Glass (2019)

2019 #7
M. Night Shyamalan | 129 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Glass

About 18 years ago, I first watched Unbreakable on DVD. It was the new film from M. Night Shyamalan — a name no one knew a year or two earlier, but the huge success of The Sixth Sense had somehow catapulted him to the top of the zeitgeist, where he was talked about as the new Hitchcock or Spielberg. Maybe no one could spell or pronounce it (I remember a lot of “Shamalamadingdong”s), but for some reason this wasn’t just “The New Film from the Guy Who Directed The Sixth Sense“, it was “The New Film from M. Night Shyamalan”. Anyway, it had met a mixed reception, but for some people it worked, and I joined their ranks. From there, it seems to have developed something of a cult following — it has many ardent fans, but others still don’t get it.

In interviews, Shyamalan mentioned that Unbreakable’s plot had originally been just the first act of the film, until he decided to expand it to the whole movie, and so he had ideas that acts two and three might become two further movies and form a trilogy. There began a long wait for the film’s fans, ever hoping that one day Shyamalan — whose reputation went steadily and increasingly downhill with every film he made from that point — would come back round and continue what he’d started. I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, but I’d begun to give up hope: in December 2016, I added Unbreakable to my 100 Favourites series, and in that post I wrote, “16 years on, I guess hopes of a continuation are long dead.”

Six-and-a-half weeks later, Split was released. You probably know the rest.

Mr Glass, the Horde, and the Overseer

…but in case you don’t: Split was a stealth sequel to Unbreakable, only revealed in its very last scene when Bruce Willis suddenly appeared and name-checked Samuel L. Jackson’s character. I say “only” revealed — I found out on Twitter, the first day after the film went on general release. Damn you, internet! But anyway, the point is: suddenly the hope was back alive. And it was confirmed to be so shortly afterwards, when Shyamalan announced that a sequel to Unbreakable and Split had been officially greenlit.

Now, I’ve devoted a massive chunk of this review to that history lesson for one reason: to make it clear just how much I was anticipating this movie. I’m certainly not alone in that; but if you’re not someone who saw Unbreakable almost two decades ago and have been hoping for a sequel ever since, I hope the last few paragraphs gave you some perspective of how those of us who did feel about Glass finally being here. This is my most anticipated superhero movie in a year that also includes an Avengers that will tackle the fallout from a humungous cliffhanger, a new X-Men (a series I also love), a new Spider-Man (which I think looks great), and more (the most superhero movies in one year ever, apparently). So, for some of us, this has a lot of expectation to live up to.

And I think expectations — whether they come from the previous films, the trailers, critics’ reviews, or what have you — are going to have a big effect on people’s reaction to Glass. Expecting a Marvel-style superhero throw-down? It was never going to be that, you fool. Don’t like movies where most confrontations come through dialogue? Okay, but did you actually watch Unbreakable and Split? (Those are both criticisms I feel I’ve seen in other reviews I’ve read.) Want to see Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson face off again in a film that’s fundamentally Unbreakable 2? That’s not an unreasonable hope, but Glass is as much a sequel to Split as it is to Unbreakable, perhaps even more so. Certainly in tone, Glass has more in common with the slightly-pulpy, almost-B-movie style of Split than it does with the quiet, characterful mode Unbreakable operated in. That first film was a Drama, all about believable people coping with their personal issues, whereas the two follow-ups are much more genre movies. That said, they’re still genre movies that have been filtered through the unique mindset of this particular writer-director — don’t expect a great deal of easy satisfaction here.

Confounded?

Do expect twists. Of course there are twists — it’s a Shyamalan movie! Indeed, it’s almost the most Shyamalany of Shyamalan movies, because Glass has more than one surprise reveal to pull out during its final stretch. Some are almost obvious, especially if you’re aware of fan theories from the previous films. Some are entertaining, the kind of rug-pulls you’d expect in the last act of a movie whose villain is a genius. Some are… more startling. Some people will appreciate the boldness; others will feel it undermines what came before, or what they wanted to see here. I don’t think anything is an outright “that doesn’t make sense” betrayal of the world Shyamalan has created in this trilogy, but some people will be displeased about the directions he chooses to go.

Talking of which, one of the big complaints I’ve read (and, fair warning, kinda-spoilers follow for the rest of this paragraph) is that the middle of the film wastes time trying to convince us these characters’ powers aren’t real, when we’ve already seen that they are. I think that’s a somewhat unfair criticism; one that comes from not properly investing in what we’re watching. Dr Staple is trying to convince the characters of reality, that they can’t have powers; and, as I saw it, the point of those scenes is to make us doubt it too. Yes, we’ve seen them do extraordinary things, but as Dr Staple lays out, can those things not just be explained by science and/or personal delusion? They’ve shown special skills, but are they really superhuman abilities? Several characters are swayed by her argument… so was I, to a point… except then I remembered the critics who’d said this was “a waste of time”, and therefore I guessed Shyamalan couldn’t be building to a reveal that these characters didn’t have powers after all, because if he were then it wouldn’t be a waste of time. So thanks for that, whichever Negative Nelly’s review I read that spoiled it.

Is Dr Staple stable?

As Dr Staple, Sarah Paulson is the main new addition to the cast for this finale. Her character’s a bit of a blank slate — we don’t really get to know her, why she’s doing this job, why she believes their powers can’t be real (other than the sheer implausibility of it, anyway). She exists to challenge the leads and their beliefs, not really to be a character herself. Or is that blankness just a facade, and that’s its point? I’ll say no more both out of an awareness of spoilers and because I’m not sure myself. It’ll be interesting to rewatch the film and see what, if anything, else presents itself about her on a closer rewatch.

Despite having the title role, Samuel L. Jackson is mainly reserved for the third act, but when he comes to life he revels in the part so much that I didn’t mind having to wait. James McAvoy gets to show off like he did in Split, only this time with an even greater number of distinct personalities. Some people think he’s overacting; I think it’s impressive. Split was more of a showcase for his skill, because here he has to share screen time with so much else that’s going on, but Shyamalan helps him out by actually giving different alters their own separate character arcs. In places that’s done quite subtly, so I think some might miss just how much McAvoy has to do.

While McAvoy gets to negotiate multiple arcs, the last of the three headliners, Bruce Willis, barely has one. Some have said he phones in his performance here, but I think that’s unfair. Shyamalan hasn’t actually given him that much to work with, which is a shame — some people will feel like they’ve waited almost two decades to get more of David Dunn and been shortchanged. Well, David was always a quiet, introspective character anyway, so in some respects it’s fitting. In the two or three scenes where he was allowed to really do something, I felt like Willis had recaptured the part.

(Anya Taylor-)Joy to the world

It’s not just those four who have a significant role to play, either. For me, Anya Taylor-Joy actually has one of the film’s best parts, and gives one of its best performances. Here, again, is where Glass is at least as much a sequel to Split as to Unbreakable, in the way it devotes time to the development of her character and to her relationship with McAvoy’s. Also returning is Spencer Treat Clark as Joseph, David’s son. I wasn’t sure if this was a case of managing to lure back a child actor who’d drifted off, or if the guy had continued to work since. Well, having IMDb’d him, it turns out he’s been working virtually nonstop since Unbreakable, but it just happens I haven’t seen anything he’s been in (well, except he was in one episode of Mad Men, apparently). His is a somewhat less complex supporting role, but he’s particularly good at conveying Joseph’s thoughts in a few key dialogue-less moments.

But the biggest returnee of all is behind the camera: writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. (Who is also in front of the camera, actually, with a cameo that exists largely to reconcile his cameos in the two previous films. It’s an amusing bit of fan service.) Shyamalan has, I think, always been a good director. He shows a good eye for strong and rich visuals, be they simple face-on close-ups or more innovative shot choices, but without being needlessly flashy. The film incorporates flashbacks using deleted scenes from Unbreakable, which at least one reviewer took to prove Shyamalan has deteriorated as a director in the past 20 years, but I thought they integrated seamlessly. His weakness has always been more as a writer, and your mileage will vary on how much that’s a problem here — as I discussed earlier, it’s quite a talky film, with the characters confined to a limited set of locations, and that likely won’t please some viewers. There’s also some thuddingly terrible dialogue (you may’ve read about the “showdown” line), but he’s been responsible for worse.

Mastermind

Reading other reviews and audience reactions, it’s clear that Glass is going to be divisive to some degree. In some ways to seems to deliberately confound expectations, which will frustrate some viewers even as it delights others. It’s not interested in being a typical comic book movie, or even really in deconstructing the genre, another thing I think some viewers were expecting it to do. Instead, comic books are a launchpad for its own mythology, and Shyamalan’s own ideas about what’s important from them. In that respect it’s very much his movie, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s not a stone-cold classic like Unbreakable — it lacks the subtle feel for real-life human emotion that makes that film so powerful — but I enjoyed it a lot. I’d certainly rather have something that tries to be fresh, to do something different, to push at boundaries, than an attempt at empty repetition for the sake of easy results.

4 out of 5

Glass is in cinemas now.

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Unbreakable (2000)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #95

Are you ready for the truth?

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 107 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 22nd November 2000 (USA)
UK Release: 29th December 2000
First Seen: DVD, 2001

Stars
Bruce Willis (Armageddon, Looper)
Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction, Avengers Assemble)
Robin Wright Penn (The Princess Bride, The Conspirator)

Director
M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Village)

Screenwriter
M. Night Shyamalan (Stuart Little, The Visit)

The Story
When security guard David Dunn is the only survivor of a train crash, and without a scratch on him, he encounters comic book fan Elijah Price, who has an unusual theory: that David is indestructible, a real-life superhero.

Our Hero
David Dunn is just an ordinary guy, with a low-key job and a wife and kid, but after his near-impossible feat of survival he begins to test himself. Could he be more remarkable than he ever imagined?

Our Villain
Spoilers! Which, considering this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie, is basically a red flag saying “here’s where the twist is”. All I’ll say is, keep an eye on David’s kid, Joseph. I mean, pointing a gun at your parent is never innocent, is it?

Best Supporting Character
Comic book art dealer Elijah Price was born with Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare disease that makes his bones extremely fragile and prone to fracture. Losing himself in the world of comic book superheroes throughout his childhood, he develops a theory: that if he represents an extreme of human weakness, there must be someone at the opposite extreme…

Memorable Quote
Elijah: “Why is it, do you think, that of all the professions in the world you chose protection?”
David: “You are a very strange man.”
Elijah: “You could have been a tax accountant. You could have owned your own gym. You could have opened a chain of restaurants. You could’ve done of ten thousand things, but in the end, you chose to protect people. You made that decision, and I find that very, very interesting.”

Memorable Scene
As well as his indestructibility, David comes to believe he may have a form of ESP, that allows him to glimpse people’s criminal acts when he touches them. Encouraged by Elijah, he goes to a bustling train station, stands in the middle of the crowd, and holds out his arms…

Next time…
Reportedly the plot of Unbreakable was merely Act One of Shyamalan’s original concept, until it wound up expanding into an entire movie. Talk of a sequel and/or trilogy used to occur regularly, but Shyamalan made a bunch of crap no one liked instead. 16 years on, I guess hopes of a continuation are long dead.

Awards
1 Saturn nomination (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)

What the Critics Said
The Sixth Sense was no fluke. Unbreakable, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s dazzling reunion with Bruce Willis confirms he’s one of the most brilliant filmmakers working today. […] The deliberately paced Unbreakable, make no mistake about it, is a vehicle form-fitted to Bruce Willis’ burgeoning gifts as an uncommonly subtle and affecting actor. Willis should get the Oscar nomination he deserved for The Sixth Sense, and Jackson’s enigmatic Elijah – who has devoted his life to searching for the sole survivor of a disaster, for reasons that won’t be explained here – is equally commanding in a difficult if somewhat underwritten role.” — Lou Lumenick, New York Post

Score: 68%

What Quentin Tarantino Says
“The final film, alphabetically, on my top twenty list is M. Night Shamalamadingdong’s Unbreakable, which I actually think, 1) not only has Bruce Willis’ best performance on film that he’s ever given. I think he’s absolutely magnificent in the film. It also is a brilliant retelling of the Superman mythology. In fact, so much so that, to me, the film was very obscure when it came out as far as what it was about. I actually think they did themselves a disservice, because you can actually break down what the film is about by basically one sentence, that I should think would’ve proved far more intriguing than their ad campaign, which is basically, “what if Superman was here on Earth and didn’t know he was Superman?”, which is what the film is about. Course, you don’t know that until actually you see the movie. Anyway, Unbreakable is, I actually think, one of the masterpieces of our time.” — Quentin Tarantino’s Favourite Movies from 1992 to 2009

What the Public Say
“The story is unique… I mean we see stories about superheroes everywhere… everywhere, and despite things here and there changed, they are still the same stories we have heard a thousand times before. This film had an original story that was both compelling and intense. The use of the camera angles is so well done it is a shock that Unbreakable is not at the top of everyone’s favorite Shyamalan film. It is masked under the presumption that it is moving slowly, because in reality… a lot is going on.” — Dave, Dave Examines Movies

Verdict

Some people view Unbreakable as the start of M. Night Shyamalan’s inexorable quality slide after the debut peak of The Sixth Sense (not that it was his debut). Those people are wrong. Partly because that degeneration doesn’t really start until the final act of The Village; partly because Unbreakable is Shyamalan’s best film. We’ve now had countless big-screen takes on superhero mythology, but none are quite like this. Man of Steel may have attempted to ask “what would happen if Superman were real?”, but it’s Unbreakable that better answers that question. With subtle performances, including arguably a career-best turn from Bruce Willis, and a plausible handling of its fantastical material, which nonetheless develops into a satisfying climax, Unbreakable is still one of the most original and best superhero movies ever made.

#96 will be… gunpowder, treason, and plot.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #85

Not every gift is a blessing.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 107 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 6th August 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 5th November 1999
First Seen: DVD, c.2000

Stars
Bruce Willis (Pulp Fiction, Sin City)
Haley Joel Osment (Bogus, A.I. Artificial Intelligence)
Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding, Little Miss Sunshine)
Olivia Williams (Rushmore, The Ghost)

Director
M. Night Shyamalan (Unbreakable, Signs)

Screenwriter
M. Night Shyamalan (Wide Awake, The Village)

The Story
Child psychiatrist Dr Malcolm Crowe tries to help a new patient, Cole Sear, who claims he can see ghosts.

Our Heroes
Dr Malcolm Crowe doubts his abilities to help people after a former patient shot him before committing suicide, an event which has also left him distanced from his wife. But he may be the only person who’ll believe young Cole Sear, a reclusive child who’s struggling with delusions of seeing dead people… unless they’re not delusions…

Our Villains
Are the dead dangerous, or do they just need help?

Best Supporting Character
Cole’s mom, Lynn, who loves him a great deal and worries about him just as much, but has no idea what’s really wrong or how to help her son.

Memorable Quote
“I see dead people… Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” — Cole

Memorable Scene
Stuck in traffic, Cole reveals his ability to his mother for the first time — that there’s been an accident ahead and someone died, which he knows because they’re stood at his window. Naturally Lynn doesn’t believe her son, but then he begins to talk about his grandmother…

Technical Wizardry
The twist ending is immaculately constructed. There are clues throughout the film, but, like all the best twist-ending clues, the vast majority of viewers will completely miss them first time through, even though they seem almost blatant when revisited.

Making of
The colour red is used only to indicate times and items where the worlds of the living and the dead have connected; if something red was present in a scene where this wasn’t relevant, Shyamalan had it changed. There’s a massive list of these moments here, but if you somehow haven’t seen The Sixth Sense yet, do beware of spoilers.

Next time…
There are no actual sequels to The Sixth Sense, but it kicked off M. Night Shyamalan as a kind of one-man genre, making supernatural thrillers with a twist ending — and decreasing critical acclaim with each new movie. It seemed to end with The Happening and he transitioned to be a director-for-hire, but he’s coming back somewhat with The Visit and next year’s Split.

Awards
6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor (Haley Joel Osment), Supporting Actress (Toni Collette), Director, Original Screenplay, Editing)
4 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing)
2 Saturn Awards (Horror Film, Performance by a Younger Actor/Actress (Haley Joel Osment))
2 Saturn nominations (Actor (Bruce Willis), Writer)
2 Teen Choice Awards (Choice Drama, Choice Breakout Performance (Haley Joel Osment))
1 Teen Choice nomination (Choice Sleazebag (Trevor Morgan))
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“the film eventually abandons the heroic-therapist model and ventures toward other ground, ever so gently tightening its squeeze. It seems really to achieve something that Stanley Kubrick was possibly groping after in Eyes Wide Shut, or that Nicolas Roeg achieved in Don’t Look Now, which might be called an extreme sense of the bizarre, not as invented by special-effects wizards with unlimited space on the hard drive but in the subtler ways of film craftsmanship. […] The movie is a maximum creep-out. It’s invasive. It’s like an enema to the soul as it probes the ways of death – some especially grotesque in a family setting. You leave slightly asquirm. You know it will linger. It becomes a clammy, chilly movie building toward a revelation that you cannot predict. As I say: I cannot tell you. You’d hate me if I did. I can only say, don’t look now, but look sometime.” — Stephen Hunter, Washington Post

Score: 85%

What the Public Say
“The film is rich in symbolism, and colour plays a large part in signifying spirits invading the real world. This is what makes The Sixth Sense so captivating. Watching the film for the first time, you don’t expect the ending, and so the shock of it tends to overshadow the subtlety of the beginning. It is only once you have re-watched the film, that you begin to notice little suggestions of what is to come. A success from start to end, this is at once an exercise in potent suspense, and a carefully crafted tale of child psychology.” — Cat Barnard, Screen Muse

Verdict

M. Night Shyamalan gets such a bad rep these days, it’s easy to forget how great his breakthrough movie was. It flew completely under the radar back in 1999: the guy at Disney who bought the screenplay was fired for doing so without permission; Bruce Willis starred in it because he owed Disney two films, and was paid half his normal salary; Entertainment Weekly’s extensive summer preview detailed over 140 films, but The Sixth Sense wasn’t even mentioned. By coming out of the blue, and in an era before the internet was dominant (these days there’d be plot dissections and spoiler-filled director interviews online by the Monday after release, wouldn’t there?), the film obviously had surprise on its side, which is particularly effective when it has such a memorable twist. But even before that ending, it manages to mix plausible emotional drama with scenes of chilling everyday horror, crafting something that is undoubtedly a genre movie but also not out of place in a list of Best Picture nominees.

The Sixth Sense is on Film4 tomorrow night at 1am.

#86 will do… whatever a spider can.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

2016 #95
Wes Anderson | 90 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Moonrise KingdomOn the New England island of New Penzance in the summer of 1965, a troop of scouts at camp discover that unpopular member Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) has fled in the night. Meanwhile, on the other side of the island, troubled kid Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) runs away from home. Unbeknownst to Sam’s scoutmaster (Edward Norton) or Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), the pair of unhappy 12-year-olds have secretly plotted to disappear together. As a violent storm threatens to hit the island, the scouts and police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) hunt for the runaways.

A story of young love, Wes Anderson style, the writer-director has described Moonrise Kingdom as “an autobiography about something that didn’t happen”. That feels like a good way to regard the film. There’s clearly an emotional truth to Sam and Suzy’s discontented lives and their desire to connect with a like-minded individual, especially at an age when romantic feelings are beginning to emerge; but there’s no way the rest of the events — which unfold with Anderson’s typical almost-real / almost-fantastical quirkiness — actually happened. Here Anderson has found a strong marriage of form and content: his idiosyncratic, storybook style suits a narrative about inventive children on an almost-fairytale adventure. It’s like it’s been told from the kids’ point of view, with both an artistic simplicity and an exaggeration of actual events.

I’d also say it maintains Anderson’s penchant for unpredictable narrative development: it reached what I’d presumed was the endpoint a long time before the finale, spinning on in crazy new ways. “You do WHAT to the dog?!”If the film has a fault it’s in this part, where the entire cast engage in a runaround as the hurricane arrives and floods the island; but (to give it the benefit of the doubt) perhaps that plays more smoothly with familiarity. And I don’t know what it is that Anderson has against dogs (nor, it seems, does anyone else, bar theories), but I find myself enamoured of his work in spite of this particular foible.

Moonrise Kingdom certainly has enough else going for it to counterbalance these doubts. With golden cinematography and a story of playful, gentle adventure, Anderson has evoked innocent childhood summers of race-memory: even if you didn’t live them yourself, you kind of feel like you did. Perhaps it is, indeed, an autobiography about something that didn’t happen for anyone who ever felt like an outsider as a kid.

4 out of 5

Moonrise Kingdom placed 18th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #71

You won’t know the facts
until you see the fiction.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 154 minutes
BBFC: 18 (uncut, 1994) | 18 (cut on video, 1995) | 18 (uncut on video, 2011)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 10th September 1994 (South Korea)
US Release: 14th October 1994
UK Release: 21st October 1994
First Seen: TV, 18th December 1999 (probably)
(I would’ve guessed several years later than that, but I definitely watched it on BBC Two and I definitely wasn’t 18, so (with reference to the BBC Genome Project) this is the only plausible option. That’s thrown all of my “first seen” guesses into doubt now…)

Stars
John Travolta (Grease, Face/Off)
Samuel L. Jackson (Loaded Weapon 1, Unbreakable)
Uma Thurman (Dangerous Liaisons, Gattaca)
Ving Rhames (Dave, Mission: Impossible)
Bruce Willis (Die Hard, The Fifth Element)

Director
Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill)

Screenwriter
Quentin Tarantino (From Dusk Till Dawn, Jackie Brown)

Story by
Quentin Tarantino (Natural Born Killers, The Hateful Eight)
Roger Avary (Killing Zoe, The Rules of Attraction)

The Story
A chronologically-shuffled collection of interconnected short crime stories, including a hitman who has to take his boss’ wife for a nice night out, a boxer who refuses to throw a fight, the clean-up after a misfire, and a diner hold-up gone sideways.

Our Heroes & Villains
Most films can be divvied up into heroes and villains one way or another — I’ve certainly managed it for the previous 70 films in this list. Pulp Fiction muddies its waters considerably, with criminals for heroes at the best of times, and the “short story collection” style meaning there’s an abundance of characters anyway, some of whom arguably change sides from one tale to the next. Nonetheless, you’d have to point to hitmen Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, and their ever-so-Tarantino rambling conversations about nothing and everything, as the film’s primary duo.

Best Supporting Character
Christopher Walken’s cameo turn as an army vet passing down a watch with an… unusual history. (You might argue for Harvey Keitel’s character, but his Direct Line adverts have rather soured that.)

Memorable Quote
Vincent: “You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?”
Jules: “They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?”
Vincent: “No man, they got the metric system. They wouldn’t know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.”
Jules: “Then what do they call it?”
Vincent: “They call it a Royale with Cheese.”
Jules: “Royale with Cheese. What do they call a Big Mac?”
Vincent: “Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac.”
Jules: “Le Big Mac. What do they call a Whopper?”
Vincent: “I don’t know, I didn’t go into Burger King.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“You mind if I have some of your tasty beverage to wash this down?” — Jules

Memorable Scene
Uma Thurman and John Travolta dancing — about as memorable a movie moment as there is.

Memorable Music
Famously, Tarantino never used to use original music (that’s now changed with his Ennio Morricone collaborations, of course), instead selecting tracks from his record collection — but his choices were so eclectic, obscure, and personal that many of them are now most associated with the films he put them in. Stand outs in Pulp Fiction include the title credits track, Dick Dale’s version of Misirlou; the song Mia and Vincent dance to, You Never Can Tell by Chuck Berry; and Urge Overkill’s cover of Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.

Making of
The famous Bible passage memorised by Jules is mostly fictional. While one line is similar to text from the book, apparently the speech is almost word-for-word identical to the opening scene of the Sonny Chiba movie Karate Kiba.

Next time…
Travolta’s character, Vincent Vega, is supposedly the brother of Michael Madsen’s character from Reservoir Dogs, and at one time Tarantino was planning a movie starring the pair. It never materialised, obviously. There’s also the theory that all of Tarantino’s films take place in the same universe, which the director himself has confirmed.

Awards
Won the Palme d’Or
1 Oscar (Original Screenplay)
6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actor (John Travolta), Supporting Actor (Samuel L. Jackson), Supporting Actress (Uma Thurman), Director, Editing)
2 BAFTAs (Supporting Actor (Samuel L. Jackson), Original Screenplay)
7 BAFTA nominations (Film, Actor (John Travolta), Actress (Uma Thurman), Director, Cinematography, Editing, Sound)
1 Saturn Award (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)
2 MTV Movie Awards (Movie, Dance Sequence)
4 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including On-Screen Duo (Samuel L. Jackson & John Travolta) and Movie Song (Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon))
1 American Comedy Awards nomination (Funniest Supporting Actress (Amanda Plummer))

What the Critics Said
“this dizzily convoluted noir epic — one of the year’s best and most wildly inventive American movies — plunges us into a kind of retro-nightmare fantasy land. In Pulp Fiction, time keeps looping back on itself and we’re trapped in a cul-de-sac of double-crosses, absurdity, arousal and danger, never completely sure of where anyone’s going or why. [It] is shockingly violent, provocatively obscene and profane. It won’t just offend some audiences; it will offend the living hell out of them. Tarantino intends to rile people up. But it doesn’t feel like the usual high-tech, nasty blood-and-guts movie thriller […] This movie gets its charge not from action pyrotechnics but from its electric barrage of language, wisecracks and dialogue, from the mordant ’70s classicism of its long-take camera style and its smart, offbeat, strangely sexy cast.” — Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune

Score: 94%

What the Public Say
Pulp Fiction begins at its end. It is cyclical but we don’t realise this until we come to its final moments. Like many of Tarantino’s films, it is episodic and split into sections that overlap in both time and plot. It is far from linear; several threads occurring simultaneously, woven together by chance meetings, coincidence and common acquaintances. Travolta’s Vincent Vega is both alive and dead at the end of the film, such is the genius of the script. [It] is a film that demands a viewer’s attention, engagement and use of their brain to put the pieces of the puzzle together.” — Behind the Seens

Verdict

A defining movie for the American indie/auteur boom of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and consequently one of the most influential films of the ’90s… but it is itself heavily influenced by and recreated from styles and genres of the past… and yet, despite those two reflective sides, it’s not quite like anything else — Pulp Fiction is a rule unto itself. In only his second feature, Tarantino’s direction is remarkably self-assured; rarely flashy or showy, but not simplistic or uninteresting either. It’s a film where the famed dialogue is as vital as the characters’ actions, but it’s not one that’s solely driven by people talking to each other. Events interrupt them shooting the breeze, but it’s also them shooting the breeze that drives the action. It’s a film of many opposing facets, then, which is quite possibly what keeps it fascinating — almost as an incidental addition to the humour and style that keep it entertaining.

#72 will have snakes… why did it have to have snakes?

Die Hard (1988)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #23

Twelve terrorists. One cop.
The odds are against John McClane…
That’s just the way he likes it.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 132 minutes
BBFC: 18 (1988) | 15 (2007)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 15th July 1988
UK Release: 3rd February 1989
First Seen: DVD, 2003

Stars
Bruce Willis (Twelve Monkeys, The Sixth Sense)
Alan Rickman (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Sense and Sensibility)
Reginald VelJohnson (Turner & Hooch, Die Hard 2)
Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard 2, Presumed Innocent)

Director
John McTiernan (Predator, The Hunt for Red October)

Screenwriters
Jeb Stuart (Another 48 Hrs., The Fugitive)
Steven E. de Souza (The Running Man, Beverly Hills Cop III)

Based on
Nothing Lasts Forever, a novel by Roderick Thorp.

The Story
While off-duty cop John McClane is visiting his estranged wife at her office Christmas party, a gang of terrorists enter the building and take the guests hostage. McClane avoids capture, making him their only hope of rescue…

Our Hero
One of New York’s finest unfortunately caught in the wrong place at the wrong time… or, as it turns out, the right place at the right time. They’re currently working on an “origin story” movie for cop John McClane, which is daft because Die Hard is his origin story — he may’ve become an action hero in later movies (I wouldn’t know, I still haven’t got beyond the second), but here McClane is just an ordinary cop. Well, a very committed ordinary cop, anyway.

Our Villain
Smart, witty, and thoroughly ruthless, Alan Rickman’s big-screen debut is a flawless turn that defined thriller villains (British-accented terrorists with a secret plan) for at least the next half-decade. No one does it better, though.

Best Supporting Character
McClane’s only real friend, Sgt. Al Powell is a beat cop on the outside who just happens to pick up his signal. Fortunately, he’s much smarter and more helpful than a team of FBI agents. Well, aren’t we all?

Memorable Quote
Hans Gruber: “Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?”
John McClane: “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
See above.

Memorable Scene
As Gruber lectures the collected hostages on how the terrorists have planned for every eventuality, a nearby elevator door pings open. One of the hostages screams, Gruber and co rush over, to find one of their compatriots dead with a message scrawled on his sweatshirt: “Now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho.”

Truly Special Effect
When the bomb in the elevator shaft blows out the side of the building, the effect was accomplished by collecting virtually every camera flashbulb of a particularly powerful type and wiring them to the outside of the actual building to simulate the flash, then superimposing a shot of an actual explosive blowing a hole in an all-black miniature of the building.

Making of
The filmmakers struggled to find a way for McClane and Gruber to meet prior to the movie’s climax. The scene in which they do, where Gruber pretends to be one of the hostages, was dreamt up after it was discovered Alan Rickman could do a good American accent.

Previously on…
Die Hard is adapted from a novel, which is a sequel to one called The Detective, which was filmed in 1968 starring Frank Sinatra as the lead cop (called Joe Leland rather than John McClane). When production began on Die Hard, Fox were obligated to offer the lead to Sinatra. Fortunately for them, he turned it down.

Next time…
Lightning struck twice for unlucky John McClane when he got embroiled in another Christmastime terrorist incident in Die Hard 2, aka Die Harder; then Gruber’s brother sought revenge in trilogy-forming Die Hard with a Vengeance. Years later, someone realised there was money to be made, leading to poorly-received cash-in sequels Live Free or Die Hard, aka Die Hard 4.0, and A Good Day to Die Hard. A sixth is in development.

Awards
4 Oscar nominations (Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects — or, to put it another way: Sound, Effects, Editing, Sound Effects Editing)

What the Critics Said
“From its trailer, Die Hard looks like a typical action movie of the ’80s: a sweaty, bare-chested, all-American hero battles swarthy, heavily accented terrorist villains, accompanied by lots of high-tech explosions, vast sheets of breaking glass and enough sophisticated weaponry to account for the Pentagon’s budget overrun. As directed by John McTiernan, it turns out to be something more — the archetypical action movie of the ’80s, the perfection of the form. Sleekly engineered, impeccably staged and shrewdly dosed with humor and sentiment, Die Hard has everything but a personality.” — Dave Kehr, Chicago Tribune

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“Vulnerable but witty, McClane is a very well realised action hero who has set precedence as far as similar roles are concerned. […] Unlike Schwarzenegger and Stallone, Willis’ McClane is not the archetypal heroic figure that is invincible and untouchable. He gets his butt handed to him regularly and often finds himself panicking with frequent looks of nervousness and even fear.” — Billy’s Film Reviews

Verdict

The action movie to end all action movies… or, y’know, spawn endless sequels and rip-offs. But Die Hard really did perfect the mix: a capable but not superhuman hero, a genuinely threatening but enjoyable-to-watch villain, plenty of thrills and tension, but also humour and eminently quotable dialogue. And it’s set at Christmas (though originally released in July — what?!), which makes it ideal for seasonal counter-programming. What more could you ask for?

Prepare thyself… for #24.

RED 2 (2013)

2015 #102
Dean Parisot | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, France & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

The “retired, extremely dangerous” agents return for more of the same.

“More of the same” is all the recommendation — or unrecommendation, or disrecommendation, or whatever the antonym of “recommendation” actually is — you really need. This isn’t a sequel for those who’ve not seen the first, because no effort is made to re-establish the world or characters. And if you disliked said forerunner, there’s no reason you’ll find this more to your taste.

If you did enjoy RED (like me), #2 isn’t as good — it’s lost too much zaniness, goes on too long — but it’s a pleasantly entertaining globetrotting action-comedy nonetheless.

3 out of 5

The Expendables 3: Extended Version (2014)

2015 #77
Patrick Hughes | 131 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English | 15

The Expendables 3Oscar-nominated screenwriter Sylvester Stallone continues his examination of masculinity and machismo amongst older men in this trilogy-forming instalment of his Expendables franchise.

You think I’m joking… because I am. But there is actually an element of that in this latest action-fest, as the leader of the titular band of mercenaries, Barney Ross (Stallone), chooses to retire his team of ageing soldiers (Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, and new re-recruit Wesley Snipes) after one of their number is put in critical condition, and replace them with younger models (Kellan Lutz, Victor Ortiz, Glen Powell, and Ronda Rousey). It’s all in aid of capturing the team’s latest target, international arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), who Ross thought he’d killed years ago…

That said, if you’re looking for any commentary on… well, anything… you’re going to have to read it in there yourself, because co-writers Stallone, Katrin Benedikt and Creighton Rothenberger, and director Patrick Hughes (now attached to The Raid remake, incidentally) are more focused on providing the simple ’80s-throwback action thrills and bad one-liners that genre fans expect from The Expendables. There’s certainly an abundance of both, to varying degrees of success: there are plenty of lines delivered in a knowing way that don’t seem to contain even a trace of humour, while the plot is naturally built to string together the combat scenes.

Fears that the PG-13 rating — lower than the R of the first two, in a misguided attempt to improve the box office — are largely misplaced. Well, unless you really like CGI blood spatters (there are none, not even added in for the ‘unrated’ longer cut) or other such special effects. The action choreography is fairly slick, Mogadishu actionthough occasionally obscured by camerawork and editing that turns it into a cacophony of violence. The Blu-ray release helps expose this: the special features include an extended version of Statham’s main battle from the climax, and in that focused form you can see how it’s been carefully constructed and designed. In the film itself, it’s chopped up into ten-second chunks and intercut with everyone else’s duels. It becomes like an impressionistic painting of shooting, punching, kicking, stabbing, running, jumping… It’s a war, as the now-double-sized team of heroes takes on a literal army, and some will revel in the over-the-top-ness of it all. The sheer excess does have a certain charm.

The best bits come a little earlier on, though. A car/van/truck chase around the Port of Mogadishu is the action highlight, in my opinion; later, the young team attempt to infiltrate an artsy modern building in a sequence that seems to emulate a Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible film, which is at least a different style for this series. Elsewise, the supporting cast of cameos provide good value — in Harrison Ford’s case, literally, as he replaced Bruce Willis after the latter demanded $4 million for four days’ work. Ford just has to turn up on screen to be cool, though he has his moments beyond that. There’s also Kelsey Grammer as a merc talent scout who seems to have a habit of kicking off whole non sequitur conversations; a bigger role for Arnie, though still on the sidelines; and a pointless appearance by martial arts expert Jet Li, performing no martial arts whatsoever. The new kids are adequate but nothing to write home about.

Parkour-performing blabbermouthThe best addition, unquestionably, is Antonio Banderas. He’s a parkour-performing blabbermouth who keeps pestering Grammer for a job, but no one wants him because he won’t stop talking. And he’s hilarious. Of the 93 changes in the five-minutes-longer extended version (yes, ninety-three), most are split-second action beats, the vast majority during that big final battle, but a handful are more of Banderas just chatting away, and those are welcome. He takes a while to turn up, but when he does it lifts the whole film. His performance is the best thing to come out of the entire franchise. I mean, it’s not a reason to watch the films if you weren’t going to, but if you are anyway…

The Expendables 3 is, for my money, much for muchness with the previous two films. They all have different pros and cons, sliding different elements up and down on the series’ mixing board with various degrees of success, and this third entry is no different. It seems Stallone intends to keep producing Expendables flicks, with talk of who might appear in a fourth outing taking place even before the third was released (Pierce Brosnan, maybe? More recently, ex-wrestlers the Rock and Hulk Hogan), though the box office of this instalment throws that into question: off a $90 million budget, it only made $39 million in the US… but then it did take almost $167 million from everywhere else — surely enough to consider a sequel? Especially if next time they can stop it leaking on the internet several weeks early…

Ageing action actorsI kind of hope they do make more. The Expendables movies aren’t great films — heck, they aren’t even really great action films — and they’re a bit too cheesy and in-joke-y for the own good — and yet, somehow, I can’t resist them, and I’ll be happy to keep watching them for as long as Stallone and co can keep making them. After all, there are an awful lot of ageing action actors who’ve not appeared yet…

3 out of 5

The Expendables 3 is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

Looper (2012)

2015 #40
Rian Johnson | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English | 15 / R

LooperWriter-director Rian Johnson re-teams with the star of his first movie for this near-future sci-fi thriller, hailed by critics as one of the best genre movies of 2012, though it seems to have been a little more divisive among audiences.

In the year 2044, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is employed by the mob as a very special kind of assassin. 30 years in the future, time travel will have been invented and outlawed, leading organised crime to use it for murders: the victim is sent back in time and immediately killed by a so-called ‘looper’, leaving the future police with no body to investigate. Loopers know that, one day, they’ll have to kill their future self, in order to cover their tracks by “closing the loop”. So — and you’d know where this was going even if it wasn’t part of the film’s very premise — it’s not long before we meet Joe’s future self (Bruce Willis), who escapes, intent on changing the future so he can live. It’s up to younger Joe to stop him before the angry mob kills them both.

There’s quite a bit more to Looper than that — major characters aren’t introduced until a significant way through the running time, for instance. I’m sure some screenwriting gurus would have something to say about such a structure, but it helps make for a less predictable, more organic, more entertaining movie. One that, on occasion, plays about with its chronological structure. How apt. It does make it difficult to discuss in full without spoiling anything, mind, but as I’m posting this review in order to recommend the film just before it makes its TV debut, I shall endeavour to keep things newcomer friendly.

Not visually influenced by Blade Runner, honestFirstly, the less you know the better. I pretty much knew the above before I went in, and that meant the film had surprises from the get-go. For instance, the near-future world most of the action takes place in has been well-realised by Johnson and his design and effects teams, and time travel is not the only SF concept or imagery employed here, which I wasn’t aware of. Their vision is Blade Runner-esque in its decrepitude — this is a future where the global financial crisis has rolled on, so flying motorbikes exist but most people drive present-day cars retrofitted with solar panels, for example — but it doesn’t slavishly rip off Blade Runner’s style and imagery, as have so many other movies (both good and poor). The future concepts are also used economically when it comes to storytelling. Nothing is introduced merely for the sake of showing “it’s the Future, innit” — everything pays off in some way, but without the heavy-handedness normally associated with everything existing solely for a narrative purpose.

Once the genre-rooted concepts are established, the film morphs almost into a character-driven thriller. It’s one still absolutely grounded in ideas of future technology and its possible implications, but it’s what these particular people do in that particular situation that matters. A good deal of the second half is spent on a remote farm, for instance, where the extent of sci-fi tech is a self-piloting drone for watering crops. Some people didn’t like that; I thought it was fine. So too the action sequences, which are effectively put together and serve the story, rather than making this An Action Movie.

Lookie-likieHeading up the cast, Gordon-Levitt does a good Bruce Willis impersonation — believable, but not a slavish impression. That was probably quite necessary, because I don’t imagine Willis has the thespian chops to emulate an older Gordon-Levitt. Notoriously, the younger actor does the whole thing under prosthetics designed to make it more plausible he’d age into Willis. They’re a bit weird: not badly done — far from it, in fact — but you’re always kind of aware they’re there. A highly able supporting cast flesh out the rest of the characters, though most memorable is young Pierce Gagnon as an imperilled child you wouldn’t necessarily mind getting killed. And I mean that in a nice way; about the film and his performance, if not the character.

Time travel fiction is notoriously hard to get right because of the limitless potential for paradoxes, inconsistencies, and so on. Some reckon Looper has more holes than a golf course; Johnson has asserted it was incredibly carefully constructed and all of the criticisms are answerable. I’ve not listened to either of his commentary tracks (one on the disc, another made available for download while the film was still in cinemas) so I can’t really back one side or the other. Does it feel like there are issues? Maybe. But time travel is impossible, and probably always will be, so we can’t know how it would function. A fiction has to establish its own rules for what is and isn’t possible; what does and doesn’t happen. Looper doesn’t explain the nitty-gritty of everything it portrays — there’s even a hand-wave when talking about Old Joe’s memories of Young Joe’s current actions — but I believe there is at least some thought to how it all hangs together, just maybe not in the way some viewers would approve of. Well, you go write your own time travel story, then.

It's about timeEven if there are some logic issues, it doesn’t fatally undermine the movie. Looper comes with the joys of a well-imagined future, a captivating storyline, engaging characters, and enough twists and turns along the way to keep you guessing at the outcome. The best genre movie of 2012? That was a year of stiff competition among SF/F pictures, but Looper may have the edge.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Looper is on BBC Two tonight at 9:05pm.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

2014 #127
Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & Cyprus / English | 18 / R

Sin City: A Dame to Kill ForBelated sequels can be a Terminator 2, but more often they’re a Terminator 3 — that is to say, they can be brilliant, but often it seems they’re a poor idea, a too-late money-grabbing re-hash. Mooted since before the first Sin City was even released back in 2005, this long-anticipated sequel finally appeared at the tail end of the summer, a nine-year wait, and met with poor critical reception and even poorer box office. Considering the first film isn’t just a fanboy favourite but also fairly well regarded (it still sits on the IMDb Top 250, which I know some disregard out of hand but does mean something), that’s quite a painful fall from grace. Having watched the original the night before, I rather fail to see why.

As with its predecessor, A Dame to Kill For is a collection of hyper-noir short stories, connected by location and overlapping characters, that flits between time periods with abandon — this is both a prequel and sequel to the first film, revealing both the story of how Dwight (Josh Brolin) came to change his face (to become Clive Owen in the original film), and what Nancy (Jessica Alba) did after the death of Hartigan (Bruce Willis, returning in a more spiritual form). There’s also the story of a cocky gambler, Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), taking on the city’s power-players, and a short pre-titles tale starring breakout character Marv (Mickey Rourke).

If the first film was noir with a comic book mentality, then the second is a comic book with a noir mentality. The plots are still hard-boiled, the extensive voiceovers overwritten to the point they wash over you meaninglessly, the characters a mix of downtrodden toughs (for the men) and whores (for the women), and there’s still no hope for anyone in a city which drags everyone down. Naturally the visual style is the same: high-contrast monochrome with dramatic splashes of colour, and the occasional artistic lapse into literal black-and-white.

Violent MarvBut the comic-book-ness of the first film — moments of almost metaphorical visual representation rather than literal reality, including physically-impossible action beats — has been ramped up. The value of the first film was never in its action, so the sequel’s lengthy punch-ups, crossbow-based guard-slaying, and all the rest, get boring fast. When it slips into this needless excess, A Dame to Kill For loses its way. When it sticks to what it does best — hard-boiled fatalistic crime tales with striking comic book-inspired cinematography — it does as well as the concept ever did.

The best story is probably the titular one, which makes up the bulk of the middle of the film. It’s the most traditionally noir-ish, with a killer performance from a perfectly-cast Eva Green as the eponymous dame. She also spends most of her screentime starkers, which — coupled with the ludicrous dialogue and increased action — does lend credence to accusations that this is a film made by 13-year-old boys. Enjoy the results or not, it’s a hard point to argue against.

As Nancy, Jessica Alba was somewhere on the spectrum from mediocre to awful in the first film, but she’s another of the best things in this sequel. It’s not just that she’s given a meatier role, but that she seems to know how to act better fullstop. For all the criticisms that the film is misogynistic, with its women all strippers or whores or manipulative bitches, it’s the actresses who get the best parts and deliver the best performances. Brolin is unremarkable, for instance, while Marv, undoubtedly the original film’s breakout character, is now shoehorned into every story. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels forced.

Johnny come latelyThe intervening decade has lessened the impact of the first film’s sick ultra-violence, but there’s nothing even that extreme here, aside perhaps from one eyeball-related moment. On the other hand, nearly a decade of tech development means it looks better than the last one, both in terms of the CGI’s quality and the camerawork more generally — it’s less flatly shot; more filmic than the first one’s sometimes-webseries-y composition.

Rodriguez once said he hoped to film all of Miller’s Sin City stories, and across the two films they’ve got through six (plus two new ones), which leaves two more full-length tales and nine shorts. Based on the poor performance and reception of this instalment, a third go-round looks unlikely. But then, if there’s one filmmaker who seems to keep on producing even when no one expects more it’s… Uwe Boll. But if there’s another, it’s Robert Rodriguez. That said, the box office really was shockingly awful (just shy of $40 million worldwide; I read the budget was $60 million), so maybe even Rodriguez can’t save this project.

Many critics, even those who rate the first Sin City highly, slaughtered this sequel. I don’t really see why — on balance, I think it’s of a piece with the first one. To love the first and hate the second seems predicated on the notion that the original was innovative and groundbreaking, whereas the follow-up is the same thing again. Well, what did you expect? It promises more stories in the visual and thematic style of Ghost of movies pastits predecessor, and that’s exactly what it delivers. I suspect the first benefits from nostalgia because, watching them virtually back to back, I found I liked Sin City less than I remembered, but enjoyed A Dame to Kill For just as much. It’s flawed in several aspects, but for honest-to-themselves fans of the first movie, I think it’s a “more of what you liked”-style success.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.