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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+

Review: “The Maiden Heist” (2009)

Three Oscar winners and an Oscar nominee walk onto a set to make a funny movie — wait, stop snickering. This isn’t a joke. Though if it were, the punchline would go something like “and it wasn’t funny.” Ba-dum-bum. Be here all week. Kindly tip the waitress, and don’t even think of pulling a drink-and-dash. 

Really, there’s no kinder way to say it: The only thing remarkable about “The Maiden Heist” is how unremarkable the film is. (Although the fact Peter Hewitt’s mild-mannered caper comedy got released at all should is astonishing, since distributor Yari Film Group filed for bankruptcy last December.) With this kind of mind-blowing star power — Morgan Freeman, Christopher Walken, William H. Macy and Marcia Gay Harden? In the same movie? — the potential seems limitless. It isn’t. These four try hard to rise above the limitations of the unthrilling plot and the lackluster script, yet they succeed only sporadically. How can this be? I suppose even Nelson Mandela needs a breather now and again.

But back to that “unthrilling plot.” It revolves around a surprisingly humdrum art heist scheme cooked up by two Boston museum security guards, Roger (Walken) and Charles (Freeman), after they hear their two favorite paintings will be transferred to a collection in Denmark. For men who’ve spent 30 years memorizing every brush stroke, absorbing every nuance in these works, this is unimaginable. Roger’s efforts to convince his wife Rose (Harden) to move to Denmark — he’s certain the weather is delightful “for a few weeks every year” — are fruitless. So he and Charles enlist the help of another guard George (Macy), whose deep love for a certain bronze sculpture inspires him nightly to get naked and pose beside it (“I don’t know what you think you saw, but I’m a happily married man!” he insists). Security tapes don’t lie, and while the jig is up, his pants are down.

Heist plans are mapped out, and hijinks ensue. (Bungled capers seem to follow Macy like lost puppies, no?) What began as a sneak-and-steal manuever turns into a beast of a plan that involves commissioning forgeries and switching them with the originals during the collection move. Enter a complication involving Rose, who won’t quit nagging about that trip to Florida Roger promised her. A naked man ends up in a crate that ends up in the back of the wrong van. But we should expect as much. The film’s tagline warns us these three are “bad thieves.”

Still, this is a comedy, though, so at least the fumbles are comical, right? Sometimes, at least when Macy is the one doing the fumbling in “The Maiden Heist.” He specializes in playing men with Napoleon-sized egos and Foghorn Leghorn-sized brains. Even makes these dolts seem likable, which George is. His belief that old-timers like Walken and Freeman can rappel down a brick wall is good for a chuckle; watching him do it is priceless. Macy even hams it up (well, as much as he can “ham up” anything) in the Big Switch scene, providing the bulk of the film’s precious few sidesplitting moments.

Walken and Freeman, on the other hand, make with the quiet humor. Well, they try, and sometimes they have their moments. Walken manages to give a smidge of depth to Roger, showing us a man who’s channeled his whole life into a painting to escape his own reality. He identifies with the subject of his cherised painting “The Maiden Heist” because she, like him, is filled with “desperate longing and overwhelming passion.” They are kindred spirits. Charlie and George are more of a mystery, with scriptwriter Michael LeSeiur devoting less time to their stories. Yet Freeman and Macy make these characterse mildly interesting in different ways: Charlie for the timidity inhibiting his artistic talent, and Macy for the blustering that masks his timidity. Harden’s a different story; she has no business in a role this flat. Even an actress with her gifts can’t turn Rose from a shrew into anything better. In a  nutshell, that’s the problem with “The Maiden Heist”: All these talents make the movie halfway enjoyable, but they can’t make it as good as it should be.

Grade: C+

Review: “Pulp Fiction” (1994)

Quentin Tarantino may be many things — perverted, profane, whipsmart, cocky, a little too enamored with his own cleverness — but subtle he is not. He’s not even in the ballpark. Matter of fact, if that ballpark blew up, he wouldn’t hear the sound for another three days. Nah, Tarantino’s a guts-glory-chicks-and-explosions kind of director, and that imagination of his? In the name of Le Royale with Cheese does it dream up some wild-n-twisted trips.

Mark “Pulp Fiction” down as one of the wildest. Every nanosecond of this humdinger’s 154 minutes contains something warped/crazy/effortlessly cool to behold: philosophical discussions about foot massages, the nature of miracles and a gold watche that has been places no watch should go; murders both coolly calculated and comically accidental; a frightful drug overdose; kinky sex (think S&M with an Alabama drawl and a gimp); and, last but not least, a sinfully delicious $5 milkshake. Random as this catalogue seems, Tarantino’s film is far more scattershot. The action doesn’t adhere to a simple timeline; instead, there are three stories that run parallel, then smash together, then diverge only to reconnect in ways that boggle the mind upon repeat viewings. “Pulp Fiction” is a genius noir/gangster combo that keeps us guessing. Guess long enough, though, and patterns start to emerge from the madness.

Sort of. Since Tarantino makes it nearly impossible to understand how these stories pool into a cohesive ending, let’s tackle one beast at a time. First, there’s “Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife,” the tale of L.A. hitmen Vince (John Travolta) and Jules (a perfectly cast Samuel L. Jackson) heading to do a job ordered by their loose-cannon boss Marsellus (Ving Rhames). Since Marsellus recently threw a guy out a high-rise window for giving his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) a foot massage, Vince has the jitters about taking her out on the town. His plan is simple: “Chew my food with my mouth closed, laugh at her fucking jokes, and that’s it.” Of course, trouble has a tendency to follow Vince, so things don’t go that smoothly.

Smoothness doesn’t much like Butch (Bruce Willis) either, which we discover in “The Gold Watch.” A talented boxer with a sweetly innocent girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros), Butch shovels some dirt on his own grave by winning the fight Marsellus paid him to throw. But his neat double-cross turns messy through a series of freak coincidences, the most interesting involving two pawn shop owners who plumb forgot to pack their manners (not to mention their morality) when they left the Deep South. “The Gold Watch” leads into “The Bonnie Situation,” a conclusion of sorts where Tarantino himself shows up as Jimmie Dimmick, a pal of Jules who begrudgingly agrees to help him clean up an accidental hit (“my gun went off! I don’t know why!” insists the a brain matter-spattered Vance) with help from Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel). What’s on Wolfe’s business card we can’t be sure, since the terse mystery man only offers “I solve problems” as his job description.

It’s offhand comments like these that demonstrate one of Tarantino’s greatest strengths: revealing character traits with one or two stray lines of dialogue. He’s a student of human nature, and he knows the ways people fill time by arguing over whether foot massages are sensual or wondering what cheeseburgers are called in France (see above). And yet everything these characters say tells us something about themselves or the story. Christopher Walken, in his lone scene, delivers a howling-good speech that seems like comic relief, but the subject — the gold watch — comes back into play. Jules spouts a nonsensical version of Ezekiel 25:17, but it reveals his own moral code. Thurman, who finds jumpy loneliness in Mia, parlays a terrible joke about tomatoes into a real connection with Vince. Haphazard though they seem, these lines are the threads that knit everything together.

What else dazzles about “Pulp Fiction”? There’s the abundance of lurid violence — much of it comical (including an uncomfortably funny rape scene), some of it truly shocking, none of it gratuitious. Jackson and Travolta are one hell of two-man team, while Willis registers a pulse and Eric Stoltz has wit to burn. Ultimately, though, it’s the manic, fearless force of Tarantino that makes “Pulp Fiction” a sweet, sweet joyride, indeed.

Grade: A