Die Hard (1988, John McTiernan)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Police officer John McClane visits his estranged wife during her office’s Christmas party. But when terrorists enter the building and take hostages, John finds himself the only person free…

Source material: Die Hard is an adaptation of Nothing Lasts Forever (1979), an enjoyable-enough potboiler by Roderick Thorp. Because the novel was a sequel to a book that had been turned into a film starring Frank Sinatra, Sinatra was asked to headline Die Hard too. But he had just passed 70 and retired from acting, so turned it down. The script was then retooled as a standalone story, and middle-aged Detective Joe Leland became the thirtysomething Officer John McClane. (It’s often been said that, at one point, Die Hard was going to be a sequel to the 1985 action film Commando and would therefore have starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, Steven E de Souza – the writer of Commando and co-writer of Die Hard – has denied this. He says the ultimately unmade Commando 2 was a completely separate script.)

John McClane: Die Hard’s hero is a dry, droll, cynical cop from New York. For overseas viewers who might not understand, it’s spelt out that he doesn’t have any jurisdiction in LA,  but he still leaps into action when trapped in a skyscraper with gun-totting terrorists. Cast in the role was Bruce Willis, an actor who was hot from witty TV drama Moonlighting, and he’s *perfect*. He gives McClane a wry smirk, plenty of sarcasm and bags of attitude. One of the key reasons why the character is such a success is that he’s not a Schwarzenegger-type Special Forces vet who can kill a platoon with his little finger; he’s just an everyday guy (albeit one who knows how to fire guns). He even gets an instant all-time-great catchphrase: the villain likens him to a cowboy, so he replies, “Yippie ki-yay, motherfucker.” A good indicator of what an amazing performance Willis gives is the fact he often talks to himself and yet the device never feels clunky or forced. That’s a difficult trick to pull off.

Regulars:
* Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia) is John’s wife. Six months earlier she moved across country for a new job; she’s been using her maiden name, which doesn’t please John when he arrives at her office at Nakatomi Plaza. Once the terrorists take over, she becomes the leader of the hostages and shares a couple of excellently frosty scenes with bad guy Hans. (In Nothing Lasts Forever, the lead character was visiting his daughter not his wife. But then they cast 33-year-old Bruce Willis.)
* We briefly see John and Holly’s young children, Lucy (Taylor Fry) and John Jnr (Noah Land). They’re at home being looked after by a maid called Paulina (Betty Carvalho).
* When John finds a two-way radio and contacts the outside world, he strikes up a connection with local policeman Sgt Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). Unlike his LAPD superiors, the likeable Powell quickly recognises the severity of the hostage situation and also figures out that John must be a cop. Their friendship as they talk over the radio has real charm.
* Once it becomes clear that something is going on at Nakatomi Plaza, a news reporter called Dick Thornburg (William Atherton, efficiently slimy) starts covering the story. He’s an amoral shit who thinks nothing of manipulating children for his report.   

Villain: The story’s bad guys show up primed and ready. They move into the building stealthily and with little dialogue, killing security guards and making their way up to the floor hosting the Christmas party. The group has distinctive, memorable members – which always helps in a film with a crime gang – but the standout is still its leader. Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) is an icy-cool yet charismatic German in a Savile Row suit. There’s a great reversal of expectations when we learn that he’s not the political terrorist we all assumed him to be: he’s just after the loot stored in the building’s vault. However, when Holly accuses him of being just a common thief, he sharply replies. “I am an exception thief, Mrs McClane, and since I’m moving up to kidnapping you should be more polite.” Rickman gives a sensational performance of guile and confidence and poise in what was, remarkably, his first ever film. Actually, it’s difficult to think of a better-played, more entertaining villain in any movie.

Music: The near-constant incidental music was written by Michael Kamen, who’d previously provided great scores for Brazil (1985), Highlander (1986), Lethal Weapon (1987) and TV magnum opus Edge of Darkness (1985). It’s an excellent piece of work, creating tension and supporting action with aplomb. It’s especially good at taking us by the hand and guiding us through moments where we’re crosscutting between different scenes. Kamen also quotes Beethoven’s Ode to Joy when Gruber and the others finally open the vault.

Review: Like a million-pound sports car or a shiny new iPhone, this movie appears so effortless and elegant and pristine, but it’s powered by some extraordinary complex engineering. On the surface, Die Hard is an endlessly entertaining slice of popcorn cinema. There’s action, humour, drama, surprises, suspense and violence, and it’s all muscle, no flab. The film keeps opening up, starting relatively low-key as a group of criminals sneak into a Christmas party and ending up as an enormous action thriller involving helicopters, explosions and SWAT teams. It’s populated by vibrant, interesting, well-played supporting characters – cheeky young chauffeur Argyll (De’voreaux White), stoic company boss Takagi (James Shigeta), lairy businessman twat Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner), befuddled police chief Dwayne T Robinson (Paul Gleason), two arrogant FBI agents both called Johnson (Robert Davi and Grand L Bush). Everyone in this amazing cast gets line after line of acidic, colourful dialogue packed full of substance and swearing and wit. But look underneath and the film is even more impressive. A huge amount of skill, smartness and hard work has gone into making Die Hard seem so graceful. Narrative filmmaking is about the revelation of information – character details, plot developments, and so on – which must be drip-fed in a specific order and at specific times. Here, the pieces are moved around the chessboard with absolute precision, guaranteeing that we know exactly what we need to know at exactly the right time. We also learn about characters through their behaviour, while their choices drive the plot and action is always significant. Cinematographer Jan De Bont uses the anamorphic widescreen format for all its worth, throwing in extreme framings and telling the story through composition, lighting and purposeful camera moves. John McTiernan directs with a ballsy energy but also a light touch when needed. It’s simply a masterpiece. One of the very best action films ever made.

Ten machine guns (ho ho ho) out of 10

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Ten Things I Love About The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy)

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SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists!

The Wicker Man is sometimes cited as Britain’s best horror film. Here are 10 reason why I think that might be so… (Note: this review is based on the version of the film released in 1973. I’ll cover the longer ‘director’s cut’ in the next blog.)

1. The story…
…which (seriously, big spoiler coming up now) is a huge con trick. Every character but one is lying throughout, which makes a first viewing a gripping mystery and repeat viewings great fun. Policeman Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives on a small, isolated island in the Hebrides in search of a missing 13-year-old girl. He’s been tipped off by an anonymous letter, but no one on the island – not even the girl’s supposed mother – appears to have heard of Rowan Morrison. They also seem benignly disinterested in Howie’s investigation. As the copper asks more and more questions, he also becomes aware that the villagers have abandoned Christianity in favour of pagan rituals and beliefs, many of which centre around sex. Eventually, he uncovers the truth: the disappearance of the girl was staged in order to lure him to the island – and the entire village is in on the ruse. They need a pure, righteous virgin for a horrific sacrificial ceremony…

2. Sgt Neil Howie…
…who is the movie’s point-of-view character. Edward Woodward holds the whole film together, appearing in every scene and playing Howie with total sincerity (and a decent Scottish accent). The earnest West Highland policeman arrives on the island in a dapper little seaplane (he represents the technologically advanced outside world, you see) but soon faces a frustrated enquiry. He’s a deeply religious man who prays before going to sleep and who rallies against the island’s heathen community. He’s also, we learn, engaged to be married and doesn’t believe in sex before marriage. Woodward’s measured performance is fantastic: just watch as Howie gets increasingly manic and angry and shocked from scene to scene. Howie’s a rather humourless man, yet you feel real sympathy for him during the harrowing final scene.

3. The music…
…which is vital to the movie’s eerie, unsettling vibe. The Wicker Man is essentially a musical in disguise. As well as mood-setting score, there are numerous scenes where characters burst into song. The first instance comes after just 11 minutes: Howie watches agog as a pub full of villagers serenade him with a lewd song called The Landlord’s Daughter. Even Howie himself gets to sing later on when he blasts out Psalm 23 as death approaches. Music is woven into the fabric of life on the island and the film’s many folk songs manage to sound both menacing and seductive at the same time.

4. The landscape…
…which gives the story a beautiful yet strange island setting. The movie was shot entirely on location in Scotland, which immediately differentiates it from, say, Hammer Horror films that were confined to sound-stages and Home County woodlands. In The Wicker Man, you can sense the fresh air blowing through every scene. We see the fishing village, the sea, cliffs and caves, the woods, fields and orchards, an abandoned churchyard and the stately manor – all locations with a bucolic, medieval, pre-science feel. Nature is so important to this story – it’s almost a character in itself – so images and discussions of it recur throughout.

5. The villagers…
…who are now the prime example of ‘happy yet creepy locals’ in a horror movie. When Howie arrives at the island, they’re reluctant to send a dinghy out to his seaplane. Then they pretend they’ve never heard of the child he’s looking for. Without being openly rude or aggressive, it’s clear that *something* is wrong. The scene also showcases some fantastically characterful faces: these are real people, not Hollywood extras. The action soon cuts to the village pub, The Green Man Inn, where we get one of the great the-music-stops-and-everyone-looks-round moments in cinema. But again a palpable sense of danger is being created because the villagers are being so *nice*: they smile, laugh, sing, dance; they never threaten Howie or tell him to get lost.

6. Willow…
…the beautiful, blonde barmaid at The Green Man who enjoys being the object of the villagers’ lusty affections. The film ekes out real menace because no one (not Willow, not her father) is at all concerned by a load of old men perving over her. Cast in the role was Swedish actress Britt Ekland, who brought both star power and sexual chemistry to what is actually a relatively minor role. (Britt had some help: not only is all of her dialogue dubbed by another actress, but a body double was brought in for some of the nudity.) The character’s showpiece scene comes during Howie’s first night on the island: he’s trying to sleep, but in the next room a naked Willow is singing a seductive song and rhythmically banging on the wall and writhing around. It’s an erotic temptation – an act designed to test the virgin Howie and make sure he’s the best possible person for the sacrifice. (Howie’s willpower holds. Somehow.)

7. The weirdness…
…which gives the film a relentlessly surreal, and often sexual, quality. Without ever going full-blown mental (and therefore losing the ‘truth’ of the situation), the bizarre behaviour soon starts to mount up… The local postmistress cheerfully denies her eldest daughter is missing, then later forces her youngest to hold a toad in her mouth as a cure for a sore throat. The village schoolteacher (Diane Cilento) teaches a class of 13-year-old girls about phallic symbolism. Howie stumbles across a midnight orgy going on in the middle of the village. The chemists has a jar full of foreskins for sale. A schoolgirl has a beetle tied to a piece of string attached to a nail, so the more it fights to get free the more it’s trapped. Women dance naked around some standing stones. Howie walks in on the local librarian (Ingrid Pitt, another bit of star casting) having a bath and possibly masturbating… and she just smiles at him.

8. Lord Summerisle…
…who is the leader of the community. He doesn’t actually appear until the 40th minute, but his entry into the story kicks Howie’s indignation into an even higher gear. It’s probably Christopher Lee’s finest acting performance: free of Dracula and co, he’s able to show charm, toss off quips (“Do sit down, Sergeant. Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent”), affect nonchalance, and turn into an ever-smiling murderer. Lee was a prime mover in getting the film made and took it very personally when his studio bosses didn’t like it. 

9. The different edits…
…which mean this film has a fascinating production history and now exists in a variety of cuts. Basically, director Robin Hardy’s preferred version of the film was edited down by the producers before release. About 12 minutes were removed, much to the chagrin of Hardy and star Christopher Lee, then the unused negatives were junked. (The urban myth is they were thrown into a landfill site that’s now under a motorway – sometimes said to be the M3, sometimes the M4.) A few years later, however, Hardy remembered that a print of the longer edit had been sent to independent film producer Roger Corman so he could give his opinion on how to market the film in America. And he’d kept it. So the long version was released in 1977 – ironically with a few trims. I shall look at how the versions differ from each other in the following blog.

10. The ending…
…which is where this horror film becomes truly horrific. Having deduced that Rowan Morrison is to be sacrificed to appease the gods who let a harvest fail, Howie disguises himself and joins the village’s May Day parade. There are strange rituals along the way, including a moment when it seems that someone has been beheaded, then Howie sees Rowan near some caves. He races to save her and they flee… But it’s all a ruse. Rowan deliberately leads him onto a cliff where Summerisle, Willow and others are waiting. It’s not Rowan they’re going to sacrifice; it’s Howie. The whole thing has been a long con: they staged the girl’s disappearance to draw the virgin Howie to the island, then frustrated his investigation until May Day. The entire village was in on the charade, even the children. It’s an astonishingly chilling plot twist, in part because of how numb Woodward plays the revelation scenes. Howie knows there’s no way out so retreats inward, quietly praying and reaffirming his faith in Jesus. But then he’s led further up the headland and sees it… an enormous wicker statue, in which he’s to be burnt to death. “Oh, Christ! Oh, Jesus Christ,” he calls out, as much a call for help as a scream of desperation. He’s a man of faith, who believes he will be reborn through Jesus. But aren’t the villagers also people of faith? There’s a cheeky piece of religious satire going on here. Earlier in the movie, Howie, shocked by the community’s heathen beliefs, asked, “Have these children never heard of Jesus?” and Summerisle pointedly replied, “Himself the son of a virgin impregnated, I believe, by a ghost.” The difference, of course, is that the villagers are prepared to murder an innocent man for their beliefs… The Wicker Man is part of the ‘folk horror’ tradition – a series of stories set in isolated rural communities and featuring brutal, often violent behaviour. It’s the finest example, actually.

Ten apples out of 10

Logan (2017, James Mangold)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In the near-future, Logan is struggling to protect an ailing Charles Xavier, and then encounters a young girl with Wolverine-like powers…

Get used to multiples names (well, actually, not really: this ‘X-Men’ film mostly ignores aliases and codenames)…
* Logan (Hugh Jackman) is in a bad way. It’s been several years since the X-Men were a crime-fighting team of superheroes, and he’s now carving out a meagre living as an Uber driver. He’s also feeling old, has grown a beard, needs reading glasses, and has been considering suicide. Logan – who doesn’t use the name Wolverine any more – has his former mentor Charles stashed in Mexico, hidden away from the world because Charles has dementia and his psychic powers are endangering innocent people. But they must go on the run when they encounter a young girl who’s being chased by bad guys. The girl, Laura, was cloned from Logan’s DNA, making her his sorta daughter… It’s a fantastically cynical and pissed-off performance from Jackman, with depth and heart and a journey. It’s also his final time playing the character: Logan dies during the climactic chase/fight sequence.
* Gabriela Lopez (Elizabeth Rodriguez) is a nurse who comes asking for Logan’s help. She works at a facility that’s been experimenting on mutant children and she’s smuggled one of them out. The backstory of the experiments is told in a video Gabriela shot on her iPhone. It’s *ridiculously* over-edited and elaborately filmed for something made quickly and in secret.
* Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) is the story’s main heavy. He’s a loquacious Southerner with a Terminator-style robotic hand who’s chasing down Laura. (On the topic of his hand, the film presents an admirably understated vision of the near future. As well as Pierce’s hand, there are also driverless lorries roaming the highways. But it’s only 2029 so the world basically looks like today.)
* Caliban (Stephen Merchant) looks after Charles while Logan earns them some cash. He’s a mutant who can’t stand being in sunlight. He’s also English and mentions both underpants and spotted dick. Played with deadpan sincerity by Merchant, the character acts like a concerned partner, worried for Logan’s well-being.
* Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is now in his 90s and must take medication to keep damaging seizures in check. Also, his memory is failing and he goes in and out of lucidity. Stewart, of course, is brilliant. Charles is in turn sweet and grumpy, innocent and piercing. About halfway through the story he’s killed by a soldier who’s been cloned from Logan’s DNA (and therefore also played by Hugh Jackman).
* Laura aka X-23 (Dafne Keen) is a 10-year-old girl who’s been smuggled out of the experimental clinic, so the evil company are now hunting her down. She was bred using Logan’s genetic material and shares his super-healing powers; also, like her ‘dad’, she has claws and can cut grown men to ribbons in savage attacks. She’s mute for well over half the film, then gets a laugh from the audience by nonchalantly saying ‘De nada’ when Logan thanks her for saving his life. He’s stunned that she can speak, but soon tells her to shut the fuck up after she launches into a relentless volley of angry Spanish. Actress Keen is refreshingly downbeat and avoids adding any cuteness to the performance. By the time she was born, Hugh Jackman had played Wolverine three times.
* Zander Rice (Richard E Grant) is the head of Transigen, the shady company who have been experimenting on young mutants. In an otherwise very textured film, Rice is a bit of a stock ‘bad guy’.
* The Munsons (Eriq La Salle, Elise Neal and Quincy Fouse) are a sweet, homely family who take Logan and co in for the night. It doesn’t end well for them when Pierce and Rice track Laura to their house…
* Logan and Laura’s journey takes them to ‘Eden’, a meeting point for young mutants on the run. We meet several of the youngsters, who each has a different power. They plan to cross the border into Canada, but before they leave, Rice, Pierce and their goons show up.

Crossovers and continuity: There are a few elements that are contradicted or expanded in other X-Men movies.
* Although never spelt out, this film presumably takes place in the alternative timeline created during X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). Notwithstanding that, the events of The Wolverine (2013) still seem to have happened: Logan has a samurai sword mounted on his wall.
* The character of Caliban also appeared in X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), played by Tómas Lemarquis, where he was a black-market trader. That film is set 46 years prior to this one, but Caliban’s a mutant so presumably has a longer lifespan than most people.
* The exploits of the X-Men have been turned into a series of comic books, which is a nice meta gag as well as a way of dramatising Logan’s disdain for his own celebrity.
* Part of Zander Rice’s motivation comes from the fact his father was killed by Wolverine during the latter’s cameo in the 1983-set X-Men: Apocalypse. 

Review: Every so often, a superhero movie comes along that does something so different, so bold, so fresh – or just simply so well – that it recalibrates what the genre can achieve. Superman: The Movie, the 1989 Batman, the original X-Men film, The Dark Knight, Deadpool… Add Logan to that list. Maybe put it at the top. This is a savage, heartfelt and gripping film that pushes boundaries, tests limits and – most importantly – succeeds on every important level of filmmaking. Rather than a superhero blockbuster of huge CGI sequences, fantastical costumes and a $200million gloss, this is essentially a modern Western. It’s mostly set in dusty, sandy, desert locations. The story is simple and stripped-down. We have a smarmy, cocky villain teasing and provoking our aging, damaged, cynical hero who’s been forced by circumstances to reluctantly become a father figure. And James Mangold’s masterful direction always gives the characters plenty of space to breath and brood. (Just in case you’ve missed the idiom, one scene shows Charles watching the 1953 Western Shane in a hotel room.) But there are other influences too. The movie also has the down-and-dirty intensity of The Terminator, while the stunningly visceral action sequences remind you of Terminator 2. There’s also a post-apocalyptic feel that evokes, say, Mad Max 2 (although, Mangold says that’s largely because they didn’t have the budget to ‘Hollywood up’ America and just had to shoot in real, rundown locations). There’s even something of Little Miss Sunshine in the characters’ road trip across the country. Pointedly, of course, it *isn’t* reminding you of previous superhero films. Logan is something very different. Most notably it’s a film for grown-ups. On a surface level, that means we get lots of swearing and graphic violence. But while that’s certainly welcome, the more significant consequences of the 15 certificate are that the story can be about adult concerns – the pain of aging, the worry of watching your parents age, regrets, guilt, parenthood, death – and be paced for an audience with an attention span. Add in a fantastic music score by Marco Beltrami, some discreet CG to enhance action, and some breathtaking cinematography, and you have a very special film indeed.

Ten sunseekers out of 10

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