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.

DIE ANOTHER DAY

By Marc S. Sanders

Once the 2nd half of Die Another Day arrived, Pierce Brosnan’s interim as James Bond was all but wrapped up. This was gonna be his last film after this misfire, and the craftspeople at EON Productions knew something had to change.

What happened here? Director Lee Tamahori was on the right path from the get go with some real world parallels and surprising elements for the long lasting franchise. Then, the film goes sci fi gonzo with some kind of robotic armor for the villain, a space satellite that harnesses the power of the sun, a palace literally held together by ice, an invisible car, DNA switcheroos, and James Bond kite surfing to avoid a solar laser beam.

This movie got ridiculous really, really fast.

Early on, 007 covertly surfs his way onto the coast of North Korea to intercept an arms trade in exchange for diamonds. He’s captured and held for the following 14 months. When the British make a trade for Bond with a North Korean prisoner with a bad case of facial diamond acne, Bond is no longer trusted by M (Judi Dench) and he must become resourceful on his own in stopping whoever betrayed him before his capture. He also needs to figure out what a wealthy industrialist named Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) is conjuring up in Iceland, with a literal ice palace hosted to Bond as well as a slew of investors and dignitaries.

Die Another Day began with a grounded intent. However, the stunts and gadgets that are introduced later in the film fly way off the rails, even for a James Bond film. Bond has always completed his mission by ridiculous measure. However, when your hero and villain are on an out-of-control airplane that is being torn apart by a solar beam from space, ala hammy CGI, well, reader how does 007 even survive that?

Another ridiculous plot element involves DNA transfers. So Gustav Graves, a man who claims he never sleeps, may not be who he claims to be. Graves is the villain here and Stephens plays him like a spoiled brat. I didn’t like him and the best Bond films are primarily weighted by the bad guy. For some reason he has to wear this bionic suit of some kind to control the satellite. A keyboard and mouse weren’t as efficient, I guess. It’s also capable of electrocuting Bond; lots of zig zaggy tesla/lightning bolts surround Bond and so on. You really don’t have to see it to believe it.

The Bond girl is Halle Berry and she’s pretty good as an American agent who goes by the name of Jinx. Yes, there’s time made for the two agents to have some flirtations together, but like Michelle Yeoh before her, Berry gets in on the action.

Man oh man! WOW!!!! Die Another Day started so good and then it fell apart. While I don’t think it is the worst of the series, it borders towards the bottom of the list. It’s a shame really. If only it stayed a little more grounded, maybe it wouldn’t have died on any day.

THELMA & LOUISE

By Marc S. Sanders

The strength of a good solid picture often depends on a strong cast from the top billing, above the title actors, to the bit supporting players who only have a few minutes of screen time.  Thelma & Louise, directed by Ridley Scott, is that film.  The opening credits of the movie come up in black and white over an out west landscape with an endless dirt road in the center of the screen.  Hans Zimmer’s harmonica and banjo, country sounds build on Scott’s camera work here.  The names of each actor are brought up: Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel, Christopher MacDonald, Michael Madsen, Stephen Tobolowsky, and someone named Brad Pitt. The scene goes to color and then it blacks out and comes up on Louise’s (Sarandon) crowded diner where she waitresses.  Nothing is unfamiliar here.  Yet, it seems a little haunting in a way.  We are about to uncover a history to some common folk who live on the southern bend of America, and we will start in the state of Arkansas.

Louise has made arrangements with her best friend Thelma (Davis) to do a weekend cross country road trip to a cabin in the woods.  This is the southern odd couple.  Louise is always put together, clean and organized.  She’ll check herself in the mirror.  In a crowded ladies room, she’ll check her makeup and tidy her hair while intoxicated patrons are pushing around behind her.  Thelma is scatterbrained.  She’ll bite off a piece of a candy bar, put it back in the freezer and make three more stops back at the freezer for a couple of more bites.  She also will dump a dresser drawer of clothes into a suitcase, taking no time to sort through what she’s packing.

Both women have been treated unfairly by the men in their lives.  Thelma’s husband, Daryl (MacDonald) is a proud white trash carpet sales manager who treats his wife with absolute control, complete disregard and thoughtless disdain.  Louise just can’t even get a hold of her boyfriend Jimmy (Madsen), a musician who can’t commit to anything.  On the first night of their trip, the two ladies hit the road in an iconic 1966 green Ford Thunderbird convertible (one of the greatest, most memorable vehicles in film screen history), they’ll realize there may be worse men than the ones they’ve encountered.  Following an attempted rape, a shooting occurs and the ladies are hitting the road, hoping to make it to Mexico.

Thelma & Louise is at least Ridley Scott’s most sensitive film.  It was not the first or last time he used women as leads in his pictures.  Yet, the film moves symbolically along the stretches of highway and dirt roads as a means to reveal the strength and confidence a woman can have when she escapes the controlling shadow of a man.  At least that’s what I think.  The beginning of Scott’s film, with an Academy Award winning script from Callie Khouri, displays the title characters as weighed down by their past and current lives.  It is only when the two break free (with little options following an unforeseen dilemma) they understand they can be stronger than any man who’s ever dominated them before.  As the road trip moves on, they will encounter more hang ups and they will make mistakes, but by the time the third act comes along Thelma and Louise will sever any restraints that have held them back before.  It is such a gratifying story.

My father encouraged me to go see this movie with him.  It was 1991.  I was graduating high school.  I’d seen trailers for this picture and it was loaded with high energy country music.  I don’t like country music, typically.  In fact, I only can like country music when it is incorporated into a film.  Thelma & Louise is the best example of that feeling.  I hated the title.  Still kind of do.  It doesn’t have the ring of say Starskey & Hutch or Batman & Robin.  However, those are guy pairings.  Thelma & Louise are about two women, and I was never going to forget that.  Once I saw the film, I could not stop thinking about it.  I grew so accustomed to Ridley Scott’s direction and use of cinematography with Adrian Biddle.  The sun on the screen felt hot.  The dirt on the character’s faces and the Thurderbird felt gritty.  The sunburns on Sarandon and Davis felt sore and dry.  The glow of the car’s dashboard light felt bright in my vision. The settings spoke to me.  There’s a great moment where Louise seems to shed her feminine and dainty skin so to speak.  She hands over her jewelry to an old timer sitting on the side of road at an abandoned truck stop.  No words are shared between them.  This guy was born on this spot.  He’s never moved from this spot and Louise will leave her history behind with him.  Later, as the stakes grow, with the FBI and law enforcement closing in on the fugitives, there’s a moment where Thelma tells Louise, that she feels awake; like really awake and alert.  I knew what she was talking about.  I’ve already been on this hike for two hours with these characters, along with the crimes and entanglements they’ve gotten into and the movie has my full attention.  All these years later with repeated viewings, and I still feel that way.  I feel absolutely awake the moment the movie begins.

Khouri supplies her script with a variety of men.  Some are sensitive like the detective played by Keitel who knows that a murder didn’t just happen maliciously.  There’s more to the circumstances at play, and he’s hoping for the best for the ladies.  Some are just procedural like Tobolosky, who doesn’t recognize them as women, only as fugitives. Some are enlightening, yet deceptive like Brad Pitt’s hitch hiking handsome and charming loner that the ladies pick up, and some are simply cruel and vicious, like the rapist or Thelma’s husband, Daryl (MacDonald).  Maybe a trucker along the way is like that as well.  How will Thelma and Louise respond to each of these guys?  As the story contains a gamut of what all these men are, I never regard the picture as a middle finger protest to the male population.  Not at all.  There are men who will give women a chance and will treat them with respect and at least equality, within their surroundings.  Khouri’s script allows time for that.  Sadly though, thirty years later there are still men who will treat women like punching bags with no value and esteem.  It’s wrong.  It’s why the “Me Too” movement had to eventually come into play, long after the release of this picture. 

At the risk of sounding political with potential for debate and preach, watching Thelma & Louise last week, I could not help but think of recent current events that have occurred in mid year 2021.  Bill Cosby was set free from his prison sentence following a technicality that justified his release, but never exonerated him of his crimes of rape.  A former kid actor named Drake Bell was sentenced to three years’ probation for sending sexually explicit materials and texts to an underage girl.  More physical details have been implied on that relationship but Bell was never charged with anything on that topic.  Hence, no jail time.  A Disney channel actor has a warrant out for his arrest following missing a court date with similar charges as Bell.  Following the early rape scene in this film, the attacker is shot and killed in a parking lot.  The ladies consider going to the police and explaining what exactly happened, but they choose to run.  Why?  Because, they know that the police would never believe them.  They were witnessed minutes earlier drinking and partying with this guy in a bar.  Why would anyone believe he would try to rape one of them?  Reader, I know what they mean.  I understand.  Each time I watch the movie, I truly understand.  I know what Thelma and Louise are talking about.  It’s sad.  It’s wrong.  It infuriates me because it’s so unfair.

Callie Khouri and Ridley Scott created an outstanding adventure picture with suspense, and lots of natural humor by means of the outlaw way like Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid.  A surprising robbery midway through the picture is hilarious and serves as a legit character change for Thelma.  Davis is great here.  She has scenes of drama and fear throughout the movie, but she also has time for laugh out loud moments.  Alternatively, the Louise character that Sarandon portrays seems to hinge on the dramatic element.  I love a hanging thread that Khouri weaves into the script of an unknown traumatic occurrence that happened in Louise’s past.  I am certain that Sarandon knows what it is even if the audience doesn’t entirely know.  Later in the film, the humor that Louise encounters comes through as Thelma transitions over to a new kind of personality.  These women don’t change individually.  They change together.  It’s a great couple dynamic for sure.

The film is sexy and at times sweet as well.  Yet, it’s also very terrifying, with very real drama.  Thelma & Louise is an important picture to see.  I plan to show it to my teenage daughter when she is a little older.  The rape scene holds me back right now as I find it hard to watch and requires a mature eye.  Nonetheless, I want her to be aware of what is out there.  I want her to know how people, men in particular, respond and treat women.   I want her to be alert and strong when faced with any kind of adversity, deserved or not; justified or not.  I find that some movies offer the best lessons of life about the cruelty and kindness of the world.  Most especially when they are filmed with sensitivity and authenticity, like Schindler’s List or The Shawshank Redemption.  Countless viewings later with thirty years behind it, and I still learn from Thelma & Louise.  It’s another one of my favorite movies.

KILL BILL VOL. 2

By Marc S. Sanders

Kill Bill Vol. 2 offers an entirely different narrative than Volume 1, and that is why Quentin Tarantino is an electrifying storyteller. No two moments seem similar, even if the elements of the scenes (or chapters) seem the same with samurai swords, quick close ups, snap of the finger changes in cinematography and gonzo music cues.

I do prefer Volume 1 over 2 simply because it is a leaner film. This installment has just a little too much fat layered in, such as a storyline focusing on Michael Madsen’s “Budd” character. Not sure it was necessary for a scene where he is getting docked work hours from his boss because he was late. Not sure I needed a scene close to the third act where The Bride meets up with a South American contact before going to meet Bill. The dialogue in a few scenes like these offers nothing and didn’t even bring me the typical smirk I naturally get from QT’s films. They seemed more catered for bathroom breaks during the run of the movie.

Still, there’s a lot of glee and atmosphere in this picture, from a rehearsal wedding in gorgeous black and white with a nice Samuel L Jackson appearance to an enclosed, flashlight lit interior of a buried coffin. Best of all is the centerpiece of the film, The Cruel Tutelage Of Pai Mei (the best scene of both volumes and the salute that sends Tarantino’s love letter for Kung Fu cinema home). I love the Kung Fu Master Pai Mei, easily one of Tarantino’s best characters in all of his films combined. Tarantino works in the extreme close ups that Japanese filmmakers might have used for EXTREME DRAMATIC effect. Everything about Pai Mei is graciously recognizable and hearken back to these movies I’d catch while flipping channels on Saturday afternoon. Frankly, I never stuck with those flicks until the end, but for the fleeting seconds I watched, I got a white robed Kung Fu master Pai Mei to now fully appreciate in Kill Bill Vol. 2.

The Bride could arguably be Uma Thurman’s best role of her career. She’s a great carrier of the Tarantino heroine. The fighting skills she offers and what are deceptively edited in (thanks to Sally Menke) look so natural with her at the lead. You can’t take your eyes off of her, and you love to look at her.

David Carradine is another attraction. It’s rumored that Warren Beatty was up for the role of the sadistic, yet charming, Bill. No way could I see that working out. Carradine was the star of the series Kung Fu. How do you go with anyone else but David Carradine???? Carradine has a gorgeous, gravely stiletto voice that sounds awesome in stereo; deep and guttural. His facial features lend to a history of a villainous, but wise leader.

SPOILER ALERT: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention QT’s smart imagination for disarming Daryl Hannah’s one eyed deadly assassin, Elle Driver. Find me another movie where an enemy is left in a trailer located in the desert with her remaining eye ripped out while a deadly black mamba snake slithers somewhere nearby. Tarantino closes this storyline by leaving her screaming alone with no eyes…in a desert…WITH A DEADLY BLACK MAMBA SNAKE. Does the audience need to see her die? Definitely not. Use your imagination of this being worse than stranded, and worse than dead. Pardon me but that’s fucking brilliant!

Again, QT’s characters are two dimensional. The Bride and Bill might have a little history behind them but that’s about it. It’s okay though, because this is pulp fiction (pun intended) that comes alive on the screen. No writer/director has ever elevated this kind of material so well.