In a Valley of Violence (2016)

2017 #20
Ti West | 104 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

In a Valley of Violence

The spirit of the Spaghetti Western is alive and well in writer-director Ti West’s shoot ’em up; though where they once took inspiration from samurai movies, now Mr West has his sights set on modern-day gun-fu movies — specifically, here he retrofits John Wick into a familiar Old West narrative.

On his way to Mexico with just his horse and dog Abby for company, drifter Paul (Ethan Hawke) passes through an almost-deserted town, where he ends up in a fight with wannabe-tough-guy Gilly (James Ransone). It turns out Gilly is the son of the local Marshal (John Travolta), but he considers the matter settled and lets Paul move on, ordering his son to leave it be. A shamed Gilly has a different opinion, however, leading his gang of friends to assault Paul in the dead of night. But as is the way with halfwit villains, they leave our hero alive, ready for him to ride back into town and exact his vengeance.

If you come to movies looking for an original storyline, you’ll be disappointed here — as I say, it’s basically John Wick in the West (if you’ve seen that Keanu Reeves actioner, you’ll already know the outcome of Gilly’s revenge on Paul). The devil is in the details, however, and in that respect In a Valley of Violence is rather enjoyable. Perhaps the biggest mark in its favour is its sense of humour. It’s not a comedy by any means, but Gilly’s gang are borderline incompetent in a way that’s increasingly laughable.

Do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in the West?

Travolta gets in on the act as a man who seems very much in control of his own little kingdom, but when things truly kick off he’s somewhat caught in the middle. Thankfully he’s not just the bullying villainous type, instead getting a nicely balanced reaction to events: he knows Gilly’s done wrong, but stands by him because he’s his son; but when Paul’s pushing comes to shoving… well, familial loyalty only gets you so far.

As Paul, Hawke finds some degree of complexity in the (anti-)hero, but this isn’t exactly a movie built for psychological complexity. Taissa Farmiga is positioned as the love interest, but thankfully isn’t entirely reduced to such a thankless role. As her sister, Karen Gillan reminds us that, while she may be best known for brightly-coloured sci-fi on screens both big and small, her roots are in comedy. But the biggest star is, of course, the dog. You can’t help getting attached, even when you know you’re watching John Wick of the West.

The dog's the star

The film offers many stylistic nods to remind us of its Spaghetti inspiration, like the starkly animated title sequence, or Jeff Grace’s Morricone-riffing score, which some criticise for its obviousness but I thought was fun. It even comes through in the film’s structure, with a slow-burn first half that reminded me of Leone’s attitude to action. Some complain of the pace there, or lack of it, but I rather liked that. It partly functions as a deliberate delaying of gratification: the main reason we’re here is for the bloody vengeance we know will eventually be coming, but West carefully sets the scene and gradually puts characters in place early on so that the second half can more fully concentrate on the violence. The wit is kept alive even then, with more than one of the deaths provoking at least some laughter.

The more I write about it, the more I wonder if this film is something of an acquired taste. It’s not out-and-out comical enough to be classed as a comedy, but action die-hards may feel the lighter elements undermine the violent thrills they seek. I thought it worked, but experience has taught me that I’m more accepting than most of such tonal mash-ups.

Cool cowboy

Despite the plot similarities, In a Valley of Violence isn’t going to challenge John Wick for ultra-choreographed action satisfaction, but it has many aspects to recommend it for those who like a chuckle alongside their bloodshed.

4 out of 5

In a Valley of Violence is released direct to DVD & Blu-ray in the UK on 6th March.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is in UK cinemas from today.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #71

You won’t know the facts
until you see the fiction.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 154 minutes
BBFC: 18 (uncut, 1994) | 18 (cut on video, 1995) | 18 (uncut on video, 2011)

Original Release: 10th September 1994 (South Korea)
US Release: 14th October 1994
UK Release: 21st October 1994
First Seen: TV, 18th December 1999 (probably)
(I would’ve guessed several years later than that, but I definitely watched it on BBC Two and I definitely wasn’t 18, so (with reference to the BBC Genome Project) this is the only plausible option. That’s thrown all of my “first seen” guesses into doubt now…)

John Travolta (Grease, Face/Off)
Samuel L. Jackson (Loaded Weapon 1, Unbreakable)
Uma Thurman (Dangerous Liaisons, Gattaca)
Ving Rhames (Dave, Mission: Impossible)
Bruce Willis (Die Hard, The Fifth Element)

Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill)

Quentin Tarantino (From Dusk Till Dawn, Jackie Brown)

Story by
Quentin Tarantino (Natural Born Killers, The Hateful Eight)
Roger Avary (Killing Zoe, The Rules of Attraction)

The Story
A chronologically-shuffled collection of interconnected short crime stories, including a hitman who has to take his boss’ wife for a nice night out, a boxer who refuses to throw a fight, the clean-up after a misfire, and a diner hold-up gone sideways.

Our Heroes & Villains
Most films can be divvied up into heroes and villains one way or another — I’ve certainly managed it for the previous 70 films in this list. Pulp Fiction muddies its waters considerably, with criminals for heroes at the best of times, and the “short story collection” style meaning there’s an abundance of characters anyway, some of whom arguably change sides from one tale to the next. Nonetheless, you’d have to point to hitmen Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, and their ever-so-Tarantino rambling conversations about nothing and everything, as the film’s primary duo.

Best Supporting Character
Christopher Walken’s cameo turn as an army vet passing down a watch with an… unusual history. (You might argue for Harvey Keitel’s character, but his Direct Line adverts have rather soured that.)

Memorable Quote
Vincent: “You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?”
Jules: “They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?”
Vincent: “No man, they got the metric system. They wouldn’t know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.”
Jules: “Then what do they call it?”
Vincent: “They call it a Royale with Cheese.”
Jules: “Royale with Cheese. What do they call a Big Mac?”
Vincent: “Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac.”
Jules: “Le Big Mac. What do they call a Whopper?”
Vincent: “I don’t know, I didn’t go into Burger King.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“You mind if I have some of your tasty beverage to wash this down?” — Jules

Memorable Scene
Uma Thurman and John Travolta dancing — about as memorable a movie moment as there is.

Memorable Music
Famously, Tarantino never used to use original music (that’s now changed with his Ennio Morricone collaborations, of course), instead selecting tracks from his record collection — but his choices were so eclectic, obscure, and personal that many of them are now most associated with the films he put them in. Stand outs in Pulp Fiction include the title credits track, Dick Dale’s version of Misirlou; the song Mia and Vincent dance to, You Never Can Tell by Chuck Berry; and Urge Overkill’s cover of Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.

Making of
The famous Bible passage memorised by Jules is mostly fictional. While one line is similar to text from the book, apparently the speech is almost word-for-word identical to the opening scene of the Sonny Chiba movie Karate Kiba.

Next time…
Travolta’s character, Vincent Vega, is supposedly the brother of Michael Madsen’s character from Reservoir Dogs, and at one time Tarantino was planning a movie starring the pair. It never materialised, obviously. There’s also the theory that all of Tarantino’s films take place in the same universe, which the director himself has confirmed.

Won the Palme d’Or
1 Oscar (Original Screenplay)
6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actor (John Travolta), Supporting Actor (Samuel L. Jackson), Supporting Actress (Uma Thurman), Director, Editing)
2 BAFTAs (Supporting Actor (Samuel L. Jackson), Original Screenplay)
7 BAFTA nominations (Film, Actor (John Travolta), Actress (Uma Thurman), Director, Cinematography, Editing, Sound)
1 Saturn Award (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)
2 MTV Movie Awards (Movie, Dance Sequence)
4 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including On-Screen Duo (Samuel L. Jackson & John Travolta) and Movie Song (Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon))
1 American Comedy Awards nomination (Funniest Supporting Actress (Amanda Plummer))

What the Critics Said
“this dizzily convoluted noir epic — one of the year’s best and most wildly inventive American movies — plunges us into a kind of retro-nightmare fantasy land. In Pulp Fiction, time keeps looping back on itself and we’re trapped in a cul-de-sac of double-crosses, absurdity, arousal and danger, never completely sure of where anyone’s going or why. [It] is shockingly violent, provocatively obscene and profane. It won’t just offend some audiences; it will offend the living hell out of them. Tarantino intends to rile people up. But it doesn’t feel like the usual high-tech, nasty blood-and-guts movie thriller […] This movie gets its charge not from action pyrotechnics but from its electric barrage of language, wisecracks and dialogue, from the mordant ’70s classicism of its long-take camera style and its smart, offbeat, strangely sexy cast.” — Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune

Score: 94%

What the Public Say
Pulp Fiction begins at its end. It is cyclical but we don’t realise this until we come to its final moments. Like many of Tarantino’s films, it is episodic and split into sections that overlap in both time and plot. It is far from linear; several threads occurring simultaneously, woven together by chance meetings, coincidence and common acquaintances. Travolta’s Vincent Vega is both alive and dead at the end of the film, such is the genius of the script. [It] is a film that demands a viewer’s attention, engagement and use of their brain to put the pieces of the puzzle together.” — Behind the Seens


A defining movie for the American indie/auteur boom of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and consequently one of the most influential films of the ’90s… but it is itself heavily influenced by and recreated from styles and genres of the past… and yet, despite those two reflective sides, it’s not quite like anything else — Pulp Fiction is a rule unto itself. In only his second feature, Tarantino’s direction is remarkably self-assured; rarely flashy or showy, but not simplistic or uninteresting either. It’s a film where the famed dialogue is as vital as the characters’ actions, but it’s not one that’s solely driven by people talking to each other. Events interrupt them shooting the breeze, but it’s also them shooting the breeze that drives the action. It’s a film of many opposing facets, then, which is quite possibly what keeps it fascinating — almost as an incidental addition to the humour and style that keep it entertaining.

#72 will have snakes… why did it have to have snakes?

Face/Off (1997)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #28

It’s like looking in a mirror — only not

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 139 minutes
BBFC: 18 (cut)

Original Release: 27th June 1997
UK Release: 7th November 1997
First Seen: TV, 22nd September 2002 (probably)

John Travolta (Saturday Night Fever, Hairspray)
Nicolas Cage (The Rock, Ghost Rider)
Joan Allen (Nixon, The Bourne Supremacy)
Alessandro Nivola (Mansfield Park, Jurassic Park III)
Gina Gershon (Bound, P.S. I Love You)

John Woo (Hard Boiled, Mission: Impossible II)

Mike Werb (The Mask, Firehouse Dog)
Michael Colleary (Darkman III: Die Darkman Die, Firehouse Dog)

The Story
FBI agent Sean Archer finally corners his nemesis, Castor Troy, knocking him into a coma in the process. Unfortunately, Troy has planted a bomb that will destroy Los Angeles, and the only other person who knows its location is his brother — and he ain’t talking. So Archer comes up with the perfectly sane and utterly foolproof plan to secretly have a face transplant and assume Troy’s identity. Unfortunately, the real Troy wakes up, takes Archer’s face, and kills everyone who knows the truth. Hilarity ensues! No, wait, it’s not that kind of movie — violent bloody action ensues.

Our Hero
Sean Archer, super cop. Looks like John Travolta, until he looks like Nicolas Cage. Don’t overthink it, it works just fine when you’re watching the film.

Our Villain
Castor Troy, super villain. Looks like Nicolas Cage, until he looks like John Travolta. Don’t overthink it, it works just fine when— wait, I did that bit.

Best Supporting Character
Castor’s brother, Pollux. Yes, that’s his name. Looks like Alessandro Nivola throughout.

Memorable Quote
Castor Troy: “Sean Archer here, who’s calling?”
Sean Archer: “Well if you’re Sean Archer, I guess I’m Castor Troy.”

Memorable Scene
The good guy’s teenage daughter — played by Dominique “Lolita” Swain, as if to ram the point home — is hanging out in her bedroom wearing next to nothing, when in walks the villain, who starts perving over her… oh, and he’s got her dad’s face at the time. This is the kind of scene you can have when your body-swap movie is rated 18, I guess.

Making of
According to IMDb, the studio wanted John Woo to take the slash out of the title, but he kept it so people wouldn’t think it was a hockey movie. I don’t know why you’d think it was a hockey movie without the slash, or why adding a slash magically stops it being a hockey movie, but that’s what it says.

1 Oscar nomination (Sound Effects Editing)
2 Saturn Awards (Director, Writer)
7 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Actor (both Nicolas Cage and John Travolta), Supporting Actress (Joan Allen), Younger Actor/Actress (Dominique Swain), Music, Make-Up)
2 MTV Movie Awards (including Action Sequence for the speedboat chase)
4 MTV Movie Award nominations (including Best Villain, shared between Nicolas Cage and John Travolta)
1 Golden Trailer Awards nomination (Best of the Decade)

What the Critics Said
“Travolta and Cage make superb adversaries, flip-flopping roles, first as hero, then as villain. What titilating fun to observe Cage seethe with venom and Travolta meet danger head-on, then see Cage become Travolta, as the latter adopts the unmistakable characteristics of the fiend. […] Face/Off is a masterpiece equal to the action classics Seven Samurai, The Wild Bunch and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” — Roger Hurlburt, Sun Sentinel

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“Gorgeously shot with lots of Ol’ West style close up on the eyes while silence is only interrupted by the sounds of gun magazines falling to the ground. Woo’s directorial vision and the clever exchange of snark and built up bitterness displayed in the dialogue are just two of the beautiful components displayed in the first 30 minutes of this film that set the tone of the fucking masterpiece that it is.” — Amy Seidman, This Film Is Better Than You, Deal With It


After making his name as an “heroic bloodshed” director par excellence with films like A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Hard Boiled, John Woo headed for Hollywood… and made Van Damme vehicle Hard Target and nuclear-warhead-theft thriller Broken Arrow. But after those he made this, surely one of the best action movies of the ’90s. Its sci-fi high-concept allows Travolta and Cage to have a whale of a time in each other’s bodies, and Woo’s trademark OTT action is as exciting as ever.

Next: #30, ah-ah! Saviour of the universe!

Mad City (1997)

2014 #94
Costa-Gavras | 110 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 12* / PG-13

Mad CityDisgraced national TV journo Dustin Hoffman is slumming it on a local network, covering dull stories like something-or-other going on at the local museum… until a recently-fired security guard from said museum (John Travolta) turns up with a shotgun, accidentally shoots the other security guard, and takes a party of schoolchildren hostage. Suddenly Hoffman finds himself with the inside scoop — literally — as the eyes of the national news turn on the unfolding situation.

So Mad City proceeds with, essentially, a dual-pronged narrative: the hostage situation itself, and the tactics employed by the media when covering it. Unfortunately, it seems unsure of its own point or purpose thanks to a mismatched tone, with the fairly-straight hostage drama rubbing up against some very broad media satire. I think the latter is really what it wants to be, though if the filmmakers felt they were making a serious point about the behaviour of the media then some of the film’s wilder elements have other ideas. Plus, I don’t know how original “the media are part of the problem” was as a viewpoint in 1997, but, getting on for 20 years later, it’s become a played-out truism.

Despite such faults, the film is an absorbing enough whole. This is mainly thanks to a solid leading-man turn from Hoffman and, even more so, a surprisingly nuanced performance from Travolta. Sam's the manHe plays against type as Sam, the nervous, naïve, childlike, and easily-manipulated hostage taker. It’s Travolta’s performance that makes Sam someone you care about, even if you don’t exactly root for him, so that the outcome — which, unusually for this kind of film, remains completely uncertain right until it’s happened — is something you’re fully invested in. There are many better-regarded films than this that don’t achieve that.

There are other films that satirise the media more humorously, and other films that expose their true nature more effectively, and still other films that feature more thrilling hostage situations. Mad City has a solid stab at its constituent elements, even if it winds up more average than remarkable. At least the worth-seeing performance from Travolta adds value.

3 out of 5

* In 1997, the BBFC classified Mad City as 15 for cinema release. In 1998, it was again classified a 15 for video… but one week later, and one second shorter, it was a 12. Six months on from that, the ‘longer’ version was also classified 12… and two months on again, the ‘shorter’ version got a 12, again. It’s from the ’90s so explanations for this kerfuffle are in short supply, but it seems to hinge on one use of strong language. ^

Bolt (2008)

2011 #11
Byron Howard & Chris Williams | 96 mins | Blu-ray | PG / PG

BoltBolt is the 48th film in Disney’s animated canon (whatever the official name for that is these days), from their CG-only era that filled most of the ’00s. It’s a period already remembered as When Disney Lost Its Way, after the second (or is it third? I forget) ‘golden era’ of the early ’90s; the time that produced flops like Treasure Planet, Home on the Range and Meet the Robinsons. Things are looking up — it’s been followed by The Princess and the Frog, where a return to 2D animation distinctly marked a more widespread change of direction, and the praised Tangled — but it may be Bolt that comes to be seen as the true turning point, because it’s actually rather good.

Let’s get the worst bit out of the way first: thankfully, Miley Cyrus’ part is quite small. She’s adequate, but one suspects she got roped in because a) Disney were already trying to find a way to continue making money out of her post-Hannah Montana, and b) she provided a surefire-selling song for the end credits. Chloë Moretz reportedly recorded all of Penny’s dialogue before Cyrus was brought in; one can’t help but feel that, age-wise (and probably acting-ability-wise too), she would’ve been a better fit for the character.

But it’s not about Penny, it’s about Bolt, and he is excellently realised. Bolt, if you don’t know, is a dog, and the animators have captured dogs’ behaviour perfectly. It’s not just the obvious things, as seen during the sequence where Mittens the cat trains him to be a ‘regular dog’, but all the little mannerisms throughout. The animals are anthropomorphised, of course, but they’re not just animal-shaped-humans; they’re what these animals would be like if they could talk. Crossed with humans, anyway.

Penny and Bolt in actionAlso noteworthy are the action sequences. Far from being perfunctory attempts at liveliness, these are properly exciting, making full use of 3D CGI to create exciting and dynamic sequences. I’m not just talking about the couple we get from the TV-series-within-the-film either, but also the ‘real world’ ones as Bolt, Mittens and Rhino jump onto trains, out of moving vans, escape from a pound, etc. Of course, the TV-series-within-the-film is completely implausible — like you could film a TV show with massive action sequences in such a way that you only ever do a single take, never mind achieve all those effects on a TV budget. But then this is a film where a talking dog, cat and hamster work together to travel from New York to Hollywood entirely of their own volition — I think it’s safe to say no one’s aiming for documentary levels of realism.

And it’s funny too, especially once Rhino the hamster turns up. It’s not the greatest comedy ever made (and the level of praise attributed to Rhino in some quarters may have taken it too far), but it’s genial enough and elicited a few decent laughs. It even had me getting a little emotional at the end, which isn’t something I ever expected to feel about a film starring Miley Cyrus and a dog made out of polygons.

Bolt swings into action

Despite being computer-generated and 3D, there are attempts to add a painterly look to the film — brushstrokes, pastel colours, that kind of thing. It works rather well when seen in isolation in backgrounds, some of the big wide shots, etc; but the obviously-CG main elements jar against it, the painterly style not extending to the characters or main environments fully enough for it to gel. Especially when the apparently-flat paint-styled backgrounds begin to move in three dimensions (for instance, as the camera pushes into scenery, so that trees/buildings move relative to road/field/hills/streets), it becomes a little weird. An interesting experiment, but not a wholly successful one I think. Something like Ratatouille’s attempt at softening CG animation’s usual hard crispness was more effective.

Bolt and RhinoIt would be easy to dismiss Bolt as part of Disney’s CG folly, especially as it stars Miley Cyrus and is immediately followed by their return to 2D animation, but I think that would be a mistake. It’s a fast-paced and fun adventure, with accurately-captured animals meaning it’s especially likely to appeal to dog lovers. Disney’s next golden era just might begin here.

4 out of 5

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

2010 #17
John Badham | 114 mins* | TV | 18 / R

Saturday Night Fever couldn’t be more ’70s if it were made today as a period piece (if you can see how that isn’t a contradiction). From the posters on Tony’s walls, to the fashions, to how it’s shot, it seems to have been designed specifically to exude seventies-ness in a way few other things seem to. It feels natural, then, that some of its original elements have become shorthand definitions for the era: the Bee Gees music, the dancing, and in particular that pose.

The side effect of these, I think, is that some still think it must be a Grease-a-like jolly musical love letter to the past. Maybe that’s what it somehow became in the kid-friendly PG-rated post-Grease re-edit (I wouldn’t know), but in its original form it’s certainly nothing of the sort. It’s a whole lot seedier, in fact, with dead-end jobs, late-night fights, turn-taking back-of-the-car sex, and other unsavoury pursuits. It’s no wonder Tony wants to escape.

The film it most reminded me of (for some reason) was Mean Streets. I’m not sure that’s anything like an accurate comparison, but it popped into my head more than once.

4 out of 5

Saturday Night Fever is on Film4 tonight at 12:55am.

* There are multiple versions of the film. This is the uncut one in PAL. ^

Hairspray (2007)

2008 #53
Adam Shankman | 111 mins | DVD | PG / PG

HairsprayWho’d’ve thought a John Waters film could become a bright and breezy musical? It’s a bit of a surprise but, thanks to a successful Broadway version, that’s exactly what’s happened. But while the key to Hairspray’s success may be its positive attitude and memorable songs, perhaps the key to its quality — and the eventual score of this review — are the issues it tackles around those.

It’s the latter that I found must surprising while watching the film. Everything about its advertising campaign, largely young cast and candy-coloured design suggested Hairspray was a light-as-air feel-good flick — no bad thing, but nothing more than a couple of hours of disposable fun. Pleasantly that’s not the case, as the film tackles head-on issues of racism and other such discrimination, with the ‘beautiful people’ — led by a deliciously bitchy Michelle Pfeiffer — doing their best to keep down those who are in any way different, be they black or, in the case of lead character Tracy Turnblad, fat. The apparently fluffy style of the film in many ways makes it perfect to tackle such issues, showing how they can permeate every area of life, not just Serious Social Dramas, and forces those who would normally avoid the latter type of drama to face up to them. Its ultimately happy ending may be more in keeping with the film’s overriding optimism than with reality, but equally it’s wholly appropriate: the crusade against oppression has to end well here, because if it didn’t the concluding message would be “don’t bother fighting, things won’t change”.

The film’s unwavering optimism is perfectly encapsulated by newcomer Nikki Blonsky, leading the cast as Tracy. She’s instantly and constantly likeable, irrepressibly chirpy and yet not annoying — an impressive feat. Equally remarkably, she’s never overshadowed by the heavyweights who round out the cast; instead, they provide able support. Even John Travolta, disturbingly convincing as a housewife (under a ton of makeup), doesn’t steal the show — he comes close, but Blonsky’s performance holds sway. Elsewhere, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah, James Marsden and Zac Efron all get catchy songs and have a whale of a time — and, unlike the Ocean’s… sequels, the fun the cast is having is infectious.

The first credit at the close is an unusual one: “Directed and Choreographed by Adam Shankman”. Rather than shirking in either department, the rare combination seems to have helped proceedings: the numbers are all exemplarily executed and the direction doesn’t suffer elsewhere. It’s an indication of the music’s quality that even the three cut songs, which play over the end credits, are pretty good and wouldn’t’ve been out of place in the film itself. The first of these is clearly the actual closing number, though the decision to bump it to the end credits, thereby leaving You Can’t Stop the Beat as the final song of the film proper, was a wise one — it makes for a stronger, catchier, more upbeat finale.

Hairspray is a deft mix of issue-driven drama and colourful musical levity. Catchy, optimistic, uplifting, funny and fun, it may just surprise you.

5 out of 5

Hairspray is on Film4 today, Tuesday 11th November 2014, at 6:45pm.

Hairspray placed 6th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2008, which can be read in full here.