Happy Valentine’s Day!

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In honor of Valentine’s Day, this is my all-time favorite romantic scene from a film. From the Quentin Tarantino-scripted / Tony Scott-directed 1993 cult classic “True Romance,” I first saw this at a time when I was a lot like Christian Slater’s character Clarence. This movie gave me hope at a bleak time in my life. Eventually, I found my Alabama … ironically in Alabama … three years later. Thankfully, she was not a call girl, four-days on the job or otherwise. And yes, I’m envious of my friends in Norfolk, Virginia who are watching this on a big screen tonight at the Naro in Norfolk, Virginia.

“Harlem Shuffle” – The 5.6.7.8’s

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F–k yeah! Japan’s garage punk femme fatales make absolute mincemeat out of Bob & Earl’s classic R&B song from 1963. The Rolling Stones may have scored the highest chart placement with their version from 1986, but the 5.6.7.8’s eat the Stones for breakfast on this one.

Trivia note: you may recognize the 5.6.7.8’s as the all-female Japanese rock band performing near the end of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vol. 1” before Uma Thurman kills about 500 or so Yakuza members with her sword.

“Big Wednesday” (1978) dir. John Milius

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John Milius is a larger-than-life Hollywood legend. The character John Goodman played in “The Big Lebowski” was apparently based on Milius, which no one has yet to dispute.
Milius arrived in Hollywood at the same time that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg did and made a big impression early on. He wrote the original script for “Apocalypse Now,” wrote the classic Dirty Harry sequel “Magnum Force,” as well as directing “Conan the Barabarian”and “Uncommon Valor” (the first … and best … of the “let’s plan a mission and rescue American POWs in Vietnam” films).

Since Milius was a passionate surfer, “Big Wednesday” was supposed to be his “Star Wars.” “Big Wednesday” was a rich tale of how a group of friends, who happened to surf, aged from 1962 through 1974 and how the turbulent times impacted their lives. “Big Wednesday” is the finest Hollywood film ever made about surfing and according to people who know surf culture better than I do, insist it’s the most accurate. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but it’s quite good most of the time and I’ve always enjoyed it immensely over the years.

Growing up in a beach community, this movie had a HUGE impact on many of my friends when it turned up frequently on cable TV in the 1980s. It’s especially poignant seeing Jan Michael-Vincent and Gary Busey doing such stellar and athletic acting work, especially given how dark both actors’ lives would become in subsequent years.

Back in the day, many of filmmakers traded points in each others films as a sign of solidarity, meaning Milius got points in “Star Wars” and Lucas got points in “Big Wednesday.” Apparently, when “Big Wednesday” came out and was a box-office disappointment, Lucas demanded his points back that Milius had in “Star Wars.” Ah, well.

Quentin Tarantino, a huge fan of “Big Wednesday,” said: “This movie is too good for surfers.” Tarantino was allegedly bullied by surfers in his youth, but also understands a good movie better than anyone.

Robert Forster and Pam Grier in “Jackie Brown” (1997) scr/dir Quentin Tarantino

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“Jackie Brown” was quite a shock for Tarantino fans when it came out in 1997. It shared some of the characteristics of his prior films (rat-a-tat dialogue, dark humor), but was much more subdued. The violence wasn’t as grisly and the focus was more on the characters. Because it didn’t explode off the screen like “Pulp Fiction,” many people didn’t like it. However, I think it’s one of Tarantino’s best films.

The biggest strength was the interplay between Pam Grier’s Jackie Brown and Robert Forster’s Max Cherry characters. The way these two characters flirt and grow fond of each other is remarkable and it plays out quite nicely. Most films would have these characters make their flirtation more obvious or play up the comedy more. But Tarantino has these characters circle each other a bit. It’s obvious there’s an attraction, but Jackie and Max are middle-aged, have had some many ups and downs in their lives, and are thrown together by Jackie’s arrest and Max’s role in helping bail her out as her bail bondsman. They’re interested in each other, but are cautious … without either one tipping their hat too much in either direction. It’s too bad this scene cuts out so soon. Especially because this is the best use of the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind” I’ve seen in any idiom.

It’s one of the best portrayals of a relationship “of a certain age” ever put on film. Though … it doesn’t quite work out the way moviegoers would necessarily want. The book it was based on (Elmore Leonard’s “Rum Punch”) had Jackie and Max running off together. However, Tarantino’s denouement takes a different direction. The denouement may not be satisfying because we like the characters a lot … but probably more truthful given Jackie’s and Max’s life experience.

“Pulp Fiction” (1994) dir. /scr. Quentin Tarantino

In honor of this year’s Cannes Film Festival (taking place as we speak), here’s one of the best-known and most beloved of all the Palme D’Or winners, 1994’s “Pulp Fiction.” There’s not much more I can say about the “Star Wars” of the 1990s that hasn’t already been said. I had seen Quentin Tarantino’s first film “Reservoir Dogs” on its opening weekend at an upscale Arlington, VA art theater in the fall of 1992, after reading about it nearly a year before in the magazine “Film Threat.”  After seeing “Dogs,” I obnoxiously demanded that everyone I knew at the time see this film, carrying a VHS copy of the film to practically every gathering I went to for the next year and a half.  A year later, I saw the Tarantino-scripted “True Romance” twice on its opening weekend in 1993 and became an even more annoying (and mouth-breathing) Tarantino disciple.  Needless to say, by the fall of 1994, especially after it won the Palme D’Or at Cannes and had so many major critics vehemently raving about it (or condemning it), I could barely contain my excitement when “Pulp Fiction” finally made its US debut.  This time, I saw it at a Tuscaloosa, AL mall multiplex, which was a real sign that the underground planets had aligned and Tarantino’s blend of violence and comedy had become VERY chic by this point.

Mark Seal recently composed a very lengthy, but immensely entertaining article about the making of “Pulp Fiction” for Vanity Fair’s March 2013 Hollywood issue, which you can read at the link below:

http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2013/03/making-of-pulp-fiction-oral-history

Nearly 20 years later, “Pulp Fiction” still packs a wallop.

“Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession” (2004) dir. Alexandra Cassevetes

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Z Channel was a Los Angeles-based cable-TV movie channel that was active during the 1970s and 1980s. What made Z Channel different from HBO, Showtime, and other popular movie channels at the time was their eclectic programming and willingness to show films no one else was showing on television, cable or otherwise. The programmer, a man by the name of Jerry Harvey, was a hardcore cinephile and was diligent about tracking down the most obscure cinematic gems.  His intelligence, intensity, and diligence impressed (and sometimes annoyed) a lot of filmmakers, studio executives, and other creative types in Hollywood.

Z Channel was incredibly popular with the creative community in Hollywood.  Harvey was so well-respected, he was able to get the rights to show Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” during the 1977 Oscar season (while it was still in many theaters) which arguably led to its multiple Oscar nominations and wins.  He also championed Oliver Stone’s “Salvador,” which also led to its critical resurgence and subsequent Oscar nominations in 1986.  However, Harvey’s most important legacy was the promotion of the so-called “director’s cut” and “letterboxing,” which preserved the widescreen composition of films for viewing on non-widescreen TVs.  In 1983, he showed the original director’s cut version of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” a film many considered a notorious flop, but a film that Harvey felt was a great film undermined by studio tinkering and the director’s own insecurity after the original director’s cut was severely criticized.  This led to premiering Bernardo Bertolucci’s 5 1/2 hour European (and in America, X-rated) director’s cut of his classic “1900,” as well as the European cut of Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece “The Leopard.”

Despite the professional respect he won by many in the creative community, Harvey was a very, very troubled man.  He eventually shot and killed his second wife, before committing suicide in 1988.

“Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession” is a great documentary not only about Z Channel and the early days of cable TV, but of Harvey himself.  It was directed by John Cassevetes’ daughter Alexandra Cassevetes and contains interviews with Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman, Paul Verhoeven, Vilmos Zsigmond, Henry Jaglom, Jacqueline Bisset, Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmusch, Theresa Russell, James Woods, Penelope Spheeris and many, many other directors, screenwriters, and actors who testify about the importance and influence of Z Channel.

While a lot of it is sad, the documentary is an orgy for film buffs, with lots of great clips and interviews.  This is one of my desert island films.

“Django Unchained” (2012) dir. Quentin Tarantino

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It’s taken me several months to catch up with Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” but I finally watched it a couple of days ago. My quick response about this film is that I thought it was great, easily of Tarantino’s best films. There are some spoilers below, so if you haven’t seen it and/or don’t want to know what happens, you should probably stop reading. I just can’t talk about this film and my reaction to it without revealing things that happen.

I had a much different reaction to it than I normally would to the usual Tarantino film. With the exception of “Death Proof” (which I liked but didn’t love), Tarantino’s films usually leave me breathless and giddy by the end of them. I remember seeing “Inglourious Basterds” late one night in 2009 and not being able to get to sleep for at least three hours after because I was so wired. However, at the end of “Django Unchained,” I felt shattered and wrung out.

Like “Kill Bill” and “Inglourious Basterds,” “Django Unchained” is a brilliant revenge thriller that takes a while to set up, but the lengthy and compelling set-up explodes in the most astonishing of ways. Yet “Django Unchained” was a lot different and it took me a few days to fully comprehend why I felt the way I did.

Like most Tarantino films, there is a lot of dark humor and humorous violence in “Django Unchained.” But there’s also a lot of horrific violence (the scenes depicting the torture and murder of slaves) as well as much of the dialogue (discussing how subhuman the slaves are by the slaveowners) that’s hard to shake. Please note that this isn’t a criticism of the film. Slavery was an ugly, nasty period of American history and to his credit, Tarantino depicts this part of the story in a non-humorous, non-ironic way.

The movie that it most reminded me of was Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs.” “Straw Dogs” is a violent revenge film, but it doesn’t play out in the ways you expect or even want a revenge melodrama to take place. Yes, there is a violent revenge taken out against people deserving of it. But it’s done based on a misunderstanding and not for the reasons for why it should be carried out. Setting the story up this way is Peckinpah calling the audience out on their blood lust and making them pay dearly for it.

Yes, I was extremely happy when Jamie Foxx’s Django enacts revenge on a lot of evil people who deserve it. But the set up surrounding it was so terrible to watch, I felt drained and didn’t want to talk to anyone for a long time after it was over. I don’t know if this was Tarantino’s intent, but I would argue that it was. The scenes depicting the torture and murder of slaves are so upsetting, that watching Django enact his revenge doesn’t have the same lift it would have had these scenes not been shown.  The revenge violence is less entertaining than sad, even though you don’t feel sorry for the people being blown away.  The fact that this is THE most violent and bloody of all of Tarantino’s films overall may be part of a bigger, deeper point.

I believe Tarantino is trying to make the audience come to terms with its own savagery.  Because when you laugh ironically at someone’s violent death in a film, it requires a certain amount of dehumanization.  Dramatically, I’m not saying this is either good or bad.  Nor am I condemning anyone for loving Tarantino’s films.  I love Tarantino’s films immensely.  But to deny that dehumanization is taking place when you enjoy them, is looking at the films dishonestly.  And the juxtaposition the dehumanization of slaves by many of the characters in “Django Unchained” with the dehumanization an audience feels when they enjoy watching someone die onscreen in a graphic way is a painfully meta-textual way of proving a point … and to come to a complex emotional truth about the nature of violent art.

Or maybe not … History may prove me wrong, but I would be willing to bet that “Django Unchained” will be a transitional film in Tarantino’s oeuvre.  It will be interesting to see  what Tarantino does next and whether he continues viewing the subject of violence in an increasingly complex manner.  In any case, “Django Unchained” is an incredibly deep and heavy film in every sense of the word.

“The Last Boy Scout” (1991) dir. Tony Scott, scr. Shane Black

Arguably the best … and darkest … of the high-octane Joel Silver-produced action films from the period between 1982 and 1993 (and that includes “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon,” which Black also wrote), “The Last Boy Scout” is a film noir on steroids.  Yes, it has Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans.  Yes, it has lots of over-the-top violence and rat-a-tat dialogue.  But … Willis and Wayans play SEVERELY flawed characters.  Willis is a former celebrated Secret Service agent who lost his job, is drowning in booze and low self-esteem, and has a wife who throws her affair with his best friend in his face.  Wayans is a former professional football player whose promising career was ruined by drug problems.  As you can predict, both characters are thrown together by chance to solve the murder of Wayans’ stripper girlfriend (an early role by future-Oscar winner Halle Berry) and their efforts may lead to a shot at redemption … maybe.  Unlike nowadays, you don’t get the sense there’s been a complete redemption of either character, but you do get the sense that things will go better.

The best scene in the film is featured here.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t include the next minute of the scene which makes the previous two minutes even funnier, but what’s here is damn good:

As much as Quentin Tarantino is celebrated for his mix of humor and darkness, Shane Black is sometimes unfairly underrated for doing a similar thing.  Black is one of the most financially successful screenwriters of all time (“Boy Scout”‘s script set a then-record of a $1.75 million sale to a studio), but because Black didn’t start off in the art-film world, some people have condemned him as a hack.  To those who think this, you really should read Black’s original script, which is way darker than the resulting film:

http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Last-Boy-Scout,-The.html

Much of the original script made it into the final film, but the last third is WAY different, is much more violent and dark (including a snuff film subplot), and had the original script been shot as is, would have rated an NC-99.  If you’re a fan of Shane Black’s (or even Tarantino), it’s well worth reading.   And of course, the film Scott made after “The Last Boy Scout” was Tarantino’s “True Romance.”  But, that’s another story …

“American Boy: A Profile of Steve Prince” (1978) dir. Martin Scorsese

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During Martin Scorsese’s notorious “lost weekend” period when he had a serious cocaine problem, he still managed to produce a lot of interesting films. With the exception of the big-budget musical “New York, New York,” the documentary about the Band’s last concert, “The Last Waltz,” is probably the most famous and highly regarded. However, the least known (and arguably, best) film from this period is Scorsese’s documentary “American Boy: A Profile of Steve Prince.”

Prince is probably most famous as the scary gun salesman in “Taxi Driver,” but prior to that he was Neil Diamond’s road manager (among other jobs) and was a heroin addict. During one moment in the film, Prince relates a tale about reviving a woman who overdosed with a medical dictionary, a shot of adrenaline, and a magic marker that’s … um … very similar to a scene in the Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film “Pulp Fiction.”

The film is a fascinating look at the life of someone on the edge … a life that Scorsese obviously identified with considering his drug-intake and near-death at the time. Not only did Scorsese survive (and subsequently make many classic films), but so did Prince, who was the subject of a sequel in 2009 called “American Prince” directed by Tommy Pallotta.

“Gassenhauer” – Carl Orff

The theme music from Terrence Malick’s bone-chilling and mordantly funny 1973 crime thriller “Badlands.”  If you’re a fan of the 1993 Tony Scott / Quentin Tarantino collaboration “True Romance,” you may notice that Hans Zimmer’s theme music from that film pretty much copies note for note Orff’s music. Forget “Carmina Burana,” THIS should be Orff’s best-known piece.