True Romance (1993)
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.
Ed Wood (1994)
by Steve Habrat
Next to Edward Scissorhands, the other must-see collaboration between gothic auteur Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp is their 1994 film Ed Wood, which follows the career of Edward D. Wood, Jr., the man considered the worst filmmaker of all time. Pushing aside much of his gloomy gothic aesthetic (at times, Burton just can’t resist), Burton makes a comical film shot in black and white to resemble the B-movie sleaze of the 1950’s. A man who sometimes sacrifices story for an image, Burton’s Ed Wood spryly hops along with an always-charming story and equally striking images. Much like Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood is about a misunderstood artist who also happens to be an eccentric misfit who enjoys cross-dressing and paling around with a ragtag film family who sticks by through all of Ed’s ups and downs. Yet just like the character of Edward Scissorhands, Ed also works his way onto our charm list and ends up carving out his own little place in our heart.
Ed Wood introduces us to failing theater director Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Played by Johnny Depp), who is waiting for the press to show up to his World War II play The Casual Company. After receiving a scathing review with only one compliment, Wood complains that his hero Orson Welles was twenty-six when he made Citizen Kane and he is nearing thirty and has nothing he can be proud of. After a number of attempts to snag a project that he can direct, he snags a job directing a bio-pic about sex-change personality Christine Jorgensen. Wood wrestles with the head of the small studio that is producing the film and out of their negations, Wood ends up making his first film Glen or Glenda, which costars his current girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Played by Sarah Jessica Parker) and addresses the subject of crossing dressing, which Wood himself often partakes in. Around this time, Wood also meets washed up horror movie star Bela Lugosi (Played by Martin Landau) who quickly becomes a close friend of Ed’s. After Wood discovers that Lugosi is broke and suffering from a crippling drug addiction, Wood sets out to find projects for Lugosi and to aid him in kicking his habit. Wood ends up directing many of these projects, which are met with negative reviews and angry crowds. As Wood’s career hits more lows than highs, the people around him are faced with sticking by him or moving on.
It won’t be hard for you to sympathize with Depp’s Wood, who is always laughed at by people who don’t understand him or watching his vision get crushed on right in front of him. Despite his optimistic surface (he finds the one compliment in a scathing review and clings to it), down below there is doubt and self-consciousness. He is constantly and painfully forced to reveal that he enjoys cross-dressing even though it is hard for him to discuss out loud. He hides this from Dolores who obviously fakes her understanding and acceptance of this. A scene during a wrap party in which Wood gets all dressed up in lingerie and dances for the crew shows Wood at one of his happiest moments until Dolores erupts in disgust over the spectacle. The scenes in which the studio heads and producers laugh at his films are the ones that will really leave a welt on your emotions. The film shows us the growth within Wood, the growth that gives him the confidence to battle for his vision and to make the art that he wants to make. Granted, it may not be the best product but his genuine enthusiasm over his work is what really allows us to root for him.
The other misfit of Ed Wood is Landau’s Bela Lugosi, who is all but forgotten by the Hollywood system, most people under the impression that he died. Broke and hiding a nasty drug habit, Lugosi still clings to his glory days when he was a major star in Universal horror pictures. The relationship that Lugosi forms with Wood is touching, neither one really bothered by the other’s lifestyle. When Lugosi’s drug habit really begins to plague him, Wood stands by with heavy eyes and loyally plants by his idol’s side. Landau, who snagged an Oscar for his role as Lugosi, is a ball of emotions himself. At times, he can be wickedly funny, especially in scenes where he discusses the curvy Vampira (Played by Lisa Marie), who joins Wood’s crew later in his career. Then there are moments where he is just a tragic as Wood, collapsing into a heap in a chair on the verge of tears over his unemployment getting cut off. It also pierces the heart when he discusses his disgust over Boris Karloff. Ed Wood really hits its stride whenever Landau steps into frame and interacts with Wood.
The rest of the supporting players in Ed Wood are also an absolute joy. Bill Murray shows up as Wood’s friend and actor Bunny Breckinridge, who is consistently bragging about a sex change he is supposedly getting. To be honest, there just wasn’t enough of Murray for me in the film. The few scenes that we get to see Bunny are absolutely hysterical. Jeffrey Jones shows up as the “psychic” Criswell, another character that we don’t get enough of. Jones gets to introduce the film in the same way that the real Criswell introduced Wood’s film Night of the Ghouls. Patricia Arquette shows up as Wood’s future wife Kathy O’Hara, who faithfully stands by Wood despite constant failure. Lisa Marie is a perfect ten as the curvy horror personality Vampira, who Wood constantly chases and ends up casting her in Plan 9 From Outer Space. There is also a neat cameo by Vincent D’Onofrio who uncannily portrays Orson Welles in one of the strongest sequences of the entire film.
Ed Wood is one of Tim Burton’s coolest films both visually and musically. The film is shot to resemble a 50’s B-movie, which constantly slaps a smile on your face. The film throws in multiple nods to Wood’s body of work and tips its hat to B-movies and Lugosi’s Dracula through the beautiful and quirky score by Howard Shore. Ed Wood turns out to be an affectionate and hilarious story about one man’s love for cinema and his affection for his film family. It’s about sticking together through the best and worst of times and how this camaraderie can affect a person for the better. Ed Wood is still a film that woven with tragedy throughout and these tragic reveals are expertly and unexpectedly delivered, blindsiding us when we least expect it. The film hits a few minor bumps near the end, especially when one character departs the film, but Ed Wood is the Burton film that stuck with me the longest out of all of his offerings. It’s a shame that Ed Wood seems to be the Burton film that flies under the radar. Much like Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood is a real treasure of a film, one that wins on multiple levels.
Ed Wood is available on DVD.