The Lego Batman Movie (2017, Chris McKay)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Joker is causing carnage in Gotham, while Batman is going through issues of loneliness…

Good guys: Bruce Wayne/Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) is the hero of Gotham City (“I love you more than my kids!” says a member of the general public). However, new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) wants to put an end to his vigilantism. Meanwhile, Bruce is also feeling lonely in his millionaire’s mansion with just loyal butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) for company. Later, the household gets an addition when Bruce accidentally agrees to adopt a young, enthusiastic orphan named Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), who joins Batman on his missions and eventually gets the name Robin. Superman (Channing Tatum) also has a couple of appearances.

Bad guys: The Joker (Zack Galifianakis) wants to blow up the city but he’s upset when he realises Batman doesn’t consider him to be his number-one enemy. There’s also a large gang of bad guys who initially support the Joker. They include the Riddler (Conan O’Brien), the Scarecrow (Jason Mantzoukas), Bane (Doug Benson), Two-Face (Billy Dee Williams), Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz), Clayface (Kate Micucci), Poison Ivy (Riki Lindhome), Mr Freeze (David Burrows), Penguin (John Venzon) and Harley Quinn (Jenny Slate). After the Joker surrenders to the cops he’s sent to the Phantom Zone (the mystical prison from the Superman movies), where he recruits lots of other bad guys from non-DC fictions. These include Sauron (Jermaine Clement), Lord Voldemort (Eddie Izzard), Godzilla, King Kong (Seth Green), Daleks (referred to as “British robots… Ask your nerd friends”), the shark from Jaws, Gremlins, the Wicked Witch of the West (Riki Lindhome) and the flying monkeys, Dracula, Medusa, Agent Smith from The Matrix and a velociraptor from Jurassic Park. The Joker brings them to Gotham to take his revenge on Batman. 

Best bits:
* The film starts with a black screen and Batman giving a meta voiceover about how all great films begin with a black screen. He then comments on the production-company logos.
* The opening scene features an aircraft from MacGuffin Airlines. The flight is also Flight 1138, which is a reference to two George Lucas movies.
* The first appearance of the Joker. He tries to intimidate an airline pilot, but the pilot just points out that all the Joker’s plans fail (“Like that time with the parade and the Prince music?”).
* In a gag that only becomes apparent during the end credits, Two-Face is voiced by Billy Dee Williams, who played the pre-villain character in the 1989 Batman film.
* When characters shoot guns, they vocalise the ‘Pwew-pwew-pe-pwew’ sound effects.
* The incidental music is great.
* Batman sings a song while he deals with the Joker: “In the darkest night/I make the bad guys fall/There’s a million heroes/But I’m the best of them all.”
* The Batmobile’s horn is the theme music from the 1960s TV series.
* The password to Batman’s secret lair is ‘Iron Man sucks’.
* Batman bored at home: microwaving lobster thermidor, struggling to find the right AV channel on his telly, and watching Jerry Maguire.
* The interior of Wayne Manor is reminiscent of Xanadu, Charles Foster Kane’s home in Citizen Kane.
* Alfred says that Bruce also had maudlin periods in “2016 and 2012 and 2008 and 2005 and 1997 and 1995 and 1992 and 1989 and that weird one in 1966.” As he mentions each year we get a flash of the relevant Batman movie (Lego reconstructions for the first eight, then a live-action clip for 1966).
* “My name’s Richard Grayson but all the kids at the orphanage call me Dick.” “Well, children can be cruel.”
* Barbara Gordon is announced as Gotham’s new police commissioner via an X Factor-style VT. It tells us she cleaned up a nearby crime-ridden city by using “statistics!!! And compassion!!!”
* When Barbara says they can manage without Batman, Bruce Wayne calmly asks a waiter for a drink, then gulps some of it so he can spit it out.
* The shark repellent: a neat call-back to the 1960s film.
* Batman asks if Dick is “110-per-cent expendable”. Dick: “I don’t know what that means, but okay!”
* Dick tries out some potential superhero costumes. Batman says the El Mariachi one is culturally insensitive.
* Batman has been keeping count of how many good ideas he’s had (5,678,482) and how many good ideas everyone else has had (none).
* Superman’s front-door bell at the Fortress of Solitude is the musical motif from Superman: The Movie.
* Batman’s nervous flirting with Barbara.
* When he reaches Gotham, Lord Voldemort turns police officers into fish, frogs and fish-frogs. “Sergeant Jackson,” says the police chief, “stop floppin’ around!”
* Barbara Gordon tells Batman she will let him out of prison if he agrees to team up with other people to fight crime. “Who am I working with? SEAL team six? Fox Force Five? Suicide Squad?”
* A cat gets engulfed by lava. “I’m okay!” you hear it say.
* Robin needs the loo. “Can you hold it in like a big boy?” asks Batman.
* Having joined the fight, Alfred says: “Bob’s your uncle, you ruddy duff cobblers!” He’s British, of course.
* Phyllis, the brick-shaped administrator of the Phantom Zone, calls Batman ‘Mr Batman’ and emphasises the first syllable, as if his name was Harman or something.
* Batman tells Robin they’re going to punch the bad guys so hard that “words describing the impact are gonna spontaneously materialise out of thin air.”
* The music over the end credits is “happy, poppy music, the kind that makes parents and studio executives happy.”

Review: This spin-off might not be quite as awesome as the original Lego Movie but it’s still enormous fun. It balances gags for kids with postmodern references, and lots of action with plenty of heart. As with The Lego Movie, the most impressive thing is the design work. The look of the film is astonishing. Although done with CG, the characters and their surroundings feel real and solid and three-dimensional. There’s smoke and water and lens flares. Scenes are shot inventively, with crash-zooms, whip-pans and circular tracks. Action is Michael Bay-huge and dramatic. And the movie’s colour scheme is vibrant and dynamic. The movie is also remorselessly funny, but if anything the assault of jokes and fun details is too relentless. You just can’t keep up and have to accept that on one viewing you’re going to miss a large proportion. (Not that repeat viewings would be a chore.) Nevertheless, a charming, smart and very enjoyable 100 minutes.

Eight snake clowns out of 10


Standing on the Shoulder of Giants (2000)


Cover: An artsy shot of New York City, taken from a high angle and showing the Empire State Building. It’s pretty, but it’s difficult to see the relevance. The album’s title was taken from the edge of the 1998 £2 coin, although Noel wrote it down slightly wrong while drunk. (The Isaac Newton quotation is actually, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the *shoulders* of giants.”) By the way, this album sees Oasis as a trio. Original members Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs and Paul ‘Guigsy’ McGuigan quit during the recording sessions and for legal reasons their contributions had to be replaced. So here Oasis is just Liam Gallagher (vocals), Alan White (drums) and Noel Gallagher (everything else).

Best track: From its crackly, vinyl-like opening, Gas Panic! is a special piece of music. The lyrics are sinister and threatening, the music is dramatic and dynamic, and the overall effect is rather magnificent.

Honourable mentions:
* Fuckin’ in the Bushes starts the album and immediately tells you that this is something different from the Oasis norm. It’s based on a heavy drum pattern, features wordless backing vocals, and uses samples of dialogue taken from the film of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. Oasis often used this track as walk-on music at gigs.
* Go Let It Out was the album’s first single and got to number one. Noel has said it’s one of the best songs he’s ever written and is “the closest we came to sounding like a modern-day Beatles.” That might be a stretch, but there’s still an enjoyable polish to the sound. It’s also another sign that this album sees Oasis playing in a slightly different sandpit – this is psychedelic rock with a full, rounded bottom end. (Noel plays the bass guitar throughout the album. “Pick up the bass!” he says just as it enters this song.)
* The very likeable Who Feels Love? was the album’s second single. Like Go Let It Out, it has a ‘heavy-hippie’ vibe. There’s a strong Beatles influence – the intro is reminiscent of Within You Without You, an instrumental passage from the 2.47 mark sounds like Dear Prudence – while the whole track also has echoes of the Stone Roses. The multi-tracked vocals, meanwhile, are like something from a Crosby, Stills & Nash song. Oh, and the mix is fantastic. There are lots of details you’d miss on a scant listen.
* Sunday Morning Call was the album’s third single. It’s a pleasant-enough ballad, but lead singer Noel has never liked it – he thinks it’s pretentious and earnest. So in 2009 he had it relegated to a hidden track on an Oasis singles compilation. In a recent radio interview, he chuckled over the fact that no one’s ever missed it.
* The rousing Roll It Over is a Champagne Supernova-style epic.

Worst track: Barring cover versions, Little James was the first Oasis song not written by Noel Gallagher. His brother Liam’s opening effort is a tepid, insipid and musically boring tune about his seven-year-old stepson.

Weirdest lyric: Speaking of Little James, on this song Liam proves that he can go toe-to-toe with Noel in terms of lazy rhymes: “You live for your toys/Even though they make noise/Have you ever played with plasercine?/Or even tried a trampoline?”

Best video: Go Let It Out’s promo is shot in extreme widescreen, heavily edited, and features Liam singing from the back of a double-decker bus. There are also shots of him playing guitar, which he doesn’t do on the audio.

Personal connection: Although they didn’t play on Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, Gem Archer and Andy Bell (not the one from Erasure) had joined the band by the time I first saw Oasis live. It was at Bolton’s Reebok Stadium on 15 July 2000 and was during the tour to promote this album. The support acts were Johnny Marr’s Healers and the Happy Mondays. And someone threw a cup full of piss over me. (He wasn’t aiming specifically at me. Trapped in a throng of thousands, some louts had taken to urinating into plastic cups and chucking them as far as they could.)

Review: Some say the release of the Oasis album Be Here Now in August 1997 marked the end of Britpop. (Personally speaking, I remember realising it was all over when Q magazine covered drum-and-bass DJ Roni Size in about January 1998.) But Standing on the Shoulder of Giants represents a new phase in the band’s career in more ways than one. Two-fifths of the line-up quit during the recording sessions, while the style of music moved towards drum loops, samples, snyths and prominent bass sounds. Liam Gallagher even started writing songs. The result is a very interesting and often enjoyable album: it might not all work, but it has ambition. 

Eight years between fantasies and fears out of 10

Dracula A.D. 1972 (Alan Gibson, 1972)


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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: There’s a short prologue set in London’s Hyde Park on 18 September 1872: Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) is killed by his arch-enemy Lawrence Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). A disciple of the vampire (Christopher Neame) then collects his ring and some of his ashes… Cut to a hundred years later, and for most of the film it’s inescapably, joltingly, face-slappingly 1972. The story takes place in London, mostly around the King’s Road area of Chelsea.

Faithful to the novel? This is often assumed to be another sequel to Hammer Films’ 1958 version of Dracula, but not so. The events of the prologue don’t match up to any previous movie and this is actually a reboot of the series. In 1972, a man called Johnny Alucard (Christopher Neame again) has inveigled himself with a group of young, happening hippies. He convinces them to go to an abandoned church and perform a dark-magic ceremony. Most of the friends are freaked out and flee before the ceremony is complete, but it’s successful and Count Dracula is resurrected. The next day, the friends are worried about one of their group, Laura Bellows (Caroline Munro), who’s gone missing. She was actually Dracula’s first victim, and after her body is found a copper called Murray (Michael Coles) is assigned to the case. The death especially upsets Laura’s friend Jessica Van Helsing (Stephanie Beacham, sporting a very strange haircut). She’s the granddaughter of academic Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing again), who in turn is the grandson of the 1872 Van Helsing. Lorrimer and Murray soon team up and work out that Johnny Alucard is an acolyte of Dracula (the big clue: read Johnny’s surname backwards). Meanwhile, the Count and Johnny are killing other members of the gang. Dracula really wants Jess, as revenge for what the Van Helsing family have done to him, so uses Alucard (who’s now a vamp himself) to lure her to the church. Lorrimer, though, sets a trap and kills him.

Best performance: It would be needless to point out that Peter Cushing was an actor who knew what he was doing. (It might be less obvious to say that this was only his second Dracula film with Christopher Lee. After both appearing in the 1958 movie, they’d split the subsequent entries in the series until now.) Stephanie Beacham’s also impressive as Jessica. But the star of the show is Christopher Neame. With a sneering face and flamboyant outfits, he preens and glides through the film, like some kind of malevolent Doctor Who.

Best bit: The ceremony to resurrect Dracula… Johnny has drawn a pentangle on the floor of an abandoned church then switches on a tape recording of spooky sound effects and hypnotic, Pink Floyd-style music. While Johnny recites an incantation, calling out to the long-dead Count Dracula, the gang of pals get lost in the moment (all aside from Philip Miller’s Bob, who tries to cop a feel of Caroline Munro). Smoke swirls around Johnny… The camera zooms in on a terrified Jessica… Outside, a grave bulges as its occupant wakes up…. Johnny wants Jessica to play the ‘sacrifice’ of the ritual, but Laura insists on doing it instead. She lies back on the altar, both her eyes and her cleavage pulsing with anticipation, while Johnny cuts his own wrist and pours the blood into a cup. He then tips the thick, coagulated contents of the cup over Laura’s chest. The others are so freaked out that they flee the church. Then, in a swirl of smoke and scored by music that’s aping the crescendo of the Beatles song A Day in the Life, Count Dracula appears. He bites Laura’s neck as Johnny watches on. In a perverse sexual twist, Laura seems to enjoy the experience…

Review: This marvellous movie is a real treat – much more fun and vibrant than a typical Hammer film, it’s directed with panache, paced very well, and has some fine performances. Most noticeably, of course, it’s set in the modern day rather than the vaguely Victorian world of the company’s earlier Draculas. The 1970s-ness seeps out of every pore of the film: the fashions, the locations, the attitudes. The music, for example, could hardly be any more of its time. Mike Vickers’s score is all Blaxploitation wah-wah guitar and horn sections, while a forgotten pop group called Stoneground appear in an early party scene. Also, the main characters are young (maybe teens, maybe twenties), carefree and happy hippies. It’s a representation of early 70s youth culture – or at least a version of it cooked up by middle-aged filmmakers – and that’s not something Hammer was famed for. But whether or not it’s true to life, it works. The film has bags of charm and is enormously enjoyable. The key is that it’s not patronising anyone. The kids don’t come across as dull clichés (which they are, after all). The lead police character is a decent, smart guy who likes playing with executive toys. Van Helsing is far from a reactionary old man (showing concern for his granddaughter, he just looks uncomfortable when she assures him she’s never dropped acid). And most importantly the film assumes the viewer wants scares, style and storytelling – and they get all three. Fantastic stuff.

Eight tickets for the jazz spectacular at the Albert Hall out of 10

Dracula’s Daughter (1936, Lambert Hillyer)


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

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: This film picks up directly from the end of Dracula (1931), so we start in Whitby. The bulk of the story is then set in London, with a diversion to the Scottish countryside and a climax set in Transylvania. From people’s outfits and the presence of both airline travel and automobiles, it seems to be the 1930s, which is more modern than the first film.

Faithful to the novel? This direct sequel to Dracula is nominally an adaptation of the Bram Stoker short story Dracula’s Guest, though the similarities are vanishingly few. (Published posthumously, Dracula’s Guest was actually a chapter cut from the original book before its release.) As the story starts, we see the corpse of Count Dracula (played by a wax model of Bela Lugosi), and Professor Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) has been arrested for murder. Yes, that’s right: *Von* Helsing. They’ve changed his name for some reason. He admits to killing Dracula but is determined to tell the truth about vampirism at his trial, so hires an old psychologist friend to defend him in court. Dr Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) is soon on the case with the help of his American assistant, Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill). Meanwhile, a strange, mysterious, dark-haired woman (Gloria Holden) hypnotises the police guarding Dracula’s remains. You see, she’s the count’s daughter and thinks that by burning his corpse she will finally be free of the vampire curse. It doesn’t work, though, so she must continue to feed in London while posing as a Hungarian artist called Countess Marya Zaleska. With the help of manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel), she drains the blood of both men and women. She then meets Garth at a soirée (hosted by a lady played by infamous right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper) and sees her chance for redemption. Without spilling that she’s a vamp, she asks Garth to help her through her psychological issues. Later, however, Garth attends to one of Marya’s victims and recognises the signs of vampirism, so asks Von Helsing for his opinion. When Marya then recoils at the sight of a hypnosis machine (because it uses a mirror), Garth’s suspicions are sealed and he knows she’s the vampire they’re looking for. So Marya kidnaps Janet and flees home to Transylvania. Garth, Von Helsing and the very laissez-faire boss of Scotland Yard, Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery), give chase. Marya is at Castle Dracula and says she’ll release Janet if Garth agrees to stay, but then Sandor kills his mistress because he’s grown jealous of her wandering loyalties…

Best performance: Marguerite Churchill is fun, flirty, cute and sarcastic as Janet, who’s kinda in love with Garth and he’s kinda in love with her but they act like they’re not.

Best bit: As has been noted by many people – and indeed, as was hinted at in some of the film’s release publicity – there’s a definite lesbian vibe about Marya. She wants to rid herself of her vampire impulses, and has heard that alcoholics are sometimes told to sit with a bottle and simply use freewill to stop taking a drink. So she gets Sandor to procure a beautiful – I mean, really quite remarkably beautiful – young woman to act as an artist’s model. The subtext of the scene where Marya asks Lili (Nan Grey) to undress, all the while trying to resist biting her, is not so sub.

Review: Helpfully, an early scene has a quick verbal recap of the first film and an explanation of what vampires are. Well, it had been five years since the Bela Lugosi classic. And you know what? Whisper it quietly, but this sequel is the better movie. Free of the shackles of the original’s stageplay plot, Dracula’s Daughter is able to tell a fun and very watchable story. It has more life and energy to it than the first film, still has plenty of spooky fog-bound scenes and Universal Monsters lighting, but also adds some likeable humour (bumbling coppers, a running gag about a bowtie). It’s quick too – just 68 minutes. And in Marya, it has cinema’s first great female vampire. Holden reportedly didn’t think much of the project and only did it because she was under contract. If anything this seems to have helped, because her frustration drove a detached and dangerous performance. There’s a great sense of Marya being a victim too. She’s trapped by her vampiric curse and longs to be ‘normal’. You can’t help but feel for her during the scene where she happily plays a piano and recites flowery poetry – only for the more cynical Sandor to chip in with comments about darkness and death.

Eight vacillating women out of 10

Iron Man (2008, Jon Favreau)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After being held hostage by terrorists in Afghanistan, billionaire businessman Tony Stark builds an armoured mechanical suit and fights back…

This feels like a mission statement right from the word go. At face value it’s a one-off action-adventure movie, but we now know it’s actually the ‘pilot episode’ for an enormously successful film franchise. Therefore, as well as telling its own story, Iron Man is setting the tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And the feel of Iron Man is noticeably different from many previous comic-book films. It’s not as matinee as Superman: The Movie, not as Gothic as Tim Burton’s Batman, not as metaphor-driven as X-Men, not as serious as Batman Begins, not as immature as Fantastic Four… Instead, this film is its lead character writ large. Both Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and the movie itself are clever, witty and hugely confident. There’s a pre-crash, noughties swagger on show, while the music is a mix of AC/DC and a rock-heavy score. However, the in-your-face attitude is matched by oodles of comedy: having fun is the order of the day. Throughout the film, dryly funny dialogue and well-timed visual gags keep things entertainingly breezy, even if the story is actually about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. This is a film where the lead character asks journalists to sit on the floor with him during a press conference; where his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, decent), has to play a real-life game of Operation and reach into his part-mechanised chest; and where his AI computer (Paul Bettany) has the voice of a droll, English butler. Note that all those examples centre on Tony. He dominates the film and Downey Jr – a former loose cannon who’s had issues with drugs, rehab and prison – is supremely smart casting. The actor gives Tony lots of off-putting attributes. He’s an arrogant, selfish womaniser who belittles his closest allies and, you know, gets disgustingly rich from producing and selling things specifically designed to kill and maim people. But he’s also charismatic, self-deprecating, and very likeable. In fact, if anything, Iron Man is too much the Tony Stark show. It’s having so much fun with him that other characters don’t get much of a look-in. Terrence Howard’s James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who’s both Tony’s best friend and a conduit to the military, has some nice moments and Pepper Potts gets stuff to play. But other than some bland, generic Afghans, the story has no real antagonist until its second half. At least they’ve cast the bad-guy role well: Tony’s business associate Obadiah Stane is played by the reliable Jeff Bridges, and the dude does a lot with a predictable, underling-wants-to-muscle-in-on-the-boss character. It’s actually not a huge problem that it takes 70 minutes to set up Obadiah as the villain. The film has been speeding along very entertainingly, thanks to a script that tells its origin story with no fuss and some crisp, not-getting-in-the-way direction from Jon Favreau (who also plays the minor role of Tony’s bodyguard). There was a lot resting on this movie when it was first released. It’s nearly a decade old already – Tony makes a joke about Myspace – and has been followed by 13 movies set in the same fictional universe with many more on the way. You can see the seeds of that series being sown in Iron Man with the appearances of Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and the deliciously deadpan Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), two characters who’ll crop up again in future films. But those dozen-plus films wouldn’t have happened if Iron Man had got it wrong. It got it right and an empire of superhero movies has been built on its success.

Eight Hugh Hefners out of 10


Star Trek Beyond (2016, Justin Lin)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The USS Enterprise is destroyed during a rescue mission gone wrong, leaving its crew stranded on a planet with a man intent on revenge…

For the first time in a Star Trek film, the famous mission-statement narration is provided by more than one character. The seven chief crewmembers get a bit each: “Space, the final frontier [Kirk]. These are the voyage of the starship [Spock] Enterprise. Its continuing mission [Scotty]: to explore strange new worlds [McCoy]; to seek out new life [Sulu] and new civilisations [Chekov]; to boldly go where no one has gone before [Uhura].”

Regulars: Three years into the Enterprise’s five-year mission of exploration, Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling restless. So much so, in fact, that he considers applying for a vice-admiral’s position. But there’s at least one last mission to complete when the Enterprise heads off to rescue people stranded in a nebula. It’s actually a trap, and the ship is destroyed when it crashes on a planet called Altamid. The crew is then split into fractured groups – Kirk, for example, is paired with Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and they rumble a traitor in the camp… Meanwhile, Spock (Zachary Quinto) has been shaken by the news that his older self – the elderly Spock who travelled back in time two films ago – has died. After the crash, Spock and Dr McCoy (Karl Urban) form an odd-couple double act whose bickering hides a deep respect. Spock is injured and tells Bones that he wants to leave the Enterprise crew to continue Old Spock’s work in rebuilding the Vulcan race… Scotty gets a lot of screen time, is the focus of a vital subplot, has plenty of comedy moments, is the only crewmember specifically named in Kirk’s introductory voiceover, and forms a touching relationship with the film’s major non-villain guest star. Completely coincidentally, actor Simon Pegg co-wrote the script… Uhura (Zoe Saldana) splits up with boyfriend Spock, while Sulu (John Cho) is revealed to be in a same-sex relationship – both are captured by bad guy Krall, but manage to send a distress signal and work out the villain’s plan.

Guests: Sofia Boutella plays the spunky Jaylah, an alien scavenger who’s been living on Altamid. She’s a big success – it’s a likeable performance and Jaylah is confident and strong but not boringly flawless. (Her name is a pun on Jennifer Lawrence, the actress used by the writers as a model for the character.) The main bad guy is initially presented as an alien called Krall, then revealed to be a mutated human who was once Starfleet officer Captain Edison – he’s played by Idris Elba with good physical presence and attitude. Lydia Wilson plays Kalara, one of Krall’s agents who pretends to be a victim. All her dialogue has to be translated by a machine so we hear her native language and English at the same time.

Best bits:
* The cold open: a comedic mini-mission showing Kirk negotiating with some aliens. There’s a good gag when we realise they’re only dog-sized.
* The early montage telling us that ennui has gripped Kirk, who’s bored after 966 days in deep space. “Things have started to feel a little episodic,” he says. Geddit? Like a TV show!
* The Escher-like architecture of Yorktown, a planet-sized space station with unusual gravity patterns.
* Spock learns that Ambassador Spock has died: a touching way to acknowledge the death of actor Leonard Nimoy.
* Kirk and Spock both say they have something they need to talk about… but that it’ll wait till later. They know how movie scripts work!
* The Enterprise is attacked by thousands of tiny spacecraft that act like a swarm, causing huge damage. It’s the start of a long, exciting and well-staged action run that’s full of character and plotting. The Enterprise crashes and is practically destroyed (as it was in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek: Generations – ie, we lose an Enterprise in roughly a quarter of these films).
* “Abandon ship, Mr Sulu.”
* Scotty’s escape pod comes to rest on the edge of a cliff.
* Krall can speak English!
* Spock and McCoy’s bickering: “Cut the horseshit!” “Doctor, I fail to see how excrement of any kind bears relevance on our situation.” Bones then pulls the old trick of asking a distracting question just before painfully cauterising Spock’s wound.
* Scotty finds a communicator, but the flip bit flops off when he tries to use it.
* Jaylah’s neat trick of generating holograms of herself during a fight with bad guys.
* The revelation that Jaylah’s ‘house’ is an age-old Starfleet ship, the USS Franklin.
* Krall takes… life power or essence or something from Federation prisoners. A process that hurts them. A lot.
* Spock and Bones movingly discuss Old Spock’s death. The conversation ends with Spock laughing; Bones assumes he’s delirious.
* We briefly see a 100-year-old video of the Franklin crew. Wonder if that’ll be important later…
* Spock and Bones are surrounded by bad guys. “Well, at least I won’t die alone,” says Bones – just as, behind him, Spock is being beamed to safety.
* The reveal of where Kirk hid the MacGuffin.
* Kirk on a motorbike, which just happened to be lying around on the Franklin.
* Kirk jumping through the air *whilst being beamed* so he can grab Jaylar’s hand.
* Spock begins a long, detailed explanation of his plan. “Skip to the end,” interrupts Kirk. The joke is a deliberate quotation from Spaced, the superior Channel 4 sitcom Simon Pegg co-wrote and starred in.
* The crew need to jam the swarm’s communications, so decide on a loud, distracting UHF signal. Scotty knows just the thing: Sabotage by the Beastie Boys. (As well as meaning a kickass song is in the movie, it’s also a callback to the 2009 film.)
* Turns out that video is important: Uhura watches the whole thing and realises Krall was once a Federation captain. We then see his century-old logs, where he helpfully fills in backstory and descends into madness.
* Spock goes through Old Spock’s possessions. We see a photograph of the Enterprise crew in middle age: it’s a publicity snap from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, so features the original actors. As well as a bit of meta fun, it’s also a nice reminder that this series is an alternate timeline, not a remake.
* The final shot: a ‘speeded-up’ CGI image of the Enterprise being rebuilt.

TV tie-in: A month before this film’s release, Anton Yechin died at the age of 27. Producer JJ Abrams soon confirmed that the actor’s character won’t be recast, so it seems Star Trek Beyond marks the last appearance of Pavel Chekov. He was first introduced in the original TV series, in a second-season episode called Amok Time, and was played for 27 years by Walter Koenig… In Amok Time, Spock must return to Vulcan – it’s the franchise’s first ever visit there – to take part in a bizarre mating ritual.

Review: It doesn’t exactly start with a bang. The first 64 seconds of this movie consist of a plethora of production-company logos, then there’s no big action beat to kick things off. But once the plot gears up there’s a huge amount to enjoy. Unlike the first two films in this timeline, Star Trek Beyond is a one-off, self-contained story, and the result is confident, polished and very enjoyable. It was a worry when, after those first two reboot movies, director JJ Abrams ducked out in favour of making Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Thankfully, replacement Justin Lin hits the ground running. He’d spent the previous few years making crass-but-fun Fast & Furious sequels, and as you’d expect from that CV this film’s stunts, chases and fights are well staged and thrilling. But there’s also plenty of soul and subtext. The regular characters retain their easy chemistry and are fun to hang out with, while the storytelling is very impressive. You can sense the layers of the onion being peeled back at pleasingly paced intervals – the villain ends up being much more interesting than we first assume; Kalara’s story has a couple of fake turns before we find out the truth; and plenty of ideas and plot points are set up then paid off in interesting ways. A good example is Spock giving Uhura a necklace. At first it’s solely a character beat, a way of dramatising that he still cares about her. Later the jewellery’s material allows him to track her down, so has a plot function… then comedy is generated from the other characters’ reaction to Spock’s ability to stalk his ex-girlfriend. That’s smart, economic movie writing, doing a lot in a short time. Maybe only the action climax disappoints a bit. It’s based on some gravity-based exposition that just comes off as nonsense, while the odd decision is made not to have Krall de-evolve back to normal. If you’ve cast Idris Elba, a handsome and charismatic man, wouldn’t you want to free him of all his prosthetics for the final showdown?

Eight incomprehensible cosmic anomalies that could wipe us out in an instant out of 10.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014, Matt Reeves)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Where, when and what: Despite its title (shouldn’t dawn come first?), this is a sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). An opening montage tells us what’s happened since that movie’s pandemic – basically, lots of people died, society collapsed and intelligent apes have formed a colony in some redwood forests. It’s been ’10 winters’ since the pandemic, so we’re probably in the 2020s, and the events take place in and around San Francisco. Although not a remake, this story shares some similarities with 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

Humans: The plot kicks off after a hotheaded man called Carver (Kirk Acevedo) shoots an ape when they come face to face in a forest. It’s the first human/ape encounter in a decade so maybe we can excuse his nerviness. Carver used to work for the water company so he knows the local dam can be used for power. But he later fucks up a temporary truce with the apes by smuggling a gun into their camp… The lead human character is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), who is recceing the dam when Carver shoots the ape. Peacemaker Malcolm wants to parley with the apes and he soon forms a bond of trust with their leader, Caesar. Malcolm’s girlfriend, Ellie (Keri Russell), used to work for the CDC so knows that the surviving humans are immune to the disease that wiped everyone else out. His son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), like to draw and it’s not entirely clear why Malcolm keeps taking him on dangerous missions. Back at the colony, the group’s leader is Dreyfus (a soulful Gary Oldman). He’s a man under pressure and has a reactionary instinct, yet thanks to some smart writing and acting he’s still a sympathetic character. He advocates killing the apes, but you kinda see his point of view. (Will Rodman from the previous film also appears in a briefly seen video clip.)

Apes: The film’s opening shot (once we’re past the montage, that is) is a mission statement. An extreme close-up of Caesar’s determined eyes slowly pulls out to reveal his full length… As in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, motion-caption technique has been used to imbue the CGI apes with believable emotions and movements. They’re astonishingly photorealistic, and you quickly forget that the apes are a) computer-generated, and b) not human – you just accept them as characters. Caesar (again played by Andy Serkis) is their leader and rules with power and compassion. He can speak fractured English and walks more upright than his followers. He forges a shaky pact with Malcolm, but is betrayed and shot by his friend Koba (Toby Kebbell) who advocates killing all the humans. An injured Caesar then hides in the house he grew up in (ie, the one from the previous film). Koba, meanwhile, is leading an attack on the human colony, having framed them for the shooting of Caesar. Other featured ape characters include Ash (Doc Shaw), who’s shot by Carver; wise old orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval); and Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), Caesar’s eldest son. The last shot of the movie, incidentally, is a bookend to the first: we again see Caesar’s eyes, but they’re now sorrowful and foreboding. A war with mankind is on the way and will hit in a sequel due out in 2017.

Review: This is a monster movie where the monsters are sympathetic characters, which is a really great trick to pull off. And it’s very well directed by Matt Reeves, who also made the stomach-churner Cloverfield (2008). There’s a heavy sense of foreboding hanging over the whole story, for example. Characters, situations and incidents feel well thought-out and textured, while the pace is not all go so the storytelling has to chance to breathe in between the action. In fact, while a simple plot, every scene is dusted with nice moments of humanity or poignancy. You feel for these characters. It helps that the film is shot with more solidity – long takes, tracking shots, naturalistic lighting – than Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which was all about fluid camera moves and a softly lit sheen. This is generally a more dangerous and therefore more interesting world, and is full of post-apocalyptic production design that tells story very well. But it’s the characters where the film most succeeds. We’re shown two sides of the divide – human and ape – and there’s plenty of mirroring going on. Both have a determined and reasonable leader, a misguided member who thinks war is the answer, and innocents caught in the crossfire. The script switches and balances the two POVs very well. Add in some very good incidental music by Michael Giacchino and a few entertaining action scenes – even if a 36-second shot from the top of a tank is a bit show-off-y – and you have an entertaining couple of hours.

Eight petrol stations out of 10

The Hateful Eight (2015, Quentin Tarantino)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eight bowls of stew out of 10

Django Unchained (2012, Quentin Tarantino)


Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eight bills of sale out of 10

Death Proof (2007, Quentin Tarantino)


Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eight 1970 Dodge Challengers out of 10