True Romance (1993)

2018 #150
Tony Scott | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English & Italian | 18

True Romance

Directed by Tony Scott from Quentin Tarantino’s first screenplay,* True Romance is pretty much everything you’d expect from an early Quentin Tarantino screenplay directed by Tony Scott. It stars Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as a pair of Bonnie and Clyde-ish lovers, who accidentally steal a load of cocaine from her pimp and end up on the run from the mob.

At first blush, I’d say this feels much more like a Tarantino movie than a Scott one. It’s all there in the dialogue, the subject matter, the characters — it’s everything you’d expect from early QT: verbose, funny, littered with pop culture references, violent. It’s well paced, too; not exactly whip-crack fast, but also never slow or draggy. It is shot more like a Scott flick than a QT one, but only somewhat — it lacks both the slick flashiness we associate with Scott’s early work (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II) and the grungy hyper-editing of his later stuff (Man on Fire, Domino). That said, some scenes (like one between Arquette and James Gandolfini’s underboss in a motel room, for example) are shot like Tony Scott to the nines, reiterating my opening point.

Other observations: There’s one helluva supporting cast — it’s just littered with famous names in roles that only last a scene or two. (I could list them, but that might spoil the fun.) The sweet plinky-plonky score by Hans Zimmer is so unlike either his normal stuff or this genre of movie, which is no bad thing. On its original release the film was cut by about two minutes to get an R rating, with the original cut eventually released “unrated” on home formats, sometimes labelled the “director’s cut”. All the differences are relatively short trims to do with violence (full details here). The “director’s cut” is the only one that’s ever been released on DVD or Blu-ray anywhere, thus making the distinction between “theatrical” or “director’s cut” pretty much moot at this point… or at any point in the last 20 years, frankly.

Clarence and Alabama go to the movies

It’s got a funny old trailer, too: it’s centred around a bunch of made-up numbers that have no basis in the film (“60 cops, 40 agents, 30 mobsters”), it mostly features the film’s climax, and it doesn’t once mention Quentin Tarantino — I guess “from the writer of Reservoir Dogs” wasn’t considered a selling point just the year after it came out. (Though obviously it was in the UK — just see the poster atop this review.)

Of course, nowadays it’s often regarded as “a Tarantino movie” — the copy I own is part of the Tarantino XX Blu-ray set, for instance. I wonder if that ‘divided authorship’ is why, while the film does have it’s fans, it’s not widely talked about as much as some of either man’s other work: it’s not wholly a Tony Scott film, but, without QT actually behind the camera, it’s not really a Tarantino one either. Personally, I’m a fan of both men’s work, so of course it was up my alley. I don’t think it’s the best from either of them, but mixing together the distinct styles of two such trend-setting iconoclasts does produce a unique blend.

4 out of 5

True Romance was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

* True Romance came out between Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born Killers, but apparently QT wrote this first, then when he failed to get funding for it he wrote NBK, then when he also failed to sell that he wrote Reservoir Dogs. Another version says True Romance and NBK started out as one huge movie, written in Tarantino’s familiar chapter-based non-chronological style, until QT and his friend Roger Avery realised just how long it was and decided to divide it in two. ^

Ed Wood (1994)

2015 #134
Tim Burton | 127 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Before he descended into self-parody, Tim Burton made movies like this: a biopic of the eponymous ’50s filmmaker, renowned for his so-bad-they’re-good productions. Burton still contributes his trademark dark quirkiness, but it conjures a subject-appropriate tone rather than aimless Burtonesqueness.

It’s the same with Johnny Depp’s lead performance: affected and childlike, as usual, but here to depict a naïve, deluded, optimistic oddball human-being, rather than a self-consciously outrageous fantasy figure.

The result is a true story whose themes and moods are enhanced by stylised moviemaking — much more interesting than either the genre’s regular staid realism or Burton’s later empty theatrics.

4 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Boyhood (2014)

2015 #27
Richard Linklater | 166 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue2015 Academy Awards
6 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best Supporting Actress.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing.



BoyhoodOriginally titled 12 Years, until 12 Years a Slave came along, that’s the thing Boyhood will always be most famous for: it was shot from 2002 to 2013, for a few days each year, with the same actors developing and ageing in real time, to tell a story of childhood like never before.

It’s focused on Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane), who lives with his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) in Texas. Their dad, Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke), works in Alaska and turns up once in a blue moon. As the years roll on, we follow the family as Olivia gains and loses husbands, Mason Sr finally grows up and settles down, and the kids battle along in the wake of their parents’ lives. Of course, as they get older, they begin to face and have to deal with issues of their own.

It’s quite hard to give a plot description of Boyhood because, in many respects, it has no plot. I mean, how would you succinctly summarise the narrative of your entire school-age childhood? That’s the scope of the film’s canvas and, in tune with real life, various elements fade in and fade out over that time. The kind of childhood these kids have is not uneventful by any means, but nor is it especially dramatic. That said, your opinion on the latter will vary depending on the kind of upbringing you had.

Nonetheless, writer-director Richard Linklater strives to keep things almost unrelentingly normal. Okay, there are abusive relationships — things get a little extreme with her second husband — but even that doesn’t go as far as it could have. MomhoodNo one gets in a shocking accident or develops a fatal illness or dies suddenly; no one is seriously bullied or mugged; no one is arrested or imprisoned; no one is made homeless; no one gets pregnant… the list could go on. Every time you second guess that — every time you think, “oh now we’re going to have something big” — the film just rolls on with normality. Just like real life does, in fact.

Indeed, it’s so resolutely focused on the everyday that it even skips major-but-normal events in the characters’ lives. Neither of Olivia’s new marriages or divorces are shown on screen; for her third, we barely even see her fall for the guy, and we don’t see them separate. Mason Sr gets married and has a third kid entirely in gaps between scenes: we first meet them picking up Mason Jr and Samantha for the former’s 15th birthday, when they all clearly already know each other. Interestingly, most of the stuff we see that’s close to being definable as a “major” event occurs quite early on — in the early-middle of the 12 years’ filming, in fact. Did Linklater get drawn down a path of bulking up the drama, then decide to pull it back in? That sounds plausible. The stuff closest to being Big Drama is around what must’ve been the third/fourth/fifth year of filming (roughly speaking), and by the eighth/ninth/tenth we’re skipping over stuff and playing catch-up. At times it feels weird to just jump past events that are so important, but that seems to be what Linklater wants — a film focused on the literally everyday.

Remember these?Even while Linklater aims for a kind of universality, this is not just about any childhood, but about childhood in the noughties — or as the Americans like to (uglily) call them, “the aughts”. Some have called it “a period film shot now” and there’s a definite truth to that. The noughties-ness isn’t made explicit, but it’s an ever-present factor. The passing of time and issues of the era are conveyed almost exclusively through background details: politics (the Iraq war, the Obama campaign), culture (Harry Potter surfaces multiple times, the best films of summer 2008 are listed), technology (GameBoys, Xboxes, Wiis; CRTs, flatscreens; the ever-evolving iMacs and iPhones), the fashion (haircuts and clothing, particularly when Mason goes all Alternative in his high school years), the music (though the vast majority of it seems pretty obscure, so good luck with finding a grounding through that). It’s those details that ground the film so much in the ’00s and early ’10s, as well as present-day societal factors, like the string of broken marriages, the lack of financial security, the good-natured suspicion and humour with which our sympathetic leads view the Bible-lovers that Mason Sr ends up married in to (can you imagine an American movie about good ol’ family values from a previous era having its leads all but declare themselves atheists?)

It conveys the passing of time with equal subtlety — sometimes it transitions to a new year so inconspicuously that you might not realise it’s changed for several minutes. This, I think, is part of the point: it’s one long story, not “now it is 2005, now it is 2006, now it is 2007…” For a film shot across a decade when the technical side of filmmaking changed so dramatically, it has a remarkably consistent look. That each sequence does blend seamlessly into the next is a minor miracle. If you watch out for it, or put images side-by-side (as in the trailer), you can see a change in look from the heavily-filmic early stuff to what I presumed was digital photography in later years, and even then changes as digital improves. Screen siblingsHowever, it was reportedly shot entirely on 35mm, so something else must explain the changing picture quality. Perhaps that there were two cinematographers, presumably working at different times. However, as I say, during regular viewing the picture shifts are remarkably subtle, there to be spotted by cinephiles and PQ nitpickers, while going unnoticed by the general audience.

A greater feat of consistency comes from the cast. Experienced pros like Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette unsurprisingly give excellent performances, though we surely must acknowledge that it’s a colossal achievement to stay in character when you’re only filming for a few days every year for so darn long. Their characters evolve, too, but in highly plausible ways. Arquette, in particular, starred in the TV show Medium during Boyhood’s production — that’s 130 hours of TV over six years, playing the same character all the time. That she also managed to track Olivia through that period may in part explain all the awards she’s been garnering. Personally I felt Hawke edged it in the performance stakes, but maybe that’s just because Mason Sr undergoes a more obvious change.

As for the kids… well, it depends how much they have to convey. Samantha is always a bit of a… well, “bitch” would be too cruel; but she’s cast in the role of “annoying sister”, and while she comes across as a real person, she’s an annoying sister to the audience, too. Mason Jr grows up to be a little bit pretentious — ‘philosophical’ in the way certain teenagers always are, and which you sincerely hope they grow out of or they’ll become a Certain Kind of adult. ManhoodSome will find him irritating as he progresses through his high school years, again in the way the real-life variety of said teenagers are; others will just find it truthful. All of the acting feels incredibly ‘real’, to the point one just assumes it was all improvised. Apparently that’s not the case — according to Hawke, it was all scripted, with the exception of an amusing-with-hindsight scene in which Masons Sr and Jr discuss the potential for a Star Wars 7.

It’s only as the film comes to a close that some kind of sense of what it all signified comes in to focus. For one part, there’s Mason and his new college friend philosophising in the final scene: to paraphrase, “life isn’t about seizing the moment, it’s about the moment seizing you”. Put another way, all we have is now; however important it may be to learn from the past and plan for the future, they’re gone and not coming back or ahead and going to happen anyway — if you don’t appreciate now, it’ll all just disappear. I felt the more telling scene came a few minutes earlier, just before Mason Jr actually leaves for college: looking at her son about to head off on his own, Olivia breaks down, recalling the repetitiveness and transitory nature of her life — all the divorces, all the struggles to do right by her kids. It’s so much more meaningful because we’ve lived through it with her — we’ve seen it as just a string of moments too; we’ve noticed how it can seem repetitive. “I just thought there would be more,” she wails, echoing the sentiment of… all of us? I’d say if that moment doesn’t resonate for you, you must be one of the lucky ones.

Boyhood is unquestionably an achievement of filmmaking. The commitment to craft a story over such a long period of time is admirable; the skill with which it has been achieved is remarkable. The end result is one that won’t work for everyone. Looking to the futureIf you like your fiction to be about something exceptional or extraordinary, Boyhood is decidedly the opposite. Linklater has put something of the universality of childhood on screen, however. In no way can the life of Mason Jr be interpreted as a median of everyone’s experiences, but that so much within that is so relatable shows that, however different things may appear, there’s an awful lot that’s the same.

Even more importantly, the film conveys the briefness of our lives. It’s like a film adaptation of Allen Saunders’ quote, made famous by John Lennon: “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans”. You have to watch out for where your time’s going, or twelve years can race by in under three hours.

5 out of 5

The 87th Academy Awards are on Sky Movies Oscars tonight, with red carpet coverage from 11:30pm and the awards ceremony starting at 1:30am.

Flirting with Disaster (1996)

2014 #112
David O. Russell | 88 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Flirting with DisasterDavid O. Russell’s second feature sees adoptee Ben Stiller go on a kerazee road trip to find his birth parents, accompanied by dissatisfied wife Patricia Arquette and kooky adoption agency psychologist Téa Leoni, along the way bumping into Arquette’s high school crush (Josh Brolin) and his husband (Richard Jenkins). Cue an almost-PG-13 sex comedy told among sketch-like encounters with quirky people who turn out to not be Stiller’s folks.

Despite a bitty structure, it’s a pretty amusing farce, with a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Now merely a footnote in the filmographies of everyone involved, it deserves a degree of rediscovery.

4 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

2007 #114
Martin Scorsese | 116 mins | DVD | 18 / R

Bringing Out the DeadIt’s hard to know what to make of this, because by the end it all seems a little pointless. The storyline, which follows Nicolas Cage’s paramedic across three nights in New York, is a mixture of short episodic medical incidents with longer threads that continue throughout. These connect and fall apart, feeling as episodic as the rest, and most of them don’t really lead anywhere.

Perhaps the best description is that it’s a collection of subplots in search of proper story. There are some decent scenes and good shots, but the film doesn’t seem to have anything to say, and it doesn’t end so much as simply fade to black when it runs out of things to do.

3 out of 5