RESERVOIR DOGS

By Marc S. Sanders

The first time I saw Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, I was flabbergasted by the inventiveness of the twists present within the simplicity of its low budget filmmaking.  As a community theatre actor, I could see there were many moments that were executed as if they were stage performances.  Tarantino just happened to record it all live on camera. Amid the bloody gore, there were some surprises to the script that I never saw coming even if they were plain as day.  Much like The Usual Suspects or The Shawshank Redemption where the unexpected is offered, and it is seemingly obvious despite no signs of early detection, I was entertained.  However, thirty years later, my values have evolved since the release of Tarantino’s first film.  You gotta show me more than just circumstances and contrived set pieces.

As director and writer of the movie, Tarantino plays puppet master to a collection of criminals.  Six of them are dressed uniformly in black suits and ties and they only know one another by a moniker nickname of “Mister” followed by a color.  These are no ordinary criminals though.  Unlike other films, they don’t just talk about the stretch they had in prison or a heist they pulled off at one time.  These guys debate the artistic merits of Madonna’s Like A Virgin and if she went down hill following her True Blue album.  One of them, even has an opinion contrary to the others about tipping a waitress at a diner.  He doesn’t believe in it.  United, the others try to tell him how wrong he is, but he has higher standards for excellence in table service.  It’s deliberately ridiculous!  Clint Eastwood never talked about any of this.  Not even Newman or Redford.  Lee Marvin?  Charles Bronson?  Forget it!  (Jack Nicholson may be the exception in Five Easy Pieces, but that character wasn’t a criminal.) Quentin Tarantino, however, believes that even low-level hoods have a viewpoint on anything from pop culture to societal expectations.

These six guys have been assembled by a kingpin named Joe (Lawrence Tierney) and his husky, bruiser son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) to carry out a diamond robbery.  The film opens with these conversations over breakfast and then jumps to the aftermath where Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) is bleeding to death in the back seat while Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) is high tailing it away.  When they get to their rendezvous warehouse, eventually Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) and Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) arrive and the strangers among themselves contemplate if they were set up by one of their own since the police were already waiting for the robbery to take place.  Is one of them a cop or a rat?  Occasionally, Tarantino cuts away from this one warehouse setting to flashback to how some of these guys came to be recruited for the heist.

The scenario of Reservoir Dogs is creative.  It demonstrates that there is no honor among thieves.  Much like Tarantino’s films to come afterwards, his characters are thin and two dimensional.  That works in pictures like Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained.  Here, I didn’t embrace that aspect.  Reservoir Dogs seems to move in a direction of the Clue board game.  I know nothing about Professor Plum or Colonel Mustard’s history.  I just need to determine if one of them did it with the candlestick in the Billiard Room.  In Tarantino’s film, I just need to put a blindfold on and take a shot in the dark of who the rat among the gang is.  That’s all.  It’s just circumstantial. 

I appreciate how unique these criminals are with their mundane conversations and their cool swagger, but there’s nothing much beyond that.  Tarantino might have known that too.  He only has one question to answer before the end of the movie.  In between, to fatten up the length of the film, he incorporates a savage torture scene on a cop that Mr. Blonde takes hostage.  It’s memorable, but what does the scene really serve?  What do I take away from watching Michael Madsen’s cool, strutted character hacking off a man’s ear and dousing him in gasoline, while Stealer Wheel’s Stuck In The Middle With You plays on the radio?

The seeds of Tarantino’s brand were definitely showing in his first film, an independent project that luckily Harvey Keitel had enough faith in to help finance its shoestring budget.  The black suits became usual for Tarantino’s films along with pop rock of the seventies for a soundtrack.  Action scenes of a Lethal Weapon flavor have never been the director’s choice.  Rather, quick shots of gunfire followed by cutaway edits to the next talking scenes are his narrative.   It all shows here.  It just wasn’t as well rounded as it came to be in his seminal film, Pulp Fiction

The best acting comes from Tim Roth as Mr. Orange.  The character is given a flashback moment for how he’s brought into the gang. It is intriguing enough to be a movie of its own.  I wanted more from this guy’s story, because of Roth’s performance.  As well, for most of the film he’s bleeding his guts out from a gunshot wound in the stomach.  His hysteria is contrary to most other bad guys who get shot in the movies.  Mr. Orange suddenly doesn’t look so tough.  He’s crying like a baby and begs his closest teammate, Mr. White, to drop him off at the hospital.  He even tells Mr. White “God bless you for what you’re doing for me.”  Lee Marvin or Jimmy Cagney would never say that.  For a tough guy low level hood, this is not a cliché gangster who laughs at the face of death.  It’s imagination that thinks outside the box.  Forgive the intended pun, but Mr. Orange may be one of Tarantino’s most colorful characters.  I just wanted more from the guy.

These guys may be intentionally corny in their conversations. They may be super cool with their sunglasses and curse word laced dialogue.  However, that only goes so far before it looks like an ad for the Gap in the 1990s.  Beyond what the film shows with the Mr. Orange character, there had to be more depth.  

What Reservoir Dogs lacks turns me towards a mixed review for the film.  Still, I saw the movie before Pulp Fiction ever came out and I recall way back then that this Quentin Tarantino fellow has got something special brewing.  I couldn’t wait to see what was coming next, and I wasn’t disappointed.

AT CLOSE RANGE

By Marc S. Sanders

Sean Penn has been a gifted actor from the very beginning of his career.  Whoever thought the kid who played surfer dude Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times At Ridgemont High would go on to evoke such intensity in future roles afterwards?  Other actors who did that kind of sophomoric material went on to be in Police Academy movies.  Penn would never shake that surfer image, but he would at least equally receive accolades for his dramatic turns. In James Foley’s At Close Range the high stakes drama could not be more apparent. 

Penn portrays Brad Whitefore, Jr. in this film based on a true story taking place in a small, rural Pennsylvania town in 1978.  Brad Jr.  is going nowhere and that’s fine with him.  He’d rather be an intimidating, fearless kid who will defy his step father so he and his brother (Chris Penn, Sean’s real-life sibling) can get drunk and high.  When Brad opts to go live at his father’s, Brad Sr., house, he hopes that he will learn the ropes of becoming a career criminal like his dad.  Brad Sr. (Christopher Walken) specializes in ripping off tractors, farm equipment, cars, wealthy property owners, and safes carrying large amounts of cash.  He happily welcomes his son into his home with his misfit gang and his new young wife.  Dad will also express love to his son by giving him a car and support, while also welcoming in Jr’s new girlfriend Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson). 

There is a code among these criminals however, and it stretches to flesh and blood as well.  No one is to talk about what they do or how they do it.  Shortly after dad allows his son join in on a job, Brad Jr. learns of the consequences if anyone talks about their handiwork, especially if you are seen chatting with local law enforcement.

At Close Range came out in 1986.  Even by then, I don’t think it would be challenging to forecast where the story is heading.  What’s most interesting about the film are the cast performances from Penn, Walken, and Masterson.  James Foley sets up good scenes where loving trust works at one point, but when that is shattered, what is the detritus left over afterwards?  Christopher Walken plays a guy with no limits to upholding his code, and as I reflect on that motivation, I can’t help but think how relevant Madonna’s eerie ballad Live To Tell (from her True Blue album) is so very important to the picture.  The song should have received an Oscar nomination based on its significance alone.  I’ve only now just seen the movie for the first time.  Yet, I’ve been familiar with the song for nearly forty years.  It carries much more meaning now.

James Foley’s film could’ve been better, however.  The first hour is incredibly slow moving and doesn’t seem to offer much direction or exposition for what the film is truly going to be about.  At some points it is a boy meets girl storyline with Penn and Masterson.  They have good scenes together, but were they all necessary?  Couldn’t some of this material ended up on the cutting room floor?  Then in other areas it is a father/son coming of age piece where pals from both of their respective backgrounds get drunk together on any given night.  Brad Sr. is emulated for his leadership, the gun he carries, the money he flashes and the high-end muscle cars he steals, even gifting one to his son.  Brad Jr. is looked upon as the cool rebel (maybe a more aggressive modern James Dean) for not surrendering to intimidation from anybody. 

The movie also ends kind of abruptly.  It’s clearly understood what’s going to come of the father and son’s relationship.  Sean Penn and Christopher Walken stage a nail biting, very intense showdown in the kitchen.  However, what happens to them individually?  The final scene actually ends right in the middle of what could have been some good dramatic work, but it all goes to black.  Had I been in a movie theatre, I might have thought the projector broke down.  Business must have interfered behind the scenes.  A producer must have stepped in and pulled the plug.  It’s the best excuse I can think of, because the end credits intruded way too soon.  If the film was being edited for length, then there was much material to chop out of the first hour.  The filmmakers basically cut off the wrong leg.

At Close Range is not a steady trajectory of a movie.  It moves in too many sideways directions to stay focused on what it wants to be considered.  Is it a more genuine Rebel Without A Cause?  Is it a rural, backwoods interpretation with inspiration from Mean Streets?  Thankfully, what saved me from turning it off or falling asleep are the assembled cast performances.  At the very least, it got me interested to read up on the real story the film is based on.

TRUE ROMANCE

By Marc S. Sanders

The structure built into the script for True Romance by Quentin Tarantino, directed by Tony Scott, is like the trunk of a solid oak tree with strong, sturdy branches representing its collection of seedy characters in off color scenes. Tarantino sets it up – an Elvis infatuated boy meets a rookie call girl (Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette), boy marries girl, and then boy & girl find a suitcase filled with a fortune in uncut cocaine. A simple storyline that now allows a bunch of fun, short vignettes to be played out, all leading to one moment after the other within this universe of outlandish, lurid debauchery.

What works so well in True Romance is that literally from beginning to end, you are always meeting a new and incredibly interesting character. Each new scene welcomes someone new into the fold. For that, you need an all-star cast. Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer, Conchata Farrell, Dennis Hopper, James Gandolfini, Brad Pitt, Bronson Pinchot, Saul Rubinek, Michael Rapaport, Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn, Ed Lauter, Elvis & martial arts master Sonny Chiba. The list goes on and on. It should be noted that some of this cast were hardly stars before this film, which flopped at the box office in 1993. Before the movie became a cult B movie obsession on home video and cable, it was blazing the trail of well established careers for much of its talent.

Nearly every character can have a story of their own written about them. Take Gary Oldman in one of his best roles as the vicious looking pimp named Drexel, a white guy adopting a Jamaican gangsta accent with dreadlocks, gold caps on his teeth, a blind eye and wickedly curved scar down the side of his face. His appearance alone makes me beg to know this guy’s background. Drexel’s introduction comes early when he pumps a shotgun into two hoods. Shortly thereafter he’s conversing with Clarence Worley (Slater), and we know who’s in charge of this scene. Oldman is only given about 10 minutes of screen time but it’s hardly forgettable.

The same goes for Walken, as a well dressed mafia don interrogating Clarence’s father (Hopper). This scene has become legendary for film lovers and it carries it into a well played, stratosphere of intelligence and timing in performance duality. It remains one of the best scenes Tarantino ever wrote as we learn a probable origin of Sicilians from a doomed Dennis Hopper. This is an acting class at its finest.

Tak Fujimoto filmed the piece showing contrasts of a wintery cold and dirty Detroit versus a sun soaked Los Angeles. It’s sharp photography of gorgeous colors schemes.

Hans Zimmer scored the soundtrack, deliberately saluting Terrance Malick’s Badlands where we followed a similarly young criminal couple played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. Zimmer’s fun, melodic tones to celebrate Arquette and Slater’s adventures is perfectly in tune with the two-dimensional charm of their new and happy relationship. Most of Tarantino’s script is taken seriously. Zimmer was the right device for that.

A few spare moments are played with dread and seriousness though. Slater and Arquette are truly in love. So, Tarantino & Scott threaten what the film treasures. Arquette as a call girl named Alabama Worley is incredible throughout the film. Her emotional range really comes through during a brutal beating scene with Gandolfini. It pains a viewer to watch the moment, but it comes long after we’ve grown to love her.

Later, towards the end, our favorite couple is again endangered during a three way Mexican standoff. It’s hilarious, and way off kilter, but then it also gets downright scary.

That’s the beauty of True Romance. It’s a well-organized mess of emotions from comedy to drama to violence and silliness. Tarantino has great set pieces put together in a connect the dots rhythm.

It’s an endlessly quotable film. It’s a visual film. It’s a literal roller coaster of dangerously amusing storytelling told with affection and violence.

True Romance remains one of my favorite films of all time.