Revisiting RESERVOIR DOGS On The Big Screen – Thanks Again Cool Classics @ The Colony!

As a film geek/blogger it’s probably not surprising that one of my favorite pastimes is to see old movies, whether for the first time or hundredth, on the big screen. A 35 MM print, new or old, of a particular cult or could be cult movie really is most certainly my cup of tea. As I’ve blogged before, The Colony Theater in North Raleigh has been showing a regular round of what they call “Cool Classics”. Last Saturday night was right for a midnight show of arguably Quentin Tarantino’s best flick. Since my girlfriend and I have attended such previous pop culture staples as ERASERHEAD, PURPLE RAIN and most recently enjoyed re-seeing CITY OF LOST CHILDREN we were game to revisit:

RESERVOIR DOGS (Dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1992)

It was hugely fitting that the night before this late show, The Museum Of Art in Raleigh screened THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE. Why you ask? Because Mr. Too Cool For Film School Tarantino lovingly lifted the use of colors as code names from that classic 70’s heist film – i.e. Mr. Blond, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blue etc. Of course he snarkily threw in Mr. Pink just so Steve Buscemi could have something to hilariously complain about: “Yeah, Mr. Pink sounds like Mr. Pussy. Tell you what, let me be Mr. Purple.” He lifted lots more from other films here too but whether you consider it a rip-off or a homage, RESERVOIR DOGS, 17 years later, is still colossal cinema and one of the most daring breakthrough debuts of a director ever.

This was before independent films were the rage and award nominee regulars. Many notable auteurs had offered up dark crafty fare before but while filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Steven Soderbergh made cool indie films, Tarantino made indie films ultra cool. With RESERVOIR DOGS and its overwhelmingly influential follow-up PULP FICTION, the former video store clerk created a world of wise guys in suits with thin black ties, vintage cars with blood splashed interiors, 50’s styled diners, f-bombs and n-words dropped in nearly every line, endless pop culture reference riffing, and soundtracks full of 70’s funk/pop deep cuts. The opening credits slow motion shuffle to George Bakers Little Green bag alone defines Tarantinos savvy assured style.

Most of the action in RESERVOIR DOGS (nobody really knows what the title means – Tarantino himself wont say) deals with a never seen heist gone wrong and takes place in a mostly empty warehouse. It has been said that for budgetary reasons most directors first films are essentially ‘filmed plays’. That said, seeing this film on the big screen for the first time enhanced the spare staging scenarios for me to an edgier level than I expected. The iconic shot, used on many posters and the go-to promotional picture, of Harvey Keitel with gun pointed at an on the floor Steve Buscemi is 10 times more effective here than on any TV viewing when it pulls back to reveal Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) coolly watching them in an over the shoulder viewpoint. Likewise the shot from the P.O.V. of the cop (Kirk Baltz) tied up in Mr. Blonde’s car trunk – I mean it’s obvious to say but it’s so nice to see this film like this how it was truly meant to be seen.

One flaw of many film folks’ first films is that the actors all talk like the writer/director (see Richard Linklater’s SLACKER). This is actually something that works well in Tarantino’s favor here despite all odds. I can practically hear Tarantino coaching Buscemi, Keitel, producer turned actor Lawrence Tierney,Tim Roth et al. through all of their lines but somehow that’s actually a plus in these punchy proceedings. Tarantino wisely kills off his own character (Mr. Brown) after his opening Like A Virgin breakdown speech presumably because he was aware his acting wasnt up to the caliber of his co-stars – too bad he didnt make the same decision in future films (especially PULP FICTION and DEATH PROOF).

In the low budget framing but the high formula re-thinking that defines Tarantino’s cut and paste career, RESERVOIR DOGS deserves future wave after wave of big screen audiences. Even if you own a special edition DVD or Blu-ray, consider seeing it on the big screen if a print comes to your area. Every detail from Steven Wright’s voice-over on the radio (“K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies” to be exact) to the sadly late Chris Penn’s scene steals as Nice Guy Eddie just screams for larger projection. One great moment – in a pivotal scene, Madsen spoke just as somebody in the audience made a distracting noise by dropping their drink. Keitel responded “excuse me?” as if he didn’t hear because of the offending interruption. Madsen had to repeat himself louder. Many at the Colony theater late show laughed – a communal sensation that can’t be recreated at home. Maybe that’s a disclaimer that should be on this film as well, especially the brutal cop’s ear slicing sequence: “These are trained professionals – don’t try this at home.”

Post note: I realize after re-reading this that I was addressing folks who’ve already seen this movie. If you haven’t seen it – by all means, screw waiting for a big screen opportunity, just rent the damn thing and complete the indie initiation of your film education – why doncha?

More later…

The Evolution Of Michael Moore

“…oh and remember let’s defeat the terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them here.”
Michael Moore (SiCKO, 2007)

So Michael Moore’s latest event movement movie-doc is opening Friday at my local hometown theater The Varsity but like many folk here on the internets I watched a copy online. I’ll still see it at my theater and urge everyone I know to do so ’cause as my review below sez it’s a keeper. Since Moore and me have had our ups and downs through the years I thought It would be cool to look back over his movies (this is film babble blog so I’m not going to discuss his books or TV programs) and break them down a bit.

A formula of sorts emerges when we look at the basic ingredients in a Moore movie – first though we must look at one of his principle inspirations. In April of 1986 shortly after General Electric bought NBC, David Letterman – the top-rated late night talk show host at the time – on his old 12:30 broadcast Late Night With David Letterman did a camera remote film piece in which he took a fruit basket as a welcoming gift to GE’s corporate headquarters in New York. Letterman kept a good game-face as he was told to leave and his director scolded to turn off his camera. This bit which should be regarded as a TV classic (I’ll settle for the “memorable moment” status that Wikipedia has granted it) is the template for Michael Moore’s entire schtick. You can see the bit here. Moore took that bit and ran with it as far as his fat ass can take him. Moore even acknowledged it as a huge influence on The Late Show With David Letterman when promoting FAHRENHEIT 9/11 in 2004.

You’ve got to have more than invading corporation lobbies and harrasing the staff that to make a full fledged documentary so let’s look at :


Yep, one can’t imagine Moore’s films without these tried and true stylistic devices

1. Idyllic 50’s stock footage – In the first third of all of Moore’s films we see archival footage depicting a supposedly simpler time. Public service films, shots from grainy newsreels, bits of TV commercials, clips from forgotten drive-in fodder, sometimes even Moore’s own childhood home movies are presented to put us in a Leave It To Beaver-Father Knows Best mindset before showing us a series of modern atrocities. This definitely shows the influence of Moore’s mentor and cinematographer Kevin Rafferty *. Rafferty’s own documentary made of likewise footage – THE ATOMIC CAFE (1982) is another huge piece of the Moore movie puzzle.

* Incidentally Rafferty is a first cousin of President George W. Bush. Thanks again Wikipedia!

2. Baby Boomer Era Hit Songs – The precedent was set in ROGER & ME when auto worker Ben Hamper talks about the groove (yes, groove) he had trouble working up listening to The Beach Boys’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” on his car stereo after telling his employers he couldn’t take it anymore. The song plays as shots of boarded-up houses, abandoned storefronts, and a TV report about the rat population escalating after the factory closing in Flint, Michigan rolls by. That groove resurges in the well known songs by the Animals whose “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” – in FAHRENHEIT 9/11 serenades the sequence of planes taking off to drive home the point about the Bin Laden family being given the privilege to fly in the days after 9/11, Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World” played at the end of the same film, The Beatles “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” made an obvious point in BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, and most aptly Cat Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy” is used to great effect in SiCKO.

3. A Megaphone – In SiCKO we see Moore in a boat in Guantanamo Bay with a group of 9/11 rescue workers after learning that terrorist detainees are getting top notch medical treatment. With trusty megaphone in hand Moore yells “we just want some medical attention – the same kind the evil doers are getting!” This should be no surprise to Moore movie-goers because he employs the same tactic in almost every movie. This also can be traced back to Letterman – he disrupted a taping of The Today Show from a window above Rockefeller plaza with a megaphone. Of course Dave’s agenda wasn’t political – “this prime-time program was my idea and I’m not wearing any pants!”

4. Stern Evil Unemotional Old White Men – Of course General Motors President and inspiration for Moore’s first film – Roger Smith is the archetype but throughout his canon we have more old money villains who apparently rule the world than we know what to do with. His book Stupid White Men confirms this premise. It’s as if the Cancer Man (sorry Cigarette Smoking Man) and his elite friends from the X-Files have truly an identity and source of blame that we can finger. ‘As if’ indeed.

5. Bringing It All Back Home To Flint, Michigan – Moore’s hometown has a pivotal place in all of his films (oddly not SiCKO – this is the only method on this list that isn’t used) even the wide-ranging Global kaliedoscope that is FAHRENHEIT 9/11 has the story of Lila Lipscomb a Flint resident and proud flag waver whose son Michael was killed in Iraq. I would make some lame pun about Flint ‘sparking’ the whole Moore-apolaza but I digress…

Now let’s look at the movies themselves :

THE BLUEPRINT ROGER AND ME (1989) – “My mission was a simple one. To convince Roger Smith to spend a day with me in Flint and to meet some of the people who were losing their jobs.” So it was, a young aspiring documentary film maker centers on the legacy of his hometown. The devastation that occurred after major auto factories laid off thousands of workers then later closed down. The evictions and fat-cat revisionisms that plagued normal workingman’s schedules and laid bare the prospect of America at its outsourced greediest. It’s all here in this grainy wet behind the ears debut. Though it has been noted that while Moore documented his struggle to get behind closed doors to interview General Motors President Roger Smith – he did actually talk to him before the film was made – in a question-and-answer exchange during a May 1987 GM shareholders meeting (seen in the doc MANUFACTURING CONSENT). The backlash was just beginning.


“Canadians are always dreaming up a lotta ways to ruin our lives. The metric system, for the love of God! Celsius! Neil Young!” – Gus (Brad Sullivan)

After the success of ROGER & ME it’s understandable that Moore would want to try his hand at making a fictional funny film. He had a great premise – an unpopular US President played by Alan Alda tries to get a polling statistic bump and votes by starting a fake war with Canada. Years ahead of WAG THE DOG and with a great cast including John Candy (his last film by the way), Rip Torn, Kevin Pollack, Rhea Perlman and Steven Wright how could you go wrong? Well, it went really wrong and became a slapsticky forgettable mess. The unfunniest of Moore’s films despite a few random laughs CANADIAN BACON now stands as an oddity in his career. Thankfully he went back to non-fiction and wiped his hands clean of this mess.

THE P.R. PIECETHE BIG ONE (1997) Moore, not yet a household name but finding himself with a best selling book Downsize This! Random Threats from an Unarmed American he decided to film his publicity tour across America. Pretty fluffy but still has some sharp segments – especially a meeting with Nike CEO Phil Knight (the only such corporate head that would meet Moore on his tour) is an essential bit that can not be easily dismissed. When Moore asks why his companies shoes are made abroad and not here – ” But what about Indonesia’s genocidal practices against minority groups?” Knight uncomfortably responds “How many people died in the Cultural Revolution?” An incendiary moment in an otherwise glorified infomercial.

(2002) This re-established film going folk to the Moore method. Few film makers would attempt a pop doc about gun control but Moore brought such sweaty passion to the subject that it could not be ignored. Sure it maybe plays around with facts (Moore had arranged the “free gun when you open a bank account” transaction weeks in advance, and that customers have “a week to 10 days waiting period”) and the showdown with a senile but still grand Charlton Heston was misguided and more embarrassing than point making but overall BOWLING deserved the Oscar it won for best documentary. Visiting With Timothy McVeigh’s brother James Nichols and hearing out his militia views, Moore asks: “Why not use Gandhi’s way? He didn’t have any guns and he best the British Empire.” Nichols blankly replies: “I’m not familiar with that.” Right there – that’s America caught on film.

With just a few allusions to 9/11 and the administration’s ties to the Saudi family the gun-site was almost completely in line:

THE GUNSHOT HEARD AROUND THE WORLD: FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (2004) Moore’s controversial (can’t write a piece on Moore without using the word “controversial”) Oscar speech really set the bar high for this one. Beginning with the grossly mishandled 2000 election and dogging President George W. Bush’s every stupid move, Moore’s movie won him a lot of movie fans and he became a world wide celebrity but at the same time he became a divisive personality. FAHRENHEIT 9/11 has aged a bit badly – it creaks with sloppiness at times – understandably it was rushed into production to have an impact on the election in 2004 -and some of its conclusions are speculative at best but the bottom line as stated in the Oscar speech referred to above “we live in fictitious times, with a fictitious president who was elected with fictitious election results and we’re fighting a war for fictitious reasons” is pretty damn effectively played out.

And now, the new one :

SiCKO (2007) The most focused and funniest of Moore’s films by far. SiCKO has little by way of manipulative editing or Moore’s particular brand of muckraking – it just simply presents people and their stories – for the most part. Sure, most people will be cynical about the objectivity here – which in a way is the point – but the basic facts about Canadian, then French, then most surprisingly Cuban healthcare is enough to make even a Moore hater raise their eyebrows. The irrefutable facts like – “And the United States slipped to 37 in health care around the world, just slightly ahead of Slovenia” and the testimony of Dr. Linda Peeno, a former medical reviewer for the health insurer Humana in which she admited :”I denied a man a necessary operation” are just a few of the examples that brought tears to my eyes. Yes, there are liberties taken and many will label this as propaganda (but what documentary isn’t?) most likely dealing with the close to the ending bit where Moore sends a 12,000 dollar check to one of his most out-spoken critics Jim Kenefick ( whose wife was sick and his web site needed funding or had to shut down. SiCKO may be Moore’s best film – don’t let biased naysayers tell you otherwise.

Moore In Other’s Mediums :

As a celebrity – a household name, a well-known entity, a figurehead, and most aptly a target Michael Moore has really arrived. A few examples :

TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (Dir. Trey Parker, 2004) Apparently them there South Park guys thought their appearance in BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE was mishandled and the cartoon in said film was too much in the style of South Park (Parker – “We have a very specific beef with Michael Moore. I did an interview, and he didn’t mischaracterize me or anything I said in the movie. But what he did do was put this cartoon right after me that made it look like we did that cartoon”), so yeah Moore had this coming – he appears as a hot dog eating jerk who straps explosives to his body to blow up the heroes of the film’s title – as reported on MSNBC – The puppet was reportedly stuffed with ham when it blew.

Family Guy (1999-when the show is no longer profitable) Now I’m Pro-Simpsons Anti-Family Guy but this bit should be noted even if it is a bad fart joke – “like that time I outfarted Michael Moore” Peter Griffin (voice of Seth MacFarlane) recounts then we see him and Moore in a Men’s room enter parallel-walled toilets. Then the farting begins. Actually maybe this shouldn’t be noted. Oh well.

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Moore later…

No! I meant :

More later…

A Few New Reviews & Doing The Wright Thing

“I went to the video store and asked if they had the movie with Nicolas Cage and Hayley Mills. It was shot in black and white on color film. It was the one where they lost the war because they made all of the submarines out of styrofoam. Then I realized that wasn’t a movie, it was a dream I had. Then I thought how cool it would be to rent your dreams. The guy says, “that’s not a movie, that was a dream you had.” I said, “how did you know that?” He said, “you tried to rent it last week. “I said, “well, let me know when you get it in.””
– Steven Wright

Thanks for everybody’s comments and suggestions on my last post – 20 Great Modern Movie Cameos. I’m compiling the best reader’s picks and will post them soon so please stay tuned. This time out a few movies now playing at a theater near you and new DVDs as well as a local live review of one of the greatest comedians (and sometime film actor) ever so please read on –

SWEET LAND (Dir. Ali Selim, 2005) This film has been around for a bit but only made its way to my local home town theater The Varsity this last week accompanied by the director who said this was his last stop on his publicity tour. Based on William Weaver’s touching short story A Gravestone Made Of Wheat dealing with immigration issues and small town prejudices that delays the marriage of a German mail-order bride (Elizabeth Reaser) to a Norwegian immigrant farmer (Tim Guinee) in the days after World War I SWEET LAND aims for a loving lyricism that for the most part it achieves. One of the only mis-steps are John Heard’s Priest character who seems a bit off in tone to fully fit into the mechanics of this period piece – his “but I saw them dancing” dialogue feels a bit forced but Reaser is extremely beautiful (though her makeup is a bit much) and so is the Minnesota scenery. Remarking on the oft made comparisons to DAYS OF HEAVEN at the Q & A after the screening last friday night, director/writer Selim said “you can’t shoot a field without people thinking you’re referencing Terrence Mallick”. Good point though for a first time film maker to be placed in such lofty company should make him as proud as he should be for this solid absorbing debut.

Also in theaters :

PARIS, JE T’AIME (Directed by 18 different directors including the Coen Bros, Alexander Payne, Wes Craven, Gus Van Sant, Tom Twyker, Alfonso Cuaron, and Isabel Coixet) In 1988 NEW YORK STORIES featured 3 short films made by master directors Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola that collectively formed a valentine to the grand city. Multiply that by 6 and add a bit of LOVE ACTUALLY change the locale to Paris and you’ve got PARIS, JE T’AIME (translates to Paris, I love you). Much like its predessesors it’s a mixed bag but with nearly 20 movie makers how could it not be? At its effective best it’s as good as movies can get particularly the Coen Brothers-Steve Buscemi as a tourist in a subway segment which is the best thing the Coens have done since THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.

Other successful bits are “Place des fêtes” by Oliver Schmitz which has a dying man falling in love with his paramedic and Alexander Payne’s gorgeous “14e arrondissement” also about a tourist enjoying a profound day sight seeing. Even the misfires are interesting – Sylvain Chomet’s “Tour Eiffel” about mimes in love is too cutesy but it’s breezy enough and “Quartier de la Madeleine” by Vincenzo Natali with Elijah Wood and Olga Kurylenko is only useful if you’ve ever wondered how vampires make out. The Maggie Gyllenhall and Natalie Portman portions are annoying but then maybe it’s just them that’s annoying – I can’t decide.With it’s amazing photography and ratio of good material over bad PARIS, JE T’AIME deserves to be seen in theaters though it will also be fun later to skip and choose the best bits from the DVD platter. It’s the tastiest anthology film I’ve ever been served.

Just released on DVD –

(Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2006) Shot in black and white with its white washed exterior shots and rear projection when driving scenes THE GOOD GERMAN achieves beautifully the exact aesthetic of a film shot in 1945 so much that you may forget it’s a current release and think you are watching Turner Movie Classics. Its got the look down but unfortunately it doesn’t feel authentic. Soderbergh regular George Clooney plays a journalist who arrives in Berlin just after World War II has ended but the shadows and treachery still linger. He finds out that his scheming motor pool driver (Tobey Maguire) has been seeing Clooney’s former lover (Cate Blanchett)- a prostitute with a complicated dark background. Well if you’ve read my reviews you know I’m not one for detailed plot descriptions so that’s all you’ll get. Overlong and undercooked with a cast that is as stiff as Mount Rushmoore (with the exception of the overacting Maguire who is completely out of his depth here), this film adds nothing to the great noir genre and left me feeling afterwards like I saw a bad CASABLANCA cover band. I’m sure after they were finished with this sober straight faced old school exercise I bet Clooney and Soderbergh were dying to get trashed and party it up OCEAN’S style.

A write-up of a live performance by a comedian? Isn’t this supposed to be a film blog? Well I think Mr. Wright’s connection to the world of movies is pretty undeniable especially since he’s won an Oscar damnit! (For the short film THE APPOINTMENTS OF DENNIS JENNINGS1988) So hush your bitchin’ and let me babble on :

“When I was a little kid I wish the first word I ever said was the word ‘quote’ so right before I died I could say ‘unquote.'”

STEVEN WRIGHT live at the Carolina Theater, Durham June 6th, 2007 – I’ve seen Steven Wright before – in 1985 at Memorial Hall here in Chapel Hill and it was one of the funniest performances of stand-up I’ve ever seen. With a load of new material and a reputation from years of movie appearances (see below) and TV guest shots Wright walked onstage to thunderous applause early this month. Although the audience was familliar with a lot of his act (a recent Comedy Central special and DVD release When The Leaves Blow Away documents the new stuff) just about every line killed and it was fascinating to see him experiment with some lines that were obviously works in progress. He did about an hour and 40 minutes never losing momentum and I believe he only used a handful of jokes he had done 22 years earlier (pretty sure “I got arrested for scalping low numbers at the deli” and the bit about Harry Houdini locking his keys in his car were repeated) but these one liners are like classic crowd pleasers so that’s not really a criticism. He even played 2 songs on the guitar – one was introduced as a song he wrote when he was three years old – “the kittie’s trying to kill me”. So nice in these stupid celebrity obsessed times to have a non-topical apolitical clever crafty comedian still going strong and gaining new generations of fans. Can’t wait to see him again in 2029!

Wright was considered for my Cameos post last time out but didn’t make the list so I thought I’d take this occasion to pay tribute to the great man with this handy dandy list :

5 Great Wright Roles

1. NATURAL BORN KILLERS (Dir. Oliver Stone, 1994) Maybe the closest to a dramatic part as Wright’s ever done, uh well no not really. Dr. Emil Reingold is pure Wright through and through. When told by Robert Downey Jr. – “Mallory Knox has said that she wants to kill you.”He responds in a matter of fact manner – “I never really believe what women tell me.”

2. HALF BAKED (Dir. Tamra Davis, 1998) Uncredited and only known as The Guy On The Couch Wright has very few lines – “is it January?” he asks at one point but everybody always remembers his part in this aptly named pot comedy. Well, at least all my stoner friends do.

3. CANADIAN BACON (Dir. Michael Moore, 1995) Quite possibly the only legitimately funny part of Moore’s only non documentary flop comedy Wright appears at his laconic lucid finest as “RCMP Officer at Headquarters”. Thinking that there’s a war with Canada angry American invaders (John Candy, Kevin J. O’Connor, Bill Nunn) are further angered by Wright’s Canadian tongue – “I don’t know what you’re talking aboot, eh?” Bill Nunn yells in Wright’s face – “Aboot! It’s ABOUT! And what’s with this ‘eh’ business?!!?

4. COFFEE AND CIGARETTES (Dir. Jim Jarmusch, 2003) In the opening short film “Strange To Meet You” Wright meets Roberto Benigni for a cup of coffee and yes cigarettes. Fimed in 1986 the scene is relatively meaningless beyond its basic description but there is a palatable amusing sense of awkwardness when these guys styles mix – Benigni sure doesn’t get Wright’s caffeine popsicle bit. Credited as Steven he has one energetic moment – “I like to drink a lot of coffee right before I go to sleep, so I can dream faster.” You can see the clip here.

5. SO I MARRIED AN AXE MURDERER (Dir. Thomas Schlamme, 1993) Another near lame movie saved from complete lame-ocity because of a Wright appearance. As a pilot of a small plane he scares the Hell out of passenger Mike Myers with his admission that he has never flown at night and when pointing at the instrument panel he says “that’s the artificial horizon, which is better than the actual horizon.”

Notable mention goes to his DJ voice-over in RESERVOIR DOGS, his take on the infamous naughty joke in THE ARISTOCRATS, and his film debut in 1984 as Larry Stillman D.D.S. in DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (which was Madonna‘s film debut too by the way).

More later…