Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Jackie Brown

JACKIE BROWN                  A-                   
USA  (154 mi)  1997  d:  Quentin Tarantino              Official site

I was the third brother of five
Doing whatever I had to do to survive
I’m not saying what I did was alright
Trying to break out of the ghetto was a day to day fight

Been down so long, getting up didn’t cross my mind
I knew there was a better way of life that I was just trying to find
You don’t know what you’ll do until you’re put under pressure
Across 110th Street is a hell of a tester

A high voltage performance by the legendary Pam Grier, star of Blaxploitation flicks like COFFY (1973), FOXY BROWN (1974), and SHEBA, BABY (1975), even going so far as to use some of the same music from those earlier films, basically portraying a badass chick caught up in a man’s world, described as the “baddest one-chick hit-squad that ever hit town!,” whose sophisticated screen presence sends this into another stratosphere, though it is accompanied by one of the weirdest of all Robert De Niro appearances of all time, underutilized to the point where he utters almost nothing throughout an entire film, a stark contrast from the tour de force role of Pam Grier as Jackie Brown, a woman in trouble, as the film explores all avenues of her particular plight.  Freely adapting Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch, the only adaptation on Tarantino’s resumé to date, while also a riff on THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1973), which featured a flamboyant and cocky arms dealer named “Jackie Brown” (which slyly evolves into the Ordell character).  While adding plenty of his own dialogue, his follow-up to Pulp Fiction (1994) revived the careers of both Grier and Robert Forster, who was nominated as Best Supporting Actor, with Tarantino lamenting the fact that Grier was not similarly nominated.  Despite the titular character, who was changed from being white in the book to black, written specifically with Grier in mind, the centerpiece of the film is a foul-mouthed Samuel L. Jackson character named Ordell, whose use of profanity is nothing short of poetic, waxing eloquently to his numbskull criminal accomplice Louis, (Robert De Niro), a former cellmate recently released from prison for bank robbery, a heavy who mostly just nods approval between hits from a bong waterpipe.  Ordell is the criminal mastermind behind everything that happens in this movie, viewed as a Fu Manchu style high priest of iniquity from Compton, a smooth-talking street hustler who lives the good life in a beach house overlooking the ocean, but never goes near the water, instead running guns for various drug lords, executing those that step out of line, relishing his position of unfettered power, seemingly untouchable, where no one but Jackson could so easily inhabit this diabolical character (supposedly Jackson’s favorite Tarantino role).  Two seemingly unrelated events set the gears in motion for this LA crime drama, with Ordell hunkered into his bachelor pad with a white princess, Bridget Fonda as Melanie, a beach bimbo who sits around getting high all day while watching TV, keeping Louis company whenever Ordell goes out on business.  An innocuous phone call from one of his partners in crime leads him to a professional bail bondsman Max Cherry, Robert Forster, a by-the-books decent kind of guy who knows the business inside and out, but is willing to do business with Odell as he pays upfront in cash, getting his friend out of jail on serious charges, though he winds up dead the next morning, where viewers witness the execution.  Simultaneously, Jackie Brown is a flight attendant stopped by ATF agents on a return flight from Cabo in Mexico, caught with $50,000 in cash along with a stash of cocaine that may have been planted by the cops, who are caught off guard when she refuses to cough up the name of the man she’s working for, instead having to spend a night in jail, while Ordell returns to Max for her get out of jail free card.   

The evening of Jackie’s release tells the film’s real story, as she appears like an apparition, a noirish femme fatale character escorted home by none other than Max himself, delivered in style, asking her out for a drink, but she declines, stealthily removing a gun from the glove compartment instead, which she uses when paid a visit by Ordell shortly after her arrival home, turning the tables on him, Jackie Brown (1997) Best Scene (3:17), reasserting a more equitable power dynamic as viewers realize she works for him, delivering money from his stash in Cabo, but now that the Feds are onto her she’s got to play ball in order to keep her job, so she has to give the appearance of cooperating while figuring out their own moves on the side.  Realizing his gun’s gone (using split screen), Max pays her a visit the next morning with Jackie in a bathrobe, claiming she needed to wash the jail out of her hair, instead fixing him coffee, playing him the luxuriant grooves of the Delfonics, Jackie Brown (5/12) Movie CLIP - The Delfonics (1997) HD YouTube (2:43), literally cementing a relationship that has only just begun.  Both performers were in their heyday in the 60’s and 70’s, with Forster appearing in Medium Cool (1969), and before that in John Huston’s REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967), while Grier received a brief revival as a recurring character in the short-lived television series Crime Story (1986 – 88), which was absolutely brilliant, by the way, the predecessor to The Soprano’s (1999 – 2007), featuring an eclectic mix of high octane action with 60’s period music, where Grier’s appearances were a highpoint of each episode.  Curiously, both actors bring the weight of their past into their roles, adding gravitas not only to the overall film, but especially in their scenes together, which remain understated throughout, where a connection is merely suggested, but when Max goes to a record store and buys a Delfonics tape, all bets are off, as we know he’s in it for the long haul.  But Ordell remains the central figure, going through his own meltdown mode, hilariously revealed with complete nonchalance in a perfectly set up bar sequence that looks right out of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), though not as splashy, as Ordell gets his comeuppance, Jackie Brown - Ordell Meet's Jackie YouTube (2:00), realigning the rules of the game.  What’s different about this film is there is a smaller body count, with less emphasis on the acts of violence themselves and more on how to live in a world surrounded by the threat of violence, where each seems to make their own decisions that lead to their own moral pathway, as some die for nothing, others for simple rudeness, but a message is sent about a senseless waste of life that seems to define Ordell’s world, seemingly snared by his own game, living a cutthroat existence where no one is trustworthy and everyone is expendable.  Characters disappear, as they do in other Tarantino films, but here there is a certain sadness at their loss, as we’ve spent enough time getting to know some of these characters so that they end up mattering to us, even if they’re goofballs.  In this way the film resembles Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), with Grier assuming the Angie Dickenson character, a real dynamo, where the more time spent with the characters only makes the film more appealing, eventually turning into something we can’t take our eyes off of, as we’re invested in the outcome. 
What’s interesting is that the titular character doesn’t utter a sentence of dialogue until 30-minutes into the picture, with all the spotlight shining on Ordell, a king in his dysfunctional kingdom, yet using often obscure 1970’s soul hits peppered throughout the film, where it’s Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” from a 1972 film by the same name playing over the opening credit sequence that gets us into the psychological mindset of the film, Jackie Brown intro - YouTube (3:52), used again at the end, like bookends, though by then the full weight of their lives seems written into that song.  Despite Grier’s towering performance, arguably one of the best in the last 30 years, it was the utterly pedestrian Helen Hunt in AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997) who was the Academy Award choice as Best Actress.  This kind of head scratcher is par for the course with the Hollywood Academy, comprised of wealthy white individuals who could simply not put themselves in Grier’s position, a woman of color arrested by the Feds presumably to get at her boss, where she has to play the complex balancing act of appearing to cooperate in order to stay out of jail while not saying anything too revealing that might get her killed by her boss.  This is real acting, as in essence, due to the amazingly stressful circumstances she finds herself in, she has to become a consummate liar, yet be completely believable to whoever she happens to be fooling, where she has to have enough personality and guile to take all of your money, where by the end you’re literally handing it over to her, unaware that you’re being played.  Years beyond her glory days, she is the stuff of legends, once viewed as a stone cold fox, but now she’s added another dimension, maturity, as she’s a working girl for a two-bit airline, her position described by the Feds as “You’re forty-four years of age.  You’re flying for the shittiest little shuttle-fucking piece of shit Mexican airline that there is.  Where you make what?  $13,000 dollars a year?”  Yet the audience is taken by the allure of her beauty and power and vulnerability, where in every appearance she maintains every last shred of dignity, becoming something real onscreen, someone each one of us in the audience would believe, never guessing she was in a world of trouble, as she always looks like a million bucks.  That’s certainly how Max sees her for the first time, perhaps thinking it’s all a mirage, but he’s taken by her natural wit and candor, her will to survive, where she doesn’t have to try to be alluring and sexy, as she already is just by being herself, even in her worst moments.  They discuss how they feel about growing old, where she confesses, “You know I make $16,000 dollars a year plus retirement benefits that ain’t worth a damn.  And with this arrest hanging over my head, Max, I’m scared.  And if I lose this job, I gotta start all over again and I ain’t got nothing to start over with.  I’ll be stuck with whatever I can get.  And that shit is more scary than Ordell.”  These are the moments that try one’s soul, where she has to look herself in the mirror and figure it out.  That’s what kind of movie this is, getting to the absolute essentials, for real, in a brief period of time, surrounded by cartoonish male characters who think they have all the answers, who look right through her as if she’s not even there, underestimating the power of a women in need.  Like a noir valentine to the 70’s, this is a tribute to one of the great American actresses who ever lived, yet never received the recognition she deserved, who worked circles around everyone else, yet no one paid her any mind, because her life, like Gena Rowlands’ Mabel in A Woman Under the Influence (1974), was all under the radar, unnoticed and unfamiliar, like foreign territory, where it takes a performance like this to shake us out of our cobwebs and finally see a woman in all her glory.  

Pam Grier on influencing feminism as the original bad-ass female ... From a Tina Hassannia interview with Grier from The Globe and Mail, October 1, 2015:

If you enjoyed Charlize Theron’s brutal turn in Mad Max: Fury Road this past summer, you can thank Pam Grier, the original bad-ass female action hero. While working as a receptionist for American International Pictures, Grier was discovered by Roger Corman in the 1970s and cast in his women-in-prison and “Blaxploitation” films. But Grier is more than just an icon of that grindhouse era, and her feminist influences on filmmakers and actresses feels equally resonant today, not to mention recognizable in nearly every movie scheduled for the TIFF Bell Lightbox's new series Beyond Badass: Female Action Heroes. Grier is an inspiring feminist both onscreen and in real life. In her memoir, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, she recounts tales of sexism and racism, and two sexual assaults in her younger days, all of which made her more determined to succeed at a time when women of colour had few opportunities to make it in showbiz.

The Globe and Mail spoke with Grier before she makes her way to Toronto to introduce a handful of her films at the retrospective.

What is it like being the original bad-ass female action hero?

Oh, you’re trying to blame me? [Laughs] But there was Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis and Betty Hutton! I grew up on that. I got picked on a lot, so I would escape by watching Rin Tin Tin and Lassie and Roy Rogers. I wasn’t wussy, but I was thin and bird-like, and I wanted to learn how to fight back because sometimes I was just thrown down the stairs for entertainment. And I wanted it to stop. It was traumatic. I grew from it and it helped me become less fearful and to be able to have confidence and show women that it’s okay to be a leader. My grandfather wanted the girls [in the family] to do everything the boys did – to hunt, fish, shoot, drive, bring the boat in. He wanted us to be self-sufficient. That formed my inner strength. I wanted to bring all of that to film. With humour.

You brought your self-sufficiency to your work, including early on when you were doing your own stunts. What was that like?

The Epper family were a superb group of stunt people and they taught me so much. But I didn’t have an African-American or woman-of-colour stunt double. So I did a few of my own.

And that ability helped you get the title role in Coffy.

Roger Corman was the real front-runner on making these films with women, and they hadn’t thought of a woman of colour until they found out that I could do martial arts. I watched martial-arts films with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, because he was a good friend of Bruce Lee’s, and I’d studied martial arts growing up on military air bases.

What were the producers’ reactions like when you said you could do your own stunts?

I don’t know if they thought I could do it until we got on location, and then they saw me go berserk! What made it more difficult was that they didn’t make sports bras back then.

You’ve worked with so many directors and actors …

Not enough, girl. Let me tell you the truth. I haven’t worked with Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg. But between Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino, I tell everyone: I've been to the mountaintop. When someone devotes two years of their life to write a script for you [Jackie Brown], you know, not everyone gets a script written for them. After all that, I’m good. I’m okay.

Of those you have worked with, who has inspired you or transformed your approach to acting?

There’s Ray Bradbury with Something Wicked This Way Comes. Florence Henderson [in Ladies of the House] – she and I came from parallel worlds. I learned a lot from Jennifer Beals and Ossie Davis in The L Word. And there was Michael Keaton in Jackie Brown, watching him and Samuel [L. Jackson]. I learned from them that as an actor, your body is an instrument, and you can move kinetically and speak faster, slower or rhythmically.

Your work ethic seems inspired by the feminist influences in your life.

On Twitter I found an African-American woman who was one of the first forest rangers. She’s 94 and an amazing human being. That could have been me. I came from a certain mindset of women in an era where, thanks to things like the Vietnam War, so many men didn’t come home, or came home wounded and couldn’t take care of the home. So if you were female and had a degree or trade, you got out there and used it.

You uprooted yourself while holding down three jobs to go to the Philippines and shoot these movies with Corman. And you were reading Stanislavski while on set, because you wanted to be prepared.

I was saving every dime and I was so crazy and heartbroken thanks to a third attack on my life, which nearly killed me. It’s not in [the memoir]; the editors took it out. But that’s when I changed, because I fought back. This was the ultimate decision that changed me into who I became. I’m now working on a film script about my life, and we put that third attack back in. Because that was the moment where I said, ‘You know what, I don’t give a shit about marriage, I’m so tired of men raping women and getting away with it.’ For several seconds during the attack, I went fucking crazy, all hell broke loose. I was so mad at the world. So I went back to Roger and asked, ‘Is that job still available?’ I needed to get away. He told me to read Stanislavski, and I did and grew at such magnitude. I’m so respectful of the actor. I was approaching these B-movies like it was Chekhov or Tennessee Williams. For me, it was just like theatre, and there is no take two. You’ve got to be perfect. I had to go to the other side of the world to find out who I was. I didn’t think I would survive it, but here I am talking to you.

You made an entire career out of it.

It's been 45 years. [Laughs] And I have at least three gold watches. And an Apple watch, too.

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