The more I think about Quentin Tarantino, the more conflicted I feel. He’s perhaps one of only two directors in the history of cinema (Hitchcock being the other) to have made himself into a genre and he’s also responsible for some of the purest blasts of cinema seen over the past few decades. On the other hand, I seem to like his films less than most, a lot of them being just ok. I also have a strange propensity to like his sillier works such as Death Proof (2007) and Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003) more than the more serious efforts that have garnered the director major acclaim.
That is all a longwinded background to where I was coming from when I sat down to watch Reservoir Dogs (1992) for the first time recently. This is the film that blasted Tarantino into stardom and it is a pretty perfect summation of where his career would go. On one front it is a little disappointing. All of his flaws (except for maybe the recently acquired tendency for his films to be vastly too long) are on display here, though it must be said, also are many elements of his filmmaking genius. This film is incredibly talky, with characters talking over each other about, well bullshit a lot of the time. The rapturous reception, to what is an admittedly pretty original conceit of having characters engage in lengthy side-conversations about movies and music, may have done Tarantino’s work a disservice in the long run. Almost in contrast to my feelings about Tarantino’s filmography broadly speaking, here he is best when being serious. The film is much better when painting something like Tim Roth’s desperation to live rather than the riffing on pop culture bulllshit. It’s all about story. If he is dicking about with the script, but it’s in service of the story, then I am in. But otherwise it is just tiresome. On a plot level, this is a mixed bag. Here we see Tarantino’s flair for mixing up narrative structures in a way that increases both the enjoyment and intrigue you will take out of it. But after you tease out what is going on, it is a pretty thin tale, with a twist that really falls flat.
In case you hadn’t noticed, Quentin Tarantino has a stratospheric ego. Here, in one of his interminable cameos (Hitchcock shows us how director cameos should be done – requiring no skill, playful and SHORT), Tarantino gives himself all the most attention seeking, motor mouthed lines in a display that shows off his woeful acting chops. It is interesting to see how actors deal with the script that really does have a lot of rubbish in it. Some flounder, whilst others are able to excel despite the weaknesses on display. Most notably among the latter in Reservoir Dogs is Harvey Keitel, and to a lesser extend Michael Madsen. Somehow those two cut through the weakness of the writing and deliver performances that actually service the plot. They make you believe the dialogue, rathe than feeling you should be sitting back and admiring it for its cleverness.
Verdict: Weirdly, I really don’t have all that much to say about this film. It didn’t move me any more than the fact it is a moderately interesting crime flick. An alright film and notable for being the start of a great career, but no more. Stubby of Reschs
Here we go with my monthly round-up of films not featured in depth elsewhere on the blog. This feature will change and become smaller over the coming months as I am starting to write long reviews of more and more films that I see. However, I am sure I will never have the time nor desire to write in detail about every film I see, so expect it to stick around in some form.
- The Raid: Redemption (2011), Gareth Evans – This is definitely one of the better action films of recent years. Deliciously violent and stylish. I wouldn’t say it is particularly innovative, but it just executes all of the elements in an action film really bloody well. The fight scenes are really slickly shot, with a dynamic camera showing absolutely everything. One of the coolest films of 2012.
- Wreck it Ralph (2012), Rich Moore – This was probably the best animated film of last year. A really fun computer game world has been invented, with the engaging characters to back it up. Sarah Silverman voices the main female character who is a wonderfully empowered female role model, the kind of which is all too rare. The relationship between her and Ralph forms the core of the film, which explores some really weighty themes whilst striking a balance between not being too dark and not too frivolous.
- Black Water (2007), Andrew Traucki & David Nerlich – This is a very tense, sharp Australian creature feature rocking a killer crocodile. It is nicely shot and well paced. A cleverly utilised soundtrack helps with the latter. You don’t get too bored in between the action high points. An interesting dynamic between the three characters stuck up a tree adds greatly to the narrative which is slight. Some of what happens is quite confronting whilst the last third features some nice twists, without being too over the top about it all.
- Life of Pi (2012), Ang Lee – An interesting film full of ideas. Which in some ways the much maligned framing device is key to teasing out. I liked the notion of religious pluralism that is examined early on. The supporting of the notion of human exceptionalism in my reading of the film I was not so fond of though. The big late reveal I did not like initially but it grew on me as time passed. It is a clever film that leaves multiple readings of the film acceptable to the viewer such as this one. And of course as everyone has said, the film does look amazing.
- Les Miserables (2012), Tom Hooper – I thought my mind would wander endlessly in a 2 hour 40 minute musical. But this film engaged and captivated me throughout. I think everyone is really good in this, even the much trashed upon Russel Crowe. I think the only real weak link was Eddy Redmayne who doesn’t have any gravitas or singing voice. The young floppy haired bloke is absolutely incredible though. Blessed with one of the best character narrative arcs in all of literature, this is pretty impressive stuff. The close-up heavy style does occasionally make it look too much like the characters are singing into the mirror at home. But that is a minor quibble against a pretty excellent flick.
- Django Unchained (2012), Quentin Tarantino – Hmmm. You have to see it because it is the new Tarantino flick and he really is one of our most original directors. But I think that his habit of taking the viewer out of the world of the film does not work too well here. It’s violent of course, but it feels like violence for violence’s sake rather than Tarantino’s usually stylish bloodletting. I just felt it got silly towards the end. Both Dicaprio’s and Samuel L. Jackson’s characters are pretty daft. But the performances of Waltz, Washington and especially Foxx are worth seeing the film for. As is much of the rather fine first half. The film is far, far too long though.
- Hitchcock – I loved so much of the first half of this film – Hitch’s search for a new project, settling on Psycho, the way the real life case was weaved in. But this last aspect, as well as the rest of the film fell off strongly. Alma and Hitch made films for over 50 years, one of the great love stories. But the second half of this is just aspersion after aspersion especially against Hitch. It is great to see Alma Reville finally get a small amount of the vast attention her career deserves. Hopkins and Mirren are really fantastic in this.
Not Worth Watching:
- 50/50 (2011), Jonathan Levine – This is one where I cannot really see the hype. I thought it was pretty poor. I didn’t find it at all funny, rather crass, sexist and unintelligent. Even worse for the subject matter, I thought there was very little heart in the film or examination of psyche. Whilst it is great to see Anjelica Huston onscreen again, the usually excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt is strangely flat here. There are a couple of nice, tender moments toward the end, but for me it was too little too late. A shallow experience, a tale of two jerks rather than two best mates helping each other through a terrible time.
- Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), Rupert Sanders – This aims for pretty epic and succeeds in being pretty average. The increasingly engaging and charismatic Chris Hemsworth is just about the only bright spot actually and his Huntsman is the most interesting character. This is a meditation on beauty, what it means in society and what some will do to maintain it. But it is an utterly unaffecting film. The usually excellent Theron is not at her best here in a scenery chewing turn whilst Kristen Stewart does not convince at all as Snow White.
- The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), Peter Jackson – My least favourite film of 2012. Kind of says it all really. If 48 FPS is the future of cinema as Peter Jackson claims, I’m not going to watch too many films in the future. The visuals distance the audience so much so that there is no way into this world for the audience. The script is woeful, especially the attempted lighter moments. Horrid expository dialogue, woeful effects. Someone needs to learn to say no to Jackson, because despite all his positives as a director, his excesses need reining in.
If you only have time to watch one The Raid: Redemption
Avoid at all costs The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
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The Western is probably the most enduring and most popular genre in film history. Westerns have literally been made since the very birth of cinema and are still being made and reinterpreted today. So here are three different very different answers to the question, what is your favourite Western.
Tim from Not Now, I’m Drinking a Beer and Watching a Movie writes:
The John Wayne starring Stagecoach (1939), directed by the great John Ford, is my favourite of all classic Westerns. It many ways it is an archetypical example of the genre. All of the iconography is present – the semi-desert landscape of Monument Valley, Native Americans, coaches, horses, big hats, guns, sheriffs, gambling, damsels in distress – not to mention the presence of the most iconic Western star in history. But this is B movie iconography elevated to an A level standard.
There are a number of aspects that make this film stand out. Firstly the script. A lot of time clearly went into the screenplay and it shows. This allows the simple story of nine very different people on a fraught coach ride to end up being a whole lot more. Characters which are initially simplistic ciphers, gain depth as the film progresses and believable, complicated relationships are built between them. Ford also throws in some social commentary to boot as part of the main thematic concerns of the film. At the beginning of the film two characters, a prostitute and a drunkard doctor, are run out of town by the puritanical powers that be. Wayne’s character The Ringo Kid though cuts through all of this judgemental bluster accepting them all, especially Clair Trevor’s Dallas on their own terms as fellow travellers. There are also some potshots at big business and it appears that greedy criminal bankers were as big an issue in the late 30s as they are today.
The final standout feature of the film is the fine performance of John Wayne in his breakout role as a big Western star. His raw physical stature is backed up by some serious acting chops. His introductory shot as he waves down the coach, rifle in hand is a fantastic one and from there on in he is really at the core of the whole film. Toward the end of the film is an incredible large scale action set piece as the coach is chased down at full pace by the dreaded Apaches. It is an incredibly shot, actually quite lengthy sequence. It also features one of the most famous stunts ever committed to film. Stuntman Yakima Canutt, playing one of the of course nameless Apaches, falls down in between six horses and between the wheels of the coach rocketing along at full pace. It is quite stunning and more than a little death-defying too.
This is a cracker of a film, unfortunately somewhat hard to come by these days, but if you are a Western fan make the effort to track it down (although it is on Criterion Collection so if you are a major Western fan you can fork out for that). Here’s the fantastic theatrical trailer to whet your appetite in any case.
Tim Hoar is the creator and writer of this here blog you are reading. If you like it, then be sure to like it on Facebook here.
James from Film Blerg writes:
So maybe this is an odd choice, but I’m certainly not the first person to claim that Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995) is in fact a Western. Saige Walton first planted the seed in my head in a Censorship class at Melbourne University, the arguments of which can be found here. Walton surmises the Western genre and narrative conventions very succinctly: “Nomi travels from east to west, to the frontier city of sin; she mediates conflict, has her showdown with the bad guys and leaves town with order restored… wearing a cowboy hat.”
Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) arrives in the city of sin with a knife in one hand and steely determination in the other. Quickly landing a job in a mediocre stripclub, Nomi cunningly makes her way to the Stardust Casino, eventually understudying for Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) after pushing her down the stairs, success rushes to Nomi’s door. The film takes a dramatic turn when Nomi’s close friend Molly is brutally beaten and raped after meeting a rock star idol. Not one for taking crap from anybody, Nomi puts on her bad ass boots and kicks the shit of the rock star abuser.
As Walton mentions, Showgirls sees Nomi in a place of ultimately maintaining order in a hostile and cutthroat frontier land of Las Vegas strippers. Exhibiting many masculine qualities while expertly displaying her physical (and tirelessly sexual skills), Nomi is subject to barroom brawls and catty fist fights of sheer willpower. Meeting her match in Cristal (her antagonist good vs bad opposite), Nomi sizes up the competition and then breaks it down, proving her alpha dog status.
Intently made to provoke audiences with an NC-17, Showgirls was the first major studio film to receive such a rating and still be released on a fairly mainstream level. Despite this, it tanked at the box office. Thanks to the allowances of VHS, Showgirls went onto have a fruitful cult afterlife and is considered by many to be trashtastic.
Showgirls can be best enjoyed with an audience, whether it is in a small group, or a class cult screening on the big screen. Drinking games accompany the film with shots raised when Nomi slaps somebody or when a pelvic thrust manically thrashes around in a pool.
If you’ve seen the film, then you can speak to its trashiness. Whether or not you enjoy the subtle levels of satirical exploitation within each dramatic body thrust or the campy fierceness that Gershon spews out with every line of dialogue is beside the point. It is simply put, an undeniable Western.
James Madden is the Editor of Film Blerg. He is currently undertaking a Master of Arts and Cultural Management at the University of Melbourne and is a Screen Editor of Farrago Magazine. James has contributed to countless student and online publications including Portable, T-Squat and Upstart.
Jon from The Film Brief writes:
There are so many reasons I love Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966). It’s a masterpiece from the first frame of the opening credits, which combines Ennio Morricone’s score (the best film score ever written, to my mind) with a brilliant, blood-spattered vignette that has since gone on to inspire any number of film-makers, perhaps most notably Quentin Tarantino.
It’s a masterpiece from the opening scene, which sets the scene magnificently in the barren, desolate landscapes of the old West (actually filmed at the Cinecittà studio in Rome). Early on in the piece, the story is framed as a battle of wits and brawn – not so much a good vs. evil battle (the man with no name is far too morally enigmatic to represent good) as a document of Darwinian survival of the fittest.
The film is the third and final chapter of the “Man with No Name” trilogy, directed by Italian auteur Sergio Leone. Upon its release, it redefined the Spaghetti Western in a way that its predecessors, A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More did not. I like the first two films of the trilogy, but The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, despite its still-shabby edges, is that much more crisp, that much more precise in its story-telling.
It is difficult sometimes to look past a film’s status as a genre-definer, and a must-watch for any even semi serious cinema buff. I watched The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for the first time nearly 40 years after it was made. Stratospheric expectations aside, this is an enduring masterpiece for the most basic reasons – a strong script with complex and well-drawn characters, and a master behind the camera who knows just the right way to capture his subject material. You simply must see this movie.
Jon Fisher is the creator and editor of The Film Brief and host of The Film Brief podcast which you can find on iTunes.
This is intended to be the first post in a weekly series. Whilst a lot of this blog focuses on older film, I am a lover of contemporary cinema as well. And what better way to share that love, and get a little excited for the weekend, then by sharing a trailer.
The trailers will not always be ones that have only just hit the net, but that’s what this week’s is. Below is the first teaser trailer for Tarantino’s Django Unchained. There is no other director working who is a genre on to himself. There are ‘Tarantino Films’ and this looks like it will be another one. Just check the soundtrack. Tarantino, love him or hate him, is a truly original beast and I can’t wait for this one to hit screens at the start of next year (earlier if you are reading this from the States). I think this is a really cool trailer. It lays down the narrative, but it doesn’t feel like all the best bits of it have been given away.
What are your thoughts on the trailer for Django Unchained?