by Steve Habrat
Even though Quentin Tarantino did not direct the 1993 romantic thriller True Romance, one would swear that it was made by the vigorous film buff. Directed by the late Tony Scott and written by Mr. Tarantino, True Romance is a fast, funny, gory, and sexy tale about gangsters, drugs, pimps, comic books, Sonny Chiba, Elvis, and some of the strangest characters you are ever likely to see in a motion picture. Hot of the success of 1992’s indie Reservoir Dogs and made just before 1994’s star-studded Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s script is a fiery blast of nerdy dialogue and fizzy romance matched up with an all-star cast (Christian Slater! Patricia Arquette! Samuel L. Jackson! Dennis Hopper! Brad Pitt! Christopher Walken! Val Kilmer! Gary Oldman!), who all give insanely memorable performances. You can feel Tarantino’s energy humming through the entire project but it’s Scott’s edgy and flashy directorial style that makes this nearly two hour film seem like it is only about a half-hour long. Seriously, I couldn’t believe how quickly this film moves and how short it actually felt. While True Romance is always fun and exciting, the film sadly looses a little steam near the climax. Maybe I was just fatigued from the Scott’s hyperactive style and Tarantino’s fast paced film-referencing conversations that led up to the final confrontation. I mean, did you ever think there would be a film that references both The Streefighter and Terrence Malick’s Badlands?
True Romance introduces us to comic book store clerk Clarence (Played by Christian Slater), a nerdy loner who attends a kung fu triple feature on his birth. While at the movies, he crosses paths with a beautiful blonde named Alabama (Played by Patricia Arquette). The two hit it off instantly over pie and conversations about Elvis, comic books, and kung fu. After a night of steamy passion, Alabama reveals that she was a call girl hired by Clarence’s boss as a birthday present but that she has fallen madly in love with him. The two marry and Clarence decides that he is going to seek out Alabama’s pimp, Drexel (Played by Gary Oldman), and let him know that his blonde bombshell is quitting. This meeting between Clarence and Drexel doesn’t go according to plan and Clarance ends up killing Drexel and accidentally leaving with a bag of stolen cocaine. Unsure what to do, Clarance seeks out the help of his estranged father, Clifford (Played by Dennis Hopper), and plans to flee to California. Hot on Clarence and Alabama’s trail is a gangster Vincenzo Coccoti (Played by Christopher Walken) and his sadistic enforcer Virgil (Played by James Gandolfini). Once they arrive in California and hook up with Clarence’s buddies Dick Ritchie (Played by Michael Rapaport) and Floyd (Played by Brad Pitt), things really get dangerous.
True Romance is loaded with juicy Tarantino moments, the ones where characters sit down to have a completely quotable conversation. You will be fighting off a grin during a diner conversation between Slater’s Clarence and Arquette’s Alabama. Comic geeks will swoon when Clarence takes Alabama to the comic shop where he works and they share a kiss over the first issue of Spider-Man. Fear not, folks, the great chatty moments don’t stop there. There is a hilarious scene where Hopper and Walken fire up cigarettes and have a war of words before one of them is staring down the barrel of a gun. And we can’t forget any dazed zinger that comes from Pitt’s Floyd. For as talky as True Romance gets, Tarantino and Scott deliver some seriously nasty moments of violence. The showdown between Drexel and Clarence will get the blood pumping something fierce with all its claustrophobic brutality while Alabama receives a vicious beating from Virgil, as he demands to know where the big bag of cocaine is hidden. And then there is the strangely beautiful gunfight at the end that has three groups going toe to toe as feathers and cocaine fly through the air.
True Romance may be a whirlwind of geeky chats and stomach churning violence, but it would be nothing without the oddball performances from its all-star cast. Slater is a knockout as Clarence, a comic and B-movie geek who finally gets the girl. His opening moments with Arquette are out of this world as they get to know each other over popcorn, pie, and Sonny Chiba. Arquette as a ray of sunshine with a violent streak, moved to tears when Clarence kills someone for her. Oldman gives a jaw-dropping performance as Drexel, the dread-locked pimp who chows down of Chinese while taking in The Mack. He taunts Clarence by calling him a “regular Charlie Bronson!” Walken gets a fine cameo as a soft-spoken gangster who cackles when Hooper insults him for his Sicilian background. It’s a small role, borderline cameo, but Walken nails it like he is the star of the show. Hooper leaves crazy on the shelf as Clarence’s father, a washed up ex cop who seems to be living a lonely existence with his dog in a rundown trailer. Pitt is absolutely hilarious as Floyd, a stoner rooted to the living room couch. He’s hysterical when he asks a handful of gangsters if they want to get high. Rapaport is his usual restless self as Dick Ritchie, an aspiring actor who is consistently exasperated with Floyd. And then there is Val Kilmer as Elvis, an apparition that appears and whispers words of encouragement to Clarence.
If you’re a cinema buff or a comic book fan, True Romance should be essential viewing for you. It’s consistently clever, retro, funny, pulpy, and heart pounding all while bopping along to Hans Zimmer’s score that pays tribute to Malick’s Badlands. When the film swaps the snowy streets of Detroit for the sun-kissed streets of California, the film looses some of the momentum it had gathered early on. The end showdown is visually thrilling and certainly a bloody, gory show, but the viewer is suffering burn out from the white-knuckle pace of the rest of the film to really appreciate it. Still, its worth catching True Romance simply to see this cast really let their crazy sides fly and it’s the true definition of entertaining. It’s also worth it to catch Pitt in a hilarious haze of marijuana smoke and lukewarm beers. Overall, its hard not to wonder what Tarantino would have done with the film had he directed it but Scott shapes all the action into a banshee of a thrill ride. Just make sure you keep a B-movie history book close by and you brush up on your comic knowledge. It will lead to a deeper appreciation of the film.
True Romance is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Before Jack Skellington and Sally were mall goth heroes, they were a magical pair of claymation figures who just wanted to experience the joy and wonder of Christmas. Before all the heavy metal covers and the 3D conversions, their world was even more tempting, never needing an update and forever remaining timeless. The best of the claymation bunch, The Nightmare Before Christmas was a childhood favorite of mine, favored more around the time when Jolly Old Saint Nicholas plops down the chimney than my other favorite holiday. I always thought this film does capture the hypnotizing quality of Christmas, the one that makes us feel like children again. It really gels when Jack finds himself is Christmas Town, gaping at snowmen, elves, Christmas lights, and children snuggled in their beds. It painstakingly tries to re-establish that Christmas is about awe, not about the material fixation that now comes with the most wonderful time of the year. The film, which is the brainchild of producer Tim Burton (No, he did NOT direct this!) and director Henry Selick, is teeming with some of the most creative and bizarre animated characters ever captured on camera, and they do not feel like they are stretched or insipid.
The Nightmare Before Christmas ushers us to Halloween Town, a place where all the typical Halloween ghouls reside and emerge every year to give us the willies. Halloween Town finds a leader in the bony Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King who is growing weary of the same old traditions every year. With his ghost dog Zero, Jack wanders off into the woods and stumbles upon a portal to another holiday dimension: Christmas Town. Bursting with excitement and inspiration, Jack hurries back to Halloween Town and fills in the locals about what he has seen. Jack and the monsters vow that they will give “Sandy Claws” a break for the year and they will put on Christmas. As Jack’s plans slowly fall apart and his idea grows more and more dangerous, it’s up to the lonely Sally, a ragdoll zapped to life by a mad scientist, to try to convince Jack to leave Christmas to the residents of Christmas Town. Across Halloween Town, the sinister Oogie Boogie has plans of his own for Santa Claus.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a true work of art, one that works simply because it carries off the viewers imagination. It did mine when I was young and I still smile today when I see the film. The 3D conversion the film underwent was rewarding because we get to see the fine details to Halloween Town. The film was the brainchild of Burton and watching the film is like stepping into the mind of Burton himself. The inspired characters also make the visit to Halloween Town beyond memorable. There are mummies, a trio of glammed up vampires, a two-face politician, witches, the boogieman, and a band of devious and merry trick-or-treaters. There are nods to the classic Universal Movie Monsters while also opening the door to a brand new world. Seriously, the film commences with a door being opened and ghosts coaxing us into the darkness. It’s really quite exciting.
As far as musicals go, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a stand out as far as I’m concerned. This film gives us some of the most ingenious, cleverly written musical numbers you will see in an animated film. Just get a load of that opening introduction as the monsters all introduce themselves. It’s a horror fans dream come true and anyone who appreciates the value of lyrics will be head over heels with delight. You will be tapping your toes along with it. The song, “This Is Halloween”, is now a goth anthem, even getting a makeover from heavy metal artist Marilyn Manson a few years back. Other standouts include the dreary “Sally’s Song”, Jack’s inquisitive “What’s This”, and the trick-or-treater’s bickering “Kidnap the Sandy Claws”.
There are some minor flaws to be found in this film. The love story between Sally and Jack is a bit wobbly. It never really gets off the ground and we mostly see the love from Sally’s side. Jack seems relatively unconcerned with her and barely notices her presence at times. The film is a bit short, abruptly wrapping up just when things are really starting to grip us. Oogie Boogie only really shows up at the end, a character that is the very definition if cool. What aids us in overlooking the minor bumps is that the characters are just so nifty. Jack has become an iconic animated hero and you’ll be overloaded on cute when you meet his playful pup Zero. The Mayor of Halloween Town will keep the kiddies chuckling, especially when his mood alters and his face changes. Santa Claws is also quite creative, a huge red blob of a man, a version of him that only Burton could think up. Sally is a hopeless romantic and we feel her sorrow. The most astonishing aspect is the complexities in Jack. He’s a control freak and at times a bit domineering, yet we root for him to see the error of his ways. Perhaps that is meant to force us to reflect on our own approach to Christmas. Have we missed the point of this Holiday? Are we any different than Jack? According to Burton and Selick, not really.
The Nightmare Before Christmas may prove to be a bit too eerie for some young viewers, but with films like Corpse Bride and Coraline (Also directed by Selick) on the market, that’s up for you to decide. It’s a shame that goth kids have marked it as their own, as there really is something for everyone to enjoy within the film. I think that Jack stands for much more than as the leader of the gothic nation. He represents our ignorance, our fascination with all things magical, and is the face of a truly poignant redemption story. He even symbolically rises from ashes near the end of this film. I think he represents more than the kids who shop at Hot Topic think. This film also cast its spell over me as a kid and I’m glad I had the chance to see it before the recent surge of popularity. Eye opening and intricate, with treasures abound, The Nightmare Before Christmas sweeps us off our feet, much like the season it is a testament to. An undeniable family classic.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After last year’s buddy cop debacle Cop Out, pudgy funny-man director Kevin Smith needed a hit. Cop Out boasted Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, both who are able to draw a fairly large crowd to fill seats in the local theater, and ended up tanking and being largely forgotten soon after it’s release. Rather than enlisting more big actors and trying to make another blockbuster comedy, Smith scales back with Red State, a new horror/thriller that you, the viewer, will feel in the morning, long after you have seen it. Yes, this is the same guy who made Clerks, Dogma, Jersey Girl, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Red State is a hell of a departure from Smith’s other projects, but it also turns out to be one of his best movies, certainly scaring the hell out of you. With Dogma, Smith made clear he has an interest in the subject of religion, and with Red State, he launches a full on assault on radically religious figures, ultra-conservatism, and strangely, masculinity. This film is also evocative of the stock footage of such events as Waco, Texas, where a sinister ultra-religious cult lead by David Koresh engaged in a deadly firefight with FBI officials in 1993. The film brushes against the topic of terrorism as well, pitting Red State in the real realm of horror. The monsters here could be living down the street from you.
Red State focuses on Middle America high school students Travis (Played by Michael Angarano), Jared (Played by Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Played by Nicholas Braun), who plot to answer a sex invitation that Jared received in an online sex chat room. They pile into Travis’ car that very evening and set out to find the 39-year-old Sarah (Played by Oscar winner Melissa Leo), who promises the boys that they will get physical after they have a couple of beers. Turns out, the beers she provides the eager lads are spiked, drugging the teens. Jared soon awakens to find himself at the Five Points Church, which is lead by a radical preacher Abin Cooper (Played by Michael Parks), a fire-and-brimstone preacher who spews his message of hate against homosexuals. The church is also holding a homosexual man they lured in a through a gay chat room. They soon execute the poor man who has been saran wrapped to a cross. After he dies, the man is cut down and several of Cooper’s men dump his body into a cellar where we discover Travis and Billy Ray are bound together. The boys come to the realization that Cooper aims to execute them for their devilish lust. After a string of mishaps and the discovery of military grade weaponry, the local Sheriff Wynan (Played by Stephen Root) enlists the help of ATF Agent Joseph Keenan (Played by John Goodman) to set up a raid on Cooper’s church compound. As the standoff between the agents and Cooper’s congregation escalates and Keenan’s peaceful negotiations fail, the boys are caught with Sarah’s virgin daughter Cheyenne (Played by Kerry Bisché) in the middle of the conflict. Cheyenne begs the boys to help them hide the younger children, who are also hidden in the compound.
Red State does not mince words and it certainly is not cunning about its attacks. It goes right for the throat and I say good for Smith for following through. He makes us absolutely loath the members of the Five Points Church, making me cheer every time an ATF agent picked off one of the gun-toting psychos. This leads to my recognition of the way Smith mounts tension within the film and his expertise in shooting action sequences. He turns a chase scene through the compound into a ferocious and erratic kick to the head. You will be swallowed up by desperation. He can also stage a gunfight, avoiding confusion that some filmmakers fall victim to when they stage a gunfight. Praise should also go to the excellent editing, which is frantic but clear. This is where the film benefits from its smaller budget, as I can’t imagine this film was made for a huge sum of cash.
Smith enlists a handful of smaller actors along with some veterans, all who shine through the buckets of blood, gore, and gun smoke. Melissa Leo plays a horrifically loyal daughter to the heinous Cooper. While sniping ATF agents, he glances over at his machine gun wielding daughter and asks her if she will get him a glass of sweet tea. She proudly dashes off to quench his thirst. Leo excels at playing wicked and domineering, as she yanks and scolds her daughter Cheyenne for defying God. She does the phony hypnotic prayer, which all fanatical Christians in the south are so found of and she does it exceptionally well. Leo is all flaying arms to Christ, shouting “Praise Jesus” as Cooper fear mongers and promotes his message of destruction. Michael Parks is the embodiment of the devil as Cooper, who encourages his family members to march out and take the lives of innocent human beings. Goodman plays a good guy facing some serious moral dilemmas. Goodman conveys genuine horror over the events that play out right before his eyes and he is helpless to stop them. The three boys, Travis, Jared, and Billy Ray are all out to prove their masculinity and enter manhood. They take a backseat to Leo, Goodman, and Parks, but they still hold their own in the film.
Red State has many points to make on its agenda. It argues that under all of the fear mongering preaching made by radicals in Middle America (or anywhere in America, for that matter) has the underlying message of violence. Near the beginning of the film, Cooper’s congregation protests the funeral of a homosexual boy who was found dead in a dumpster behind a gay club. It asks if there is any decency in this world anymore. Would God approve of all this violence? He is supposed to be a peaceful God after all. Red State asks questions about masculinity, particularly the drive in young men to prove themselves sexually. It makes points about ultra-conservatism, sometimes with the role of women within a family. The scene where Cooper asks his daughter to get him some sweet tea would spark some thoughtful conversation in a Women’s Study course. There were moments in the film that were evocative of the documentary Jesus Camp, where radical preacher Becky Fisher discusses the “army of God”. The members of Cooper’s congregation certainly see themselves that way, even if they are fictional creations. And what about the issues of freedom of sexuality? And what gives us the right as human beings to judge other human beings? Red State points out that violence is not the way to solve any of these issues, as the violence will consume the innocent caught in the middle.
The portrait that Smith paints with Red State is scary because it has happened before and we can be certain it will happen again. These are monsters that exist and walk among us brainwashing our children and spewing vitriol to anyone who will stop and listen. Red State is not for all, mostly because of its relentless violence. Yet Red State is articulate and should be seen by those who are open minded. I’d be curious to hear the opinions of those who devout themselves to any certain religion or situate themselves in conservative beliefs. Sitting on the sidelines here, I found the film to be a gut punch that is softened only by it’s silly turn at the end. Smith turns the last fifteen minutes of the film into a comedy routine where the characters spout off with dialogue that would be at home in any of his comedies I have listed above. It saves itself again in the final thirty seconds. For all the intellectuals out there, Red State scares with reality. For movie lovers, Red State is a must-see for a left of center project from Kevin Smith. For me, Red State has left me reeling, swirling with emotions. I’ve felt angry, dismayed, and broken by it. I also don’t view any of these emotions as negative towards the film itself. Praise Red State!
Red State is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and in the Instant Queue on Netflix.