Pulp Fiction (1994)
by Steve Habrat
Fresh off the success of the indie smash Reservoir Dogs and the vibrant script for True Romance, Quentin Tarantino returned to the big screen with a film that is widely considered the best film in his catalogue. To this day, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction remains a funky fresh blast of hilarious pop culture small talk and teeth-rattling violence. Reservoir Dogs certainly introduced the world to the Tarantino style of filmmaking but Pulp Fiction is the film that opened the copycat floodgates. Drawing inspiration from pulp magazines that dominated from the late 1800s until the 1950s, Pulp Fiction is certainly a film that is worthy of all the praise that is still handed to it. It holds up to multiple viewings, the jokes land every single time, it finds John Travolta giving one of the best performances of his career, it features dialogue that still makes my head spin with delight, and it still makes me jump when old Marvin gets his noggin blown to pieces. To this day, I still find myself rediscovering little moments that I have missed or forgotten about as the years pass. Yet what makes the film so great is the way that Tarantino irons out his characters, letting them really open up to the viewer and becoming almost like long lost friends. You genuinely feel like you are hanging out at Jack Rabbit Slims with these cats. And then there is the narrative, a jumbled collection of puzzle pieces that are reluctant to reveal themselves fully to us.
Pulp Fiction introduces us to a number of thugs, lowlifes, and small time crooks, who all collide at some point in the two and a half hours it is on the screen. We meet two hitmen, Vincent Vega (Played by John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Played by Samuel L. Jackson), who are sent by booming mob boss Marsellus Wallace (Played by Ving Rhames) to retrieve a mysterious briefcase from a trio of low-level crooks. These two hitmen meet an aging boxer named Butch Coolidge (Played by Bruce Willis), who has a price on his head after he refuses to throw a fight that Marsellus Wallace payed him to throw, a duo of jittery thieves who go by the named Pumpkin (Played by Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Played by Amanda Plummer), the junkie wife of Marsellus, Mia Wallace (Played by Uma Thurman), a hot shot problem solver named Winston Wolf (Played by Harvey Kietel), and three sadistic redneck freaks, Zed (Played by Peter Greene), Maynard (Played by Duane Whitaker), and the Gimp (Played by Stephen Hibbert), who enjoy kidnapping strangers and then sodomizing them. What plays out is a number of gruesome showdowns, hilarious exchanges, and plenty of drooling over a glowing briefcase.
While every single moment of Pulp Fiction is juicy, Tarantino spins a web of moments that are consistently in competition with one another. Ask anyone who has seen the film to name their favorite moment for you and I promise that everyone will answer differently. There is the dance number in Jack Rabbit Slims, where Thurman and Travolta boogie down to win a twist trophy (Travolta still has the moves). There is the adrenaline shot to the heart to revive the overdosing Thurman that will have you watching through cracked fingers. We also have the sequence where Willis and Rhames stumble upon a trio of sodomizing maniacs, only to fight back with a samurai sword. Or how about the scene where poor Marvin “accidentally” gets shot in the head as Jules and Vincent debate a miracle that just happened moments earlier? While connecting the plot points is a blast, it’s the thoughtful sequences connecting everything together that are ultimately more fun to talk about. Personally, my favorite moment is the sequence where Vince and Mia chow down at Jack Rabbit Slims, talking about awkward pauses on dates, debating how good a five dollar milkshake is, evaluating Buddy Holly on his skills as a waiter, and finally getting up to participate in the twist competition. And I just love Thurman as she draws that dotted line square. It’s a pop culture loaded scene that really springs to life. Plus, it comes with a Vanilla Coke!
As always, I have to discuss the performances, which are the heart and soul of Pulp Fiction. Everyone just loves Jackson’s Bible quoting hitman Jules, a real spitfire with a jheri curl. His exchanges with Travolta’s drawling Vincent Vega will have you chuckling through the first half hour or so of the film. Travolta, meanwhile, hasn’t felt this alive in a role since Grease. In a way, you almost feel like Travolta was born to play the role of Vince and I must say that he really disappears into the character, a rarity for Mr. Travolta. And then there is Rhames as Marsellus Wallace, the furious mob boss who will be your friend one minute and your worst enemy the next. Willis is the underdog here as the scrappy boxer who will stop at nothing to get his father’s prized watch back even if it means risking his life. The sequence where he comes up against the three sodomizing devils will really leave a mark. Thurman shows up only a half hour but she becomes the face of Pulp Fiction. She is crazy, sexy, cool as she calls Vince “Daddy-O” and shouts “I say goddamn. Goddamn!” while powdering her nose. Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer are hysterical as two thieves who think they’re tough but quickly realize they are nothing when put up against Jules and Vincent. Harvey Keitel and Quentin Tarantino round out the cast later in the film as two problem solvers trying to help out our two lovable and blood drenched hitmen. Christopher Walken also gets a very fine cameo but the less you know about him, the funnier it is.
As Pulp Fiction coasts along on the surf guitars that rumble over the soundtrack, you begin to realize that the film is all about conversations. Sure, all of these conversations are basically references to other crime flicks and forgotten exploitation cinema but they all just seem so effortless. It is dialogue that just rolls off the tongue and will have you and your buddies quoting it for days. I suppose that you could describe the overall big picture here as effortless and suave. It never seems to be trying too hard and yet it is maddeningly cool. No character seems like they are just taking up space and there is no one scene that feels like it is dragging on too long. The first time I saw the film, I was a bit thrown off with Butch’s sequence in the middle of the film but this stretch has really grown on me after seeing the film as many times as I have over the years. I also love the way Tarantino really allows the soundtrack to shine. You can just visualize Tarantino at a jukebox sorting through these surf rock ditties and tapping his toes along to the beat. Overall, you’ll be grinning from ear to ear as Pulp Fiction rounds the home stretch and reveals how all of these characters are connected. You’ll glow as Tarantino skips through sleaze land and pays tribute to all of his interests in some way, shape, or form. Believe me when I say you will fall in love with Pulp Fiction, a hyperactive and playful masterpiece that still manages to be one step ahead of all the copycats. Oh, and feel free to leave your thoughts about what is in that mysterious suitcase.
Pulp Fiction is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
I really don’t know why I didn’t go see Alexandre Aja’s 3D remake of Joe Dante’s Piranha back in the summer of 2010 but I do kick myself now for never taking the time to go check it out. What a hearty dose of gruesome fun in the sun this Piranha out to be! Aja, who is responsible for the wickedly clever 2003 French horror film High Tension and the hair-raising 2006 redo of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, doesn’t shy away from giving us exactly what we would want to see in a film called Piranha. Yes, we see one of the hungry terrors actually burp out a penis, a girl get her blonde locks tangled in a boat engine propeller, and tons more assorted carnage for any horror fan to go bonkers over. Piranha also happens to be a mighty fine tribute to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws, even giving us one hell of a cameo from Richard Dreyfuss, donning the same wardrobe that he did while battling that iconic great white shark. While Joe Dante’s original film was basically Roger Corman’s quick cash in on the popularity of Jaws, Piranha fully gets that and it plays with it quite a bit. It also seems like Aja has it out for obnoxious spring break college kids who say “bro” too much, enjoy showing off their tribal tattoos, and hate anyone wearing a Pixies t-shirt. Oh boy, does Aja get them good.
Piranha begins with fisherman Matt Boyd (Played by Dreyfuss) fishing and enjoying a couple cold brews out in the middle of Lake Victoria, Arizona, one sunny afternoon. After accidentally causing a small earthquake that cracks the lake floor, Boyd’s boat is pulled into a whirlpool that unleashes thousands of hungry piranhas that proceed to rip him to shreds. Meanwhile, Lake Victoria is crawling with scantily clad tourists who are ready for spring break shenanigans. Among them is local seventeen-year-old Jake Forester (Played by Steven R. McQueen), who is eager to join the party. Jake’s mother, Sheriff Julie Forester (Played by Elizabeth Shue), is consumed with keeping an eye on the drunken college kids and has barely any time for him or his two younger siblings. Jake ends up meeting porn filmmaker Derrick Jones (Played by Jerry O’Connell), who offers him some money to take him around to local hot spots so he can shoot some steamy footage. Jake agrees and takes off on a boat trip around Lake Victoria, bringing his crush Kelly (Played by Jessica Szohr) with him for the ride. As word gets to Julie about the disappearance of Matt Boyd, she teams up with her tough-as-nails Deputy, Fallon (Played by Ving Rhames), to find him. Soon, more bodies pile up and Julie is forced to investigate what is causing these deaths or close the lake. She ends up taking a group of seismologist divers to the crack in the lake floor where they make a terrifying discovery.
Once Piranha gets moving, the film really bares its teeth and chews you up, right down to the bone. Things get NASTY. The death scenes here are seriously grizzly with a heavy sprinkling of camp. The final half of the film is a never-ending bloodbath that features one memorable death scene after another. Drunken college kids are chewed in half by the scurrying school of death lurking just below their inner tubes. One naked girl after another is chewed up to the point where they are floating skeletons while one gets the top half of her chest chopped off. You can’t help but laugh when splat pack director Eli Roth shows up as the judge of a wet t-shirt judge who meets his maker by getting a speed boat to the face, spraying his gooey brains all over the tanned mug of a horrified hottie who is looking to show off her double D’s to thousands of chanting beefcakes. It practically leaves you exhausted even at its brief eighty-nine minute runtime. If you have ever found yourself annoyed to no extent by abrasive sex-starved teenage idiots, this is the movie for you. Aja apparently can’t stand them either and he makes you know it.
While it lures you in with its excesses, Piranha has a surprisingly clever cast keeping this pleasure cruise on course. I just couldn’t stop laughing over the sweet cameo by Richard Dreyfuss, who seems to be having a grand old time at this B-movie soirée. Shue and Rhames as the heroes here are exactly what you would expect. They don’t really blow your mind but I never expected them to. Rhames does get a nifty sequences where he rips the engine off a dingy and uses it to hack up a school of charging piranha. McQueen and Szohr get the typical teen roles of looking good for the camera while Jerry O’Connell dances around them in a cocaine fury. O’Connell’s Derrick is just as unpleasant as he should be and you will be counting the seconds until he comes to face to fangs with the chomping menace. Also on board is Parks and Recreation cast member Adam Scott as the hilarious Novak, the head of the team of seismologist divers. Scott happens to be a welcome presence in anything he is in and he adds some more welcome humor to an already hysterical experience. The other awesome cameo is Christopher Lloyd (Yes, THAT Christopher Lloyd) as a pet shop owner who identifies the piranha as an extremely violent species that went extinct two million years ago.
Using almost the same plotline as Jaws, Piranha 2010 is more of a loving tribute than sloppy rip-off. It affectionately winks at the Spielberg classic, which I think is why I liked it as much as I did. Judging by some of the shots found here, I can assume that this had some truly awesome 3D to hold the audience’s attention and would have been fun in a big theater. The guys get an extended sequence of two nude women swimming around like dancing mermaids while the girls will scream over a piranha belching out a chewed up penis right at them. In addition to those two moments, the engine wielded by Rhames looked like it would have been pretty neat in 3D as does the darting school of piranha, who leap at the screen like aquatic demons. The film luckily doesn’t go on for very long, making it even more likable than it already is. Aja doesn’t hesitate to show the audience that he is capable of really creating a suspenseful mood and really freaking us out. He really is a talented guy who should be given more horror projects. Piranha may not make you a better person and it may not challenge you intellectually, but you just won’t be able to resist its B-movie allure, even if that allure is dripping with blood, guts, and tons of nudity.
Piranha is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Day of the Dead (2008)
by Steve Habrat
George Romero has publicly complained about Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of his 1978 zombie epic Dawn of the Dead, griping that the filmmakers never really asked for his permission. I wonder if he has seen Steve Miner’s 2008 remake of Day of the Dead, which knocks off Snyder’s Dawn almost every chance it gets while featuring an embarrassing script and zero traces of social commentary, which is what Romero is known for. As brain dead as one of its roaring zombies, Day of the Dead makes a few nods to the original 1985 Romero film, mostly in the character’s names, but the one positive is that it doesn’t attempt to regurgitate the original’s plot frame by frame. Miner basically makes the film look like a heavy metal music video with sets that look like leftovers from the first Resident Evil, flashy cut scenes, shaky camera work, and an all too brief run time. Making matters worse, Miner fills the film with a handful of crappy C-list actors who can’t find work in A-list films and he almost successfully turns the career of Ving Rhames into a rotten joke.
When a strange flu-like virus hits a small Colorado town, the army rushes in to quarantine those who are sick. The quarantine is lead by Captain Rhodes (Played by Ving Rhames, who showed up in Snyder’s Dawn remake), Corporal Sarah Bowman (Played by Mena Suvari), Private Bud Crain (Played by Stark Sands), and Private Salazar (Played by Nick Cannon). Soon, the infection begins taking a drastic turn as those who are infected begin seizing up and bloody wounds start showing up on their faces. After the strange frozen state, the infected begin waking up and turning into acrobatic zombies who can crawl on ceilings, walls, and sprint around like marathon runners. Soon, Rhodes, Sarah, Bud, and Salazar have to locate Sarah’s brother Trevor (Played by Michael Welch) and his girlfriend Nina (Played by AnnaLynne McCord), and uncover what is causing the citizens to turn into flesh hungry cannibals.
Day of the Dead has so many poorly conceived moments; you have to wonder if anyone was paying attention while making it. Screenwriter Jeffery Reddick borrows the aspect that the zombies are much more aware from Romero’s original, but the film applies it in the worst ways imaginable. The zombies posses the ability to leap around at blinding speed, crawl up walls, and leap from floor to ceiling in the blink of an eye. Yet in one scene, Trevor and Nina are fleeing an overrun hospital and find themselves pursued by a hoard of zombies. Trevor and Nina begin pushing wheelchairs, gurneys, and various medical equipment into the middle of the hall to stall their attackers and the zombies keep tripping and falling over it. You would think that zombies that are capable of crawling around like Spider-Man could figure out a way around some debris pushed into their way. Apparently, no one stopped to ponder this flub. Many other questions arise, like why the zombies skin begins to instantly rot away, why the zombies are super zombies, and why are those so aware? Furthermore, why are only some super zombies and others are not?
Day of the Dead also makes the blunder of shedding light on what caused the zombie outbreak and not leaving it a mystery. Part of the fun of the Romero originals is the not knowing where the virus came from. Day of the Dead concludes with some half-assed explanations that are more preposterous than practical. As was pointed out recently by film critic Jason Zinoman in his book Shock Value, the scariest movies lack a clear explanation of the horror that is occurring. Since Reddick and Miner are doing a remake of a Romero film, you would have thought one or the other would have said, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t add the explanation!” At times, the characters discuss an airborne virus and that some people have a natural immunity to it. I suspect that Miner and Reddick watched Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror a few times before they began making this film, as there are more than a handful of striking similarities.
If the film itself isn’t bad enough, Miner’s cast makes things even more excruciating. The lowest point of the film is the inclusion of Nick Cannon, who tries to play a tough guy bully but is the furthest thing from any of those things. He walks around dual wielding 9mms and erupting with rancid one-liners that leave you hoping that his character bites the dust early on. Spoiler Alert: he doesn’t. Suvari’s Sarah is one note and dry, putting no distinctive spin on the tough-as-nails heroine commando. Michael Welch and AnnaLynne McCord as Trevor and Nina are just stereotypical hornball teenagers, Nina only included to add some sex appeal to the film. They are also apparently very skilled at using automatic weapons, something the town’s gun shop is heavily stocked with. There is also the addition of radio D.J. Paul (Played by Ian McNeice), who is an overweight stoner with no purpose in the film whatsoever. Only Rhames and Sands, as Captain Rhodes and Bud, are the high points, giving minor depth to their pale outlines of characters. As hard as they try, they couldn’t save this shitshow.
While watching Day of the Dead 2008, it’s clear as, well, day why the film was straight to DVD. At a skimpy eighty some minutes, the film is simultaneously too long and too short. The film can’t muster up any anticipation or tension. Things just start happening and you just won’t care at all. It fails to produce any scares and Miner can’t even seem to get the jump scare moments right. The effects reek of a limited budget and the make-up on the ghouls doesn’t even compare to what Tom Savini did in 1985. So determined to ride the wave of the zombie craze that was stirred up by 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead ’04, and Shaun of the Dead, Day of the Dead is the lame poser of the group not to mention poorly timed with its release. For someone who is a diehard fan of this stuff like myself, heed my advice and just watch the Romero original instead of exposing yourself to this garbage. Day of the Dead ’08 should have only seen the light of day as it was being discarded into the garbage dump.
Day of the Dead 2008 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
by Steve Habrat
By now you probably understand that I believe George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead is a towering achievement in independent and blockbuster filmmaking. It’s so sprawling and was achieved with very little. When the recent fixation with horror remakes started to show their ugly mugs, I crossed my fingers that Dawn of the Dead wouldn’t be touched. I had seen what Tom Savini did to Romero’s first outing with the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead. Inevitably, the news came that Dawn of the Dead would be getting a makeover, and it came as a personal blow. How can they do this to a classic? It’s like remaking The Exorcist? Any real fan of Romero would oppose this blasphemous decision! I sulked to the theater after school on a cool spring day to be a witness to this travesty, eager to see what new they’ve done with the classic and nervous about what they got wrong. I heard that the original cast members make small appearances, it was more action packed, and not as bright as the brainy original. The lights went down in the surprisingly packed theater, the opening moments flashed across the screen, a CGI model of the original film’s helicopter glided through a war zone, sprinting zombies dashed around like marathon runners, and then came the stock footage heavy opening credits set the apocalyptic moans of Johnny Cash. I couldn’t believe my eyes. They were getting it right and giving it it’s own hellish life.
I have to applaud director Zack Snyder, who seems to be a big fanboy at heart, for respecting the original film. He had the decency to make a film with some thought and originality rather than lazily making a shot for shot duplication of a film that was already good enough. Some people like shot for shot remakes, but in terms of a horror film, if you’ve seen the original and then you see the shot-for-shot remake, there is absolutely nothing in the way of surprise. There is plenty to be surprised about in 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, a thrashing and teeth gnashing zombie film that is both undeniably freaky and coated with a thin layer of black humor. One moment you’ll be giggling over a sniper sequence, in which characters pick which zombies to shoot from the roof of the mall based on their resemblance to celebrities and the next moment, your knuckles will be white for a thrilling rescue mission that turns into a chaotic escape through a sea of zombies. The film should be described as a roller coaster ride, but the misstep of the film is the blatant lack of a social commentary. The consumerism exploration is only touched upon, seemingly to satisfy those who enjoyed the underlying message of the original, but then it’s back to entertaining the screaming tweens in the front row who snuck into it.
Dawn of the Dead ’04 begins with what could very well be the best opening sequence in any motion picture in the last ten years. Nurse Ana (Played by Sarah Polley) arrives home after a long day in the ER, where an unusually large number of people are being admitted for strange illnesses and bites. The next morning, the little neighbor girl awakes Ana and her husband while lurking in their bedroom. After her husband takes a nasty bite to the neck and is turned into a shrieking ghoul (the zombies are very similar to the infected in 28 Days Later), she flees her collapsing neighborhood and hits the raucous streets to find safety. She ends up bumping into a bad ass, shotgun wielding cop Kenneth (Played by Ving Rhames), a television salesman Michael (Played by Jake Weber), and a terrified couple Andre and Luda (Played by Mekhi Phifer and Inna Korobkina). They decide the safest place to take refuge is the local mall, where they stumble upon a group of trigger happy security guards led by the domineering CJ (Played by Michael Kelly). The group begins to coexist and soon another truckload of desperate survivors comes banging on the delivery doors to be let in. They are lead by valiant Tucker (Played by Boyd Banks) and cowardly Steve (Played by Modern Family‘s Ty Burell). The group fortifies the mall so the rotting stenches can’t force their way in, but as the group begins to crumble apart, they must make a daring escape through the zombie army just outside the doors.
Dawn of the Dead ’04 revolves around more characters than the original 1978 film did. Rather than the measly four main protagonists, we have a large group, ranging from the usual good guys to the royal pains in the ass that any group like this would be made up of. This is a smart move on Snyder’s part, but it also hinders the viewer in their attempt to allow themselves to grow attached to any specific character. It’s the quality that really drove the original film. I cared about the original characters and when one bit the dust, we mourned them as if they were real and not a part of the cinematic realm. There are likable characters to be found in this jazzed up remake, mostly Ana, Kenneth, and Michael. The reluctant CJ finally comes around in the final stretch of the film and proves himself a hero. Getting the character set up correct is an integral part for a re-envisioning of Dawn of the Dead, and this one comes up half right.
What little remains from the original is the bright colors that are used in the film, running with the claim that Romero made way back when about it being his comic book film. Here Snyder uses Dawn of the Dead to announce his chiaroscuro approach to his work. It’s always really brightly lit or shrouded in darkness. It makes the film into a funhouse, which I admired, but sometimes felt like Snyder sees the original film as pure pulp filmmaking. It’s a trait that bothers me even to this day, and I’m sure that Romero was not pleased about it either. Romero has expressed some strong feelings about the film, mainly that they never even consulted with him or asked his permission to remake it. Sure, Romero intended to make something fun, but he also used the film to say something about our society. Well, at least they kept the ending gloomy.
I like Zack Snyder’s vision here and I the entertainment value on Dawn of the Dead ’04 is out of this world. One Christmas Eve on year, my cousins and I sat around sipping beers and wallowing in the aggressive temperament of this film. It does pack a few creep out moments and the mandatory jump scare, which every horror film feels the need to apply. It is stylishly made, designed to make all who watch it will walk away deeming it “cool”. And that is precisely how to evaluate Snyder’s body of work. He does things because he thinks its “cool” and everyone will like it. This is, however, Snyder’s strongest film he’s made. Despite its flaws, it’s original and just like one of Romero’s zombies, has an immensely likable personality. If for no other reason, it wins for its opening sequence and end credits. In this case, cool is king and surprisingly scary. Grade: A-