Laws of Gravity: 1992 (American Indie #1)

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Laws of Gravity - Jimmy & Jon

Low-budget independent movies were becoming increasingly big news in the early 1990s. Inspired by sex, lies and videotape and Slacker, a new generation of independent filmmaking talent began to trickle out, their work showered with plaudits and picked up by respected distribution companies.

This conveyor belt of talent included Tom Kalin (Swoon); Hal Hartley (Trust & Simple Men); Carl Franklin (One False Move); Tom DiCillo (Johnny Suede); Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup) and, of course Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs).

Set in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint district, Laws of Gravity was another example of this trend. I saw it just after it had debuted in Britain at the Edinburgh Film Festival and thought it might just make a breakthrough of sorts. At any rate the career of its Boston born director Nick Gomez was obviously one to keep a close eye on.

Laws of Gravity and Reservoir Dogs were the two independents that stood out for me around this time and I penned gushing reviews of both a few years later for a fanzine that called it a day a matter of only weeks after its one and only issue was printed up and then just about universally ignored. I can’t find my copy anywhere, which is maybe be a blessing in disguise. I might have been just too gushing.

Much was made at the time of the fact that Laws of Gravity was made on an ultra-low budget. A figure of $38,000 was bandied around, albeit this rose significantly when the movie was blown up from 16mm to 35mm for festival screenings and its theatrical release. Even then, compared to big Hollywood studio standards, the film still cost peanuts. Soon it would become almost a badge of honour to have maxed out your credit cards, participated in medical testing studies and stopped eating for several months in order to get your film made on the paltriest sum imaginable.

After editing Hartley’s Trust – where Edie Falco (The Sopranos) earned an early role – Nick Gomez decided he wanted to write and direct. As part of filmmaking collective the Shooting Gallery, he penned a script for Laws of Gravity within three weeks but used this only as a blueprint.

Laws of Gravity - Jimmy & Denise

He utilised actors he already knew like Edie Falco (as Jimmy’s girlfriend Denise) and Adam Trese and gathered them together, rehearsing extensively, letting them immerse themselves thoroughly into their parts. Before too long, he was on the streets shooting his film – which he did in only twelve days.

This is the story of two twenty-something mooks, told over the course of three days. Jimmy (Peter Greene) and Jon (Adam Trese) hang around on street corners, flogging off stolen goods like ghetto-blasters for whatever they can get. Their lives are directionless. Jimmy owes money and is on probation. Jon thinks its a clever idea to skip a court hearing.

The macho bravado displayed by the pair is shared by just about every guy here and repeatedly spills over into violence, usually in a local Irish bar where Jimmy and Jon like to hang out.

Jimmy has opportunities but he refuses legit employment. The nearest he gets to a job is looking after Jon, this being pretty much a full-time occupation. He tries to advise Jon and sort out the problems that Jon inevitably finds himself in because, as he puts it, he’s ‘more diplomatic’.

Not that he’s any kind of Kofi Annan figure, though.

Jon, who resembles a smaller Christian Bale, has one thing going for him, Celia, his long-suffering girlfriend (Arabella Field). Not that he remotely appreciates her, slapping her around repeatedly, even in front of pals like Jimmy.

When an old pal Frankie (Paul Schulze), returns from Florida with a trunkful of firearms in his stolen car and tries to interest Jimmy and Jon in them, viewers should pretty much sense how the film will end.

Let’s just say that testosterone levels rise even further.

Laws of Gravity - Jimmy & Jon with guns

A visit to neighbouring Williamsburg (when it housed more Hispanics than Hipsters) almost escalates into real trouble. It’s avoided this time round but you sense that this is only a temporary reprieve.

It’s a gripping ninety minutes albeit uncomfortably close to Mean Streets – Jon is even referred to as Johnny Boy at one point. During an interview with Hal Hartley just after the film’s release, Gomez went as far to speak about sampling Scorsese. Many critics resented this aspect of Laws of Gravity but the action comes more from the earlier life of the young director than from Scorsese’s breakthrough hit.

Like Mean Streets, the hand-held camerawork gives the film a terrific sense of immediacy. From its opening shots of Jimmy waking up the acting is remarkably naturalistic. It almost feels like you’re watching real people rather than actors.

The dialogue might lack the flash and rapid-fire pop culture zing of Tarantino’s debut but it’s equally effective, working especially well when the actors simultaneously blurt out dialogue in a manner that suggests it’s been improvised.

Greene is especially good, portraying Jimmy perfectly, at the end of his tether with Jon but determined to ensure that he does what he thinks is the right thing out of his misguided sense of loyalty. I’m guessing Tarantino was impressed too. He cast Peter Greene as Zed in Pulp Fiction and a line from The Gold Watch sequence of that movie gave the aforementioned fanzine its name – Zed’s Dead, Baby.

Despite predicting that Greene was really going places, this somehow never quite happened although he’s appeared in a long list of films and TV dramas since. Few of these have been as good as Laws of Gravity although Clean Shaven features a wonderfully intense performance from him that demonstrates his talent to the fullest.

Laws of Gravity isn’t Citizen Kane or Chinatown but, along with One False Move, it is one of the most under-rated indies of the 1990s.

A Pam Grier Double Bill (Foxy Brown & Jackie Brown)

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Foxy Brown & Jackie Brown.jpg

Pam Grier’s two big 1970s career highpoints were Coffy and Foxy Brown and it’s easy if you haven’t seen both movies in years to confuse them. Both are blaxploitation revenge fantasies. Both are directed by Jack Hill with the Grier characters kicking ass throughout as they take on local drug pushers, pimps and crime lords. In both Grier poses as a high-class hooker as part of her strategy to gain some serious payback against those who have wronged her and her community. In Coffy she hides razor blades in her afro and then a small gun in Foxy Brown. That’s right, a small gun.

Foxy Brown is now the better-known film, largely because of the iconic name and the whole Jackie Brown thang, Quentin Tarantino giving several nods to Foxy in his third feature film. Just look at the typeface on those records pictured above for starters.

Coffy likely edges it as the superior movie, but Foxy is a whole lot of fun, more cartoon-like and more outrageous with a great arch nemesis in Miss Katherine Wall (Kathryn Loder), the unlikely head of the syndicate that controls the city’s drug trade.

It also has a much more dynamic opening credits sequence, blazing with pop art colours and accompanied by a track from under-rated Motown artist Willie Hutch. Here is Theme From Foxy Brown:

Based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, Jackie Brown still displays Tarantino’s effortless directorial pizzazz but this is a more nuanced and mature film than his previous high-octane trademark style might have led us to expect with only a fraction of the fireworks of Pulp Fiction.

Like that film, though, its dialogue flows like Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day, an intricate plot requiring you to pay close attention – don’t even think about checking your phone until the end credits roll – and, the soundtrack is top-notch, albeit more subdued than had been the case in before on Planet Quentin with no totally unexpected, stop you in your tracks moment like Little Green Bag or Stuck in the Middle with You in Reservoir Dogs.

Instead we are treated to some high class soul and funk including Across 110th Street by Bobby Womack (borrowed from Barry Shear’s blaxploitation crime drama of the same name from 1972), The Johnson Brothers’ Strawberry Letter 23 and The Meters’ Cissy Strut, one of the finest songs to ever emerge from that great musical city New Orleans:

Like Tarantino’s previous work, Jackie Brown also boasts a fantastic ensemble cast.

Here Pam Grier is Jackie Brown rather than Foxy (although she is still plenty foxy in the looks department). She’s is in her mid-40s and works as a flight attendant for the Mexican equivalent of Easyjet. To supplement her meagre wages, she smuggles money from Mexico in to L.A. for gun-runner Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson), a motormouth with a long ponytail and a little braided goatee, straight out of a Shaw Brothers’ chop socky flick. Ordell is equal parts charming and psychopathically ruthless.

Bridget Fonda plays his girlfriend Melanie, a full-time stoner, who, for a while at least, seems to enjoy hanging out with schubbly ex-con Louis (Robert De Niro), Ordell’s dim-witted but hot-tempered partner in crime.

Briefly we are even treated to three of my favourite actors sharing screentime together: Samuel L. Jackson. Robert De Niro and Pam Grier.

Anchoring the drama, though, is Robert Forster as world-weary bail bondsman Max Cherry, who develops a crush on Jackie (and a love of The Delfonics through her).

There’s one scene where he visits Jackie’s place and she sticks on a vinyl copy of The Delfonics’ self-titled third album, placing the needle on Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time). Max doesn’t recognise the track and asks if she hasn’t got into ‘the whole CD revolution.’ Jackie replies she has a few: ‘But I can’t afford to start all over again. I got too much time and money invested in my records.’

Later Max buys a cassette copy of The Delfonics’ album in a store and their music seems to symbolize his growing fondness for Jackie. Strange to think that for a time around twenty years ago, cassette tapes had somehow seemed to have outlived vinyl.

Jackie Brown has been called the last great crime movie of the 1990s but just as memorable is the poignant (potential) relationship between two characters who have, between them, lived on the planet for the grand total of one hundred years.

The chemistry between Grier and Forster is remarkable and the fact that Grier’s biggest successes had come almost a quarter of a century beforehand, while Forster was still best known for his role in 1969’s Medium Cool provided further proof that early period Tarantino possessed an exquisite talent for the kind of imaginative casting capable of resurrecting careers.

From Philly, another fine music city, here are The Delfonics with the soft soul classic Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time):

For more on Quentin Tarantino: https://www.tarantino.info/

The Hateful Eight

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Back in 2007, Quentin Tarantino announced that would he would attend a screening of his new film Death Proof at the Glasgow Film Theatre and on hearing this news I immediately booked a ticket and later enjoyed both the movie and seeing the director motormouth his way through a Q&A afterwards, even if he did have the occasional problem with Scottish accents.

So yes, I am a fan but no fanboy, in fact, I reckon he can veer towards being a bit of an arse at times.

The Hateful Eight poster

For The Hateful Eight, I head to my local Odeon, where there’s no Tarantino in attendance and as this venue certainly isn’t one of those selected for his 70mm Ultra Panavision Roadshow, there’s no programme, no intermission, a slightly shorter runtime and digital projection.

Rather than shooting on film stock deliberately scratched and discoloured to echo the effects of scuzzy 70s grindhouse cinema as he did on Death Proof this time round Tarantino has decided to employ 70mm Ultra Panavision, a vintage widescreen format not used since the young Quentin was barely out of nappies. This decision resembles the likes of The White Stripes choosing to record in the analogue only Toe Rag Studios in Hackney and whether it was worthwhile I obviously cannot say although, on my bog standard screening, Robert Richardson’s cinematography, particularly early on, did still look gorgeous and could have been shot by a master of landscape photography such as Ansel Adams.

So, the film itself. Tarantino’s eighth feature is set in the wilderness of Wyoming during the kind of spectacularly wild blizzard that would even put the worst winters of East Kilbride to shame (a snowbound -1 as I left the cinema last night, folks).

In a six horse strong stagecoach, a bounty hunter by the name of John Ruth (Kurt Russell) escorts black-eyed ‘no good murdering bitch’ Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock, where she is to hang. Ruth is nicknamed the Hangman due to his insistence on always bringing his quarry in alive to face the rope and he is happy to admit when asked if he will watch her death: ‘I wanna hear her neck snap with my own two ears.’

Soon the pair are joined by two stranded travellers, firstly another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union soldier, who carries a letter from Abraham Lincoln around with him wherever he goes and then Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims to be heading into Red Rock to take up the position of town sheriff – and if Goggins looks familiar then you might remember him as the transgender prostitute in Sons of Anarchy that Tig took a shine to.

That’s half of the hateful eight – there is also the stagecoach driver O.B, who can’t really be classed as hateful although he does get mightily pissed off at one point – and they will double in number on taking refuge in an isolated roadhouse known as Minnie’s Haberdashery, where the plan is to hole up until the weather has calmed down.

The snowstorm, though, is only a minor inconvenience  compared to the shitstorm that is about to follow.

The majority of the movie takes place in Minnie’s, although surprisingly the hostess is nowhere to be seen, instead the log cabin is inhabitated by another bunch of marooned travellers: Senor Bob (Demián Bichir) a near monosyllabic Mexican who claims to have been roped into looking after Minnie’s while she is away visiting relatives; a dandyish and supercilious Englishman named Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who is an actual hangman; Sandford Smithers (Bruce Dern), a bitter former Confederate general and Joe Gage, who is played by Michael Madsen and therefore obviously a badass.

All The Hateful Eight

All the director’s trademark touches are on display here – visceral violence, verbal jousting and humour, twists, cinematic references, non-linear storytelling and serpentine plotting.

There is also the reappearance of the word nigger, bound to cause controversy among those who believe that fictional characters should not be allowed to speak as a writer envisaged and that no one should ever be offended.

There’s no scene packed with the tension of the shot of adrenaline to Uma Thurman’s heart in Pulp Fiction or the cloaked menace of the interrogation by Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds and, of course, this being Tarantino, the movie also verges on the self-indulgent at times although its good points far outweigh any negatives.

The storyline is never predictable and there are a number of stand-out performances from a fantastic ensemble cast. Jackson, as ever, is superb with Tarantino dialogue but maybe best of all is Jennifer Jason Leigh, a performer I hadn’t seen acting in over a decade. She is sensational here as a witch-like villain, who is abused terribly by Ruth and others as she snarls, spits, cackles and curses. Her reaction as Ruth projectile vomits blood over her face is priceless, the funniest thing I’ve seen on the big screen in a long, long time.

Okay, I admit I sometimes have a childish sense of humour.

There is also a fantastically brooding score supplied by Ennio Morricone that has been partly recycled from sections of his highly evocative music for John Carpenter’s The Thing (which also starred Kurt Russell) and also from Exorcist II: The Heretic. One critic has called it Morricone’s masterpiece but they have obviously never seen Once Upon a Time in the West. The Hateful Eight additionally uses other music such as the aforementioned White Stripes with Apple Blossom and Roy Orbison singing There Won’t Be Many Coming Home over the end credits.

It is a testament to the talents of Quentin Tarantino that while I wouldn’t consider this as a contender for the tag of his best film, it’s still a great watch that never for a moment strays into the realms of the dull and is easily one of the finest films released in the course of the last twelve months.

For more on the film visit the official site.