Django Unchained

The D is silent, hillbilly

Foxx and WaltzDjango Unchained is what I’d consider Quentin Tarantino’s 10th movie (do the math yourself).  This is the “southern” Quentin talked about in 2007, and it’s worlds better, in many ways, than 2009’s Inglourious Basterds – to date, the only Tarantino film I haven’t watched more than once.  My main issue, maybe, besides the “How many times can we kill Hitler on film?” conundrum, was the fact that Melanie Laurent’s and Diane Kruger’s characters were pointlessly killed off after providing a strong female presence, and their Surprise Demises left a sour taste in my mouth at the end of the film.  Quentin has a history of creating genuinely strong and sympathetic female characters – take Kill Bill’s Bride or Jackie Brown‘s Jackie Brown – Bridget and especially Shoshanna were no exception, but their treatment in their film’s third act turned me off.  Here, in Django Unchained, the women don’t do much of anything – Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the only female member of the core cast, is basically a walking MacGuffin who waits around to be rescued.  At least she isn’t strangled by Christoph Waltz, though.

The story begins in the 1850s during the height of the American Old West.  Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a former dentist and German bounty hunter, rescues Django (Jamie Foxx) from a couple of slavers on the road.  Schultz, a non-racist non-bigot in a world where the “N word” is essentially used as the technical term for African-American people, hopes that Django will help him identify a group of outlaws called the Brittle Brothers, as Django once worked on a plantation overseen by them.  In return, Schultz will give Django his freedom and 225 dollars.  Django turns out to be a natural shot with all types of guns, and after slaughtering the Brittles on a plantation owned by the foppish Big Daddy Bennett (Don Johnson, being a good sport as usual), Django enters into an arrangement with Schultz: the two will become bounty hunting partners through the winter, and once the snow melts, they will team up to rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda, from Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio), an unfeeling Francophile who forces slaves into death matches and prostitution on his plantation (hilariously known as Candieland).

The film’s first act follows Schultz and Django as they travel from plantation to plantation, gathering bounties and battling many of the film’s amazing cast of characters, most of whom carry names only Quentin Tarantino could/would come up with (there are so many good ones in Django, in fact, that a character named Crazy Craig Koonz isn’t even shown).  In this first act, Waltz is the dominant actor, and it’s hard not to see Schultz as the main protagonist.  His charisma and eloquence are a force all their own.  Django essentially plays Schultz’s sidekick until the second act, when finally, it is he who must come up with the plans, who must allow horrible things to happen in order to reach his goal, who must stomach the unstomachable.  Up until this point, the film doesn’t feature most of what aficionados might consider “vintage Tarantino”: the long shots, infinite conversations, and invented language give way to more traditional cinematics, but consider the fact that Quentin is working in an established genre this time: the Western.  Once Candie appears, however, the film’s central scene is constructed: a dinner in Candie’s manor, during which Schultz and Django will attempt to trick Candie into selling Broomhilda to them after pretending to be interested in Candie’s “Mandingo fighting” enterprise.  Also at dinner are Leonide Moguy (Dennis Christopher), Candie’s sycophantic lawyer, Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly (Laura Cayouette), Candie’s widowed sister, Butch Pooch (James Remar), Candie’s head enforcer, and most importantly, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s head house slave, a race-traitor who immediately suspects Django and Schultz of foul play and eventually reveals their deception to Candie.  The scene harbors as much suspense and potential combustion as anything Quentin has filmed.  Jamie Foxx’s performance resembles the glass lid on a pot of water about to boil.  We know that if he ever goes through with lifting his gun out of its holster, this whole thing is over.

The third act is not what most will expect, mostly because a third act isn’t totally necessary.  It does not contain Dicaprio or Waltz, and introduces new characters in the form of Australian slave drivers played by Michael Parks and Quentin Tarantino (yep).  Additionally, Billy Crash (Walton Goggins), Candie’s right-hand man, arrives front and center after being a background character for most of the story, which seems a bit “off” only because the role was originally meant for Kevin Costner, who dropped out due to scheduling conflicts (i.e. the absence of Dicaprio wouldn’t have formed quite so large an empty hole if someone equally/more famous took the lead villain role, though Goggins is great).  This brings us, eventually, to a second “final shootout” at Candieland, which leaves only two characters standing and ends the film with the flair we expect from something so charmingly self-conscious.

As usual, Quentin uses his characters well, and knows the genres in which he works better than anyone.  The film isn’t as indulgent as it could be, though the uber-violence (exaggerated blood and extended gunfights) will turn some away.  The pairing of Waltz and Foxx is inspired, fun, and tense, and the against-type casting of Dicaprio and Jackson as villainous characters brings forth performances so strong that you’ll never once consciously think you’re watching Leo and Sam.  Don Johnson’s character gets an extended scene in which he forms a posse (which includes Jonah Hill) to hunt down Django and Schultz, and he never quite gets his plan out because everyone complains about the makeshift masks they must wear (“I can’t see fuckin’ shit in this,” says Johnson in a gut-busting southern accent).  The scene humorously foresees the creation of the Ku Klux Klan.  Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, Tom Savini, and Zoë Bell pop up here and there, and there’s even an appearance by Franco Nero, who played the title character of 1966’s Django, a violent and ill-tempered western with over 100 unofficial sequels.

Finally, there is the topic of slavery.  Quentin claimed awhile back that he wanted to do “big issue” films in the form of spaghetti westerns and other genre films, and he wanted to do them because everyone else was afraid to.  As much as this may seem like he’s “spoofing” slavery or other serious tragedies from our country’s history, this isn’t the comical revisionist Hitler-death we saw in 2009.  Ethically, this film takes its subject matter very seriously, and the scenes of slave abuse are never exploitative nor meant for ironic humor.  Quentin handles the material responsibly, and certainly does not glorify or rewrite the struggles of laborers any more than last year’s The Help did.  It’s gutsy, transgressive, and not only about slavery, but about the way slavery is portrayed in the movies.

Django Unchained (2012); written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, and Leonardo Dicaprio.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates

Martin Freeman as Bilbo BagginsI’ll just say this right out of the gate: this is the only review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that matters.  Why?  Not because I’ve written and directed a film based upon the works of Tolkien, but because I approach criticism from the perspective of a reader.  I’m more inclined to relate (not “compare,” of course) the film to its source material, not the indulgent Peter Jackson trilogy loosely based upon Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings a decade ago.  The media monkeys keep asking, “Does this movie live up to the original trilogy?”  I promise you that no one asking this question has any idea what they’re asking.

Jackson again plays somewhat loosely with the material, but overall, the story feels much leaner due to its focus on a single protagonist.  Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the titular Hobbit (as anyone who made it through fifth grade knows), lives at ease in the Shire, where he relaxes, blows smoke rings, keeps a pantry full of every food imaginable, and doesn’t mind eating alone.  A hobbit hole, as Tolkien writes, “means comfort.”  Why would anyone feel the need to go on an adventure and get into trouble?  Soon, of course, Bilbo’s way of life is subverted: Gandalf (Ian McKellan), a mysterious wizard, arrives at Bilbo’s door, claiming that he has chosen Bilbo to join in an adventure.  Bilbo refuses and thinks he’s off the hook, but after Gandalf engraves a strange rune into the front door, the hobbit is visited by thirteen dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), son of Thrain, son of Thror, the fabled King Under the Mountain, a descendant of the heralded Durin’s folk.  The dwarves, to Bilbo’s dismay, devour everything in his pantry, sing an impromptu song mocking the hobbit’s stuffy nature, and explain their plans to reclaim their gold from Smaug, a dragon left over from the First Age, who sacked their mountain a century ago and left their people ripe for an attack by Orcs. Jackson’s film version, before beginning the plot action, features an extensive prologue which not only explains the dwarves’ origin story – featuring Smaug’s sacking of Erebor and Thorin’s epic battle with Orc chieftain Azog (Manu Bennett) – but also an appearance by Ian Holm as the older Bilbo Baggins, who takes a break from his birthday preparations to write some more of his book.  He begins with the first line of the original novel: “This is a story from long ago,” and also gives us the first line of chapter 1: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”  Smiles were abound.  Much of the opening dialogue between Gandalf and Bilbo is also preserved, including their “good morning” routine and the famous “I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me.”

The film follows the events of the novel up to the beginning of chapter 6, and due to the employment of what I have come to call “Peter Jackson Elements,” it goes on for longer than it needs to and doesn’t cover half the book material that it could.  These PJEs include Azog, whose counterpart in the novel is killed 150 years before the story begins and whose son, Bolg, actually runs the goblin army.  Azog and friends stalk Thorin and company throughout the movie in order to provide a foil for the King Under the Mountain, but it’s completely unnecessary and panders to the action movie crowd.  It’s also a bit disrespectful to the original text – don’t you think Tolkien knew what he was doing?  One of the lore-related issues here is that Azog in the film is referred to as the “pale orc,” a unique characteristic making him mythically large and fearsome.  In the novel, there are no orcs.  These characters are all goblins, though Tolkien, after being pressured by his publisher to write a sequel, later retrospectively changed some of this material, making goblins a type of small orc – this and many other pieces of The Hobbit, including language, modern references, writing style, and changes in the lore, indicate all too clearly that The Lord of the Rings isn’t a direct sequel to this story.  Jackson not only tries to make it consistent with the later story, but also consistent with his own films, which perverted many elements of The Lord of the Rings beyond recognition.  To achieve this, he also includes scenes that build up to the story of The Fellowship of the Ring.  The White Council – Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee), and Gandalf meet in Rivendell to discuss the appearance of the Necromancer, a cryptic sorcerer who turns out to be the bereft Sauron, the main antagonist of The Lord of the Rings (lightweight compared to his predecessor in the First Age, but let’s not get into that).  The scene is satisfying in and of itself, and it’s a relief to witness the inclusion of Galadriel (the only female character in the film), but it’s ultimately a distraction, as is a divergent scene featuring Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), who investigates the Necromancer and reports his findings to Gandalf.  This is material best left to an extended cut.

The sections of the film that are actually adapted from novel material are wonderfully done.  The chapter Roast Mutton, in which three trolls capture the dwarves and discuss how to cook them while Bilbo attempts to buy time, is largely faithful, aside from the inclusion of a fight scene, with the trolls’ cockney accents preserved (a sad reminder of Tolkien’s intolerance for the English working class).  The Great Goblin (played by Barry Humphries) is deliciously repulsive, with goiters the size of your head, and the humor of his conflict with Gandalf remains, as does his song about “Goblin Town,” a carved out village in the pitch-black of the Misty Mountains.  The stone giants are included, though their proximity to the main cast is amplified in the film (and not to the detriment of the story).  The most love for Tolkien’s work, however, is displayed during the famous Riddles in the Dark, wherein Bilbo makes a deal with the gangling Gollum (Andy Serkis): if Bilbo can solve all of Gollum’s riddles without a single incorrect answer, he will be led safely out of the Misty Mountains.  If the inverse should occur, Gollum will eat Bilbo for dinner.  “Fair enough,” Freeman’s Bilbo flatly states.  This scene never cuts away and includes nearly every riddle from the book, and even most of the blocking.  Not only do Bilbo’s actions tie together some of the story’s themes, but this is also Gollum at his best.  He looks better, acts more like the novel’s Gollum and not a cartoon character, and doesn’t overstay his welcome.  When he screams and weeps after losing his “precious,” the audience feels some real sympathy at his plight: he may be grotesque and deceitful, but he’s still (or once was) a person, and this is all he has.  The scene is capped off with Bilbo losing his shirt-buttons while squeezing through an opening in the cave, an event in the novel that leaves him miffed for quite some time.

A common complaint is that the scenes in the Shire take too long.  False – sure, we spend a lot of time there, but if anything, Bilbo’s decision to go on the adventure is actually too abrupt.  There never seems to be a lack of urgency in these scenes if you know where to find it: Bilbo doesn’t want to go on the adventure.  That’s the conflict.  If he goes with the dwarves, he will almost surely die; even Gandalf does not deny this.  If by “urgency,” you mean there should be more battles and action and jump-cuts, you need to relax and open a book. Performance-wise, Freeman is the correct choice for Bilbo.  He’s satisfied with his life of solitude, somewhat of an oddball in Hobbiton, perpetually irritated with his predicament, and far more concerned with getting home to his hearth and a warm meal than with helping the dwarves reclaim their home.  He finds Sting (and the lore of Gondolin is preserved) but never shows any adeptness at swordfighting, and haphazardly swings it at any monster that comes near him.  He’s the lens through which we are introduced to Middle-earth, and sometimes we wish he would stop for a moment and try to appreciate some of the beauty around him.  McKellan shines once again as Gandalf, and it’s much more pleasant to see him on the small scale – taking meals, speaking intimately with Galadriel, and helping the group defeat trolls and goblins, never quite letting slip that he’s much more than a mischievous old man.  Armitage portrays Thorin as well as anyone could; in the novel, he has a relatively one-track mind and doesn’t care much for Bilbo.  This attitude is retained in the film without too many distractions (aside from the aforementioned inclusion of a sworn enemy).  As there must be character growth by the end of a film, however, Thorin’s tolerance of Bilbo, not to mention Bilbo’s discovery that his own soul houses at least a small bit of bravery, is pushed forward.  Make no mistake, though; their friendship will be more than tested once Erebor is taken back and the Arkenstone comes into play. The idea to split The Hobbit into three films is unforgivably ham-handed and serves two purposes: a money grab on the part of New Line, and a cushion for Jackson to build his own “film universe” with invented material.  Even the first installment features music from his The Lord of the Rings films, which feels out of place and seems at times like an advertisement for other movies.

The gap between releases is even worse.  Will the other films be good?  I’m hopeful.  Will they falter in their faithfulness to their source material as egregiously as The Two Towers and Return of the King did?  Let’s not even speculate yet. Here is the question you should be asking.  Forget other films.  Does this film live up to the spirit of the novel?  Yes.  That fact enough is worth a look.  A book, the most complex of art, can never be “made into” a movie (as so many like to say), only adapted, but this series can continue to retain the spirit of the novel by preserving the magic of Middle-earth’s more beautiful corners, by not getting caught up in battle scenes, by minimizing the PJE issues, and above all, by focusing on what the story is all about at heart.  As Tolkien wrote, “This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.  He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained – well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.”

The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyThe Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012); screenplay by Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro; adapted from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; directed by Peter Jackson, starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, and Andy Serkis.

Anna Karenina

Divorce is one thing – dinner is quite another

KeiraKnightleyAnnaKarenina2

Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright’s film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is what I would call different.  It’s different enough to provide a fresh, exhilarating film experience, but it only works one-hundred percent if you’re not much of a reader.

The story, set in 19th century tsarist Russia, follows Anna (Keira Knightley in yet another period piece) as she explores the question of her own happiness, a question whose answer seems to ever evade her grasp.  Her husband, Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), is practical, steadfastly religious, soft-spoken, and highly respected in society.  They have a son together and seem to get on just fine, until Anna lays eyes on Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and begins an affair with him during a trip to Moscow.  Karenin is relatively unmoved, as such concepts as “love” and “happiness” don’t hold much stock in his world, but he soon discovers that Anna is pregnant with Vronsky’s child, which is not only (according to Karenin) a “crime against God,” but also a threat to the family’s social and political standing.  The irony here is that the story begins with her coming to terms with her brother’s (Matthew Macfayden) womanizing, which threatens to break up the family.  Her own adultery is met with far less tolerance, and even when Vronsky brings her to St. Petersburg, the couple are unable to make friends, and as Vronsky develops his own social life, Anna becomes paranoid and possessive.

The parallel story involves Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a country landowner who loves Kitty (Alicia Vikander), sister to Anna’s sister-in-law, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald).  In the original story, his part is much larger, and his marriage to Kitty is anything but easy, whereas the film focuses more on Levin’s difficulty in courting Kitty – sure, this is important, but a novel of this size can’t be compressed, with all of its ins, outs, what-have-yous, character developments, emotions, and structures, into two hours. Additionally, some of the most important parts of the book involve epiphanies on the part of several characters, most of all Levin, who eventually decides, after doubting Kitty’s love for him and fearing a difficult relationship with his son, that he must live righteously in order to justify living at all.  Vronsky, amazed and embarrassed at Karenin’s strength of mind and heart when the latter forgives him for stealing his wife, unsuccessfully attempts suicide.  These pivotal scenes are omitted from the film.

In fact, the film does a bang-up job of sweeping any and all deep characterization under the proverbial rug.  Anna is depressive and indecisive, Karenin is righteous, Levin tries hard, Vronksy is foppish and irritable, Oblonksy is a funnyman, Dolly is understanding.  We never get much deeper than these traits, and the narrative focuses more on Anna’s manic dithering than any real growth on the part of the cast.

Where the film succeeds is its visual style: much of the story, particularly in the beginning, takes place on an enormous stage.  Single shots encompass multiple scenes, with the actors walking behind curtains and changing costumes in seconds.  Sometimes, they’re dressed by stage-hands right in front of us.  Many of the film’s discoveries take place in the theatre’s rafters, where the characters creep, ponder, and of course, in the end, leap.  This style is at the expense of never being unaware that you’re watching a scripted production, but for this piece, it inexplicably works.  The performances are mostly golden, with Jude Law radiating a reserved intelligence, Gleeson possibly finding a breakthrough as a hero, Macfayden managing to provide comedy within a tragedy, and Kelly Macdonald looking as though she’s about to cry in nearly every scene.  The only one I’m on the fence about is Keira Knightley.  Can she act?  Of course.  Was she cast in this film because she’s the best possible candidate to play Anna, or because her popularity following the Pirates of the Caribbean movies was the only ticket to getting a nationwide release?  I don’t know.  I would have been way more “with” Anna in the film version if Kelly Macdonald had taken up that role instead of Dolly, who is relegated mostly to the background.

I’m more concerned with the decision to leave out character details and depth, rendering many of the characters straw figures in fabulous clothing.  I cannot help but think this was a studio thing, or a knowing flourish on the part of the director – as classic and canonized as Tolstoy’s work may be (hell, I just had a student present on the author and this novel last week), as much as everyone should be looking at this material as an example of good art, there’s a dwindling interest (and we’re talking about the general public here, not writers and readers and thinkers) in anything that doesn’t involve fast cars, laconic dialogue, mushroom clouds, and traded gunfire.  Why does the work of Tolkien, work that’s been adapted to death, get a three-movie deal for a 317-page novel?  Anna Karenina, 864 pages, gets crammed into 2 hours of reel, and someone’s going to complain that it feels incomplete?  I’m sure Stoppard, who wrote and adapted his own play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, to film, had every intention of doing a faithful adaptation here.  But when it came down to it, there had to be a sacrifice.  Throwing character development in front of the train is an insane decision, but as we all know, there ain’t no sanity clause.

Anna Karenina (2012); written by Tom Stoppard; adapted from the novel by Leo Tolstoy; directed by Joe Wright; starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.  

Reservoir Dogs

You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize

In celebration of twenty years of filmmaking on the part of Quentin Tarantino (and the upcoming release of his newest film, Django Unchained, which I’m tempted to dodge family holiday obligations in order to see), I was finally able to see Reservoir Dogs, a film that has topped my list for the better part of a decade, in the theatre for the first time.  Instead of the theatre’s usual shameless ads and blockbuster trailers, viewers were shown the original trailers for Quentin’s previous films (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, etc.) and a bunch of Tarantino trivia.  There were also ads for a new Tarantino Blu-Ray box set, but as Miramax hasn’t yet realized that not everyone has/needs/wants a Blu-Ray player, I tuned out.  The VHS-DVD transition was organic and took decades.  Stop trying to force the next magic discs on us; forcibly rendering the current generation of technology obsolete creates endless waste and yard-sale fodder (plus you’re expediting the takeover of the machines).

It occurs to me that despite my years-long love of Reservoir Dogs, I have yet to write a word about it.  I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t been said in the past twenty years, but it would seem that in a case like this, people want to know if an old movie “holds up.”  Of course it does, dummy.  But this has also been a big year for anniversaries and re-releases and general love for the cinema (look at the Oscar winners from February): with the somber 100-year anniversary of the Titanic sinking, the film holding its namesake was screened in theatres for the first time since I was in eighth grade.  With twenty years of Quentin behind a camera, we get to see ‘Dogs and Pulp Fiction in the theatre again.  The best part of the overall experience, maybe, was that several moviegoers around me had not seen the film.  They knew Quentin’s name, they’d probably been told that filmmaking was forever changed after his first two films, they’d heard of Mr. Blonde, but hadn’t actually sat through what Quentin once referred to as his equivalent of Kubrick’s The Killing and what many consider to be the greatest independent film of all time.  The reactions, which included gasps, cackles, and plenty of audible occurrences of  “jeeeeezus” said it all.

Reservoir Dogs is a heist film without a heist.  We begin in a diner, with a bunch of guys in identical black suits – Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino), and Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker) – eating breakfast and hashing over the meaning of Madonna songs.  The exceptions to the suits are the two “bosses”: Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn).  The “diner scene,” as it’s known, has come to be one of the most quotable sequences in film history.  I’ll spare you direct quotes (because your friends surely haven’t), but the scene remains a diamond of screenwriting that sets a precedent for the rest of the movie: dialogue, not contrivance, deepens characters and pushes scenes forward.  Buscemi’s legendary “tipping” vignette is something few of us can avoid thinking about while computing gratuity at a restaurant.

I have always considered Reservoir Dogs to be two separate films.  The diner scene (i.e. everything before George Baker’s “Little Green Bag” and the famous slow-motion walk under the opening credits) is one film, whose attack, rising action, conflict, and resolution are all composed and accomplished through dialogue.  Then, we’ve got a relentless crime film.  Keitel’s character, Mr. White (arguably the only character with any sort of conscience, and I include the police characters in that statement) drags a gut-shot Mr. Orange into a warehouse where Joe, the boss, has instructed everyone to rendezvous.  After Mr. Pink arrives, we learn (through dialogue) that something went wrong with what was supposed to be a simple, two-minute robbery.  An employee set off the alarm, Mr. Blonde executed several innocent people, Mr. Orange was shot by a civilian during the getaway, a legion of police showed up out of nowhere, and Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue were killed.  Most of this, at least at the outset, is not shown, and we are left to imagine the horrific events.  White and Pink deduce that someone in the group must be a rat (i.e. an undercover cop).  White rules out Orange, who is slowly dying from his wound, and doubts that Joe knew anything about the setup.  Mr. Blonde, who casually arrives drinking soda from a paper cup, dismisses their theory, dodges questions about why he became a psychopath at the jewelry store, and reveals that he has kidnapped a police officer (Kirk Baltz), whom the trio savagely beat for information (and also out of boredom, as they are to wait for Joe and Nice Guy Eddie to meet them for further instruction).

Through a series of flashbacks that play like the three acts of a stage drama (complete with titles over a black screen), we witness Joe’s recruitment of Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, and Mr. Orange, each of which reveal something else about where the story is headed.  The film’s events (in the present) are pushed along by accidents and severe mistakes, which turns the film into a comedy of errors that is anything but funny (as much as we may laugh and grin at the amusing dialogue).  The biggest mistake since the initial heist happens when Eddie decides to leave Mr. Blonde alone with the unconscious Mr. Orange and the tied-up cop.  This gives way to the iconic “ear-cutting scene,” which many exclusively remember Mr. Blonde (and Madsen) for, and which rendered “Stuck in the Middle with You” virtually unlistenable without picturing Blonde’s sadistic antics.

The longest and most well-crafted of the flashback acts belongs to Mr. Orange, who is revealed to be the informant after gunning down Blonde in defense of the cop, and contains the only story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-story I’ve ever seen done on film (Inception doesn’t count).  The story plays out violently, yet controlled, when the others discover Orange’s identity, and the final smash-cut to the credits and Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” leaves the audience fatigued, somber, and still thinking.  Consider the fact that in 2012, the most expensive of indie films (the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas) can only accomplish two of those.

The film’s violence is the primary struggle of the film’s detractors, aside from the rough and unapologetic language.  It’s not because of gratuity or the sheer amount of red Kool-Aid seen smeared all over the backseat of Mr. White’s car and the floor of the warehouse; it’s because the violence is portrayed in such a realistic and disturbing way.  Here, we do not have James Bond twirling around and gracefully blasting supervillains over bridges with only a hole in the enemy’s shirt to indicate damage taken.  Here, people bleed when shot, the wrong people die, and the cops aren’t the good guys – in fact, without police involvement, no one would have been injured (much less killed) in the heist.  An anecdote told by an L.A. Sheriff in Mr. Orange’s flashback in which he finds humor in verbally brutalizing and threatening to kill a “stupid fucking citizen” still haunts me more than most of the shooting.  The film’s realism is also bolstered by the fact that there are very few, if any, reshoots and retakes.  Most of the shots are long and wide.  Buscemi, speaking at 100mph, stumbles over lines and loses his breath.  Tierney, bookending his career as a crime actor, repeats lines and thinks so hard about what he wants to say that we’re not sure he’s actually acting.  The lack of jump cuts makes us forget that we’re watching a scripted film and not just a bunch of guys in a room trying to find their way out of a life-and-death predicament.

To those who count the film’s disturbing portrayal of violence as rendering the film somehow unwatchable, I’ll say this: you should not be comfortable while watching Reservoir Dogs.  Not at any point.  Not even when you know what’s coming.  I’ve seen this movie dozens of times, and I have yet to eat during it or to find amusement in the in-and-of-itself facts of what happens.  Discomfort during a movie like this, the act of looking away when a guy has his face slashed by a straight razor, might be a glimmer of hope in disguise: perhaps we are not completely desensitized to blood and gore and murder, not when it’s shown to us as it actually exists.  I called out the violence of Cloud Atlas for being gratuitous and unnecessary, but in that case it’s done for a different reason – Reservoir Dogs is not an action epic nor a film during which to cheer; it offers more than violent spectacle.  There are no stylish flourishes during shootouts.  There’s cinematic artwork involved.  There’s something you can take away besides fatigue, but you’ll have to decide for yourself what that is.

Reservoir Dogs is a 101 course on film structure, and its re-release will net a few new fans for Quentin (not that he’s got a deficiency).  The re-release is also a breath of cool air for those of us who just want to see a higher ratio of good films to disappointments when we go to the theatre; for the rest, maybe it’s a nudge into the correct queue line.  All that’s left is for the corporate theatres to mimic this event and put a serious damper on all the shameless advertising.  Blu-Rays reign supreme?  Tell that bullshit to the tourists.

Reservoir Dogs (1992); written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, and Michael Madsen.