There’s Nothing Obvious About Delightful “Obvious Child”

Obvious Child

Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre, 2014)

Obvious Child, the first feature film from writer/director Gillian Robespierre, is a romantic comedy about a young woman getting an abortion. That’s right: girl and boy meet cute; girl and boy get drunk and screw; girl gets pregnant and doesn’t tell boy; boy wonders why girl avoids him; girl gets an abortion; life goes on. Normally, in such films (romantic comedies – not films about abortion), the main obstacle to overcome is that the potential romantic partners don’t initially like each other (from It Happened One Night to When Harry Met Sally to the utter failure that was Blended, this has been the pattern). Here, they actually get along just fine, despite their obvious differences. Instead, the obstacles in the way of their eventual union lie entirely within the neuroses of the main (female) character, twenty-something Donna Stern, played with great zest and charm by thirty-something actress and stand-up comedian Jenny Slate (until recently best known for dropping an f-bomb in her debut appearance on “Saturday Night Live). That and the fact that Donna actually goes through with the abortion (as opposed to the main characters in Juno and Knocked Up) makes this a very fresh and delightful take on both the rom-com genre and films about abortion (if you are against a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body, however, then you may not like the film).

I was actually quite surprised by how much I enjoyed the movie. I usually avoid films from the mumblecore set, and worried that this might hew too close to that aesthetic. I was wrong. Through a combination of genuinely funny writing, performances both sharp and sweet, and fine cinematic camera moves and editing flourishes, the movie wins both your heart and mind. True, Donna Stern is initially an annoying self-absorbed twit, but Slate shows us how the character’s insecurities are the cause of her cluelessness, and allows her to mature before our eyes. The supporting cast – including Jake Lacy (Pete from The Office,” Season 9) as Max (the impregnator), and Gaby Hoffmann (most recently in Veronica Mars) as Nellie, Donna’s best friend – is also excellent, and has the additional virtue of looking more normal than the usual denizens of rom-com-land. All in all (again, unless you are an ardent pro-lifer), the film’s a winner.

And let’s talk about that abortion. The film never treats it like a joke (though everything else is fair game), but instead uses Donna’s predicament to muse on the options facing single women accidentally with child. In one lovely scene, Donna and her mother (a terrific Polly Draper) have a heart-to-heart in which they share stories of their respective unwanted pregnancies. How often do you see that in a film, much less a comedy? In its refusal to judge Donna even as she struggles to earn our respect, Obvious Child may just be the most radical film of the year. Of course, it’s also a raunchy sex farce which never feels like it’s preaching to you. What more could you ask for?

Ellipsis Points, or 4 Films Where Narrative Gaps Matter: “Ida,” “The Rover,” “Jersey Boys” and “Think Like a Man Too”

There are many ways to tell a story, and many ways to tell a story well. From classic Hollywood three-act structure pieces like Casablanca to minimalist plot essays like Hiroshima Mon Amour, and beyond, there is no one right way to write and/or direct a successful (in artistic terms) film. There are movies that hammer their points home with bludgeoning force and others that let the viewer fill in the narrative blanks.

Today, in Baltimore, four very different films open: two at Baltimore’s premier art-house and revival cinema, The Charles Theater, and two in the more commercial multiplexes. This week, I have decided to group my reviews together, and to explore how the movies handle their disparate stories through the use of ellipsis, by which certain details are left unexplained (or unexplored), since all four movies have gaps in their plots. Not coincidentally, the two films at The Charles, Ida and The Rover, are the better films, with intentional ellipses, while the two more mainstream movies, Jersey Boys and Think Like a Man Too, where the ellipses often feel unintentional, fail, in many ways, to deliver coherent stories. That’s not to say that the latter are complete and utter failures, but rather just incomplete and significantly less satisfying viewing experiences. When what is left unsaid enhances the story through mystery, then we have a near masterpiece like Ida. When what is left unexplored leaves us wondering why we should care about the characters, as in Jersey Boys and Think Like a Man Too, then we have films that may entertain at fleeting intervals, but which cease to resonate beyond the time spent watching them. Let us proceed.


Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2013)

Ida, the first Polish-language film by Polish-born director Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of LoveThe Woman in the Fifth), is a brilliant and brutal look at Polish culpability in the Holocaust. Pawlikowski describes his intentions, in the movie’s press kit, thus: “I wanted to make a film about history, which wouldn’t feel like a historical film; a film which is moral, but has no lessons to offer; I wanted to tell a story in which ‘everyone has their reasons’; a story closer to poetry than plot.” Indeed, the power of the story comes from what is left off-screen, unspoken and unexplained. Who killed whom, and why, is less important than the aftermath and consequences. It is truly ellipsis as poetry.

Ida is the story of a young novitiate nun who is sent off by her Mother Superior to spend time with her only remaining living relative, her aunt Wanda, before taking her vows. Wanda calmly and ironically informs Ida that she is actually Jewish and that her parents were killed during World War II. Together, Ida and Wanda – an alcoholic living with a profound grief that we think we understand but won’t fully comprehend until the final third of the film – drive into the countryside to retrace Ida’s parents’ final days.

Shot digitally on an ARRI Alexa and released in black & white and the pre-1953 squarish Academy Ratio (Pawlikowski discusses his reasons for these choices in an interview in Filmmaker Magazine), Ida has the look and feel of a much older film, or at least one made by a Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest) or Andrzej Wajda (Ashes and Diamonds). Both image and sound work in glorious (usually quiet) counterpoint to create an atmosphere of dread and reflection. Each time we think we might be approaching an answer to the central concerns of the film – guilt, vengeance, hope, love – the film cuts away. Pawlikowski avoids the easy choices, but his film is not dreary, largely thanks to the performance by his lead, first-time (and untrained) actor Agata Trzebuchowska. In her largely impassive – and elliptical – face, which finally breaks into a smile once she returns to the convent and laughs at a memory of the outside world, we see reflected the wounded soul of a nation. It would be wrong to call it a non-performance, for there is no other kind of performance that would work here. The tragedy of the Holocaust brooks no affect.

Ida is a must-see.


The Rover (David Michôd, 2014)

The Rover is the second narrative feature from Australian writer-director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, which also starred Guy Pearce). After what seems like an interminable procession of production-company logos (the joys of independently financed filmmaking!), the movie opens with the following text: “Australia. 10 years after the collapse.” Shades of Mad Max and its sequels, particularly The Road Warrior, perhaps? It’s hard to resist the comparison to that or to other non-zombie post-apocalyptic movies like The Road (which also featured Guy Pearce, albeit in a small role). And so the derivative worries begin, which are not helped by the very first plot contrivance, when our hero, Eric (the aforementioned Guy Pearce, fierce and tough) has his car stolen from a roadside bar (a set piece that is nevertheless masterfully staged), setting in motion the long chase that will drive the story.

There is much to like in The Rover, including that central performance and – yet again – the carefully considered use of narrative ellipsis. We barely get to know many details about the characters, yet we understand that what pushes them is the never-ending race to survive in the hostile landscape of post-civilization Australia. The most expository line of dialogue in the entire film is said by Pearce’s Eric, offering advice to a traveling companion who has just unintentionally killed an innocent bystander: “You should never stop thinking about a life you’ve taken. It’s the price for taking it.” As the world falls apart around them, that is perhaps the best mantra: actions have consequences. Of course, that doesn’t stop anyone, Eric included, from killing when they need to (and sometimes when they don’t). This isn’t Dorothy’s Oz.

If The Rover is not as successful as Ida, it’s because the opacity of the screenplay doesn’t ultimately turn out to uncover any deeper moral truths than that of the 6th Commandment, and since we end up identifying with a maddened killer, it’s hard to argue that the film even makes that argument. Instead, as Eric chases down the men who’ve stolen his car – wreaking ever greater havoc as he goes – in the company of Rey (Robert Pattinson, all twitchy and possibly the worst thing in the film) the brother of one of them, the story continues to lose shape and momentum, with ellipsis becoming its raison d’être rather than its modus operandi. If you like violent thrillers, it’s entertaining enough (and even occasionally shocking), but it doesn’t add anything new to the genre. Even the ending feels like it’s partially (sort of) adapted from another 1970s dystopian sci-fi film, A Boy and His Dog (not to give too much away, but perhaps The Rover should have just been called “Rover”). In spite of all this, however, I found the film at least somewhat compelling, and enjoyed the moments where what was not said mattered as much as what was explained directly.

Not a must-see, by any means, but not without interest.

Jersey Boys

Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood, 2014)

If you look at the poster for Jersey Boys after watching the film – adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name and Clint Eastwood’s 33rd as director – you see a scene of  The Four Seasons singing under a street lamp. They’re having fun – or so it seems – and at the end of the movie we learn that this was a moment when they rehearsed their first big hit, “Sherry.” Unfortunately, we never actually get to watch the scene beyond that brief flashback, and so the later references to the joy that the four band members took in performing together feel false. The tag line of the film may be “everybody remembers it how they need to,” but unfortunately we need more than just memories in order for a story to resonate. We need characters with enough dramatic setup so that the payoff of their particular dramatic trajectory makes sense and resonates. Jersey Boys is an example of a film where the plot ellipses feel more like an example of editing confusion – as if Eastwood delivered an overlong first cut of the film and then was forced to pare it down – than pure intentionality.

There is nevertheless terrific energy in the first half of the film. Relative screen unknowns John Lloyd Young (who originated the role on Broadway), Vincent Piazza (who has the biggest body of screen work, including “Boardwalk Empire“), Michael Lomenda (who was also in one of the Broadway runs) and Erich Bergen (who played in the show’s Vegas run) play Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and Bob Gaudio (the four original members of The Four Seasons) respectively, and all give very strong performances (especially Bergen as Gaudio, the composer of the group) and work well together. The problems with the movie are not with them. Nor do the problems lie with the music, which is lovingly recreated and wonderful to hear, nor with the rest of the cast, which includes Christopher Walken, as Jersey mob boss Gyp DeCarlo, and screen novice Renée Marino (another transplant from the stage), as Valli’s long-suffering alcoholic wife, Mary (a severely under-written role in which she manages to shine, regardless). No, the problems lie with the script, which loses all narrative momentum when the band’s fortunes go south, and then asks us to care about the fate of ancillary characters whom we’ve barely gotten to know.

In spite of the fact that this is one big mess of a film, I still enjoyed myself for much of it, if only because I knew nothing about The Four Seasons. I was especially interested in how half of them had criminal backgrounds: who knew that beneath the sweet sounds of “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” lurked some wannabe tough guys! As biopics go, it will (somewhat) hold your interest, and I assume that fans of the theatrical show (which I never saw) will flock to see its cinematic adaptation. But as a movie, it fails in significant ways, both because it leaves out what it should leave in – or be pared down even more so we don’t notice the gaps – and because its inconsistent mise-en-scène promises delights on which it later defaults. An early scene of the singers watching Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole has a funny moment after Kirk Douglas slaps Jan Sterling, and the group’s producer, Bob Crewe (a very good Mike Doyle), says, “Oh, come on, big girls don’t cry.” The camera suddenly pushes in to songwriter Gaudio’s face as he does a double-take, and then the next scene shows the group on stage performing their new hit. It’s a great smash cut – funny, inspired – and it is never repeated, sadly.

Again, by no means a must-see, but a fun film in many ways.

Think Like a Man Too

Think Like a Man Too (Tim Story, 2014)

Think Like a Man Too (comma omitted by the filmmakers) was what I expected, for better or for worse. It’s the sequel to the 2012 comedy hit Think Like a Man, which made over $90 million on a $12 million budget. Tim Story (director of the far superior Barbershop and even the Fantastic Four!) is back for round two, as are all of the central characters. Loosely based on Steve Harvey’s best-selling relationship-advice book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (and very much a promo for it), the first film featured five (mostly) African-American wannabe couples and their one white sidekick (a refreshing change from the usual reverse Hollywood model) as they struggled to find love (or sex). Harvey and his book acted as sage and bible to both the men and women, who saw each other as beleaguered warriors on opposing sides of the gender war. While I didn’t appreciate the movie’s retrograde sexual politics, I did laugh a few times. If you want to know more, read Ann Hornaday’s review, which is perhaps more favorable than I would have written, but spot on in many ways.

In part two, all of the friends and romantic partners head to Las Vegas for the wedding of Michael (Terrence Jenkins, the dimmest bulb in both films) and Candace (Regina Hall, who could do a lot better than Michael). Cedric (a funny, if a little too manic, Kevin Hart) is the accidental best man. It turns out that Michael actually wanted Dominic (Michael Ealy, one of the better actors in the movie) to be his best man, but asked him while short little Cedric (the film tries to get way too much mileage out of Hart’s vertically challenged dimensions) was standing below him, and so Cedric assumed the request was for him. Ha, ha! So unstable Cedric is in charge of the proceedings, and everything pretty quickly goes downhill. The surprise is that the women – with their own bachelorette plans organized by the ostensibly far more reasonable Lauren (Taraji P. Henson) – also get into trouble. But at least their shenanigans make for one of the best scenes in the film, as the ladies – all unwittingly high because of some pot-laced breathstrips courtesy of Kristen (Gabrielle Union, always watchable), who has forgotten that they’re from her pothead boyfriend Jeremy (Jerry Ferrara, whose appeal to Kristen remains a major mystery) – dance and rap to Bell Biv Devoe’s 1990 hit “Poison.” And then everyone – men and women – lands in jail, and the wedding plans are in jeopardy. How will it end? I’ll give you extra points if you can figure that out.

The problems with the film are many. Yes, it will make you occasionally laugh (and Wendi McLendon-Covey, as the token white gal, absent from the first film, is a big reason why – she kills it in the “Poison” scene). But we have, again, that annoying way of presenting relationships as a war zone, and men as predators and women as prey, which may resonate for some but which is hardly the only way to see the equation. And then there are the multiple moments that we don’t see – the sloppy ellipses, as I call them – where couples whose stories we largely ignore through most of the film come together at the end in overly sentimental scenes, and we are supposed to care. The most egregious example of this is the least believable partnership in the film, between good girl Mya (Meagan Good, not well-served by the script) and playboy “Zeke the Freak” (Romany Malco, last seen in Vegas in last year’s Last Vegas). We’re never given enough interaction between the two of them to understand what they see in each other, and so when Zeke finally – *plot spoiler* – proposes at the end, we’re left scratching our heads as to why.

Of the films opening today, this is by far my least favorite, but if you’re a fan of the original, or just a fan of Kevin Hart and his zany antics, you may nevertheless enjoy.

“22 Jump Street” – Too Much of a Good Thing . . .

22 Jump Street

22 Jump Street (Phil Lord/Christopher Miller, 2014)

22 Jump Street is a mix of many things: bromance, satire, sequel, college party movie; a little bit of this, a little bit of that; some funny parts, some not so funny. Most of all, the parts that are funny go on for too long, like a “Saturday Night Live” skit that doesn’t know when to quit. You’ll have a good time watching it – in some spots – but you might also groan in agony at the senseless idiocy of it all. I’d say it’s a decent home rental/streaming choice, but not something worth spending money on to see in a theater. If you must see something new and commercial this week, try How to Train Your Dragon 2, instead, which at least has the virtue of being cinematic, and gaining from the on-screen viewing experience.

21 Jump Street – directed by the same two guys responsible for its sequel and released in 2012 – was a sweet-natured update of the late 1980s TV show of the same name (which made a star of Johnny Depp). It featured Jonah Hill (Monyeball) and Channing Tatum (Magic Mike) as former-high-school-rivals-turned-cops who, in their early 20s now, get sent back to high school in and undercover narcotics operation. The movie got a lot of mileage out of the fact that, through a clerical error, jocky Tatum and nerdy Hill ended up switching places in the social hierarchy of the school. It was a fair amount of fun, had two appealing stars, and best of all, didn’t take itself too seriously.

The new film also doesn’t take itself to seriously, but nor does it make any kind of effort at plot or character development. Oh, make no mistake, there’s dramatic conflict and all that, but it’s mostly recycled from the previous film’s set-up. That said, the stars are again appealing, and the movie did make me laugh in certain places.

In the new adventure, Hill and Tatum are again sent back to school as undercover agents, but this time it’s college. The movie has a lot of post-modern fun with the idea of sequels and their penchant for doing the same thing over again on a bigger budget, but that initial comedic set-up is repeated (literally, repeated in the dialogue, as in “this time it’s more expensive”) a little too often to remain funny in the retelling. As for the rest, we know they’ll bag their guy, and we know they’ll resolve their disagreements. We hope we’ll do more than chuckle as they do so.

There are two moments in the film that did make me laugh out loud: the first is when Jonah Hill, trying to fit in at a poetry slam, does a very funny parody of a bad live-mic poem; the second is in the final credits, when the filmmakers take the meta-notion of the film as a sequel about sequels to such an extreme that the idea became funny again. So if you make it all the way to the end, you should definitely stay for the credits.

Unlike the film, I will try not to overstay my welcome . . .

“How to Train Your Dragon 2” Be Sweet, Beautiful, and Predictable

How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois, 2014)

Let’s be clear about one thing: the latest animated feature from Dreamworks, sequel to its successful 2010 How to Train Your Dragon (based on the book of the same title) is not a great film. It is, however, quite lovely in its own way, with breathtaking images rendered in beautiful 3D animation, and a story that, though predictable, is nevertheless entertaining, meaningful and uplifting. We may know who is going to die and how the film is going to end, but that doesn’t take away from the pleasure of the narrative. Plus, it’s good family fun, with the typical fairy-tale coming-of-age lesson about being true to oneself and doing good unto others (for the most part). What’s not to like? Well, OK, originality is always a good thing, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to cherish in How to Train Your Dragon 2.

To be honest, I couldn’t really remember the plot of the first film. I knew there was a Viking kid who went against the societal norms of his village by not killing a dragon, befriending it instead and then convincing  the entire local population – including his gruff chieftain father – to follow suit. I remembered finding it charming. But that was it. It didn’t seem to matter much, however. I was pulled right unto the new story.

As How to Train Your Dragon 2 begins, it is 5 years later, and Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) – that Viking Kid – is now a 20-year-old wanderer, scared of the responsibilities his father – tired of leading – wishes to foist upon him. He and his dragon, Toothless, fly far afield, exploring new lands. Occasionally they are accompanied by his band of fellow younger Vikings, including his betrothed, Astrid (voiced by America Ferrera). On one such foray, they come across a group of dragon hunters, who work for a mysterious dragon-master warlord named, not surprisingly, Drago (and voiced, when we finally meet him, by Djimon Hounsou). Hiccup being Hiccup, he decides to find this Drago and reason with him to stop hunting dragons.

Well, things don’t work out the way Hiccup planned, and some bad things happen as a result. But then some better things happen as a result of the lessons learned from the bad things. You’ve seen this kind of film before: arrogant youth who refuse to listen to their elders must learn the hard way that sometimes they don’t know everything. Unfortunately, the hard way can – as it is here – be actually quite difficult and dangerous.

Still, along the way, we get strikingly designed sequences of flying dragons that are truly stunning. And we get much humor and cuteness. The dragons are mostly dog-like, so if you are a fan of canine companions, you will enjoy their depiction. True, dogs don’t spit fire – at least, mine doesn’t! – but these dragons don’t spit fire unless you make them really mad. Treat them well and they’re like, well, dogs.

We also meet a brand new female character, Valka (voiced by Cate Blanchett), whose exact role I will avoid spelling out to let the one possible surprise in the film catch you by . . . surprise. She’s a woman who’s made some questionable choices in her life, and one of the fine aspects of the screenplay is that it refuses to judge her for the path taken. This makes up for the fact that Astrid is less interesting than she was in the first film.

So, if you have kids, take them to see it. It’s a well-crafted piece of slick commercial entertainment, with a good heart and a worthy moral center. And since the 3D really is well-designed, I recommend you see it in a cinema, rather than at home. Have fun!

Thanks to Emily Blunt, “Edge of Tomorrow” Makes Its Video-Game Aesthetic Work, Until It Doesn’t

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014)

So I’m late to the party on this review, and apparently missed seeing the real box office story of the weekendThe Fault in Our Stars. I’ve been busy prepping for my upcoming radio program on Pulp Fiction and, honestly, watching Tarantino films and the blu-ray special features about his films, as well as reading Jason Bailey’s great book about Tarantino’s early years, proved far more appealing to me than going to see anything I saw offered at our nation’s multiplexes (which is why I had skipped this week’s free press screenings). Still, I always hold out hope that high-concept sci-fi films will live up to their trailers, and in spite of the dismal failure of Tom Cruise’s last alien-invasion outing, I decided to give Edge of Tomorrow a try last night (watching a sentimental film about teens dying of cancer just wasn’t in my personal “stars”). Much to my delight, I had a good time. Until the end.

science fiction films, including Edge of Tomorrow, which deal with manipulation of time, space, or both (the previous two being Looper and The Adjustment Bureau), and in all cases, she has elevated the at-times pedestrian elements of the scripts to levels of great emotional intensity. She has the gift of sincerity: when she looks a co-star in the eye, she creates a powerful connection of instant chemistry that makes this viewer ignore whatever inconsistencies might exist in the story. In both The Adjustment Bureau and Looper, we believe that the male protagonists – Matt Damon and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, respectively – would risk their lives to be with her, and that drive explains their actions. Tom Cruise does a solid, upstanding job in this new film, but without Blunt the film would not work. She is that good. It’s too bad the ending is unworthy of her.

To summarize the film: Tom Cruise plays Major Cage, an army spin doctor without combat experience who finds himself on the front lines in humanity’s last stand against an invading army of metallic alien creatures we call “mimics.” With soldiers dying around him on a beach in northern France (the film’s release has been conveniently time to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the successful Allied invasion of Normandy, unless it’s just pure coincidence), Cage kills a giant mimic just as it kills him, and is completely covered in its blood as all goes to black. Suddenly, he wakes up at the start of the previous day. For everyone else in the film, tomorrow hasn’t happened yet, but he remembers everything (the alien blood has done this to him, and you’ll just have to watch the film to learn why). And so begins a Groundhog Day-like scenario, which many reviewers are also comparing to a video game (you know, there are guns and aliens), where Cage repeats the same day thousands of times, each time getting closer to killing the central alien brain-creature (these are hive-like monsters). Along the way, he meets Rita (Blunt), also known as “Full Metal Bitch” and the “Angel of Verdun” who is the spiritual figurehead of the armed forces, having previously killed an entire alien horde almost single-handedly (at Verdun, hence her nickname). It turns out that she, too, once, had had the same time-reset gift, though she has now lost it (again, you’ll need to see the movie to learn why), and is the only one who believes in Cage’s power. Together, they are . . . Humanity’s. Last. Hope.

Snarkiness aside, the premise works, and both Cruise and Blunt seem to be having a great time. Even though the film is about the end of the world, there is a sense of humor to their scenes together that helps lighten the mood. Whenever things start to go wrong, Rita’s favorite way to start over is to shoot Cage in the head, which, gruesome as that sounds, does make for a very funny montage. The action scenes are well-staged, the CGI is appropriate and not distracting (with decent creature design), and there is enough doubt about who will ultimately survive to keep us on the “edge” of our seats. And the film even has the perfect bittersweet conclusion, which it then, unfortunately, ignores in favor of a completely unbelievable and illogical happy ending that feels as it had been mandated by studio test-screenings where the audience was unhappy with the original outcome. That said, until those final five minutes, you’ll find yourself watching a superior action thriller (Doug Liman, the director, also gave us the terrific The Bourne Identity and the very watchable Mr. & Mrs. Smith) starring two appealing actors buoyed by the chemistry that Blunt brings to everything she does. Enjoy.

Midday on “Pulp Fiction” at 20: June 13 at 1pm on WYPR

[PLEASE NOTE: If you missed the show, you can still listen to the podcast.]

Pulp Fiction

In 1992, a then-unknown writer/director (and former video-store clerk) by the name of Quentin Tarantino premiered his first feature, Reservoir Dogs, at the Sundance Film Festival, to generally wide acclaim. It starred Harvey Keitel (who had helped get it made after reading the script), Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, Lawrence Tierney and Tarantino himself, and was a tour-de-force, heavily stylized crime thriller where the fast-paced dialogue was laced with pop-cultural references. It felt fresh and very new (and very violent). Miramax – on its way to becoming the dominant independent film distributor of the 1990s – scooped up the rights, and though the film underperformed at the U.S. box office (but still made back more than twice its $1,200,000 budget), it did quite well overseas. That, plus the unmistakable cinematic skills of the not-yet-thirty Tarantino, guaranteed that there would be a follow-up.

In 1994, that second film, Pulp Fiction, premiered at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, where it won the coveted Palme d’Or (the equivalent of “best film”). As in his debut opus, Tarantino peopled the movie with low-life criminals with very high opinions of themselves (often expressed through pop culture arcana), and used music in innovative ways to highlight the different moods of the story. Even more innovatively, he shuffled the chronology of the three separate narratives that made up the script, shifting back and forth through time and weaving in and out of different characters’ lives. If Reservoir Dogs had announced the arrival of an energetic new talent, Pulp Fiction showcased the full breadth of that talent, and with its sizable box office – over $200,000,000 globally on an $8,000,000 budget – proved to be one of the most influential films of the decade. It changed the direction of independent filmmaking, both by offering up a brand new vision of what film could be (while celebrating cinema’s past), and by proving that independent films could make real money (Harvey Weinstein, founder of Miramax, famously called his studio “the house that Quentin built“). Not the least of its additional qualities is its amazing cast, featuring John Travolta (whose career was artistically rejuvenated by the film), Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Christopher Walken and many more.

Join us on Friday, June 13, at 1pm, on WYPR (88.1FM), on the Midday with Dan Rodricks show, when Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film/Video, Stevenson University – will discuss, along with our host, Dan Rodricks, our thoughts on Pulp Fiction and Tarantino, 20 years after the film’s release. What has been the film’s legacy, so far? How has the career of its star director fared since then? What did you think of the film then, and what do you think of it now? Add your voices to the conversation via email ( or phone (410-662-8780 locally, or toll-free at 1-866-661-9309). If you can’t listen live, then check out the podcast later by visiting the show’s site. You can also leave your thoughts in the comment section of this blog.