Pulp Fiction (1994)

The first scene of ‘Pulp Fiction’ is like many first scenes in many of Quentin Tarantino’s films – people sitting at a table and talking over some sort of food or drink. The banter is mostly inconsequential, poppy and bouncy but not really about anything. And then, ever so gently something shifts, and we begin to see a mechanism at work in the scene. We’re moving towards something big, some sort of narrative explosion that will propel us into the film at breakneck speed. It’s a technique used many times by Tarantino, from ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992) to ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (2009), but never has it been as iconic (or sudden) as in ‘Pulp Fiction’. Without even really shifting the shot, Ringo (Tim Roth) and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer) go from sitting down to a cup of coffee to brandishing guns and threatening the other patrons of the diner they’re in, and before you know it, ‘Misirlou’ kicks the hell in, and one of the most influential and iconic films in the history of cinema erupts.

Back in 1994, ‘Pulp Fiction’ was like a punch in the collective face of audiences across the world. I was only seven or eight at the time, and even I knew something had happened. It’s hard to really comprehend this now, over twenty years after the fact and with endless imitations of it, but there really had never been anything quite like that film. Remember, there’s no ‘Lock Stock…’ or ‘Snatch’, no ‘Sopranos’ or ‘Breaking Bad’, and the brand that would become Tarantino hadn’t started yet. During the podcast recording for this episode of ‘The Podfather’, someone asked if Tarantino’s films are all inherently trying to be cool, or whether that was just what vibe we now get from him and his films. While we may be used to his idiosyncratic style now, back then, ‘Pulp Fiction’ was THE definition of cool. The dialogue was razor sharp and impossibly funny, the structure was uncompromising and inventive, and its characters were utterly hypnotic. Even as a kid, I knew the world had shifted when ‘Pulp Fiction’ came out. I could see it in the hysteria when it came out on VHS, I could see it in my parents excitement as watching it again and again, and I could see it every time I looked at that impossibly cool film poster, Uma Thurman’s eyes and smile still as arresting as the Mona Lisa’s.

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Pulp Fiction (dir. Quentin Tarantion, DOP Andrzej Sekula)

I should probably provide a caveat though – I don’t think ‘Pulp Fiction’ is Tarantino’s best film. Personally, I think his masterpiece is ‘Basterds’. In fact, it would barely make the Top 5 for me. I would watch ‘Reservoir Dogs’ or ‘Death Proof’ rather than re-watch it. I don’t think it hits the artistic perfection of ‘Kill Bill’, the stylistic coup of ‘Death Proof’, or the conviction and fury of ‘Django Unchained’. And yet, as much as there are many things I don’t love about this film, I still find myself instinctively praising it. Sure, I might not love it as much as most, but that doesn’t mean I appreciate any less the things about it that are damn near perfect.

What catches up ‘Pulp Fiction’ (in my probably incorrect opinion) is what catches up most portmanteau films (those being films that are made up of short stories; you could also call them ‘anthology films’). That problem is, at least one of the stories is not going to be as good as the others, and in the case of ‘Pulp Fiction’, the difference in quality between the good stories and the bad are enormous. On its own, ‘The Gold Watch’ is a good enough little yarn, following Butch (Bruce Willis) as he tries to retrieve his father’s watch while on the run from gangster Marcellus Wallis (Ving Rhames), but what catches it up is that it has to follow arguably the film’s best, ‘Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife’. In a structural misstep, the film starts with its best story, and by comparison, Butch’s story feels like a step down. After the kinetic electricity of the first chapter, what we end up doing is watching Butch walk and drive around a bit, before descending into the Gimp sequence which is just a bit too ridiculous. The film slows down very suddenly, and every time I watch it, I find my attention lagging. This might just be me, and enough people have threatened violence towards me for implying there is any fault in ‘Pulp Fiction’, but while what surrounds the middle act of the film is often sublime, the fact the film drops in energy and rhythm right when it shouldn’t keeps the glue that holds the film together from ever really drying.

Then again, maybe that’s what Tarantino was trying to do. As much as we now think of him as the ultimate cinematic bowerbird, borrowing and providing homage to the entire breadth of cinema history, ‘Pulp Fiction’ now almost feels like a piece of anti-cinema, an attempt to deconstruct the rules of film and narrative and see what else you can do with them. Re-watching ‘Pulp Fiction’, it reminded me the most of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960’s classic ‘À bout de souffle’, itself a gangster film that forgoes traditional narrative structure for something more freeform and reactionary. Maybe applying the usual rules of storytelling to ‘Pulp Fiction’ is doing it an injustice and missing young Quentin’s point. Remember, this is a filmmaker in development, and one who would use each individual film to hone his skills. There aren’t many Tarantino films that are alike; even the two sublime volumes of ‘Kill Bill’ are startlingly different. If we see ‘Pulp Fiction’ as a stepping stone in the development of a master storyteller (and a pretty enormous stepping stone at that), then its flaws seem to matter less. It also helps that, when ‘Pulp Fiction’ gets it right, my god does it get it right.

The cast have never been better. Some of Tarantino’s dialogue and direction has never been better. It still feels immediate and dangerous, blasphemous and cheeky, explosive and assaulting. There are moments in that film, too many moments, that I will never get sick of watching. I could list them all, but you already know which ones they are. This might be far from my favourite of Tarantino’s films, but it has probably more of my favourite moments in any of his films than any of the others. Maybe we need another film like ‘Pulp Fiction’, another film that questions the basic rules and structures of cinematic storytelling, that removes anything extraneous and unnecessary (even narrative) and focuses with frightening intensity on character and situation. The phrase ‘pure cinema’ gets thrown around a lot by film critics, and I don’t really know what they mean most of the time, but I reckon there are a few moments of ‘pure cinema’ in this film. ‘Pulp Fiction’ showed us exactly what kinds of tricks Quentin Tarantino has up his sleeves, and yes, he’s been using the same tricks again and again ever sense, sometimes with lesser impact and often with greater impact. But the shit we get in ‘Pulp Fiction’ is the pure shit, the uncut stuff, the one that goes straight for the nerves and hits like a freight train. It may not always be Tarantino at his finest, but it’s definitely Tarantino at his purest.

The Podfather Score: 7.625

– D.L
(Daniel Lammin)

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

A directorial debut, like a first album, is a tricky thing to get right. Some bands release a pretty decent first album, yet only really come into their own on their second release. Others, however, come out of the gate so strong that the second album is a very hard thing to pull off, and they can fade into one-hit-wonder obscurity. Tarantino could have easily fallen into the latter category. His first release, Reservoir Dogs, is a supremely confident film, and could have easily been a fluke, if not for his obvious talent as both writer and director. Of course, Tarantino’s career following Reservoir Dogs is both admirable and enviable; he has made a series of hyper-violent, pop-culture conscious pictures with the same level of confidence and boisterous enthusiasm that made his first one so memorable. Yet Reservoir Dogs still remains, somewhat surprisingly, on the same level as many of the films he’s made even twenty years later. So what makes it such a timeless classic?

I’ve already spoken a little about how confident Tarantino’s screenplay is, but it really is the thing that makes this film pack such a punch. The dialogue is punchy, the timeline isn’t linear (yet not hard to follow) and the characters, as written, are all compelling figures who are hard to read but easy to follow. If Tarantino weren’t so adept behind the camera as well, his nuanced yet blustering text could have been buried in a frenzy of poor directorial decisions. That is not the case, however, and Tarantino truly uses his shots to invite the audience to explore and experience the world he’s created, as opposed to just handing it to us in a pre-wrapped gift-bag.

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Reservoir Dogs (dir. Quentin Tarantino, DOP Andrzej Sekula)

To cap it all off, Mr. Tarantino’s ability to cast for his films, and write for his actors, is legendary. Uma Thurman as Kiddo in Kill Bill, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Domergue in The Hateful Eight, Samuel L. Jackson in basically every Tarantino film after this one it’s hard to imagine other actors in these roles, and the same is true for the actors in Reservoir Dogs. They are able to convey the tone and carry the intentional misdirection of the plot in such a way that what we do or don’t yet know doesn’t really matter, because what’s happening is so goddamn captivating. Top those pitch perfect performances off with a fantastic soundtrack and for my money you’ve got almost a perfect film.

Of course, Reservoir Dogs isn’t without its faults. Some of the dialogue is rather racist and/or sexist (although a lecture on feminism would admittedly seem rather out of place coming from these particular characters), and once or twice a flashback sequence feels like it may have outstayed its welcome. But shit, it took me a good while to think of even two faults, and as far as I’m concerned Reservoir Dogs maintains to this day its position as not only one of Tarantino’s best films, but one of the best crime films you are ever likely to see.

The Podfather Score – 9/10

– J.B

Bugsy Malone (1976)

“We could have been anything that we wanted to be!”

What happens when you take the classic prohibition gangster story, write a few tunes and cast only children? You have a LOT of fun. Bugsy Malone, starring a bunch of kids (including Jodie Foster) is a fantastic addition to the genre and gives an entirely new perspective on the tried and tested themes of a gangster movie. Using all the cliches in the book we are taken on a rollercoaster ride through the battle for territory, love and the “sarsaparilla racket”, all through the eyes of some of the best child actors you’ll find. Not only is it the film fun, it’s very clever. The gangs use “splurge guns” and cream pies to get rid of their enemies, ride around in bicycle powered 1920s themed cars and although it may a little too suggestive, the song “My Name Is Talulah” is charmingly witty.

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Bugsy Malone (dir. Alan Parker,  DOP Peter Biziou, Michael Seresin)

It’s easy to go on about the great things this film has to offer, but in reality it does fall a little short. The story gets a little lost at times, there are some unnecessary scenes and the lack of a real storyline for the police is disappointing. About half way through you realise that this musical and story is probably better suited for the stage than the screen which I think is actually a compliment, not a criticism. Regardless, you’ll be singing the songs for days to come and wondering if anyone actually died or if they were simply playing cops and robbers.

The Podfather Score: 7.25/10

-A.A

King of New York (1990)

Directed by Abel Ferrara, King of New York tells the story of Frank White (Christopher Walken), a “reformed” criminal who, upon his release from prison, sets out to be the most morally righteous criminal in New York. He does so by murdering his enemies in cold blood and making out with women on trains. I’m sure it’s something like that anyway. The plot doesn’t really matter to be honest, because the film moves at such a slow pace, and does nothing to let the audience get invested in the characters, so when moments of “De Palma-esque” action occur, the audience is left wondering why we should care.

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King of New York (dir. Abel Ferrara, DOP Bojan Bazelli)

That sounds harsh, and it is. King of New York, while receiving the lowest Podfather Score we’ve given to date, is not a ‘Terrible Film’. When a film is just flat out terrible, it is easy to brush it off as a ‘Terrible Film’ and move on. However, when a film is very bad but has some redeeming qualities, and one can just make out a fantastic film underneath its crushing mediocrity, it is very frustrating. King of New York falls into that category. There are moments in the film that are some of the funnest and most brutal you’ll see in a gangster film, but the film doesn’t earn those moments and it ultimately feels very unsatisfactory for a viewer. One can tell that those in front of and behind the camera are at least trying to make something fresh and unique, but the pacing of the movie suffers from some of the more gratuitous slower sequences, whose visual beauty don’t make up for the carnage they inflict upon the film’s momentum.  There are also some fantastic performances, perhaps most notably from ‘Larry’ Fishburne, and some truly remarkable practical effects, but to be honest that’s about it.

I can understand why people like this film – it does share a similar cinematic vocabulary with Scarface (1983) (another well-liked film I don’t much care for) – and if I had been able to properly invest in the characters, their ultimate demise may have been very affecting. Sadly, however, I found King of New York to be a plodding, unremarkable film, albeit one that seems to have a spectacular film hiding somewhere beneath.

The Podfather Score – 4.25/10

– J.B

The Godfather Part III (1990)

The Corleone family comes full circle in the final instalment of The Godfather trilogy. Al Pacino and Diane Keaton reprise their roles as Michael and Kay as the characters and the audience try and find closure on the family’s past events. Michael tries his hardest to finally legitimise the business but has no luck as other members of the organised underworld in New York and Italy stand in his way. Andy Garcia brings a fresh performance as the no good cousin Vincent and helps to progress the story and keep the film interesting.

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The Godfather: Part III (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, DOP Gordon Willis)

Even though it ticks all the boxes that makes any of the Godfather movies instantly classic, Part III unfortunately just misses the mark of greatness that Part I and II achieved so effortlessly. That being said, if you’re a fan of the series, the world and the characters this is still a must see and provides an appropriate ending for the amazing saga that is The Godfather.

The Podfather Score: 6.75

-A.A

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

The year is 1939. The Second World War has just begun, and America has gone through an awful lot in the roughly twenty years since the First World War ended. This film attempts to distill the essence of that time period in America and show it to the audience through the lens of lead character Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), a WWI vet who comes home to find a disconcerting lack of work and respect from those who’ve spent the last few years working hard back home. After struggling to find his footing in his post-war life, one thing leads to another and Eddie finds himself the kingpin of an underground booze business during Prohibition.

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The Roaring Twenties (dir. Raoul Walsh, DOP Ernest Haller)

The Roaring Twenties shows us just how easy is it is for a stand-up guy like Eddie to fall into a life of crime when the system fails him, and it plays as more of a cautionary tale than something like Scarface (1932), if only because of its rather disheartening third act and the ramifications it presents beyond just an explosive ending to a reign of terror. It is this sensitivity than sets this gangster film apart from many others in the genre, and no leading man could better convey that sensitivity than James Cagney. Cagney leads the film with an effortless smoothness, much like his co-star Humphrey Bogart. However, where Bogey tends to display a machismo that exudes from every pore, in this film Cagney displays a much softer kind of ‘cool’. Think more “Love Me Tender” than “Blue Suede Shoes”…

If The Roaring Twenties was a warning to its audience in 1939, it is one that should still be heeded today – monsters, gangsters, criminals, etc. aren’t often brought into the world fully formed, it is the world that brings out the evil in them. Especially in the year 2016, which seems to be globally one of the most disconcerting and fear-stricken years in recent memory, it is important that we remind ourselves that greed corrupts, money spoils and sometimes we’d be better off if we just stick to drinking milk.

The Podfather Score – 7.45/10

– J.B

Scorsese

Martin Scorsese, what can we say? A great director and a great guy who has given us some amazing insights into a variety of different worlds and a range of fantastic characters. Whether you’re a fan or not, you cannot deny the impact he’s had on film making and surely you’ll thank him for defining the careers of actors like Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Leonardo DiCaprio (to name a few). So far we’ve watched four of his films on The Podfather and cannot get enough! We’ve praised the soundtracks, loved (and questioned) his editing, cringed at the violence, laughed at the dialogue and marvelled at the undeniably intriguing feel of his work.

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Photography by Brigitte Lacombe

The exhibition has something for everybody. From scripts to props, costumes to correspondence and family furniture to scribbled notes, this amazing display at ACMI offers a huge insight into Scorsese’s life and perhaps an even greater insight into filmmaking itself. Running until the 18th of September, if you don’t go you’re a total ___(insert Joe Pesci styled insult here).

-A.A