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.

ROB ROY

By Marc S. Sanders

In Scotland, in the year 1713, Robert Roy MacGregor, the chief of the Clan MacGregor, protects his people from cattle thieves while trying to endure against starvation and minimal resources. Rob Roy was a leader but never looking to herald a cause. He just wanted to live day by day with his clan, along with his wife Mary and their two children.

Michael Caton-Jones directs Rob Roy with Liam Neeson as the title character and Jessica Lange in a strong performance as Mary. The film doesn’t move with the sense of sweeping adventure that I was expecting. However, that’s the point. Caton-Jones shoots Alan Sharp’s screenplay as a Rob Roy reluctant to rebel or wage war against a selfish monarchy that rules Scotland.

James Graham, Marquess of Montrose (the always effective John Hurt) agrees to lend Robert 1000 pounds to be paid back with interest. Rob is most grateful for the assistance that can help his clan. However, when Rob’s trusted friend Alan (Eric Stoltz) picks up the money, he is brutally murdered on his way back by Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth, in maybe his best role ever).

Montrose, unaware of what has truly occurred, carries no sympathy for Rob’s predicament and obligates him to the original contract. Eventually, it becomes ugly as Montrose permits Archibald to carry out violent intimidation including slaughtering the clan’s cattle and burning down Rob’s home as well as raping Mary.

Rob Roy moves at a slow pace at times, but that doesn’t take away from brilliant characterizations. Roth as Archibald is a blazing villain. He’s introduced as a snobbish brat dressed to the nines though living off the prosperity of the mother who sent him to Montrose for a better royal upbringing. He carries an effeminate way about him in his long, curled, flowing wigs and garish pink and blue aristocratic wardrobes. He is a bastard though, yet a master swordsman. Like many great scene stealing performances before, Tim Roth has just the right timed expressions for the camera. Caton-Jones captures every best shot of Roth’s presence. Tim Roth, at the very least, deserved his Oscar nomination. I couldn’t get enough of him.

Jessica Lange gives another reason why she is such a celebrated actor for women. She picks smart roles over and over again. I was going into the film thinking she would be playing the dutiful wife and mere damsel. However, as Mary MacGregor she’s incredibly strong before and after she is victimized. She is torn with conflict to share the whole truth with Rob as to what has occurred to her. How will Rob respond? Will it make it worse for him with the monarchy? Will he feel ashamed of Mary? A fascinating character piece.

Brian Cox appears as Killearn, Montrose’s aid and factor. Yet, he is also secretly serving to Archibald’s underhandedness. He’s quite good in his role too.

Liam Neeson is fine as Robert Roy MacGregor; tall, built and athletic. He looks like a real hero. However, I’m not sure if I got a dense enough character from Alan Sharp’s script. Much of the film only comes alive when the other performers are on stage, like Hurt, Cox and especially Lange and Roth.

I was always aware of the famous sword fight in the film and it is quite spectacular. However, maybe hearing the hype over all these years watered down my expectations. The choreography is spectacular and often it really is Neeson and Roth in the moment; not stunt doubles. Yet, I remain more impressed with the work of Errol Flynn and scenes from The Princess Bride and The Empire Strikes Back.

Rob Roy takes some patience to watch. A very good film but not necessarily wall to wall action to consider it a popcorn flick. Watch the film for the performances and take in the gorgeous countryside footage.

I recommend it.

SELMA (2014)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Common, Tim Roth
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 99% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A chronicle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.


In one of the special features on the Selma Blu-ray, Oprah Winfrey, one of the film’s producers and co-stars, says that Selma is the first feature film with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the central figure.  (She is presumably not counting TV movies or miniseries.)  There have been one or two other films where King appears as a “side” character, but never as the star of the film.

I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I found that tidbit of information fascinating, especially after watching Selma, which carries all the cinematic heft of any Oliver Stone biopic.  For example, I never knew there were two previous attempts to make the iconic march from Selma to Birmingham, some fifty miles away.  The first attempt, at which King wasn’t present, was violently turned away by local police with batons, tear gas, and honest-to-God bullwhips.  The second attempt, this time with many white participants, mostly clergy, was aborted by King himself after he had second thoughts about asking people to potentially lay down their lives for the cause.

That right there is indicative of far more conflict than I ever thought existed in the mind of Dr. King, played with poise and pent-up energy by David Oyelowo.  In my mind’s eye, King never wavered.  He was always 100% sure of his actions because his cause was just.  But, surprise, he was also a human being who was clearly affected by the injuries – and fatalities – sustained by the folks who were marching for that cause.  Selma brought that dimension home to me in a potent, well-made film.

The beginning of the movie sets the tone poetically and tragically.  After a scene with Dr. King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his civil rights activism, we are shown the truth of the situation in the American South in the mid-60s.  A black woman tries to register to vote in Selma and is turned away by a racist registrar.  In Birmingham, a bomb goes off at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls.  When King arrives in Selma to organize a protest, he is greeted in a hotel lobby by a friendly-sounding white man who proceeds to punch him in the face.  King even meets opposition from a separate civil-rights group in Selma who are uncomfortable with how most out-of-state protesters march for King, not necessarily for the issues.

Nor is King portrayed as the perfect husband to his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo, who incidentally also played Coretta Scott King in a 2001 HBO movie, Boycott).  Their home life is troubled right from the get-go.  That’s a factor that I learned about years and years ago, but it’s still something that takes a little getting used to.

No one likes to hear that great men were human, too.  We want our heroes, whomever they might be, to be spotless.  Selma doesn’t shy away from the less flattering, more human side of Dr. King.  After the FBI taps his phones, they send an audio recording to Coretta with the sounds of two people having sex.  Martin listens in dismay but insists to Coretta that’s not him on the tape.  She agrees with him (“I know what you sound like, Martin.”), but you get the idea that she’s still upset that this kind of thing would be an issue.

I loved the scenes where King is invited to the Oval Office to speak directly to then-president Lyndon B. Johnson, who desperately tries to get King to back off Selma.  Johnson wants what every President in history has always wanted: a second term.  King reminds him that, if he would simply pass a law removing any and all voting restrictions, he would win a second term in a landslide…thanks to the black vote.  Johnson urges King to wait, King urges Johnson to act, and they make little progress for most of the film.


I am no historian, but I have no doubt that Selma is at least as accurate as Nixon or JFK or any other big-budget historical film.  That is, mostly true.  When it comes to film, I’m a big believer in the credo: “Don’t let facts get in the way of the truth.”  If Selma were to show each and every incident that led to that march, I’d still be watching the movie because it would be 10 hours long.  I feel that the movie captures exactly what needed to be captured and did it in such a way that not only was I entertained, but I also learned some things I didn’t know.  (I never knew about the death of a white protester, for example.  Or about the “night march” that occurred somewhere between the first two attempts, and which also resulted in someone’s death.)

After having just watched movies like Whiplash or The Prince of Egypt that got me genuinely emotionally invested, so that their finales had me floating a few inches above my sofa, I must be honest and say that the finale of Selma did not quite inspire that same reaction in me.  It was compelling to see the march finally taking place, especially when intercut with shots of the actual marchers making their way to Birmingham.  I enjoyed King’s speech on the steps of the capital building (although I learn from IMDb trivia that director DuVernay allegedly reworked some of the speeches to make them more cinematic).  I thought it worked well as a climax to the film.  But honestly, I wanted to see a little more of the march itself.

I suppose it could be argued that the march was not quite the point of the film.  Selma highlights the struggle more than the victory.  It demonstrates the terrible hurdles and living conditions faced by black Americans during those dark days.  Have things improved since then?  Well, I’d say things have evolved into something different.  Some things change more easily than others.

The struggle continues.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK

By Marc S. Sanders

The Marvel Marathon continued with the most underappreciated installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), The Incredible Hulk.

Edward Norton is the best of the cinematic Bruce Banners. He plays the role smart and desperate, and that’s the purpose of Dr. Banner once he is left to be on the run following his unfortunate encounter with gamma radiation. Norton enhances a script credited to Zak Penn. As such, we are treated to the efforts of Banner to rid himself of the raging green monster within. He communicates with a mysterious “Mr. Blue” by means of encrypted email as he hides out in the stacked, labyrinth tenements of Brazil. This setting presents an early high octave foot chase over rooftops and through narrow alleyways as Banner is pursued by General Thadeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, bent on using the hulk effects as a means to develop an army of super soldiers. Banner knows nothing good can come of this and therefore has to run until he finds a cure. To make things more complicated, Banner must keep his true love, Betty (Liv Tyler), out of harm’s way. Betty is the General’s daughter.

Louis Leterrier directs under a lot of demanding expectations following the unforeseen success of Iron Man, and before that, the disappointing bore delivered by Ang Lee with Hulk. For the most part Leterrier gets it right. Three high stakes action scenes featuring both Norton as Banner and later as a very gritty, very angry and very strongly aggressive nine-foot green monster are well choreographed blends of CGI and principle photography. A well-cast adversary in the form of Tim Roth is great as he willingly gets experimented on to match the power of the Hulk. Roth plays Emil Blonsky as an eager soldier bent on getting superior to the might of the Hulk. Leterrier shoots Roth gradually changing physically, but more importantly in performance. The center of the film shows Roth sprinting across a college campus to confront the Hulk head on. He then demonstrates astounding agility with leaps over the Hulk’s head. It’s a great match up.

William Hurt plays General Ross. I’d never consider him for this part based on Hurt’s previous resume. Yet, if you put him in a camouflage uniform, slap a thick, silver mustache on him, and grizzle his voice, he works well in the part.

Like Jeff Bridges in Iron Man, the villains offered up by Tim Roth and William Hurt are another two of my favorites in the MCU. Again, they are not after world domination. One is motivated by the discovery of advanced power. The other is moved by misguided opportunity.

Not much can be said about Liv Tyler. She screams. She cries. She yells at a New York City cabbie and she gets to kiss Edward Norton.

What I like about this film is the approach from the beginning. The opening credits offer all you need to know, so that it can quickly jump into the action and the pursuit. Penn, Norton and Leterrier dodge the go to origin story to tell us instead where Bruce Banner and the rest have left off. It’s efficient storytelling.

Leterrier also cuts his action and attention to the Hulk quite well. Sure, we all want to see the Hulk but let’s see his ultimate power first. Leterrier recognizes this is part monster movie. So, when an early set piece takes place in a dark soda factory, we are quickly familiarized with the architecture, and we believe the monster to be hidden under cat walks and in dark corners ready to swipe away a thug leaving only a sneaker behind. Eventually you see his silhouette, followed by his eyes accompanied by a Lou Ferrigno growl, and now you are sitting up at full attention. Later, Leterrier sticks to a similar routine by showing an enlarged hand bursting from a gas cloud.

This iteration of the Hulk is the best. He’s dirty and built like a linebacker with shaggy green hair. His expression is one of “STOP BOTHERING ME AND LEAVE ME ALONE.” Compared to the later installments, this version is better. He’s not as clean, not as disciplined, and thus we are more nervous around this Hulk than other Hulks we see in later films.

It’s still disappointing that Norton did not continue on with the role. I believe his “lonely man” interpretation, inspired by the late Bill Bixby’s TV version. A sad man in an unfortunate circumstance. Comparing his portrayal to Mark Ruffalo, the latter seems trapped in unconvincing dramatics. The internal conflict never seems that challenging to Ruffalo like it does to Edward Norton.

Though my only wish was that some unraveled threads (The Leader, The Abomination. Right, Marvel fans?) were not left unresolved in later MCU films. As an actor with several dual personality roles on his docket (Primal Fear, Fight Club, The Score), Norton is the better Banner, and it’s because of him along with Tim Roth and William Hurt that The Incredible Hulk is really one of the better Marvel pictures.

A Favorite Stan Lee Cameo: What happened after he drank that soda????

LUCE

By Marc S. Sanders

In early 2022, the local theatre that I volunteer at, Carrollwood Players in Tampa, Florida, will be presenting Luce by playwright Julius Onah.  I’d never heard of this dramatic play before, and I learned that Onah wrote a screenplay adaptation with J.C. Lee.  Onah directed the film. 

Watching the film ahead of seeing the stage production left me quite surprised.  It was not what I expected.  Luce is a story that begins as what I anticipated would be an examination of social or racial injustice and evolves into a suspenseful thriller that questions those arguments.  There are four main characters to ponder what they stand for.  Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is an adopted black boy from a war-torn country and now the star athlete and likely valedictorian of his high school.  Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) are his white well to do parents, and Mrs. Harriett Wilson (Octavia Spencer) is Luce’s African American history and government teacher with a fifteen-year tenure at the prestigious high school.  Over the course of the film, each character will be fleshed out with background and dimension.  Each character may also change his or her position on the main conflicts at hand, and each one of them will exercise an action of misgiving or betrayal.  So, in what seems like a perfect world of brilliant academics and success, who can we trust?

Harriet is introduced as “stern” and later confirmed by Luce and Peter as a “bitch,” but spoken humorously within the private confines of their car ride home from an evening speech event that Luce conducted at school.  Amy shames them for the characterization.  The men in her family are wrong to describe a hard-working woman in such a way, even if it is a little sarcasm among just themselves.  A day or so later, and Amy meets with Harriet because she’s disturbed by an essay that Luce wrote glorifying the philosophy of Frantz Fanon, who believed that elimination by violence is a sound societal solution to his country’s problems.  The assignment was to select a historical figure and write the paper from that figure’s perspective.  Following her review of the essay which left her uneasy, Harriet takes it upon herself to search Luce’s locker where she uncovers a bag of illegal fireworks.  Amy is shocked by Harriet’s actions and at first can not fathom Luce as a boy who would ever have a violent nature or want to cause harm.  Debates in the kitchen occur when she gives the run down to Peter.  Questioning confrontations with Luce and his parents occur as well.  It just doesn’t make sense.  Luce is such a model student.  He’s also a brilliant debater, and that makes it hard to get to the truth.  Is there any truth to get to at all however? Is there any justification to question him when no crime or damage has occurred and by all accounts, Luce did in fact meet the standards of the assignment?  Luce asks a good question as well. As a student, were his civil rights violated by Harriet when she took it upon herself to search his locker, under no one’s authority or approval?

All of these questions are presented early on in the film.  Afterwards, developing twists take place and the story adopts a thriller mentality to it.  Luce seems so kind and enviable.  Kelvin Harrison Jr. presents the character with a beautiful smile, who is well versed, polite and presentable.  Luce even steps in to calm down a fight among his peers.  He delivers gracious speeches.  He’s a brilliant model of the debate club and he’s a star on the track team.  He takes it upon himself to approach Harriet with a mea culpa to whatever misunderstanding may have occurred, but there’s also a disturbing subtext.  He volunteers to her that his favorite holiday is Independence Day because he appreciates its meaning when he considers the violent country he was rescued from…along with the celebratory fireworks that traditionally accompany the day.  Wilson never asked for this information, and yet Luce is telling her anyway.  Is he being sincere, or is he using this as a means to torment Harriet?

Amy becomes torn by these events.  Does she really know her son, that she eventually nurtured out of the fear of his original environment?  Does it make sense for Amy to hide the paper and fireworks that Harriet gave to her with trust that she’ll address these allegations with her son and husband?  Did Peter really want to adopt this boy, when he and his wife could have easily had a child on their own, thereby avoiding the challenges of raising a child of a different race, from a war-torn country?

As a white, middle class, Jewish American male, I don’t think I’m any wiser on the plights that people of other races have endured following my experience with Onah’s film and screenplay. I thought I might have been early on in the film, but then the film seems to divert to the wise mechanics of how any one of us can be sinister, either for our own satisfaction or to prove a point, or to protect a loved one, or to mask our own foolish blindness.  Onah deliberately leaves threads of his story ambiguous, and I appreciate that.  I always like to think and ponder a film or a play or book, with its characters, long after it’s over and Luce is a perfect opportunity. 

There are surprising moments in Luce.  Just when you think you have one of these four characters figured out, something happens that forces you to take two steps back and start over.  I’ll credit Onah’s story for that, but also the impeccable casting here.  Octavia Spencer is such a great actor.  She’s awarded a character here with much background that is challenging and lends to why the other players in the story have a right to question her actions.  Watts is given more material to play with than Roth.  Typically, I’d argue that mothers bear the weight of affection towards a child more than a father and so more opportunities present themselves here for Watts to turn Amy into an unsure, but loving mother. It’s ironic, but as I watching this film, I couldn’t help but parallel some of the themes with the play/film Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, which also ends with much uncertainty.  Amy certainly becomes more of a character plagued with internal doubt as the story progresses here.  Tim Roth is maybe given the least amount of dimension here, but he embodies the wishy-washy nature of not really knowing what’s true and what isn’t.  Roth portrays the guy like he doesn’t know whose side he’s on anymore, and he just wants to cut through the bullshit.  Harrison needs to become a more established actor in today’s mediums of streaming and cinema.  He’s brilliant at playing one face while keeping me guessing whether he’s playing another face as well.  By far, this was the most important role to cast in this film, and the production got the right guy for the part.  Side note: after watching the film it was interesting to see what his character’s name could potentially stand for.  Don’t read anything ahead of the film.  Check out the trivia notes on IMDb afterwards. 

You may expect to have a discussion on what Luce was trying to say.  I don’t think it bears overthinking from a societal perspective, really.  If Julius Onah were to hear me say this, or read this publication, he might be disappointed to know that.  Rather, I think it’s better to piece together how all of the surprises came to be.  Regardless, Luce is terrific dramatic entertainment with superb and nuanced performances, and heightened suspense from its toe the line direction and the entire cast.