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

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998, Jonathan Frakes)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Federation is observing an oblivious alien race called the Ba’ku. But after the operation is revealed, dangerous secrets are also uncovered…

Regulars: Picard is hosting a diplomatic dinner on the Enterprise when the crisis kicks off. He tracks down a malfunctioning Data and sings Gilbert & Sullivan in an attempt to reboot him. When affected by the Ba’ku planet’s Fountain-of-Youth-like energy, he dances a little jig to some mamba music – that’s enough to make him realise something is wrong. When ordered to leave the system, he chooses to disobey orders and – in a neat dramatisation of his decision – removes the captain’s pips from his collar. Riker and Troi try to do the background research on the Ba’ku situation, but can’t stop flirting. She kisses him with a beard for the first time (he’s the one with the beard), then they share a hot tub while she shaves it off for him. Her TV-show romance with Worf has seemingly petered out at some point. Maybe it ended when he left the Enterprise crew – he was a regular in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine by this point, so we get a knowingly arch moment when Picard bumps into Worf and asks, “What are you doing here?” Because it’s not important, Worf’s explanation is essentially rhubarb dialogue underneath a more important discussion. The Ba’ku influence means Worf later oversleeps and gets acne. Data, meanwhile, initiates the plot when he behaves erratically after being attacked on Ba’ku; Geordie’s optic nerves regenerate, allowing him to see naturally for the first time in his life; and Crusher identifies the invigorating effects the crew are experiencing (but doesn’t seem all that concerned about them – great work, Doc!).

Guests: F Murray Abraham is the lead bad guy, a member of the Son’a race called Ru’afo (what’s with all these apostrophes?!). Donna Murphy plays Ba’ku woman Anji, while Anthony Zerbe appears as villainous Federation admiral Matthew Dougherty. Apparently, Armin Shimerman filmed a cameo as his Deep Space Nine character, Quark, but it was cut from the finished film.

Best bits:

* The reveal of the duck blind.

* Data going loopy while wearing an invisibility suit – the subsequent fight is seen only through certain sections of the duck blind’s window, then Data takes off his helmet so his head (and only his head) is visible to the natives.

* Geordie briefing Picard on the situation while Picard is wearing a silly ceremonial headdress given to him by an ambassador.

* Ru’afo having his skin stapled into place.

* Worf’s shake of the head when Picard suggests he sings to Data.

* Data walking into the lake and along its bottom.

* The reveal of the holo-ship.

* When Picard goes rogue, the other six regulars turn up and insist on joining his mutiny. (Most have changed into Ba’ku clothing, but Riker and Geordie are still in their uniforms. *Completely coincidentally*, they’re the two Picard asks to stay behind on the Enterprise.)

* Troi and Crusher discussing their boobs.

* Admiral Dougherty having his skin forcibly expanded – a scene oddly similar to how Anthony Zerbe was killed off in Licence to Kill.

* The Son’a being unwittingly transported aboard the holo-ship – a cute idea, which is well seeded earlier in the story. (If anything, it’s a shame they work out what’s happened so quickly.)

* “The Son’a crew would like to negotiate a ceasefire,” says Worf, who’s aboard their ship. “It may have something to do with the fact we have three minutes of air left.”

TV tie-in: The movie shares a basic setup and a general tone with a 1989 episode of The Next Generation called Who Watches the Watchers. It’s altogether a tighter, more focused and more interesting experience. Riker and Troi have to go undercover with the Mintakans, a Bronze Age-level society, after the Federation team observing them from a hidden bunker are accidentally revealed and the natives believe Picard is a god. (It guest stars Kathryn Leigh Scott from my mates Joe and Davy‘s Dark Shadows audio series.)

Review: A simplistic story about pacifist hippies and power-hungry authority doesn’t exactly make for cutting-edge drama, and this twee plot is stretched to fill out 100 minutes. Just in case you don’t get the analogy on display, Picard refers to previous ‘forced relocations’ from Earth’s history, then does a Moses impression and leads the Ba’ku on a cross-country hike to safety. That countryside, by the way, is clearly not far from Los Angeles. The majority of Star Trek filming locations are in California, of course – but the first six films felt ambitious and inventive and gave us deserts, cities, tundra, mountains, forests… With the Next Generation team, however, it seems there’s a lack of ambition in that department. And that’s emblematic of the whole movie. It’s often said that Insurrection feels like a two-part TV story cut together and put on the big screen – there’s nothing wrong with that in theory, but it actually does those double-length episodes a disservice. Most were more engaging than this humdrummery.

Five British Tars out of 10.

 

The Big Lebowski (1998)

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Written by Ethan and Joel; directed by Joel; produced by Ethan

Jeff Lebowski (aka The Dude, or His Dudeness, or Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into that whole brevity thing) is mistaken for his millionaire namesake and gets dragged into a kidnapping plot…

Seen before? Yes, but not for years. It was the first Coen Brothers movie I saw at the cinema – a quick* flick through my old academic diaries tell me it was on 29 October 1998, in Stoke-on-Trent with Will Haywood and Stuart Oultram. (*Long, exhaustive, bordering on the obsessional.)

Best performance: Jeff Bridges as The Dude. It’s a fantastic creation, even if he’s possibly the least proactive lead in all of cinema. He gets pulled through the film by all the other characters – he just wants to placate people and pour himself a White Russian. Bridges plays him with charm, humour and hilarious bursts of anger.

Coen regulars (running total of appearances): John Goodman (4) and Steve Buscemi (5) play the Dude’s bowling buddies, Walter and Donnie. There are cameos from Jon Polito (4) as a private eye, John Turturro (3) as paedophile Jesus, and Peter Stormare (2) as a nihilist. It’s a first Coen movie for Jeff Bridges (1).

Best bit: The surreal, gleeful music video of a dream sequence – the Dude bowling, flirting with Julianne Moore and flying through women’s legs – which is scored by Kenny Rodgers’s Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was in).

Review: Being both a film geek and someone who was born in the late 70s, I guess I was presupposed to love 90s American cinema. To me, the movies of Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, Bryan Singer and others (and Brit Danny Boyle) are all part of the same glorious, joyful, bold and distinctive period. Films were fun and full of character; they knew and played with conventions; they told oddball stories about interesting people. It’s part personal taste, part teenage nostalgia – and The Big Lebowski sits slap-bang in the middle of this phase. It’s effortlessly cool; has crisp, quotable dialogue and a great soundtrack; and is generally just enormous fun. Like most of the Coens’ movies, we get a reasonably standard setup, which then spins off into increasingly eccentric and downright bonkers areas. Two hours pass by so enjoyably that when it had finished I very nearly just put it on again.

Ten rugs that really tied the room together out of 10.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

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When a soldier’s three brothers are all killed in action during the Second World War, the US army sends a team into France to locate him…

Seen before? Yes, at the flicks in 1998.

Best performance: What struck me most about the cast was just how many faces there are that I recognise from other things. As well as Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and Ted Danson, there’s Tom Sizemore (Heat, True Romance), Barry Pepper (Enemy of the State), Adam Goldberg (Chandler’s bonkers flatmate in Friends and also recently Fargo), Vin Diesel (The Fast and the Furious), Giovanni Ribisi (Phoebe’s brother in Friends), Jeremy Davies (Lost), Paul Giamatti (Downton Abbey), Dennis Farina (Out of Sight), Corey Johnson (Doctor Who), Nathan Fillion (Firefly), Leland Orser (Seven), Bryan Cranston (Seinfeld)…

Best scene/moment/sequence: The final battle to defend the bridge. It’s 26 minutes of sustained action, tension and horror.

Review: When Saving Private Ryan was released, I was just starting my degree in Film and Television Studies – so, given my mindset at the time, perhaps I’ll always view it in terms of its cinematic techniques. And I think they are the film’s biggest success. There are numerous long, handheld takes; shutter speeds and lens sizes are cleverly varied to help sell the reality/immediacy of war; and – if you’ll allow me to use a pretentious analytical phrase – the mise-en-scène is *constantly* interesting, inventive and illuminating. The storytelling is stunningly, winningly precise. It does get rather sentimental at times – Captain Miller’s stories about his life back in America are twee, for example – but it’s also not afraid to show dubious behaviour on both sides of the war.

Eight FUBARs out of 10.

Amistad (1998)

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African slaves overpower their captors and head home, but are soon arrested, taken to America and charged with murder. Their trial becomes a cause célèbre…

Seen before? No.

Best performance: In the second half of the film, Anthony Hopkins gets plenty of fruity screen time playing former president John Quincy Adams. Peter Firth is also worth mentioning for his small but enjoyably deadpan role as a Royal Navy officer.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The opening five minutes – Cinqué and others breaking free and taking over the slave ship – is the movie’s most cinematic sequence. Set at night, with little dialogue, it grabs your attention straight away.

Review: Involving stuff – part historical epic, part courtroom drama. The religious symbolism perhaps gets a bit heavy-handed at times, but on the whole it’s a very entertaining movie.

Eight Matthew McConaugheys out of 10.