C. Brown

Undefeated struck me as resembling a Hollywood feature film more so than a documentary and it is very easy to forget that you are watching a documentary. As evidenced by the trailer, Undefeated featured very quick cuts. To shoot the film, Martin & Lindsay rented an apartment in Memphis for nine months and shot intensely for about four or five months. Over the course of those four or five months, they shot over 500 hours worth of footage. That’s an insane amount of footage, over 3 weeks worth and a shooting ration of 250:1. They rented an apartment in Memphis for 9 months, came to school everyday and even shot things they knew they wouldn’t include in the movie like a school talent show to gain the trust of the kids and to show a commitment to them that they were there to tell their story honestly and truthfully. This strategy pays dividends and as a result, the kids act so natural and camera because they were so used to its presence. Undefeated features two different kinds of styles. The first is an “observational” style where Lindsay and Martin take on a “fly-on-the-wall” persona and the camera is not acknowledged. The other style is type of implied interview scene where an individual is speaking to the camera as if they were answering questions but you never hear the questions asked.

Martin, Lindsay, and producer Rich Middlemas accept the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature

As mentioned previously, Undefeated was very critically acclaimed. It currently has a 94% rating on RottenTomatoes with 65 positive reviews to 4 negative reviews and an 88% audience rating. Undefeated also won the Academy Away for best documentary feature in what was considered a bit of an upset. Some of the negative reviews contended that Martin and Lindsay focused on football too much instead of delving further into the compelling personal stories although they claim that was far from their original intention but once they began shooting, the drama was too much to ignore.

Montrail

Given that the film didn’t circle around a social problem, deciphering the filmmaker’s goals is rather difficult. While it was a narrative, the filmmakers definitely tried to inspire conversations about race and class and the relation of them. We wanted a celebratory narrative in a community that often times would never have it,” Lindsay say of their original intentions for the film. “Hopefully we could show the potential in a place where a lot of people think there isn’t any potential, but never shy away from the reality, so that a conversation can happen.”

Chavis Daniels

Martin says that he wanted people to appreciate and value the opportunities that he’s had in my own life but he never set out to make an issues-based film or have an agenda. Really though, the main goal was to share a narrative, to give people an experience and make them get lost in the movie. I think they were rather successful in these goals. The story does not seem like a documentary and it’s easy to get lost in. While I’m not sure it elicits conversations for me, it certainly made me think about class and race relations.

In conclusion, I really quite enjoyed Undefeated. While I believe some of the critics were justified, Martin and Lindsay struck an impressive balance between sport and personal tale. While on the surface it seems like its about football, it chronicles the lives of three adolescents on the cusp of manhood as well as the unlikely relationships they form with their coach. It eventually builds into a coming of age film of a different type. Martin and Lindsay were concerned because when you hear the description of the film it is easy to say, “well I’ve heard that before,” but they took a story that sounds familiar and turned into a riveting, fresh experience.

Movie of the Day: Funny People

This past weekend, I sat down and watched Funny People, which although I’ve seen in the past, I never truly took it all in. While Judd Apatow’s name is attached to a multitude of projects, Funny People is only the 3rd that he has written, directed and produced after 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Apatow has produced a number of other films including Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Step Brothers, Pineapple Express, Get Him to the Greek and Bridesmaids. In addition, Apatow wrote, directed and produced the cult classic T.V. series’ Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, both of which despite critical acclaim were cancelled after one season.

Sandler and Rogen

Funny People centers around George Simmons (Sandler), a rich and famous comedian who learns he has a terminal health condition, which is past the point of operation. Simmons has a desire to form a true friendship and takes Ira (Rogen), a young stand-up comedian under his wing. It also stars Apatow’s real-life spouse, Leslie Mann, as well as Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman and Eric Bana. Funny People represents Apatow’s most ambitious undertaking and he is able to strike a balance between heart and humor. Jason Schwartzman is hilarious as Rogen’s bigheaded b-lister roommate and Eric Bana steals the show as Mann’s husband. It’s alternately funny and dramatic and is more interesting and thought provoking than your average comedy.

With that being said, Funny People is far from flawless. It’s not a very tight film; actually on the contrary it’s a bit messy. While at times I think Apatow does a great job of toeing the line between comedy and drama, at the end I couldn’t help but feel like the film had a bit of an identity crisis and couldn’t decide whether it does in fact want to be a comedy or drama. It tries a bit too hard to be both and in the end, it doesn’t reach its full promise as neither is fully developed. Additionally, the film feels a little  long for me as the theatrical version lasts 2 hours and 26 minutes and the unrated version 2 hours and 32 minutes and definitely dragged on a bit by the end.

Funny People is undoubtedly Apatow’s most mature work to date and at times it is truly wonderful. While cinematically it is far from perfect, it is an entertaining watch and certainly deserving of a viewing.

Movie of the Day: The Thin Blue Line

This past week, I had the chance to watch Errol Morris’s 1988 classic documentary The Thin Blue Line, not to be confused with Terrence Malick’s war epic The Thin Red Line. The name refers to the police, being the thin blue line separating society from anarchy and is a re-work from a line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Tommy.” The film is critically acclaimed; In 2008, Variety called the film “the most political work of cinema in the last 20 years,” the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry and it was named the #2 documentary to see before you die by Current TV, only behind Steve James’s 1994 timeless film Hoop Dreams.

The Thin Blue Line is a number of recent movies I’ve seen that transcends the label of documentary with the help of a very strong underlying narrative. The Thin Blue Line, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Undefeated and James Marsh’s Man On Wire are all documentaries that have the ability to make you forget that you are watching a documentary, with the latter two winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The Thin Blue Line chronicled the story of Randall Dale Adams, a Texas man sentenced to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

The story utilizes interviews, re-enactments and an interesting use of archival footage including newspaper clippings and courtroom portraits. Morris used re-enactments built carefully from witnesses’ statements at a time when they were still considered fresh and the film is often credited as the birth of modern crime-scene reenactments that are now commonplace in Cold Case Files and numerous other program on TruTV and the like.

Using the Interrotron, Morris is able to obtain startlingly personal, unsettling and revealing interviews

In the interviews, Morris uses a revolutionary device called an interrotron as pictured, which is similar to a teleprompter but uses a two-way mirror to project each persons face. As such, instead of staring into a blank lens, the interviewee is looking directly at a human face, which allows for eye contact through the use of video screens. As mentioned prior, the story has a strong underlying narrative and comes to a head in a climactic final scene, which is a poignant case of accidental genius. During one of the subject’s chilling confession, Morris’s camera had malfunctioned so all he had at his disposal was the audio of the interview. Morris decided to use the audio in the film while the viewer is subjected to an extreme close-up of a tape recorder. Without a face to match the voice, you can’t help but truly listen to the words, making the effect all the more powerful.

While Morris tells the story from a number of perspectives, it is certainly clear that this isn’t an unbiased account of the events. Morris went in with an agenda and expertly edited the footage to frame a number of the characters in a negative light. The Thin Blue Line is a true testament to the power of documentary filmmaking as less than a year after the film’s release, Randall Adams case was reviewed and he was subsequently released from prison. The Thin Blue Line was a fabulous documentary, a different kind of murder mystery and is highly recommended.

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