Monday, 22 March 2010

Three wishes, to be exact. And ixnay on the wishing for more wishes. That's all. Three. Uno, dos, tres. No substitutions, exchanges or refunds.

No 322 - Disney's Aladdin
Directors - Ron Clements and John Musker

Lets be honest. There is one thing which pumps Aladdin into awesomeness. The Genie.Now Robin Williams seems to be pretty hit and miss with his films. He has done some wonderful stuff - I love his performance in the Birdcage for example and I think his performance in One Hour Photo is horrific, yet amazing - but a lot of it seems to be over-sentimental. Or in more modern times just not funny.
Yet, in the olden days, he was a bonkers, anarchic, fastly improvising comedian. It seems odd to think that a Disney cartoon is the vehicle to bring back the madcap comedy of Robin Williams. He brings so many elements to the film that it goes from being a pretty standard Disney film into something so much more.
Recently, cartoons and Kid's films have become more self referential and postmodern. It is something that Disney have also started to do. It is there in the Mystery Science Theatre style Lion King 3, the amazing advertising (far better than the actual film) of Lilo and Stitch. Newer Disney films like Enchanted and even the Frog Princess have throw away sight gags referring to former Disney Princesses.
But none of this is new.... because Aladdin pipped them all to the post.
Firstly there are the Genie's references to other Disney films:
He appears as Pinocchio
He pulls out Sebastian, briefly accompanied to 'Under the Sea'
When packing he wears a Goofy baseball cap.

But then it gets weirder, as he begins to work outside of the parameters of the film, acknowledging that this is a cartoon.
He pulls out the script to Aladdin, and in the final moment rips the animation cell off its light box to talk directly to the audience.

Where Aladdin begins to really differ is by dabbling with pop culture as well. The Genie's fantastical magical state means that there are no laws, and Robin Williams' improving meant that there were no rules in the recording process either. The genie appears as items and people from outside the time line and world of the cartoon. There are so many references that it is impossible to fully get them all, even now I'm not sure of half the characters portrayed by the Genie and I can't find a suitable online list.

For the first time (I think), Disney are giving the adults there own little in jokes, rather than just letting them enjoy the story. Sadly, I think this is needed, because outside of the Genie, Aladdin is not the strongest Disney film - the story is quite week and the plot isn't that exciting. However the film gets by on the strength of the characters (and the songs.... but I'll cover that later).
I think Aladdin is an important character because he is the first Disney 'Prince' to actually be interesting. The Beast has his curse but he is grumpy and dull, all other princes were just catalysts for the Princess's happy ending. But here we have a charismatic, witty, kind but flawed protagonist. A proper hero that you can root for - and he is matched by a feisty feisty princess who is the owner of Disney's first exposed human princess belly button. And she owns a tiger, which is cool.

Aladdin and Jasmine are good characters but they are not the film's most interesting characters. Once we move away fro the Genie's insane brilliance, the best characters remain non-human. Firstly the smart-alec sarcastic new-yoiker attitude of the Parrot Iago played by Gillbert Gottfried. I just find this funny because Gottfried is filth, so I like the concept of him playing a Disney character. Then we have Abu, a character who is lovable in his sulky cheekiness and who is all the more impressive for his inability to speak. On this note however, we must speak about the magic carpet - it is amazing to create a character which not only can't speak. But who has no face. There is no way that the Magic Carpet can emote - no way for it to connect with us. And yet, it does... beautifully. It shows despondence, anger, shyness, pride.... It goes to show just how skilled the Disney animators are and how much experience they have at creating characters.

Because this film is just a celebration of great characters. They keep the film together. They even keep the songs together. The genie's songs are flitting and jolly and bonkers, but the true triumph is A Whole New World - a ballad so beautiful that it remains good even when you can kind of remember the Jordan and Peter cover version (which I won't link to.... I'm not cruel).

This might not be the most exciting Disney film, either in story or in art style (it may have just bee the DVD but it seemed quite grotty at times - certainly not the crisp beauty I associate with Disney) but the protagonists are strong and interesting and the supporting cast are wonderful.

But most of all - you still get that excited Disney feeling when you watch it. Something I hadn't realised I'd been missing until I went to see the Princess and the Frog.

The war is lost... But if you think that I'll leave Berlin for that, you are sadly mistaken. I'd prefer to put a bullet in my head

No 245 - Der Untergang (Downfall)
Director - Oliver Hirschbiegel

Well, I never went into this film thinking it would be 'light' or 'fun'. I always knew it was going to be heavy hitting. But it was still a hell of a film to sit through. For most of the time it was miserable and bleak and cruel, framed in greys and browns and distressingly true.

The film follows the final few days of the German Reich, and the attack on Berlin which led to the Nazi surrender and the end of the Second World War. Whilst we do follow Hitler and his aides, our anchor point is the civilian brought into Hitler's service - Traudl Junge. Junge was a young woman who was hired to become Hitler's secretary and who stayed in the bunker till the last possible moment, witnessing it all.
She is important as the film's anchor because of a number of reasons.
She is a civilian, she isn't battle hardened and therefore shares our shock at the horrors of war. She is also constantly around. She witnesses the full story of Hitler's end.
She was real.... The film bookends with archive footage of Junge speaking retrospectively. About her shame of really liking one of the most evil men who ever lived and how she couldn't use childish naivety as an excuse.

Junge is presented as quite a young naive and wide eyed woman. She is frequently shocked and she is often clearly out of her depth. But her representation is fair. In fact, everyone in this is painted fairly and as people. Which is important, and I think rare... because a lot of films just show Nazis as cold blooded killers or as cackling bastards.
In fact most of Hitler's aides are shown as just very loyal and obedient soldiers. They have pride and arrogance and an utter belief in what they are doing. They are also in love with their Fuhrer. After all, whilst he was mad and a horrible human being, it is on record that Hitler was very charismatic. That he was kind and caring to the people he was close to. Certainly, Bruno Ganz's remarkable performance shows that. Certainly at the beginning of the film, before the invasion of Berlin begins he is calm and polite, witty and charming. The scene in which he auditions his secretaries is a scene in which you see the side to Hitler which Germany would have seen when they elected him. He is a leader, kind and compassionate and firmly in control.

However, all of that is soon lost. As it becomes clearer that he has lost the war he becomes obsessed with not looking weak. He lies constantly and sends demands to his troops that will not only kill them but will kill thousands of civilians. He decides that the fact he lost the war is the fault of the German people and that now they deserve to be punished. He becomes obsessed with death. Not only does he hang or shoot almost everybody he views as a 'traitor' (and it didn't take much to be branded a traitor) but he then talks his loyal generals into killing themselves. He sees being caught (dead or alive) as worse than actually losing the war.
During his madness he seems to physically shrink. Becoming more and more curled up and balled up and sunken into himself. Near the end as he walks around, slow and shaking like a doddery old man, he seems almost a caricature of Hitler, a giant coat with the collar turned up, and a giant hat pulled down so that almost only the iconic moustache can be seen.

Ganz's performance is amazing, watching Hitler flit from being optimistic and impassioned to low and despondent and to massive fits of rage. It is not difficult to wonder if by this point, Hitler had actually gone fully insane, no longer able to lead an army or to fulfill his horrible hate-filled
However, Hitler's key move in this film, is his suicide. As it at this point that we see the true colours of the rest of the Nazi party and the arguments between those still loyal to Hitler and those who just want to get out as soon as possible. We also see the full insanity of Herr and Frau Goebbells. Joseph Goebbells (Ulrich Matthes) has been an intimidating throughout... his gaunt face and near psychotic stare beaming through any military crowd scene. It is only after Hitler's death (and the one scene in which he shows any real emotion besides anger) that you see how insane he is... and his wife. Their desperate clinging passion in the third Reich results in completely psychotic and horrific behaviour. The Goebbellses are difficult to watch and their scenes are bravely portrayed.

And, I suppose, that is the key thing. To the best of my knowledge this is the first German film to really tackle this subject matter and it does so intelligently and bravely. It paints the characters as people. Flawed people who you, the viewer, hopefully don't agree with... but people none the less.
We're coming to a generation where we're becoming more detached from WWII. When I have children they will be as far away from the Blitz as I am to the Boer war. I have a Romany great grandfather who left his family to fight in the war (allegedly) I am as little affected by these events as I am by my (alleged) gypsy heritage. Neither of them have had any influence in my upbringing.

This film seems to be Germany examining its past. In the hope that it can move on. In the hope that we can all move on.

It is a beautiful and poignant move to display such horrible events and such cruelty with a neutral unbiased eye.

It is just a shame that it was also at the heart of such a shitty viral meme.

(actually.... in all fairness I saw an amazing one of these in which Bruno Ganz was angered by having his best acting scene ruined by these viral memes. I can't remember who made it but I saw it at a popcorn comedy gig and have not been able to find it online ever)
EDIT - VOILA FOUND IT.... thank you twitter

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Why would a man leave his apartment three times on a rainy night with a suitcase and come back three times?

No 103 - Rear Window
Director - Alfred Hitchcock

I had watched this film before, a few years back, and I thought I knew pretty much what was happening. Especially towards the end. However, I'm embarrassed to admit that at times, what I've done is mix this film with the Simpson's episode lampooning it.
My mind appears to be a whirling blender of pop culture. Sometimes I'm not very good at sifting it.

On the plus side, it meant I was constantly being surprised by a film who's actual plot I had forgotten. The plot it self is delightfully simple. L.B 'Jeff' Jeffries (played by the always brilliant Jimmy Stewart) witnesses his neighbour acting very suspiciously and is gradually convinced that he has witnessed a murder. What is impressive is that Hitchcock leaves you guessing throughout the film. After all there are a lot of reasons why Jeff could be wrong, most of which are pointed out before the 'crime' is committed. It is unfeasibly hot and Jeff is in plaster and unable to move around. He is grouchy, bored, irritable, hot and just desperate for a distraction. If you look at the degree his curiosity turns into an all out obsession you can see just how desperate he is for something to focus on.
Gradually, during his obsessive pursuit, he manages to convert his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly - which, tragically, made me instantly think of the Mika song) and the three of them spend days watching their mysterious neighbour Lars Thorwald as he acts all mysteriously.

When you think about it, the crime that Thorwald is accused of by the trio of busybodies is pretty horrific. Not only has he murdered his wife, he has subsequently used a knife and a saw to hack her up into lots of little pieces. He has then transported those pieces out of his house, using his suitcase. In installments.
Throughout this process Lars continues to stay calm and calculated. If Jeff is correct then this isn't an act of passion, this is a cold and calculated killing with a lot of planning - it is this that starts to concern Jeff, the sheer cold heartedness and meticulousness of the crime. Made worse that nobody else believes him.
This is embodied by Jeff's convenient friend Lt Thomas J Doyle (Wendell Corey) who not only refuses to join in with the paranoia but who offers sound alternative theories and sometimes actual proof as to what could have happened. In fact he hardly gets roped in at all until the end. But it means nothing, Jeff, Lisa and Stella still have their obsession and focus on their theories, rather than anything which contradicts. Even the all out evidence is ignored. After all, you can prove anything with facts. If anything, this film is a tribute to all the curtain twitchers who are being paranoid, judgemental busybodies. One day you will have your moment of triumph.
However, oddly for such a taut and well made thriller, the story isn't the most exciting bit. Well, not for me. This film excited the design geek that lives inside my jaded heart due to the fantastic way it uses and films its set.
The set is immense. It is nice to think that a film which is almost entirely set in one corner of one room has such a massive sprawling and complicated set. Hitchcock built an entire street scene which his neighbours (at times little more than glorified extras) could live in. He even built a massive complicated lighting rig so that he could instantly flip to different points in the day. It makes me think of Synechdoche New York, but it also makes me think of theatre. It is very rare that a film is made in one setting, let alone one physical set. If the massive street could be replicated on stage, then a play of the film would easily work. We, don't get the freedom to explore this amazing set though, we're confined to view the lives of its inhabitants from Jeff's rear window. We're only allowed more clarity when Jeff decides to crack out the binoculars or his long zoom lens. Then we get to see their worlds in a little bit more detail, but we're still confined to the limitations of Jeff's viewpoint. It is a very brave move and one that helps make sure the audience is clamouring for information and verification, as they're in the same boat as the protagonist.
The one time that the rule is broken, doesn't really add anything to the film, but it does finally allow us to see up close the people we've been watching from afar. Their lives feel real, they seem to have real issues and in some ways I find the the endings to Miss Lonelyheart's arc and to Miss Torso's arc more satisfying than the ending to the main plot itself. But then they all add up together to show an overall happy ending for that community.

Monday, 15 March 2010

No matter what, Edward will always be special.

No 66 - Edward Scissorhands
Director - Tim Burton

Recently, I have been to the cinema to see Alice in Wonderland in both spectacular 3D and in more traditional 2D (Which, oddly, I enjoyed more). It got me thinking about the work of Tim Burton, a director who I really admire and am quick to defend.
So, in order for me to shameless crowbar in my thoughts on Alice, I decided to watch a Tim Burton film.

It seems to me that Burton's films have always been about outsiders which don't fit into their world. However, even then, the films can be split into two types. Films in which a Burtonesque main character struggles to fit into the real world, or films in which a character from the real world finds themselves in a strange Burtonesque world.
The only exceptions I can think of are his 2 period pieces. Although both Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd have nightmare figures which stalk and terrorise an otherwise regular (if not normal) English surrounding.
Oh and Big Fish, in which it sort of flits between the two styles depending on the narrative.

The films in which we're plunged into Burton's world seem less successful than those in which it happens the other way round. They're almost too overwhelming. Charlie Bucket's voyage is a dazzle of colour and noise. It is fun and entertaining but hardly substantial. Likewise, Alice's adventure (there is no reason for that film to be called Alice in Wonderland) is an exciting and entertaining jaunt with excellent voice cameos (and the best role(s) I've ever seen Matt Lucas in), yet it fails to be as captivating as the 'inspired by' source material.
Even Burton's own story of Victor's journey to the afterlife pales in comparison with Selick's story of Jack Skellington messing up our beloved holiday.

My thinking is thus: Burton is used to being the weird outsider. He saw the real world or American suburbia as unusual and didn't feel comfortable there. He was the strange outsider who didn't fit in with normality. To quote Lydia in another of Burton's films "'live people ignore the strange and unusual. I, myself, am strange and unusual".
His films celebrate strangeness and their jarring juxtaposition with the norm. As soon as strangeness becomes the norm, Burton seems to get a little carried away and the film becomes more about the visual opulence and unusual set pieces and less about the characters. However when our story is set in the 'real' world (be it chocolate box suburbia or the Gothic grime of cities and history) we get wonderful characters.
Look at the reverence in which Burton treats Edward, Beetlejuice, Ed Wood and even Batman (though it is clear that his favourite is Oswald Cobblepot). Tim Burton loves the freaks. So if everyone is a freak, he doesn't know where to lavish his attention. He doesn't know where to focus the beauty.

I'm glad I've said all that because Edward Scissorhands is probably the epitome of Burton's 'outsider in the real world' work. It is his most beautiful, touching and emotional story and it has some wonderful characterisation. I think it is because this is one of his most personal stories. Certainly the most personal original story (Big Fish is an adaptation he took on in tribute to his father). Edward even looks a bit like Burton, with his big messy mop of hair. He is an outsider, naive and wondrous at the world. A world in which he can make great art, but a world in which he feels like he can't touch anyone without hurting them. It is a really poignant story and a really beautiful one.
However before I start to look at the story I want to begin with the characters.

Let us start with the titular Edward. Johnny Depp is an amazing actor. He is one of those few people who can completely change themselves and embody the character. Even in the crappest of films he is a joy to watch. It was only a matter of time till he made it big and when Disney unveiled him to the world he became not only a star, but a sensation. He had always enjoyed playing oddballs and freaks and Disney played to this by gradually making Captain Jack Sparrow weirder and weirder, less and less hinged.
Even Burton began to play up to the typecasting.
Kooky Depp. Mad Depp.
But with Edward, Depp shows us how good he is with restraint. Of course the idea of the character is strange, he is a Pinocchio with scissors for hands. But the character itself is very restrained. He is almost emotionless at times, a vacant, bemused, wondering child who experiences the strangeness of the real world after an undisclosed length of time in isolation. For all his Gothic freakery, Edward is quite a normal person. Just a very sheltered person. His character is all about restraint and reaction.
Even Burton shows restraint. Journies into Edward's past may be a window to the madcap and Gothic, complete with a wonderful turn from Vincent Price (a hero of Tim Burton's) but they're brief and they have a point. They show that once, potentially decades ago (Price dresses like a Victorian aristocrat, but it could just be that Price dresses like a Victorian aristocrat) he was a normal part of his world. Then his world 'didn't wake up'.

So from the cobwebby world of Vincent Price's castle, Edward travels to the pastel pinks and yellows of a very 50's themed suburbia. Here he meets Kim, the young daughter of his hosts, and he falls instantly in love.
To be fair, Winona Ryder is beautiful in this film, mixing teenage sass with a wonderful naivety, it is obvious why Edward falls for her. Also, does Winona Ryder sleep in Tupperware? She seems to have the same impishly young face from as far as I remember. Edward's infatuation with Kim is at the centre of the film's downward spiral. That, and her jealous boyfriend Jim - who, in an amazing piece of counter casting is played by Anthony Michael Hall! I only noticed it on this viewing but what a beautiful change in teenage credentials.

Kim's family take Edward into their home and the entire gossiping street flock to her home to meet the new guest. Edward has some mad skills with his scissors and quickly moves from trimming hedges to dog grooming to hair styling and all the community loves him. Incidentally, whilst the topiary is outstanding, the dogs and women look ridiculous in their hairstyles.
Throughout this journey we see Edward become more confident with his place in society. Dressed in 'normal' clothes he looks into get a salon and becoming a member of society. Naturally things go wrong and Edward ends up an outcast again.
It is interesting that Edward's outfit becomes more and more tattered as he becomes more of an outcast. They black leather and buckles of his 'freak' self glistening through the cracks in his outwards outfit.

The story really is that simple - outsider is accepted and then rejected and chased out by their community. The story is not the important element of the film, it is the characters and the relationship between the characters.
In that respect it is Burton at his finest, most subtle and most beautiful. I don't think he has ever shot a moment as beautiful as the Ice Dance - moment which may not be 'Burtonesque' but which captures the fairytale element he always puts on film.

You see - it is this one final fact that makes me love the film. For all the doomed romance, Pinocchio twists and Beauty and the Beast homages... it is actually a story about why it snows in that town.

And there is something truly beautiful behind the melancholy of the tale.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

You're getting older, and you'll see that life isn't like your fairy tales. The world is a cruel place. And you'll learn that, even if it hurts

No 132 – El Labirinto Del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth)
Director – Guillermo Del Toro

‘Adult fairytale’ is a term which gets bandied around a lot and which rarely really delivers. The book of ‘Stardust’ had some wonderful dark elements which leant towards the adult side. A lot of those dark moments were polished out or presented with humour in the film, making it a more child friendly experience.
Pan’s Labyrinth doesn’t pretend to be a child friendly experience in any way. In fact, it can’t even be easily described as a friendly full stop. This is a tale in which the protagonist, a young girl called Ofelia in Civil war torn Spain, escapes to a fantasy in which the horrors aren’t quite as monstrous as the horrors of the real world.
This is dark.

Del Toro’s real skill is to take that darkness and make it something beautiful. He has a wonderful style which takes the fantasy world and then plants it in a rustic crumbling realism. He wears down the glitz and the glitter. He makes it more realistic. But he keeps it fantastic. He can present horrific concepts in hypnotic ways.
Watch the blood droplets float and swirl around the ghost in The Devil’s Backbone or the sinister madness of the Troll Market in Hellboy 2 – It shows a very distinctive style and a sense of realism (helped by his loyal use of animatronics and puppets). He shows us that the fantasy world is still there, grounded within ours.
The iconic fantasy characters in Pan’s Labyrinth are both played by Doug Jones – A Del Toro regular who I wouldn’t recognise in the streets. Here he plays both the faun and the pale man.

The Faun

At no point in the film does the faun say that he is Pan, Greek God of shepherds, and symbol of spring. He has gone by many names, one of which MAY be Pan (After all Pan is a faun) but it is never all out said.
The faun has an interesting journey. He begins stony and grey, moss growing off of him, decrepit and creaking with a long white beard. He is lurking in the shadows and has become part of the wall. As the film goes on he becomes younger and sprightlier, more passionate and more colourful. Ofelia’s journey and her belief of the world seem to strengthen him - as if he is directly linked to her toughts.

He is also oddly ominous. As the hero’s guide you’d expect him to be at least a bit friendly or compassionate. But no, he growls and shouts and bellows. He leers and he creeps. He is just a very unsettling character. But he is the only hope Ofelia has as she sets about her tasks.

The Pale Man
One of her tasks involves robbing from the Pale Man. A tall, skinny, naked figure with saggy folds of bright white skin and no eyes in his head. Just one in the palm of each hand.
On paper, he is terrifying and there are some truly chilling unexplained touches to his palace, mainly the pile of discarded children’s shoes. However, there is nothing all that frightening about THIS. It looks ridiculous and it makes me chuckle.
When he runs down corridors and holds his hands out to look round corners, you realise what a cold and creepy character he is. When he sticks his hands to his face, he is just a bit stupid.

I could understand why people think that Pan’s Labyrinth is about Ofelia’s journey through puberty to adulthood. After all, SPOILER WARNING she has to bleed to open to portal and enter her ideal world – whilst that is hardly as obvious as Innocence, it is still a strong connotation. It is also there with the characters in Ofelia’s fantasy:
The faun is a deeply sexual character. Despite not actually doing anything all out sexual, he is a figure who emanates a sexual threat. It is suggested in his movements. It is quite heavily suggested by the leer like look he gives as he embraces Ofelia. Not to mention that Fauns and Satyrs are the symbols of Spring, of fertility.
Meanwhile the Pale Man is the death of childhood. His home is all about killing children, from the garish paintings to aforementioned shoe pile. His mission is all about overcoming the temptation of the sumptuous feast.
It seems like an apt conclusion that in that scene, Ofelia comes face to face with the death of her childhood and must now begin to resist the temptations of adulthood.

Even the advertising kind of screams “HEY THIS IS ABOUT PUBERTY Y’ALL”.

However, my only query is that the one time Ovary imagery is used within the film, it is in respect to birth (well miscarriage) – could it be that Ofelia is being born out of the tree and into her princess life in the artwork rather than facing her womanhood.
Or am I being utterly pretentious and actually it is just a girl facing a tree that happens to look like a uterus.

Which leads me neatly to the true cunt in this film (sorry – that link was too good to fall by the wayside solely on the risk of causing offense).
Captain Vidal
Whilst the Pale Man or the giant exploding frog may be scary and gross. They are nowhere near as terrifying as the Captain. His scenes flutter between the undercurrents of menace in his day to day life through to scenes of horrific brutality (the rabbit catching scene is a particularly shocking example). He is more horrible than anything the faun can thrust at Ofelia. He is true evil.
His existence symbol is a shocking visual realisation that I know nothing of what happened in the world during WWII. It was genuinely unpleasant for everyone.

However throughout all these horrors there is a sort of happy ending. We can only hope that SPOILER WARNING Ofelia’s visions of the endless golden palace are real, and not just the deluded hopeful grasps of a dying mind.

Because that would break my heart.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

I always said, if I had to fuck a guy... I mean had to, if my life depended on it... I'd fuck Elvis.

No 157 – True Romance
Director – Tony Scott

I think that Quentin Tarantino is a better writer than he is a director. I love his visual language; I love the ideas he has for cinematography and angles. However, it seems to me that he becomes too obsessed with individual scenes or shots and less with the film as a whole.
Look at films like Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction or Basterds and you’ll see that they’re made up out of a series of vignettes, each one unique and stylistically different from the rest in the film.
However, he does have a gift for words. Especially casual, pop culture referencing, conversation. It is for this reason that I find Tarantino’s work a lot more interesting when taken out of his hands.

Saying that, True Romance begins with almost a cliché of what has become standard in Tarantino films. The ‘trailer trash’ man sits in a bar with his thick accent and waxes lyrical about pop culture references. Usually they are wilfully obscure or incredibly cult.
So we begin with Clarence, superbly played by Christian Bale, waxing lyrical about Elvis’ acting career and about the films of Sonny Cheba.
It is at a triple bill of Sonny Cheba films that Clarence meets Patricia Arquette’s Alabama. Can I just say that for all her positive points, she is my idea of cinema hell on Earth. She talks, she fidgets, and she rustles. She would drive me mad! However, she doesn’t drive Clarence mad, and as the film develops you see a very adorable side to her character. As the title implies, the couple fall in love. However, as it is a Tarantino film all sorts of chaos has to ensue.

It is impressive that this film feels so zingy and refreshing when it is built around two very hackneyed cinematic clichés.
1) Person A (in this case Alabama) is hired to pretend to fall in love with person B (in this case Clarence) and during the pretence, the two fall in love for real.
2) The protagonists are rapidly pushed out of their depth when they accidentally get embroiled with criminal activity – whether through mistaken identity, or (as in this case) by unluckily taking the wrong bag/maguffin.

In this case, Clarence accidentally picks up a bag with approx half a million dollars worth of Coke and decides (probably quite foolishly) to sell it.

During this journey he meets an array of characters. Most of them from the criminal fraternity.
Two such criminals spring to mind. Firstly, Drexl, played by Gary Oldman. Alabama’s pimp, the man who Clarence accidentally robs of his coke and the most terrifying ‘joke’ character ever. He is the ultimate white man who wishes he was black. He has dreads, he has the attitude and he speaks with a glorious West Indian accent. He is also savage, violent and bat shit insane.
He, however, is nothing when compared with Christopher Walken’s Vincenzo Concotti, working on behalf of the owners of the Coke (who are very much supposed to be the Mafia). He appears briefly, sharing a scene with Dennis Hopper, who plays Clarence’s father. The scene is amazing. An almost unbearable level of tension and emotion is played out between these two characters. What makes it most impressive is that all of this happens with two characters who are trying not to be emotive. Hopper’s Clifford doesn’t want to help Vincenzo in anyway. Whilst Walken’s Vincenzo is a steely gazed robot with the cold dead eyes of a shark. Even his laugh feels forced, unnatural and masking the violence which courses so predominantly through him. This scene is probably the best example I have seen in any film of two master actors upping each others game. It is as close to perfection as two men sat in a caravan could ever be.

The mafia close in and there are some horrific scenes of violence (which I’ll discuss momentarily) but they provide an odd antidote to the naivety of the film. For all the bloodshed and cruelty, this is a very sweet almost fairy tale film.
The good guys are beautifully naïve. Clarence and Alabama are just intoxicated with love and just want to be happy. Dick Richie, their friend, is naively hoping he can become an actor and Dick’s housemate Floyd (an amazing cameo from Brad Pitt, just sat on a sofa smoking bongs) is too stoned to feel anything other than love to everyone.
Even the Hollywood wankers have their nice side. They just want to get high.
The fantasy element is probably played up more in this than any other Tarantino film (well…. Except Dusk till Dawn) Clarence even has a guardian angel guiding him through life as Elvis swoops down to visit him (though his advice is probably questionable at best).
But between these moments we get the jaded mobsters and the equally jaded cops. See, the tragedy on James Gandolfini’s face as he explains his relationship with death. How the first time he killed ripped him to shreds but now “I do it just to watch their fucking expressions change”.

It is the savagery of the bad guys that ups the tragedy of the piece. The pursuers with their dogged destructive streak and the pursued with their hopeful persistence. Clarence and Alabama are in the honeymoon period. Both literally and metaphorically. They are madly in love and madly in lust and each moment is just a blur of passion, it seems that they barely notice the pain and violence and destruction around them. Which is what makes it so sad, the fact that occasionally the jaded violence catches up with them.
Each fight scene is brutal and messy and unglamorous. There is nothing glorious about it, nothing romantic. This isn’t like Tarantino’s later self directed work, glamorising and relishing in the pain. Here it is a short messy burst.

Until the end. When it all gets ridiculous.
I love Mexican Stand-Offs. Tarantino loves Mexican Stand-Offs and this one is a doozey. As bullets and feathers fly, as blood spurts and as people fall we’re left with a realisation that this is the end. That no one would survive.
But of course, two figures walk out of the carnage. Well limp out. Carrying a suitcase with $200,000.

Because, the real message is that true love conquers all – be it pimps, police, coke deals or even the ruddy mafia!