American Strays (1996)
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Indeed, the lyrics of the song are filled of war rhetoric. Actually, the French equivalent, La Marseillaise, is just as brutal - at least. I guess that it goes for a number of anthems, since they often emerged from a nationalist crescendo, which is usually related to a war of some sort. All in all, nations as such have a history of war, closely linked to their formation. Hey, that's pretty true about civilization. It's a mystery how this species has survived.
Anyway, in American Strays, we follow a few fragments of human lives, and how they connect, purely by chance, leading to a grand finale in the spirit of said anthems. It's a sinister perspective on Americans, but also partly a beautiful one. Yes, there is beauty in the midst of gun smoke and brutality - fragile beauty, but isn't that the very nature of beauty? When strong, it loses its shine.
The film is refined in how it follows some human fates, at the point of their catharsis, and does so without judging, without staying at stereotypes. It is satire, certainly, but done with a heart and with intelligence - and curiosity, too. The characters have several dimensions, far from being simple caricatures, and what happens to them is foreseeable, but still not the most obvious way out.
Yes, I'm impressed by this little study of human nature. Although the persons depicted are odd creatures, in rare circumstances, something general is being stated about man, about society, about the very torment for each of us in trying to find fulfillment. And that's the same, whatever the nation or its anthem.
Contrary to some other reviewers - the script of this movie is a work of art - the acting nothing short of total excellence.
It's the kind of movie that deserves an academy award - much like Mullholland Drive did - but the academy seldom gives awards too truly brilliant movies.
I'm not writing this review to explain the plot - but just too put some words down on paper stating how really good this movie is.
Perhaps if anything the movie - the script - the acting - is all too beautiful - too intelligent and too brilliant - because apparently some people - some reviewers - lack a soul or have an empty one and simply can not see outwardly what does not exist within.
The mesmerizing acting of Jennifer Tilly is worth the price of admission in itself - but all the acting in this movie goes beyond just good.
Before proceeding, I will say that I was impressed by the cinematography/lighting throughout the work. Occasionally self-conscious, but overall creative and effective. The director has a good feel for the relation of camera to subject.
I can also see how the director was able to draw together such a diverse and impressive cast. Each role held some attraction for actors who care more about acting than about money. Eric Roberts is especially noteworthy playing against type.
However, the production itself is schizophrenic, with the ultimate result of distracting one from the finely done details.
"American Strays" is 3 perfectly decent short films forced together to make a feature-length film. The only relational concept is the theme of guns empowering violence (and feelings of empowerment).
Film 1 involves the travelling vacuum cleaner salesman, Film 2 is the suicidal youth who hires someone to help kill him, and Film 3 is the many-threads-converging-to-a-finale. Films 1 and 2 share only the desert setting with Film 3; neither is otherwise related to the other two.
If Film 1 were filtered out of the rest it would make a charming little oddball 20-30 min. film. (I would encourage the shorter length -- some of the scenes felt stretched and some trimming would add punch.)
Film 2 I personally found meaningless/pointless. But it would have much cleaner effect if it stood alone.
And Film 3 -- if Film 3 were trimmed a bit and played a bit broader, it would be a brilliant memorable satire which answers the question: "What would happen if you brought the genres of Pulp Fiction, gangstas, Natural Born Killers, Reservoir Dogs and average-man-pushed-too-far together?" The sort of film you share with your film-loving friends, so you can congratulate yourselves and each other for recognizing all the references.
As fond as I am of Frankenstein, I still cannot wholeheartedly recommend this assemblage of parts. The sutures show too strongly.
The director is obviously thoughtful and talented; the cinematography/lighting, set dressing, and characterizations are all quite effective.
But I feel each of these films deserved to be seen separately and judged upon their own merits, rather than being forced to share the screen.
Tarantino places the viewer as a sort of museum visitor. He has this virtual video store of references, sometimes well arranged. You are not supposed to actually experience anything; you are supposed to slowly walk by while they blast something out, coming to meet you. Its cinema by advertising, experience by push.
I like it better when a filmmaker builds something I can enter; it doesn't matter whether it is an escape or not. If he builds niches for me to enter and explore, if he invites or teases me in, then I commit, I invest, I experience and am changed somehow.
This apparently trivial movie does that. Its just as brutally comic as the QT school, with its faux quaintness and engineered humor. It also avoids the challenge of long form film-making by assembling numerous small stories. It similarly is a pastiche of references from other, real films, films with actual identity. But it works.
Three real stories here, all love stories. The suicidal loser who gets the sexy traveler; the outresourced husband who "finds" his wife and place again; and the two serial killers who find each other and ride off together. They are stitched by common local, similar upholstery and a temporally but not spatially shared climax.
Ted's Evaluation -- 2 of 3: Has some interesting elements.
What happened in 1996? This film made no sense at all. I felt like I began the film in the middle of the actual movie. There is no discussion at all, there is not even a hint, as to how all these characters happened to be in the same desert. All this film is meant to show is violence can happen to anybody.
While other are happy with comedic lines, I actually needed some pre-story to bring this film together. Literally, we jump right into the middle of the robber's story. We have no clue how he got the cash, or how long him and his lady friend have been together. We have no history of Roberts family. No clue what happened to him prior to entering the desert, or where they are headed to. All that we know is that they are as lost as I was in this film. What was the point of the train that Luke Perry kept seeing? Was it to symbolize that his life was about ready to arrive? How did the hit men get the cop in the back of their car, and why were they still carrying it? Who were the gangsta's and what was their part in this film?
QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS......I NEED ANSWERS ANSWERS ANSWERS!!!
There were some decent ideas in this film, but without building a story it is hard to develop these ideas. My feeling is that perhaps the director made this film, and found that he only had the budget to release the second half. If that was the case, here is my advise to the director...scrap the project...there is no reason to beat a dead horse. A self-conscious, contrived gallery of oddball characters are simply derived from parts of David Lynch, and the Coen brothers, with some sub-Tarantinoesque dialogue thrown in.
Unless you, as a viewer, enjoy picking out odd character actors, then I suggest slowly backing away from this film because 'there is nothing to see here folks. '
Grade: * out of *****
Perhaps my favorite thing about American Strays are the Strays themselves - a cast of some of the most bizarre characters ever seen in cinema assembled in a way that just barely makes sense. I find myself really rooting for some characters and wishing death on others.
There is some bad acting in this film, and some choppy dialogue, and some pretty unbelievable plots, but that's part of this movie's charm. It's almost a terrible movie, I always think, "i can't believe i'm watching this (again!)," but when it's over, I am so glad I watched it.
This movie is a secret treasure. I don't know anyone who's seen it, other than people I make watch it. It's hard to find, most video rental places don't carry it, so you'll just have to buy it.
Exterminator: The world is small, but God is great, to reunite Me with My little buddy from schooldays past.
johnny! Oh, you always hated to be called johnny, didn't you?
Well, johnny, what's the trouble? you've run into a bit of bad luck? And you need your old friend to help you out? I would just be tickled f***in' pink to help you out, johnny. And I'm gonna do it for nothin, My old friend.
[The Exterminator delivers several hard left punches to johnny's face.]
Just like old times, huh, johhny? I told ya.
[The Exterminator keeps punching. johnny's lip is bleeding. The Exterminator punches with more relish now. He is literally drooling with pleasure.]
I told ya. I told ya I'd fix everything.
Well, maybe a few laughs here and there. But this has been done better, American Perfekt for example. The title says enough, I guess...
That's all I can say about American Strays. In a sense it's a good title for the movie because it is about strays as the bits and pieces are put together like so much flotsam and jetsam salvaged from an ocean wreck.
A couple of the stories looked interesting like John Savage as the serial killer vacuum cleaner salesman, but in the end the whole thing is just a lot of mish-mash.