Yeah I know, this Iraq deal is getting even worse but let’s just take one fuckin column to talk about what I used to talk about, the movies.
This month has been hard on the wallet not just because of the economy but also because of numerous high quality dvd releases of important films of Badass Cinema. Today I will take some time to review a few of those dvds.
First of all we got my pick for the best movie of the year so far, BLADE II. I feel I have already written enough about the many fine qualities of this picture so I will focus this review only on the many fine dvd extras brought to you by one of our best directors, Mr. Guillermo del Toro. This is a part of the “New Line Platinum Series” which I have come to know and trust as a series of dvds with extra material above and beyond your “theatrical trailer” or your “chapter stops” or even your “weblinks.” (Does anybody really have a DVD-ROM drive? And if so, do they really need a dvd to figure out how to find the web site for BONES?) BLADE II is no exception, in fact it has even better extras than BLADE I.
Mr. del Toro acts as your host, introducing the deleted scenes by saying in his thick Mexican accent, “This is what we would like to call ‘Sperm Removal’, but we will call it deleted scenes” and “What you are about to see is mostly crap.” It’s true, these extra scenes are not particularly exciting, but the optional commentary makes them pretty interesting for us filmatic enthusiatists. I especially liked learning that Michael Jackson (who knows Wesley Snipes from one of his videos, I think) wanted a part in the movie, so del Toro wrote a scene where the princess walks in on a vampire pervert fondling a plastic bag full of entrails. Unfortunately Jackson could not work the scene into his schedule.
Del Toro is a very likable and vulgar presence throughout the extras. On the in-depth making of the movie documentary there is a scene where the composer Marco Beltrami tries to explain to his orchestra, over a microphone, a special sound effect del Toro has asked him to have them record. Del Toro interupts, grabs the microphone and says, “No no no. Don’t listen to him. He’s been masturbating in the corner for five minutes.”
On his commentary track he gives alot of insight into the “comic book feel” of the movie, giving a good argument for how his movie is more faithful to the spirit of children’s comic books than most. He also boasts about the unacknowledged technical breakthroughs in the movie, correctly bragging that people can’t always tell what is done on a computer and what isn’t. (One shot I thought was computer was apparently a puppet.) At the same time he’s alot harder on the movie than I am, getting worked up about a couple of phoney looking shots and laughing heartily at some corny dialogue, at one point even telling the viewer to “switch it over to Goyer” to find out if the writer defends the dialogue on his own commentary track.
Goyer’s track is with Wesley Snipes and that’s a good one too. Wesley is most proud of his action, and does alot of “boom boom boom”s and “oooooooooohhhhhh”s as he watches the fights. But what’s entertaining is that he hates the songs they used in the movie and gets very emotional in complaining about them. He says that the song played while the Blood Pack gets ready for the assault on the club should make you say “These guys are badasses, I wanna go with them” but instead makes you say “No, you guys go ahead, I’ll stay here.”
I remember reading somewhere that even if you hated the remake of PLANET OF THE APES (because, let’s face it, you did) you had to buy the dvd for all the great extras. I think that’s a load of horseshit so I won’t make that argument for BLADE II. Instead I will say that if you are only buying it for the extras and do not appreciate the power of BLADE II then I don’t know what your fuckin problem is, pal.
I was almost as excited about another New Line Platinum Edition, this one for THE MACK starring Max Julien as Goldy, the Mack. Mr. Julien is pretty much only known for his starring role in this movie but I consider him one of the true heroes of blaxploitation because he wrote two of the very best, this one and CLEOPATRA JONES.
THE MACK was already on dvd, but this release is a landmark because it’s the first time ever that a blaxploitation movie got a real special edition dvd. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate my dirt cheap, no frills, no bells, no whistles, no anything at all CLEOPATRA JONES, and of course I will always cherish the “ass whooping savings” of the Dolemite box set. But damn it’s good to see THE MACK receiving the honor of Platinum Editionhood. The disc doesn’t have as many extras as BLADE II, and the commentary is one of those ones where they edit together clips from various interviews instead of actually having the people together in a room watching and commentary-ing on the movie. But at least there IS a commentary, and there is also a 45 minute documentary that gives alot of background on the movie that I never knew. Did you know that they were caught in a struggle between the Black Panthers and the Ward Brothers crime syndicate, paying both for protection? I didn’t. I didn’t know that the Player’s Ball and Player’s Picnic in the movie were filmed at the actual events, or that Frank Ward, in the movie, is a real pimp playing himself. I mean it turns out I didn’t know a whole fucking lot about THE MACK.
Also it turns out I’ve never reviewed this movie and it’s a shame because this is probaly my favorite blaxploitation movie. I love the retarded charm of the Rudy Ray Moore pictures, and the heart and soul Curtis brought to SUPERFLY, and you can’t beat Jim Kelly or Fred the Hammer Williamson, and to a lesser extent I also enjoy old John Shaft with his turtleneck and his attitude. And obviously there’s Pam Grier and I already mentioned the great CLEOPATRA JONES. But THE MACK is better.
Watching this documentary, I started to realize why. This is the most realistic fictional account of the pimp world. It takes obvious influence from the Iceberg Slim books, but apparently it also had to do with alot of hard research, using the Ward brothers both to insure filming in Oakland was possible and to make the portrayals accurate. The director is a white dude but he is a documentationist and he uses those skills to get some of the real Oakland underbelly into the movie. The movie has a bit of the arty guerilla independent spirit of SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAAADAASSSS SONG, but none of the intense boredom or weird shit that leaves you scratching your head wondering if you even know what just happened. (No offense Melvin.)
The perfect casting of the charming Max Julien works to show how a charismatic pimp can “control a bitch’s mind.” But Goldy is more than some smooth talking guy in a fur coat. It is not just the pimp shit that makes him an interesting character. Max Julien gives this dude real emotions. It’s a dubious way of fighting The Man but he makes it seem sincere. And the movie never demonizes him or whitewashes him. In one scene he passes out money to kids and makes them promise to stay in school. But then he yells at one for saying “I wanna be like you, Goldy” and a woman on the street complains about that fuckin pimp coming around the kids again.
I haven’t even mentioned Richard Pryor. I remember when I first saw it, I thought he was gonna be The Mack. Actually he’s kind of the sidekick and it was filmed just after his breakthrough role in LADY SINGS THE BLUES. He’s whiny and vulnerable, and probaly alot like the real Richard Pryor. I always wondered why he didn’t have a bigger part – turns out Max Julien had to beg the producers to let him on the movie, then he got in a fist fight with the director and that night tried to kill him, so, you know, he got fired. They still say he’s a genius, though.
If you think you like the black films of the ’70s and you haven’t seen THE MACK, get to work buddy.
Next we got a whole trilogy here, practically. We got the three Tarantino pictures, all with new special edition double disc dvds. Now keep in mind, double disc doesn’t mean jack shit these days because discs are no longer double sided. What happened was, and I am not joking, the studios decided that dvd viewers don’t understand having two sides. I guess in a world with no records, they think people have forgotten about the concept of side 1 and side 2. And it didn’t occur to them to, you know, try to explain it. So now a single movie with a couple extras gets spread across two discs, even though before they could fit both DESPERADO and EL MARIACHI and plenty of extras for both on ONE disc. They can do it, and I can prove it. Come over to my house and we’ll watch them.
Anyway that said, all three of these are real good pictures and good special editions and they fill up the discs. The most exciting is JACKIE BROWN because it’s never been on dvd before. I love that movie and take pity on the people who wanted some showy SNATCH type garbage and still don’t appreciate it for what it is.
Now I was late to catch on to Tarantino, on account of some complications in my life situation, and I haven’t found the time to take part in this backlash where you pretend that you never liked him and refuse to admit the obvious fact that, obnoxious personality or not, he is a truly talented director. The biggest myth is the one about “Tarantino is a good writer but he’s not a very good director because he doesn’t have the camera flying all over the place, which is what directors do.” JACKIE BROWN more than anything shows that this young man knows what the fuck he’s doing. You don’t just get this many classic performances in one movie by accident. I am not just talking about the knock you on your ass star turns by Pam Grier and Robert Forster. I am also talking about Samuel L. Jackson as Ordell Robie, who is both hilarious and terrifying, easily one of Mr. Jackson’s most standout performances. And I am talking about Bridget Fonda as snakelike stoner girl Melanie. And most of all I am talking about Robert fuckin Deniro, playing a role unlike any he’s done before, stealing every scene he’s in even though he’s usually just sittin on a couch in the background with a dumb look on his face. He makes it completely plausible that a quiet, lovable lunk would get so frazzled when he can’t remember where he parked that he’d shoot Melanie in the face. And even better is when he tries to explain what he did to Ordell.
My favorite scene in the movie though is the one with Chris Tucker, where Ordell comes over to his hotel room and tries to talk him into doing a job that involves riding in a trunk. He really doesn’t want to do it, and he knows something’s wrong, and he tries to get out of it but he owes Ordell and he’s afraid of him. And Tarantino says Chris Tucker improvised the line, “Man, you catchin a nigga off guard with this shit.” I think Chris Tucker is a real funny dude and I think alot of it’s because he’s such a good actor he makes you believe he really means the stupid shit he’s saying. This scene supports my theory because it’s alot more scary than it is funny, and he’s great.
The special edition doesn’t have a commentary or anything, because Tarantino doesn’t like them. But it has a good documentary, some deleted scenes, a recent interview with Tarantino looking back at Jackie Brown, Siskel and Ebert’s review of the movie, and a bunch of other shit. Tarantino can seem kind of full of himself in the interviews but I like that they let him just ramble on and on. It’s the opposite of those press kit documentaries where they just use dumb little soundbites. Also, this set has pretty huge galleries of trailers for old Pam Grier and Robert Forster movies. Not just a couple, a whole shitload of them.
I also got the new PULP FICTION set and I haven’t got a chance to rewatch it yet, but the extras make a real good time capsule for the explosion that happened when that movie came out. You get to see Tarantino’s Palm d’or acceptance speech (with the french lady yelling “scandal!” and Tarantino laughing), an entire Charlie Rose interview with Tarantino, a full episode of Siskel and Ebert where they talked about the Tarantino phenomenon (and still won’t admit they were wrong about RESERVOIR DOGS) and Michael Moore interviewing Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson at the Independent Spirit Awards.
But of the three Tarantino dvds the one I’ve gotten the most out of is actually RESERVOIR DOGS. I hadn’t watched this movie in a little while and I forgot how fuckin good it was. If you can get yourself to forget all about the Tarantino phenomenon, you can watch this movie again and remember where it all came from.
Sure, you have a hard time accepting Tarantino as a criminal in the opening now that you know who the dude is. And at the time it was great to acknowledge that criminals talk about TV and shit (especially when they’re not allowed to talk about their backgrounds), and now that’s become a cliche. But the movie is so much more than that. Watching it again it seemed like there were at least a dozen moments of undeniable brilliance. My very favorite is when Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi get in an argument, start fighting and pull their guns on each other. Buscemi ends up on the floor in that famous pose you see on the posters, and the camera slooooowly pulls back and eventually reveals Mr. Blonde, who we have heard all about but only now seen, just standing there watching. The macho one liner he delivers is classic but it’s overshadowed by the fact that he’s sipping on a Coke, proving in one image that he’s the maniac they’ve made him out to be, because he stopped for fast food during his getaway from the diamond shop bloodbath.
I mean there’s all kinds of shit like this. There’s the legendary torture scene, and the way it reveals who the undercover cop is. There’s Mr. Blonde and Nice Guy Eddie wrestling like high school kids in Joe’s office, knocking over chairs and calling each other gay while Joe yells, “Knock it off, I’m sick of this shit!” There’s Tim Roth covered in blood, screaming in agony in the backseat of the car while Harvey Keitel tries to hold his hand, tell him not to die and drive at the same time. All this bonding and honor and shit, and all this brutal post-violence that still hasn’t been recaptured in a movie. I mean how many movies are there with long, agonizing conversations between two horribly wounded people as they bleed to death? It’s a movie about a movie about your same old failed caper but you feel like you’ve never seen a movie like this before.
Also this movie has the one real action scene Tarantino has done to date, Mr. Pink’s getaway after the robbery. That’s the real deal. That’s real life. None of this fancy movie bullshit. The guns sound real, the people on the sidewalks sound real, the adrenaline rush is real. That’s what I was talking about when I was complaining about the music being so distracting in WINDTALKERS. Those war scenes, they gotta feel like this if they’re gonna work. This is what they invented that one word “bravura” for.
And there’s the little details. Like did you ever notice this one? Mr. Orange has to imagine every trivial detail of his fictional “commode story” in case anybody asks questions. They do, and he already knows the answers. But then when Nice Guy Eddie, a real criminal, tells his story about the waitress gluing a guy’s dick to his chest, he says “He did things to her” and someone asks, “Did things to her? Did what kind of things to her?” and all he can say is, “I don’t know, he did things.”
Now I should warn you, I think there is a rat in the Artisan dvd department, trying to sabotage their releases. All the interviews on this disc have embarassing “joke” intros with wacky music and titles where they pretend Chris Penn is being interviewed in the back of a truck or that Eddie Bunker kidnapped the camera crew after they interviewed him. Wocka wocka wocka. Also they got a couple phoney extras like a ridiculous radio play and a “Reservoir Dogs Style Guide” that’s gotta be the worst dvd extra since the “documentary” on the first release of FIRST BLOOD. But if you can get past that shit there’s some really interesting business on here.
If you rent it some time and you don’t have time to watch all of it, the one do-not-miss item is the “Tribute to Lawrence Tierney.” Lawrence is of course the real life ex-con character actor who plays the boss, Joe Cabot (the guy Mr. Orange describes saying “motherfucker looks just like The Thing.”) He died last year but instead of doing some dishonest cornball tribute to him as an actor, they just have people from the movie telling legends about what a lunatic he was. Tarantino and Bunker both tell about getting in fist fights with him, and there is a long uninterupted clip of Chris Penn’s hilarious story about Tierney inviting himself over to his house.
There’s alot of other good stuff too, lots of detail. Not just about the movie itself (like the deleted scenes, MACK style edited together commentary, interviews, three different critics doing commentary on selected scenes etc.) there’s also material about directors who influenced the movie, the other directors who were at Sundance that year, and the history of film noir (even interviewing the motherfuckin man, Donald Westlake, the alter ego of Richard Stark).
The one thing I thought was missing, I would’ve liked to see them put this CITY ON FIRE bullshit to rest once and for all. If I was Tarantino I woulda arranged to get Mike White’s “Who Do You Think You’re Fooling” documentary on the disc and get it over with. There is alot of talk about all the influences that went into the movie but only in one of the critic’s commentaries is there a direct reference to the “it’s a ripoff of CITY ON FIRE” claims.
The one Tarantino criticism that’s more annoying than “he uses plot elements from other movies, and that makes it irrelevant that his execution is outstanding” is “he’s only made three movies.”
I’m not going to use the “YOU make three movies and then you can talk” argument, because that’s just as asinine. I’ve never baked a wedding cake but I’m still gonna complain if it has cigarette butts and meal worms in it. I’m not gonna say, “Well, I don’t like it personally but then I’ve never baked a wedding cake with my own hands.” That’s a dumb argument.
What is a good argument is, those are three really great movies, as you can see by watching these dvds. I would rather he take his time and make movies like JACKIE BROWN every several years than just whip the shit out and give us LETHAL WEAPON 4 or something every October. Also, there are directors who have only done one or two really good, or one pretty good movie, and we still get excited about them. For example I know many people were excited for this month’s first time dvd releases of NEAR DARK and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. And you can’t tell me that Kathryn Bigelow or Dan O’Bannon have the equivalent of RESERVOIR DOGS, PULP FICTION and JACKIE BROWN under either of their belts. But I’d still want to shake their hands if I saw them.
Actually it would be cool if Tarantino did FRIDAY 4, though.
this concludes my dvd column, thanks. p.s. send me free dvds. I had to pay for all this shit. you know how the economy is. come on dvd companies get with the fuckin program. e-mail me for mailing info.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.