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Review: “True Romance” (1993)

“True Romance” has been called a fantasy, a violent, sexy fantasy. But let’s ix-nay P.C. talk and call the film what it really is: a violent, sexy teen boy’s wet dream. (Was it one from Quentin Tarantino’s personal collection? Don’t put it past him.) Not that there’s anything wrong with that, specifically if said dream is as action-packed and overstuffed with talent as “True Romance” is. Plus, there’s a flippant, postmodern cleverness to the script, which requires a character to say, while whipping his purple Cadillac into reverse in traffic, “We now return to ‘Bullit’ already in progress.”

That character is Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), an amiable guy who works in a Michigan comic book store, loves kung fu movies and waxes philosophic about Elvis. (“True Romance” begins with a conversation, this time about “Jailhouse Rock” showcasing the true essence of rockabilly, and Val Kilmer steps in as Clarence’s Guardian Elvis.) Clarence, like so many men in Tarantino’s movies, is a regular guy catapulted into extraordinary circumstances. What’s intriguing is that in every film the protagonists react differently to these gamechangers. In “True Romance,” it’s a chatty blonde named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) who upends Clarence’s life. They meet at a Sonny Chiba filmfest, there’s a shared moment over pie and soon they’re back at his place professing love. The trouble is that Alabama’s a prostitute — only four days in — with a pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman) as delusional as he is sadistic. Oldman, barely recognizable in dreads, has a blast but doesn’t skimp on the sadism; Drexl is one scary hustler, even creepier than Harvey Keitel in “Taxi Driver.”

Since Clarence has been waiting his whole life for a twist like this, he seizes the opportunity to defend Alabama’s honor in a gleefully bloody fashion, a choice that leads to all manner of complications — including his accidental possession of a suitcase jammed with blow — that must be seen to be believed. Slater takes to the part with ease, glossing over Clarence’s good looks and getting right at his desire to be someone’s action hero. And that tango with Drexl provides him with plenty of opportunities. Into his quiet life come: a mafioso named Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken, witty perfection); a dealer missing his suitcase of coke (the always-intimidating James Gandolfini); Clarence’s estranged father Clifford (Dennis Hopper); Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek), a movie producer looking to buy the coke cheap and flip it; Lee’s squeamish assistant (Bronson Pinchot); and some cops (Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn) bent on busting up that deal. Mayhem abounds, and with more than a few scenes involving grisly violence (that Arquette, she can handle herself with a toilet seat).

What with all this bloodshed, energy and colorful types, “True Romance” has all the trappings of a zippy Tarantino trip. Script-wise, it is, but where the film falters is in its direction. Action man Tony Scott’s in control of this venture, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. There seems to be a sizable disconnect between the world Tarantino has designed and the way Scott presents that world. The action, designed with panache and scripted for überdark comedy, is played straight, with none of the sequences showing particular flair. Particularly during the third-act shootout/bloodbath, the obvious precursor to the finale of “Reservoir Dogs,” Scott seems content to stick to the sidewalk. “True Romance” suffers for it. A ballsy story like this deserves an Evel Knievel calling the shots. Sigh. Even Tarantino was once a starving artist dependent on play-it-safe established types, I suppose.

Leave it to Tarantino, though, to write a movie that rises above unimaginative direction. The who’s-who in 1990s cast — Samuel L. Jackson and Brad Pitt have cameos — also works like a dream, with Hopper accessing his subtle side (he has one?), Oldman devouring scenery and Walken stealing the show with a tête-à-tête (“I’m the Antichrist. You got me in a vendetta kind of mood,” he tells Hopper). And while feminist critics could have a field day with Alabama, somehow I don’t see her as a shrinking violet. She’s misguided, a little moony, but she’s tough and smart, an able Bonnie to Slater’s Clyde. And, besides, if you’re yearning for a megadose of reality, kindly refer back to Sentence No. 1.

Grade: B+

“Inglourious Basterds” a complex, gloriously twisted epic

A devil of a dealmaster: Christoph Waltz is a villain for the ages in "Inglourious Basterds."

A devil of a dealmaster: Christoph Waltz is a villain for the ages in "Inglourious Basterds."

Enthusiastic but not too bright, Sgt. Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz (Eli Roth) has a simple plan for killing the gaggle of Nazi glitterati gathered in a Parisian movie theater to see the latest propaganda film: “We punch those goons out, take their machine guns, and burst in there blasting!” My, how I do love a director who goes to the trouble to bury his movie-making philosophy in one line of dialogue. That Tarantino, always thinking three steps ahead, waiting to see who gets the joke, then kicking us in the teeth for thinking he’d make a movie that simple.

Yes, do not mistake ”Inglourious Basterds” for a bloody, unflinchingly tense, grandiose World War II shoot-’em-up even though that’s exactly what it is. (Attempting to keep track of the bodies could induce seizures.) But Tarantino’s tendency to hide things — on-purpose mistakes, inside jokes, trademarks, cameos cleverly hidden in makeup (is that Austin Powers?) or through voiceover narration – means things are not what they seem.  There are other elements at play that make “Inglourious Basterds” a big, complicated, layered, overblown and tremendously satisfying affair, including the crackin’-funny dialogue (re: “Say ‘auf Widersehen’ to your Nazi balls!”), the sight gags (note the pipe-measuring contest in the movie’s opening) and one hell of a viciously delightful villain in the form of Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, who snatches every scene).

Come to think of it, even the plot isn’t simple. It doubles, sometimes triples back on itself, and it’s got corrosive irony and “would you look at that?” coincidences practically dripping from every frame. Best to start with the overarching story, which involves the Basterds, a ragtag group of Nazi killers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (a scenery-munching Brad Pitt), a Tennessee good ole’ boy with a thick scar banding his throat and a fondness for Nazi scalps. Lots and lots of Nazi scalps. He and the Basterds — including Donowitz, Pfc. Smithson “Little Man” Utivich (B.J. Novak) and Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (a mute, menacing Til Schweiger), a German who turned on his fellow Nazi soldiers – are in the business of killing Hitler’s henchmen in Nazi-occupied France. There’s another, more emotionally powerful story involving Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jew hell-bent on avenging the death of her family. A German marksman’s (Daniel Brühl) boyish crush on her leads to an unexpected opportunity when Shosanna’s theater becomes the locale for the premiere of Joseph Goebbel’s (Sylvester Groth) newest propaganda film. To say this leads to a “the plot thickens” moment would be the understatement of the century. Plots don’t get much denser.

Now let’s hush this talk of storylines – It would take hours to unravel all of those. Time to spill some ink on how all those elements meld. In true Tarantino fashion, not all of them do. For example, the music, timed perfectly for poetic death scenes and burn-it-down destruction, is spot-on. But except for Roth, Pitt, Novak and Schweiger (damn, I love that guy), the Basterds are largely anonymous. We know nothing about them, get no clues as to why they joined up in this murderous tomfoolery, and so their story feels disappointingly undeveloped. The same goes for Shoshanna — no development there. Laurent’s a French actress of formidable talent who gives Shosanna a lot of simmering rage, but the character’s still a total mystery to us. It’s as if her story is simply collateral damage, a regrettable casualty to be expected in a movie like “Inglourious Basterds” where Tarantino tries to accomplish so much.

But the characters we do get to know? What impressions they make. We get the likes of Donowitz, a wild-eyed totally unhinged oaf with “Anne Frank” carved into his Louisville slugger, and Pitt, who has a ball going whole-ham as Aldo Raine, a mountain boy redneck whose white-trash accent belies his cunning and wit. (He whips out quips like ”We got a German here who wants to die for his country! Oblige him.” without breaking a sweat.) The real prize here, though, is the Vienna-born Christoph Waltz, who runs away with the entire blasted movie. Tarantino may have gone and created one of cinema’s greatest villains in Col. Hans Landa, a smooth talker with an uncanny ability to read people, discover their weaknesses, exploit them and have a hearty chuckle in the process. He mocks, he sneers, he jokes, he lays traps and delights in watching the dumb (everyone’s dumber than he is) fall in them – there’s a bit of a showman in him.

Is it me, or does that sound a whole lot like some mad-genius director I know? And maybe his newest movie, too?
 
Grade: A-

Crazy plot, performances elevate unfunny “Burn After Reading”

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Richard Jenkins, Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt stumble upon some "top-secret CIA shit" in the Coen brothers' "Burn After Reading."

A note to the Coen brothers: There’s dry humor, and then there’s just … dryness.

Harsh words, perhaps, but true ones nonetheless: “Burn,” the brothers’ disappointing, largely unfunny follow-up to the flawless “No Country for Old Men,” lacks almost anything that resembles jokes or humor or anything, really, that might elicit more than a few half-hearted smirks. Gone are the zany but mostly on-target insights of The Dude; forgotten are the wild, surreal antics of H.I. McDunnough. What’s left is a whole mess of dry humor that likes, um, humor.

Still, that’s not to say “Burn After Reading” is a total wash. The over-the-top plot — which involves everything from cuckholding to murder to extortion — and a string stellar performances keep “Burn” from falling a notch or two below the Coen brothers’ mediocre “Intolerable Cruelty.”

Central to this convoluted, tangled mess of a plot is alcoholic misanthrope and ex-CIA agent Osbourne Cox (a pitch-perfect John Malkovich), who has decided to write a warts-and-all memoir as the ultimate “up yours” to the yes man (David Rasche) who fired him. But the disc containing Cox’s notes ends up on the floor of Hardbodies Gym, where two cheerfully moronic fitness instructors — Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) — scoop it up and decide to use it as part of a harebrained blackmail scheme. Litzke intends to use the money for an extreme body makeover (“I’ve gotten about as far as this body can take me,” she matter-of-factly informs her plastic surgeon), while Chad, hyped up on adrenaline and Jamba juice, is thrilled to be part of a plan involving “raw intelligence shit, CIA shit.”

Confused yet? Sit tight; things get even stickier when Linda meets jittery ex-Secret Service agent-turned-weirdo-inventor Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) through an online dating service. Sparks fly, but Harry’s not exactly a free agent: He’s “happily married,” and he has a longtime mistress (an icy, curt Tilda Swinton) who just so happens to be Cox’s disgruntled wife.

Rest assured that there is more, much more, but it will not be revealed here. Part of what limited fun there is in “Burn After Reading” comes from watching the brainless plots and subplots and sub-subplots collapse in on themselves like displaced Jenga blocks or explode with surprising force. All the characters are connected, but they’re all too self-absorbed or brainless to notice — a complete cluster of idiots. Not one of the characters appears to have a single redeeming quality, and so it’s easy to laugh when all the plans fall spectacularly apart.

Which is where the actors come in. With less capable peformers, these characters might seem too larger-than-life, or too one-sided to matter much. Not so in “Burn After Reading,” where a few Coen brothers regulars and newcomers do fine work. Malkovich, with his prickly humor and menacing grin, seems right at home, so much so that it’s a wonder this is his first Coen brothers outing. (He would have fit right in with the “Fargo” cast, eh?) Pitt has loads of fun as Chad, a vapid, gum-smacking fitness guru with nary a thought — original or otherwise — inside his frosted head. (His attempts to “sound official” while blackmailing Malkovich are comedy gold.)

Then come the unexpectedly poignant performances. McDormand, arguably the most underrated actress in Hollywood, hits all the right notes as Linda, a lonely woman whose determination to reinvent herself far exceeds her intelligence or perceptiveness. Her desire for companionship is heartbreaking. Clooney plays Harry as a paranoid, needy, emotionally unstable doofus, a man seeking real intimacy in a series of wham-bam-thank you ma’am flings. His emotional immaturity is infuriating but too human to ignore. What McDormand and Clooney do with these two characters is impressive.

How sad, though, that the same can’t be said of “Burn After Reading.” Next to inventive comedies like “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski,” the Coen brothers’ saltine-dry effort feels phoned in.

Grade: B-