Pulp Fiction (1994)

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So last night I got the chance to see one of my all time favourite movies on the big screen, and this cinematic experience just illustrated further why I love ‘Pulp Fiction’ a hella lot.

Weaving together a collection of stories set in L.A, sees us flit forward and back in time with hit-men Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) claiming a briefcase with mysterious contents for crime boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), a less than ideal date night with Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), a restaurant robbery with Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) and a scramble for a watch with boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis).

The title ‘Pulp Fiction’ derives from pulpy magazines and crime novels that were prone to violence and electric language. Quentin Tarantino’s script perfectly reflects that style, as all the way through his film there smacks a sense of crackling, dynamic dialogue and flashes of blood-soaked drama. The line-up of plots that criss cross and jump in time are exercises in vivid crime story-telling and hilarity, Tarantino sure knows how to juggle all these characters and each one of them through their plot progression, jump off the pulpy pages and cement themselves in film history.

As is commonplace knowledge nowadays, director and writer Tarantino has a handle on character and dialogue and his second feature, after the diamond heist focus of ‘Reservoir Dogs’, sees him step up from a singular location and really break forward with figures that deliver zing after zing, hit after hit and even though this is a movie that owns very little action, you are utterly entranced because the script possesses such animated language.

The very opening is a masterclass in two-way conversing leading to an aggressive slap of credits and fiery music; from this point onward you should know to expect a film that won’t hold back and will utilise on expletives, whip-smart talking, pop-cultural references and an energetic soundtrack. Some will say this 1994 outing is overrated and I get that it is the typical frat-boy movie to drool over, one that has film students plastering the iconic poster on their walls, one that I have in my room to this very day, because depending on your first watch, it is an awakening. The zip and crackle which speeds through the narrative is highly entertaining; it’s just one of those treats which is fresh and riveting from start to finish.

The stellar cast really bury into their roles and it saw a resurgence for Travolta who became cool again thanks to the suited, slick hair styling of Vega, a gangster who may not be intimidating, but in his down to earth delight of discussing Amsterdam and milkshakes there is a man who can hold his own, just as long as he doesn’t head to the toilet, an opportunity for something to go wrong every time. It’s with Vincent on his initially awkward night out with Mia that one of the most seminal scenes in cinema history occurs. Jack Rabbit Slims; a retro diner and location of the coolest, quirkiest twist off between Thurman and Travolta, the Chuck Berry vocals punctuate their movements and seeing the dance on a big screen was like a divine dream come true.

‘Pulp Fiction’ may be simple when broken down; it’s just 3-4 stories that get broken up and shuffled about, but it’s thanks to this non-chronological structure that you feel drawn into seeing how each character gets to each place or how they may join the same path. It’s true to say that a Tarantino product; with it’s sublime songs and own branded product placement is like an event but it’s fair to comment also that his films could always do with a little refinement, a snip here and an edit there but even though this is a long film, it never feels it and there was never a moment upon this re-watch where I felt something could be dropped.

I know I’m biased and definitely a fan boy but ‘Pulp Fiction’ is as close to perfection as humanely possible. The film holds up, it screams cool and is a movie absolutely rammed with quotable delights. Tarantino’s follow up feature is not the difficult second album, it’s his platinum picture.

9.5/10

 

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Late Night (2019)

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Celebrities getting interviewed by men in suits is a huge part of both American and British TV programming; so it’s only fitting that this comedy shuffles the pack and puts a woman in the spotlight but does ‘Late Night’ drop the mic or drop the ball?

Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) has been leader of the late night pack for over 20 years and has scooped up numerous Emmy’s, but with online buzz non-existent and a threat of her removal, she realises things need to be shaken up. Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) is hired who helps bring some new life into the show but is it too late?

The spoofing of late night TV is often comical throughout this film and Kaling, who writes the screenplay, brings an interesting and timely response to the white male system presently in place. This ruling of the roost where not a single woman hosts a late night gig is upturned by the wonderfully believable figure of Newbury; a character brimming with wit, teeming with intellect and somewhat Cruella like in her prim and offish stature.

‘Late Night’ can often be a script which goes all in on the topics of diversity, inclusion and the keeping-on-trend trend. The near constant commentary surrounding the #metoo atmosphere is understandable but Kaling runs away with it and the comedy suffers, leaving a solid brick wall of heavy handed Times Up building. It’s absolutely a necessary action to give women and people of colour more work but this plot does play that card at every turn, feeling more like a look-at-us-we’re-being-inclusive feature than a clever comedy which happens to revolve around diversity.

Some later scenes where we see the British presenter try and tackle more viral-inducing moments are dumb but brilliantly funny and on point with the likes of what we see entertaining millions online nowadays. The writing room scenes are a fairly hilarious collection of ideas, throwing in some lazy personalities spiced up by the arrival of Molly who helps but winds up by looking in from the outside, but I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the film as a whole. ’30 Rock’ is a product lampooning the stuffy, masculine writers environment with a much better zap of hilarity.

Kaling brings a kindly and earnest quality to the chemical plant/factory persona and shares wonderful chemistry with Emma Thompson; who is the perfect straight-laced, well heeled host with a lack of compassion and a need/hope to change. She is an utterly convincing presence who you could easily picture as a real talk show presenter, the more profound and orderly chats mixed with sillier segments would rival the fame-hungry ideals of Fallon and Corden.

‘Late Night’ is a so-so film with a gentle layer of humour and specific SNL-esque humour broadened with the current empowering era, it has cliches and slathers on ideas too thickly but thanks to Thompson and her talent, the film does spark.

6/10

 

Booksmart (2019)

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Graduating from actor to director, with her first time debut feature is Olivia Wilde, for a joyful and transcendent entry to the coming-of-age genre. The combined efforts of Wilde, a unit of four superb writers and the leading ladies make for a feel good film with great diversity and some originality.

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are extremely intelligent seniors in high school and seem to have their whole adult lives mapped out. After they realise that their sole focus on studies might have been for nought, they decide to finally mix play with work at the last hurdle as they embark on a route to an end of year house party.

Olivia Wilde steps up to the plate and behind the camera with effortless ease, in such a way you’d believe she’d made multiple movies beforehand. The knack in which she creates such a comfortable atmosphere throughout the film and ensures the depth of the central females comes to the fore, is exquisite quality control. The narrative may tread familiar beats to other coming-of-age features but Wilde directs in a way that breaths new life into the world.

Unlike a lot of American comedies, which try too hard to cram in pop-culture references and lose themselves in smutty humour, ‘Booksmart’ banks on the friendship between the girls and is that ever a successful bet because the two leads are a sensation. Dever and Feldstein break the scales of chemistry and through hyped up facial expressions and wonderful timing they fill the film with perfect amounts of nighttime revelry, self-learning and awkwardness.

It is not just the gals who triumph, as this is a film which pools together an excellent array of electrically charged zany folk. The background cast are interesting to watch, funny and play a suitable part in the antics of Molly and Amy’s night. The diverse range of characters make you truly feel as if you’re immersed in a world of high school cliques.

A lit soundtrack punctuates the teen angst and laughter with a fire punch of soul-happy energy. The lighting and neon lights of their house party hopping gives ‘Booksmart’ a starry wash of shiny exploration which works in their actual physical journey but their own inner understanding of themselves, each other and the students around them. This is no more felt than in a third act which sees the hopeful party pair reach dramatic levels.

Granted, there are some predictable moments and not every joke lands but these are minuscule blips in an otherwise note-perfect comedy. ‘Booksmart’ is a breath of fresh air with Olivia Wilde, Feldstein, Dever and the writers doing wonderful things to have you instantly feeling in safe hands to sit back and wallow in the non-stop delight of their work.

8/10

Mid90s (2019)

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This 1990’s set coming-of-age film is made by first time director Jonah Hill. You can definitely sense his comedic style influencing the way the characters speak but as a debut role behind the camera, does Hill give us something Superbad or is it an example of a Megamind to keep watch of?

13 year old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives at home with his bully big brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) and mum Dabney (Katherine Waterston). After witnessing some older teenagers having fun skateboarding, Stevie decides to try his hand at the activity and in turn he makes friends with the crew, even if it does mean he starts skating down some dodgy roads.

The transition from indoor gamer Stevie to hanging out outside and christened ‘Sunburn’ is a swift yet glorious watch. He does the thing most youths did when they felt a phase was too babyish for them; he removes posters and adds up more grown up memorabilia and tries adult things in the hope of fitting in. What Jonah Hill does as writer/director is ensure the rite of passage is lovingly documented and the 90’s setting is pretty much the perfect, grungy backdrop to tell the story.

As if on its own wheels, this film shuttles by and with Nick Houy’s editing you really feel as if his life is injected with a dangerous spurt of energy. There is a party scene which opens with funky fresh cuts that snap along to the beat of the music and it isn’t just this which shows some sharp snips, the film has a few other, somewhat brutally effective edits enhanced by blasts of sound, which clatter in a shocking way.

‘Mid90s’ isn’t all fast paced masculinity though, there are a couple of touching moments portrayed in the bond between Sunburn and group leader and hopeful skater pro Ray. The way that Ray cares for and likes to see their new member get up and try again is great and they have a well written connection, especially in a silent and sunlit exchange where Ray fixes Stevie up with a new board.

It is a mostly solid bolt out of the gates from Hill, aside from one iffy scene at a house party that sees the li’l lead getting hit on by an older gal. Their age difference and following bases he ticks off are met with applause but it’s a tonally weird feeling scene, and if things were the other way around, with an older lad sexually advancing on a younger female then it’d be torn apart, but here it’s treated as a celebration and something a kid should go through to be deemed ‘cool’. Some may view it as harmless and a mildly amusing scene but it didn’t sit right with me.

Suljic is a fantastic actor with his youth shining through in the desired places and this childlike wonder adds flavour to his more grown up language and actions. He has this puppy dog loyalty that he acts wonderfully as he plays in a new gang. These sunnier parts are contrasted by some darker elements of his personal life which he attacks with no reserve.

Even if skateboarding was never your scene, Jonah Hill writes and directs a film with a neat focus on angst, awkwardness, puberty, brotherly fights and trying to fit in, without ever really messing any of those qualities up. ‘Mid90s’ is a coming-of-age movie rife with skater-boi law breaking and growing pains, which thoroughly reflect male childhood.

7/10

The Sisters Brothers (2019)

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On horseback, from Oregon to San Francisco comes this dark-comedy Western which may not exactly spring out the saloon doors but has enough cinematic artistry to prevent it blowing like some yawn-some tumbleweed in the breeze.

Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are the Sisters Brothers; a pair of assassins who are hired by a wealthy gent to track down and violently extract information from a man named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who may have a formula to aid finding gold.

It has to be said first of all, that the cast on display in this film are a magnificent bunch. The four main characters are extremely talented and put on a satisfying show, to really lure you into this well-worn world of Western dramatics. It’s a shame then that the film has multiple points where it attempts conflict and humour but doesn’t quite succeed on either.

Co-writers Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, who worked together on ‘A Prophet’, manage to drop in some nice flourishes though. Be it Eli’s bedtime routine with a red shawl to the weakening state of his horse, it’s the character based details that triumph more than the whole. It’s a finely tuned exploration of connection and strife but the entire film does not quite echo that sentiment.

Glows of orange and yellows in the beautiful cinematography of a country landscape not only add wonder but it provides dusty intrigue to a tale about family. The film is strongest in the contemplative moments and self-reflection from the brothers. Eli and Charlie are a great representation of sibling life; they bicker, fight, laugh and ultimately they support each other. The gorgeous deserts, hills, streams and towns appear almost like painted backdrops for the pair to play in front of.

Even if the film doesn’t hold court from beginning to end, the final short scene is perhaps the most delightful and saves the long wait to get there. We witness a lovely, homely set-up which perfectly demonstrates the relationship of the Sisters Brothers. A use of a near un-edited tracking shot, flowing through this last sequence adds to the calm denouement.

Phoenix is energetic and feels like the Joker of the duo, he is blissfully happy to follow orders, drink and kill whereas Reilly does well in the more thoughtful role, Eli is a man of aspiration and love. Together, the actors provide splendid yin and yang.

Gold shimmers, guns crackle and horses gallop in a story which strides down a much beaten Western trail but thanks to a brotherly bond, the film however long in its journey, is an interesting one.

6.5/10

If Beale Street Could Talk (2019)

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Just two years ago Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’ won the big one at the Academy Awards and he’s back with another intimate tale of relationships, one that feels richly soaked in spellbinding love.

Alonzo (Stephan James) and his girlfriend Tish (KiKi Layne) have known each other almost their entire lives and they wish to move in together but Alonzo is arrested for a crime he swears he didn’t commit. Matters only become more difficult when Tish realises she’s pregnant with his child and the hopes of her lovers’ freedom start fading away.

Told in a non-linear fashion, this is a captivating tapestry of love and the strains of racist America destroying their ideal dream. Some films which flit back and forth can lose their way in a muddle or become a tiring slog but ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is neither because director Jenkins is an incredible master of storytelling. Character is front and centre and it shouldn’t ever be any other way, Jenkins has this inspiring knack to make the camera fall in love with his subjects and therefore, we as an audience do as well.

The look of the entire film is just lovely, that seems like such a simple word but you can’t help but topple into a comforting state when watching this beauty of cinema unfold. There’s a sumptuous quality to Tish and Alonzo’s connection making the spark of the story feel like a dream to get swept away by. James Laxton’s gorgeous, glowing cinematography and the abundance of perfectly framed close-ups really make this a personal picture and only go and make the unfair persecutions of their situation that much more emotional.

Nicholas Britell delivers a dreamy score, one which beautifully mirrors the elegance that cinema can often deliver in blue moon moments. The joyous sounds of New Orleans inspired jazz aid the honeymoon romance of the central pair but when circumstances get rougher, such as Ed Skrein’s despicable officer inflicting a troubling presence, Britell’s work becomes moodier and unsettling with the faintest brass notes to be heard in the distance.

Stephan James and KiKi Layne are an exquisite duo who perform with such an infectious chemistry which make the emotional beats that much more pronounced. Regina King is a triumph as Tish’s mother Sharon, a parent who will do anything for her little girl. Teyonah Parris is excellent also, delivering with sharp precision, some cracking lines in the face of disapproving in-laws.

Barry Jenkins maintains a determined solid bond between his stars, things may threaten to shake their foundations but love is constant and with these two young lovers it is heart-breaking to witness.

7.5/10

 

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2019)

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Forgery has never looked so gently compelling but ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is out and about in New York to show how unexpectedly sweet and deliciously sour it can all be.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) has a NY Times Best Seller book under her belt but has fallen under writers block and other self-made hard times. Whilst trying to compile notes for a new novel she unearths letters sent by the person she wants to write about. This sets in motion a plan to spin money by forging letters from other writers and along with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), Israel gets into her groove once more.

The film is lovingly layered with spot on wit, never over-laden to breaking point, the screenplay has a fair few amounts of razor sharp insults and sniping but it’s still a film that is generally a pleasant watch, like the director has managed to settle her audience in to this calming, jazzy ambience of comedy and drama. It’s like you’re watching this talented yet hard to reach writer figure of Israel, not from a cinema but on a plush armchair with atmospheric lighting setting the mood in comfortable surroundings.

It is also true that it can feel like a biographical picture more like a lazy Sunday afternoon watch because it never changes gears and it takes a bit of time to warm to the aggressive nature of Lee as a person but once she begins her typewriter hustling and forms a bond with flamboyant Jack, the movie becomes a much more investing product.

The film does well in making Lee Israel and her fraudulent letters a rather interesting matter, it’s a story truly deserving of the spotlight and they don’t squander it. It’s made me want to find out more about her and I’m sure it’ll have the same impact on others. ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is a great commentary on the eagerness to lap up literary content and buy into the world of the writer, any unheard of material is ripe for the picking without any due thought which makes her actions all the more understandable. The writers and director never paint Lee out to be some unholy crook but more a mildly unpleasant, anxiety-ridden alcoholic with a mouth on her…so like all writers!

Melissa McCarthy brings amazing presence to the film and silences any critics to her more usual shouty comedy flicks, which was me included. Like in ‘St. Vincent’, McCarthy shines by proving great dramatic chops that she clearly has within her. Richard E. Grant is purely enigmatic with a cheeky smile helping him bring Jack to spritely life. The two actors bounce off each other so well, the characters they play clearly sharing like-minded souls in bittersweet humour and sadness. The pair of performers play the relationship beautifully with a radiant spark flaring up between them every time they’re on screen together.

It’s an intriguing film and very close to being a joyful watch. The witticisms and emotional current that carry the film are wonderfully balanced.

7/10