by Steve Habrat
After the massive success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the hype around Quentin Tarantino was through the roof. He put a creative spin on the gangster movie with Reservoir Dogs, made Pulp Fiction, which was labeled a modern day masterpiece, and then turned around and nabbed a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for it. Everyone was wondering what this exploitation-obsessed film guru would do next. Rather than writing another original screenplay, Tarantino chose to pen an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. Reworking the title as Jackie Brown and swapping the heroine’s race from white to black, Tarantino makes a modern day blaxploitation film that actually turns out to be his most mature work in his catalogue. Leaving behind the countless pop culture references and dialing back on the knee-jerk violence, Jackie Brown is a slow moving drama that lacks the instantly iconic characters and razor sharp humor that peppered his first two films. In true Tarantino fashion, he has gathered an ensemble cast and even found a way to revitalize the careers of blaxploitation queen Pam Grier and B-movie actor Robert Forster, who went on to earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role. Despite being more mature, Jackie Brown does sag a little under its weight and lengthy run time, but I’ll be damned if Tarantino doesn’t put up a fight to keep the film off the ground.
Jackie Brown (Played by Pam Grier) is a beautiful but lonely flight attendant for a small Mexican airline called Cabalas Airlines. On the side, Jackie, whose career has hit a snag, smuggles money from Mexico to the United States for charismatic gunrunner Ordell Robbie (Played by Samuel L. Jackson). It turns out that Ordell is under surveillance by the ATF. After one of his employees, Beaumont Livingston (Played by Chris Tucker), is arrested, Ordell visits bail bondsman Max Cherry (Played by Robert Forster) and arranges for a $10,000 bail to spring Livingston out of fear that he may become an informant. It turns out that Livingston already blabbed to ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Played by Michael Keaton) and LAPD detective Mark Dargus (Played by Michael Bowen) while in custody and the two men intercept Jackie while she is arriving at the airport. Fearing that Jackie may also become an informant, Ordell once again visits Max and arranges her bail. After meeting Jackie, the mild mannered Max begins developing feelings for the tough flight attendant. Meanwhile, Ordell plans to murder Jackie but instead, she negotiates a deal to smuggle $550,000 of Ordell’s money out of Mexico, enough cash for him to retire. Ordell agrees, unaware that Jackie may be helping out the ATF agents. To make sure he ends up with the money, Ordell hires a stoner beach bunny named Melanie Ralston (Played by Bridget Fonda) and former cellmate Louis Gara (Played by Robert DeNiro) to help out with the job. With this much money involved, all the thugs begin devising way to make off with the cash for themselves but Jackie has other plans.
At two and a half hours, Jackie Brown certainly has its fair share of backstabbing, double crosses, and scheming going on. While it seemed appropriate in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown seems to just be rambling on and sometimes not in a good way. The first hour of the film is fun, a little sexy, and funny in spurts, but after a while, I was left wishing that Tarantino would pop the cork on crazy and get the party started. He never really does and it is slightly disappointing. However, you can’t really blame Tarantino for toning it down a bit after his rambunctious behavior in Pulp Fiction (Who could forget the Gimp?). And then there is the trademark dialogue, something we really look forward to when going into his movies. In Jackie Brown, you feel as though Tarantino is blending his dialogue with Leonard’s and the results are mixed. There are a few funny lines here and there and only a few moments where it is truly memorable, but none of it comes close to what was in his first two films. Despite lacking the shock and crazy of his first two films, Jackie Brown does prove that Tarantino can pile on the emotion and really hook us with a touching love story. You really root for the romance between Jackie and Max, a love that is really the heart and soul of the movie. It is like Tarantino revealing his softer side, something he doesn’t really seem to enjoy too much (just watch an interview with him). Dare I say that Jackie Brown makes us feel a little warm and fuzzy inside?
If the bloated plot of Jackie Brown begins to wear on you, you may find some relief in the performances, mostly the ones from Grier and Forster. Grier is in fine form as the sensitive but fierce Jackie, one tough mama who doesn’t put up with any of the torment dished out by Ordell. Age seems to be holding Grier back from really kicking ass and taking names but she is as sharp as a tack when it comes to staying one step ahead of everyone but Max. Forster is measured, gentle, and subtle as Max Cherry, the kindly bail bondsman who develops a crush on the curvy Jackie. You can’t help but love him as he jams out to crooning R&B classics in his car, music he heard from our badass heroine. Together, the form an unlikely romance but I suppose that opposites attract. Plus, you feel like Max really deserves this romance. Jackson tones down the intensity he brought to Pulp Fiction and brings a menacing cool to Ordell. Watching him manipulate the thugs around him will have your knuckles whitening, especially when he shows up at Jackie’s apartment to settle some business. DeNiro is quiet fun as the loose cannon Louis, a slouchy thug who never can resist the bong in front of him. He gets some great moments with Fonda’s Melanie, a perpetually stoned and horny beach bunny who is always taking too long to get ready. Keaton is on point as the hotshot ATF agent who is always chewing on a piece of gum. We also get a funny and jumpy performance from the rarely seen but always welcome Chris Tucker as Livingston. Tucker isn’t here long but you’ll certainly remember his character.
Even if things are a little too drawn out, Jackie Brown still manages to entertain you even in its slower moments. I really enjoyed the scenes where Louis and Ordell sat around and discussed firearms over beer and weed as Melanie rolls her eyes in boredom. These scenes crackled with Tarantino’s punchy dialogue and humor, his usual trademarks. I also enjoyed the way Tarantino laid out the climax of the film, dropping all of his characters into a busy shopping mall and letting them try to outsmart each other while the money bops around in a shopping bag. Then there is the final confrontation, which does flirt with Tarantino’s unpredictable flashes of violence and bloodshed. Overall, I do like Jackie Brown and I have to say that I did fall head over heels for Grier and Forster. I also love the idea that the film is a big fat valentine to Grier and her feisty roles from years past. Yet as a tribute to blaxploitation cinema, Jackie Brown is a little clunky. It seems to lack the sass of the blaxploitation subgenre. I give Tarantino credit for breaking away from his usual formula but Jackie Brown left me starving for his crazy side.
Jackie Brown is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
In 1992, the world was introduced to a jive talking video store clerk turned screenwriter, director, and actor. He made the uptight film snobs squirm (he still does) with the way he borrowed from 70’s trash cinema and made those searching high and low for a sleazy thrill giddy with delight. His name is Quentin Tarantino and the film that shot him into stardom was the bloody crime caper Reservoir Dogs, a film that has to rank as one of the best films from the 90’s. Extremely controversial with its violence (Wes Craven reportedly walked out of a screening of the film) and unapologetically funny (the analysis of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’) even if it is incredibly crass, Reservoir Dogs is a smoothing talking throwback that doesn’t hide the fact that it is borrowing from forgotten cinema. Reservoir Dogs is a film that sucks the viewer in instantly; ripe with fast-talking criminals dressed in too-cool-for-school suits and black Wayfarers. Classic tunes from the 70’s blare over the soundtrack as these crooks, who look more like a 50’s rock n’ roll band than a bunch of jewelry thieves, strut in slow motion through a parking lot. It’s the sequence that is the epitome of cool, my dear readers, and it merely is setting the stage. That is the best way I can describe Reservoir Dogs, as a super cool caper that has the power to disturb and tickle, sometimes at the same time. I should also note that the film is incredibly influential, despite what some may say.
Reservoir Dogs introduces us to six thugs, Mr. White (Played by Harvey Keitel), Mr. Blonde (Played by Michael Madsen), Mr. Orange (Played by Tim Roth), Mr. Pink (Played by Steve Buscemi), Mr. Brown (Played by Quentin Tarantino), and Mr. Blue (Played by Eddie Bunker), who are all gearing up for the perfect heist. They find a leader in Joe Cabot (Played by Lawrence Tierney), a cranky and gravelly-voiced gangster, and his son, “Nice Guy” Eddie (Played by Chris Penn). Together, they plan to rob a jewelry store and it appears they have every angle covered. But something goes horribly wrong and the heist becomes a scene of stomach-churning carnage. Four of the thugs escape to a hideout where they begin to suspect that one member of the group may be an undercover police officer. Meanwhile, the police are gathering outside the hideout, ready to take the group down by any means necessary.
The overall setup of Reservoir Dogs is a pretty simple one but the film sets itself apart by never showing the viewer the heist. We only see the chaotic aftermath of it, allowing our imaginations to run wild. The small budget prevented Tarantino from showing us the heist but the dialogue is pretty graphic in its description to the point where I wasn’t sure I even WANTED to see it. The aftermath is disturbing, with Mr. Orange severely wounded by a gunshot to the gut, an injury that has him bleeding all over the joint. He squirms and shrieks in pain as Mr. White tries desperately to reassure him that he isn’t going to die. Meanwhile, two other group members were wasted in a hail of gunfire and we learn that the psychotic Mr. Blonde executed a handful of innocent civilians (one being only a young nineteen year old). If the bickering and the withering Mr. Orange isn’t enough to upset the viewer, Tarantino then delivers a terrifying and darkly comedic torture sequence that finds Mr. Blonde slashing a captured cop up with a blade and then hacking his ear off. It is a sequence that reportedly made Mr. Madsen a little queasy when he was filming it, especially when the cop adlibbed “I got a little kid at home!” Mr. Tarantino goes for the throat and he never even flinches while doing it.
Savagery aside, Reservoir Dogs is loaded with explosive performances from almost everyone involved. It is constant tug of war between Madsen’s Mr. Blonde, a psychopath who enjoys torturing his victims before he puts them out of their misery and Keitel’s Mr. White, a fatherly figure who isn’t afraid to get a little nasty himself when his back is against the wall. Madsen steals the show with his steely glares and you’d never guess that he got a queasy tummy while filming the notorious torture sequence. And then there is Buscemi, a smart but wimpy gangster who smells something rotten in the group. Buscemi is the king when it comes to playing oily low lives like this and I have to say Reservoir Dogs finds one of his best performances. Roth sends chills down your spine as the wounded Mr. Orange, really doing a lot with a role that demands he lay on the ground and bleed out. It never gets any easier to watch him shriek in pain in the back of a car and wither around in agony. All I can say is I hope I never, ever get shot in the gut. Penn and Tierney bring plenty of hotshot swagger as “Nice Guy” Eddie and Joe Cabot. Tierney is especially intense as Joe, the glaring don who does put up with any shenanigans or backtalk for his team. Tarantino and Bunker do well with the small roles they have but I would have liked to see a bit more from their characters, especially Mr. Blue. Tarantino gives rich back-stories for the thugs yet he leaves out ones for Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue, which doesn’t really make any sense to me. The only theory I have is possibly the tiny budget prevented him from doing anything further with the characters.
Reservoir Dogs is the film that introduced the world to the “Tarantino style” of filmmaking, which includes drawn out conversations and colorful exchanges between the characters, use of ironic music, nonstop film references, and chilling bursts of violence. Some say that this style has ruined film (mostly film professors that are steaming mad over the fact that Tarantino never went to film school and educated himself on film by taking trips to the local grindhouse) and made it unoriginal considering that Tarantino enjoys nabbing his favorite scenes from old exploitation cinema and stitching them all together. I have to disagree that his work is unoriginal considering that he fashions these references into unique creations that could only come from Tarantino’s mind. I really don’t think anyone else could have made Reservoir Dogs as likable as it is and trust me; this film contains some seriously shocking moments that make it a tough pill to swallow. Overall, Reservoir Dogs is maddeningly simple, wickedly funny, and waiting to spring one hell of a twist on the viewer near the end of the film (trust me, the reveal is really awesome). It is best going into the film with as little knowledge of the film as possible and it is one that you won’t soon forget after you’ve seen it. Good luck listening to ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ the same way ever again.
Reservoir Dogs is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
I can’t really say that I’ve ever left a crime thriller with my stomach in a knot. I didn’t know it was possible for the crime thriller genre, which seems to be stuck on repeat and incapable of surprises, was fully capable of coming up with something that would truly shake me to my core. Well, along comes director Andrew Dominik’s black-as-night Killing Them Softly, a darkly comedic and politically charged look at the underbelly of society. Set against the economic meltdown of 2008 and hanging its head while John McCain, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush utter reassurances that America will get back on track, Killing Them Softly possess an icy apocalyptic feel as the camera pans across abandoned strip malls, rotting homes, and trigger happy ghettos. It certainly is the ugliest crime thriller ever made and a rabid dog of a movie, one that is furiously chewing through the leash that is containing it to the point where its gums are bleeding. Yet for all the savagery on display, Killing Them Softly has some chilling moments of rich character development, especially in Brad Pitt’s cool-as-a-cucumber Jackie Cogan, a hitman who seethes as McCain, Bush, and Obama reassure us all that America is one community. With an ensemble cast, a doomed atmosphere, razor sharp humor, and one of the coolest soundtracks around (a jaw-dropping beating is followed up by the cheery ‘Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries’ by Jack Hylton & His Orchestra), Killing Them Softly will make you feel like you’re sitting on a block of ice.
Set in 2008, Killing Them Softly picks up with three low-level thugs, Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Played by Vincent Curatola), Frankie (Played by Scoot McNairy), and Russell (Played by Ben Mendelsohn), robbing a mob controlled poker game that is watched over by hot shot gangster Markie Trattman (Played by Ray Liotta). It turns out that a few years earlier, Markie set up an inside job, robbed his own poker game, and then drunkenly admitted to doing it in front of a room full of gangsters. Since Markie is so well liked, the thugs decided to laugh it off and forgive him. Squirrel, Frankie, and Russell spot an opportunity to pull the robbery off in the hope that the mob will just blame it all on Markie. The plan appears to work for a small stretch of time but the mob isn’t so eager to let this one go. They bring in cool and calculating hitman Jackie Cogan (Played by Brad Pitt), who quickly determines that Markie wasn’t the one behind the robbery. He convinces the mob’s lawyer Driver (Played by Richard Jenkins) to allow him to bring in another bitter and unhinged hitman known as Mickey (Played by James Gandolfini) to help him smoke out the amateurs behind the job. When not dealing with personal demons, Jackie and Mickey slowly get to the bottom of the robbery and leave a trail of dead bodies in their wake.
Based on the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, Killing Them Softly is about as character driven as they come. There are drawn out moments of dialogue as these scumbags sit around in cluttered offices and smoky hotel rooms sipping beers, smoking cigarettes, shooting junk, and droning on about their failed love lives, why they detest feelings, and, yes, sexual intercourse with animals. It’s all very gross, pathetic, and profanity laced but Dominik cleverly writes it and he manages to get a few chuckles even if you are rolling your eyes in disgust. When the conversations turn to murder, things get really tense and prickly, with an unshakable sense of realism that almost shellshocks the viewer. Driver explains that they don’t want one of their guys hurt, just roughed up a little so he’ll talk. Pitt’s numbed Cogan laughs in his face and tells him the mob has gotten soft and then wonders allowed about what has happened to America. It’s in these moments that Killing Them Softly really takes hold of the viewer, churning the stomachs of those who thought they had been desensitized to this sort of material. Hell, I thought I was but I was scared stiff when Pitt explains that he hates killing up close because of the emotion. Trust me, it’s a conversation that settles like a brick in the bottom of your stomach.
Then again, maybe it is Pitt who is just really good at selling this chillingly bleak cynicism. He is a man who stares out at a boarded up America wasting away in the shadow of an Obama “Change” billboard, blowing cigarette smoke at it almost like mockery. He faintly grins as President Bush nervously rambles on about the financial situation in America and ponders how it should be dealt with. Pitt’s Cogan is angry, fed up, and driven simply by money. He is so detached that he doesn’t even flinch when he stops his car in a rough part of town and overhears a group of street thugs arguing and fighting over territory. He doesn’t jump when gunshots ring out and one of them falls to the ground in a heap. He is almost like a plague in a muscle car; spreading his searing and sobering philosophy that America isn’t one community that is in this situation together, but just a business where everyone is on their own. He’s a cynical force with his hand out for the money he was promised and God help the person who doesn’t pay up. If he isn’t careful, he may wind up with a Best Actor Oscar for that earth shaking speech he gives in the closing moments of the film. It’s honestly a performance I couldn’t pull away from and that I won’t soon forget. Pitt is THAT good!
While Pitt steals the movie, the other performers do their best to keep up. Liotta is absolutely fantastic as Trattman, a man who is silky smooth during his poker games but a whimpering, bloody mess when he has the tar kicked and beaten out of him in a rainstorm. This particular sequence where two mob enforcers rough him up has to rank as one of the most violent and startlingly beatings I have ever seen in a motion picture (Those with a weak stomach may want to shut your eyes. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.). Jenkins is a brooding force as he tries to reason with Pitt’s Cogan. They share a number of conversations that point out that times are tough for mobsters too. Gandolfini shows up as the bitter Mickey, an overweight hitman who sucks down martinis and beers like he may never get another one in his life and verbally abuses hookers who shrug him off. He may be able to intimidate a waiter but is unable to stand up to his wife who is constantly threatening him with a divorce. Scoot McNairy’s Frankie is all nervous gulps as he slowly realizes that he may not make it out of this situation alive and Ben Mendelsohn is on point as the sweaty junkie Russell, who is constantly stumbling around in a junk-induced haze.
In the end, Killing Them Softly is a barebones film about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things to each other. It’s shockingly pessimistic as it wears its frustrations on its blood soaked sleeve. At times, the sound bites of Bush, McCain, and Obama are a bit distracting and heavy handed, leaving the viewer wishing for a much more subtle approach to the politics. The film also has some incredibly unnerving and ironic use of music. I think I was the only person in the audience who laughed when Dominik follows up Liotta’s savage beating with ‘Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries’ and Pitt guns down a poor gangster to Ketty Lester’s haunting ‘Love Letters.’ While I can see many being disappointed with Killing Them Softly, walking away wondering just what the big deal was, I just so rattled by the whole experience and how real it truly felt. It never felt sensationalized and it lacked the typical gloss that Hollywood applies to films as gritty as this. It doesn’t go down easy and I really admired that. Approach Killing Them Softly, one of the strongest motion pictures of 2012, with extreme caution.
by Steve Habrat
Controversial filmmaker Oliver Stone has plenty of hits to his name. He penned Scarface and directed classics like Platoon, Wall Street, The Doors, JFK, and Natural Born Killers, to name a few. After a string of misfires and a hurried W., Stone returns to splatter territory with Savages, a wannabe Natural Born Killers that was adapted from Don Winslow’s novel of the same name. Savages is ripe with potential but Stone seems to be holding back his punches that he throws at us, failing to really engage us intellectually for a good majority of the runtime. It also doesn’t help that his three young leads, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, and Blake Lively, are all astoundingly comatose compared to heavy hitters like the scorching Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek. Savages lifts the camerawork of Natural Born Killers and drags along almost as many buckets of gore, but the story rambles on for entirely too long and gets a kick out of trying to overcomplicate itself, which is laughable because the film isn’t that complicated to begin with. I hoped that Savages would be a biting drug thriller that would join the ranks of Stone’s classics but alas, it falls more along the lines of World Trade Center.
Savages is told from the point of view of O (Played by Blake Lively), who warns us at the beginning that just because she is narrating this story doesn’t mean she is alive at the end of it. O is in a three-way relationship with two top California pot growers, who churn out some of the strongest herb you can get your hands on. The brain behind the operation is the dreadlocked Ben (Played by Aaron Johnson) and the muscle of the business is former U.S. Navy SEAL Chon (Played by Taylor Kitsch). The group lives a cushy life in a beachfront home where they indulge in their product and engage in lots of steamy sex. Out of the blue one day, Chon discovers an email from the Mexican Baja Cartel that contains a gruesome video of several smalltime drug dealers being butchered due to refusing to do business with the BC. Ben and Chon meet with a handful of high-ranking members of the BC but they refuse the offer that is made to them. Word gets back the terrifying head of the BC, Elena (Played by Salma Hayek), and as revenge, she sends her sadistic enforcer Lado (Played by Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap their girlfriend. With O in Elena’s clutches, she bullies Ben and Chon into doing business with her but she soon realizes that these two California boys have a lot more fight in them than she anticipated.
There is certainly plenty of hyperactive energy in this Technicolor massacre with plenty of excessive violence to make those with a weak tummy fight back their lunch, but you can’t help but feel that Stone has watered down his trickling gore. It could be called maturity on Stone’s part but Savages lacks a commentary behind all this carnage. Plus, it is difficult to say that this man has matured when he starts his movie off with heads being lobbed off with a roaring chain saw and an animalistic sex scene, all sound, flesh, and fury that ultimately signifies nothing. With Natural Born Killers, each speckle of blood meant something and we knew it. Here, the most intelligent touch from Stone is the way he slips in old Universal Studios monsters posters (Frankenstein, The Mummy, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man, to name a few) throughout the movie, placing them carefully behind Chon and Ben. Even so, what does this mean? Perhaps Stone is making a comment on the progression of the movie monster. They used to be undead ghouls who snuck around gothic castles but now they are young entrepreneurs in floral shirts. To make it even clearer to us, when Ben and Chon are forced to get savage, they cover their faces in Dia de los Muertos masks to become visually monstrous. Our antagonists do the same, but they do it right off the bat in the opening sequence. Can you believe this is coming from the man responsible for that string of gems I listed earlier?
Stone populates Savages with a trio of young faces who no doubt bring the sex appeal but none of the grit that Stone is aiming for. Blake Lively provides the somnolent narration, sounding like she is stoned for half the movie. She further acts as a wrecking ball when she is required to do more than fake an explosive orgasm. The massive talented Taylor Kitsch, who really delivered a strong performance in Battleship, only brushes with that trembling rage every now and then which was a flat out bummer. Aaron Johnson, of Kick-Ass fame, plays a blurry-eyed hippie blessed with business smarts as well as a knack for botany. He loathes the very though of violence and empties his stomach when he is asked to shoot a taunting baddie promising to murder his entire family (What family?). We learn about the drastically different personalities of these young guns through O’s description of the way they make love. This explanation gives way to what could be the most outrageous line of dialogue I have heard from a motion picture in 2012. O tells us that she has “orgasms” while Chon has “wargasams”. I’ll wait while you finish laughing…
Luckily, the kids don’t hog the spotlight and Stone allows Hayek and Del Toro to have some fun at center stage. Hayek is a tour de force as the matriarch of the BC, putting on a quiet cool before she unleashes a stream of wrath that is part English, part Spanish, and all Hell. She is reeling from the death of her husband and nurses a broken heart for several murdered children she has had the misfortune of burying. Her remaining children want nothing to do with her and in her loneliness, she turns to O for some sort of comfort. Del Toro, meanwhile, single handedly steals the show away from everyone with his sociopathic enforcer Lado, who proudly wears a stunning mullet. You won’t be able to take your eyes of this guy and when he struts into the action, your stomach will drop one hundred feet. John Travolta also shows up in a minor role that doesn’t make him look like a complete fool for once. He has a blast as the slimy DEA agent Dennis, who is playing on all sides of this bloody game. When Stone keeps the focus on these professionals, Savages actually manages to be a great movie, but that is only glimpsed briefly.
Savages does have a precious few moments that will have you on the edge of your seat, but all that tension is squandered when Stone arrives at the fake-out conclusion that is absolutely unnecessary. It was almost like Stone stepped away from the project and allowed an imitator to swoop in and finish the job. Making matters worse, Lively is such an inconsistent actress that she makes moments of the film difficult to watch. A scene where she begs to speak with Elena had my buddies and I rolling our eyes in disgust over how unconvincing her pleas sound. The film also drags on for slightly over two hours, allowing this trio of star crossed lovers to chatter on and on about absolutely nothing. Lets get to that stuff that matters! Overall, I wish Savages had more on its mind, a huge kick to the gonads because Stone is sharper than this. We should be grateful that Hayek, Del Toro, and Travolta brought their A-game. They are three snarling Pit Bulls while these other kids are yapping Chihuahuas.