Red Dwarf XI (2016)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Written and directed by Doug Naylor. Broadcast on Dave.

Regulars: No changes for a third batch of episodes running, so we have Lister, Rimmer, the Cat and Kryten. Kochanski and Holly aren’t even mentioned.

Episode 1: Twentica (22 September 2016): The crew encounter a gang of Expenoids – robots who have stolen some sci-fi gadget or other – and follow them through a wormhole that takes them to 1950s Earth. However, the Expenoids have changed history so technology is strictly regulated… This story suffers from a problem that blights a lot of Red Dwarf episodes: the plot requires so much heavy lifting that early on it’s a bit clunky. However, once we reach the underground speakeasy the comedy flows much better. The central idea of a society stuck in the 1920s is fun and visually interesting, while there are good gags about science being taboo. There’s also a successful running joke about hackneyed old clichés. An okay opener.
Observations: Red Dwarf itself doesn’t appear until a coda scene. Starbug is featured, now with a new cockpit. In fact, in this series the cockpit is the only Starbug interior we ever see. Kevin Eldon plays 4 of 27, the lead Expenoid. Lucie Pohl gets most of the best dialogue as sassy, quick-talking moll Harmony. Rebecca Blackstone (who played a computer in series 10) cameos here as a flapper called Big Bang Beryl. Among the scientists mentioned in dialogue are Pythagoras (570 BC-c495 BC), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Joseph Lister (1827-1912), Thomas Edison (1847-1931), Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Edwin Hubble (1889-1953).
Best gag: A cop sarcastically asks Harmony, “How dense do you think I am?” Harmony: “You really wanna know? Just divide your mass by your volume.”

Episode 2: Samsara (29 September 2016): The crew encounter an escape pod containing the remains of two people, which leads them to a ‘karma drive’… There are a few laughs, especially because comedy is being mined from the regulars’ stock characteristics. (It’s going over old ground, but is still amusing.) The plot, however, is another convoluted sci-fi idea that never really takes flight. It needs too much explaining. Directorially speaking, the flashback scenes are busy and alive, and there are some nice crossfades between the two time zones.
Observations: We start with a decidedly old-fashioned Lister-and-Rimmer bickering scene. There are three guest characters in the flashbacks – played by Dan Tetsell, Maggie Service and Eddie Bagayawa – but sadly none of them impresses. The technology seen in 1991 episode Justice is mentioned.
Best gag: Trapped in a room without light, Lister suggests the Cat should be able to see in the dark because he evolved from felines. The Cat, showing remarkable logic, points out that that means Lister should be able to swing from trees.

Episode 3: Give & Take (6 October 2016): The crew encounter a space station, where Lister’s kidneys are seemingly stolen… This has a nice sci-fi plot playing with the circularity of time-travel. There’s also some good comedy for Rimmer and the Cat, while the Snacky robot is funny. The episode also looks more like a movie than a sitcom commissioned by a Freeview channel.
Observations: Starbug features again. It’s the second episode running where the crew find skeltons and try to deduce how they died.
Best gag: The Cat: “So let me get this straight. I give you one of my kidneys. What do I get?” Lister: “A hole. Where your kidney used to be.”

Episode 4: Officer Rimmer (13 October 2016): The crew encounter a deep-space explorer ship, on board which is an artificial officer who promotes Rimmer before expiring… A generally funny episode, showcasing (yet again) Chris Barrie’s talents. It’s quintessential Red Dwarf, really: Rimmer being twatty and the others getting frustrated with him. We get all the same old humour about him being ruthless and arrogant and deluded and ambitious without the slightest bit of justification, but it generates enough chuckles. There’s a strange lurch later on into a horror pastiche, with a monster like something out of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).
Observations: Starbug features again. Stephen Critchlow guests as Captain Herring, a man who’s been generated by a 3D printer and has had his face printed on the top of his head. Despite this, he’s apparently able to give Rimmer a field promotion to first lieutenant. Chris Barrie has a hoot playing lots of 3D-printed versions of Rimmer, and in fact previous multi-Arnold episodes (Me2, Rimmerworld) are alluded to. We also hear a Musaz version of the Rimmer song from series seven’s Blue.
Best gag: The convoluted joke about how every bored Scouser in a call centre is actually a clone of Lister.

Episode 5: Krysis (20 October 2016): The crew encounter… Well, actually, this week they *seek out* the crashed Nova 3, a sister ship to the one Kryten once served with, because Kryten is going through a midlife crisis. There they find Butler, a skilled, intelligent mechanoid, who rubs Kryten up the wrong way… Good fun.
Observations: The episode begins with another refreshingly old-fashioned scene of Lister and Rimmer bickering in a bunkroom. Dominic Coleman is great value as the smarmy mechanoid, Butler. Starbug features again.
Best gag: The crew end up speaking to the personification of the universe, who realises he’s halfway through his life. “No wonder I’m not as hot as I once was. No wonder I’m expanding exponentially.”

Episode 6: Can of Worms (27 October 2016): The crew *have already* encountered a space station and salvaged a personality-altering machine, then the Cat gets nervous when Starbug approaches a tribe of virgin-killing GELFs… A good climax with plenty of laughs if not as much focus as you’d like.
Observations: We get a scene spoofing Aliens (1986), complete with head cameras and motion sensors. Series three’s Polymorph is also being referenced, of course (again). Dominique Moore plays a polymorph posing as Ankita, a female version of the Cat. She’s oddly in just two brief scenes – surely there’s a whole episode in that idea. This is the first Cat-centric episode of Red Dwarf since… well, ever. In fact, this episode has some vague similarities to Identity Within, a Cat-heavy script written for series seven but never made for budget reasons.
Best gag: The naïve Cat’s boast about the sex he’s just had – being inexperienced, he hasn’t twigged that tentacles and egg-laying are not usually involved.

Best episode: Officer Rimmer. Worst episode: Samsara.

Review: What’s first apparent is that the episodes have an amazing sheen to them. It seems there was more money to be spent than in series 10 (perhaps because of the involvement of production company Baby Cow?). We get more location filming than last time, more sets, more special effects, more everything. Red Dwarf has often aimed for a movie-quality look, but if anything this series goes too far in that direction. The moody smoke and film-noir lighting in Twentica, for example, mean you often can’t see people’s faces properly – surely a basic principle of comedy. The show’s colour pallet has also shifted from the rich reds of series 10 to a dogged reliance on blue. Sets, costumes, locations, props – the colour blue is bloody everywhere. It’s apt, I suppose: the previous batch of episodes were warm and domestic, so having red everywhere worked; this series is cold and outer-spacey and more about sci-fi ideas than character comedy, so the blue fits the tone. It’s probably missing the point to criticise Red Dwarf for being obsessed with science, but this series often seems more interested in spelling out convoluted concepts and referencing theories than telling jokes. A large chunk of Kryten’s dialogue is simply regurgitating detailed knowiedge of every technology or scientific concept the gang encounter. Maybe the problem is heightened by the running order, which puts the big sci-fi-heavy episodes up front, and leaves the character-based stories until the second half. But there are laughs to be had, and the cast are good company. There’s even a new running gag based on Rimmer citing his long-winded rank (“I am Stand-in Acting Senior Commanding Officer Arnold J Rimmer of the mining ship Red Dwarf,” and so on). But it’s probably significant that there’s no ‘establishing of the premise’: this series is being made for long-time fans, especially those who apply for studio-recording tickets and applaud references to old episodes.

Seven knighthoods out of 10

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Vampyres (1974, Joseph Larraz)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The south of England in the 1970s.

Faithful to the novel? This low-budget erotic horror film has no real connection to Stoker’s book, other than the fact it was released in America under the title Vampyres, Daughters of Dracula. It tells the story of two bisexual vampires, Fran (Marianne Morris) and Miriam (Anulka), who lure men to their stately home so they can drain them of two key bodily fluids. Ted (Murray Brown) is one such victim, who picks Fran up as a hitchhiker. There are vague hints the two have met before, but this subplot doesn’t go anywhere. Meanwhile, a young couple called John (Brian Deacon) and Harriet (Sally Faulkner) are caravanning in the grounds of the house, and Harriet becomes obsessed with the vampires, who by the way have no problem with daylight.

Best performance: Michael Byrne was later a bad guy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (and also Gail’s dad in Coronation Street). He shows up near the end of this film as a wine buff who can’t identify a vintage Fran gives him. She says it’s from the Carpathian Mountains; it’s actually blood.

Best bit: Oh, I don’t know. The nudity?

Review: The film opens with a scene of two attractive, naked women having sex and then being violently killed. So, our attention is certainly grabbed. But the moment doesn’t seem to fit into the story, which then trundles along very blandly for 90 minutes. The movie is shot entirely on location (in and around Oakley Court, an old Hammer staple and soon to be used in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and does have a creepy, unsettling vibe. But there’s just not enough substance.

Five B-roads out of 10

Scream Blacula Scream (1973, Bob Kelljan)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Los Angeles, the early 1970s.

Faithful to the novel? This is a quickly made sequel to the 1972 film Blacula. It was released just 10 months later, and lead vampire Mamuwalde (William Marshall) is the only returnee. This time, the story is centred on a voodoo cult. (Coincidentally, the same year’s James Bond film, the blaxploitation crossover Live and Let Die, also dabbled in voodoo.) When Lisa (Pam Grier) is appointed its new leader, a rival called Willis (Richard Lawson) is jealous. So he resurrects Blacula to help get revenge. However, Mamuwalde turns him into a vampire, then meets Lisa and her boyfriend, Justin (Don Mitchell), who has a collection of artifacts from Mamuwalde’s home country. After a low-energy horror plot, Lisa kills Mamuwalde via the use of a voodoo doll. At one point, Mamuwalde turns into bat to escape a house where he’s just killed. The real Count Dracula appears in a flashback to the first movie.

Best performance: Pam Grier, who was hot from blaxploitation classic Coffy, is quiet and downbeat as Lisa. It’s not a performance as dazzling as her later turn in Jackie Brown, but she undeniably had screen presence in the early 70s.

Best bit: Having been turned into a vampire, the vain Willis is aghast that he can no longer see himself in a mirror. “How do I look, man?” he asks Mamuwalde.

Review: Scream Blacula Scream is more competently made than the first movie. There’s craft in this filmmaking and the direction is crisper and more inventive. Tension is well generated and the deaths are well staged. There’s also more psychological horror on show: characters are confronted by former friends who are now undead, for example. But it’s also a slower film and less fun. Perhaps the most interesting element is its political edge. In one scene, Blacula berates two black pimps for being as bad as slavers.

Seven mirrors out of 10

Blacula (1972, William Crain)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: After a prologue at Castle Dracula in 1780, we cut to the modern day (ie, the early 1970s). There’s a scene in Transylvania, then the bulk of the film takes place in Los Angeles.

Faithful to the novel? No, but Count Dracula appears in the prologue (played by Charles Macaulay). He’s entertaining two dignitaries from Africa, but offends them by defending the slave trade. Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) gets annoyed so Dracula responds by turning him into a vampire (“You shall be… Blacula!”) and locking him up in a coffin… Two centuries later, American interior decorators called Bobby and Billy (Ted Harris and Rick Metzler) buy up the contents of the now abandoned Castle Dracula and take the coffin to LA, where Mamuwalde awakens. Interestingly, the interior decorators have heard of Dracula and have “seen all his movies”. After Mamuwalde kills Bobby, a mourner called Tina (Vonetta Williams) just happens to be a dead ringer for the vampire’s long-dead wife. This plot device is now a standard part of the Dracula mythology, but this movie is one of its earliest appearances – maybe the earliest. Mamuwalde kills again and woos Tina. Her friend Jack (Thalmus Rasulala), meanwhile, is a cop who investigates the deaths.

Best performance: The 6’4” William Marshall was a well-respected actor, known for both Shakespeare and Star Trek (he’s in an 1968 episode called The Ultimate Computer). He gives Mamuwalde dignity and strength, and the character is almost sympathetic. Aware of the racial significance – rather shockingly, Mamuwalde is cinema’s first ever black vampire – Marshall insisted on the character’s backstory being changed from a tourist to an African nobleman.

Best bit: Singer Ketty Lester has a fun cameo as a feisty cab driver who is turned by Mamuwalde (“You’re the only imbecile on this street… boy!”), but the vampire’s attack on a woman in a darkroom has good shock value.

Review: This film has a low budget and, in some areas, a low ambition. The direction is often more like TV than a vampire movie. A plot point concerning a minor character with mirrored sunglasses, for example, is lost because of poor storytelling. And the cast is quite variable. But the movie has its charms. There’s a hip, jazzy score by Gene Page, while scenes at a nightclub allow full-length performances by The Hues Corporation (of Rock The Boat fame). The story is also played straight, even if the vampire make-up can be unintentionally funny… Blacula was part of a wave of films in the 1970s known as the blaxploitation genre: a subset of movie featuring largely black casts, urban settings and modern music. And it doesn’t shy away from cultural issues. Count Dracula is a pointedly racist character, but Jack is a respected policeman (and none of the white characters has an issue with that). Also Bobby and Billy are gay and while there is the odd homophobic insult, the film generally presents them as decent, sympathetic characters. There’s also an interesting climax to the story. Having seen Tina killed by a stray bullet, Mamuwalde actually commits suicide by walking into the sunlight… An entertaining if flawed 90 minutes.

Six Bloody Marys out of 10

Next time: Scream Blacula Scream

Live at the Hollywood Bowl (2016)

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Title: When released in May 1977, this LP was called The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. It was the group’s first official live album and consisted of tracks taped at two gigs in 1964/65. When remixed, remastered and rereleased in 2016 – to tie in with a documentary film called The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – it was given a slightly different title. It’s that later version I’ve used for this review.

Cover: A photo of the boys in casual suits and sunglasses. George looks a bit bored.

Best song: She’s a Woman cuts and swings just as much as the version released in November 1964 as the B-side to I Feel Fine. Ringo Starr’s enjoying himself with a few extra drums tricks, Paul McCartney belts out the vocal with energy, and the rocky coda (which is understated on the studio cut) is hammered home. Paul once described the Beatles as being just a good little rock’n’roll band – it’s effortlessly cool performances like this where you most see what he meant.

Honourable mentions:
* Dizzy, Miss Lizzy is introduced by John Lennon: “We’d like to do a song now that’s from an album of ours… An LP… Album…” (Listen to just a few recordings of the Beatles playing live in America and you’ll get used to John and Paul never knowing which term to use.) This 12-bar track pounds away and betters the studio version for intensity.
* Ticket to Ride – or as Paul introduces it, A Ticket to Ride – has a couple of fumbles. John sounds off-mic to begin with, for example, but it still jingles and jangles.
* Can’t Buy Me Love was knocking on a bit, having been released 17 months before this 1965 performance. The last third of the take features a pleasing shuffle rhythm for a short while, though Paul’s voice sounds strained.
* Things We Said Today is preceded by George Harrison saying, “We’d like to carry on now…” – another phrase heard often at Beatles gigs. He also tells the audience that he thinks the song is on the “newest album over here” – ie, Something New, which had been released the previous month. (He was right.) The performance features some mucked-up backing vocals around the 0.58 point, which Paul audibly smirks about, then the track kicks into an entertaining higher gear.
* A Hard Day’s Night, John tells the crowd, is from the group’s first film: “…the one we made in black and white. We’ve only made two…” He then puts on a Scottish accent to introduce the track. Once the music starts, John and Paul often sound knackered on vocals!
* Help! is also introduced by John: “We’d like to do another film song now but from a different film because we’ve done two. It’s also our latest record over here. That means it’s a new single.” Sadly, George’s guitar doesn’t punch through as much as on the studio version. John also runs out of puff after two minutes and almost gives up singing.
* All My Loving rocks brilliantly. Paul introduces it by saying, “We’d like to carry on with a song which was on our first Capitol album…” – ie, the US-only release Meet the Beatles! (1964).
* She Loves You is great. With his tongue in his cheek, John calls this song an oldie. “Some of you older people might remember it,” he quips. “It’s from last year.”
* Long Tall Sally ends the album, as it often concluded Beatles gigs. Before launching into his Little Richard impression, Paul asks if people have enjoyed themselves. The crowd answers with an even louder sustained scream than usual. Sadly George’s guitar solo is virtually inaudible in the mix. Paul also does some silly improvising on the high notes of his bass. But the climax is good fun.

Worst song: Boys is sung by Ringo. He gave it a go, at least.

Alternate versions: Four tracks have been added to the album for its 2016 reissue: You Can’t Do That, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby, and Baby’s in Black.

Review: The first Beatles concert taped for a potential live album was their 23 August 1964 appearance at the Hollywood Bowl, an open-air venue built in 1922. However, the sound of 17,000 screaming fans almost masked the music, so two more attempts were made the following year. Sadly the tapes of the band’s gigs at the same venue on 29 and 30 August 1965 were equally poor and the project was shelved. Bootlegs slipped out over the years but it wasn’t until 1977, when a rival company planned to release some live Beatles material from their Hamburg days, that the Hollywood Bowl recordings were finally released on vinyl. Then, nearly 40 years later, Giles Martin remixed and digitally restored the album for this rerelease, which reduces the crowd noise and allows us to hear the Beatles in their pomp. The bass levels are good and the performances exciting. As a record of gods among men, it does the job.

Eight lips I am missing out of 10

The Hateful Eight (2015, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists. Seriously, this is a very recent film with some big revelations so please only read on if you’ve seen it.

Eight (or so) people are trapped in a roadside cabin called Minnie’s Haberdashery during a blizzard – but not all are who they say they are…

What does QT do? Quentin Tarantino writes, directs and provides some narration. The film very nearly didn’t happen. Tarantino got the hump after his draft script was leaked online, but was eventually persuaded to carry on.

Notable characters:
* Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson) is a former army officer who fought with the North in the American Civil War, but he’s now a bounty hunter. Stranded in the snow, he talks his way onto a stagecoach – in part because he has a handwritten letter from the late Abraham Lincoln – and ends up in a cabin with some strangers. We later learn there’s a bounty on Warren’s head, thanks to him killing some prisoners during the war, and that he faked the letter as a way of ingratiating himself with people. It’s a grandstanding performance – big, theatrical and reliably entertaining in the Jacksonian tradition.
* OB (James Parks) is a stagecoach driver who’s been hired by…
* John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell) is a bounty hunter who’s transporting his quarry, a woman called Daisy, across country. He routinely beats on her but wants her alive so he can see her hang. They also end up in the blizzard-bound cabin. Russell’s having fun with the larger-than-life Ruth.
* Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has a $10,000 reward on her head, hence Ruth’s eagerness to get her to the authorities. She’s a feral, foul-mouthed loose cannon of a character. Despite having an awful lot of standing-around-while-the-men-talk to do, Leigh’s punk-attitude performance is so strong it bagged her an Oscar nomination.
* Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) is on his way to the nearest town, Red Rock, to be sworn in as the new sheriff but also gets trapped at the cabin. The son of a Southern war hero, he’s a real shit-stirrer of a character.
* Bob aka Marco the Mexican (Demián Bichir) says he’s running Minnie’s Haberdashery in its owners’ absence… but in reality is one of Daisy’s gang, who have laid a trap for John Ruth.
* Oswaldo Mobray aka English Pete Hicox (Tim Roth) has a clipped accent and says he’s the new hangman in Red Rock – but is actually another of Daisy’s gang. It’s such an affected English accent, in fact, that it’s something of a relief when he reverts to his real voice, which is closer to the actor’s own.
* General Sandford Smithers (Bruce Dern) is a guest at the cabin when the others arrive. A batty old racist, he has a grudge against Warren even before he learns that Warren killed his son (or at least claims to have done as a taunt).
* Joe Gage aka Grouch Douglass (Michael Madsen) initially sits in the corner of the cabin not bothering anyone. He says he’s a cowpuncher on his way to visit his mother, but is another of Daisy’s compadres.
* A narrator (Quentin Tarantino) provides some exposition about 20 minutes of action we’ve skipped over, then returns in a flashback to explain the preparation Daisy’s friends did before the stagecoach arrived. Quentin reads the lines really well – crisply and with a sense of drama.
* Jody Domergue (Channing Tatum) has been hiding under the floorboards ever since Ruth, Warren, Mannix and Daisy arrived – he’s Daisy’s brother and along with Bob, Oswaldo and Joe is there to rescue her. It’s an audacious plot twist… which doesn’t really stack up. If Jody’s intention is to free Daisy and he doesn’t object to killing innocent people to do it, why wait so long to do it? Incidentally, the notion of previously unseen characters who have been eavesdropping on the action was also used in Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds.
* ‘Six-horse’ Judy (Zoe Bell) is a stagecoach driver who brings Jody and the boys to the cabin. She’s a perky, likeable woman from Auckland.
* Minnie Mink (Dana Gourrier), Gemma (Belinda Owino) and Sweet Dave (Gene Jones) run the cabin. Minnie and Dave are a couple.

Returning actors: Samuel L Jackson has his seventh role in a Tarantino-written film. Tim Roth plays his first Tarantino character in 20 years and fourth overall. Michael Madsen is also staring in a fourth QT film. Kurt Russell had been in Death Proof. Walton Goggins (Django Unchained), Bruce Dern (Django Unchained), James Parks (Kill Bill Vol. 1, Django Unchained) and Zoe Bell (Death Proof, Django Unchained) also crop up. As mentioned, Tarantino himself has a voice part.

Music: We get the first full-length, purpose-written score on a Tarantino-directed film – it’s by Ennio Morricone and is very effective. As Morricone ran out of time, though, some cues he wrote for The Thing (1982) and Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) have been reused. There are also a few songs by people such as The White Stripes and Roy Orbison. In the film, Bob plays Silent Night on the piano and Daisy plays 19th-century ballad Jim Jones at Botony Bay on the guitar. Daisy’s song led to a notorious incident on set. John Ruth was scripted to take the guitar off her and smash it to pieces. However, Kurt Russell accidentally did it when – instead of a prop replacement – a priceless 1870s Martin guitar was being used for the shot. You can see the take in the finished film. The look of shock and disbelief on Jennifer Jason Leigh’s face is genuine.

Time shifts and chapters: This is another Tarantino film divided into chapters with on-screen titles. This time there are six: ‘Last Stage to Red Rock’ (which lasts about 17 minutes), ‘Son of a Gun’ (12 minutes), ‘Minnie’s Haberdashery’ (58 minutes), Domergue’s Got a Secret’ (23 minutes), ‘The Four Passengers’ (20 minutes) and ‘Black Man, White Hell’ (22 minutes). The third features a brief flashback; the fourth rewinds in time to show us an earlier incident from a different point of view; while the penultimate section is set ‘Earlier that morning’. As is often the case with flashbacks that explain what’s *really* going on, The Four Passengers is a hoot.

Connections: The idea for The Hateful Eight began as what would have been Quentin Tarantino’s first novel – a continuation of Django Unchained called Django in White Hell. However, he felt the story didn’t really suit the central character, so he eventually retooled the idea as a movie script and Django was replaced by Major Marquis Warren. (This explains why Warren is a bounty hunter.) Additionally, Tim Roth’s Pete Hicox is intended to be the grandfather of Inglourious Basterds’s Archie Hicox. And now’s a good a time as any to mention Red Apple. It’s a fictional brand of cigarettes that’s mentioned in The Hateful Eight a couple of times and previously featured in Pulp Fiction, From Dusk Till Dawn, Four Rooms and Kill Bill.

Review: The Hateful Eight has the strangest opening of any Tarantino film. We start with big, empty, wintery landscape shots, which tell us we’re in a world of cold, harsh and wide-open spaces. (They also show off the gorgeous Ultra Panavision 70mm photography, which is by Robert Richardson and aches to be seen on a mammoth cinema screen.) One of the shots is a lingering look at a macabre carving of a man on a cross and lasts for 154 seconds. Add in Ennio Morricone’s stirring music and it’s all very BIG and EPIC. But this is a bum steer. Rather than a sweeping, Old-West blockbuster, this film is a character-driven chamber piece reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs. (The presence of Michael Madsen and Tim Roth only reinforces that feeling, of course.) Admittedly, it takes a while to get there. There’s fun dialogue and plot information in the film’s first half hour, but this extended prologue has come in for criticism. In a 160-minute movie, you can’t help feeling there could be a better way to start the story. (Maybe begin with Ruth and co arriving at the cabin, then present the earlier events in flashback?) However, once we hit Minnie’s Haberdashery – where more than two-thirds of the movie takes place – the stage is set, the crazy, well-cast characters shine, and the story clips along very enjoyably. A number of minor mysteries are also being set up. Where’s Minnie? Why does the door not close properly? Why doesn’t Bob know what he’s doing? Why is there a jellybean on the floor? But the movie smartly doesn’t emphasise them. These questions simmer away in the background while the focus is on the characters. It’s a wide-ranging group – three nationalities, three races, both genders, a big spread of ages – which is rare in Westerns. It’s refreshing and makes for some interesting dynamics. However, having said that, the film’s treatment of women is difficult to excuse. The main female character, Daisy, is subjected to more violence than everyone else put together, while three other women are killed simply because they’re in the way. Daisy is actually the most powerful character in the story (she has a strong, well-tooled gang to back her up) and its most cunning (she *really* plays the long game), yet the film doesn’t allow her any victory. Instead, she’s lynched by a racist. There’s also a hard-to-justify number of coincidences in the plot. Characters are forever bumping into people they’ve heard of in the middle of nowhere. Is this meant to be a conceptual joke? A play on how sparsely populated the Wild West actually was? Perhaps. An even bigger question you keep asking yourself is: who are the Hateful Eight? Posters, DVD covers and Wikipedia define the group as Warren, Ruth, Domergue, Mannix, Bob, Mobray, Gage and Smithers, but that ignores OB (and Jody). Of course, maybe the title is just a pun on the 1960 film The Magnificent Seven – or an acknowledgement of the fact Tarantino considers this to be his eighth movie (he ignores Four Rooms and counts Kill Bill as one film). On the whole, The Hateful Eight is worth seeing and has many things to commend it. But it lacks the focus of Reservoir Dogs, the ingenuity of Pulp Fiction, the soul of Jackie Brown, the tension of Inglourious Basterds and the dry humour of Django Unchained – all things that would help. Very good rather than great.

Eight bowls of stew out of 10

Django Unchained (2012, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In the 1850s, a bounty hunter helps a freed slave who wants to rescue his wife…

What does QT do? Quentin Tarantino wrote the script, directed the film, and cast himself in the minor role of a man transporting slaves to a mining company. It’s a dreadful acting performance – easily Quentin’s worst in one of his own films. It features an Australian accent that veers from South African to cockney via no-sorry-that’s-actually-indecipherable.

Notable characters:
* Django (Jamie Foxx) – the D is silent – is in chains when we first see him. After he’s bought by a man called Schultz, Django agrees to help him in exchange for his freedom. They spend a winter together hunting down bounties, then head to Mississippi to find Django’s enslaved wife… Foxx plays the role part naïve, part numb, which means Django is an oddly blank character. The true heart of the film arguably lies with…
* Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) travels across America seemingly as a dentist; his wagon even has a giant tooth on a spring rocking back and forth. However, he’s actually a successful bounty hunter. When we meet him he’s searching for the fugitive Brittle brothers and needs Django’s help. Schultz is German, and English is his second language, yet he’s as verbose and articulate as any Tarantino creation. He does a chunk of the talking in most scenes, and it’s a beguiling performance of charisma and moral ambiguity. (It won Waltz his second Oscar for playing a Tarantino character.) The film becomes noticeably less interesting after Schultz is killed.
* Sheriff Bill Sharp (Don Stroud) challenges Schultz and Django when they saunter into a town and flaunt its racist policies. Schultz shoots him dead with a concealed weapon (very steampunky, this, like something from Wild Wild West) then tells the local marshall, Gill Tatum (Tom Wopat), that Sharp was a wanted man. As an incident to show off Schultz’s job and commanding wits, it’s superb.
* Old Man Carrucan (Bruce Dern) is Django’s former owner, who we see in a flashback. He branded Django and his wife for trying to escape, then sold them separately.
* Broomhilda ‘Hildi’ von Shaft (Kerry Washington) is Django’s wife. She was once owned by a German family, hence her surname, but is now a slave on a plantation called Candyland. When Django and Schultz arrive to look for her, she’s been put in a hotbox – a half-buried metal crate left out in the searing sun – as a punishment.
* Spencer ‘Big Daddy’ Bennett (Don Johnson) is a slave-owning, plantation-owning, big-hat-owning Southern gentleman who is definitely Southern but certainly no gentleman. Schultz talks his way onto the plantation so he and Django can search for the Brittle brothers (MC Gainey, Cooper Huckabee and Doc Duhame).
* A member of the local Ku Klux Klan (Jonah Hill, credited as Bag Head #2) features in a silly scene where KKK twats argue over their homemade outfits.
* Leo Moguy (Dennis Christopher) is a lawyer who puts Schultz and Django in touch with an important character called…
* Calvin J Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a flamboyant, arrogant Francophile who runs a plantation, has lots of slaves and is fond of forcing the men to fight each other to the death. He’s also Hildi’s owner, so Schultz and Django attempt to con him into selling her to them… As talented as DiCaprio clearly is, he’s miscast here. The character is too young and not enough of a threat.
* Butch Pooch (James Remar, looking like Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy) is Candie’s bodyguard. As Django notes, he’s being rude by wearing his hat indoors. Remar also plays another small role in the film: Ace Speck, who owns Django as the story begins.
* Amerigo Vessepi (Franco Nero) is a slave-owner whose best man loses a staged fight with one of Candie’s slaves. When Vessepi talks to Django, there’s a hint he may have another name (see Connections).
* Billy Crash (Walton Goggins) is one of Candie’s sadistic henchmen.
* Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) is the head ‘house slave’ at Candyland, which gives him licence to boss other slaves about and have a crotchety grandfather vibe with Calvin. He’s an elderly man with white hair and a stick, and he instantly takes against Django. He soon rumbles his and Schultz’s plan.
* Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly (Laura Cayouette) is Candie’s widowed sister. She’s only really in the story to justify why Hildi is working in the house rather than on the land, but is involved in two of the movie’s best moments: when she innocently points out that Hildi has been eyeing up Django; and her slapstick death during the action climax.
* Three employees of the LeQunt Dickey Mining Company (Michael Parks, Quentin Tarantino and John Jarratt) transport Django across country. He cons them into letting him free and then kills them. They’re Australian, for some reason.

Returning actors: Christoph Waltz had been in Inglourious Basterds. Samuel L Jackson gets Tarantino role number six. Zoe Bell (Death Proof), Michael Bowen (Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 1), James Parks (Kill Bill Vol. 1) and Tom Savini (From Dusk Till Dawn) have mute cameos as Candyland employees. Michael Parks (From Dusk Till Dawn, both Kill Bills, Death Proof) appears again. Tarantino’s role is the sixth time he’s played one of his own characters.

Music: The rousing theme song is taken from the 1966 Italian film Django (see Connections). Incidental cues from movies such as Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), The Last American Hero (1973) and Under Fire (1983) have been recycled. Various other pre-existing tunes are used too – Beethoven, Wagner, a lyrically apt track from the Italian film Lo chiamavano King (1971) – as well as songs written specifically for the film by artists such as John Legend, Anthony Hamilton and Rick Ross.

Time shifts and chapters: It’s the most orthodox structure of any Tarantino script. We follow one linear storyline in chronological order, and Django and/or Schultz are in almost every scene. There are brief flashbacks here and there, but they’re motivated cutaways rather than the movie telling its story out of sequence.

Connections: The lead character’s name is a reference to the Italian film Django (1966), a nihilistic Spaghetti Western that has spawned more than 30 sequels, rip-offs and homages. (One of them, Sukiyaki Western Django (2007), actually featured Quentin Tarantino in an acting role.) Although he uses the alias Amerigo Vessepi, the eponymous character from the 1966 film cameos in Django Unchained played by original actor Franco Nero. Meanwhile, Hildi’s surname tells us that she and Django are ancestors of 1970s private detective John Shaft. In Kill Bill Vol. 2, the Bride climbed out of a grave belonging to ‘Paula Schultz’. Tarantino has said that Paula is the wife of Christoph Waltz’s Django Unchained character. According to her headstone, she lived until 1893 so presumably they’re separated by the time of this film. He never mentions her. And finally, in 2014 Jamie Foxx reprised his Django for a cameo in Seth McFarlane’s film A Million Ways To Die in the West.

Review: There’s a great line in Bill Bryson’s 2008 book on William Shakespeare where he’s talking about the Bard’s habit of shamelessly lifting plots and dialogue from other writers. “What Shakespeare did, of course, was take pedestrian pieces of work and endow them with distinction and, very often, greatness.” It rings true for Quentin Tarantino too, who has often used other films as a starting point for a project. But when you watch these movies – 1973’s Coffy, 1971’s Vanishing Point, 1978’s The Inglorious Bastards, 1966’s Django and many others – what’s often noticeable is how superior his resulting films are. They’re classier, more polished, more dynamic and more interesting. (As David Bowie put it once: it doesn’t matter who does something first. It’s who does it second that counts.) Part of this is down to budget, of course. Django Unchained cost $100 million to make. The 1966 Django looks like it cost about two-and-six. But while Tarantino often stands on the shoulders of averagely tall people, he always brings something new, something fresh. For Django Unchained, one such fresh element is that it’s a Western that technically isn’t a Western. It uses the tropes and clichés of the genre (horses! Guns! Standoffs! Crash-zooms! Glorious widescreen!), but the story is actually set in the Deep South before the American Civil War. And crucially it’s about a subject ignored by most Westerns: black Americans and slavery. Many people have lambasted this film for its paper-thin analysis. Slavery was a bad thing, it says, and slave owners were bastards. Well, yeah… But that’s like dismissing The Great Escape because it’s prioritises fun over philosophy. Speaking of which, this film is often a lot of fun. With a sense of humour so dry it’s parched, Django Unchained is basically a comedy. It does have some very serious elements – severe racism, the N-word used liberally, a slave-fighting subplot that comes out of left-field, torture, sadistic violence – but there’s also plenty of whimsy, gallows humour and actual jokes. The story is engaging and the characters, especially Shultz, are very watchable. But on the downside it’s too long with a number of superfluous scenes. The KKK members and the tracker characters, for example, feel like they’re going to be important but don’t go anywhere. The finale also lacks tension, descending into blood splashes, squib hits, slo-mo deaths and a huge body count. So Django Unchained might not have greatness, but it does have bags of distinction.

Eight bills of sale out of 10

Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)

Film Title: Inglourious Basterds

Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In France during the Second World War, two plans to assassinate the Nazi high command are put into place…

What does QT do? Writer/director Quentin Tarantino had been mooting this project for over a decade, and it seems he had a few failed attempts at finishing the script. It started off as a loose remake of the 1978 Italian movie Quel maledetto treno blindato, which was released in America under the name The Inglorious Bastards. (An exploitation rip-off of The Dirty Dozen, it’s a gung-ho men-on-a-mission film. Bits of it are fun.) But the more Tarantino wrote, the more his script moved away from the original. The Brad Pitt subplot has an echo of the 70s film, but this is certainly not a remake. Tarantino claims his misspelt title is just an affectation. He also has a cameo as a dead German soldier who’s being scalped.

Notable characters:
* Perrier LaPadite (Denis Ménochet) is a French farmer who’s visited one day by an SS officer hunting for Jews. LaPadite’s conversation with the officer, Landa, is the film’s opening salvo and is a scene loaded with menace. One of LaPadite’s briefly seen daughters is played by Léa Seydoux, who later stared with Landa actor Christoph Waltz in Spectre (2015).
* SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) has gained the nickname The Jew Hunter because he combs war-torn France looking for them. It’s an astonishing performance, for which Waltz won an Oscar, a Bafta and a Golden Globe. Landa is unspeakably evil – if all the cunts in the world got together to vote for the biggest cunt, he’d stand a chance of winning – but you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s polite, seemingly easy-going and has a childlike and formal manner, yet has ultimate power in almost every scene. Because of the story’s chapter-like structure, the character actually goes away for long stretches. But he still dominates the film.
* Shosanna Dreyfus aka Emmanuelle Mimieux (Mélanie Laurent) flees LaPadite’s farmhouse when Landa kills her family. Four years later, she’s living under an assumed name in Paris and managing a cinema. When the Nazis plan to use her establishment for a film premiere, she sees an opportunity to kill the top brass. Laurent gives a brilliant performance of strength and quiet turmoil.
* First Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is a showboating army officer who leads a small platoon of Jewish-American soldiers. They call themselves the Basterds and their mission is to hunt down and kill Nazis. (Raine insists on scalping the victims.) Pitt is as broad as his Tennessee accent, but it’s quite entertaining.
* Staff Sergeant Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) is Raine’s second in command. He’s acquired the nickname The Bear Jew and enjoys killing Nazis with a baseball bat. Eli Roth is billed fourth in the opening credits. FOURTH. It pays to be Quentin Tarantino’s mate, it seems.
* Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke)… oh, you know.
* Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) is an Austrian member of the Basterds. They recruited him after he killed 13 members of the Gestapo.
* A narrator (Samuel L Jackson) twice provides some exposition. He tells us Stiglitz’s backstory then later explains why cans of nitrate film are so dangerous.
* Private First Class Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) is a young German who has risen to fame because he killed 250 Allies in three days from a sniper’s position. A movie called Nation’s Pride has been made about his exploits, with Zoller playing himself. He meets Shosanna/Emmanuelle and flirts with her. But she isn’t interested because he’s, you know, a fascist fuck-stain. Brühl is really good at playing a cocky little twerp who can, and does, turn nasty at a moment’s notice.
* Marcel (Jacky Ido) is Shosanna’s lover, a black man who works at the cinema. He’s an oddly minor character who we sadly never focus on.
* Major Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) appears twice, firstly when he delivers Shosanna to a meeting with Goebbels, then later in an underground tavern when he suspects some German officers of being spies.
* Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and aide (ie, mistress) Francesca Mondino (Julie Dreyfus) are in Paris to oversee the premiere of Nation’s Pride.
* Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is a British Army officer who used to be a film critic and is an expert on German cinema. He’s handpicked for a mission to go behind enemy lines, hook up with the Basterds, and assassinate some Nazis. However, once he and the Basterds have met a double agent in a local tavern, Hicox gives the game away by using a non-German hand gesture (very Red-Grant-ordering-the-wrong-wine-in-From-Russia-With-Love, this). Fassbender is terrific, clipped accent and all. (Simon Pegg was considered for the role but was busy on The Adventures of Tintin.)
* General Ed Fenech (Mike Myers) gives Hicox his assignment. Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor) watches from afar.
* Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is a famed German movie star and also a double agent for the Allies. She arranged to meet Hicox once he’s in France, but chooses a location that brings a whole heap of problems… Kruger’s is another excellent performance.
* An OSS Commander (Harvey Keitel) is heard over a radio when Landa wants to make a deal for his surrender.

Returning actors: Brad Pitt had an enjoyable cameo in True Romance. Eli Roth and Omar Doom (one of the Basterds) had been in Death Proof. Julie Dreyfus was in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Michael Bacall was in Tarantino’s CSI episode and Death Proof. Bo Svenson, who’s glimpsed in the Nation’s Pride film, had a small role in Kill Bill Vol. 2 and was also the lead actor in 1978’s The Inglorious Bastards. Although only providing voice parts, Samuel L Jackson is in his fifth Tarantino film, Harvey Keitel his fourth.

Music: Tarantino wanted the great Ennio Morricone to score the film – and it would have been the first purpose-written score for one of his movies – but the composer was busy. So some archive cues by Morricone and others have been employed. David Bowie’s 1982 song Cat People (Putting Out Fire) is used to great effect when Shosanna is preparing for the premiere. She’s also surrounded by the colour red, symbolising her murderous intent.

Time shifts and chapters: The film is divided into five chapters with on-screen titles: ‘Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France’ (which lasts around 20 minutes), ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (16 minutes), ‘German night in Paris’ (25 minutes), ‘Operation Kino’ (40 minutes) and ‘Revenge of the Giant Face’ (42 minutes). They play in chronological order, but the second has fun with flashbacks within flashbacks, while the finale also features brief flashbacks.

Connections: Tarantino has said that Eli Roth’s character, Donny Donowitz, is the father of Lee Donowitz, the coke-head movie producer in True Romance.

Review: Inglourious Basterds is a film made up of great scenes rather than a wholly great film. There is a through-line and the subplots build to a shared climax, but the episodic structure means that characters often go absent and the tone varies quite a bit. (We switch from scenes of unbearable tension to sections played for laughs.) So as a piece of storytelling it’s a bit fragmented. Despite all this, though, it’s still very impressive and is headlined by a tremendous cast with some electrifying dialogue. Some of the individual chapters are also mini-masterpieces in their own right, such as the opening scene at the farm. Here, Tarantino shows a *masterful* control of time and space. The build-up of anxiety is palpable, as is the creeping horror, and there’s a constant threat of violence and catastrophe underneath the surface. The camerawork is also thrilling in its clarity and precision: it’s always telling story, always adding meaning and subtext. You find yourself holding your breath while Landa gently (ie, menacingly) questions LaPadite. The scene is reminiscent of the Westerns of director Sergio Leone, which favoured long, slow, deliberate preludes to violence and revelations. In fact, the chapter title is a pun on Leone’s best film: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). This buttock-clenching fear is generated elsewhere in the film too. Landa’s meeting with Shosanna in Paris (the strudel scene) is equally nerve-shredding – despite a few hints, you’re never quite sure if he knows who she is – and the sequence in the tavern, while a superficially light-hearted conversation, has real edginess and danger once a Gestapo officer sits at the table. On the other hand, despite giving the movie its title, the Basterds’ scenes tend to be a bit cartoony. Cartoons with horrific bursts of violence, that is. Other notable aspects of this marvellous movie include the fact it’s Tarantino’s first period film (he revels in the culturally arrested Paris of 1944), the extensive use of subtitles (there are entire conversations in French and German), a gleeful disregard for historical accuracy (THEY KILL OFF HITLER!), and a motif built around the power of cinema (which is evident in Shosanna’s job, Zoller’s fame, the nitrate film, Hicox’s career, the premiere…). It might be damning with faint praise to say that Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s fourth best movie. But given the strength of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, that’s still an accolade worth having.

Nine pages of history out of 10