November Blindspot: The Usual Suspects (1995)

Release: Friday, September 15, 1995

→YouTube

Written by: Christopher McQuarrie

Directed by: Bryan Singer

Before the X-Men made Bryan Singer a household name in the early 2000s, he had already achieved what the vast majority do not by directing an Oscar winner on his second try, the 1995 neo-noir mystery The Usual Suspects. He had help of course, with his regularly contributing screenwriter taking home one of the two statues for his talky and twisty original screenplay while Kevin Spacey snagged the other for his star-making role as a small-time con man suffering cerebral palsy. The director’s ambition has certainly grown over the years, as have his budgets, but the irony remains that some of his most inspired work resulted before he ever earned his seat at the big kids’ table.

Even if Singer failed to earn plaudits for himself that February night, his craftsmanship here is undeniable. The Usual Suspects is not only stylish without being affectatious, it offers its cast of brand-name actors plenty of room to stretch their legs and play off of one another’s unique energy. The film is not just a master class in obscuring the edges of morality but the cinematic sleight of hand is also really impressive. So often the frame is filled with smoke and mirrors figuring out what is actually going on can be a tall task. Patience (and a willingness to forego immediate comprehension of events) pays dividends. Singer makes you feel as if you’ve accomplished something by the end, something that cannot be said about his more blockbuster-friendly fare, fun as those adventures may have been.

Despite the peripheral blur, the premise remains simple. A major dope deal turns ugly aboard a boat moored in the San Pedro Bay, and a lone survivor, claiming immunity, recounts the details of his involvement and the events leading up to it through extended and potentially unreliable flashbacks. In the present tense, U.S. Customs Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) must decide on what level to trust his source. He knows as well as any thug he’s put behind bars that no one wants to be a rat.

The story begins with an explanation of an event that took place six weeks prior, an amusingly farcical police investigation into the disappearance of a truck carrying guns through New York. Although a group of five mangy suspects are brought in for questioning, no culprit is identified. While sequestered in a holding cell, one among them, Stephen Baldwin’s bad-boy hipster Michael McManus, hatches a scheme to screw with the boys in blue as a token of their gratitude for being pointlessly incarcerated. Everyone is on board except Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a former dirty cop trying to turn over a new leaf by going into the restaurant biz.

The others — Benecio Del Toro‘s too-cool-for-proper-enunciation Fred Fenster; Kevin Pollak as angry guy Todd Hockney and the recently disgraced Spacey as the aforementioned Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint — have no compunction to leave this cell changed men. A series of profitable but small-time jobs eventually leads the gang to a big payday, when an opportunity arises to clear their names with an arch-criminal by the name of Keyser Söze, an almost mythological figure whom no one ever sees or hears from directly. Because their affinity for theft has struck a little too close to home, one of Söze’s representatives, a mysterious man played by the late, great Pete Postlethwaite informs them they can avoid certain death if they disrupt a major coke deal about to go down in the Bay, one that stands to net a competing drug lord $91 million.

Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay, which has curried so much favor with the Writer’s Guild of America over the years it’s now considered among the top 40 greatest screenplays of all time, creates a confluence of themes that include but are certainly not confined to: persuasion versus manipulation; virtue versus vice. Does crime really pay off all your debts? A scale of relativism emerges from the morass: the only thing worse than a career criminal is a career criminal who rats on his colleagues. And in The Usual Suspects, there’s sort of this poetic justice with the way snitches get their stitches.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Recommendation: This is a movie you’ll have to put some effort into but it’s so worth it you’ll very likely end up like me, embarrassed you decided to give up on the first 20 minutes in the first place. After those 20 very confusing and frustrating minutes, the nut eventually cracks. It’s milk comes spilling forth. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 106 mins.

Something better than another damn quote: The line-up scene was scripted as a serious scene, but after a full day of filming takes where the actors couldn’t keep a straight face, Singer decided to use the funniest takes. Behind the scenes footage reveals the director becoming furious at his actors for not being able to keep their shit together. In an interview, Kevin Pollak states that the hilarity came about when Benicio Del Toro “farted, like 12 takes in a row.” Del Toro himself said “somebody” farted, but no one knew who. 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Toy Story (1995)

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Given that today is a holiday I don’t really celebrate being British and all, I figured now would be as good a time as any to go back and visit an absolute classic from the mid-90s. Upon reading up on the film I realized it is also the 20th anniversary of the release, which by all accounts made feel quite old. It’s also surprising to me that it has taken me until now to feature 

Today’s food for thought: Toy Story.

Buzz Lightyear

Toying with our emotions since: November 22, 1995

[VHS]

One of the great tragedies of life is that it always changes. Nothing stays the same. The notion of a child’s toy collection having lives of their own, getting into trouble and having adventures in clandestinity (i.e. when no human is around or paying much attention) is the epitome of creative filmmaking, but it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable without its poignant commentary on the nature of change and how people — in this case, toys — adapt to and more often than not benefit from it.

Tom Hanks’ Woody finds his little cowboy boots turned inside out when a new toy arrives in Andy’s room in the form of Tim Allen’s sophisticated, tech-savvy, Star Command-loyalist Buzz Lightyear. Worried that Andy’s attention is, at the very least, going to be henceforth split between his old buddy and a new shiny ‘play thing,’ Woody goes on the defense, making sure Andy’s room and all that it contains doesn’t make him very welcome. It’s a fruitless effort, because in a matter of minutes Buzz manages to win everyone over with his flying abilities and his voice-activated thing-a-ma-jigs.

This film, the simplest of the three, rarely leaves the confines of Andy’s room, much less the house, and when it does, the world feels massive: massively unexplored and massively intimidating. When Woody accidentally knocks Buzz out of the window and inadvertently turns the rest of the toys against him, he is chosen reluctantly by Andy as the single toy he gets to take to a family outing at Pizza Planet. Buzz soon confronts Woody about the situation, and just when their future looks as uncertain as it could possibly become, they fall into the clutches of the evil Sid when Buzz mistakes a rocket-shaped arcade game for the genuine article. Potentially damned to a life of destruction, the odd couple must resolve their differences and find a way back into the loving arms of Andy.

Yet there are issues further complicating the end game. Buzz still thinks he’s a legitimate space ranger and Woody is still hated by the rest of the toys, who believe he intentionally eliminated Buzz out of jealousy. The pair may be imprisoned, but ultimately they’re within reach of all that was once familiar — they can even communicate with the other toys through open windows — but at this point in the story the two groups may as well be on opposite sides of the planet. And not even Slinky believes Woody is a good guy anymore.

Changed environments and slowly changing perspectives force a contrived, but nonetheless effective, reconciliation between a psychologically weakened Buzz who, after a bit of plastic brainwashing, is convinced he is now Mrs. Nesbitt, and a cowboy who recognizes phrases like “Somebody’s poisoned the water hole!” indeed have a shelf life. (Of course, Woody is more concerned with the literal sense of that term, not wanting to end up on a dusty shelf for the rest of his life.)

Toy Story, the first in a long line of incredibly successful Pixar campaigns, became so influential it spawned a trilogy of adventures featuring the jealous pull-string cowboy and his former intergalactic rival. And for once, the universe within which these adventures were first created seemed spacious enough to warrant further exploration. Toy Story is one of few sagas that actually builds naturally upon what came before, satiating audiences who fell in love with the original with grander aspirations and more complex schemes that would take the toys right out of the toy chest and confront them with the harsh realities of “real world” environments. In some senses, these movies are almost too good for children. It’s like handing them a piece of German chocolate and expecting them to know the difference between that and a Hershey bar.

As a child I don’t think I ever ‘got’ what was going on in the lives of these once-fictitious toys in a larger sense; it certainly never occurred to me that there would come a day when Bo Peep, Slinky, Rex, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, the Etch-a-Sketch, the barrel of monkeys, Mr. Spell and an infantry of green plastic soldiers would be faced with an existential crisis: the proposition of being sold off to someone not named Andy. Similarly, as a child, I didn’t quite understand that life would perpetually get more difficult with each passing year and eventual decade. I always thought the bubble would never pop. In fact I couldn’t even tell I was floating in a bubble.

This animated classic set the bar for a studio that would go on to create an unprecedented run of high-quality cinematic releases but for some reason I care much less about what came after as I do about this mid-90s release. Make no mistake, though: I loved Inside Out and in all likelihood I’m going to greatly enjoy The Good Dinosaur. I skipped out on Cars, Planes, Monsters Inc., Up and Brave. In essence, Toy Story is virtually all I know about the world’s most successful animation studio. I’m scared of and don’t welcome all that easily the concept of things changing. But maybe it’s time to start embracing it.

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Recommendation: One of this blogger’s very favorite movies, Toy Story just gets things right on every level: characters, visual presentation, story, music, the comedy, and profound themes like accepting and embracing change and making new friends. As one of the very first movies I saw in theaters, I have to say I had no idea then how good this movie really was and still is. This is such a memorable experience that I love revisiting time and again.

Rated: G

Running Time: 81 mins.

TBTrivia: Jeffrey Katzenberg often gave notes that he wanted more edge. Pixar presented an early draft of the film to Disney on November 19, 1993. The result was disastrous. The film was deemed unwatchable and John Lasseter recalls simply hanging his head in shame. It presented Woody as a “sarcastic jerk” who was constantly insulting the other toys. Katzenberg took Walt Disney Feature Animation president Peter Schneider in[to] the hall after the screening and asked him why it was bad; Schneider responded that it “wasn’t theirs anymore.” Disney immediately shut down production pending a new script. The story team spent a week on a new script to make Woody a more likable character, instead of the “sarcastic jerk” he had been.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.pinterest.com; http://www.blogs.disney.com 

Decades Blogathon – Casino (1995)

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Decades Blogathon Banner

1995

As hard as it may be to believe we are entering the home stretch of the Decades Blogathon, hosted by myself and the indubitable Tom from Digital Shortbread! The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the fifth year of the decade. Tom and I are running different entries each day; and this one comes from Fernando at Committed To Celluloid. Fernando’s site is one of my favourites out there in the blogosphere, so do yourself a favour and take a visit!

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It seems so strange that Casino came out only 20 years ago. Martin Scorsese’s 1995 offering seems much older, and yes, I mean it as a compliment.

Arguably one of ole Marty’s best (or my favorite, anyway), Casino, not just because it’s set in that era, truly feels, looks and carries itself like a film of the seventies.

Casino

Riveting, stylish and peppered with bursts…

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Decades Blogathon – La Haine (1995)

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Decades Blogathon Banner

1995

We’re halfway through the Decades Blogathon, hosted by myself and the inimitable Tom from Digital Shortbread! The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the fifth year of the decade. Tom and are running different entries each day; and this one comes from Marta over at Ramblings of a Cinephile. If you haven’t checked out Marta’s site yet – why not?! – you’ll find it filled with her thoughts on oldies, new releases, home viewing and more besides.

La Haine Poster

Mathieu Kassovitz gives us an insight into roughly 20 hours of the lives of Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Said (Said Taghmaoui) and Hubert (Hubert Kounde), three young friends from one of the banlieues (housing projects) in the suburbs around Paris, chronicling  the aftermath of a riot.

The viewer witnesses the struggles and alienation of these twenty-somethings living in an impoverished, multi-ethnic environment that seems a world apart from the magical…

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Decades Blogathon – Tommy Boy (1995)

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Day six in the Decades Blogathon finds Drew of Drew Reviews Movies taking a look back at the classic ’90s road trip comedy, Tommy Boy. A personal favorite of mine. For fair and balanced film reviews and fun features like the Movie Quote of the Week, you really ought to go check out his site. Now, let me step aside and let Drew tell you why this movie belongs in the blogathon:


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Watched: 5/14/15

Released: 1995

Synopsis  

Tommy Callahan (Chris Farley) is the heir to Callahan Auto Parts who barely graduated college. When his dad (Brian Dennehy) passes away suddenly, Tommy and his father’s assistant, Richard (David Spade), go on the road to sell the company’s new brake pads and keep the business from getting bought by Zalinsky Auto Parts.

Review  

Tommy Boy may possibly be my favorite feel good film (I’m not for sure on that but it’s up there).  The story is straightforward and light, allowing you to have a ton of fun along the way.  Easily the movie’s strongest point is the chemistry between Chris Farley and David Spade.  The way they bounce off each other is spectacular.  This is evident from their first scene together.  Just about every time they are on screen together is side-splitting.  There are so many memorable lines throughout the entirety of this movie, mostly from the lead duo but everyone gets quip or two of their own.  Below is one of my favorite quotes but truth is, I had a hard time choosing just one.  From “a lot of people go to college for seven years” to “housekeeping,” it’s difficult to pick a favorite line or moment.

Most of this movie sees Farley and Spade traveling around the mid-eastern United States, which like most great road trip movies, cause some crazy shenanigans.  Thankfully, this film doesn’t follow the normal road trip trope of the leads becoming buddies, and then something happening that makes them not buddies again, then at the end they make up and are closer than ever.  Once they become friends, they stay friends, which turns into a touching moment between them towards the end.  Tommy Boy is fun, pure and simple.  At ninety minutes of run time, you’d be hard pressed to find more entertainment for your time.

Rating

4/5

Favorite Quote

Boy 1: Hey, Tub-o, you ain’t moving!

Tommy: Yeah, need a little wind here.

Boy 2: No, you need to drop a couple hundred pounds, blimp.

Tommy: [Laughs] Rascals. I guess that’s your theory.

Boy 3: Hey, your sail is limp, like your dick.

Tommy: Watch your language in front of the lady, punk! Jeez. You were saying?

Boy 1: Hey, Gilligan, did you eat the skipper?

Tommy: You better pray to the god of skinny punks that this wind doesn’t pick up! ‘Cause I’ll come over there and jam an oar up your ass!

Boys: Oooooh.

Tommy: Jeepers creepers. Those guys keep interrupting us. I’m sorry about that. You were saying about, the, um…

Boy 2: Hey, lady, look out! There’s a fat whale on your boat!

Boy 3: Yeah, free Willy.

Michelle: Listen up you little spazoids, I know where you live and I’ve seen where you sleep! I swear to everything holy that your mothers will cry when they’ve seen what I’ve done to you!

[Boys run away] I was just kidding.  I have no idea where they live.

Trailer  

Cast & Crew

Peter Segal – Director

Bonnie Turner – Writer

Terry Turner – Writer

David Newman – Composer

Chris Farley – Tommy

David Spade – Richard

Brian Dennehy – Big Tom

Bo Derek – Beverly

Rob Lowe – Paul

Julie Warner – Michelle

Dan Aykroyd – Zalinsky

Sean McCann – Frank Rittenhauer

Zach Grenier – Ted Reilly

James Blendick – Ron Gilmore

TBT: Bad Boys (1995)

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Ah yes, the glorious return of TBT continues! So I actually had this idea at one point where I’d possibly substitute this month’s batch with an entirely new idea: I’d call it ‘Masterpiece May.’ It would focus on films most people regard as classics. But because I couldn’t get my shit together in time, I bailed on the plan. Maybe one day something like that will happen, but for now we have more Throwback Thursdays to look forward to. We leave the music scene behind and enter into buddy-cop action-comedy territory with

Today’s food for thought: Bad Boys.

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Destroying the ‘hood since: May 19, 1995

[external hard drive] 

I don’t know what I was doing when Michael Bay’s outrageously fun Bad Boys debuted, but I wasn’t in a theater showing it, that’s all sure. At the end of 1995 I would be moving from the “great” state of Texas — my family’s Plymouth Rock having moved from England five years prior — to Tennessee (where I live now). I guess I was busy trying to get rid of the accent I had, a clinging to my parents’ rural Essex county dialect. No one would believe me now that I had one, but that doesn’t matter. I’m just glad I never picked up on the Texan drawl having lived on the southern panhandle for half a decade.

Texas wasn’t all bad. It was where I saw my first movie in theaters — Andre — and where I was introduced to the world of Toy Story on the big screen. I missed a lot of good movies though, and it seems this would be included. Michael Bay’s Bad Boys is cinematic escapism almost at its finest. It’s big and bombastic, loud and obnoxious, sexy and exhilarating. I hesitate to call this a perfect escape because while this is arguably the best thing Bay has done thus far, especially considering it was his feature film debut, our adrenaline was nonetheless assuaged by Baymaggedon.

Bad Boys features Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as two undercover loose cannon Miami detectives, Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett respectively, who have four days to recover $100 million worth of heroin, originally seized from local Mafia and brilliantly snatched right out from under the Miami Police Department’s nose. Time being a factor, Mike recruits a friend named Max (Karen Alexander), who in turn insists her friend Julie (Téa Leoni) join her, to help scout out potential suspects, people who have seemingly come into a lot of money very quickly.

Bay’s directorial touch, a subtlety equivalent to that of an enraged Decepticon, has in recent times been scathingly criticized and more often than not it has been deserved. Bad Boys represents a habit-forming process but at least in this fairly breezy outing the “exposition-explosion-explosion-explosion-conclusion” is a structure more palatable than it is predictable given Smith and Lawrence’s mordant rapport. Still, let’s not give Bay too big an ego here. The end game fails to add up to anything more than your typical American action extravaganza: get the drugs/money, save the damsel in distress — Leoni’s call girl (wowee) becomes ensnared in Mike and Marcus’ operation after surviving a gang-related shooting that tragically claims Max’s life — all while looking (being?) indestructible the entire time.

In the same way I learned to outgrow my British accent, over time Bay has, purposefully or not, learned to strip away most of the enticing elements that made Bad Boys a romping good time. With his Transformers franchise, particularly the unabashedly bombastic sequels, if you are able to characterize the choreographed chaos as having any kind of personality, you have a rare talent. You’ll have to let me know your secret; how to distinguish the original from its fourth iteration (soon to be a fifth). The only term that flashes upon the marquee of my mind is ‘generic action flick.’ Bad Boys doesn’t have novelty working in its favor consistently but the performers transform (sorry) trademark action blandness into something thoroughly enjoyable through sheer likability. On the casting of Smith and Lawrence alone Bay deserves applause. (Or at least casting agents Lynn Kressel and Francine Maisler.)

All of this is to say, what exactly? Do I regret not having been old enough to enter a theater playing this occasionally melodramatic buddy-cop action flick? Kinda sorta. Am I glad to have finally caught up with everyone else who has been singing its praises for years? Absolutely. Would I watch it again, or better yet — am I looking forward to Bad Boys II (and now, apparently, a second sequel)? Sigh. Yes, I suppose, but as far as the latter goes, I probably won’t rush to any theater to see that.

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3-0Recommendation: This mid-90s actioner is a solid Michael Bay film, although I suppose one should take that with a decent-sized grain of salt. It’s action-packed and well-acted, despite a clunky script and often stilted dialogue. But the pair of leads ensures most people, the ones who buy into Will Smith and Martin Lawrence at least, will have an enjoyable albeit mindless two hours of cinematic escape. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 118 mins.

TBTrivia: “I love you, man:” just before filming the ending scene, Michael Bay and Will Smith got into a lengthy argument about whether or not Smith’s character should tell Martin Lawrence’s character “I love you.” Bay wanted him to say it, but Smith held his ground. Within 15 minutes of having to film the scene a frustrated Bay told Smith “he didn’t care whether he said it or not,” but finally Smith did say it. This is the clip they used as the final cut. 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.moviesongs.com; http://www.fernbyfilms.com