Death Proof (2007, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Groups of women are hunted by a serial-killing stuntman with a souped-up car…

What does QT do? He wrote the script, directed the film, played a secondary character, and for the first time acted as his own cinematographer. This film has a complex provenance – see Connections.

Notable characters:
* Jungle Julia Lucai (Sydney Poitier) is a local DJ in Austin, Texas, whose show is advertised on numerous billboards around town. She’s laid-back, cool and the leader of her gang of friends, which includes…
* Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) is from New York and has a New York attitude. Her pals have played a trick on her, though. Julia announced on the radio that any man who calls Arlene ‘Butterfly’ and recites a certain poem can have a lap dance.
* Shanna (Jordan Ladd) is the third member of the group. She’s a Southerner who hates people who pronounce her name with a long A.
* Stuntman Mike McKay (Kurt Russell) is a veteran stuntman who’s worked mainly in TV. He wears a decaled jacket and hangs around in bars, observing and sometimes intimidating women. After coercing Arlene into giving him a lap dance, he offers to give a woman called Pam a lift home. Sadly for Pam, Mike is a serial killer who uses his stripped-down car to murder her. He then chases after and kills Julia, Arlene and Shanna, then 14 months later targets another group of female friends. Russell gives a creepy performance, which lapses into an unnerving John Wayne impression at one point.
* Dov (Eli Roth), Nate (Omar Doom) and Omar (Michael Bacall) are the male friends of Julia’s gang, who all hope for a bit of action.
* Warren (Quentin Tarantino) is a fun-loving barman who uses the phrase ‘tasty beverage’ (a reference to Pulp Fiction).
* Pam (Rose McGowan) is an old schoolmate of Julia’s, though they don’t get on. When Mike gives her a lift home, he deliberately races around and brakes hard so she’s mangled to death in the seatbelt-free, encaged passenger seat.
* Dr Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) and Ranger Edgar McGraw (James Parks) feature in one scene at a hospital after Mike’s killed Julia, Arlene and Shanna. Earl is mad because he can’t prove the incident was murder.
* Lee Montgomery (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a nice but slightly dopey actress working on a cheerleader movie in Tennessee. (This is 14 months after the first group of women were killed.) She spends her day off with friends Kim and Abernathy, and wears her cheerleader’s costume… for some reason. Not that I’m complaining. In order to borrow a car from a decidedly dodgy redneck, Lee’s friends leave her with him as collateral… and that’s the last we see of her in the film!
* Kim Mathis (Tracie Thoms) is a brash and confident stuntwoman working on Lee’s film. When Mike attacks the friends, Kim shoots at him and the girls then chase after him, hunt him down and kill him.
* Abernathy Ross (Rosario Dawson) is a make-up artist, who has the day off because Lindsay Lohan does too.
* Zoe Bell (Zoe Bell) is a Kiwi stuntwoman who flies into Tennessee to hang out with pals Kim and Abernathy. As she’s in America, she wants to do ‘ship’s mast’ – a dangerous game that involves being strapped to the bonnet of the car from the movie Vanishing Point while it bombs down country lanes… Tarantino met Bell when she was Uma Thurman’s stuntwoman on Kill Bill, and he was so charmed that he wrote a part for her in this film. Not being an actress, Bell assumed it would be cameo, then read the script and realised that a) she was playing herself, and b) she had *reams* of dialogue. She’s actually pretty good – clearly not an experienced actress, she more than gets by thanks to natural charisma. And of course casting Bell means that the character can do some outrageous stunts and it’s demonstrably her doing them.
* Jasper (Jonathan Loughran) is a creepy local man who owns a muscle car. The girls want to borrow it for a test drive but have no intention of actually buying it.

Returning actors: Michael Parks (From Dusk Till Dawn, both Kill Bills), James Parks (Kill Bill Vol. 1) and Jonathan Loughran (Kill Bill Vol. 1) appear again – see Connections. Michael Bacall was in Tarantino’s CSI episode. Quentin plays a significant role in one of his own films for the first time since Pulp Fiction, 13 years earlier.

Music: The title music is stirring instrumental The Last Race by Jack Nitzsche. A cover of Baby It’s You by Smith (sic: sadly not The Smiths!) features in both halves of the story and subliminally connects the two groups of women – it’s played on a jukebox in the Austin bar, and Lee later sings along to it on her iPod. T. Rex’s Jeepster is also heard on the jukebox, as is Down in Mexico by the Coasters when Arlene does her lap dance. Later on, Julia phones her radio station and asks for Hold Tight by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich to be played on the air. It’s unclear if this is a deliberate mistake or not, but self-proclaimed music expert Julia thinks the band was called Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, *Mitch* & Tich.

Time shifts and chapters: The car crash that kills Julia, Arlene, Shanna and their friend Lanna is shown four times in quick succession so we can focus on each of their horrifically violent deaths.

Connections: Here’s where it gets complicated… Death Proof began as part of a three-hour movie called Grindhouse, which was released in April 2007. Grindhouse consisted of two ‘features’ – Planet Terror, written and directed by Robert Rodriguez, and Death Proof, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino – as well as some trailers for fake films directed by the likes of Eli Roth and Edgar Wright. The idea was to recreate the mood and feel of a 1970s grindhouse cinema, which showed low-budget horror films on a loop. The movie, however, was a big old flop. So outside of North America, the two features were released separately in the autumn with some extras scenes added to punch up their running times (in Grindhouse, they’d both had scenes deliberately missing as an in-joke about bad prints). The standalone Planet Terror is a horror-comedy that, while shallow fun, weaves drunkenly from being too earnest to being too puerile. Co-producer Tarantino has an embarrassing cameo as a rapist. Additionally, some of Grindhouse’s fake trailers have since been expanded into full-length movies: Machete (2010), Hobo With a Shotgun (2011) and Machete Kills (2013). Death Proof, meanwhile, uses a few characters from existing fictions. Jasper is said by some to be the same rapist hillbilly the actor played in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Earl and Edgar McGraw crop up again, having appeared in both the From Dusk Till Dawn and Kill Bill series. They’re also in Planet Terror, as is Dr Dakota Block.

Review: Talking about his career in 2012, Tarantino said he knows he’ll be judged on a body of work. “I want to go out with a terrific filmography,” he claimed. “Death Proof has got to be the worst movie I ever make. And for a left-handed movie, that wasn’t so bad, all right?” This left-handed movie is a homage to a couple of exploitation genres Tarantino loved from an early age – slasher films such as Halloween (1978) and car movies like Vanishing Point (1971). And while set in the present day, Death Proof uses various techniques to make it seem like you’re watching a bad print that’s travelled round from cinema to cinema. The film stock looks cheap, there are scratches, jumps and audio mismatches, while one reel is even in black and white. All this tomfoolery does calm down after a while, thankfully, and the story takes focus. What’s most striking is the fact the movie is ruled by women. (Men in this story are losers, perverts, absent… or a serial killer.) We get to know the girls while they drive around in a car (a la Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction), and each scene gives us substantial chunks of witty dialogue and friends swapping in-jokes and teasing each other. It’s all very entertaining. In the second group’s case there’s also a *seven-minute* long take while the girls have a coffee. One of the bravura highlights of Tarantino’s career, it features four characters, fast-paced dialogue, a drifting camera tracking round the table, and glimpses of Stuntman Mike secretly watching them from afar. Check it out here:

The first half of the film – Julia, Arlene and Shanna’s story – acts as a primer for second. It gives us a blueprint for Mike’s plan, which of course goes wrong next time round. Kim, Abernathy and Zoe are tougher women and fight back. As they do so, the action scenes in the final quarter really are something – we get well-filmed muscle cars driving at high speeds, the rumble of engines and squeaks tof tyres, and of course Zoe Bell clinging to the hood for dear life. Yes, the film’s a bit on the flimsy side. It doesn’t especially *mean* anything. And Tarantino’s not the only person to consider Death Proof his worst film. At 67 per cent, it has the lowest score on Rotten Tomatoes for any QT-directed movie. But this is harsh. Death Proof is certainly Quentin’s least successful movie and probably his least loved – but that gives it an underdog quality. It’s ready to fight back.

Eight 1970 Dodge Challengers out of 10

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: Grave Danger (19 May 2005, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A member of Las Vegas’s crime-scene investigation team is kidnapped and buried alive…

What does QT do? Quentin Tarantino once claimed to have seen every episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015). He watched many while shooting Kill Bill in Beijing and was such a fan that word reached the production team, who asked him to write and direct an episode. In the end, he provided a storyline and the script was written by producers Anthony E Zuiker, Carol Mendelson and Naren Shankar. Once Tarantino began directing on set, it became clear the cut would overrun so the episode was bumped up to a double-length special, which concluded the show’s fifth season.

Notable characters:
* Nick Stokes (George Eads) is a crime-scene officer investigating a call-out as the story begins. However, he’s soon kidnapped and buried alive by someone who has a grudge against the CSI team. In the coffin he has a light, an air fan and a gun…
* Gil Grissom (William Petersen) is the team leader who’s stunned when he’s shown a live video feed of Nick in the coffin.
* Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) is Grissom’s second in command. When she and Gil need $1 million for ransom money, she convinces her casino-boss father, Sam Braun (Scott Wilson), to give it to her.
* Jim Brass (Paul Guilfoyle) is everyone’s boss.
* Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox), Greg Sanders (Eric Szmanda), David Hodges (Wallace Langham), and Warrick Brown (Gary Dourdan) are colleagues of Nick’s.
* Doc Robbins (Robert David Hall) is the medical examiner. At one point, Nick hallucinates his own autopsy, Doc Robbins performing it while Nick is alive.
* A delivery guy (Michael Bacall) shows up with a package from the kidnapper: it contains an audio cassette and a USB stick.
* Stokes’s parents (Andrew Prine and Moonraker’s Lois Chiles) are kept abreast of the situation.
* Tony Curtis and Frank Gorshin cameo as themselves in a scene at a casino. When cross-dressing is mentioned, Curtis has a gag referring to Some Like It Hot (“Who do you think you’re talking to? Jack Lemon?”). Gorshin died two days before this episode aired.
* Walter Gordon (John Saxon) is the kidnapper, who we never fully see. In his only substantial scene he’s lit to hide his face and then, in a shock cliffhanger at the halfway mark, he blows himself up.
* Kelly Gordon (Aimee Graham) is Walter’s daughter, who’s in prison. Walter’s doing what he’s doing in revenge for her controversial conviction.

Returning actors: John Saxon had a small role in From Dusk Till Dawn. Aimee Graham had acted with Tarantino in From Dusk Till Dawn and been directed by him in Jackie Brown. A clip of Tony Curtis on a chat show was seen in Jackie Brown.

Music: At the start of the episode, Nick is singing along to Bob Neuwirth’s Lucky Too on the radio – and he sings it again later when he thinks he’s being rescued. The kidnapper sends the CSI team a cassette that plays Outside Chance by the Turtles and its lyrics (‘You don’t stand an outside chance!’) play ironically under the rest of the scene. Kasabian’s Running Battle is also heard at one point, while the incidental music is by the show’s composer John M Keane.

Time shifts and chapters: After the cold open (Nick investigating and being captured), we cut back to earlier that same day and follow Nick as he’s given the assignment. Then we jump to him in the coffin and it’s chronological from then on.

Connections: The central idea of a character being buried alive featured in Tarantino’s most recent movie, Kill Bill Vol 2. In a nice visual twist, this time the coffin is made of Plexiglass so we can see the soil and worms and stuff. On original broadcast, the two ‘hours’ of this episode were titled Volume I and Volume 2, aping the naming convention of Kill Bill. Around this time, Tarantino also directed one scene of Robert Rodriguez’s film Sin City (2005), which is a comic-book adaptation that owes a structural debt to Pulp Fiction. He did it to return the favour for Rodriguez writing some music for Kill Bill, and also because it gave him a chance to work with digital cameras for the first time. The scene is a two-hander between Clive Owen and Benicio Del Toro set in a car.

Review: This has a slower style of storytelling than CSI usually provided. There are also no B-plots to cut away to and the momentum sadly loosens rather than tightens as the 90 minutes progresses. But pacing issues aside, this is still an enjoyable enough piece of television. Tarantino’s influence is most clearly felt in the dialogue and his use of close-ups. For a show usually dominated by cold science and forensic procedure, it’s refreshing to have characters talk about real life. Gil chats about a Roy Rodgers certificate he’s bought; other characters play a Dukes of Hazard board game; others shoot the breeze and swap anecdotes about dating. (It must be said that this kind of dialogue disappears once the plot kicks in, however.) And while the team start off very calm and professional considering a friend has gone missing, the realisation of what’s happened to Nick is played in dramatic close-ups. You could write a book – perhaps someone has – on how television overuses the close-up. But Tarantino knows precisely when to cut to one: they all have meaning, are timed to perfection, and tell you something about a character. Also, as in Quentin’s episode of ER, there are also close-ups of equipment and procedures that border on the fetishist.

Seven intestines out of 10

Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Bride continues to hunt down and kill the people who attacked her on her wedding day…

What does QT do? Wrote and directed.

Notable characters:
* Bill (David Carradine) is finally seen on screen after his face-obscured cameos in Vol. 1. We learn that he tried to kill the Bride, who’d been his protégé, because she quit the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad and was planning to marry a civilian. She was pregnant with his child, though, so he’s been raising the girl since the Bride fell into a coma. It’s a one-gear performance from Carradine.
* The Bride (Uma Thurman) – who we now learn is called Beatrix Kiddo – is seen in a wider variety of states than in Vol. 1. In the present-day scenes she’s still seeking revenge on Bill and the assassination squad, but in flashbacks we also see her youthful training sessions and pre-attack happiness. Thurman has more to play than just ‘badass killing people’ and the character has a journey this time.
* Reverend Harmony (Bo Svenson) and his wife (Jeannie Epper) feature in the scenes leading up to the wedding massacre, which is revealed to be at a wedding *rehearsal* rather than the ceremony itself. (Clunky dialogue is needed to explain why the Bride is in a wedding dress!) We also meet groom-to-be Tommy Plympton (Chris Nelson) and some of the Bride’s friends.
* Rufus (Samuel L Jackson) is the pianist at the church, who’s killed during the massacre. The character is shot mythically, with few close-ups and surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke, which helps mask the fact he has no purpose in the story whatsoever.
* Budd (Michael Madsen) has retired from the Deadly Vipers in the four years since the attack. He now lives in a trailer in the desert and works as a bouncer in a strip club. He actually feels guilty for what they did to the Bride, but that doesn’t stop him shooting her with rock salt and burying her alive. He’s later killed by his former colleague Elle Driver. We discover he’s Bill’s brother. Madsen’s pretty good.
* Larry Gomez (Larry Bishop) is Budd’s boss who fires him for being late.
* Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) drives to Budd’s in her muscle car when she learns he has the Bride’s Hattori Hanzo sword. She offers to buy it from him, but betrays him and kills him with a poisonous snake. The Bride then shows up, fights Elle, plucks out her one surviving eye, and leaves her with the snake. The set-piece brawl is overloaded with sound effects and features a Sergio Leone-style slow build-up to violence that’s then over before you know it.
* Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) is a powerful and skilful martial-arts master who teaches the Bride. He seems to have superhuman abilities and is a harsh teacher. He’s basically an unlikable version of Mr Miyagi.
* Esteban Vihaio (Michael Parks) is a pimp and a friend of Bill’s. The Bride visits him to find out where Bill is. It’s a redundant scene (the information could be seeded elsewhere), which slows the film down precisely when we want to race to the climax.
* BB (Perla Haney-Jardine) is the Bride and Bill’s daughter, who the Bride believed had died after the wedding massacre.
* Karen (Helen Kim) is an assassin we see in a flashback – she’s trying to kill the Bride moments after she’s discovered she’s pregnant.

Returning actors: As well as characters who’d been in Vol. 1, we now get Samuel L Jackson (this is his fourth Tarantino role) and Sig Haig (who’d been in Jackie Brown). Vol. 1 actors Michael Parks and Gordon Liu actually play new roles here.

Music: Like in the first Kill Bill, the source songs and incidental music – by Robert Rodriguez and RZA – give the film an epic, mournful quality. The best track we hear is About Her, Malcolm McLaren’s moody cover of the Zombies hit She’s Not There.

Time shifts and chapters: The convention of having named chapters continues from Vol. 1: this time they’re called ‘Massacre at Two Pines’, ‘The Lonely Grave of Paula Schultz’, ‘The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei’, ‘Elle and I’ and ‘Face to Face’. But the timeline is more jumbled than in Vol. 1. In the present day, the Bride goes after Budd, fights Elle and tracks down Bill. But we see also lengthy flashbacks to the lead-up of Bill’s attack (which is in black and white) and the Bride’s earlier training regime with Pai Mei (positioned so we learn about a technique just before she uses it in the present). We finally learn why Vol. 1 began out-of-sequence with the Verdita episode: it means that the series is topped and tailed by the vengeful Bride encountering a child.

Connections: Pai Mei is a stock character who’d appeared in numerous Hong Kong martial-arts movies. Quentin Tarantino considered dubbing his Cantonese dialogue into English – and doing it deliberately badly – but decided against it. Since this film’s release, the director has occasionally mooted a Kill Bill Vol. 3, usually suggesting it would be about the Bride’s grown-up daughter.

Review: This concluding part of the story is longer than Kill Bill Vol. 1, so there’s more space for the story to breathe and the characters feel richer. It’s also more dynamic than the first film. Not everything goes the Bride’s way, for example. In Vol. 1 she felt like an untouchable superhero who would never lose, whereas here she’s buried alive and tormented and presented with emotional turmoil. It’s more engaging storytelling generally, rather than *just* being cool fight scenes. However, this comes at the expense of brevity. This is a slower movie and it sometimes drags. (Both the Pai Mei episode and the climax with Bill seem to go on and on.) At least there are some pretty images along the way. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is going for a wide-open feel. In the church you can almost feel the breeze coming in from outside, while Budd’s trailer is parked in a dramatic canyon from a John Ford film. There’s also a nice recurring visual motif concerning doorways (at Budd’s trailer, at the church, at a diner, in a hotel room, at Bill’s house…), as well as graves and other rectangular barriers. The film’s aspect ratio even shrinks to 4:3 in a key scene about the Bride being trapped. Having said all that, one of the best sequences in the film is just a blank screen, with the sound of the Bride’s grave being filled in. Taken together, Kill Bill is a mad, sprawling and chaotic four-hour epic. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t.

Seven pregnancy tests out of 10

Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After waking from a four-year coma, a woman seeks revenge on the people who tried to kill her…

What does QT do? The idea for Kill Bill came about on the set of Pulp Fiction when Quentin Tarantino and actress Uma Thurman busked the basic storyline. Tarantino wrote a few pages, but then got distracted by other projects. Returning to it years later, he came up with such a massive script that – after he’d directed the film – the decision was made to cut it into two volumes. (This is a review of Vol. 1 only.) There’s a special credit to acknowledge Thurman’s contribution: ‘Based on the character of The Bride, created by Q&U.’

Notable characters:
* The Bride (Uma Thurman) wants to kill the gang of assassins who attacked her while she was pregnant and put her in a coma. We never learn her real name: the one time it’s mentioned is bleeped out. She used to be a member of the gang – the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad – until they turned against her. (Her codename was Black Mamba.) Uma Thurman gives a very straight-ahead performance, but the script doesn’t ask for anything else.
* Bill (David Carradine) – codename Snake Charmer – is the leader of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. He doesn’t feature much in this first film and is framed so we never see his face, which builds up his mystery and power.
* Vernita Green (Vivica A Fox) – codename Copperhead – is the first squad member we see the Bride go after. She’s now seemingly retired from the assassination game and is living with her daughter in suburbia.
* Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) investigates the attack on the Bride. He’s assisted by Edgar (James Parks, Michael’s real-life son), who he refers to as ‘Son Number One’.
* Ell Driver (Daryl Hannah) – codename California Mountain Snake – shows up at the hospital when the Bride is in a coma and is just about to finish the job when Bill calls and tells her to stop. She wears an eye patch.
* Buck (Michael Bowen) works at the hospital and takes $75 from a redneck (Jonathan Loughran) so he can rape the comatose Bride. She’s recently woken up, though, so kills them both.
* Budd (Michael Madsen) – codename Sidewinder – is another member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, but this is just a cameo to set up his role in the second movie.
* O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu) – codename Cottonmouth – is introduced to us via an eight-minute anime sequence, which tells her backstory and features a fair amount of graphic violence and some paedophilia. In the present day, she’s a mob boss in Toyko who’s backed up by her personal army, the Crazy 88s.
* Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba) is a swordmaster who the Bride visits in Okinawa.
* Sophie Fatale (Julie Dreyfus) is O-Ren’s friend and consigliere.
* Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama) is one of O-Ren’s best fighters: a young girl in a school uniform who likes killing people.
* Johnny Mo (Gordon Liu) is the head of the Crazy 88s, who all wear Kato masks. The massive fight scene between the Bride and the Crazy 88s features some outrageous violence. The scene turns black-and-white so the gushes of blood don’t get overpowering.

Returning actors: Uma Thurman was in Pulp Fiction. Michael Madsen was in Reservoir Dogs. Michael Parks returns to play his From Dusk Till Dawn character again (see Connections). Michael Bowen had been in Jackie Brown. Sonny Chiba was mentioned in True Romance.

Music: Lots of pre-existing songs are used to give the film a certain sweep and grandeur, such as the sorrowful Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) by Nancy Sinatra, incidental music from a 1972 Italian film called The Grand Duel, and even a bit of Gheorghe Zamfir, whose panpipe track The Lonely Shepherd sounds like a mournful theme from a Spaghetti Western. The klaxon-like sting of Quincy Jones’s Ironside theme tune is used when the Bride sees one of her targets, while the title music from The Green Hornet TV show scores her journey to Tokyo. Japanese rock trio The 5,6,7,8’s play a few songs on screen in the House of Blue Leaves sequence. The most famous track in the film is the bombastic Battle Without Honor or Humanity by Tomoyasu Hotei, used for slo-mo shots of O-Ren and her entourage. But the best is Santa Esmerdalda’s epic disco cover of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, which gives the Bride’s showdown with O-Ren beauty and grace. There’s some bespoke score for the first time on a Tarantino film: a few short cues written by RZA.

Time shifts and chapters: The story is told in discrete chapters with on-screen titles (‘2’, ‘The Blood-Splattered Bride’, ‘The Origin of O-Ren’, ‘The Man From Okinawa’ and ‘Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves’). The events play out in chronological order, other than: a brief prologue showing Bill shooting the Bride on her wedding day; the anime scene, which is flashback to a character’s childhood; and the fact the opening chapter is set after all the others. Putting the Vernita sequence first certainly kicks the film off with a big fight, but the order in which the Bride goes after her foes seems arbitrary.

Connections: The character of Earl McGraw first appeared in From Dusk Till Dawn – he’s again played by Michael Parks. (Additionally, *Edgar* McGraw had been in From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money.) Sonny Chiba’s Kill Bill character, Hattori Hanzo, is intended to be a descendant of the various historical Hattori Hanzos played by Chiba in his 1980s TV show Shadow Warriors. The concept of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad is reminiscent of the Fox Force Five TV pilot described by Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction.

Review: Tarantino has always used what writer DK Holm calls ‘magpieism’, a habit of referencing, alluding to, or downright stealing from other movies. Reservoir Dogs is Quentin’s spin on a heist caper; Pulp Fiction is a modern film noir; Jackie Brown is a homage to blaxploitation cinema; and they each feature dozens of postmodern nods to other films (and TV shows and songs). However, along with the conventions and quotations, these movies have their own spirits, their own identities. Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a pastiche of various genres (action, martial arts, Spaghetti Westerns, revenge), but it’s hard to see much substance beneath the style. Even with outlandish characters and plots, the earlier films took place in a recognisably ‘real’ world. Kill Bill, on the other hand, is set in a universe where assassins work in squads and give themselves codenames, where Japanese mobsters wear masks, and where you need to acquire a specially made sword in order to kill a rival. It’s a cartoon world – literally so in the anime sequence. If anything, maybe this movie falls between two stools. If it had been even more stylised, more surreal, more out-there, it might work better. But too often the joke is so earnest it doesn’t stretch very far. (Speaking of comedy, a ‘funny’ scene with Sonny Chiba falls on its face and the film becomes very dull for a while.) In the movie’s favour, the action is violent, well shot and sound-designed to hell (just listen to all those whooshes!). And it’s a story dominated by women, which is refreshing. The Bride, her three main adversaries and a couple of other important characters are all female. But even though it’s fun as 100 minutes of escapism, you miss the loaded dialogue, interesting characters and dark wit of previous Tarantino films.

Seven dishes best served cold (old Klingon proverb) out of 10

Jackie Brown (1997, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Flight attendant Jackie Brown sees an opportunity to steal half a million dollars from a gunrunner…

What does QT do? The script is an adaption of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch (1992). When writing his version, Quentin Tarantino changed the lead character from a white woman called Jackie Burke to a black woman called Jackie Brown, essentially so he could cast one of his idols, Pam Grier. (The new surname is an allusion to Grier’s 1974 film Foxy Brown.) He also moved the story’s setting from Miami to LA and cut out a subplot about neo-Nazis. Director Quentin decided against casting himself this time, other than providing the voice for an answerphone machine.

Notable characters:
* Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a 44-year-old air stewardess who works for a shitty airline so supplements her $16,000 salary by smuggling cash into the country for a gunrunner… It’s a really smart piece of casting, this. Not only because of the associations with the actress’s previous characters – Jackie could be an older version of Coffy or Foxy Brown – but also because Grier is *stunning*. It’s the best acting performance in any Quentin Tarantino film: truthful, charismatic and full of pathos. Jackie is a strong, proud and smart woman who’s been beaten down too many times, and this is the story of her fighting back. She drives the narrative, playing Ordell and the cops off against each other, and comes out on top. She also has a beautifully understated romance with Max Cherry.
* Ordell Robbie (Samuel L Jackson) is a flamboyant and loquacious man who buys and sells guns. He wears Kangol hats and has a small braided beard. Early on in the story, he kills someone rather than let him talk to the cops. He’s then manipulated by Jackie, who cons him into thinking she’s on his side.
* Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) is Ordell’s pal, who’s just got out of prison for bank robbery. He’s a man of few words, but takes part in a fascinating subplot with…
* Melanie Ralston (Bridget Fonda) is a hippy-chick girlfriend of Ordell’s whose main ambition in life is to get high and watch TV. During the film, however, she realises she has a chance to steal Ordell’s cash and asks Louis to help her.
* Max Cherry (Robert Forster) is a 56-year-old bail bondsman, who’s getting bored of his job. When he’s hired to bail Jackie out of jail, he’s quickly attracted to her. It’s a likeable, soulful performance of seen-it-all-before weariness, for which Forster rightly got an Oscar nomination.
* Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker) is an employee of Ordell’s who gets arrested. Rather than risk him blabbing about his business, Ordell kills him. Beaumont’s section of the story showcases Tarantino’s love of long takes: Tucker is only in seven shots in Jackie Brown: one is 150 seconds, another 47, another 100…
* Simone (Hattie Winston) is a friend of Ordell’s who looks after Louis – she entertains him with a Diana Ross impression – then helps out in the story’s set-piece money exchange.
* Detective Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) is an LAPD cop who takes Jackie in for questioning because he knows he can get to Ordell through her.
* Agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) works for the ATF and is trying to get the evidence he needs to arrest Ordell. It’s a terrific, slightly unbalanced performance, which lifts a non-descript character off the page.

Returning actors: Samuel L Jackson appears in his third Tarantino-scripted film. Pam Grier was mentioned in dialogue in Reservoir Dogs. The shop assistant who sells Jackie a suit – which, by the way, is the same outfit worn by Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction – is played by Aimee Graham, who’d had a small role in From Dusk Till Dawn.

Music: Across 110th Street (Bobby Womack and Peace) from the 1972 movie of the same name is used as this film’s theme song. It appears over the opening credits – a fab sequence showing Jackie go from statuesque to harried as she races to work – and is reprised at the end when Jackie lip-syncs along to it in quiet triumph. Other great pieces of soul music used here include: Strawberry Letter 23 (The Brothers Johnson), Street Life (Randy Crawford) and Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) by the Delfonics, which becomes an audio motif for Jackie and Max’s relationship. Yet again with a Tarantino film there’s no specially written incidental music. However, finding himself in need of some, Quentin appropriated cues written by Roy Ayers for the Pam Grier revenge movie Coffy (1973). A scene showing Jackie in prison is set to Long Time Woman, a song Grier recorded for a 1971 film called The Big Doll House.

Time shifts and chapters: The story mostly plays out in chronological order, but an important sequence at the shopping mall smartly rewinds twice so we see the same events three times – each from a different point of view. There’s also a minor confusion over when the film is set. We’re told that 1985 was 13 years ago, but Ray later specifies the date as 1 July 1995.

Connections: Six months after Jackie Brown, another film adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel – Steven Soderbergh’s supremely brilliant Out of Sight – was released. As both books feature the character of Ray Nicolette, Tarantino and Soderbergh colluded to each cast Michael Keaton in the role. In a scene deleted from Jackie Brown’s final cut, Laura Lovelace reprised her waitress character from Pulp Fiction; there was even a riff on the earlier film’s ‘Garçon means boy’ gag.

Review: In a fascinating hour-long interview on the Jackie Brown DVD – which catches Quentin Tarantino in a likeable, self-aware mood – the director says he designed this film to be seen more than once. He imagined it to be a movie that people go back to every three years or so. Spot on. This classy film demands to be in your life for a long time: I’ve been watching it for nearly two decades now, and am impressed more and more each time. It’s populated by people you enjoy hanging out with: their dialogue is like music, and everyone feels like a character with a life that extends beyond the filmed scenes. There’s also a *devilishly* clever plot, full of agendas and double-crosses, twists and turns, dark comedy and tension. It’s a long film, but you wouldn’t take a single frame away from it. Everything’s so taut; everything’s there for a reason. As well as writing great scene after great scene, Quentin’s also having plenty of filmmaking fun: a crane shot for Beaumont’s death; split-screen to give us key information at precisely the right time; the same events shown from three points of view; an illustrated map to show Jackie’s flight from Mexico… But these things don’t feel gimmicky. They’re there to tell the story in fun, inventive ways. And the story never disappoints. What’s especially striking is how poignant it is. Jackie Brown is melancholic in a way we hadn’t seen in Tarantino’s work before. At its heart is a love story, which is surprisingly rare in Quentin’s films (True Romance and Django Unchained are the only other real examples). But Jackie and Max’s connection is a grown-up, pragmatic romance: it’s about soul, not sex. They touchingly bond over ageing, weight issues, boring jobs and listening to old music. (Ordell, Louis and Nicolette aren’t spring chickens either, meaning the film is dominated by characters over 40.) Tarantino has a point about this being a movie you can return to. As it gets older, and you get older with it, it becomes more and more effective. A masterpiece.

Ten beauty products out of 10

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996, Robert Rodriguez)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Criminals Seth and Richie Gecko force a family to smuggle them across the border into Mexico, where they all end up in a bar run by vampires…

What does QT do? Working on From Dusk Till Dawn in about 1990 was Quentin Tarantino’s first paid scriptwriting job. It was a commission from Robert Kurtzman, a special-effects designer who wanted a project to showcase his new company’s talents. (Kurtzman gets a ‘story by’ credit.) It took a few years for the film to go into production, by which time Tarantino’s friend Robert Rodriguez had been hired as director. He convinced Quentin to play the part of Richie Gecko. Creepy and committed, it’s – by some distance – the best acting performance of his career.

Notable characters:
* Texas Ranger Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) is a cop who stops at a liquor store in the first scene to shoot the breeze and use the toilet. The part was written for the actor, making use of his slow-talking cadences and world-weary manner.
* Pete Bottoms (John Hawkes) is the guy working in the liquor store. Unbeknown to McGraw, Pete is actually in the middle of being held up by two criminals. It’s a great opening scene. It’s not about what you think it’s about, but is still feeding us important information. There’s then sudden violence, black comedy, flames and gunfire, and it ends on a grandstanding shot of the brothers arguing as they walk away from an exploding building.
* Seth Gecko (George Clooney) is a bank robber who works with his brother, Seth. As the story begins they’re on the run, having stolen a chunk of money, kidnapped a bank teller, and killed a few cops and bystanders. Clooney was then a TV actor but is filmed here like a movie star; he often dominates the frame. It’s a terrifically cool performance, full of vim and swagger.
* Richie Gecko (Quentin Tarantino) is the less levelheaded, more psychotic half of the team. He rapes and kills one hostage, then hallucinates that another is coming on to him. Later, when the characters reach a bar called the Titty Twister, he’s turned into a vampire.
* Gloria Hill (Brenda Hillhouse) is the bank teller, who we first see tied up in the Geckos’ car boot.
* Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel) is a pastor who’s going through a crisis of faith, having recently lost his wife in a car accident. He’s on a road-trip holiday with his two kids, driving a Winnebago around the country, when the Geckos take them prisoner.
* Scott Fuller (Ernest Liu) is Jacob’s adopted son, who likes playing guitar.
* Kate Fuller (Juliette Lewis) is Jacob’s teenage daughter who goes through an awful lot of trauma in the story… and seems to take most of it in her stride!
* Kelly Houge (Kelly Preston) is a TV news reporter who fills us in on he Geckos’ recent crimes, complete with on-screen tallies of how many people they’ve killed. She also interviews an FBI agent played by John Saxon.
* Cheech Marin (of Cheech & Chong fame) has three discrete cameos in the film. (Why? Just because.) He first appears as a customs official at the US-Mexico border, then as the guy advertising all the different types of pussy available at the Titty Twister, then finally as Carlos, Seth’s contact who shows up after all the carnage.
* Razor Charlie (Danny Trejo) is the Titty Twister’s vampiric barman.
* Sex Machine (Tom Savini) is a customer at the bar who joins forces with Seth, Jacob and the others once the vampires attack. He’s generally a comic-relief character with some good gags (and a pop-up gun hidden in his groin).
* Frost (Fred Williamson) is another patron who’s caught up in the chaos. His set-piece scene involves telling an earnest anecdote about Vietnam, which acts as a distraction while Sex Machine comically turns into a vamp.
* Santánico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek) is a dancer at the bar who performs a *spectacularly* sexy routine, which brings the entire room to a standstill… right before she turns into a monster and starts eating people.

Returning actors: Juliette Lewis was one of the stars of Natural Born Killers. Quentin had recently directed George Clooney in an episode of ER. This is Harvey Keitel’s third Tarantino role. Marc Lawrence (who cameos as a motel manager) and Salma Hayek had been in Four Rooms, though not in Tarantino’s section of the film. Brenda Hillhouse was in Pulp Fiction and ER: Motherhood. This is the fourth time Quentin’s played one of his own characters, but it’s the only time he’s done it while being directed by someone else.

Music: The source songs, a mixture of Tex-Mex, blues and country-and-western, are well chosen. Especially effective are the down-and-dirty Dark Night (The Blasters) for the title sequence and the sultry After Dark (Tito & Tarantula) for Santánico’s dance. (Tito & Tarantula actually appear on-screen as the bar’s in-house band.) The bespoke score is written by Graeme Revell but often gets swamped in the sound mix.

Time shifts and chapters: The film is in chronological order, playing out across 24 hours or so. Like in Reservoir Dogs, the robbery that kicks off the plot is not dramatised.

Connections: Deep breath… A few months after From Dusk Till Dawn, a Tarantino-produced movie called Curdled was released. The Gecko brothers are mentioned in the story (we also see photos of them) while Kelly Preston reprises her From Dusk character in a cameo. More interestingly, From Dusk Till Dawn later spawned two straight-to-video sequels and a spin-off TV series. From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999) was directed by Scott Spiegel. It’s an inventively shot heist movie and is good, schlocky fun. It was followed a year later by From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter, directed by PJ Pesce, which is actually a prequel to the original; set 100 years earlier, it enjoyably mixes Western and horror conventions. Then, in 2014, a television adaptation of the original film began on cable channel El-Ray. Currently on its third season, it features an all-new cast and expands the movie’s plot in interesting ways. (Oh, and just to be thorough: a documentary film called Full Tilt Boogie (1997) was made about the production of From Dusk Till Dawn. It mixes footage of the actors larking about with coverage of the producers’ dispute with a labour union. There’s a huge amount of hubris on show, but the film also has sequences focusing on likeable crewmembers.)

Review: Partly a road movie, partly a crime film, party a horror and increasingly a comedy, From Dusk Till Dawn has a lot of different tones to balance. So much so, in fact, that even on repeat viewings you forget where the story is heading. It’s not until the 59th minute that something supernatural happens, and the first half of the film is so slick and well written that – whisper it quietly – it’s actually a disappointment when the vampires attack. The early scenes of Seth, Richie and the Fullers contain some terrific dialogue, great group dynamics, reversals of expectation, power games, grudging respect and edgy humour. It’s brilliant stuff. However, in the second half, the character work is mostly forgotten about in favour of Grand Guignol. When the characters arrive at the Titty Twister, the bar is surrounded by flames and neon lights: it’s like the characters are descending into hell. The movie is now all about blood, impalings, severed heads and limbs, and inventive ways of killing vampires. There are lots of effects on show, mostly practical or prosthetic but also some CG, and also a shift towards tongue-in-cheek comedy. It reminds you of, say, Evil Dead II or Bad Taste (both 1987). The film is still entertaining, but frankly the two halves of the story don’t especially marry up. Was the comedic influence from director Robert Rodriguez (who later made the very silly Spy Kids films)? This is such a difficult film for me to score. It has issues, but because the first half is so strong my heart says ten. However, my head says…

Eight psychos do not explode when sunlight hits them, I don’t give a fuck how crazy they are, out of 10

Four Rooms (1995, Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Hotel Mon Signor, Los Angeles, New Year’s Eve. A bellhop called Ted becomes embroiled in the goings-on of four groups of guests…

What does QT do? Quentin Tarantino and three pals wrote/directed a quarter of this film each – the stories are set in the same hotel on the same night and are linked by a bellhop called Ted. Quentin’s story, The Man from Hollywood, is based on a 1960 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called Man from the South (which itself was an adaptation of a Roald Dahl short story). The characters acknowledge the debt in the dialogue, though for some reason they think the episode was called The Man From Rio. Quentin cast himself as a flamboyant, successful actor called Chester Rush.

Notable characters (The Man From Hollywood only):
* Ted (Tim Roth) is running the hotel singlehanded on New Year’s Eve and is not having fun. After an hour of trauma in the other stories, he’s called by the penthouse and asked to deliver some champagne… Roth is *horrendous* in this film. It’s a jittery, manic, childish, cartoony and intensely irritating performance, gurning and eye-popping all over the place. (In one scene he does a Michael Caine impression, seemingly just to assume himself.) The part was written for Steve Buscemi, but he wisely passed.
* Angela (Jennifer Beals) is hanging out in the penthouse in a dressing gown. She’s one of the main characters in the movie’s second story, and it appears Tarantino added her here simply as a way of connecting the sections.
* Chester Rush (Quentin Tarantino) is an actor staying in the hotel’s penthouse. He’s just had a hit with a movie called Wacky Detective and has high hopes for new film The Dog Catcher. He’s made a bet with a hanger-on that the guy can’t light a cigarette lighter 10 times in a row. If the mate can’t, he loses a finger.
* Norman (Paul Calderón) is the sycophant who’s risking a digit for the bet.
* Leo (Bruce Willis) is Chester’s manager, who’s drunk and distracted by his on-going divorce. Willis is not credited on the film because he did the part for free and that broke union rules.

Returning actors: Tim Roth and Quentin Tarantino were in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, while Bruce Willis and Paul Calderón were just in the latter. Kathy Griffin (Pulp Fiction, ER) appears earlier in the film – as does Madonna, who was mentioned in dialogue in both Dogs and Pulp.

Music: Pretty awful. The score is annoying cocktail-lounge music by a band called Combustible Edison. The film’s theme tune, which plays over a Pink Panther-style animation, is a scat-sung travesty.

Time shifts and chapters: The Man From Hollywood is one scene played in real time. Elsewhere, the movie’s second and third stories seem to be happening concurrently.

Connections: Earlier in the film, producer Lawrence Bender has a cameo as a drunk party guest. He’s credited as Long Hair Yuppie Scum, the same credit he had for a cameo in Pulp Fiction – so let’s assume this is the same man. Around this time, Tarantino did some script-doctoring on films such as Crimson Tide (1995, Tony Scott) and The Rock (1996, Michael Bay).

Review: The opening section of Four Rooms is The Missing Ingredient, written and directed by Allison Anders. It’s a dreary, inconsequential story about a coven of witches trying to resurrect their goddess. They get stuck when they realise they need semen for a spell, so one of them seduces Ted. In story two, The Wrong Man by Alexandre Rockwell, Ted gets caught up with a married couple who are staging a hostage situation as a sex game. It’s very silly. The highlight of the movie is the third quarter, The Misbehavers by Robert Rodriguez, in which Ted has to babysit two children. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, as well as good visual comedy and a pleasingly macabre punchline. So it’s been a mixed bag by the time we reach Tarantino’s The Man From Hollywood, which is a fun enough shaggy-dog story with a good climax. There are two interesting things about the sequence. Firstly, like in Reservoir Dogs, cinephile Quentin actually relies on a theatre-like style. There are numerous uninterrupted takes of actors giving big performances as they move choreographically around the small set. It’s vaguely reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s long-take-heavy Rope (1948). (Having said that, the final gag is delivered via some nifty editing). And secondly what the scene says about its writer/director is very telling. Between this movie’s production and its release, Quentin acted in From Dusk Till Dawn. A behind-the-scenes film called Full Tilt Boogie was shot on and around the set, and the real-life Tarantino it documents (successful, brash, verbose, upbeat, the centre of attention) is not a million miles away from his Four Room character. Chester Rush rules his little world and does most of the talking. He even appears to be a fan of Quentin Tarantino: his dialogue contains the phrase ‘tasty beverage’, a reference to Pulp Fiction.

The Man From Hollywood: Seven declarative statements out of 10.
Four Rooms overall: Five balls to back up the action of your huge cock out of 10.

ER: Motherhood (11 May 1995, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In this penultimate episode of ER’s first season, Dr Susan Lewis’s sister gives birth to a baby…

What does QT do? Quentin Tarantino was a fan of ER (1994-2009) right from the start so jumped at the chance to direct an episode. Unless you count one scene in 2005 movie Sin City, this is the only time in his career he’s directed someone else’s script. (It was written by ER’s supervising producer Lydia Woodward.)

Notable characters:
* Dr Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield) is woken early by her flighty sister, Chloe, who’s gone into labour but waited until the contractions are two minutes apart before doing anything about it.
* Chloe Lewis (Kathleen Wilhoite) gives birth to Little Susie in this episode – a plotline that had major implications for the next season or more. While in labour she insists on hearing the Beatles song Blackbird.
* John Carter (Noah Wyle) is a medical student who ends up helping with the delivery. He struggles to find the Beatles cassette, so Susan and Chloe have to sing Blackbird themselves. (Presumably this was done to avoid paying for the use of the original recording?)
* Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) is the ER’s head nurse.
* Dr Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) is the chief resident.
* Dr Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle) is a surgical resident and Carter’s mentor. During his shift, he gets a call to go and see his elderly mother. By the time he arrives, though, she’s died.
* Dr Doug Ross (George Clooney) is a womanising ER doctor who ruins a fledging relationship by messing around with an ex.
* Dr Angela Hicks (CCH Pounder) is everyone’s boss. She tells Carter he’s missed out on the surgical placement he wanted.
* Cookie Lewis (Valerie Perrine from Superman: The Movie) is Susan and Chloe’s ditzy mother. We first see her holding an enormous bunch of flowers, which mask her face.
* The episode has a flurry of one-off patients and other characters, including… A 15-year-old boy who’s been impaled on a metal bar (his mother is played by Tarantino’s old drama teacher, Brenda Hillhouse)…  Boy Scouts with diarrhoea (their adult supervisor is played by Kathy Griffin)… A man found unconscious after mixing ammonia and bleach (his concerned wife is played by Amanda Jones)… A young girl with a fever… A girl who’s been bitted by a bee… A guy with an obstruction in his throat… An elderly woman who dies before she can be examined… A drug overdose… And two warring gang chicks, one of whom has had her ear bitten off.

Returning actors: Amanda Jones, Kathy Griffin and Brenda Hillhouse all had small roles in Pulp Fiction. (Although not in this episode, Pulp Fiction’s Ving Rhames was a semi-regular in ER around this time.)

Music: The incidental music – tense but unshowy – is by ER’s in-house composer, Marty Davich.

Time shifts and chapters: The episode is presented in chronological order.

Connections: A character losing an ear a la Reservoir Dogs is a coincidence, apparently. It was in the script before Tarantino was assigned to the episode.

Review: The episode title is bang on the money. This story is set on Mother’s Day, Chloe gives birth, Cookie refuses to help her daughter, Susan’s thrust into a surrogate mother’s role, and the mums of patients recur throughout. The episode actually begins with a labour and ends with the death of Benton’s mother. The early birth comes in a pre-titles sequence that’s quite astonishing. It’s a fast, funny, five-minute prologue that tells the story of Chloe’s labour; like a little mini-episode in itself. As the episode progresses, as well as ER’s standard well-written drama, we get a lot of comedy: pratfalls, fart gags, projectile vomiting and people running around in the background of a serious drama scene. There are also a couple of brilliantly playful scenes where, bored of their respective families, Susan and Carol sneak up on the roof and sunbathe. Tarantino, ever the arbiter of cool, insisted on the characters wearing all-black sunglasses. (He also has them barefooted: another example of the director’s fascination with women’s feet.) In fact, given that this is the 24th episode of a TV show with its own storytelling conventions, Tarantino is able to bring a lot of himself to the party. Motherhood is a fascinating mixture of ER’s house style (Steadicam shots arcing around characters, long takes, frenetic medical jargon, lots of extras rushing around a huge, four-walled set) and Tarantino’s obsessions (fetishist close-ups, flashes of violence, self-conscious coolness). Of course, a visual technique that both ER and Tarantino have excelled at is the long take. The show used them routinely, especially in high-energy scenes to build tension and a sense of real-time, and Motherhood contains Quentin’s most elaborate example yet. Just shy of two minutes and featuring dozens of characters and huge reams of dialogue, it’s a rather spectacular piece of work. Check it out here:

Nine blackbirds singing in the dead of night out of 10

Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A gangster takes his boss’s wife out for dinner… A boxer wins a fight he’d been paid to throw… A dead body causes a panic… And a pair of thieves hold up a restaurant…

What does QT do? The script was based on a number of disparate story fragments. One of them – Pandemonium Reigns, which became Butch’s plotline – was by Roger Avary, who helped Tarantino with the draft and gets a ‘story by’ credit. Director Quentin also cast himself in the role of Jimmy, who has significant amounts of dialogue with Samuel L Jackson, John Travolta and Harvey Keitel – he was not short of self-confidence around this time. It’s an okay performance. (He toyed with playing Lance, but wanted to be behind the camera during the famous adrenalin-shot moment.)

Notable characters:
* ‘Pumpkin’ (Tim Roth) and Yolanda/‘Honey Bunny’ (Amanda Plummer) are the young couple who hold up a diner. Despite Pumpkin’s English accent, and the fact he jokingly gets called Ringo, his dialogue is littered with Americanisms. The characters are another example of Tarantino’s Bonnie-and-Clyde-type criminals in love (see True Romance and Natural Born Killers).
* Jules Winnfield (Samuel L Jackson) is a mid-level gangster with a jheri-curl hairdo. When we meet him, he’s retrieving a suitcase from some associates. He quotes a doom-mongering Bible passage before killing one of them, then survives a near-death experience and decides to quit the life. Jackson is *immense* in this film: captivating, cool and chillingly charismatic. You can’t take your eyes off him. He won a Bafta and was nominated at the Oscars.
* Vincent Vega (John Travolta) is Jules’s partner. He’s just returned from a few years in Amsterdam, where he’s become keen on drugs. A confrontational guy, he’s nervous when boss Marsellus asks him to entertain his wife. There are two running gags about Vincent in the film. Famously, he goes to the toilet three times and something catastrophic happens each time. Also, he’s actually fairly incompetent: he kills someone by mistake, can’t wash his hands properly, leaves dangerous drugs for Mia to find…
* Brett (Frank Whalley) is the associate who has the suitcase. He and a friend – referred to as ‘Flock of Seagulls’ because of his silly haircut – are scared shitless when Jules and Vincent show up.
* Marvin (Phil LaMarr) is Marcelles’s man on the inside with the associates. After Brett and co are dead, Marvin leaves with Jules and Vincent – but in the film’s biggest laugh, Vincent accidentally shoots him in the face.
* Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) is a boxer who Marsellus pays to throw a fight. However, Butch secretly bets on himself then wins the bout and goes on the run. When his girlfriend forgets to bring his beloved wristwatch, however, Butch sneaks home to get it – and bumps into Marsellus. They fight in the street and end up being kidnapped by redneck rapists. (In a flashback scene, Butch’s mother is played by Brenda Hillhouse, Quentin Tarantino’s former acting coach.)
* Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is hidden from view in his first few appearances – he’s shot from behind or kept in shadows. It’s only when he surprisingly appears in front of Butch’s car that we see fully him.
* Jody (Rosanna Arquette) is the girlfriend of drug-dealer Lance and has lots of piercings: “Five in each ear, one through the nipple on my left breast, two in my right nostril, one in my left eyebrow, one in my belly, one in my lip, one in my clit… and I wear a stud in my tongue.”
* Lance (Eric Stoltz) sells Vincent some prime heroine, which he says is making a comeback. He’s later pissed off when Vincent returns with an OD’ing Mia. Lance is a more with-it version of Floyd from True Romance.
* Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) is Marsellus’s wife, who Vincent has to take out for a meal on Marsellus’s orders. She’s a hedonist who forces Vincent to join her in a dance contest and then overdoses on his heroine. This is Thurman’s best performance in a movie by far.
* ‘Buddy Holly’ (Steve Buscemi) is a waiter at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a 1950s-themed diner Vincent and Mia go to. In Reservoir Dogs, Buscemi’s character argued against tipping waitresses; here he plays a dour waiter. A neat gag.
* Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) appears in a flashback (or possibly dream sequence). He served in Vietnam with Butch’s father, who’s been killed, and is giving the young Butch his father’s watch. Walken’s cameo is mostly a monologue.
* Esmarelda Villa Lobos (Amanda Jones) is the taxi driver Butch hires to get him away from the boxing venue. She has a perverse fascination with what it’s like to kill a man. (The scene in the moving cab uses black-and-white footage for its background plates – a nod to the movie’s film-noir inspirations.)
* Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) is Butch’s child-like girlfriend, who witters on about pot bellies and pancakes. She also loses his beloved watch, which doesn’t go down well.
* Maynard (Duane Whitaker) and Zed (Peter Greene) are two rapists who lock Butch and Macellus up in their cellar. Zed’s a copper and has a chopper (not a motorbike) called Grace. They also have another man locked up in their basement: the Gimp (Stephen Hibbert), who’s kept in a box and dressed all in leather.
* Jimmy (Quentin Tarantino) is a pal of Jules’s who seemingly used to be a crim but now lives in a nice house with his wife, a nurse called Bonnie. Early one morning, Jules and Vincent show up with a dead body and ask for his help.
* Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel) is a fixer hired by Marsellus when Jules and Vincent land in trouble. We first see him at an all-night cocktail party (hence why he’s in a tux at 8am).

Returning actors: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi and Quentin Tarantino had all been in Reservoir Dogs. Samuel L Jackson and Christopher Walken had small roles in True Romance.

Music: It’s one of *the* great movie soundtracks. No score, but a long list of excellently chosen pop tracks. It’s an effortlessly cool playlist in itself, strong with surfer music and instrumentals, but the most impressive thing is how the songs work in context. They’re deployed with precision: the whipcrack Misirlou (Dick Dale & His Del-Tones) to power us into the credits; the chilled Let’s Stay Together (Al Green) to score Butch’s meeting with Marsellus; the trippy Bustin’ Surfboards (The Tornadoes) for Vincent’s drug haze; the cool-as-fuck Son of a Preacher Man (Dusty Springfield) when we enter Mia’s world; the jaunty You Never Can Tell (Chuck Berry) for the dance contest; the upbeat Flowers on the Wall (The Statler Brothers) for Butch’s moment of triumph; and so on…

Time shifts and chapters: This anthology film has three main stories with on-screen titles (Vincent Vega & Marsellus Wallace’s Wife, The Gold Watch, and The Bonnie Situation) as well as a subplot about two robbers. But the first story chronologically speaking is actually shown last, allowing the movie to circle back on itself, and the film has a pleasing symmetry. We start and conclude with the robbers, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. Then moving one step in from either end, we have Vincent and Jules. One step further in and Vincent’s recklessness is causing chaos (an overdose and a death). Butch sits at the centre of the film. This structure allows for plenty of fun: for example, on a second viewing you can actually spot Vincent and hear Jules during the opening scene in the diner. More importantly, every major character is given a closing moment of redemption or triumph. Vincent is shot and killed, but then ‘resurrected’ for The Bonnie Situation (which is set earlier). Jules drops out of the film after 25 minutes, but then returns in The Bonnie Situation and we learn that it was his choice. Mia goes through hell in the opening story, but then we see her doing well in The Gold Watch. Butch’s last scene – as he rides off into the sunset a winner – comes with an hour of the film to go, but is actually the final scene chronologically. This playing around with time also allows us to see different points of view of the same events. The film twice loops back to an earlier moment – to Jules killing Brett, and to Pumpkin and Honey Bunny’s robbery – but now we have new information about what’s happening.

Connections: Vincent Vega is the brother of Mr Blonde from Reservoir Dogs. A fan theory has it that the suitcase Jules and Vincent are collecting contains the stolen jewels from Reservoir Dogs. Harvey Keitel has recently been reprising Winston Wolf in some fairly unwatchable British TV ads.

Review: Pulp Fiction is a sprawling film-noir masterpiece, populated by fascinating and entertaining characters, and there’s more going on in 147 minutes than in most film directors’ entire careers. A strong theme is that while choices have consequences – Vincent buying the drugs, Butch betraying Marsellus – more often than not fate plays a key role. Lance runs out of the right sort of bags for heroine, Fabienne forgets the watch, Butch bumps into Marsellus in the street, Vincent’s gun goes off at the wrong time, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny pick the wrong day to rob a diner, the Pop Tarts are ready at the worst time… These unplanned moments reverberate throughout the movie, and the characters’ reactions to them are really interesting. For example, Jules and Vincent are shot at but survive. The prosaic Vincent shrugs it off as luck, yet Jules is deeply affected and it changes his life. This keeps the character stories interesting and engaging. On every level, in fact, this is superior filmmaking. Tarantino’s attitude-loaded dialogue is extraordinary. The large cast is excellent. There’s some wonderfully staged camerawork, including more long takes (Vincent and Jules walking up to the apartment is five minutes of film with just four cuts). It’s superbly edited by Sally Menke. There’s a tremendous sound mix that reveals lots of subtle details on repeat viewings. The film established Tarantino’s reputation for innovative casting (the then-unfashionable John Travolta in a leading role, movie star Bruce Willis ‘working for scale’). It introduced the director’s foot fetish (characters discuss foot massages, Mia is barefoot a few times), which will crop up again in future films. And the script contains some fantastic conceptual jokes. Guns, for example, either don’t work or go spectacularly wrong, while Winston Wolf is built up as an all-powerful, almost mythical figure who will rescue Jules and Vincent from disaster… then all he does is tell them to clean the car. This film changed my life. It came out when I was 15, and like some kind of Rosetta Stone it opened my eyes to what cinema can be, what it can do. More than any other movie it put me on a road that led to a film degree and a career vaguely connected to the media. I owe it a lot.

Every motherfucking last one of you out of 10

Natural Born Killers (1994, Oliver Stone)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Lovebirds Mickey and Mallory Knox go on a three-week, 52-victim killing spree…

What does QT do? Tarantino’s draft of Natural Born Killers, based on an earlier script by his pal Roger Avary, ended up in the hands of director Oliver Stone. Stone heavily rewrote it with colleagues David Veloz and Richard Rutowski, leaving Quentin with just a ‘Story by’ credit. Tarantino wasn’t involved during production.

Notable characters:
* Mickey Knox (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Wilson Knox (Juliette Lewis) are the couple at the heart of the story. They meet when he shows up at her house delivering meat, and they soon kill her parents and go on the run. They become media darlings, though Mickey is disappointed that the TV show covering them gets lower ratings than a Charles Manson special. As with True Romance, this film is about a couple who are so in love they don’t care about anyone else. But unlike Clarence and Alabama, Mickey and Mallory are total wackos. Harrelson and Lewis certainly don’t hold back in their performances.
* Ed Wilson (Roger Dangerfield) and Mrs Wilson (Edie McClurg) are Mallory’s parents, who we see in a sequence presented as a 1960s-style studio sitcom. Ed is a slobbering monster who abuses Mallory, and her brother, Kevin (Ross Malinger), is actually her son. Mrs Wilson is played by Grace from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
* Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr) is a TV journalist on a current-affairs show called American Maniacs (‘Hosted by Wayne Gale, written by Wayne Gale, produced and directed by Wayne Gale’). It sensationalises Mickey and Mallory’s crimes and features staged reconstructions of them killing people. Gale has a mullet and possibly an Australian accent (it’s very hard to tell).
* Detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) is the corrupt, prostituting-killing cop on the trail of the Knoxes. After he catches them he writes a book about it.
* Warden Dwight McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) runs the prison that features in the film’s third act. He has a 1970s suit and a 1970s tache. Jones hams it up something rotten.

Returning actors: Tom Sizemore had also played a cop in True Romance. Stand-up comedian Steven Wright, who’d voiced K-Billy in Reservoir Dogs, has a small role here as an expert interviewed on Gale’s TV show.

Music: It’s almost non-stop. There are tracks playing for virtually the entire film. Incidental cues tend to be overblown and melodramatic, while the best use of a pre-existing song is Rage Against The Machine’s Bombtrack. A scene is really well timed to its murmuring bass riff.

Time shifts and chapters: We start with Mickey and Mallory already on the rampage – a newspaper headline tells us they’re just killed six teenagers – then 10 minutes into the film we cut back and learn how the couple met and fell in love. Later on, after Mickey and Mallory have been arrested, there’s a jump to a year later.

Connections: According to Tarantino, the cop Jack Scagnetti is meant to be the brother of Mr Blonde’s unseen parole officer in Reservoir Dogs.

Review: Here’s a sample of the cinematic techniques used in this movie – slow motion, sped-up footage, off-kilter camera angles, point-of-view shots, shots played in reverse, black-and-white shots cut into colour scenes, colour-tinted shots, negative images, film scratches, videotape footage, Super-8 footage, 16mm footage, CCTV footage, stock footage, animation, on-screen captions, subtitles projected onto actors’ bodies, clips from commercials, disorientating editing, obvious rear-projection, an entire sequence presented as if from an old studio sitcom (laughter track and all) and segments from a TV news show. It’s *exhausting*. Early on, you subconsciously expect the film to calm down, but it’s constantly gimmicky and tricksy. And with no variety or nuance, it becomes very boring very quickly. The second quarter, in which the Knoxes meet a Native American who gives them hallucinogens, is especially tedious. Yes, there’s satire going on – the journalists are ruthless, the authority figures have no morals, the public is entertained by mass murder, everyone’s a moron – but it’s like a drunk pontificating in a pub. Even if the points are valid, you just want the ranting to stop. Every now and again there are flashes of Tarantino dialogue or wit, but then comes along more ultraviolence, brutality, incest, torture, vulgarity… A mess.

Three prison riots out of 10