Reservoir Dogs (11/20/12)

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A bank robbery goes wrong the group tries to find out who is the rat of the group in Reservoir Dogs.

A group of eight men are having breakfast in a diner discussing the plans for a heist, among other things. The men include theorganizer, Joe (Lawrence Tierney), his son, “Nice Guy” Eddie (Chris Penn), Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker), and Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino). Cut to shortly after the robbery and Mr. Orange is bleeding in the back of Mr. White’s car. After they arrive back at the meeting place, Mr. Pink thinks they were setup by a rat in the group.

Quentin Tarantino stormed onto the movie scene with Reservoir Dogs and 20 years later, the film still holds up incredibly well. It’s smartly written and shot and is just a raw film. Tarantino may have become a household name with Pulp Fiction, but I would argue that Reservoir Dogs is almost as good. In fact, I think I may prefer Reservoir Dogs nine times out of ten. The ensemble cast and small scale of Reservoir Dogs makes you feel like you are there in the warehouse trying to figure out what to do next alongside Mr. White and Mr. Pink while Mr. Orange is bleeding to death.

When the story begins to come together in a traditional Tarantino non-linear way, the story doesn’t feel like it’s expanding into something larger it’s just building itself up. Added to the mix is the interspersed bits of radio hits from 70s from K-Billy which give Reservoir Dogs one of the best soundtracks around. In fact, it’s one of three soundtracks I purchased physical copies of (the other two are Pulp Fiction and Drive, if you were curious).

There are times when Reservoir Dogs feels a bit rough around the edges and it is admittedly hard to tell if that is lack of experience on Tarantino’s part, low budgeting, or simply the look the film was supposed to have. There are few special effects and much of the film takes place with just a few guys on screen in a warehouse. Considering its scale, Reservoir Dogs does a tremendous job to make something special and it brought us one of the most debated directors working today.

I watched Reservoir Dogs as part of the incredible Tarantino XX blu-ray box set. While the set doesn’t have a ton of additional extras if you already own the films included, having all of Tarantino’s films in one set is pretty great for fans of his work.

I give it 5 “why am I Mr. Pink?”s out of 5.

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The Royal Tenenbaums (11/15/12)

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The Royal Tenenbaums is the story of a family brought back together by their ailing, estranged patriarch.

The young Tenenbaum children are all prodigies; Chas is business savvy, Margot, who was adopted, wrote a successful play, and Richie is a tennis star. Their parents, Royal (Gene Hackman) and Etheline (Anjelica Huston), are getting a divorce. Twenty two years later, Royal is getting evicted from his hotel room where he has been staying. After hearing that his wife’s accountant, Harry (Danny Glover) is trying to marry Etheline, Royal devises a plan and says he is dying of cancer and wants to stay in their house and reunite the family. As adults, the children are all in post-success slumps. Chas (Ben Stiller), is still in business but has become obsessively protective over his sons after their mother’s death. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), is married to a neurologist named Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray) but hides her life from him. Richie (Luke Wilson) had a breakdown as a tennis star.

When a film has a huge ensemble cast, it is easy for the plot to get lost in the mix but Wes Anderson not only keeps the characters unique and interesting in The Royal Tenenbaums, but the plot is one of his best too. Each character has their own cross to bear and when they are under the same roof again, their stories are interesting on their own, but together they become something special. Admittedly, there is a lot to take in and some of the quirk that is special to Anderson’s films may put some people off but I would argue that The Royal Tenenbaums is possibly Anderson’s most accessible film.

I watched The Royal Tenenbaums again after watching Moonrise Kingdom for a second time and when viewed back-to-back, the films are actually very different in some respects, though both very Anderson-y. Where Moonrise Kingdom cranks the ’60s nostalgia and colors all the way up, The Royal Tenenbaums is brightly colored but also kind of washed out. The Royal Tenenbaums feels more realistic but also has many of the same fantastical things that Anderson is known for. The Royal Tenenbaums is clearly intended for adults but Moonrise Kingdom would likely be enjoyable for young teens and adults for different reasons.

It’s difficult to speak of Wes Anderson’s films since he has crafted such a unique “formula” for his work. While, at times, this style can be a bit too much or get in the way of the storytelling, but The Royal Tenenbaums is more of a character story with great, innovative set pieces and shots. That’s not to say that The Royal Tenenbaums is a serious film, it’s actually quite funny, but the camp aspect is scaled back a bit.

The Royal Tenenbaums was recently released on blu-ray by the Criterion Collection and is an improved package over the DVD edition they also put out. The special features remain the same, but they are spectacular for fans of Anderson’s work. The commentary and behind the scenes footage are worth it alone, but the set offers much more. The picture and sound are both spectacular, as expected.

The Royal Tenenbaums was my favorite Wes Anderson film before Moonrise Kingdom came out. I had a guy stop me in Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago asking my opinion of the movies he was holding. He had Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums in his hand and said he had never seen a Wes Anderson movie before. I gave my brief impressions of each and asked which sounded the best to him, he picked Rushmore and I went along with it but urged him to check out Moonrise Kingdom if he liked it. If I had seen the blu-ray presentation of The Royal Tenenbaums before that conversation, however, I would likely have steered him differently.

I give it 4 Mordecais out of 5.

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Tree of Life (11/12/12)

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The Tree of Life chronicles the life of a young boy growing up in Texas interspersed with the creation of the universe and the meaning of life.

A family is torn apart after receiving a letter that their son has died. In the present day, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) calls his father to apologize and reflects on his childhood. The universe is created, life is created and evolves, and an asteroid crashes into Earth. In the 1950s in Waco, Texas, we see the O’Brien family; the mother (Jessica Chastain), the father (Brad Pitt), and three boys, including a young Jack (Hunter McCracken). We see scenes from Jack’s life, including the drowning of his friend and the subsequent funeral and the joy of having their overbearing father leave for business.

Disclaimer – if you haven’t seen The Tree of Life, it is a very polarizing movie. The plot is minimal, there is a lot of esoteric and existential narration and visuals that may seem like they have nothing to do with the movie.

I’ve seen Tree of Life four times and each time I’ve come away with a slightly different experience but I’ve always liked the film. It is an artsy film, there is not a straight line from A to B like most movies and this can be interpreted as a lack of plot or rambling, but this is largely open to how you view movies. If you see movies strictly as entertainment, you may be bored to tears by Tree of Life but if you can appreciate movies as an art form you may “get” Tree of Life a little more. However, that’s not to say there is much to “get”. Tree of Life is writer/director Terrence Malick’s very personal story and you will likely either connect with it or you won’t.

There is not much I wish to say about Tree of Life because it’s a film that could easily be dissected and have short books written about. It is a film you will love or hate; Very few people I have talked to that have seen it fall in the middle. When discussing the film with people that don’t like it, I have a hard time defending it because it’s like defending vanilla ice cream to someone that prefers chocolate. Still, Tree of Life is a movie I would recommend everyone watch at least once to form your own opinions on. If you didn’t like it, I would be curious what your impressions would be after repeat viewings.

I give it 5 dinosaurs out of 5.

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The Shining (11/9/12)

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In The Shining, the winter caretaker of an isolated hotel goes crazy and tries murdering his family.

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a recovering alcoholic, gets a job as the winter caretaker for the sprawling Overlook Hotel in Colorado with the hopes of writing. Despite warnings that the previous caretaker went crazy and murdered his family, Jack will be taking his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd). Danny learns that he has telepathic powers from the cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), at the Overlook that he calls ‘the shining’ and has visions of horrific things while at the hotel. When isolation in the huge hotel begins to set in, the Overlook begins looking for ways to tempt Jack into murdering his family.

I have left my synopsis of The Shining intentionally vague because I’d like to briefly discuss some of my theories about the film. Spoilers throughout for those of you that haven’t seen the film yet.

I believe that the most important scene in The Shining is when Dick Hallorann is speaking with Danny about the hotel and the shining. One specific thing of note is that he says some buildings can shine just like some people can. During Jack’s initial walk-through of the Overlook, he is told by the Ullman, the manager, that the hotel was built on top of an Indian burial ground. I know King has derided Kubrick’s vision of the film for lacking the motivations for Jack’s insanity (whether or not it is from ghosts/spirits or just from Jack going crazy) but I think it is pretty clear that the Overlook can shine and preys on the weak mind of an abusive alcoholic father that was already on the edge before getting to the hotel. We know there are strong forces at work because *something* lets Jack out of the pantry. While there are obvious tones of dysfunctional relationships in the Torrance family, the Overlook is the catalyst here.

The Shining as Stephen King envisioned it is a ghost story (note – this is just from what I have heard, I am reading the novel now to form my own opinions) and Kubrick turned the story into something more intangible, but there are definitely ghostly things happening. The beauty of The Shining is that it holds mysteries much like the Overlook itself. We do not fully understand what is happening all the time, even after repeat viewings. I know some may see this as a deficiency but I see it as genius, though frustrating at times. While Kubrick obviously had a firm vision of what he wanted, some of his choices are not clear so a little trust must be given that everything serves a purpose in some way.

I cannot write a review of The Shining without spending some time talking about the cinematography, so allow me to get this out of the way. A few years before The Shining, cameras were not really used as handhelds, they were mounted on tripods for stable shots or dollies for tracking, but Garrett Brown came along and invented the Steadicam. The Steadicam uses gyroscopes to allow a camera operator to move but keeps the camera steady. This device allows amazing one-point perspective tracking shots following the actors in close proximity, especially Danny in his big wheel, and gives the viewer a sense of actually following the character. In the vast corridors and rooms of the Overlook, it is truly a work of beauty.

To me, The Shining is a perfect horror movie and its one that completely mesmerized me the first time I watched it and every single time since. It firmly has a place in my top films of all time. The Shining is the film that not only sparked much of motivation to learn more about movies, but it sparked my interest in Stanley Kubrick, my favorite director. The film is just as mystical as the hotel it takes place in and that allure keeps drawing me to The Shining time after time.

I give it 5 “Things could be better, Lloyd. Things could be a whole lot better”s out of 5.

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Rashomon (11/7/12)

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In Rashomon, after the murder of a traveling samurai and the rape of his female companion, multiple versions of the story are told to find the truth.

A woodcutter and a priest are sitting under the gate at Rashomon during a storm and after are joined by a commoner, they tell him of the story of a murdered samurai and rape of his wife the woodcutter found three days prior. The story is told through flashbacks as testimonies in court from the point of view of the confessed murderer and rapist bandit, Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), the wife, the murdered samurai through a spirit medium, and the woodcutter. Each version of the story has slightly differing details offering insight to what really happened to the samurai and his wife.

Rashomon is the film that introduced the west to the great Akira Kurosawa and Japanese filmmaking in general. The style of storytelling used in Rashomon has been emulated many times since its release in 1950 but the original still has not been diminished with age. Though the multiple sides of the same story are a bit confusing since you are never quite sure what is really happening, the mystery of the actual events keep you guessing and involved in the film until the very end.

While the woodcutter seemingly has the least reason to alter the truth about the events, it’s still debatable if his retelling of the story is the “right” one. There’s a saying that I feel is used a lot in cop dramas (or maybe just on the TV show “Cops”) that there’s always three sides to every story; the victim’s, the accuser’s, and the truth. In Rashomon, we get extra sets of eyes and still are never sure if we are seeing the truth but the truth may not be what we are really seeking to find out, either.

The Criterion Collection recently released a new version of Rashomon aside from the amazingly beautiful new cover art (pictured), the set has some great special features included. Aside from the spectacular picture and soundtrack, my favorite feature is the included interview with famed director Robert Altman about the film.

It could be easily argued that Rashomon is Kurosawa’s masterpiece, but with a catalog as wide and diverse as his, choosing just one film is daunting. Rashomon is certainly one of Kurosawa’s finest films, though, and is still riveting today.

I give it 5 bandit testimonies out of 5.

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Fear and Desire (11/3/12)

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A group of several soldiers behind enemy lines confront their inner demons in Fear and Desire.

In a fictional war between two unidentified countries, a plane crashes six miles into enemy territory and a group of four soldiers must survive. They try building a raft and happen upon a girl that does not speak their language. When one guard is tasked with watching the girl, he shoots her after she frees herself. Two other soldiers come across two enemy soldiers eating stew in a cabin and kill them, only to find they look exactly like their enemy counterparts.

I could sing the praises of Stanley Kubrick all day long, but Fear and Desire, his first feature, is fairly dismal as a film. Though Kubrick directed, edited, photographed, and produced the film, the entire affair has a strong sense of being a student film…In a bad way. There are shots that are there for no real reason and the plot is bogged down, even though the film is only around 75 minutes long. Kubrick fans may find some commonalities of a young master director, but for the most part Fear and Desire is almost like a weird Twilight Zone episode.

Perhaps the most notable thing about Fear and Desire is Kubrick’s intent to destroy all copies of the film after its release. Obviously he didn’t fully succeed, but the new print of the film (distributed by Kino in the US and Eureka in the UK) is clearly cobbled together from various prints of differing quality. Even though I picked up the blu-ray for Fear and Desire, the picture quality ranges from very good to poor, though overall I stopped noticing the differences in film quality. Also included on the disc is The Seafarers, a promotional short film for the Seafarers Union that Kubrick took on to fund his next project, Killer’s Kiss. Unlike Fear and Desire, I found no trademarks of Kubrick in The Seafarers and it’s merely a curiosity at this point.

Fear and Desire is a unique piece of film / Kubrick history but unfortunately, that is about all it is at this point. While Kubrick would go on to be one of the greatest directors of all time (at least, in my opinion), his craft was clearly refined over the years. Fear and Desire is still recommended viewing for the novelty of seeing a long lost film and also Kubrick’s first, but on its own it’s not worth much else.

I give it 3 young Stanley Kubricks out of 5.

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Rosemary’s Baby (11/2/12)

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When a young couple moves into a new apartment and gets pregnant, weird happenings cause the expecting mother to worry that something sinister is afoot in Rosemary’s Baby.

Guy (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) move into a large, gothic apartment after the previous owner passed away. They meet their neighbors, Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castavet (Sidney Blackmer), and the young woman staying with them named Terry (Victoria Vetri). After Terry is killed after jumping out a window and Guy and Rosemary decide to spend more time with their elderly neighbors. Guy immediately forms a strong bond with the couple despite Rosemary’s reluctance and when Rosemary becomes pregnant under strange circumstances, the Castavets take a strong role in the Woodhouses lives until eventually Rosemary suspects that there is much more going on to their story and suspects them of witchcraft.

Roman Polanski’s Hollywood debut, Rosemary’s Baby, is one of the most chilling stories put to film. There is a sense of dread from the very beginning, even if you know nothing of the story that *something* is going to happen. As small hints are dropped or strange things are happening, you start to wonder what exactly is going on and what is really happening with the Woodhouses and Castavets. When witchcraft and Satanism start coming up you almost don’t want to believe that it’s really happening; maybe Rosemary is just being delusional but you know that probably isn’t true.

The really haunting thing about Rosemary’s Baby, however, is that while everything happening seems a bit weird, it isn’t so weird that it would raise any red flags  in most of our lives, and that is what makes the tale so chilling. We can’t all go around assuming the worst of people or that their motives are probably evil. If we move into an apartment next door to an elderly couple we wouldn’t want to offend them. The progression of the plot is not at all far-fetched and even when Rosemary suspects witchcraft she is scoffed at. Even at its weirdest, Rosemary’s Baby is fairly grounded in realism which makes it all the more frightening.

I’ve long held an opinionated distinction between horror movies and terror movies, sometimes classified as psychological horror movies. Nowadays, horror films are filled with blood, guts, and gore – which is fine. I find movies like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, or The Shining to be more terror movies,where the reliance to chill is on mood rather than violence. The experience for watching these films is disquieting and difficult to shake even after the film is over. Rosemary’s Baby may not appeal to modern horror fans in the same way that it does to me, but I would rank it quite highly.

Criterion Collection recently released a new restored version of Rosemary’s Baby that gives Polanski’s film a fantastic presentation. The visuals and sound have likely never looked better, or at least not since it debuted on the big screen. The special features, which I didn’t fully dive into, include an interview with Polanski, Farrow, and producer Robert Evans on the film. As far as Criterions go, this is a brilliant set for a fantastic film.

Rosemary’s Baby doesn’t get the attention I feel it deserves, even when discussing classic horror films. There are few films that give the same sense of dread so well. Though I just missed watching it in time for Halloween, be sure that Rosemary’s Baby will make a solid place in my annual film rotation come Halloween season.

I give it 5 tannis root necklaces out of 5.

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