The Masterplan (1998)

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Cover: This excellent compilation of Oasis B-sides gets an image of grown men in a classroom ignoring the teacher.

Best track: The album is named after a song that was originally on the Wonderwall single in October 1995. Often cited as the band’s best B-side, The Masterplan is maybe their best track full stop. Noel Gallagher has said he regrets not making a bigger deal about it: his boss Alan McGee reckoned it was far too good to be a B-side but Noel flippantly replied, “Well, I don’t write shit songs…” It starts with heavy, portentous, descending bass notes and an acoustic guitar, then comes the orchestra, electric guitar and drums. Noel sings the lead vocal, which has a vaguely gospel feel in its optimism and positivity. The song has sweep and grandeur but is also rather elusive and mysterious. It’s beautiful. Listen closely and you can hear Noel sing a snatch of the Beatles song Octopus’s Garden during the climax.

Honourable mentions:
* The blisteringly ebullient Acquiesce was a B-side to Some Might Say in April 1995 (CD and 12” only). Noel has denied that the song is specifically about him and his brother; nevertheless, he takes over the lead vocal from Liam on the line “Because we need each other…” (The story goes that Noel sings the chorus because Liam couldn’t hit the high notes. Or had gone down the pub.) As the track begins you can hear a bit of the song Morning Glory, then there’s a lyric that makes a cheeky pun on the word arsehole. It was never going to be left off this compilation, but Acquiesce’s slot was secured after it won an internet poll of Oasis fans. (Note for younger readers: yes, we had the internet in 1998.)
* The decent Underneath the Sky – which is from the CD and 12” of February 1996’s Don’t Look Back in Anger single – has a good twinkly piano where you’d normally expect a guitar solo.
* Talk Tonight was also a B-side on Some Might Say. An acoustic track sung by Noel, it was written after he considered quitting the band during a 1994 tour of America. Having flounced off, he met up with an Oasis fan in San Francisco who helped him get his head in order. The lyrics have some fun rhymes and the song has a nice, chilled-out vibe.
* The quietly dramatic Going Nowhere (from September 1997’s Stand By Me CD single) is Noel’s attempt at a Burt Bacharch-style pop ballad. Noel and drummer Alan White are actually the only members of Oasis to appear on the recording; they’re joined by a hired orchestra. The horns are so Look of Love.
* The raucous, punky Fade Away was on the Cigarettes & Alcohol CD and 12” in October 1994.
* The cover version of I Am the Walrus (a B-side on Cigarettes & Alcohol) was originally said to have been recorded at a gig at the Glasgow Cathouse in June 1994. However… it was actually performed at a business conference for Sony music executives. Thinking it was a great take, Noel wanted to release it but was embarrassed by its corporate provenance. So he added the sound effect of a crowd and then picked a recent gig they could say it was from. Flattening out the nuances in the Beatles masterpiece, Oasis’s version is straight-ahead rock. The most notable aspect is the long, instrumental coda, which is based on repeated sets of five – rather than the usual four – bars of music.
* Listen Up starts suspiciously like the first Oasis single, Supersonic, and has the beefed-up feel of that era. It was originally a B-side from Cigarettes & Alcohol, but this version has had its guitar solo trimmed. It’s one of those Oasis tracks that almost never gets mentioned but would be most guitar bands’ best song.
* Half the World Away, first released on the CD of standalone single Whatever in December 1994, is a heartfelt, melancholic, acoustic track sung by Noel. Ironically, this very English song is a disguised copy of the Burt Bacharach tune This Guy’s in Love With You and was recorded in a studio in Texas. Of course, it was later used over the opening titles of superior sitcom The Royle Family. When asked to supply a song, Noel suggested Married With Children from the first Oasis album – but writers Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash wanted Half The World Away. It was such a smart choice that now even Noel considers it the show’s theme tune rather than an Oasis song.
* The breathtakingly brilliant (It’s Good) To Be Free was also on Whatever. This is yet another instance of Oasis hiding a *monster* of a song away as a bonus track. Guitarist Bonehead plays the pleasingly bizarre accordion coda.
* Stay Young is an upbeat song that Noel didn’t like so left off Be Here Now. Instead it was put out as a B-side to D’You Know What I Mean? in July 1997.

Worst track: Headshrinker aims for loud, thrashy and uncontrolled, but doesn’t quite pull it off, sounding more like a bootleg of a pub band. It was a bonus track on the Some Might Say single.

Weirdest lyric: “Underneath the sky of red/Is a storyteller sleeping alone/He has no face and he has no name/And his whereabouts are sort of unknown.” It’s the ‘sort of’ that makes it poetry.

Best video: In 2006, the song The Masterplan was included on an Oasis compilation album called Stop the Clocks and a video was released to promote it. It’s an animation influenced by artist LS Lowry. Cartoon versions of the band swagger through a northern town.

Review: This is the Oasis equivalent of The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow: a compilation that mops up non-album tracks and is actually stronger than most studio albums. The quality is breathtaking, showing just how many amazing songs Oasis were happy to give away as B-sides. If there’s one thing missing it’s Whatever, which was a single in December 1994. It was originally going to be on (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, but a lawsuit put paid to that. Noel had stolen part of the melody from How Sweet to Be an Idiot, a 1973 song by Neil Innes, who sued for plagiarism and ended up with a co-writing credit and royalties. Presumably that’s a reason why it also wasn’t used here, but it would have been a nice addition. Nevertheless, scoring this one is easy…

10 little things that make me so happy out of 10

(What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995)

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Cover: The image shows two men passing each other on Berwick Street in Soho. One of them is Brian Cannon, who designed this and many other Oasis covers. In the background is a third man: it’s co-producer Owen Morris, who’s holding the album’s master tape aloft. The title is in full caps across the top of the image. The space before the question mark is quite irritating.

Best track: Don’t Look Back in Anger was a number-one hit when released as the album’s fourth single in February 1996. It starts with a piano phrase that’s noticeably similar to John Lennon’s Imagine. Noel Gallagher says one of the reasons he nicked it was to wind people up – well, if you’re going to steal you may as well be shameless about it. A few of the lyrics are also Lennon’s work: the line about starting a revolution from your bed is said to be taken from a cassette of rambling monologues he recorded in the 1970s. And the thievery doesn’t stop there: the song’s emotive chords are the same as Mott The Hoople’s All the Young Dudes (1972). But the result is *fantastic*. Surely everyone has a song that reminds them of what it was like to be 16 and happy and optimistic? This is mine. Noel takes the lead vocal – the first time he’d done that on a single – and belts it out for all it’s worth.

Honourable mentions:
* Opening track Hello obviously, and now unfortunately, nicks its hook from the 1973 Gary Glitter song Hello, Hello, I’m Back Again. (It’s been reported that Glitter has earned over a million quid because of its use here.) The track actually begins with the chords from Wonderwall, then a fun siren-like effect cuts in and powers us into a terrific wall-of-noise rocker.
* Roll With It was the single Oasis released in August 1995 in direct competition with Blur’s Country House. (Coincidentally enough, Country House’s lyrics use the phrase ‘morning glory’.) The bands’ rivalry made the Six O’Clock News and – guess what – gave both singes huge amounts of publicity. I never liked Roll With It at the time, thinking it too Status Quo. But it’s grown on me in recent years, for nostalgic reasons. The intro’s fun and the song has a carefree charm. Country House, though, is still the better track and had a winsome video that starred Keith Allen and Matt Lucas. It sold about 50,000 more copies in the first week and pipped Roll With It to number one.
* Wonderwall was the third single from the album. It has a great sentimentality to it – the sweeping melody, the use of strings, lyrics about an imaginary friend, soft backing vocals, a surprisingly tender lead vocal from Liam Gallagher. No wonder it quickly became ubiquitous, even being covered by a comedy band within a few months. The song is named after George Harrison’s debut solo album, Wonderwall Music (1968), which was the soundtrack to a now-forgotten movie. While writing this review, I heard Noel say on Absolute Radio that he’s never especially liked Wonderwall. What would he know?! It’s brilliant.
* Some Might Say – the band’s first number-one single when released six months before the album – took a lot of work. Co-producer Owen Morris says he used post-production tricks to disguise mistakes and timing issues in the backing track. But it was worth it. This is a powerhouse of guitar rock: vibrant, gleaming, and full of attack. (Quite what the lyrics mean is another thing…) It was the first song recorded for the album so features original drummer Tony McCarroll. He was then sacked, partly due to his lack of ability and partly due to a clash with Noel Gallagher. In his place came Londoner Alan White, who had been recommended by Noel’s showbiz pal Paul Weller.
* Cast No Shadow was the last song written for the album, and according to the sleeve notes is ‘dedicated to the genius of Richard Ashcroft’, then lead singer of The Verve. It’s a delightfully laid-back ballad with acoustic guitar and a string section.
* She’s Electric is a very likeable, upbeat song with lots of comedy rhymes (“She’s got a sister/And God only knows how I’ve missed her/And on the palm of her hand is a blister…”). The song also features melodic quotations from the theme tune to 1970s kids show You and Me and the Beatles song While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
* Morning Glory is a heavy-rock track with the kind of aggression that dominated Definitely Maybe. People more expert than me have pointed out that it owes a huge debt to the REM song The One I Love. It begins and ends with the sound of a helicopter, while a brief clip of Soul II Soul’s Love Enuff (1995) is audible in the fade-out. For some reason. There’s also another Beatles reference: the track Tomorrow Never Knows is namechecked in the lyrics.
* The album ends – well, climaxes is the best word for it – with the seven-and-a-half-minute Champagne Supernova. We reach it via a snatch of an untitled instrumental and the calm sound effect of lapping waves. The song begins slow and a bit stoned-out: there’s the drone of a synth, some arpeggio guitar and gentle drumming. Then something magical happens – the intensity builds and builds and builds. About halfway through, it’s become a monumentally enormous anthem. It’s one of the *the* great album closers. (Incidentally, Paul Weller plays guitar and provides some backing vocals.)

Worst track: There isn’t a bad one. Hey Now! is the most disposable.

Weirdest lyric: Some Might Say’s “The sink is full of fishes/Cos she’s got dirty dishes on the brain. And my dog’s been itchin’/Itchin’ in the kitchen once again.” It’s possible Noel had taken drugs the day he wrote this.

Best video: The promo for Don’t Look Back in Anger features Patrick Macnee as a limo driver (perhaps it’s a reference to his role in the Bond movie A View to a Kill). He takes the band to an American mansion, where loads of women dressed in white are larking about. Noel wears red Lennon glasses and sings into a fish-eye lens; Alan White drums on a platform in the middle of a swimming pool; and because he doesn’t actually feature on the track Liam sits around looking bored.

Review: Noel once said that while Definitely Maybe is about dreaming to be a pop star, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? is about *being* a pop star. It’s bigger, more ambitious and more vibrant than the first Oasis album – and what it loses in raw energy it makes up for in dynamism. There are rockers, ballads, comedy songs, orchestras, sound effects, presumably somewhere a kitchen sink. (Oh, maybe that’s what that lyric from Some Might Say is about….) For good or bad (I’d argue the former), Britpop dominated mid-90s youth culture. Oasis ruled Britpop, and this album was their mandate.

Ten roads we have to walk are winding out of 10

Definitely Maybe (1994)

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Cover: From left to right are lead guitarist Noel Gallagher, rhythm guitarist Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs, bassist Paul ‘Guigsy’ McGuigan, singer Liam Gallagher and drummer Tony McCarroll. Noel was the last to join the band, which was originally called The Rain, but soon took over as songwriter and de facto leader. He wrote all 11 tracks on Definitely Maybe, their debut album. For its cover shoot the group are in Bonehead’s living room, surrounded by not-so-subtle clues to their interests: football is represented by a photo of Manchester City legend Rodney Marsh; movies by 1966’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly playing on the TV; music by a poster of Burt Bacharach and a couple of guitars; and cigarettes and alcohol by an ashtray and glasses of wine. The group’s logo has their name in lower-case Helvetica Black Oblique, while the album title is in a handwrite-y scrawl.

Best track: Live Forever is a soaring rock ballad full of heart and emotion and optimistic yearning. It begins with just drums, then builds up layers and layers of instruments and vocals. The chords are so basic they feel inevitable; the melody is catchy; and the guitar solos are ace. The fact that Oasis songs were often optimistic – even if naively so – was a big reason why the band became so popular. They came along when a lot of guitar music (grunge, shoegazing, art-house Britpop) was pessimistic or aloof. Oasis were like fans of a mid-table football team: life might be shit, they said, but it could get better at any moment. Although a fan of Nirvana, Noel has admitted that Live Forever was a deliberate response to their nihilist attitude.

Honourable mentions:
* Listening to Rock’n’Roll Star makes you walk taller: it’s a straight-up, pumped-up, heads-up track full of attitude. It also introduces Liam’s bizarre delivery of certain words: “I need some time in the sunshiiiine…”
* Shakermaker is a psychedelic rock song and was the second single released from the LP. It has an infectious, singalong melody… because it’s stolen from I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony), a song originally written for a 1971 Coca-Cola advert. The lyrics are – let’s be charitable here – a child-like game of free association. Noel mentions plasticine, a character from a 1970s TV advert, a song by The Jam, the cartoon series Mr Benn… The track doesn’t especially *mean* anything, but then again neither did the Beatles’ I Am The Walrus. The verse about Mr Sifters, a record shop in Manchester, was written on the way to the studio when the band’s car stopped outside it.
* Columbia is a pile-driver of a song and a good indicator of the kind of thing Oasis were doing before they got a record deal. Bootlegs of early recordings tend to be in this vein: simplistic, heavy and repetitive.
* The fun Supersonic was the opening single from the album. It was written and recorded in one day when an ad-hoc jam sounded promising. Like Live Forever, it begins with just the drum beat. Then the riff comes in and we’re away. The nonsense lyrics contain a Beatles reference – “You can sail with me in my yellow submarine” – and were written in 30 minutes.
* Cigarettes & Alcohol has a riff taken from T. Rex’s 1971 song Get It On. This wasn’t the first time Noel had pinched something and it was far from the last. But it’s an apt steal – Marc Bolan got the Get It On lick from a Chucky Berry song. Unlike the gibberish of Shakermaker and Supersonic, or the hopefulness of Live Forever, this fourth single from the album is a more cynical song. It’s all about how life is terrible so why not just get drunk and high? But its sound is immense: tough, big, loud, sneering.
* Slide Away was written during the recording sessions for the album, on a guitar Noel borrowed from Smiths legend Johnny Marr. Liam’s vocal is great (his best performance, reckons Noel) and the melody is terrific. The song also sounds fucking enormous: it’s prime stadium-singalong material. Never a single because Noel balked at having five singles from the same album, Slide Away is said to be Paul McCartney’s favourite Oasis track.
* The gentle Married With Children is a deliberately atypical album closer. It has a comedy lyric and even a key change. It was recorded on a guitar that once to belong to John Squire of the Stone Roses.

Worst track: We could probably live without the throwaway Digsy’s Dinner. It’s an in-joke about an eccentric friend of Noel’s… who then hated the song. At least it’s only two minutes.

Weirdest lyric: Supersonic is a good example of Noel Gallagher’s laisse-fairre attitude to lyrical meaning. Check out this section, which is little more than a succession of empty rhymes. “I know a girl called Elsa; she’s into Alka Seltzer. She sniffs it through a cane on a supersonic train. She made me laugh; I got her autograph. She done it with a doctor on a helicopter. She’s sniffin’ in her tissue, sellin’ the Big Issue.” (Elsa, by the way, was actually a Rottweiler belonging to the studio engineer who recorded the song. She had bad flatulence. The dog, that is, not the engineer.)

Best video: The promo for Supersonic was shot on a rooftop near Euston train station in London. In retrospect it’s a weird choice, given how Oasis often emphasised their Manchester-ness. It’s mostly in black and white (with some shots in colour meant to create a cinema-vérité feel but which actually make it look like a student video). Performing on a rooftop, of course, is a reference to the day in January 1969 when the Beatles went up to the top of their Mayfair studio and played until the police told them to stop.

Review: It’s all about attitude. Definitely Maybe is a full-on, aggressive, unapologetic sound – thanks in large part to Owen Morris, a producer brought in after the recording sessions. No one was fully happy with the state of the album, so Morris was given carte blache to remix the tapes. He added effects to the drums, stripped out some unneeded guitars, pushed every dial up to 11, and created an amazing wall of noise. It perfectly suits the songs, which are full of ambition and attack.

10 days moving just too fast for me 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

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

Reservoir Dogs (1992, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When a group of criminals attempt a jewellery heist, things go wrong. Is one of them an undercover cop?

What does QT do? This wasn’t Quentin Tarantino’s first movie. He’d co-written, directed and starred in an amateur film called My Best Friend’s Birthday (1987) – which is now partially lost – and did an uncredited rewrite on a forgotten erotic thriller called Past Midnight (1991). But Reservoir Dogs was his leap to the big leagues. As well as writing and directing, QT also cast himself in the minor role of Mr Brown. He has the movie’s opening dialogue and dominates the first two minutes. But the character is then rather inconsequential. (In that first scene you can actually see Tarantino break character and get ready to call cut, but co-star Lawrence Tierney has made him laugh so the action continues.)

Notable characters:
* Mr Brown (Quentin Tarantino) is shot and killed during the heist.
* Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) – real name Vic Vega – is an old friend of gang boss Joe. He’s also a sociopath who goes on a killing spree during the robbery. He then turns up at the rendezvous with a fast-food drink like nothing’s happened. In the film’s most infamous scene, he tortures a cop and slices his ear off. The key moment actually happens off-screen, the camera squeamishly panning away. Madsen’s never been better than in this role.
* Mr Blue (Edward Bunker) is killed during the robbery, but we only hear about it afterwards. The actor’s life would have made for a decent movie itself. In and out of prison until the age of 42, Bunker then became a writer of crime novels and movies.
* Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) is the shell-suit-wearing, mobile-phone-owning son of the gang’s boss. We see him joking around quite a bit, but he gets very angry when the job goes south. Penn’s manic line-reading of the phrase “Out of the fucking blue!” is a treat.
* Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi) at first seems like the livewire of the group. He’s a rebel who won’t tip a waitress, moans about his assigned alias, and is hopping mad when he works out there’s an informer in the group. However, he’s actually the one character who holds his nerve and acts reasonably (given the criminal context, that is). For staying level-headed, he’s rewarded with survival. During the final scene he runs out of the warehouse and then, low in the sound mix, we can hear him being arrested. This film was one of the first to showcase the superb Buscemi and he became a key actor of 90s American cinema.
* Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) is the boss who brings the strangers together to do the robbery. Mr Orange describes him as looking like the Thing from The Fantastic Four. It’s not the most dynamic acting you’ll ever see but it does fit the character’s humourless mood.
* Mr Orange (Tim Roth) is shot while escaping from the chaos caused by Mr Blonde. We later discover he’s an undercover police detective called Freddie Newandyke. He spends virtually all of the ‘present’ scenes lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Roth is excellent, even with a cod American accent.
* Mr White (Harvey Keitel) – real name Larry Dimmick – is the de facto lead character of the film. We often experience the events through his eyes. Even when we learn about Freddie’s secret background it’s so the reveal is more powerful when Larry finds out. Keitel had got the film made by agreeing to be in it. He gives a fantastic performance.
* Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) is the cop tortured by Mr Blonde. In a nice twist, it’s later revealed that he recognised Freddie and didn’t say anything.
* Holdaway (Randy Brooks) is Freddie’s colleague who guides him through his mission.
* The script’s only female character – a policewoman played by The West Wing’s Nina Siemaszko – features in the deleted scenes available on the DVD. She gives Freddie some background information on Larry/Mr White.

Music: There’s no specially written score. All the music instead comes from a fictional radio show called K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70s. K-Billy is voiced by droll stand-up Steven Wright. The best uses of songs come during the title sequence, when Little Green Bag by George Baker Selection scores a now-iconic shot of the characters walking in slow motion, and when a torture scene is timed to Stealers Wheel’s up-tempo Stuck in the Middle With You. We also hear a snatch of Blue Swede’s cover of Hooked on a Feeling, which was later used so well in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

Time shifts and chapters: Reservoir Dogs is built on a flashback structure. Not only that, it deliberately misses out the story’s key scene: the armed robbery itself. After a prologue showing the characters enjoying breakfast, we cut to later that same day: everything’s gone fuck-up and Mr Orange is bleeding to death in the back of a car. The script then pushes forward in real-time segments broken up by a series of flashbacks: Mr Pink just after the heist, Mr White being recruited for the job, Mr Blonde being recruited for the job, and Mr Orange planning and carrying out his undercover mission. The Mr Orange sequence lasts nearly a quarter of the entire film and contains flashbacks within flashbacks. The three main cutaways are given title cards (‘Mr White’, ‘Mr Blonde’ and ‘Mr Orange’).

Review: This taut, muscular and musical script is peppered with pop-culture references and it’s noticeable how many actors are mentioned in the dialogue – Lee Marvin, Doris Day, Marlon Brando, Charles Bronson (twice), Anne Francis, Pam Grier… That’s apt, because the film’s characters are all putting on a performance. They tell stories, use costumes (a black suit and tie), assume stage names, analyse the ‘truth’ of dramatic situations – and put aside rehearsal-room laughter to ‘get into character’. Being a crook in this film is a self-conscious ‘act’ with its own code of behaviour. Mr White is prepared to kill someone who gets in his way, but considers Mr Blonde a lunatic for shooting bystanders. However warped, he has a morality. (Of course, Mr Orange is playing an additional role because he’s lying about his true identity.) They can surprise you too. These guys discuss Madonna’s discography with a real level of knowledge; Mr White shows compassion; and Mr Orange gets scared. Hardly your average heist-movie hoodlums. Everyone – even a genuine psychopath like Mr Blonde – is an interesting, dynamic personality. And they get plenty of *electric* dialogue. Tarantino’s writing constantly brims with attitude, rhythm and gallows humour. The structure is just as entertaining. In some ways, Reservoir Dogs is like a stage play. Flashbacks aside, it’s a real-time story set in one location. Characters actually go off-stage at certain points, or have dramatic up-stage entrances. But at the same time it’s vastly cinematic. The flashback structure is vital to the story. It *is* the story, really. The reveals and twists are only possible because we cut to scenes that certain characters are not privy to – no matter the chronological order. For example, the longest flashback comes right after the biggest plot twist. Tension is eked out because we leave the warehouse once we’ve learnt Mr Orange is a cop. That warehouse, incidentally, is glossy without being glitzy. It’s artfully lit, with plenty of natural-seeming light and highlights in the distance, but still rundown, functional and everyday. It’s a good job it’s such an interesting location because we spend about a third of the movie in there. There’s plenty of nifty camerawork too, such as handheld, slow dollies and even a POV shot from inside a car boot that became a Tarantino motif. Quentin also uses numerous long takes: White and Orange analysing what went wrong at the jewellery store, for example, is played out in just two shots totalling nearly three minutes. Reservoir Dogs is a film made by a film geek for film geeks. It was filmed 25 years ago, but is still stunning. Still captivating. Still fresh as fuck.

Ten severed ears out of 10

Serenity (2005, Joss Whedon)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In this movie spin-off from Firefly, the crew of Serenity must protect one of their own – the ‘reader’ River Tam – who’s being hunted by an assassin…

Written and directed by Joss Whedon.

Best performance: Oh, let’s just say all of them. This is one of the great ensemble casts, and it’s so lovely that they got a chance to shine on the big screen.

Best bits: Listing every single one would go on forever, especially given how witty the dialogue is. So despite its length, this is still a cut-down selection…
* The opening scene, explaining the world for viewers who don’t know the TV series… which is then revealed to be a dream as we cut to River being experimented on in laboratory… a scene that’s then revealed to be a hologramatic recreation being watched by a mysterious Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
* The never-named Operative’s partly noble, partly sadistic way of killing people. It involves paralysing them and letting them fall on a sword.
* The first image of Serenity itself: a CG shot of the ship entering a planet’s atmosphere. (You can see Mal through the cockpit’s window: cute touch.)
* A 253-second-long take, which introduces the seven crew members on board and lays out Serenity’s internal geography – all while the ship rocks and rolls from the re-entry. The dialogue is smart and stylish, and the shot ends on key character River. (There’s actually a hidden edit halfway through the four-minute shot as Mal and Simon move from the ship’s upper level to the lower.)
* The crew’s hover-buggy vehicle.
* River’s steampunk goggles.
* The slick sequence of the crew robbing a bank, which of course goes badly.
* The zombie-like Reavers show up! (These savage, barbaric people were hinted at in early TV episodes, but then seemed to drop out of the mix. A 15-certificate movie allows them to be seen, not just discussed.)
* Mal kills someone rather than leave him to the Reavers.
* River: “I swallowed a bug.”
* Kaylee, frustrated that her crush Simon is planning to leave: “Going on a year now I ain’t had nothing betweixt my nethers weren’t run on batteries.” Mal says he doesn’t want to know that; Jayne says he could stand to hear more.
* River beating up a room full of people – an action sequence demonstrably performed by actress Summer Glau herself.
* Simon explains that he has a trigger word that will put River to sleep. When he nearly says it, Jayne panics – assuming it works on anyone.
* Mal and Inara’s guarded chat over a vid-link. It’s obvious they haven’t spoken for a while (she was planning to leave the ship as the TV show ended), while there are fun cutaways to Wash, Zoe, Kaylee and Jayne eavesdropping on the chat.
* Mal says Inara’s call for help is a trap. The others question how he knows that. “Do you see us fight?” “No.” “Trap.”
* Mal’s first confrontation with the Operative. There’s cagey dialogue, then the Operative says he’s not armed – so Mal shoots him.
* Mal faces mutiny from Jayne. “You wanna run this ship?” Mal asks in frustration. “Yeah,” says Jayne. Mal: “Well… you can’t.”
* Shepherd Book dies…
* Mal’s macabre plan to pose as Reavers.
* The saturated look to the scenes on the planet Miranda.
* A super, smooth, circular Steadicam shot of River as she freaks out.
* Oh, look: it’s Sarah Paulson from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
* Serenity crash-lands.
* Wash is killed! On first viewing, it was around now that I started to assume the film was going to kill off the entire crew – an idea that the story then teases you with as virtually everyone is injured or placed in a life-threatening situation. (According to rumour, Wash bit the bullet because actor Alan Tudyk refused to sign up for potential sequels without a big pay bump.)
* Kaylee resigns herself to the fact she’s going to die. But then Simon says his biggest regret is never being with her. “As in sex?” she asks, perking up. She then resolves to survive the battle.
* River dives into a room full of Reavers and the doors close… When we next see her – in a dramatically framed hero shot – we discover she’s killed them all.
* The coda scene of Mal flying Serenity with River as his co-pilot.

Review: This film faced a tough task: having to appeal to both fans and newbies. And given that Firefly wasn’t a mainstream hit, most of the audience for this movie version would be coming to it fresh. So the River situation – the biggest character arc from the series – is focused on again, but the script actually goes deeper than ever before so old hands don’t feel patronised. We get a decent story, providing lots of action, a huge amount of wit and plenty of suspense. It’s extremely entertaining. It’s well written too, with information smartly hidden beneath breezy dialogue, and looks very cinematic. (The camerawork is often expressive and classy.) Maybe what’s most impressive is the economy. Many scenes are doing double-duty, servicing plot and character, action and exposition, drama and comedy… There’s just a sharpness to everything, which means the film rattles along and is never boring. It has very little fat on it. In fact, you could say it’s gone on a diet – presumably writer/director/creator/geek god Joss Whedon thought having nine regular characters was too cumbersome for a movie script. So two of them are absent as the story begins, while Wash is reduced to a pilot with mostly functional dialogue. Inara only joins the action after 42 minutes; Book is little more than a cameo. But this streamlining works well, with maybe only Book feeling short-changed. It’s practically criminal that the Firefly story ended here.

Ten certain older civilised cultures out of 10

Firefly: Objects in Space (13 December 2002, Joss Whedon)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A man sneaks aboard Serenity, hunting for River…

Written and directed by Joss Whedon.

Best performance: Guest star Richard Brooks as the bounty hunter Jubal Early. He has a whimsical manner and spouts philosophy, yet is stealthy, dangerous and threatening. (Joss Whedon modelled the character in part on Boba Fett.)

Best bits:
* The opening SFX shot: a zoom into Serenity, through its innards and ending on River – the key character of the episode.
* A series of moments where River observes her colleagues – Simon and Kaylee, Jayne and Book, Wash and Zoe, Mal and Inara – and we see the conversations through her warped and possibly psychic POV.
* A stunning cut from River holding a stick to what’s really going on: she’s actually holding a loaded gun.
* The incidental music is great, especially an oboe-like cue linked to the character of Jubal Early.
* Silently, calmly and efficiently, Early breaks into Serenity while it’s alone in deep space.
* A pair of camera moves in the same scene of the crew discussing River – one goes through the floor to reveal River eavesdropping from below; the other goes through the ceiling to reveal Early eavesdropping from above.
* Wash scoffs at the idea that River is psychic. “That sounds like something out of science fiction,” he says. Zoe: “You live on a spaceship, dear.”
* Mal unexpectedly comes face to face with Early in the ship’s corridor.
* Early confronts Kaylee in a scene of real menace. “Have you ever been raped?” he asks nonchalantly.
* Simon asks Early if he’s “Alliance,” but Early mishears him: “Am I a lion? [Considering it] I have a mighty roar.”
* River talking over the Tannoy, claiming to have become the incorporeal essence of the ship. It’s a stunning bluff, coming just as you’re starting to think the episode is morphing into 2001: A Space Odyssey.
* River, despite only talking to him over a radio, knows that Mal has pulled a face.
* The reveal of where River is actually hiding: in Early’s spaceship.
* Jayne, who’s been sleeping through the whole incident, is woken by the noise of a nearby fight… so turns over and goes back to sleep.
* A super 77-second Steadicam shot that moves through various spaces, encompasses all nine regulars and ends on a smiling River.

Review: Objects in Space is a lyrical episode, full of beautiful imagery, mounting tension, deep questions, point-of-view switches and smart storytelling. In fact, it often feels more like an art film than an episode from a science-fiction show. Various threads in River’s character arc are drawn together then weaved into a thriller plot featuring the deliberately arch and cool Early. He and River are two sides of the same coin. They share an overwhelming awareness of existence and each *experience* life and the physical world, rather than just live in it. “People don’t appreciate the substance of things,” Early says at one point, not long after we’ve seen River fascinated by her mundane surroundings. Questions of how meaning is created also run throughout the story – for example, River picks up what to her is a harmless object, but we recognise it as a gun. Yet this is far from a drab existential exercise: it’s also gripping, exciting, tense, classy. What a sensational ending to the series, which makes you ache even more that it was cut so short. At least there’s still a movie to watch…

Ten embarrassingly large stacks of money out of 10

Firefly: Out of Gas (25 October 2002, David Solomon)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While a critically injured Mal attempts to save his ship, we see flashbacks to how the crew came together…

Written by Tim Minear. Directed by David Solomon.

Best performance: Nathan Fillion holds the whole thing together as Mal – he’s the protagonist of the main storyline and is in every flashback scene.

Best bits:
* The in medias res opening: Serenity deserted, Mal bleeding…
* The “What’s that?” gag in the first flashback scene. (By the way, all the flashbacks are shot with a harsh, sepia light. It’s a stylish way of distinguishing them from the main story.)
* Inara: “A companion doesn’t kiss and tell.” Mal: “So, there *is* kissing?”
* The dinner scene: all nine regulars sharing a meal, trading banter and celebrating Simon’s birthday. It’s so likeable you almost want the entire episode to be these people just hanging out. It’s the calm before…
* …an explosion rips through the ship!
* Wash’s flashback: he has a moustache and Zoe doesn’t like him.
* Back in the present, Simon Pulp Fictions an injured Zoe with an injection of pure adrenalin.
* Simon says he doesn’t want to die on Serenity. Inara pointedly replies that she doesn’t want to die at all. (This was foreshadowing for a story arc that never came to fruition: Inara is actually terminally ill.)
* Mal rowing with Wash – an argument that accidentally leads to a solution to their problems.
* Kaylee’s flashback: shagging Serenity’s old mechanic and then impressing Mal with her technical knowledge.
* Inara’s flashback: a scene with Mal that’s full of subtext and sexual chemistry.
* The incidental music is excellent.
* Another ship floats into view through the cockpit window.
* Mal opens the airlock once the other ship has docked and a gust of air hits his face.
* Jayne’s flashback: he’s in a gang holding up Mal and Zoe when Mal convinces him to switch sides.
* Jayne says Inara’s ship smells funny. She explains it’s incense.
* One final flashback: Mal spotting Serenity in a junkyard…

Review: In the pilot episode we learnt how Mal knows Zoe, and how Book, Simon and River ended up on board Serenity. So this episode could be considered to be a mopping-up exercise: we now see flashbacks of Mal buying Serenity, recruiting Wash, Kaylee and Jayne, and meeting Inara. But rather than being dry or functional, this is superbly fluid and engaging storytelling. The intercutting of the three time frames (past, present, future) is breathtaking. The dialogue fizzes with energy and attitude. It’s another tremendous episode.

Ten nav sats out of 10

Firefly: Our Mrs Reynolds (4 October 2002, Vondie Curtis Hall)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Mal is stunned to discover he’s got married by accident…

Written by Joss Whedon. Directed by Vondie Curtis Hall.

Best performance: It would be very embarrassing for me when I finally marry Christina Hendricks if I hadn’t picked her now in this category. The words womanly perfection spring to mind.

Best bits:
* The cold open: a trap to lure in some bad guys, which involves a stagecoach and Mal posing as a woman.
* The fireside party – Jayne drunk, Book seeing to the bodies of the dead bad guys, the first appearance of Saffron (Christina Hendricks) and lots of dancing – which abruptly ends with a hard cut to the next morning.
* Saffron’s on the ship!
* Saffron’s married to Mal! (After this revelation we get another of Nathan Fillion’s wonderful reaction shots.)
* Zoe calls the whole crew together so they can tease Mal.
* Inara’s look of hurt when she finds out Mal’s married.
* Book’s warning to Mal, worth quoting in full: “If you take sexual advantage of her, you’re going to burn in a very special level of hell. A level they reserve for child molesters and people who talk at the theatre.”
* Saffron coyly asking if Mal wants her to wash his feet. Mal just walks away.
* A fantastic rug-pulling act-break: Jayne suddenly appears in front of Mal with a huge gun… which he then offers to trade for Saffron. (The gun, by the way, is called Vera.)
* Saffron waiting for Mal in his bedroom. Naked. I have no words.
* Mal collapses after kissing Saffron. (He’s been drugged by her lipstick.)
* Saffron – who we now know is a con-woman – rolls her eyes while Wash talks about his happy marriage.
* Saffron tries to seduce Inara, but savvy Inara sees through the ruse: “You’re amazing – who are you?!”
* Inara in a daze, having kissed Mal and therefore been dosed by the lipstick, but trying to tell everyone she fell and hit her head.
* The snowy coda.
* The final scene with Mal and Inara.

Review: It’s not showy or significant or epic or experimental. It’s just a standard episode telling a nice self-contained story. However, judged on its own merits – on how well it achieves what it sets out to achieve – this is a rather magnificent piece of television. The script is packed full of plot, character, subtext and comedy – so much wit! – yet the whole thing is as light as air. There simply isn’t room for improvement. A quiet masterpiece.

Ten very nice qualities out of 10