Tag Archives: 5.0 Star Movies

The Princess Bride (1987)

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Rob Reiner’s perennial classic, based on William Golding’s novel of the same name, has the power to make you believe in true love. And perfect movies. Is it cheesy? Hell yeah. The backdrops look like sets in a stage play, the special effects are ludicrous by today’s jaded standards, and the female lead, in classic fairy tale fashion, is suitably helpless and pathetic. It’s corny, and could by considered dated compared to recent blockbusters, but it’s also terrific. Because this fairy tale classic has all the great storytelling and timeless quotability of ten average box-office smashes.

“The Princess Bride” ought to be a part of everyone’s childhood. If you didn’t watch it at least once as a child or tween, I find your youth to be a little… lacking. I mean no offense, there’s certainly a lot more to having a great childhood than watching one movie, but there you go.

In a nondescript American home, the preteen and otherwise-unnamed Grandson (Fred Savage) is sick with the fever when his Grandfather (Peter Fonda) comes over with a special present for him. The kid is thrilled until he discovers the contents of the gift- a old book passed from generation to generation, ‘The Princess Bride.’ In meta fashion, this story-within-a-story follows Buttercup (Robin Wright,) a spoiled princess who soon discovers her condescension toward handsome  stable boy Wesley (Cary Elwes) turn to love. When she realizes their mutual devotion for each other, she yearns to spend her life with him, but circumstance forces them apart when Wesley seeks his fortune at sea and is kidnapped by the infamous Dread Pirate Roberts.

Buttercup presumes Wesley to be dead and swears never to love again, but is forced into a sham marriage with the arrogant and heartless Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon.) Shortly before they are to be wed, Buttercup is abducted by a gentle giant with a gift for wordplay (Andre the Giant), an alcoholic sword-fighting Spaniard (Mandy Patinkin,) and their squat, corpulent Sicilian boss (Wallace Shawn.) Upon learning that the swordsman and the giant are not as bad as they seem, it becomes a matter of getting the Sicilian out of the picture, and Buttercup is taken on the adventure of a lifetime which just might spell out a reunion between her and the long-disappeared Wesley.

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Meanwhile, we get a preteen boy’s feedback on the more romantic aspects of the story (kissing? eeeww!) and within the context of the fantasy tale we get the bigger context of the film- a grandfather’s love for his grandson, the kindling of a livelong love for stories and reading, and a fostering of the simpler, more old-fashioned things in life. In today’s society this is especially relevant- we need to slow the fuck down occasionally and experience the pleasures of a book, a favorite song, or a beloved old film. Nowadays the world is available at the click of a button; with vines, Youtube, selfies, Facebook, and Instagram, we are developing shorter and shorter attention spans. The internet is a gift, but is it also a curse,  and it is making ADD patients of all of us.

he Grandfather takes the kid, for a while at least, outside the world of instant gratification and into the world of Nostalgia and genuine feeling. Oh, and “The Princess Bride” has so many wonderful quotes. If this were a book (which it is, I just haven’t read it) I would be leaning over that sucker with a pen and highlighter. There’s so many memorable lines to share and quote at will; I would be working on this review all night if I decided to share them all. As I said, it’s an old-fashioned movie. There’s no in-jokes, fart gags, car chases, explosions, or CGI. But is not dated: There is a marked difference. To say something is dated is to imply it has less value then it did twenty-something years ago.

The actors are simply wonderful- talented Thespians at the height of their craft. If I could change one thing about this movie I would make Buttercup a little ballsier- she’s quite a wet sandwich and don’t even get me started with the scene where she fights the Rodent of Unusual Size that’s goring Wesley (that’s it, princess! Poke it to death!) Even if you’re sold on the supposed timidity of women as opposed to their masculine counterparts, let’s face it- a real woman (one who loved her beau) would have gone for the skull on that sucker.

If you’ve missed out on “The Princess Bride,” it is imperative that you watch it at least once before you die. It’s one of those classics that’s a must watch whether you’re young or old, and it won’t affect your enjoyment of the film whether you’re ten or a hundred, just out of the cradle or with one proverbial foot already in the grave. And if you like this movie, I recommend Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel, “Stardust.” Ebert said it didn’t measure up to “The Princess Bride.” He’s wrong. They’re both wonderful, wonderful films, and I think every child deserves to have them as part of their childhood.

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Up (2009)

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Not only does Up hold a long-standing place in my heart as my favorite Pixar film, it just might be my favorite animated film, period. It might be a slightly prosaic choice (as a independent movie enthusiast and borderline film snob, shouldn’t I pick something more obscurely cutting edge, maybe a mind-blowing, little-known Asian Anime?) but frankly, I don’t give a crap. It’s just that good.

My advice to the uninitiated is this- if you haven’t seen “Up”, stop reading this review right now and rent it, stream it, splurge on a purchase if you have to. Take your kid, take a friend’s kid, take yourself. It isn’t just ‘another kids movie,’ it’s got a huge spectrum of emotions and it sports one of the most beautiful opening sequences in film, period.

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Laughter, feels, and tears are all on naked display in this testament to childhood dreams and adulthood regrets as we follow elderly widower Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) and chubby eight-year-old Wilderness Explorer Russell (Jordan Nagai) on the adventure of a lifetime. Carl, age seventy-eight, is a man with a lifelong dream; to take his wife Ellie to the site of their childhood obsession, the exotic and magical Paradise Falls.

We see a sequence with Ellie and Carl as children discovering their mutual interest in visiting Paradise Falls followed by a beautiful montage of the couple growing old together, which ends, sadly and perhaps inevitably, in Ellie’s deterioration and death (gently but heartbreakingly portrayed in a few oblique scenes of a hospital stay and Carl sitting, alone and dejected, next to the casket after the funeral.)

An undetermined amount of time passes following Ellie’s death, and Carl has grown into the quintessential grumpy old man, still grieving for his wife and his own inability to take her to Paradise Falls. When a rage-fueled mishap lands Carl on the direct route to a nursing home, the retired balloon salesman ties thousands of colorful balloons to his quaint little house and- surprise!- sails away before the rest home attendants who have arrived to take him away’s very eyes.

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There’s one little problem… Russell, the Wilderness Explorer kid determined to get his final badge for assisting the elderly, who in the process of pestering Carl gets stuck on the front porch when the house sets sail. After landing (rather conveniently) in Paradise Falls, Carl and Russell encounter talking dogs, including the sweet but dim Retriever Dug (Bob Peterson,) a sexually ambiguous exotic bird, but also a maniacal villain (Christopher Plummer) intent on taking what he believes is rightfully his.

Along the way, the sheltered Russell traverses the wilderness for the first time in his life, but is is Carl who learns lessons about bravery, letting go, and moving on from unfathomable grief. The irresistible Dug offers plenty of comic relief, and an unbreakable bond is forged between man and boy, man and dog, triggering a significant change in Carl’s attitude toward himself and life in general.

You know the old adage, ‘it will make you laugh and cry?’ It’s a bit stereotypical, but “Up” is one of the few movies that actually lives up to that saying. It’s heartfelt, funny, and surprisingly deep for a kids movie. But that’s just the thing. It isn’t just for kids, it appeals to all ages with it’s genuinely emotive storytelling, bright and textured animation, and timeless story of hope and renewal triumphing over resignation and bitterness.

“Up” is cute and charming, as lovable as holding a squirming puppy in your arms, but it never stoops to kitsch or silliness, or God forbid, being TOO cute (like the maudlin “Precious Moments” statuettes that are ubiquitous on aging Mormons’ mantelpieces.) Instead of sinking to the level of Saturday-Morning cartoon slapstick, “Up” takes a real human story and infuses it with extraordinary elements (an airborne house, dogs with collars that cause them to speak and quip like human beings.)

The fact that it’s not the other way around (a fantastical story with realistic features slapped on as an afterthought) is a very important distinction to make. Only a viewer with a heart of solid granite could remain dry-eyed through this film’s heartrending first twenty minutes, but it is by no means a bleak film. It’s a celebration of life, and what all of us have to offer to  and beyond the point of old age. We recognize the characters not as cartoons, but as manifestations of our own longings and emotions; and that humanity- the kind of feeling that transcends the majority of animated films- is what makes “Up” so special.

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What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

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Living among the undead can be an uproarious experience, as this side-splitting found-footage comedy proves. Okay, there’s a small margin for error while filming a documentary of a group of vampire roommates (in other words, don’t piss them off you you just might be dinner) but what are vampires really, if not just a couple of the guys? They yearn for the same things everyone else does- closeness, companionship, a scrap of normalcy, and just because their continued existence has a body count doesn’t mean they aren’t sympathetic or possessors of nearly human hearts- right?

In the main trio of bloodsuckers, Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) is the Lothario, Deacon (Jonny Brugh) is a bit of a ‘bad boy,’ and  Viago (Taika Waititi) is the sweetly pedantic glue that holds the odd little family together. They cohabitate in a stereotypically old Gothic house where their maker, Petyr (Ben Fransham, who looks more than a little like the antagonist in F.W. Murneau’s silent classic “Nosferatu,”) resides in the basement, and they allow a small group of filmmakers into the house to observe their way of life. That’s when the hilarity starts, and it doesn’t let up until the end credits. Who knew vampires could be so persnickety, moody, and altogether human in their foibles?

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Vampire cohabitation, it turns out, has the same pitfalls as human cohabitation, plus tricky issues like bloody plates and saucers and troublesome ribcages tossed haphazardly upon the floor. It is not what makes the vampires different, but what makes them similar to the humans they prey on (in a bloody and hilarious fashion) that makes up the film’s humor. They are not above heckling each other and their werewolf rivals, bitching about housework and division of labor in terms of chores, and even the occasional gloomy day (the difference is, Vladislav deals with his depression by abducting and torturing unfortunate humans, a sure sign that he is in ‘a bad place’ mentally and emotionally.)

My favorite vampire is Viago. I don’t think the movie would have been half as good without him. He’s more than a little camp (I would have pegged him for homosexual,) but he came to this country for love (with a woman) who passed him by and has aged well into her twilight years. He’s the supportive backbone for his friends and he seems oddly empathetic and likable despite his bloodlust. All three of the leads do a great job though, and the laughs arrive in a machine gun fire of hilarious lines.

Light-hearted and simultaneously bloody and raucous, “What We Do in the Shadows” never causes us in shrink back in revulsion from our heroes (despite their ne’er do well nighttime activities) but makes us laugh with them and regard them with mirth and good humor as well as genuine admiration. They do what they have to do, and they make us laugh like Hell in the process. The jokes are deadpan and brilliant in their execution, making the viewer all but fall of the chair giggling at the filmmakers’ wit and creativity.

The plot isn’t epic or anything, it’s a vehicle for the jokes. It makes you feel light and happy leaving it, refusing to get too serious despite some dark implications lingering within the script. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, gifted directors as well as actors, have created a wonderful movie that will be enjoyed through the ages (unlike most found footage films, which lay flaccidly on the market as soon as they are distributed and add nothing new, thereby being rendered obsolete and forgotten within a couple of years.) I sense a cult following for this one, guys, I really do. You don’t have to be a horror fan to recognize the comedic genius at work here, and I recommend this to anybody with a sense of humor (you know who you are) and an hour to kill.

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A Christmas Story (1983)

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“A Christmas Story” is, and always will be, a perennial holiday favorite at our house. It is a film low on plot, but high on belly laughs and great quotes. Don’t expect a lot of big drama or major events in the story, it’s very much a movie that encapsulates a time and place, that of 1940’s Indiana. It’s nostalgic without minimizing the woes that seem huge to us when we’re kids, of which nine-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) has many.

All Ralphie wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun he has seen advertised in his small Midwestern town. Seems simple and wholesome enough to us, right? In a world where ultra-violent video games and nifty new electronics are in high demand, a BB gun seems quaint, innocent even. But all Ralphie hears from the people in his life is “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

Ralphie’s dad (Darren McGavin) is a traditional father and husband with a good heart, who nevertheless seems to be a little on the dim side. The gruff way he treats Ralphie’s ‘s mother (Melinda Dillon) wouldn’t fly by today’s standards, but it fits it’s old-fashioned time frame. Ralphie’s mom dotes on her boys and if she’s fed up with her worn role as mother and housewife she certainly doesn’t show it. She does. however, prove herself on multiple occasions to be smarter and altogether more competent than the ‘old man.’

Ralphie’s little brother Randy (Ian Petrella) is a bit on the whiny side and takes a lot of looking after. Ralphie does not always get along with his brother, and rarely rises to the occasion of really keeping tabs on him. The very episodic plot revolves around triple dog dares,  truculent Santa Clauses, and one very nasty bully by the name of Scut Farkus (Zack Ward,) who torments Ralphie and his group of friends regularly. Meanwhile, Ralphie aspires to drop the great hint that will lead to his parents’ purchase of the legendary BB gun.

Director Bob Clark doesn’t just know how to direct kids- he excels at it, drawing a excellent performance from every child actor in the cast. Both the classic stars who play Ralphie’s parents are brilliant, but Ralphie’s dad in particular reduces me to breathless giggles every time I watch the film. Jean Shepherd (the author of the autobiographical book this movie is based on, ‘In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash’) serves as the self-deprecating voice-over of the adult Ralphie.

I think I died inside a little when I found out about straight-to-DVD, woebegone ‘sequel’ to this film, “A Christmas Story 2.” I wonder now how such an atrocity came to exist, raping the classic original will also having it’s way with little pieces of our hearts at the same time. All this from watching the tragically misguided trailer.

My family watches “A Christmas Story” every year when the Yuletide season comes around, and the film never fails to be hysterical. Ralphie’s imagined ‘wishful thinking’ sequences are a highlight. I think I like this a little bit better than “It’s a Wonderful Life,” my other favorite Christmas movie (“Love Actually” is also a worthy choice.) I am happy to say that “A Christmas Story” stands as one of my all-time favorite movies of any genre and I hope to continue the tradition of seeing it every Christmas for years to come.

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Firefly: The Complete Series (2002-2003)

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 Gorram it! How that gosa television station “Fox” could cancel the best show in the ‘verse after one season but keep mediocre drivel like “Family Guy” is beyond me. As someone who’s running the risk of sounding like a major nerd right now, I will say that “Firefly” may not quite be the best show ever (there are definitely runners-up, FX’s “Fargo” among them) but no TV series can compete with “Firefly” in terms of pure rewatchability value and making me care about it’s cast of characters.

In Joss Whedon’s cult space western, the gun-toting action crackles and so does the dialogue as rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) commandeers a ship packed with rapscallions who will take any kind of work, legal or otherwise. The crews’ lives are complicated when they take convict siblings Simon (Sean Maher) and River (Summer Glau) under their wing.

River is a victim of experimentation by the corrupt government; she knows too much, sees things that others cannot, and that makes her dangerous. Simon defied his parents’ wishes and went on a hunch to rescue River and smuggle her into the far reaches of space. The show is focused on the relationships and witty pitter-patter of banter that having a group of people, vastly different and not all easy to get along with, would come along with.

Joss Whedon creates a vivid world that is both futuristic and a throwback to the old Spaghetti Western films of the yesteryears. The entire cast performs their parts admirably, and the character development and backstory building are unparalleled. It’s hard to pick a favorite character (for me, it’s a tie between the cheerful mechanic Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite ) and the smart aleck pilot Hoban ‘Wash’ Washburne (Alan Tudyk)) because all the characters are so well done and saddled with great one-liners.

I really like the mix elements of the different cultures featured on each planet. I personally am not vouching for a relaunch of the series at this point (things have changed, including the deaths of two major characters in the movie spin-off, “Serenity,” and the cast has aged considerably) but I am seriously fangirling for the graphic novel follow-up, “Leaves on the Wind,” written by Joss Whedon’s brother Zack. I just hope it is consistent with the quality of the series.

I am not a huge fan of Joss Whedon’s stuff in general (“Dr. Horrible” has it’s moments, “The Avengers” and what I’ve seen of “Buffy” are just okay.) The nerds seem to love him (not that I’m in a position to be calling people nerds, I just got a Wash quote pin at a sci-fi convention not a week ago.) But “Firefly” is enough to make me love him at his best and appreciate his fertile imagination.

I’ve seen “Firefly” all the way through like six times and I never fail to catch little details I might not have been aware of before that increase my appreciation of the show as a whole. I am consistently wowed by the thought put into the depth and psychological nuance combined with the action and humor. The characters are just so well done, from the rough-hewn, wise-cracking grunt of the group (Adam Baldwin) to the very classy call girl (Morena Baccarin) that Mal refuses to admit he has feelings for (in “Firefly”‘s world, courtesans are called ‘companions’ and held in the highest regard.)

There’s also a definite emphasis on female power and badasserie. The lack of alien lifeforms featured and a lowish budget should not deter you from enjoying this great science fiction series. Just realize it’s more about the characters and their relationships than big-time gun and knife fights (though there is some of that, too.) Highly enjoyable entertainment with plenty of humor and verve to spare.

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Fargo: Season 1 (2014)

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What is up with the people inhabiting “Fargo”‘s universe? Are they as obtuse as they seem? Why do they sporadically speak in riddles? And why is their police force utter bollocks? These questions, and more, befuddled me as I watched the terrific spin-off of the Coen Brothers’ also brilliant 1996 crime thriller.

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Psychotic hitman and sometimes-drifter Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton, who seems born for this role) is bad news- and as he enters the eponymous Midwestern town of “Fargo,” he invades the life of wimpy salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, who’s never been better,) and disrupts the location’s quiet proceedings. Shortly after Lorne’s arrival, Lester commits a shocking crime but is initially let off by lax police work on the part of freshly appointed Sheriff Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk.)

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Like the Marge Gunderson of her time, Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) is on the case. Meanwhile, Malvo casts a sinister shadow over the lives of ‘Supermarket King’ Stavros Milos (Oliver Platt) and his slow-witted son Dmitri (Gordon S. Miller,) assassins Mr. Wrench and Mr. Numbers (Russell Harvard and Adam Goldberg) swoop in on Lester and Molly romances a widower (Colin Hanks) with a spirited adolescent daughter (Joey King.)

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Despite initial qualms about basing a TV series off the film, I soon found “Fargo” to be a captivating show with a terrific cast. Love him or hate him, Lester’s got to be one of the most interesting characters on TV. As for me, I felt bad for him, and even when I came to the realization what a sorry sack of shit he was, there was something fascinating about him- the depths of his cowardice and the refusal to own up to his actions was kind of hypnotic, I guess.

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Molly is a strong female character that shows that women don’t have to be a size zero or wear tight leather outfits to be modern-day television heroines. To my utter shock, I think I like this show a teeny bit better than it’s movie counterpart. There’s mordant humor (Thornton’s Godly alter ego, for one,) tragedy (the fate of Milos’ son comes to mind,) and downright weirdness and wordplay that seems faithful to the Coens.

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Also, Lorne Malvo seems to be a improvement upon the film’s villain Gear Grimsrud. Whereas Gear was loutish, coarse, and stupid, Malvo is smart, expertly cruel, and so fond of fucking with people that it’s a pleasure to see him work. Although I admit most killers are dim bulbs more often than not in real-life crime scenarios, Malvo was too great to pass up.

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The 1st Season of “Fargo” was a fantastic watch and I recommend it to just about anyone. I love the parallels between the film and the show (i.e. the money in the snow,) but you do not need to watch the movie to enjoy the TV series, and vice versa. I think between this, “The Bridge” and “American Horror Story,” FX is becoming my favorite TV channel.

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Pulp Fiction (1994)

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First off, I’m an unabashed fan of Tarantino. I’ve liked pretty much all his stuff, from “Reservoir Dogs” to “Django Unchained” to even his segment in “Four Rooms” ( which no one likes.) I think the guy’s brilliant. So it should come as no surprise to you that I consider “Pulp Fiction” a masterpiece of dialogue and plot.

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“Pulp Fiction” tells the interconnected stories of two chatty hitmen (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) who may or may not be on a collision course with fate, an aging boxer (Bruce Willis) who is paid to throw his last fight, and two cheap criminals (Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth, two of my favorite actors) who set out to rob a cafe.Nothing turns out the way it was planned in this ferociously violent, witty, and genre-defying masterwork.

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Don’t go into this movie looking for touchy-feely romance or particularly sympathetic characters, because you’ll get none of that. But as my dad likes to say, “It’s not the violence, it’s the dialogue.” The conversations between various eccentrics is rich in it’s insistent oddness.  I tend to be a little bit emotional, so certain scenes in this got to me (strangely, the rape scene wasn’t among them.)

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One was the scene in which Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) corners the kid, Brett (Frank Whaley) who made off with Jules’ boss Marcellus (VIng Rhames)’s briefcase. The whole sequence was very funny in a way (what ain’t no country I ever heard of!) and my family was laughing throughout, but I dunno. I guess I felt a little sorry for ol’ Brett. It takes a lot of nerve to take a man’s burger and his life the same day.

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The second scene was where Butch (Bruce Willis), the boxer, goes off at his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) for leaving behind a family heirloom. I get it, the girl screwed up, but it seemed so much like something I would do that I felt sorry for her. Uma Thurman also figures into this movie as Marcellus’ girlfriend, Mia, and I had so much of a girl crush on her in this movie

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. I think “Reservoir Dogs” nearly stands up to this in terms of quality, especially since “Reservor Dogs” had a certain emotional quality that “Pulp Fiction” couldn’t copy (“…Fiction” is, like most of Tarantino’s work, cold as ice.) But “Pulp Fiction” has a certain muchness “Reservoir Dogs” can’t beat. The dialogue crackles,  the non-linear timeline is well-conceived, and the cast does a great job as well.

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Everybody who isn’t squeamish about violence should watch this movie to see one of the most influential films of the early 90’s. It’s unique, intense, and in it’s own way, weirdly hilarious. I’ve seen most of Tarantino’s films (sans “Jackie Brown,” “Kill Bill Volume 2,” and “My Best Friend’s Birthday,”) and this is my favorite so far. Modern cinema at it’s most memorable!