Tag Archives: 18/20

Wall-E

WFTB Score: 18/20

The plot: He may be a simple garbage-crushing robot, but Wall-E still dreams of finding true love among the ruins of Earth. When Eve descends from the heavens, the little fellow is terrified, then lovestruck; but she has a higher purpose than making friends – not that it stops Wall-E from holding on to her for dear life.

Poor old Wall-E (voiced, after a fashion, by Ben Burtt). The people of Earth have taken an extended break from the planet, leaving the hardy little robot alone – apart from an even hardier cockroach – to clean up the mess. Wall-E feels his loneliness too, reminded by a scratchy copy of Hello, Dolly! that love isn’t all around; so when a spaceship arrives and a sleek, curvy white robot called Eve (Elissa Knight) disembarks, it’s no surprise that he’s smitten.

Eve, however, has bigger fish to fry, or rather life of any sort to gather, but her reaction to Wall-E showing her a sapling is not what he would have wanted – she takes custody of the plant and shuts off completely until her rocket returns. Wall-E hitches a lift back to the mothership, The Axiom, a cruise liner built by the BNL company (under their CEO, Fred Willard’s Shelby Forthright) to save humans the trouble of looking after themselves or the planet. However, as Wall-E and Eve are to find out, and the Axiom’s Captain (Jeff Garlin) discovers very slowly, things have gone very, very wrong in the last 700 years.

For all its awards and critical plaudits, it would be wrong to say that Wall-E is beyond reproach. For some, the tale of a litter-tidying robot falling in love and saving the human race from its own sugar-guzzling stupidity will be the sort of sentimental, lefty, tree-hugging schmaltz that even George Lucas shied away from (there was never, we assume, a Mrs R2-D2*). I will give them this: the second half of the film isn’t quite as inventive or beautiful as the first.

On the other hand…until I see an animated film that’s truly indistinguishable from reality, I’m unlikely to be equally wowed by another CGI movie as I was by Wall-E. A foolhardy statement, perhaps; but I make it in all sincerity. Just in terms of its looks, the film is an incredible achievement, both on Earth – where the skyscrapers are eerily-familiar but made entirely out of junk – and in space. It’s immediately apparent that Pixar have honed their skills to perfection, both in terms of the protagonists and the worlds in which they live.

Moreover, the film is funny. From Toy Story onwards, Pixar have been superb at orchestrating scenes to achieve perfect comic timing; while that has occasionally been overly calculating – nobody will convince me of the merit of fake CGI ‘bloopers’ – the lack of dialogue here elevates many scenes to the level of Chaplin or Keaton at their best.

So far, so kiddie-friendly: but Wall-E explores more mature themes too. The sexless, almost wordless, yet incredibly tender romance between our hero and Eve works better than any number of explicitly romantic films – while Hello, Dolly! (to pick an example not quite at random) has its moments, it doesn’t come near to this film in terms of exploring what it’s like to fall, and be, in love.

Wall-E is the quintessence of a love story, and a doubly abstracted one at that (we’re not watching robots in love, we’re watching drawings of robots in love); since there’s no dialogue to speak of, all the meaning comes from the images married with Thomas Newman’s lovely music. The result is new, unexpected, a technological marvel that at times imitates ballet.

There’s another love story going on too, and I don’t mean John and Mary’s impromptu romance aboard the Axiom; while he battles the ship’s disobedient auto-pilot, the captain learns about long-forgotten Earth rituals: farming, dancing, pizza(!). By taking Western vices of laziness and wilful pollution to an extreme conclusion, Andrew Stanton gives us all pause for thought about the things we stand to lose; and how wonderful to see an American film confront the potential – repeat, potential – ills of unfettered consumerism on the planet and populace alike.

I’ll admit that the obese passengers of the Axiom are pretty unsubtle and suggest that Stanton (and Pixar in general?) might prefer the reliability of their machines over lazy humans, but as a cautionary tale it works stunningly well. As I’ve already conceded, the film does become more predictable as it ramps up the action, the deranged robots (for example) recalling the misfit toys in Toy Story. Yet all is redeemed by the touching denouement which itself continues to evolve as the credits roll, beautifully sketching the future of mankind through the history of art.

Though I’ve not reviewed everything of Pixar’s (I look forward to watching Finding Nemo again), I can’t help but applaud their dedication to quality film-making using tools that they are constantly re-inventing and refining**. Nothing will ever replace the joy of seeing Toy Story for the first time, but the visual, intellectual and emotional impact of Wall-E has to make it the ‘better’ film, whatever that means. Whether or not you have any affection for digital animation, if you like good movies you should watch both – and because it’s that good, start with this one.

NOTES: 1 Oh good grief.

2 Hence the disappointment with Cars. Not a bad movie, just unusually unbrilliant.

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Gran Torino

WFTB Score: 18/20

The plot: Grizzled widower and Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski despairs of his spoilt family and mistrusts his neighbours, members of the Hmong community that has come to dominate the area where he now lives with only his dog Daisy for company. When shy youngster Thao is goaded by a gang into trying to steal Walt’s precious Gran Torino, the sick old man nearly kills him; but as Thao pays penance Walt begins to take the young man and his sister Sue under his wing. Little do they know that the relationship will have devastating consequences for them all.

Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a wretched old man, an inconvenience to the money-minded family who congregate for his wife’s funeral and a thorn in the side of the young Catholic priest (Christopher Carley) who tries to look out for him, despite the insults he constantly receives for his troubles. A war vet and ex-Ford worker, Walt is pre-disposed to dislike his neighbours, the Hmong who were repatriated after the Vietnam War (they supported the losing side); and when impressionable young man Thao (Bee Vang) is forced by his cousin’s gang to try to steal Walt’s immaculate 1972 Gran Torino, Walt reacts with his customary fury and racist outbursts.

However, Walt saves Thao from being hauled off by the gang and soon after saves his sister Sue (Ahney Her) from a sticky situation, making him a local hero; Walt is showered with food (to which he is more than partial) and gets to know both Sue and Thao, who is made to work for Walt and is later given lessons in life by the relentlessly practical curmudgeon. Walt, however, does not have much life left and when Thao’s problems with the gang escalate, he takes it upon himself to find a solution.

Eastwood has stated that this is his last appearance in front of the camera; if so, it is a fine send-off for one of cinema’s greats. Essentially an exercise in old age vigilantism, Gran Torino provides an uncomfortable but incredibly gripping story as Thao and Sue’s lives become ever more threatened by their hateful cousin’s gang and Walt fights to protect them. More than that, Eastwood’s Walt is a superb and complex character study, a man troubled by the violence of war yet not afraid to use his muscle, hateful on many levels, disappointed in his children and snotty grandkids, yet regretful that he didn’t get to know his sons better.

Importantly, even as he comes to know and even like his next door neighbours, his ingrained racism barely softens: only the frequent reminders of impending death make him reappraise his life with the help of the callow priest. Throughout, the gleaming Gran Torino lurks in the background as a symbol of misplaced effort and love, highlighting Eastwood’s contribution as director. He never makes himself likeable, but by filming himself unflinchingly (there is a brilliant shot of Walt smoking in the dark, his blood pouring down his hands) he makes sure we feel everything Walt feels.

Alongside such a towering performance, Bee Vang and Ahney Her – non-professional actors – do admirably in their roles, Her in particular coming across as self-assured and (importantly) sympathetic in a role which is initially burdened with giving details about the Hmong but which later takes a shocking turn. Though other parts are necessarily limited, Brian Haley is excellent as Walt’s son Mitch, failing to connect with the old man and harassed by the wife into proposing retirement villages. John Carroll Lynch is also very good as the foul-mouthed barber who gives Walt as good as he gets, and who helps to school Thao in the art of being a man. Nick Schenk’s screenplay is poignant, funny and hard, and its morals are simple and direct; perhaps more so than in real life, but the impact of every scene is immediate and raw.

Gran Torino’s simplicity and refusal to become sentimental (a trait that afflicted Million Dollar Baby) is generally a blessing, but also leads to my only criticism of the film. At the very end, the ultimate destination of Walt’s prized car is easily guessed at, and Thao’s troubles are wrapped up rather too neatly to be entirely credible; but this is a small quibble, and one which only very slightly reduced my enjoyment of the film (since the build-up towards the climax is so expertly handled, I thought the climax itself might be…cleverer). If I’m being vague, it’s for a very good reason: even if it’s not quite perfect, Gran Turismo is a film that should be seen and appreciated without too much forewarning. It’s an uncomfortable watch, occasionally, but for every frame that Clint Eastwood is on screen, you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.

The Sound of Music

WFTB Score: 18/20

The plot: Impetuous postulate Maria may not have what it takes to be a nun, but the Reverend Mother decides she may be an ideal governess for the seven children of widowed naval hero Captain von Trapp. Although their personalities initially clash, Maria’s free-spiritedness captivates the Captain; however, more powerful forces than their love threaten the safety of his beloved Austria.

Those of you who have come across The Sound of Music halfway through during countless Easter holidays and thought, ‘Not this again!’, get it or rent it out and pay attention to the first couple of minutes, before the orchestra begins tinkling away, let alone before Julie Andrews opens her mouth. Pay attention to the snowy peaks, the shining river flowing through green valleys, the turquoise lakes, everything that makes Maria’s heart want to sing: that, my friends, is how to open up a stage musical for the big screen.

The opening caught my attention because the remainder of Wise’s film is unavoidably familiar, not just from repeated showings but also television shows based on, and promoting, a revival in the West End of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most famous musical. I can barely imagine that anyone will not know the plot, but to flesh out the above the film follows the story of Maria (Julie Andrews), a nature-loving postulate nun in late 1930s Salzburg whose continuous lateness causes disruption within the abbey.

Thinking that she needs to see more of the world, the Reverend Mother (Peggy Wood) packs her off to the luxurious von Trapp house, where the father is often absent and the seven children – ranging from about four to sixteen in age – are getting through governesses like nobody’s business. With patience, understanding and song Maria wins the hearts of the children, and when the Captain (Christopher Plummer) returns from Vienna he is upset by the wildness of his free-running kids but bowled over by their talent for singing, as is opportunist impresario ‘uncle’ Max (Richard Haydn). The third member of the party, Baroness Schraeder (Eleanor Parker) is not so impressed, but she is concentrating on snagging the Captain as a husband – only the governess does scrub up quite well… Meantime, the Nazis are just about to declare their Anschluss, uniting Germany with Austria, a move that not only disgusts the Captain but will undoubtedly see him called into the war effort.

Each of these story strands is pretty meaty on its own (the love triangle in particular has satisfying overtones of Jane Eyre), but in a musical the story has to be secondary to the songs: and the songs are, in the main, superb, flowing and epic when the mood demands it (The Sound of Music, Climb Ev’ry Mountain), playful at other times (How do you Solve a Problem Like Maria?, So Long, Farewell), and at others still beautifully simple (Edelweiss). The songs are so familiar they may sound simplistic nowadays, but each is memorable and serves its purpose perfectly. It may be an obvious statement but The Sound of Music celebrates the sound and emotional pull of music, not only bringing the von Trapp children back to their father, but also opening out the sense of Edelweiss so that it encapsulates the situation of Austria as a country (putting the Nazis noses out of joint at the same time, which is always a good thing).

Julie Andrews is perfectly cast as Maria, not so pretty that she would look out of place in the abbey nor so plain that the Captain would overlook her; she has a good singing voice, excellent comic timing and just the right mix of hesitancy and self-assurance. Christopher Plummer barks out his orders with a gleam in his eye and makes a convincing captain, whilst Parker as the Baroness is the villain of the piece yet still elicits our sympathy when she recognises she must give way. None of the children are unbearable (though the boys are a bit annoying), Charmian Carr in particular doing a fine job as Liesl, on the brink of womanhood, even if she is clearly well into her twenties in reality.

For me, the Sixteen going on Seventeen sequence with Rolfe (Daniel Truhitte) goes on a couple of minutes too long, and the same could be said for many of the film’s early sequences, but the music is always pleasant and the views are colourful and vibrant. I would have gladly cut out twenty minutes of dancing (and the whole of Lonely Goatherd – the puppets are ugly!), but I think this is probably more due to my modern impatient tastes than any fault of the film.

The last quarter of the film, featuring the family’s flight from the Third Reich and their tense seclusion amongst the abbey’s dead, makes for an exciting climax and a vivid contrast with the sunny – and rather cosy – look of the rest of the film. It also means that The Sound of Music has it all: love, songs, scenery, danger, laughter – it even manages to fit in a small on-screen role for Marni Nixon, famous voiceover for artists such as Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn in other musicals. Little wonder that it won five of its ten Oscar nominations, including Best Picture; and whilst the more jaded viewer will continue to cry ‘Not again!’ when the film next appears on television, they will still hum along in the background as a whole new generation experiences the magic of Maria for the first time.

Brassed Off

WFTB Score: 18/20

The plot: Faced with a redundancy offer too good to refuse, the end of Grimley Colliery also looks like the end of the brass band that has been in existence for over a hundred years. The arrival of a female horn player, however, stirs up interest in more than one of the band members as they plot a way to the National Finals.

The posters would have you believe that Brassed Off is a romantic comedy with jolly brass band music, but viewers expecting a Hugh Grant-style romp are likely to be quickly disabused. With any luck, though, they will stick with the film and enjoy one of the best and most incisive British films of the last thirty years.

Beginning with the accompaniment of brass band music to the end of the miners’ shift in the fictional Grimley Colliery, the film swiftly introduces us to the miners who form the Grimley Colliery Band. As the pit is earmarked for closure – the owners are offering a generous redundancy offer if the miner’s accept it, much less if they opt for the pit to go to ‘review’ – old codgers Jim and Ernie (Philip Jackson and Peter Martin) declare their intention not to pay subs, effectively spelling the end of the band. When glamorous young Gloria Mullins (Tara Fitzgerald) turns up, however, they change their minds, though her position as a surveyor for the mining company makes her a figure of some suspicion. Gloria is also interesting to young trumpeter Andy (Ewan McGregor); though she appears not to remember him, Gloria was Andy’s first adolescent love.

Band Leader Danny Ormondroyd (Pete Postlethwaite) is adamant that the band should compete for the Brass Band Finals to be held at the Albert Hall, but whether the band or Danny, decades of mining filling his lungs with coal dust, will last that long, is doubtful. Danny’s son Phil, a simple-minded trombonist (Stephen Tompkinson) who served time during the miner’s strike, is already struggling with his desperate wife Sandra (Melanie Hill), their four children, and a mountain of debt; his father’s instruction to get some new brass is not exactly well-timed.

Andy and Gloria get reacquainted with each other, but given the seriousness of their troubles it’s unsurprising that Brassed Off organically migrates from them towards the more bitter struggles faced by Phil and his father. Their battles – Phil to keep his family together, Danny to stay alive – are not always easy to watch, but it’s compelling stuff, beautifully played by both Tompkinson and Postlethwaite. What happens to the family (I won’t spoil it here), let alone the community, is an emotional punch to the stomach, and at the same time asks uncomfortable questions about the merit and purpose of art. That said, the band’s poignant performance of Danny Boy outside Danny’s hospital bed, and the conductor’s reaction to it, provide all the answers you need.

You might expect the music to lighten the mood of the film, and the Saddleworth tour that descends into drunken chaos is indeed very funny; but elsewhere, the brass in Brassed Off is dark and brooding even while it’s stirring, montages moving the story on as the music plays – shown to best effect in Gloria’s first performance of the Concierto di “Orange juice”. The sequence that sees the band winning the semi-finals whilst the decision to close the pit is made is also very effective, and the Albert Hall climax is incredibly uplifting and sad at the same time: it may be a last hurrah for the band, but it’s a hurrah all the same. It should also be said that amongst the difficulties of these families’ lives, there is some very funny and very gritty Northern humour, effectively portrayed by skilled actors such as Sue Johnston, playing Jim’s wife.

Mark Herman, directing from his own screenplay, elicits strong performances from the cast and weaves in music from the Grimethorpe Colliery Band (who also fill out the cast of the fictional ensemble) with great skill. Herman invests his film with enormous, if partisan, passion for the miners, making it perfectly clear (throughout the film, but most obviously in Danny’s bold speech at the Albert Hall) that the blame for the personal, family, community and national tragedy lies with the government of the day, which treated the coal industry as an ancient relic (voiced in Stephen Moore’s manager: “Coal is history.”) For some, this blatantly political aspect to the film will be a turn-off, finding it Lefty Propaganda; and whilst many will be intrigued by the story, others outside Britain or too young in 1992 may find it parochial and/or confusing.

Personally, I think Brassed Off is a work of honest, determined genius. It may have a slightly undercooked love story, and it may wave its politics around a bit too obviously, and it may rely on the viewer being there or thereabouts when the real stories happened; but if you have any sympathy for the characters or appreciation of the music – how could you not and still say you’re a feeling human being? – Brassed Off is a profoundly moving experience. In comparison, The Full Monty is merely a song and dance act.

NOTES: This review was written a long time before Pride was released. I’m sure I’ll get round to writing a review for that film eventually, and it’s obvious that Pride owes much to Brassed Off in terms of both content and tone. As a snap judgement, I think Herman’s film is the better work, based on its bleak humour and stark drama.

The Producers (1968)

WFTB Score: 18/20

The plot: Nervous accountant Leo Bloom looks at the books of monstrous producer Max Bialystock, forced into the arms of old ladies by a string of terrible shows, and discovers that a flop could earn more money than a hit. The scheme is completely illegal, of course, but the real issue is finding a show that’s absolutely guaranteed to fail. (Goose) step forward Franz Liebkind, with love letter to the Fuhrer Springtime for Hitler.

Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) is unhappy, and has every right to be. A Broadway producer who once had six shows running at the same time, he has been reduced to the status of a middle-aged gigolo for elderly clients, all making out cheques to a show spuriously called ‘Cash.’ When accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) is sent to look at Max’s books, Bialystock frightens the anxious young invader half to death; but Leo hits upon the fact that if you raised enough money – by selling, say, 25,000% of the show’s profits – and the show flopped, you could make yourself very rich. Fraudulently rich, that is, and whilst Bialystock instantly embraces the idea (and several more little old ladies, in order to raise the money), Bloom is made even more nervous until Max reassures him by becoming his friend. The question of what show to put on is solved when Max reads the script of Springtime for Hitler, a play in praise of Adolf written by deranged immigrant Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars). Bialystock ensures that the awfulness of the play is brought out to the full by hiring ultra-camp director Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett) and casting eccentric hippie actor Lorenzo St Dubois or LSD (Dick Shawn) in the title role (‘That’s our Hitler!’), and opening night appears to go exactly as planned when the opening number is treated with open-mouthed disbelief by the audience; but just when Bialystock and Bloom are toasting their success, the camp comedy of the performance hits a chord with everyone but the author, sending the producers into a panic and Liebkind into a murderous rage. With a surefire hit on their hands, how can they make sure the show doesn’t go on?

Now that The Producers has been turned into an incredibly successful musical, and that musical has been turned back into a fairly bland film, it’s an absolute pleasure to find that Mel Brooks’ first feature is both wonderfully trim (it runs at 88 minutes, compared to the 2005 version’s 134) and every bit as funny as I remembered it. Much credit for this must go directly to Brooks, who stages the decayed atmosphere of Bialystock’s life to perfection, winds his performers up with stinging lines and simply lets them go. Wilder is just lovely as Bloom, the blanket-holding, neurotic child-figure with a mischievous, almost other-worldly grin playing on his face; but Mostel’s performance of Max Bialystock steals the show, mouldy and cadaverous yet still yearning for his glory days, aware that his life is an act and all the time itching to break the fourth wall (he does it just once, the rest of the time content to roll his eyes). As this pair become unlikely partners, their relationship is simultaneously creepy and touching, Bloom acknowledging Bialy’s qualities as a friend even as he frames him as a fraudster.

With this relationship serving as the core of the film, Brooks is free to go wild with the supporting characters, and he does, with not only Liebkind, De Bris and LSD adding to the fun but also Roger’s extraordinary assistant Carmen Ghia (Andreas Voutsinas), Estelle Winwood as the sprightliest of Bialystock’s little old ladies and Lee Meredith putting in an arresting turn as Max’s ‘toy’, Ulla. You could argue that Ulla is a cheap and sexist character, but she’s not exploited terribly, she looks beautiful and most importantly, she’s funny. The Producers provides an almost constant barrage of laughs, building up to the opening of Springtime for Hitler and the maximum offence impact of the title number. This is probably the single funniest musical moment I’ve seen on film – Spinal Tap included – and the ridiculousness of the scenario (together with the audience’s collective reaction and Shawn’s ‘Heil, baby!’ treatment of Hitler) should negate all accusations of insensitivity. Brooks is essentially a comedian without filters, and if you’re going to do anything with Nazis surely the best thing to do is ridicule them. The same is true of LSD’s hippiedom: I initially thought that the Hitler auditions dated the film, but the ridiculous language used by the counter-culture is accurately and wickedly punctured.

Given the insanely giddy heights reached by Springtime for Hitler it’s not surprising that what immediately follows feels like a bit of a comedown, and the plot-driven section where Liebkind turns on the producers, then helps them blow up the theatre, certainly doesn’t carry the same impact (the effects used for the explosion are terrible). Still, there’s a handsome payoff in both the courtroom and prison scenes, and the film benefits from not interrupting the love story between Bialystock and Bloom – for that’s surely what it is – with a relationship between Bloom and Ulla. Fast-paced, sharp, hilarious, riotous and yet impeccably marshalled, The Producers is a great film and anyone who values comedy and hasn’t seen it is missing out. Bravo!

Pulp Fiction

WFTB Score: 18/20

The plot: The intersecting lives of a couple of hoods, their intensely laid-back boss, his reckless wife, the washed-up boxer paid to lose a fight and possibly the most hapless robbers in history.

For enforcers Vince and Jules (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson), anything can happen in the course of a day working for Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). For example, Vince might be obliged to entertain Marsellus’ wife Mia (Uma Thurman), an evening that quickly turns from teasing frustration to terror when Mia mistakenly snorts heroin. Or Jules might miraculously survive being shot at whilst recovering a mysterious package, causing him to question his purpose. Or both of them might have to rely on the cleaning services of ‘The Wolf’ (Harvey Keitel) when Vincent proves to have a twitchy trigger finger. Others have tales to tell, too: when fighter Butch (Bruce Willis) wins a fight Marsellus paid him to lose, he and girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Madeiros) become fugitives, though he can’t possibly predict where his day will go when he attempts to retrieve a prized watch. And when Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer’s amateur bandits hit on the bright idea of turning over coffee shops for easy cash, they can’t possibly predict how bad an idea it is to attempt to separate Jules from his wallet.

Simply because of its purpose, the dialogue of most films is profoundly unrealistic. Nobody’s really as sharp as Rick in Casablanca; nobody’s really as ‘confused’ as Nigel in This is Spinal Tap. And nobody really uses language as caustically, as glibly, as punchily as the cast of Pulp Fiction. For all of its other qualities – and it has many – the film’s dialogue is what elevates it from a run-of-the-mill collection of gangster exploits to a modern masterpiece. Like the films above, examples are too numerous to mention, though I particularly like “I shot Marvin in the face” (which shouldn’t be funny, but is) and Jules’ explanation of what his wallet looks like (I won’t go into it here, but the swearing is both monumental and impressively inventive). Tarantino’s trick is to intersperse moments of action and violence with the characters chatting about the most mundane things; while this might sound dull, it humanises and fleshes out characters who could otherwise appear monstrous or alien. It helps, too, that the stories Tarantino and Roger Avary have written are satisfyingly gritty and sordid*: if we didn’t know anything about gimp masks before Pulp Fiction, we certainly did afterwards.

Pulp Fiction’s fractured structure is another trick that works spectacularly well. By rights, chopping back and forth in time, so that someone we’ve seen being shot in one section is back with us in the next, should be a jarring experience. However, it works brilliantly, allowing the film to have explosive and shocking moments while still giving characters the exits they ‘deserve’. It may be a cheat, but it’s a damn effective one. While Tarantino isn’t averse to gimmickry and homages (there’s a shot that exactly mimics Psycho, and no doubt tons of other film references that I’m not aware of), Pulp Fiction is directed fairly unfussily, Tarantino’s most obvious contribution coming from the wonderfully eclectic and always appropriate soundtrack. Jungle Boogie is an early highlight, Dusty’s Son of a Preacher Man another; but my favourite is Urge Overkill’s version of Neil Diamond’s Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon.

Of course, directors can do little without good actors, and Tarantino can count himself incredibly lucky with his cast for Pulp Fiction, and especially Samuel L. Jackson’s breakout performance. Jules is an engagingly cool dude, albeit one capable of a terrifying homicidal rage; in Jackson’s hands, he’s also fascinatingly complex following the ‘miracle’ and his subsequent epiphany. That said, it would be careless to overlook Travolta’s contribution to the partnership and the movie as a whole – call him unlucky, or reckless, or whatever you like, there’s something endearing about Vincent’s resentment at being blamed for things that are completely his fault (Travolta, having been unfashionable for most of the previous decade, temporarily became hot property again). Uma Thurman, who has been pretty terrible at times, finds the right level of self-amusement in Mia and, to be fair, does the traumatic stuff really well; Bruce just has to be Bruce to be good, though he does more, showing great tenderness and scary anger in his relationship with Fabienne and always keeping us guessing about whether or not he’s a good guy. I should also mention Ving Rhames, who takes Marsellus’ reversals of fortune with a calm voice, though you can tell there’s one hell of a wallet description waiting to bust loose. Keitel is simply class. It’s fun, too, to see other actors as you might not expect to see them: Rosanna Arquette, Steve Buscemi.

Which brings us to the few elements that are less than brilliant. Tarantino as actor will never be a particularly compelling screen presence; I wasn’t convinced that his Jimmie belonged in the film’s world of gangsters and lowlifes, though Quentin makes life hard for himself by trying to roll with Keitel, Travolta and Jackson all at once. As director, Tarantino could surely have trimmed his famously long scenes ever so slightly: Butch’s lengthy walk to his apartment, for example, or Vince’s tour of Jack Rabbit Slims. In fact, I’ve never actually been able to watch Pulp Fiction without pausing it halfway through (which might say more about me than the movie) – luckily, there’s a natural intermission immediately before Christopher Walken’s superb cameo, which makes the start of ‘part two’ a highlight.

Tarantino’s critics have argued with some justification that the director’s tropes – the knowingly mundane dialogue, the long scenes, the record-collection soundtrack – are repeated mindlessly from one film to the next, making him something of a one-trick pony. Nevertheless, when it’s used as successfully as it is in Pulp Fiction, and pulled off by actors in the blistering form of Travolta and Jackson here, it’s one hell of a trick.

NOTES: I won’t go on forever; I just wanted to mention the scene of Butch trying out weapons of escalating offensiveness. It’s both a nod to Tarantino’s beloved exploitation films and a lovely bit of non-verbal comedy.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

WFTB Score: 18/20

The plot: When eccentric inventor Maurice is held captive after seeking refuge in an enchanted castle, his daughter Belle makes the courageous decision to trade her freedom for his, sacrificing herself to the Beast who lives there. The Beast knows that Belle falling in love with him is his last chance to lift a curse, but even with a houseful of animate objects giving him advice, it seems impossible that he will be able to control his temper; certainly not against the baying townsfolk who pitch up at his gates.

Belle (voiced by Paige O’Hara) isn’t a typical young woman, at least not in the quiet French village where she lives with her eccentric father, inventor Maurice. Whereas the other girls are blonde, showy and only too keen to flutter their eyelashes at local stud Gaston (Richard White), Belle prefers the company of a good story, the sort that frees her mind and allows her to imagine a different sort of life to that she seems destined to live. Belle’s disinterest provokes Gaston all the more and he plots, with his idiot sidekick Lefou, to lure Belle into marriage; but tragedy intervenes when Maurice goes missing and Belle tracks him down to an enchanted castle, owned by a Beast (Robby Benson) who has been cursed with his appearance forever unless he can earn the love of a woman, and peopled with enchanted objects that were formerly his servants. Knowing none of the Beast’s history, Belle selflessly forsakes her freedom for her father’s but struggles to live with her new master’s anger, and after a row she flees, requiring him to rescue her from a pack of wolves. By degrees, the two come to appreciate each other’s qualities, but just as it seems they are about to fall in love, Belle discovers that her father is in danger and Beast lets her go, unwittingly opening himself up to attack when Belle – in order to save her father from being locked away in an asylum – reveals his existence to the villagers. Can Belle reach Beast and reveal her feelings before Gaston and his mob get to him?

Before I go any further, I should declare my hand. I have never felt any special love for Disney, and have never understood the appeal of their boring flagship mouse nor why anybody, young or old, would want to spend any time in theme parks stuffed full of the studio’s creations. Many of their recent successes, until they merged, were bought-in Pixar films and I have always thought the reputation of Disney as purveyors of magic for kids of all ages has been largely undeserved. Just so you know.

That said, Beauty and the Beast is brilliant. Utterly superb. Although the animation is largely traditional in feel, it has a distinctive style which makes the characters live: not too cute, and not too lifelike. For instance, Belle is not exactly a curly-haired blonde princess, and Beast, while capable of prowling and snarling like an animal, can also carry off civilised behaviour. More importantly still, the characterisation of each of the main characters is accomplished with humour and energy by the animators and actors alike, creating memorable roles throughout: from Belle to the bickering pair of Cogsworth and Lumiere (David Ogden Stiers and Jerry Orbach), right down to the gormless Lefou and Maurice’s horse Philippe. The enchanted house is a thing of wonder, Angela Lansbury’s Mrs Potts ordering the dishes about with enthusiasm; yet all the time the withering rose in the forbidden West Wing, a sign that Beast’s curse is destined to stay with him forever, anchors the action in serious drama. That any sort of affection should grow between Belle and the Beast appears implausible, but Linda Woolverton’s script orchestrates their encounters so that their love grows organically. The songs of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (to whom the film is dedicated) also help to accentuate the action, with witty lines and spritely tunes helping the film throughout its tight 81-minute running time.

In two places the songs and visuals come together to extraordinary effect. The first is for Be Our Guest, in which the kitchenware dances for Belle in a terrific copy of a lavish 1930s musical. Better still, though, is the title song. For Beauty and the Beast, the directors set up an intimate dance between the leads whilst Lansbury sings the lovely tune with enormous sympathy and feeling, then ramp up the emotions by showcasing a few brief but incredibly effective shots of the couple dancing in an extraordinary computer-generated ballroom. No doubt it’s the sort of thing that could be knocked up in a few hours these days, but the glittering, polished ballroom heightens the mood of the scene in an unexpected and totally unique way. To top it all, the film refuses to linger on this achievement and carries on with a moment of self-sacrifice from Beast that has you rooting for him right until the end against the vicious, arrogant Gaston.

Very few films are perfect, and some of Beauty and the Beast’s animation is a little rough: the mouths of the characters don’t always match their voices and ironically the post-transformation prince is, to quote Fargo, kinda funny looking. These are minor quibbles, though, for a film that brushes away cynicism with good humour, good tunes, and endless charm, all of which earned it an unprecedented Best Picture nomination. It didn’t win, of course, and perhaps that’s right; for this movie is a different kind of special. Beauty and the Beast isn’t perfect: but it’s absolutely magical.