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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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

Aliens (1986, James Cameron)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Fifty-seven years after escaping the Nostromo, Ellen Ripley is found in cryogenic sleep. She tries to rebuild a normal life on earth, but soon has to return to LV-426, the planet from the first film…

The cast: Sigourney Weaver is the only actor from film one. Of the team of soldiers, Bill Paxton as the sarcastic Private Hudson and Michael Biehn as the laconic Corporal Hicks stand out – but each one is memorable and distinctive, which really helps. They have in-jokes and crude banter, but aren’t mindless drones. They get scared and feel like real people. Paul Reiser (one of the dads from My Two Dads) plays company man Burke. It’s an apt-sounding name for the character if you know your Cockney rhyming slang. Resier plays both sides of the man – a seemingly likeable buffoon and a ruthless corporate twat – really well. When Ripley and the military guys head for LV-426, we meet Bishop, an android played by Lance Henriksen. He’s a wonderful creation: just off-kilter enough to be robotic, but still likeable and interesting. (He also does a trick with a knife that surely a lot of kids cut themselves while copying.) Meanwhile, Carrie Henn – a nine-year-old girl who had no acting experience and therefore no Disney-like conditioning – plays Newt and is tremendous. The first line of dialogue in the film is said by future Jonathan Creek star Stuart Milligan (playing the man who finds Ripley’s spacepod floating in space). Paxton, Biehn and Henriksen had all been in The Terminator, director James Cameron’s previous film.

The best scene: There are dozens of potentials for this category: enormous action scenes, telling character moments, chilling scares, great sci-fi ideas… Let’s pick one of the most understated. Near the climax, the group has been whittled down to just a handful and they’re being chasing by aliens. Two of the secondary characters – jobsworth Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) and takes-no-shit Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) – get cornered and know they’re about to die. They’ve not been best buddies or anything, but as the end approaches there’s a tender moment of understanding. “You always were an asshole, Gorman,” Vasquez says, not unkindly. He then takes out and activates a grenade. The pair both hold onto it, knowing they’ll take some aliens with them… On a side note, the music in this scene is terrific, as it is throughout the film. James Horner’s score includes some action cues that have been reused on trailers galore and copied again and again in other films.

Alternative version: James Cameron later revised the film for home video. Aliens: Special Edition was released on Laserdisc in 1991 and VHS the following year. At 16 minutes longer, it’s a *significantly* different movie so I’ll review it separately at a later date.

Review: A Vietnam-war movie set in space, this is bigger, more complex, more political and more adrenalin-packed than the Ridley Scott original. You were scared shitless by one alien? Well, here’s fucking hundreds of them! It’s not about it being better or worse; it’s *different*, often the most pleasing way for a sequel to go. It was written and directed by James Cameron, hot from The Terminator, and is a full-on, edge-of-your-seat action movie. In fact, I can think of only Die Hard and Cameron’s Terminator 2 as its equals in that category. Aliens is muscular and intense, especially during the action-heavy second half. Vitally, though, the action is always about the characters’ situations – not the explosions or guns. And there’s an amazing sheen to the whole thing, with production design, cinematography and editing on point at all times. There are also a lot of old-school production techniques on show – miniatures, rear-projection screens – which make you ache for films to made like this again. No lightweight CGI nonsense here: this world feels solid and real. James Cameron knows that watching a movie should be a ‘transportative’ experience (well, before he made Avatar anyway). You want to get lost in the world and the story and the characters. Aliens *absolutely* achieves that, no matter how often you see it. As it begins, the opening few scenes recap the story so far in a really neat way. In fact, I actually saw Aliens first and, while I was aware it was a sequel, I just accepted the talk of Kane and the M-class star-frieghter as backstory. It soon becomes apparent that the film is overtly more feminist than Alien was. Ellen Ripley was a decent character in 1979: strong, resourceful and calm under pressure. But it’s here that Ripley the icon is formed. As the story progresses, she becomes more and more active. It’s *her* story and she is astonishing. No wonder Sigourney Weaver was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. (She lost out to Marlee Matlin.) A third of the way in, Ripley meets Newt, a young girl who’s been stranded alone on the planet, and forms a touching and underplayed mother-daughter bond. This kind of emotional subtext was absent from Alien, and is one of the reasons why this sequel is – by a facehugger’s arm’s width – the better film.

Ten clouds of vapour the size of Nebraska out of 10

Next time: “Get to da choppa!”

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986, John Hughes)

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Spoiler warning: These reviews reveal plot twists.

Ferris Bueller decides to skip school and take his girlfriend and his best friend for a day out in Chicago…

Kids:

* Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) is a teenager whose biggest gripe in life is that, when he asked for a car, his parents bought him a computer. He’s clever, handsome, charming and has both unshakeable confidence and *preternatural* good luck. Knowing that his time at high school is drawing to a close, he decides to play truant one final time and have a day out with his pals. So he tricks his parents into thinking he’s ill, then calls his friend Cameron – who is actually unwell – and guilt-trips him into coming over. He then phones the school and pretends that his girlfriend’s grandma has died, therefore getting Sloane out of class for the day. After borrowing Cameron’s father’s car, Ferris and Cameron collect Sloane and the trio drive the 15 miles or so into Chicago. Ferris has a hectic day planned, and in fact their itinerary would probably be impossible to achieve in the seven or so hours the story gives them. Nevertheless, the characters visit Sears Tower, then the world’s tallest building, and look down from 1,353 feet. They watch the goings-on at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. They blag their way into a posh restaurant called Chez Quis. They see part of a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field, where Ferris catches a foul ball. They visit the Art Institute of Chicago. And Ferris gatecrashes the annual Von Steuben Day Parade: he boards a float of Germanic women and mimes along to two songs. The latter gets thousands of people dancing, and brings the day to a rousing climax. After dropping Cameron and Sloane off, Ferris has to race home before his parents. He runs through gardens and other people’s houses, and is safely in bed when his mum and dad walk into his room… Throughout the movie, Ferris directly addresses the camera. Matthew Broderick had been talking to the audience in a Neil Simon play on Broadway immediately before filming, so was comfortable with the conceit. Hughes once said that, short of a 15-year-old James Stewart, Broderick was the only actor who could pull off Ferris’s charisma. (Jim Carrey, Tom Cruise, Michael J Fox and the nearly man of John Hughes teen comedies, John Cusack, were also considered.)

* Jeanie Bueller (Jennifer Grey) is Ferris’s sister. She knows his illness is faked, and becomes increasingly irritated with the fact he can get away with anything. Later, because everyone believes Ferris’s lie, a spontaneous ‘Save Ferris’ campaign strikes up at school and pushes Jeanie over the edge. In a jealous rage, she resolves to catch her brother out. The decision comes in a rather shaky tracking shot – the only time in the film that the camerawork is anything less than exemplary. She heads home and stumbles across a prowler, so knocks him out and calls the cops (who ask after Ferris’s wellbeing). The police eventually arrive, but arrest Jeanie for wasting their time. At the police station, she encounters a drug-addled teenager, who she initially hates. However, his plain talking makes her realise that her obsession with Ferris is unhealthy. So she later covers for Ferris when he’s finally caught skipping school by their headmaster.

* Simone Adamley (Kristy Swanson) is the girl in Ferris’s class who tells the teacher why he’s absent – “My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night…” Swanson was actually cast as another student: the one who speaks to Ferris on a payphone. But when the opportunity arose to shoot that scene quickly on location, another actress was used, so Swanson was given this tongue-twisting cameo. (She’d been in Pretty in Pink earlier that year.)

* Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) is Ferris’s best friend, but has a lot of issues. As Ferris says, “Cameron is so tight, if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you’d have a diamond.” When the film begins, Cameron is ill in bed. But then Ferris calls and convinces him to come round. (From this point on, aside from the very occasional sniff, he shows no sign at all of being under the weather!) Once at Ferris’s house, he helps in the ruse to get Sloane out of school by putting on a gruff voice, phoning the principle and pretending to be her father. Cameron’s father, meanwhile, owns a rare, gleaming, red, 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California. (Value in 1986: $350,000. One sold for $16.8m in 2015.) Despite Cameron’s nervous reticence, Ferris borrows it for the day – he promises to drive home backwards to hide any additional miles on the clock. When at the art gallery, Cameron stares at Georges Seurat’s pointillism masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884, and is affected by a child in the image. The closer he looks, the less he sees. When he and Sloane later have a heart-to-heart about their futures, it’s clear he’s at a crossroads: “What are you interested in?” she asks. “Nothing,” he says, with a knowing smile. “Me neither,” she laughs. Later, as the gang drive home, Cameron learns that the Ferrari’s speedometer has increased from “126 and halfway between three and four tenths” to 301.7. He freaks out and goes into a catatonic state. Concerned, Ferris and Sloane take him to a swimming pool – we never learn whose house it is – but he numbly topples into the water and sinks to the bottom. After a terrified Ferris dives in to save him, Cameron shrugs off his malaise and admits he fell into the pool as a joke. They all go back to Cameron’s house and attempt to rectify the car’s mileage by driving it in reverse with its wheels lifted off the ground. Of course, it doesn’t work. And in frustration with his domineering father, Cameron kicks the car so hard it crashes through a window and falls into a ravine. But it’s been an epiphany for him: he knows he needs to take the blame and stand up to his dad… The role of Cameron was offered to The Breakfast Club’s Emilio Estevez and Anthony Michael Hall, who each turned it down. Alan Ruck got the job and had recently been in a Broadway play with Broderick, which helped with the characters’ friendship here. A few years earlier, he’d auditioned to play Bender in The Breakfast Club.

* Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara) is Ferris’s girlfriend, who colludes with him to fake a dead grandparent so she can have the day off too. At one point, Ferris asks Sloane to marry him, but she balks at the idea as they’re so young. She also has a touching, platonic connection with Cameron. After Cameron’s catatonia, Sloane asks whether he watched her get undressed: he smirks. Molly Ringwald asked to play the role, but Hughes reckoned it was too small a part for his muse. It might also have been that he wanted someone more classically elegant for the part.

* An unnamed teenager in police station (Charlie Sheen) acts as a therapist for Jeanie when she’s arrested: “What do you care if your brother ditches school?” Jennifer Grey had recently worked with Sheen on Soviet-paranoia movie Red Dawn, so suggested him for this cameo role. He reportedly didn’t sleep the night before to help with the character’s spaced-out look and demeanour.

Adults:

* Katie and Tom Bueller (Cindy Pickett and Lyman Ward) are the loving but gullible parents of Ferris and Jeanie (and, as filmed, two other kids – but they were completely excised in editing!). She works as an estate agent; he’s a businessman in the city. Katie nips home at one point to check on her ‘sick’ son. She creeps into his room and sees him sleeping soundly – it’s actually a mannequin and an audio recording of snoring. Tom is actually at Chez Quis at the same time as his son, but never sees him. They later have another near-miss in a traffic jam. In real life, Pickett and Ward became a couple during production and later married.

* The school’s economics teacher (Ben Stein) has a droll, dead, lifeless voice. When reading out the register, he gets stuck twice when no one answers: firstly on “Bueller… Bueller… Bueller…”, then on “Frye… Frye… Frye…” He later gives a flat, uninspiring lecture on what George Bush Snr called voodoo economics. The actor improvised the scene.

* Edward R Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) is the dean of students at Ferris’s school, which is never named but presumably meant to be the same institution we saw in Hughes’s earlier films. When Ferris doesn’t show up for lessons, Rooney calls Mrs Bueller and admonishes her for his nine absent days. However, as he’s telling her, the number on his computer screen changes from nine to two: Ferris is at home, hacking into the school’s network. (Maybe he learnt how to do it from watching WarGames.) Rooney is determined to trap Ferris in his lie, and leaves school to track Ferris down. After trying a local bar, where he accidentally confronts a woman who looks like Ferris from behind (and misses seeing Ferris on TV at a ball game), he goes to the Bueller house. He tries to break in, but the family dog attacks him. After poisoning the pooch with flowers, Rooney sneaks into the house – but so does Jeanie, and the two come face to face in the kitchen. Jeanie screams and kicks him in the face. In a sublime bit of editing trickery, she runs all the way upstairs before he hits the floor. At last he rumbles Ferris, finding him trying to creep in before his parents see him – but Jeanie comes to her brother’s rescue. Dejected, Rooney leaves. However, his car has been towed away so he has to catch the school bus… Jeffrey Jones had played the inspiration for the character – the Emperor in 1984 movie Amadeus – so Hughes simply asked him to play the modern version.

* Grace (Edie McClurg) is Rooney’s off-kilter secretary. We first see her finding numerous forgotten pencils in her bouffant. Hughes cast McClurg again the following year, giving her a cameo-with-punchline in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

* An English teacher (Del Close) is giving a very pretentious lecture that’s boring the fuck out of Sloane when…

* …Florence Sparrow (Virginia Capers), the ridiculously named school nurse, arrives to tell Sloane the ‘news’ that her grandmother has died.

* The parking attendant in Chicago (Richard Edson) works for a company called A1 EZ OK Park. Ferris questions whether he can speak English because he looks vaguely foreign. “What country do you think this is?” he replies. Despite assuring Cameron that he’s a professional, he doesn’t park the Ferrari safely. Instead, he and a pal steal it for the day and drive recklessly round the city.

* The maître d’ of Chez Quis (Jonathan Schmock) is a snobby buffoon, who doesn’t react well when Ferris claims to be Abe Froman, the sausage king of Chiacgo. So Ferris uses a Hustle-style con involving phone lines to trick him into giving them a table.

* A singing telegram (Stephanie Blake) arrives at the Bueller household, dressed as a nurse and surrounded by other well-wishers. “I heard that you were feeling ill,” she sings. “Headache, fever and a chill. I came to help restore your pluck, cos the nurse who likes to–” Jeanie then slams the door in her face.

* A driver of a school bus (Dee Dee Rescher) offers Rooney a lift home during the end credits.

Close-ups: There are numerous examples of John Hughes’s love of storytelling through close-ups of inanimate objects. My favourites come when Rooney calls both the Peterson and Frye households to check on the cover story. In each instance, when we cut to the house all we see is a close-up of the answerphone. Sloane’s is surrounded by make-up, sunglasses and the colour pink; Cameron’s by medicine bottles. We don’t see wide shots of the room because the close-up tells us all we need to know.

Music: Terrific. The pumping electro-bass of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s Love Missile F1-11 scores Ferris’s lecture to camera about how to fake an illness. There are some really witty pieces of incidental music. Check out the early cue when we’re cutting between Ferris and Cameron talking on the phone. The former is having a tropical drink on a sun lounger, so the music is perky and summery; when we cut to the latter, who’s sick in bed, the tune turns dark and ominous. The kooky, catchy Oh Yeah by Yello is used twice: when we first see the Ferrari and over the end credits. The Flowerpot Men’s Beat City scores Ferris, Cameron and Sloane driving into Chicago. The Star Wars fanfare plays when the parking guys are racing around in the Ferrari. During the parade, Ferris mimes along to Wayne Newton’s Danke Schoen and the Beatles’ cover of Twist and Shout. (In a bit of foreshadowing, Ferris also sings a bit of the former in the film’s first five minutes. Jeanie later sings a bit of it too.) The terrific climactic sequence as Ferris races home is matched to the sound of The Beat’s March of the Swivelheads (a remix of Rotating Heads).

Beatles references: Ferris quotes a John Lennon lyric from his 1970 track God – “I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in me…” – then tells us Lennon was the walrus. The Twist and Shout sequence is an unparalleled release of joy on a monumental scale – just look how many extras there are! Paul McCartney once said he liked this film, but objected to Hughes dubbing brass instruments over the Beatles recording. Hughes was hurt to learn he’d upset a Beatle, but argued that the addition was only to match shots of the parade’s marching band. Hughes also once claimed that, while filming Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, he listened to the White Album every day for 56 days.

Smiths references: The sequence at the art gallery is scored by a gorgeous cover version of the Smiths’ Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want by The Dream Academy.

Review: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you could miss it.” This film is so many things at once. It’s a wish-fulfilment story along the lines of Weird Science. It’s a love letter to Chicago, John Hughes’s hometown, with loving helicopter shots and the camera swooning over architecture. It’s a demob-happy story about the end of an era – the two leads know their friendship may not survive them going to different colleges. It’s a superhero movie – how else do you explain Ferris’s ability to achieve what he achieves? It’s an assembly line of killer moments, witty dialogue, exciting sequences, scene-stealing cameos, laugh-out-loud comedy and – occasionally – genuine emotion. Above all, it’s *the* example of John Hughes the director. Working with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (Philadelphia, The Sixth Sense, 2004’s The Manchurian Candidate) and editor Paul Hirsch (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Mission Impossible), he created a classically beautiful piece of filmmaking. Seriously, watch it shot for shot. It’s stunning. The framings and compositions are just exquisite: beautifully balanced in and of themselves, but always telling the story or selling a joke or conveying an idea. (Notably, there’s no handheld camerawork at all. Ferris’s world is confident and precise.) This is the Pulp Fiction of teen comedies – everything may have been done before, but never with this amount of panache, this amount of style, this uncapped exuberance with the possibilities of cinema. But dry analysis shouldn’t – in fact, doesn’t – detract from how *massively* entertaining the film is to watch.

Ten righteous dudes out of 10

Ten Things I Love About… Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis)

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Warning: plot spoilers ahead. In fact, I’m assuming you know the film’s basic story.

This is not a review. (Want a review? “Perfect – 10 flux capacitors out of 10”.) Instead, it’s a love letter to one of the most important films in my life. Here’s a list of 10 areas in which I think Back to the Future especially excels.

1. It’s about time.
Unsurprisingly for a movie about time-travel, there’s a recurring theme of clocks and chronology. Time plays a huge role in the story, thematically as well as literally. The characters are often surrounded by reminders of it. The first thing we hear is ticking clocks; the first scene is a slow pan across dozens of timepieces. As the story begins, Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is carrying out an experiment and has set all these clocks to the wrong time, meaning Marty (Michael J Fox) is late for school. The time machine, meanwhile, has digital readouts specifying the time and date of each travel. Later, Marty is pestered by a woman wanting a donation for her campaign to save the town’s decrepit clock tower. When Marty reaches the 1950s, that clock is in working order: its deafening clang is a vivid pointer that he is actually in the past. Later, the same bell prevents Doc hearing important information from Marty. The writers’ original idea was for the story’s climax to take place at an out-of-town nuclear plant. What a smart move it was to change that and keep Hill Valley’s town clock central to proceedings. Much more satisfying.

2. A design for life.
Lawrence G Paull’s production design for this movie is just masterful. It does precisely what film design should do: the sets, costumes, props and locations create a fully believable setting, but they also *tell the story* just as cleverly as dialogue or acting. That’s really the key to this film, why it’s such a classic. Its story is explored via every tool in the cinematic workshop. For example, in the opening shot – a 126-second slow track through Doc’s house – we see newspapers hinting at the character’s back story. The camera then tilts down to his modest bed and cluttered belongings; then shows off his Heath Robinson gadgetry, including a device for feeding the dog. Before we ever clap eyes on him, some of Doc’s history, personality and situation are conveyed through visual means. The entire movie is crammed full of this kind of storytelling. Sometimes it’s big and obvious – for example, how bright and gleaming the 1950s are compared to the 1980s – but often it’s subtle. Doc’s house in the 1980s is a rundown shed; in the 1950s, that shed is just a workshop next to his enormous mansion. Without it being said, we infer that he’s on his uppers in later life.

3. Hiding in plain sight.
Again and again, the film plonks down huge clues and jokes and bits of information right in front of you, and dares you to spot the significance. Some examples… One of the clocks in the opening scene has a miniature Harold Lloyd hanging from its face… a situation Doc will later find himself in. We’re shown a seemingly random TV news report about some missing plutonium… which we soon learn the Doc has stolen. A poster in the town centre is asking people to re-elect the mayor… a man we’ll meet in 1955, when Marty gives him the idea to go into politics. Marty is handed a flyer about the clock tower’s history, which we think is important because his girlfriend has written her phone number on the back of it… but it’s actually the printed side that’ll prove vital. We see some boys in 1955 using proto-skateboards… one of which Marty later nabs for a getaway. All these things make repeat viewings an absolute blast. (If anyone mentions Twin Pines Mall, we all have to take a sip of our drink.)

4. “Marty!”
What a fantastic lead character Marty McFly is. He’s the audience’s point of view, and is in virtually every scene. He has energy, charm and wit. He wears sunglasses, a denim jacket and a body-warmer. He uses a skateboard and hangs Walkman headphones round his neck. He gives off an air of Ferris Bueller-like confidence, yet admits to being scared of rejection. And he has a cute girlfriend (who’ll get even cuter after a recast in the sequels). It’s amazing we don’t hate him – but we don’t. That’s down to Michael J Fox, who plays the role with fantastic comic energy. Equally important is the fact his performance has total sincerity. We believe in the situations because he does. It would have been so easy to play it detached or with a knowing irony, kind of like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters. Maybe that’s what Eric Stoltz, who was originally cast in the role, was doing before he was fired.

5. “Well, looky what we have here.”
There are so many fantastic jokes in the background of scenes or details tossed off without comment, and they’re often bits of comedy. It took me many viewings to appreciate the gag of Marty methodically fine-tuning a humungous amplifier… only to then use a laughably *tiny* guitar. Later, when Marty reaches 1955, a Ronald Reagan movie is playing at the local cinema. It’s a joke that works on two levels. Not only was Reagan US President at the time of the film’s release, but the reminder that he used to be actor sets us up for a gag from an incredulous Doc Brown. Another great example is how Marty and his dad do the exact same hand gesture when unknowingly sitting next to each other in a cafe.

6. “Don’t need no credit card to ride this train!”
There’s loads of music in this film (well, it was the 1980s). Huey Lewis and the News get two tracks – The Power of Love and Back in Time. The latter’s lyrics relate directly to the story, though I didn’t spot that for a stupidly long time. In a bit of postmodern humour, when Marty auditions for a battle-of-the-bands competition, he and his pals play The Power of Love and Huey Lewis cameos as the judge who doesn’t like it. From the present, there are songs by Lindsey Buckingham, Eric Clapton and Van Halen on the soundtrack; in the past, period tracks such as The Four Aces’ Mr Sandman and Etta James’s The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry) set the scene. Meanwhile, Alan Silvestri’s incidental music is just magic. Big and dramatic, it makes what is a reasonably small-scale movie feel like fucking Die Hard.

7. “I’m gonna clean up this town!”
Has there ever been a better film set than Hill Valley? For the production, an entire town square was built from scratch – and we see it in two different states. In 1985, it’s grimy and rundown, there’s graffiti, and it has a porno cinema. In 1955, it’s clean and verdant and full of life. (The name of the town is an oxymoron, by the way – it took me a long time to twig that.) You could watch this film and solely concentrate on how the shop fronts and other details change between decades. One great example is how the central square is a car park in 1985 yet in 1955 has a war memorial. Presumably it got bulldozed at some point.

8. “I’m writing this down – this is good stuff.”
The dialogue pulls off an astonishing trick. Pretty much every line is doing three things all at once: it’s moving the plot forward, it’s speaking to character, and it’s entertaining us with style. We’re constantly – and I mean constantly – being given vital story information, yet it never feels like dull exposition because it’s smuggled in under the cover of characterisation or comedy (or often both). Check out the early 1985 scene between Marty and his family, where Lorraine (Lea Thompson) talks about meeting George (Crispin Glover). The *entire* conversation is information we need to know for what’s going to happen in the story. It’s pure plot primer. Yet the scene is alive and fresh and funny and charismatic. It doesn’t feel like an info-dump. It feels like people talking. (As a scene that’s an exposition lecture and you just don’t notice, the only comparable example I can think of is the newsreel at the start of Citizen Kane.)

9. The right direction.
Robert Zemeckis does a quietly magnificent job directing this film. Every moment is paced to perfection and the flow from scene to scene is seamless. The film is fit to bursting with energy, while the camerawork – the movement, the framing, the mise-en-scene – is superb.

10. “Don’t be so gullible, McFly!”
Biff Tannen is one of cinema’s great bad guys, superbly played by Thomas F Wilson, who has to give us three versions of the same man. We see him in the 1980s, where he’s overweight, domineering and slovenly; in the 1950s, where he’s the arrogant school bully with a gang of hangers-on; and then back in the 80s, where he’s a subservient car-cleaner. Wilson pulls off all incarnations brilliantly. Biff is not a subtle character. He has no hidden depths. Yet the actor makes him so watchable. He also has a gag – “Why don’t you make like a tree and get out of here?” – that won’t get its punchline until the sequel.

11. (Did you seriously think I could limit this to just 10 things?!) By George!
Marty’s nerdy dad is the real heart of the story. In some ways, it’s *his* story: he’s the protagonist who’s trying to achieve something. (Marty is actually a complication.) When we get to the 1950s, George is sat at a café – but neither Marty nor us notice him at first. It’s then quite a moment when the realisation sinks in. Later, it’s a totally believable moment when George punches Biff and wins Lorraine’s heart, thanks in big part to Crispin Glover. The actor was clearly a bit of a fruit-loop back in the day, but he’s terrific in this film. (And, I learnt recently, is the son of Bruce Glover, who played assassin Mr Wint in Diamonds Are Forever.)

12. We are family.
Marty’s siblings aren’t in the film much – just one scene in each version of 1985. But they’re fab. Brother Dave is played by Marc McClure, fresh from four movies as Jimmy Olsen. Sister Linda is played by Wendie Jo Sperber.

13. “It’s written all over your underwear!”
Marty’s mum, Lorraine, is an old soak in 1985. She’s chavvy, a bit overweight and very world-weary. She condemns modern behaviour such as sitting in parked cars with boys, then bores her family with a well-worn story about she met her husband. But when we meet her in 1955 at the age of 17, she’s a right hottie. The young Lorraine is sweet and adorable, but also feisty and a bit of a secret rebel. Lea Thompson is wonderful at playing the two versions of the character (as well as a happy and trim 47-year-old at the end of the film). Despite young Lorraine’s lust for Marty, she doesn’t dismiss nervous George when he makes a play for her, which helps sell their eventual union. She also does all the things her grown-up self condemns: park with a boy, smoke, drink and flirt.

14. “Great Scott!”
We first see Dr Emmett L Brown driving his time machine out from a van, down the ramp surrounded by smoke. It’s a theatrical entrance for both the car and the Doc – though how he got into the motor when it was inside such a narrow van is another issue. He’s the epitome of the wild-haired, wild-eyed mad scientist, but has a huge likeability. (He’s one of the great Doctor Whos we never got.) It’s never revealed how Doc and Marty met or became such good friends, because we don’t especially need to know – it’s still a massive moment when the Doc is seemingly murdered at the end of the first act. In 1955, the younger version is just as bonkers. When Marty tracks him down, the 50s Doc is conducting a mind-reading experiment, then later builds a scale model of Hill Valley so he can demonstrate to Marty – and us – how the film’s climax will work. (Soon after this show-and-tell, he meets Lorraine: the only time in the entire trilogy that the two characters interact.) When Marty gets back to 1985, the Doc evades death by changing history. “What the hell?” he quips. He then features in a cliffhanger ending when he collects Marty and Jennifer to take them 30 years into the future (ie, to now).

15. “You built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?!”
A sports-car shape with a harsh, metallic finish and gull-wing doors? Well, it just looks cool, doesn’t it? Making the time machine a car – rather than a stationary capsule – was a masterstroke, giving movement and dynamism to the act of time-travel. (Surely HG Wells would have made this improvement if he’d done just one more draft. Or, you know, been writing after the invention of the car.) After each time-travel, the vehicle is icy cold and covered in mist. That idea got dropped for the sequels!

16. “Do you really think I oughta swear?”
Marty exclaims, “Holy shit!” a few times. When Biff attacks Lorraine, his intentions are shockingly obvious. And the entire emotional storyline is predicated on a mother falling romantically for her son. (Disney turned down the chance to make the film because of its Oedipal overtones.) For a ‘family film’, Back to the Future has an edge. And that makes it more interesting.

17. “Looks like an airplane… without wings!”
When Marty arrives in 1955, his silver car and yellow radiation suit trick a family of farmers into thinking he’s an alien crashed on earth. And Marty later uses the suit (and a Sony Walkman) to con George into believing ‘Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan’ has come to visit him. This old-school sci-fi paranoia is just one thread in the wonderful 1950s-ness of the film’s middle chunk. Nostalgia for that decade is seen a lot in American pop culture from the 1970s and 80s: Grease, Happy Days, American Graffiti, Stand By Me… But it’s especially apt in this movie. It’s the story of a teenager meeting his parents when they were teenagers – and the 1950s saw the birth of teenage culture.

18. “You know, Marty, you look so familiar. Do I know your mother?”
In 1955, Marty meets his mum’s family – Lorraine’s pregnant mother, her TV-fixing dad, and her siblings (one of whom is Kevin Arnold’s brother from The Wonder Years). They get one scene and very nearly steal the film. There’s the joke about baby Joey enjoying being behind bars, Marty being uncomfortable with Lorraine’s flirting, Marty recognising the Jackie Gleason show on TV because he’s already seen it, and the dad not knowing who John F Kennedy is.

19. New things.
I’ve seen this film dozens of times, yet I always spot something new every time I watch it. The two things that dropped into my mind this time are both pretty obvious, yet I’ve never considered them in 30 years. At the start of the film, Marty and his band audition for a panel of judges… on the *same stage* that Marty will play Johnny B. Goode at the end of the film. Never made that connection before. Also, the movie establishes that Twin Pine Malls is around two miles from the centre of Hill Valley. Yet at the film’s climax, Marty runs that distance in *under nine minutes*. No wonder he’s out of breath.

20. “Let’s do something that really cooks!”
I don’t have children, but I’m certain Sophie’s choice would be preferable to selecting just one favourite moment of Back to the Future. But for its sheer joyfulness, why don’t we focus on Marty’s stint as replacement guitarist with dance band Marvin Berry and the Starlighters? It’s maybe not the most vital scene in terms of the plot, though Marty’s erratic guitar playing is a neat illustration of the timeline being under threat. But it’s so, so fun. Once George and Lorraine have hooked up – to the swell of the band playing Earth Angel – the camera cranes up and back, signifying that the storyline is concluded. Then Marty is asked to play another song. He tells the band, “It’s a blues riff in B; watch me for the changes and try to keep up, okay?” then rips into Johnny B. Goode, wowing the crowd with a burst of nascent rock-n-roll. They’ve never heard the song before; no one has. Marty is seemingly inventing a genre on the spot. Lead singer Marvin Berry is so impressed that he telephones his cousin so he can hear the song. “Chuck? Chuck? It’s your cousin, Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you looking for? Well, listen to this!” Hashtag bootstrap paradox. Marty then goes off-piste, throwing in impressions of Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townsend, which just bemuses the entire room. “I guess you guy aren’t ready for that yet,” he says after finishing. “But your kids are gonna love it.”

21. Summing up?
This post is three thousand words and I’ve barely got started. The film has surgical attention to detail, but never loses sight of the big picture. It’s played at a lick, but never feels rushed. It’s funny, poignant, clever, exciting and witty. It has *huge* heart, but is never soppy. There’s dramatic irony, but it’s never smug. The camerawork and editing are aimed precisely at where the story is, never showing off. Plot, character, action and comedy are all intertwined all of the time – it’s the greatest ever example of this. I don’t remember the first time I saw Back to the Future. It was on a rental video, and must have been in around 1986. (I’ve since seen it on a big screen three times: at an independent cinema in 2000 and twice during a re-release in 2010.) In my mind, it’s just always been there, always been a part of my life. Always been a friend.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After their encounter during the destruction of the Death Star, Darth Vader is determined to track down the hero of the rebellion, Luke Skywalker – but young Luke is learning more and more about the Force…

WHICH VERSION? The original 1980 cut (as released on DVD in 2006). I like pedantry as much as the next geek, but childhood habit stops me calling it Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

GOOD GUYS

* Commander Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his pals in the Rebel Alliance are hiding out on the snow-covered planet of Hoth. Non-diegetic sources tend to claim this film is set three years after the events of Star Wars, but it feels more like a few weeks to me. Early on, Luke is attacked and captured by a bear-like creature – a sequence cooked up to explain some scars Mark Hamill had from a 1977 car accident – and uses his Force powers to escape. He then plays a big role as the Rebels evacuate the planet after the bad guys find them. But when Ben’s ghost pops up and tells Luke to go to the planet Dagobah, he abandons his pals with no explanation and heads off. On Dagobah, he finds Jedi master Yoda, who further teaches him the ways of the Force. One of his trials is a surreal sequence where he imagines fighting Darth Vader. After a slow-motion lightsaber duel, Vader’s mask is blown away… to reveal Luke’s face. It’s an omen of Luke’s future if he goes down a certain path. He then gets a precognitive vision of Han, Leia and the others in danger (which we don’t see, slightly oddly), so abandons his training to go help them. Fickle, isn’t he? Arriving at Bespin, he fights Vader for real and gets his hand chopped off. (Astonishingly, it’s 96 minutes into film two before Luke and Darth Vader actually meet.) In one of cinema’s best – but most widely known – plot twists, Luke then learns that Darth Vader is actually his father. Upset, he escapes Vader and is later fitted with a skin-covered robotic hand.

* Captain Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is now a full-time member of the Alliance, but he knows he’s a dead man unless he pays off his debt to Jabba the Hutt so says he’ll have to leave. (Princess Leia is clearly upset by this, but would never admit it.) While the rebels evacuate from their Hoth base, he’s frantically tinkering away on the broken-down Millennium Falcon. He won’t leave until he knows Leia is safe, though (what a hero!), and actually takes her with him when she can’t get to her transport. To avoid the Imperial ships, Solo flies into an asteroid field then hides inside a big one. Later, the gang end up in Cloud City, a floating gas mine on the planet Bespin. When the Imperial forces arrive and capture our heroes, Han is tortured then cryogenically frozen and given to bounty hunter Boba Fett.

* Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) wants to make Han jealous, so early on gives Luke a robust kiss on the lips (she’ll regret that later!). She’s in charge of the rebel forces, but is separated from them after the evacuation. She and Han trade sarcasm like petulant schoolkids, but clearly fancy the pants off each other. They actually share a sweet scene together when the facades drop for a moment, but C-3PO interrupts their first kiss. The bickering is forgotten about when Han is later captured and tortured by Darth Vader. In one of the film’s best moments (in one of *film’s* best moments), a terrified Leia says, “I love you,” and Han stoically replies, “I know.” After Han has been frozen, Leia gets her fuck-you on again as she realises they can save Han – you wouldn’t cross her – but his rescue will have to wait for the next movie. Afterwards, she psychically hears Luke’s call for help: a hint that maybe she has some Force skills of her own?

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is upset when his path diverges from his friend R2-D2. On Bespin, he stumbles across some hidden Imperial troops and they dismantle him. Thankfully, Chewy soon finds all the bits and begins to reconstitute his pal. Near the end, 3PO shares a scene with Darth Vader – the only time the two are in the same room in the entire original trilogy. Given that C-3PO is in a sack on Chewy’s back, we can forgive Vader for not recognising him from the prequels.

* General Rieekan (Bruce Boa) is a high-ranking rebel leader who presumably enjoys Waldorf salads.

* R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) goes with Luke to Dagobah, but he doesn’t enjoy it: he falls in a swamp, is menaced by a monster and gets left out in the rain. He’s involved more later on in the Bespin scenes.

* Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) doesn’t get a huge amount of focus – rescuing C-3PO is his main contribution.

* Major Derlin (John Ratzenberger) is a rebel officer who presumably enjoys recounting dubious anecdotes in bars.

* Ben ‘Obi-Wan’ Kenobi (Alec Guinness) appears only as a ghostly image and gives Luke vital plot information and emotional guidance. He’s had a haircut in the afterlife.

* Wedge Antilles (Denis Lawson) is one of the rebel pilots on Hoth; he was also in Star Wars, but I neglected to mention him.

* Yoda (Frank Oz) is a muppet with the voice of Fozzie Bear. In broken, jumbled-up English speaks he does. He’s short, green and elderly, and seems to be vague and comedic, so Luke at first doesn’t realise that he’s the Jedi master Ben recommended. Yoda is at least 800 years old, and he trained both Ben and Luke’s dad. The last we see of him, he’s making an enigmatic reference to Luke not being the good guys’ *only* hope… As well as Frank Oz and his team of puppeteers, Mark Hamill must take credit for how well the character works. By playing the scenes so sincerely, he makes us believe in Yoda as a character.

* Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) is a gambler and all-round cad, who’s now the administrator of the Art Deco-styled Cloud City. He and Han go way back – Han won the Falcon from him, in fact – while he takes an instant shine to Leia. Han’s right not to trust him, though: Lando’s being blackmailed into delivering our heroes to Darth Vader. (Because of this betrayal, my six-year-old self would object to him being listed under ‘Good guys’.)

* Lobot (John Hollis, and not Mr Strickland from Back to the Future as I used to think as a child) is Lando’s mute, part-robotic sidekick.

BAD GUYS

* Darth Vader (body: David Prowse, voice: James Earl Jones) has been obsessed with finding Luke since their paths crossed in Star Wars. Now the Death Star’s gone, he hangs out on a Super Star Destroyer – a city-sized space ship – and we see him sitting in his giant, golf-ball-shaped command centre. No longer tempered by Grand Moff Tarkin, he seems to have executive power over the Imperial forces, though he kowtows to the Emperor when they talk over Skype. For the first time, we get a glimpse under Vader’s mask – he has a hairless, scarred head. Creepy!

* Admiral Ozzel (Michael Sheard) is an Imperial officer who presumably enjoys being the deputy headmaster of Grange Hill. Vader kills him after he misjudges a manoeuvre.

* Captain Piett (Ken Colley) is an officer who presumably enjoys playing Jesus in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. He gets promoted to admiral after Ozzel’s death.

* General Veers (Julian Glover) is an officer who presumably enjoys being the baddie in both For Your Eyes Only and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He commands the Imperial troops as they attack Hoth.

* The Emperor (body: Elaine Baker, voice: Clive Revill) appears as a hologram projection when he contacts Vader wanting an update.

* Boba Fett (body: Jeremy Bulloch, voice: Jason Wingreen) is one of a gaggle of bounty hunters hired by Darth Vader to locate and capture the Millennium Falcon and its crew. Attentive fans at the time will have recognised him from the 1978 TV special. Fett easily tracks the Falcon to Bespin, then the last we see of him he’s carting Han off to Jabba the Hutt.

* Captain Bewil (Milton Johns) is an Imperial officer who presumably enjoys running the corner shop in Coronation Street. He seems to have a different voice for each of his two lines.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: Luke and Vader’s lightsaber duel. It begins in a smoky, archly lit industrial space. Luke gets sweaty but is able to use his Force skills to escape being frozen. The pair then end up on an unbelievably high gantry: Vader cuts Luke’s hand off and implores him to join the Dark Side, but Luke refuses. Vader then reveals that he’s Luke’s dad, and Luke is all like ‘What the actual fuck?!’

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Han and Leia’s relationship is a succession of smartly written and brilliantly played moments, many of them sharp and witty, all of them brimming with sexual tension. The best comes when Leia falls onto Han’s lap and he grabs hold of her. She demands to be let go. “Don’t get excited,” he says. “Captain, being held by you isn’t quite enough to get me excited,” she replies huffily. “Sorry, sweetheart,” he says with a scintillating smirk, “haven’t got time for anything else.”

MUSIC: Even better than in the first movie. Scene after scene is scored by music of world-beating quality. Just check out the action sequence in the asteroid field! John Williams has also added a killer new theme – the Nazi-like Imperial March.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: When I was a child, I was allowed to rent one film a week from the local video shop in Ormskirk. I picked a Star Wars movie most weeks, occasionally slipping in The Karate Kid or Back to the Future or Superman III or Ghostbusters or whatever just for variation. So I’d seen this film several dozen times before I even owned a copy. I first bought it on VHS when the series was released in widescreen in about 1991.

REVIEW: Like any great sequel – The Godfather Part II, Aliens, From Russia With Love, Terminator 2, Police Academy 5 – this takes what worked in the first film, and then pushes every dial up a notch or three. So while the ambition, scale and spectacle get even bigger, the emotion becomes richer, the storyline more nuanced and the comedy wittier. This is Star Wars plus complexity. Star Wars plus feeling. Star Wars plus subtext. It’s irresistible to assume the credit must lie with the new injection of behind-the-scenes talent. Not having enjoyed the first film’s shoot, George Lucas took an executive-producer role and hired his old film-school lecturer Irvin Kershner as director. His contribution is superb. The first film rode along on a swashbuckling wave. This one does too, but it also puts us much more inside people’s heads. There’s added *soul* to what’s happening. There’s also a noticeable increase of comedy and characterisation. Han and Leia’s bickering is a never-ending thrill: their dialogue constantly fizzes with energy and charisma. Han and Luke’s friendship is similarly believable and fun, though they get very little time together. Even Darth Vader is less of a cartoon villain now: he has goals and desires and moods. As well as a new director, Lucas employed two new writers. Leigh Brackett, who had plenty of film-noir credentials, worked on a draft but then died – so Lawrence Kasdan, who later wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, was drafted in and he created magic. The script is wonderfully structured – there’s lots of edge-of-your-seat action, meaningful character moments and some terrific intercutting of the plot strands. And the story has a real sense of the shit hitting the fan again and again. Plans go awry, technology breaks down, characters are betrayed. It’s gripping stuff. Meanwhile, there’s a fresh visual tone from new director of photography Peter Suschitzky (Melody, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Krull, lots of David Cronenberg films). The cinematography is a galactic leap forward from the first film, which was actually shot quite flatly. The Empire Strikes Back is a beautiful movie. It uses shallow focus, moody and expressionistic lighting, faces lit by in-scene sources, lots of smoke, and some fantastic bold colours. (Just look at the reds and blues doing battle!) The first Star Wars film was more or less perfect. This is better.

Eleven stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herders out of 10

The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)

The Dark Knight

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Gotham City is terrorised by a maniac calling himself the Joker…

Good guys: Wayne Manor has been destroyed, so Bruce Wayne is now living in a penthouse and using a secret base underneath the docks for all his secret Batman stuff. Early on, he goes to Hong Kong to find a fleeing money launderer and delivers him to Gotham’s District Attorney, Harvey Dent. Bruce sees Dent as the new crime-fighting hope for the city, so also helps him by throwing a big fundraiser. But when the Joker begins his reign of terror, Batman faces a dilemma – reveal his real identity or risk more people being killed… So he destroys all evidence of his activities and prepares to ‘come out’, yet Harvey beats him to it and announces that *he’s* the Batman. It’s a trap to lure the Joker out, but he soon escapes and kills Bruce’s childhood friend, Rachel Dawes. After capturing the Joker and saving Jim Gordon’s family from Dent (who’s gone loopy, murdered some people and is then killed himself), Batman falls a long way and is injured. In order to maintain Dent’s reputation as Gotham’s rallying-call hero, Batman chooses to take the blame for Dent’s actions and goes on the run… As in Batman Begins, Bruce has a trio of older men who help him out – Alfred (Michael Caine), Lucius (Morgan Freeman) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). Alfred offers sound advice, Lucius gets to go on the Hong Kong mission, while Gordon plays a big role in the plot: he’s stages his death to trick the Joker, then gets promoted to police commissioner.

Bad guys: The Joker (Heath Ledger) is a psycho-punk terrorist – he’s tellingly referred to by that word – with blurred clown make-up, facial scars and a charity-shop suit. He is “an agent of chaos” who revels in destruction. In a brilliant move that makes him more mythic, we never find out who he is or where he’s from, and he tells contradictory but always chilling stories about how he got his scars. As the story begins, the Joker is knocking off mob banks. He then goes to the gangsters and offers to kill Batman for half of their fortune. When he’s arrested, he arranges for Dent and Rachel to be kidnapped – Rachel is killed and Dent is severely injured. The Joker escapes by taunting a policeman into fighting him, then blowing up the station with a bomb smuggled in inside a prisoner’s stomach. He gets all the mob’s money back and burns his half because it’s mayhem and disorder he wants, not cash. He then puts explosives on two ferries – one carrying civilians, one carrying convicts – and gives each the detonator for the other boat’s bomb. It’s a morbid social experiment designed to test Gotham’s morality. The last we see of him, he’s hanging upside down from a rope – high above Gotham and laughing uncontrollably. Ledger *commands* the film whenever he’s on screen. It’s a thrilling performance – as mercurial as it is manic. He’s full of threat and danger and menace.

Other guys: Aaron Eckhart (very good) plays Harvey Dent, the charismatic new DA who’s dating Rachel Dawes. He shows his mettle early on by disarming a witness who pulls a gun on him in court, then complains when the guy is taken away: “But, your honour, I’m not done…” He impresses everyone with his dedication to bringing down the mob – but when Jim Gordon is ‘killed’ and Rachel identified as the Joker’s next target, Dent’s anger boils over and he kidnaps a henchman. He tosses a coin to see whether the guy should live or not… He then pretends to be Batman in order to draw the Joker out of hiding, but the Joker retaliates by tying him up next to some barrels of flammable liquid. When a bomb goes off while Batman’s saving him, half of Dent’s face is burnt away; elsewhere, Rachel is killed. Now fully off the deep end, Dent goes on a revenge spree – killing gangsters based on a coin-toss decisions and even kidnapping Jim Gordon’s family… The role of Rachel, meanwhile, has been recast since Batman Begins. Katie Holmes declined to return (no great loss), so we now have Maggie Gyllenhaal, who’s *much* better. She’s a stronger presence in the story, feels like a grown-up and is a lot more interesting. Also on show are: Anthony Michael Hall as a TV reporter; Nestor Carbonell (Richard from Lost) as the mayor; Eric Roberts as mob boss Sal Maroni; Chin Han as the money launderer Lau; and Cillian Murphy, who reprises the Scarecrow from Batman Begins in a fun cameo.

Best bits:

* The incidental music by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It’s one of cinema’s great scores – often scratchy, unsettling, nightmarish, unbearably taut and foreboding, sometimes sweeping and bombastic.

* The opening image – a slow helicopter shot tracking in towards a skyscraper’s window, which then smashes open.

* The prologue. Clown-masked bad guys burst into a bank, each killing a colleague as his usefulness passes. The casting of William Fichtner as the bank manager is a deliberate nod to the 1995 film Heat, in which he featured and which was a massive influence on this movie. The sequence is capped by the Joker pulling off his mask to reveal his terrifying face: “Whatever doesn’t kill you,” he snarls, “makes you *stranger*.”

* Gotham City Police Department’s noticeboard of Batman suspects: Elvis, Abraham Lincoln and Bigfoot.

* The fake Batmans (Batmen?) in hockey pads.

* Bruce crashes Rachel’s date with Harvey Dent so he can see the new DA up close. When Harvey says the restaurant might not let them push two tables together, Bruce says, “Oh, they should. I own the place.”

* The Joker walks in on the gangster’s powwow.

* The Joker’s magic trick: making a pencil disappear.

* Oh, look: it’s Chucky Venn from EastEnders as a mob henchman.

* “Why so serious?!”

* While reeling off the multitudinous charges facing the mob – “Seven hundred and 12 counts of extortion, 849 counts of racketeering, 246 counts of fraud, 87 counts of conspiracy murder, 527 counts of obstruction of justice…” – the judge finds a joker player card amongst her papers. She ain’t long for this world, then.

* Harvey asks Alfred about Rachel: “Any psychotic ex-boyfriends I should know about?” “Oh, you have no idea…”

* The Joker terrorises the fundraiser.

* The Joker dangles Rachel out of a window. “Let her go!” order Batman. The Joker says, “Very poor choice of words…”

* The executive who figures out that Bruce Wayne is Batman and goes to Lucius Fox to extort him. Lucius says: “Let me get this straight. You think that your client, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands – and your plan is to blackmail this person?! Good luck.”

* Gordon is shot while protecting the mayor.

* Oh, look: it’s Sarah Jayne Dunn from Hollyoaks as Maroni’s bored girlfriend.

* The action scene with the armoured vans. It begins on urban city streets, then goes down to the claustrophobic lower levels. Batman starts in the familiar Tumbler Batmobile, but then detaches the front axle and it becomes his new Batpod motorbike. The Joker and his crew have an 18-wheel articulated lorry with a graffiti S added before its ‘Laughter is the best medicine’ logo. The chase is tense and visceral, and there’s a seamless blend of genuine stunt work, scale models and judicious CGI. The best moment is the lorry flipping over lengthways: an audacious stunt clearly done for real.

* The lights suddenly go on in the interrogation room and we see Batman stood behind the Joker.

* The mobile phone inside a guy’s stomach.

* The Joker hanging his head out of a car window like a dog.

* Harvey’s burnt face – a superb special effect.

* The Joker’s massive pile of money, which he then burns.

* The Joker dressed as a nurse – wig and all – but still with the same macabre make-up.

* The Joker blowing up a hospital. There’s a glorious shot of him walking towards camera as explosions go off in the background; they come to a stop, so he shakes his remote-control gizmo and pushes a button; this kicks off the collapse of the entire building – all done in one single take.

* The camera turning upside down so the Joker, hanging high above Gotham by his feet, appears the right way up.

* The final montage – Gordon trashing Batman’s reputation and praising Harvey Dent, all for the greater good.

Review: This film has such a pulse. A heartbeat. An unstoppable momentum. Director Christopher Nolan used IMAX cameras for key action sequences, which makes the whole thing feel absolutely enormous. It’s an epic story on a massive canvass, and has more wide, open spaces than any other Batman. You feel the city stretching out beyond the borders of every frame. A big influence is the Michael Mann crime thriller Heat (if you don’t know it, check it out: it’s wonderful). There are many similarities between the two: a sense of tension always bubbling away under the surface; a personality-driven conflict between the good guy and the bad guy; a tense bank raid that shows off the villain’s ruthless determination; and the use of a city as a character in its own right… Also, as in Heat, The Dark Knight’s two principle players – Batman and the Joker – are not a million miles apart. They’re both ‘freaks’ using force to impose their will. The Dark Knight starts off as a gangster plot. How can Batman and the cops bring down the mob? And it’s based on standard tropes of good guys and bad guys, mobsters and the police, law and order and courts and judges. Everyone knows where there are. But the injection of the Joker – a shot of spiked adrenalin – adds unpredictability and uncertainty to everything. The film soon becomes a post-9/11 story about terrorism, democracy vs fascism, and whether ends can justify means. How do you deal with or defeat someone who doesn’t play by your rules? How important are civil liberties and personal privacy when you’re trying to protect society? There are no easy answers. The Joker is entropy-in-action: a force of nature constantly chipping away at Gotham City’s structured society and revelling in the decay. He can’t be reasoned with and he can’t be intimidated – and that’s terrifying. Big, bold, complex, provocative and dangerous, this is the superhero genre’s equivalent of The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back. It’s monumental. Daunting. Impressive. Threatening. Challenging. Fascinating. *Ambitious*. It’s the best film so far this century. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface with this review.

Ten school buses out of 10.

Next time: Mumble mumble Gotham’s reckoning! mumble mumble…

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

raidersofthelostark

When the Nazis get close to discovering the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant, archaeologist/teacher/adventurer Indiana Jones sets out to beat them to it…

Seen before? Yes, lots. It was one of the key movies of my childhood.

Best performance: I’m going to have to split this award again. I’ve had a man crush on Harrison Ford since I was about five years old; he is masculinity personified, as far as I’m concerned. Droll, sarcastic, laconic, charming, charismatic, strong, equally assured with action and comedy: he’s the greatest movie star of all time. Meanwhile, Karen Allen plays Marion Ravenwood, the kind of fantastic female character – feisty, sassy, smart and tough – that used to be common in genre cinema but seem to have all but vanished. (Seriously, where are the modern equivalents of Princess Leia, Lois Lane, Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley and the like?)

Best scene/moment/sequence: The chase sequence in Cairo, with goons trying to kidnap Marion, is a riot. It’s playfully shot and scored, and is very, very entertaining. The famous highlight is the moment where a weary and pissed-off Indy comes face-to-face with a menacing swordsman… and just shoots him dead rather than have to fight him.

Review: Outside of maybe Star Wars, it’s difficult to think of a more thrilling, more captivating, more downright enjoyable adventure ride of a film. From its spooky, enigmatic opening to its Biblical ending – via globetrotting locations, action scenes galore, plenty of macabre touches and tons of sharply written dialogue – this is escapist storytelling as good as it gets. The cast are all super – Ford, Allen, Paul Freeman, John Rhys Davies, Denholm Elliot, Ronald Lacey, all understanding the swashbuckling tone perfectly. The music is out of this world. And the direction is breathtaking. Even though I know Raiders so well, each time I see it I’m bowled over by how inventive, interesting and witty many of the shots are and how pacey the film is. The whole thing has peerless panache.

Ten melting faces out of 10.

Licence to Kill (John Glen, 1989)

Licence to Kill

Nasty, brutal, violent and upsetting – this is something special. If your preferred brand of Bond is more lighthearted or gag-heavy, then look away now: I’m about to GUSH.

This is my favourite James Bond film of them all. The stakes aren’t world domination or stolen nuclear weapons – they’re *emotional*. Bond is out for revenge because his friends have been barbarically attacked, which gives the whole film weight and passion. The story is loosely based on 1961 Japanese movie Yojimba (no, I’ve never seen it either, but A Fistful of Dollars also used the same format) where one man brings down a large criminal organisation through guile and courage and determination. The beauty of the plot is really quite something: who knows what, when and how, is worked out with both clockwork precision and poetic panache. It’s a constantly evolving and moving-forward story where characters learn things and we learn things about them; and where things happen for reasons. “There’s more to this than your personal vendetta,” Bond gets told at one point – quite right: as well as the main thrust, there are a variety of nuanced subplots (Heller and the Stingers, the Hong Kong investigation, Sanchez’s massive drug deal). 10 cigarette lighters out of 10.

Bond: I once saw a review of this movie that claimed Timothy Dalton failed as James Bond because he played him as someone who gets upset when his friends are killed. This is why I think he *succeeded*. His anger and turmoil are palpable, but his plan to bring down drug baron Sanchez is cold and calculated: a fascinating combination. Dalton recognised that Bond is a killer, a murderer at times, not a detached playboy. This film, aptly given its emotional resonance, features the third reference to Bond’s late wife.

Villains: Franz Sanchez is our bad guy, a 1980s drug lord. He cuts out a guy’s heart, whips his girlfriend, offers and makes good on a $2 million bribe, feeds Felix Leiter to a shark, has a pet iguana and wears sandals and a cardigan. He’s played by Robert Davi. The previous year, he’d been one of two FBI agents in Die Hard who were both called Johnson – coincidentally, the other Agent Johnson, actor Grand L Bush, is also in Licence to Kill. Sanchez’s henchmen include sadistic Dario (Benicio Del Toro in an early role), creepy Milton Krest (a character from a Fleming story story played by Anthony Zerbe), slimy Wall Street twat Truman-Lodge and duplicitous heavy Colonel Heller.

Girls: The beautiful Talisa Soto plays Sanchez’s girlfriend, Lupe Lamora, and is very good in a role much better written than the usual ‘secondary Bond girl’ parts. Della Churchill, who marries Felix in the film’s opening, is played by Priscilla Barnes – she later appeared as a three-nippled fortune teller in Mallrats. The bank manager is Isthmus City has a very pretty assistant, while Sanchez hires a roomful of call girls to impress some businessmen. But the highlight is pilot and CIA informant Pam Bouvier, played by Carey Lowell. She is, frankly, the best Bond girl of the entire series. Yes, better even than Diana Rigg’s Tracy. She’s a confident, strong, capable, sassy and sophisticated woman who’s as sexy as fuck. She brings a shotgun to a meeting. She rescues Bond’s arse quite a few times. She swears. She hides a gun in her stockings. Best of all, she’s a protagonist: an active player in the story who has her own agenda and makes her own decisions. Every now and again, the Bond films have tried to make the female lead more of 007’s ‘equal’. Sometimes it works, sometime it doesn’t – Pam Bouvier is knock-it-out-of-the-park, sing-it-from-the-hilltops, jump-up-and-down successful. I’ve been in love with her since I was 11 years old.

Regulars: David Hedison, easily the best Felix Leiter we’ve had, becomes the first actor to play the role twice. The believable friendship he and Dalton create is integral to the story – and what happens to Felix in this movie is vicious. M flies out to Florida to reprimand 007 (at Ernest Hemingway’s house for some reason). It’s an electric scene. “Oh, spare me the sentimental rubbish,” snaps M, which is possibly a deliberate mission statement for the series’s new direction. Bond tries resigning and his licence to kill is revoked. Bond hands over his weapon, but then legs it – he’s on his own now, isolated and a one-man army. Moneypenny gets just one short scene, wimpering at her desk as she worries about James: poor Caroline Bliss, who we won’t be seeing again! But whereas she’s barely featured, Q gets his most substantial role yet. He takes leave from MI6 so he can fly to Central America, pose as Bond’s uncle and help him out. He brings a suitcase of gadgets, which get shown off in the film’s most trad-Bond scene. Q and Pam then strike up a lovely double act, the two people who care about Bond but he won’t ‘let in’.

Action: There’s the opening skirmish as the DEA try to arrest Sanchez; it concludes with Bond dangling from a helicopter and tying a cord around Sanchez’s getaway plane in midair. Sanchez later escapes by engineering it so a police van drives into the sea, where divers are waiting to rescue him. Bond beats up a couple of goons at Krest’s warehouse, then coldly murders the traitor Killifer. Bond sneaks onto Krest’s boat and audaciously steals his payment for a drug deal after a scrap with some heavies and a water-ski stunt. Moments after Bond meets Pam, there’s one of 80s cinema’s classic barroom brawls (the movie becomes Road House for a couple of minutes). Bond’s attempt to assassinate Sanchez is interrupted by ninjas from the Hong Kong police – the capture him and are then overpowered by Sanchez’s men (a lovely example of the plotting: because Bond has been tied up, Sanchez assumes he is an enemy of his enemies). There’s also the chaos at the refinery, including Bond’s fight with Dario, followed by the epic tanker chase (one of the best action runs in all of Bond). By its end, James is cut, battered, bruised and wearing a ruined suit: this film has HURT.

Comedy: Often black. When Bond discovers shark-chewed Felix, the bad guys have left a note that says, ‘He disagreed with something that ate him.’ Wayne Newton – an easy-listening singer whose biggest hit was Danke Schoen, which I only know from Ferris Bueller – appears as fake TV evangelist Professor Joe and gets some smarmy laughs. Dalton is on fine irritable form: “I hope you don’t snore, Q,” he snarls when forced to share a bedroom; “Piss off,” he underplays to a tight-arsed agent who questions him. The look of contentment on a henchman’s face when Lupe talks to him is very funny. “What about the money, patrón?” asks a goon when some cash gets covered with blood. “Launder it,” is Sanchez’s deadpan reply. My favourite laugh in the film comes when a furious Pam learns Bond has slept with Lupe. “Don’t judge him too harshly, my dear,” says an avuncular Q. “Field operatives must use every means at their disposal to achieve their objectives.” Pam, arms crossed and seething, just snaps, “Bullshit!”

Music: John Barry had quit the series (due to either throat surgery or after a tiff with A-ha, depending on which source you read), so Michael Kamen was hired to score this one. He wrote the music for many fine 1980s movies – The Dead Zone, Brazil, Highlander, the Lethal Weapons, the Die Hards – as well as TV classic Edge of Darkness. Here he gives us a dark, brooding, dangerous score with a Latin feel at times. The theme tune is sung by Gladys Knight and is based on the famous horn phrase from Goldfinger.

Personal connection: In 1989, I went to the cinema (I think for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and saw a poster in the lobby promoting the upcoming Licence to Kill. I’d been very excited about the new Bond because of a behind-the-scenes programme I’d seen on ITV. I was therefore *gutted* when I realised it was a 15 certificate. I was 10, so wouldn’t be able to go.