Paris, ‘Pulp Fiction,’ the proper way to approach Tarantino

Pulp Fiction/1994/Miramax Films/154 min.

My upcoming trip to Paris (I leave tomorrow) triggered the memory of that great scene in “Pulp Fiction” where two hit men chat about a quarter-pounder with cheese (Royale with cheese) in Paris so I decided to run this review in honor of my trip. For the next two weeks, my posts will slow down a bit as I spend time with a lovely friend and soak in the atmosphere of this ravishingly beautiful city.

Quentin Tarantino at the Cannes film fest in 2008.

Several years ago, at the Cannes Film Fest, I saw Quentin Tarantino rushing down the Croisette but I froze and didn’t approach him to say how much I liked his work. (He was helming the jury that year.) As I stood there, regretting that I’d missed the chance, two English guys walked up and asked me if I was lost. I filled them in; they said I was quite right to have refrained.

But then two Italian men joined us and told me I was crazy not to have said hello. “Maybe he’ll show up at the Ritz,” one of them said, gesturing toward the hotel. “Why don’t we have a glass of champagne there and see if perhaps he arrives?”

As tempting as that sounded, I’d already agreed to meet people at the cheap and cheerful Le Petite Carlton, where the casual, sometimes-raucous crowd spreads out into the street, people bum Marlboros and Gitanes, beer is served in tacky plastic cups and a little kitchen churns out thin-crust pizza well into the early morning hours. Another missed opportunity! ;)

So if by some odd chance, on this trip, I happen to see Tarantino on the Champs Elysee or some charming Italian men invite me to cocktails at the Ritz, I’ll know what to do!

John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in "Pulp Fiction."

“Pulp Fiction” is a neo noir of audacious originality, comic brilliance and exquisite craftsmanship. It was one of the most important films of the 1990s. Like his previous film, 1992’s “Reservoir Dogs,” it’s a crime movie that deals with bad guys doing bad stuff – in “Dogs” it’s a robbery gone wrong. In “Pulp Fiction” we’re immersed in three separate but interwoven stories about two chatty hit men, a corrupt boxer who defies a mob boss, and a grunge version of Bonnie and Clyde.

Tarantino tells us the stories out of order, bookended by the scruffy lover bandits (Tim Roth as Pumpkin and Amanda Plummer as Honey Bunny) who hold up an LA coffee shop. Bruce Willis plays Butch the boxer who pulls a double-cross. John Travolta made a stunning comeback as sexy smart-ass Vincent Vega and Samuel L. Jackson dazzles as Jules Winnfield, an armchair philosopher packing heat.

As Vincent and Jules discuss fast food, foot massages and Fate, Vincent is assigned an extra job from brawny bossman Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames): to take Mrs. Wallace (Uma Thurman) aka Mia out on the town. A headturner with jet-black hair, Louise Brooks bangs, wide blue eyes and long legs, Mia gets what Mia wants. Topping the list are milkshakes, drugs and dancing. Make that dancing with Travolta, mmm.

There is much to love about this film, particularly the highly original characters and crackling dialogue, which includes one-liners, retro slang, debates over points of logic and lengthy tangents of trivia. The dialogue seems to emerge organically from the characters and random chitchat punctuates major dramatic moments.

Actors talk with their back to the camera and sometimes put the imminent action on hold so they can wind up their conversation. Even though Pumpkin and Honey Bunny probably get the least amount of screen time, through their dialogue, we see several layers of their partnership, both tough and tender. [Read more...]


Quick hit: ‘Pulp Fiction’

Pulp Fiction/1994/Miramax Films/154 min.

One of the great loves of my life is Quentin Tarantino’s imagination and the bizarre people dwelling there. In “Pulp Fiction,” we meet a pair of hit men with a gift for gab, a boxer who refuses to throw a fight, and two adorable armed robbers named Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman and Bruce Willis star. Tarantino and partner Roger Avary won the Oscar for best original screenplay.


Brian De Palma’s ‘Blow Out’ sometimes makes us roll our eyes and sometimes holds us spellbound

Having received good feedback from the winner of April’s giveaway – the prize was Criterion’s rerelease of “Blow Out” – I realized it was high time to run the review. ;)

Brian De Palma/1981/ Filmways Pictures/107 min.

Michael Wilmington

By Michael Wilmington

“Blow Out,” Brian De Palma’s 1981 neo noir about a movie sound man (played by John Travolta), who stumbles into a political conspiracy and a string of murders, is a movie for connoisseurs of trash and movie art. One of this movie’s strongest critical admirers (and one of De Palma’s) was Pauline Kael, and one of Kael’s most famous critical essays is called “Trash, Art and the Movies.” We get all three of them here, in a film that sometimes makes us roll our eyes and sometimes holds us spellbound.

“Blow Out” probably took its title partly from Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blowup,” which is about a swinging ’60s London photographer who stumbles on what may be murder. And it centers around one of Travolta’s sexiest performances, as Jack Terry the lone-wolf Philadelphia sound-effects man, who is working on a sleazy slasher horror movie.

The director is dissatisfied with the scream Jack has supplied for one of the victims. The movie within the movie is a terrible, inept picture, which De Palma stages as a send-up of “Halloween” and other teen slasher pics. But Jack is a pro. He takes his equipment out that night to get more ambient night-sound on a suburban bridge.

Nancy Allen

That bridge is an unusually well-populated one, considering the lateness of the hour. There are crickets and an owl, who stares at us disturbingly, and there’s another filmmaker named Manny Karp (Dennis Franz), who’s got his camera set up somewhere near Jack (but whom Jack doesn’t know and doesn’t see), and finally there’s a speeding car, carrying, amazingly, the current front-running candidate for president of the United States, Governor McRyan, (John Hoffmeister) together with a hot blonde named Sally (Nancy Allen).

Jack hears a couple of bangs (and catches them on his recorder) and the governor’s car plunges through a fence and into the river where it quickly sinks. Jack dives in and is able to rescue Sally, but not the possible next president.

Soon we’re at the hospital, where Sally is groggily coming to. The police, reporters and some political people, visions of Chappaquiddick perhaps dancing in their heads, seem to want Jack and Nancy to just clam up and go away. He won’t. She wants to, at first, but decides she likes Jack.

Then Manny and his Zapruderish film turns up, and ex-Philadelphian De Palma turns the city into a house of horrors more violent than anything in ex-Philadephian David Lynch’s neighborhood, craning and swooping and whirling his camera all around a world gone seemingly mad. There’s a deadly plot of some kind afoot, and its bloodiest agent is a phony telephone company worker named Burke (played with a truly evil stare and icily smug expression by John Lithgow), a cold-blooded killer who seems willing to depopulate half the town to keep all the guilty secrets safe.

If that sounds like a pretty absurd plot, it often plays pretty silly too, though just as often it’s imaginatively over-the-top and hellishly exciting. I‘ve always thought De Palma should avoid solo-writing jobs on his own movie scripts. And “Blow Out” as well as “Raising Cain” and “Femme Fatale” (and 1968’s “Murder a la Mod,” which is included in this Criterion package) are good demonstrations why. “Blow Out” is never boring. But a lot of the time it doesn’t make any bloody sense.

So why did Kael call it a great movie? Mostly, maybe, because she very much liked De Palma’s work, because this movie is made with such great feverish style, and also maybe because she had a crush of sorts on Travolta, as she had on Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Warren Beatty.

The style is what we remember about “Blow Out” – not the ideas, which are mostly shallow or obvious, or the story, which is both predictable and illogical, or the characters who are mostly overdrawn and somewhat stereotypical (or archetypal, if you prefer), or the movie itself, which is basically a set of ingeniously orchestrated suspense set-pieces, strung together in clever, artful ways that defy plausibility with an almost cheerful impudence. [Read more...]


Free stuff from FNB: Win ‘The Film That Changed My Life’

Winners of the April giveaway have been selected and contacted. One will receive “Blow Out,” Brian DePalma’s 1981 neo-noir thriller starring John Travolta. The movie was recently rereleased by Criterion. The other winner will receive a copy of “The Maybelline Story and the Spirited Family Dynasty Behind It,” a book by Sharrie Williams.

For the May giveaway, I am giving away a copy of my friend and former colleague Robert K. Elder’s book: “The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors on Their Epiphanies in the Dark.” Directors include: Danny Boyle, Peter Bogdanovich, John Dahl, Henry Jaglom, Guy Maddin, Atom Egoyan, Richard Linklater, John Woo, John Landis, Neil LaBute and John Waters.

(Meanwhile, Rob has a new book out called, “It Was Over When: Tales of Romantic Dead Ends,” based on stories compiled via his web site of the same name.)

To enter the May giveaway, just leave a comment on any FNB post through May 31. The winner will be randomly selected at the end of the month and announced in early June. Include your email address in your comment so that I can notify you if you win. Your email will not be shared.

Good luck!


Free stuff from FNB: Win ‘Blow Out’ or ‘The Maybelline Story’

Gerald C. has won March’s giveaway and will receive a copy of “Sweet Smell of Success,” recently rereleased by Criterion. For the April giveaway, I have two nice prizes and will pick two winners.

John Travolta in "Blow Out"

First, the lovely people at Criterion will provide a copy of Brian DePalma’s 1981 neo-noir thriller, “Blow Out,” starring John Travolta, Nancy Allen and John Lithgow. Extras include new interviews with DePalma and Allen.

Second, eyeing up a family drama: In 1915, when Tom Lyle Williams watched his sister Mabel fix her fire-singed lashes and brows with petroleum jelly, coal dust and ash, little did he know he was making a date with destiny. Read about the building of an iconic brand in “The Maybelline Story and the Spirited Family Dynasty Behind It,” a book by Sharrie Williams with Bettie Youngs.

To enter, just leave a comment on any FNB post from April 1-30. The winners will be randomly selected at the end of the month and announced in early May. Include your email address in your comment so that I can notify you if you win. Your email will not be shared.

Good luck!

Filmways Pictures image