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.”

Close Scene Analysis: Trainspotting

Trainspotting, the 1996 British satirical drama film, is one of the most realistic and honest portrayals of illicit drug abuse in film. While there isn’t a very well defined plot, the movie follows a group of Scottish youths in Edinburgh who turn to heroin to escape the dreary monotony of everyday life. The protagonist, Marc Renton, is portrayed by Ewen McGregor and decides to give up heroin and the movies illustrates how this decision affects his relationships with his former using buddies. Danny Boyle, who garnered an Academy Award win for his direction of Slumdog Millionaire, directs the movie and the script, based on Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name, is adapted by John Hodge. The scene that is being analyzed is called “Cold Turkey” and portrays the aforementioned Renton in his bedroom alone withdrawing from heroin. Very rarely will you find a scene that communicates so much to the viewer with so little dialogue. To understand this scene it should be put in some context. Up until this point we see Renton struggling to kick his addiction. He gets arrested and is spared of jail time as long as he agrees to go to a methadone clinic and try to get clean. He attempts to get one more hit and in another unbelievable scene, which utilizes music perfectly, Renton overdoses. Boyle uses Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” a song etched with irony as the somber tone doesn’t match the rather the nostalgic and sometimes menacing lyrics. His parents pick him up from the hospital with hopes of cleaning out his system and the scene “Cold Turkey” begins at 49’ 59”. This scene is important because for the first time, we see some genuine regret from Renton for his actions and its one of the most truthful portrayals of drug withdrawal ever shot.

The scene begins with Renton’s father carrying him into his bedroom. This is the first in a series of actions carefully planned by Boyle to portray Renton as helpless as a young child. We hear “Perfect Day” in the background, which is just a carryover from the previous scene, and it quickly fades.  His father removes his shoes while his mother removes his jacket and unbuttons his shirt, again reinforcing just how vulnerable he is at this point. His mother then tucks him in, continuing with the theme of depicting Renton as a child. The staging of the scene perpetuates the theme as the wallpaper in the room is of trains, something that most would associate with a child. The viewer then takes on Renton’s subjective point of view as he watches his parents leave the room. The next shot is a close-up of the lock on Renton’s door, which his father pulls and the sound is exaggerated and amplified to emphasize the feeling of being trapped.

Right after his parents leave, instrumental music begins with short staccato beats. Music plays a vital role in the scene. The music continues and Renton’s voiceover is added to the mix. Voiceover is utilized throughout the film to guide the viewer. The camera slowly zooms in on his face and McGregor does a really terrific job at not just conveying fear, but rather a combination of the anticipation of the oncoming sickness coupled with fear. The camera then moves to behind Renton’s head and a wide-angle lens is employed, giving the room a distorted sense. His bed then appears to be moving backwards, making the room appear larger and Renton smaller in comparison. Slowly more sounds are added to the cacophony and the beat begins to speed up, alerting the viewer that something is going to happen. The camera returns to a close-up of Renton’s face, slightly off center in the field of view, sweating and twitching and once again another sound is heard, this one the voice of a girl Renton had slept with earlier in the film. We are now on Renton’s subjective point of view as his dad enters the room. Again, a wide-angle lens is utilized to make the distance from Renton’s bed to the door seem longer, to make the room and impending sickness feel inescapable.

His mother brings him food and Renton turns away, unable to even look at it as the first dialogue of the scene is heard. Renton says that “maybe I should go back to the clinic” and the desperation is so palpable. After the dialogue, which switches off in subjective point of view camera work, we experience a close up of Renton with the camera under the covers. The viewer now sees a number of Renton’s imaginings started with his pal Begbie. The close-up continues and follows Renton very intently, employing rapid zoom-ins and zoom-outs, which make the camera unsteady, adding to the chaos of the scene. The viewer now hears the sound of a baby crying softly and as Renton turns his head we take on his implied subjective point of view and see the baby crawling on the ceiling. For some background, earlier in the movie, Renton was awoken to the sound of screaming at Mother Superior’s, his drug dealer’s house, and found that the baby of one of his friends had died. The camera flashes back to Renton, visibly disturbed, zooming in and out sporadically and as his level of panic slowly increases, we hear the sound of a cymbal crashing three times, another effective use of sound as the cymbals work with McGregor’s expression to increase the tension.

As this montage continues, the viewer now sees a game show being played with Renton’s parents as the contestants answering questions about HIV. This was the 1980s when the HIV epidemic was at its height especially among intravenous drug users. This also helped foreshadow the next scene where Renton is tested. It flashes back to the Renton, the camera once again under his covers with him, the wide-angle lens creating a visually striking image. The acting by McGregor towards the end of this scene is absolutely fantastic as he truly illustrates the feeling of wanting to jump out of his own skin, an incredibly difficult emotion to portray. The babies crying returns and now a tracking shot is used but the camera actually appears to be on the ceiling and it gives the impression that the baby is moving closer to Renton which allows the audience to connect the growing fear and guilt with the baby. Once more we are returned to Renton, enlarged in the frame, the camera following him around shakily complementing the utter chaos of the scene. Another figment of Renton’s imagination appears and again sound is employed as we see Spud, Renton’s friend who is in jail for committing the same crime as him, banging his shackles against a door. Once again the sound allows us to connect Spud with Renton’s dormant guilt. The game show reappears and another question is asked about HIV.

Another figment appears and it is Tommy, another one of Renton’s friends, who is looking pale and much like an addict. Tommy was one of Renton’s friends who didn’t take part in heroin until left by his girlfriend and the juxtaposition between his muscular body at the beginning, and his thin frail look now help to illustrate the effects of the drug. Fill light is used here to cast a shadow behind Tommy to make him appear menacing. As has been evident through the scene, the theme of guilt is once again prevalent as Renton’s reaction illustrates. As if the images didn’t depict the theme of guilt enough, we are brought back to the game show host who asks “is he guilty or not guilty?” The final shot is a worm’s eye view shot of the baby on the ceiling in Renton’s subjective point of view as the babies head rotates and we now see its face for the first time, which makes the experience more personable and the guilt more real.

This scene was chosen because it has an unbelievable ability to express a powerful message to the audience without the use of dialogue. The camera work was extremely influential in reinforcing the disorder and the chaos of the scene and the use of sound, both diegetic and non-diegetic, was vital as it complemented the lighting, powerful acting and cinematography. Boyle and his cinematographer Brian Tufano staged a masterful scene that accurately illustrates the horrors of withdrawal and vividly expresses the extreme guilt Renton feels due to his past actions.

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.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.