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)

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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

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 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

The Departed (2006)

When people bring up the works of Scorsese, it is often his 20th century films that are mentioned most. Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990) – these are the films that seem to come to mind. And the protagonists of these films – Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta and Henry Hill – are synonymous with Scorsese’s depiction of ‘fragile masculinity’ on film, a trend that has continued through to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), his most recent feature length film as a director. We get this in spades too in The Departed (a film almost devoid of any women), as Scorsese uses two equal but opposite male protagonists to highlight the two sides of the law. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Billy – a cop undercover in the Boston Irish Mob, and Matt Damon plays Colin Sullivan, a rat for the mob working in the Boston state police.

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The Departed (dir. Martin Scorsese, DOP Michael Ballhaus)

Like many of Scorsese’s best works, this film works as a slow burn, building the tension to a violent and satisfying climactic release. Additionally, having two conflicting viewpoints with which to engage with the film adds a layer of tension to The Departed that doesn’t exist in many mob films, or many undercover cop films for that matter. However, also like many of Scorsese’s films, it could be said that The Departed runs for maybe 10 minutes too long, with some of the cathartic release that the audience has earned ultimately dragging the final minutes of the film somewhat. However, that is a fair price to pay for a film that so skilfully executed. Screenwriter William Monahan masterfully navigates the two intertwining worlds and stories, doling out information as the audience needs it, never too early or late. It is no wonder he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay – without each scene it may well be that the film would not be so satisfying on a narrative level, regardless of any minor qualms.

It is also worth mentioning the outstanding cast (on which apparently about half of the budget was spent). Alongside Damon and DiCaprio is Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and Ray Winstone, all giving powerhouse performances that anchor the film in its gritty reality. All of these huge names carry a certain intertextual baggage with them when they appear onscreen, but aided by Scorsese at the helm, it’s not hard to stay immersed in the world of the film.

Is The Departed Scorsese’s best film as a director? Perhaps not. However, I’d have to say it is a top three favourite of mine, and it proves he is just as capable of creating an iconic gangster movie in the 21st century as the Scorsese of the 20th.

The Podfather Score: 8.75/10

– J.B

Bob le flambeur (1956)

Bob’s a gambling man. He dresses smart and lives large; he drives a gorgeous 1955 Plymouth Belvedere convertible, and everyone in the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre knows his name.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s gangster-noir film Bob le flambeur (Bob the High Roller) is still regarded by many as a pioneering precursor to the French New Wave. And it’s held in very high regard by others as an important work in the gangster film genre. But sixty years since its début, it’s hard not to notice the wear and tear of this aging classic.

Bob’s winning streak has ended, and finding himself flat broke, he gathers a crew and plots a complicated scheme to rob the millions of francs sitting in the safe of the Casino Barrière de Deauville.

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Bob le flambeur (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, DOP Henri Decaë, Maurice Blettery)

It’s almost set up to be a kind of French Ocean’s Eleven (1960/2001) – that is, until the plot basically fizzles out and loses pace. This isn’t the gangster movie that you’re expecting to see. Perhaps it’s lost in translation, be it culturally or by the passage of time, but it feels too slow and loose.

That said, there’s certainly a lot to enjoy about Bob le flambeur. Its French film-noir mood is at times completely mesmerising, and Henri Decaë’s handheld camera work is as beautiful as it is revolutionary.

So despite its lasting critical acclaim, to your non-academic, average Joe who just wants to sit down and enjoy a great mob movie, time hasn’t been so forgiving. Bob le flambeur lacks urgency, and with its awkward, random pace, it’s more than a little rough around the edges.

The Podfather Score: 5.5

-W.D
(Will Duncan)

Outrage (2010)

After a decade-long hiatus from the genre, Kitano “Beat” Takeshi is back in full swing with Yakuza crime drama Outrage. Written and directed by Takeshi, who also stars in the film, Outrage follows the growing conflict between the Sanno-kai and Murase syndicates, and the subsequent civil war between the lower families of the Sanno-kai. A brilliant and brutal portrayal of the changing Yakuza landscape in modern Japan, the movie does not attempt to over-educate the audience on the traditions and culture surrounding the Yakuza. Instead, it presents a political upheaval from the moment it begins to the moment it ends and leaves you to enjoy the escalating violence as it borders on absurdity. However, this deadpan delivery of a story of numerous families and their members can certainly leave one confused, and it was only during my second viewing of the film that I was able to successfully comprehend the true extent and structure of the various families.

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Outrage (dir. Takeshi Kitano, DOP Katsumi Yanagishima)
Well known for his comedy in Japan, Takeshi brilliantly threads black comedy throughout the movie without overplaying it, which can catch you off guard at times, such as finding yourself laughing as two men yell at a third, pressuring him to slice through his own finger with a box cutter. Where the movie shines most though is in its moments of silent storytelling. Takeshi is clearly a master at letting his actors tell the story without the need for dialogue, and these moments are so beautifully shot. But the good comes with the bad, and Outrage’s shortcomings exist in its treatment of its female characters. None of the female characters are named, neither during the movie nor its credits, and at no point does their existence significantly affect the plot. This certainly does not serve the film. The few women in Outrage could have easily provided an alternate insight into the main characters, although this certainly would have complicated things further. But if not, it would have been best to eliminate them altogether.

Outrage is a thrilling, beautifully shot and often humorous portrayal of the brutality and absurdity that exists within the Yakuza. With excellent silent scenes and a great balance of exploited and stylised violence, this is an easy film to enjoy. Just be sure to have a pen and paper on hand to keep track of who’s who, and who’s still standing

The Podfather Score: 6.875/10

– E.G

(Edan Goodall)