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The New Serg Beret

Talking and Writing About Cinema Since 2012

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January 2016

Film A Week: The Series – “Reservoir Dogs” (1992)

“Clowns to left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you”
– “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel

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The quintessential modern masterpiece and the thrilling debut by a young Quentin Tarantino is considered by many not only one of his finest works, but perhaps second to that of Pulp Fiction. It has been well loved in its 24 years of existence as a classic crime thriller with humorous black comedy dialogue, interesting characters and use of non-linear storytelling. It is also known to me as the “What the fuck is wrong with you?” film as that is the response I get from everyone when I say I haven’t seen the movie. Yes, it is true. I am about the same age as the film and I had never seen it before. As we have established before I am A) cinema impaired and B) an idiot. Enough of my poor choices in life, let’s get on to Reservoir Dogs. For full effect, the video below should be played.

This film follows a group of men before and after a heist gone wrong. This men with names only Crayola could envy are Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker), and Mr. Brown (Tarantino himself). Under the guidence of their boss Joe Cabot (Lawrence Teirney) and his son “Nice Guy” Eddie Cabot (Chris Penn), they do the job until Brown is killed, Blue has run off, Orange is shot and under the care of White. Pink is waiting for them in a nearby warehouse for the two to arrive contemplating whether the heist went wrong because of a set-up by the cops or because of Blonde’s psychopathic shooting spree. This leads to revelations about the backgrounds of each character, the motives of their actions, the outcomes of fates and a hell of a lot of blood. There’s also dark humor a plenty. After all, it is a Tarantino film.

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Mr. White (Keitel) and Mr. Pink (Buscemi) have a brief standoff

With that premise and after time has passed since its release, the question that remains is if the film has stood the test the time.

The short answer is “yes.” The long answer is “oh, fuck yes.”

It is a rare feat that any film still feels fresh after all these years, especially a crime film. Technology changes, times passes and the world of crime is always changing. This film, however, keeps it simple and focuses on the character. It doesn’t go into dramatic details of how they did the heist. Hell, the heist is not even shown, but through the character’s conversation, the audience has an idea about how everything went down. The film is a character piece as the idea is to get an understanding of who these guys are and Tarantino does it the only way he can: through dialogue.

There is a rule for writers known as “show, don’t tell.” With Tarantino, he knows this and can wow a crowd with the simplicity of words with a result. He tells us who these guys are by telling us what they are capable of and allowing us to draw some conclusions. Basically, the dialogue is a bit like foreplay in that it teases the audience a bit to draw some interpretation show that when the film shows us what they can do, it feels worth the wait. A prime example is Mr. Blonde as a character because the audience sees a calm and collective guy upon first sight.

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Then again, early Michael Madsen is the epitome of cool

When White and Pink talk about his shooting rampage, there is a bit of a shock and it increases when he appears drinking a soda as if nothing has happen. Once White and Pink exit the film for a tad, the audience sees the true Blonde as he becomes more than cool, but becomes a near monster with the most famous torture scene. It’s bloody, horrific and kind of humorous. Tarantino blends it all together in one scene that pays off big.

The other actors make the dialogue and story just as rich. There is never a dull moment as these guys all have been veterans on the job and seem to be about as calm. In the moments of panic though, they show their vulnerability and ruthlessness. The highlights include Pink nearly going over the edge, White as an older vet attempting to be the straight man and Orange, writhing in pain as he bleeds out, trying to keep his composure. These are real emotions on display and never come off as phoned in.

The opening scene is much more lighthearted than the rest of the film displaying what these men are like outside of the job. They are normal guys that love to bullshit, relax and talk about pop culture and their views on the world. Even in those moments, they go from being criminals to just regular Joes like everybody else. Eveything from an interesting interpretation of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” being about dick to Pink refusing to tip while playing a small violin for those struggling to make it, these guys just sound like a couple of guys that see this as another day in the life.

When getting to the backgrounds of the main men, these also ground them in reality with a sense that these guys can still be around today just being themselves. It’s not overblown with dated ideas or cliches, but rather ones that can allow this to be performed today and still feel new. The only thing a bit dated is the soundtrack, but even that works as these guys all listen to tunes of the 70’s and genuinely enjoy it. It actually connects them all together in a strange way. The music is an extension of their bond.

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Mr. Blonde (Madsen), White (Keitel) and Pink (Buscemi) take a look at the gift in the trunk.

Reservoir Dogs is a great and timeless thrill ride. It captures all the cool of the heist without showing it, all the drama that comes with its downfall through its performances and delivers a bloody good show that rivals Gallagher’s Watermelon routine. It is a great piece of independent film making and shows what was to come for the rest of 90’s cinema, for better or worse.

Thus concludes The Greatest Films…I’ve Never Seen month as we journeyed into Kurbrick’s vision of space in 2001: A Space Odyssey, listened to the sounds of Mozart in Amdeus, witnessed an affair to remember in The Graduate and got stuck in the middle with Reservoir Dogs. Next month, Film A Week decides to explore Black History on Film. The next four films will look into the way Black culture has shaped cinema and the impact made and there is no better way to begin it by going Straight Outta Compton. See you, Wednesday, February 3.

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Film A Week: “The Graduate” (1967)

“And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson,
Jesus loves you more than you will know.
God bless you, please Mrs. Robinson.
Heaven holds a place for those who pray”

-“Mrs. Robinson” by Simon & Garfunkel

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Coming-of-age stories are no longer fresh or exciting in today’s world. Even in the 1960’s, there were a fare share of those stories around for teenagers to relate to, but they were never short of horrid beach party movies. The only other one worth remembering was 1956’s Rebel Without A Cause. Luckily, 1967 had The Graduate to make up for the dry spell of great coming-of-age movies.

The Graduate has been hailed, like 2001: A Space Odyssey  and Amadeus, as nothing short of a masterpiece. This is the second film every one around me looked at me with disgust and said “How haven’t you seen it!” I’m tired of hearing this, even from my own mind telling me, and decided to see it. Before we hop into with my thoughts are, let’s talk about the plot.

There is more to this plot than the affair between Benjimin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) and Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). Our titular graduate Ben has come back to California from college home to his parents (including William Daniels aka Mr. Feeny) with worries of the future carrying him. At a graduation party filled with his parents’ peers and friends, an older woman named Mrs. Robinson is intrigued by Ben. Mrs. Robinson asks for a ride home from Ben and they converse leading to an interesting conversation. Ben feels that Mrs. Robinson is coming off a bit too strong.

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“Are you trying to seduce me, Mrs. Robinson?”

Ben rejects her advances, including her being naked in front of him, and leaves. Yet Ben finally gives in, sets up an affair at the Taft Hotel with a fake name in order to make love to Mrs. Robinson. This becomes more than an affair when Ben sees an interest in Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) much to her chagrin and is trying to decide if he should continue to graduate school or runaway from responsibility. As the tensions increase and the story plays out, Ben must come to terms with what is right, what is his future and where his relationship with Mrs. Robinson will end up.

The Graduate is more than the affair everyone remembers it for. It’s much more in-depth due to the direction of Mike Nichols and the screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. It is quite an experience watching it for the first time, so be forewarned there are spoilers ahead for a movie that is nearly 50 years old.

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One is being older and around the age Ben is. If I was in high school watching it, I probably would still be wondering why the hell it is so important. The relatable aspects, despite his own horrendous moments, really take a hold. There’s even a moment he realizes his actions after the burlesque show and even tells Elaine that he thought he had to be rude at his college age while becoming a tad redeemable in the recognition. He also stuck in the middle of the young kids of the next generation and the older generation. The hotel door revealed all in that. Here is a young adult opening a door for the older people as the young people enter, yet he is directly in the middle of it all with the door open to being with the old and the door about to close on the youthful days of yore. At this current moment, I feel like Ben because I’m not quite young, but I’m not that old either.

Second is Mrs. Robinson as a character and the other adults. These characters put a hold on Ben and try to put themselves in him. They see a kid with a bright future and seem to want help, but are actually weighing him down. His parents weigh him down in his own sense of freedom and education that bring him down mentally. Mrs. Robinson also weighs him down with arousal and seduction to take advantage and control of his sexual state of being at his current moment in time. This is during the 60’s where exploring the sexually was becoming in fashion. Here Ben is being tied down by her to the point she does everything in her power to stop him going further in exploration, i.e. with her daughter. It’s a battle of oppression by the previous views while coming to terms with the progressive views. Robinson is just slightly craving what he youth have and uses Ben as means of getting that. She needs to feel that old sense of wonder, freedom and possible rebellion with Ben in tow.

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The shot speaks for itself.

Third is the direction. Holy shit, pardon the language a tad, but the direction in this movie is perfect. There are shots that tell more than dialogue can. The dialogue of the film is hilarious including fun lines of wit and watching Hoffman fumble in both seducation and awkwardly stroll through life, but certain shots give it weight. The shot of him in the pool shows him at peace in the middle of nowhere escaping his troubles. The famous leg shot and stocking shots emphasize the power Robinson has on Ben. There is one shot I really loved (pictured above) where Ben is laying in the pool and is looking up at his parents and the Robinsons. The sun is directly behind them, giving them a mysterious shadow quality, totally showing the shadow they put on Ben. It emphasizes the previous point of the old generation against the younger generation. 

Finally, the ending of this movie is great. I now have context to it and it makes sense. They made it out, but their is no uncertainty in the air looming. There faces say it all after the manic chaos of the end. They are free, but then “The Sounds of Silence” comes in to further demonstrate their uncertainty. It’s poignant and puts a nice cap on the the whole experience.

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Going from “We are great!” to “What the fuck are we doing?” in less than 30 seconds

The Graduate is simply perfect and great for anyone in their twenties to relate to. IT hits every note just right to tell a story from its direction, its dialogue and its underlying tones of the old versus the new. The Graduate is worthy of its recognition.

Next week, The Greatest Films…I’ve Never Seen ends with a bang. The number one film on my list of movies I’ve never seen is finally here and it is a modern classic. Time to hang out with Mr. Blonde, Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blue, and Mr. Pink. This month ends with Reservoir Dogs.

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Wednesday, January 27th

Film A Week: The Series – “Amadeus: Director’s Cut” (1984/2002)

For the purpose of this review, I reviewed the widely available three hour R-rated “Director’s Cut” as opposed to the two hour and 40 minutes PG-rated version of the film. The reasoning being is that it is closer to Milos Forman’s vision and Peter Schaffer’s work.

Two musicians, both alike in musicality
In fair Vienna, where we begin our film
From opera’s blood to a final unity
There was never a tale of friend or foe
Like of Amadeus and Salieri from long ago

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Amadeus, a classic tale of rivalry, murder, music and the rise and fall of one of the world’s most talented musicians. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is one of the most creative genius in music and a mad man of sound and operatic. His ideas are complex, his concepts a true work of art and his legacy beyond compare. This is why the film is so intriguing to be told from his competitor and confidant Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham.

In 1823, Antonio Salieri (Abraham) screams and writhes with pain as he attempted suicide that he killed Mozart and he blames himself. Salieri is taken to the asylum as Father Vogler (Richard Frank) is prepare to hear what is Salieri’s confession of his murder. Turns out this confession is all about the tumultuous rivalry between him and Mozart (Tom Hulce), Mozart’s complex relationship with his father Leopald (Roy Dotrice) and wife Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge), the genius that was his operas and compositions, and the occasional moment of humor or two along the way. By the end of the tale of him and Mozart, it is up to the audience to decide if his confession of murder is justified or a madman obsessed with his rival’s lifestyle.

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For a tremendous three hours of length, Amadeus does something few epics can do and that is never get boring or tiresome. It’s a brilliant film that always keeps the pace going and pique the audiences interests in the world of Mozart. The direction by Milos Forman is essential to the creation from capturing the bright spots of Mozart’s genius in gorgeous shots in Vienna and the imagery captured in the operas shown. There are moments Forman captures imagery quite well, including the appearance of Mozart’s father with the black faced costume and the stunning set work and design throughout. It as if Forman hopped in a time machine and just went back to film it on location. There is triumph within the direction.

The performances are what truly make this film become a classic. The rivalry between Salieri and Mozart is astounding with Abraham becoming fully immersed in role. He gives Salieri a weight to him and fully makes him human. Salieri has given up practically everything to be successful and is torn between being enraged by Mozart’s genius or embrace what he is. There is stillhope within him, but the defeat toward the end is still sound, even if he sees Mozart’s death as a bit of victory. Even in older makeup as Salieri in the asylum, the audience gets the feeling he has experienced everything firsthand and allows the audience to believe every word he has.

Hulce is being a delightful carefree brat in his role. He plays Mozart as a rock star, constantly chasing women, drinking and partying, yet there is a human emotion behind him. He is geninunely hurt when the Emperor Joseph II (Jefferey Jones in a slightly hammy performance) brushes his ideas for The Marriage of Figaro aside and physically distraught when the Masked Figure gives him the Requiem to write alongside The Magic Flute. The most powerful moment is the handling of his father’s disapproval and the death of him as well. Hulce is upset and seems to never live up to the standards of his father’s wishes.

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The story is more than just the rivalry at this point and about two men who never could live up to there potential. Salieri cannot live to be on the same pedestal that  Mozart is put on and must wander in his own mediocrity and jealously for the rest of his being. Mozart can never go beyond being a genius fighting for money and getting the respect he earned, only to end up dying and being buried is a pauper’s mass grave, which is a theoretical event, but justifies the story at hand. It’s a remarkable film that is set up for repeated viewing to dive deeper into the lingering undertones the film carries.

Lastly, the use of the musical works of Salieri and Mozart is phenomenal. They add the extra layer to make this film great. The descriptions of music by Salieri are painted in auditory form as he rambles and the dark moments of the film are highlighted by the powerful works and choirs ringing out. It’s masterful in its simplicity of relying on the music that made the composer famous, but given grandiose heights of being used at the right moments to keep the tension building within the story. It was right of the production team to use the works instead of an original score as it would have harmed the story the film was trying to convey.

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Amadeus is a rarity in just how perfect a film can be. There is not a complaint I had throughout and appreciated every moment of the film. It is a masterpiece that must be enjoyed, appreciated and studied for future generations of filmmakers to see what can be done with cinema. From top to bottom, this is one of the greatest films I have finally seen…and it only took my girlfriend two years of convincing to watch her favorite film. Boy, was I an idiot for not listening at first?

Next week, the second of my biggest regrets of films I haven’t watched before is finally being covered. It’s shocking to say that even at my college age, I have never seen the tale of young Benjamin Braddock and his affair with Mrs. Robinson. Film A Week takes a look at The Graduate.

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Wednesday, January 20

Film A Week: The Series – “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)

The old mainstay of the website has returned.

Film A Week ended its original run on December 31st, 2013 with The World’s End having covered a variety of films from the great and bad. It’s been about two years removed from the end that something told me “Wait…there are still movies that you have never watched or went back to rewatch.” Well, I figured it’s about time, but now there are no rules on long how this can go, every month will have a theme and all movies are free game.

For the first month, I figure I embarrass myself by covering “The Greatest Films…I’ve Never Seen.” Yes, my dumbass self have not seen the following for movies this month before and my friends, family and girlfriend have berated me forever because of not seeing them. Having had enough of this crap, I decided to get it started with a bang with the Stanley Kubrick classic science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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First film out of the gate and the most difficult to analyze, 2001: A Space Odyssey has polarized audiences, critics and broke film students for years. It’s a technical marvel of filmmaking, production and storytelling by making everyone who comes across it think about what the film is it about. Is it about evolution? Is it about the natural versus the artificial? Is it boring, plodding piece of pretentious art only rented because the video store was out of Star Wars? Now, before we get existential about the film and the many, many questions, let’s talk about the plot.

The plot is, for the most part, complicated. A black slab called the Monolith apparently left by aliens can help those that come across it gain knowledge as seen with man apes discovering tools. Match cut to a spaceship with Dr. Haywood Floyd (William Sylvester) preparing to comes across the Monolith on the moon of Europa and is hit by the wave of its power. Eighteen months later, Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Underwood) are on a mission to Jupiter with a crew in hibernation. An AI named HAL 9000 (voice by Douglas Rain) keeps operations on the ship with promises of never having a problem until it eventually has one. What follows is an odyssey like never before.

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It is a monumental film to sit through to the point it feels like a wonderful chore. At moments, modern audiences can find it draw and boring in its pacing, yet the imagery presented grabs the attention of the viewer. The music, all public domain scores, emphasizes each segment or long standing sequence. To be honest, I had to fight myself from not sleeping because the music and calmness of imagery (in the first half anyway) was making me tired, but I wanted to see what happened next.

Kubrick had an eye for visuals and design. It’s an art exhibit with a plot practically due to the gorgeous shots from the match cut, the opening sequence and the scene of Dave trying to rescue Frank from tumbling in space. There is artistry in every shot which helps tremendously for capturing the eerie and terrifying nature of space. Space has no sound, the characters are isolated and the emptiness of the universe is supposed to comfort them.

Two terrifying scenes of note is the approach mentioned of the Monolith on Europa with a choir from the far reaches of hell sighing and crying as a piercing noise devastates the Europa crew. The second is HAL 9000’s descent into a killing machine. It’s not loud or even bloody. The first death is off screen and the rest of the crews are only shown via vital scans tracking heartbeats and monitoring their awareness. It’s scary for the sake that is done in pure silence and without warning. The “Computer Malfunction” sign beaming from the screen is an image I cannot get out of my head.

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The performances are simple in a complex film, but that is fine. The standout is Rain as the HAL 9000. It’s draw and monotone, but has a chill factor in how calm it is about everything. This even helps Dullea in one particular sequence. When it tells Dave it can read lips from what him and Frank were talking about in the pod, Dullea seems defeated and must find a way to take HAL 9000 out of the way. Rain gives no remorse until the end with Dave talking about the song he learned to sing in order to get sympathy. Luckily, it doesn’t work.

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The ending is the one thing that has caused constant debate. What the hell was that about? Is usually the first thought. For myself, I had the same question and had to think quite a bit. Ad Dave approaches approaches the Monolith. He is traversing through what is dubbed dubbed the stargate, a pastiche of colors and trippy LSD driven imagery. It’s terrifyingly beautiful, but then it gets weird. Dave approaches a room dubbed the Renaissance Room with an idea version of himself which appears to be cracking cracking or the makeup at the time was just miserable. That Dave is then the only Dave we have left as it keeps evolving till Dave’s eventual death leading to a star child being born.

The End. Rolls credits.

Wait, what the hell did just happen?

I cannot give a concrete answer since this ending is open to interpretation. Personally, it involves evolution and the dangers of the progression of technology. I am assuming that, not saying that is exactly the answer.

The Monolith can help bring knowledge to those within the grasp of it. It can bring power as well. Dave is evolving beyond what he is thought to be capable of. The HAL 9000, like the Monolith, is a black rectangular object with power and knowledge. Dave is his own natural being and HAL 9000 is just an artificial sentient being he is forced to come face to face with. He realizes the danger and evolves to find a way to destroy the artificial representation of the Monolith. The Monolith is aware of Dave’s action and evolution that he is tossed through the universe to another plane and is reborn for humanity to thrive in the next step as Dave has already destroyed the artificial next step. I believe that’s it, but maybe I’m just insane.

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A close friend of mine named Miguel Carachure loves this film. I asked him to give his personal thoughts on the film and it’s state as a masterpiece in science fiction.

When I hear the overture of Stanley Kubrick’s greatest film (and that is NOT an opinion, ask AFI) my mind aches with anticipation to hear that procession of horns and drums of “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” The accompanying image of the moon slowly descending to reveal the earth and the sun gradually rising and rising, subconsciously being affected on an existential level (if that’s even possible). When those stark white opening titles appear, I can’t help but get chills when a ‘Stanley Kubrick Production’ comes up followed by the film title itself; 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But enough of that, my amour for the film is making me fangirl, let’s focus on two oddly specific things, (which in no way were guidelines given to me by my friend) my interpretation and why it is a classic.

The film happily haunts cinema historians with its minimal dialogue, plot and its story structure, which is divided into chapters and unfamiliar to many casual moviegoers, (but quite familiar to Mr. Tarantino). My belief is that Kubrick is attempting to simplify a story billions of years in the making, while also economizing plot by avoiding extraneous exposition and inconsequential character dramas. This is in service of illustrating the evolution of mankind: from the ‘Dawn of Man’ to ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’ Kubrick is interested in telling the biggest picture imaginable, the ultimate dramatic conflict one could possibly tell; Humankind fulfilling its rhetorical potential of becoming great.

Kubrick was odd. Deeply insightful yet kind of a lunatic, the pinnacle and cliché of genius wunderkind and with 2001, he does both brilliantly. Often he made movies with tough subject matter and mostly focused on the follies and darkness of man such as Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, respectively. 2001 is Kubrick’s ultimate statement of the potential of life, humankind and any other interpretation you could conjure up because THAT is why it is a classic; its universal appeal of universal possibilities. Like all of Kubrick’s films, it’s relevancy stands simply because it is a film about the human condition developing and changing, it will continue to inform and amaze many generations to come as it was intended to do.

Miguel hit the nail on the head. “2001: A Space Odyssey” gets everything it deserves. It’s a masterwork of not just science fiction, but film in general. At this point, it’s critic proof. It’s timeless and will continue to polarize audiences for years to come. This film is why cinema is an artform.

Next week, we move away from space and head back to Earth in Vienna with Amadeus. Time to take some time to pay a visit to the musical genius himself. Welcome back to Film A Week.

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