Tag Archives: Pulp Fiction

Rocks In The Attic #812: Various Artists – ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (O.S.T.)’ (2019)

WARNING! SPOILERS!

RITA#812Half-way through Quentin Tarantino’s ninth picture, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Brad Pitt’s character, stuntman Cliff Booth, visits Spahn Ranch. Reminiscent of the ‘glass of milk’ scene in Inglourious Basterds, or that same film’s later bar scene, it’s a deliciously tense moment in an otherwise bloated film. Booth suspects that there’s something amiss about the group of hippies living at the ranch owned by his former colleague. Unlike the audience, he doesn’t have hindsight of the Manson family, but still feels that something isn’t quite right.

He insists of seeing his former colleague, George Spahn, to ensure he’s not being taken advantage of, or worse. After much obstruction by the Mansons, Booth finally speaks to a grouchy Spahn who insists that everything is okay. He might be being taken advantage of, but seems relatively content about it.

And so, a wonderfully tense fifteen-minute scene ends in an anti-climax; a metaphor for the film itself.

RITA#812aOnce Upon A Time In Hollywood isn’t a bad film, but it’s a huge disappointment. It’s up there with Ari Aster’s unapologetic ­Wicker Man­ rip-off, Midsommar, as the biggest let-down of 2019. To say that four years ago, I met Tarantino and practically begged him not to retire after his tenth film, I should have spent that precious time asking him to be more careful with #9 and #10.

People tend to forget that what originally made Tarantino’s films so interesting is that they normalised dialogue between henchman, bad guys and crooks. They did horrible things but they still had small, human problems. Thirty years after the 1-2-3 success of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown and we’re faced with a picture that, despite its depiction of infamous events, is just dull. That throwaway book-reading scene between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and his 12-year old co-star is painfully dull.

In fact, the whole DiCaprio storyline is boring. Death Proof levels of boring.

My main issue with the film though, is its skirting with reality and its subsequent failure to end with the Sharon Tate murders. Tarantino has played with revisionist history before: a Jew murdering Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis in Basterds, and Jamie Foxx’s slave rising up to avenge his former slave-owners in Django Unchained. Here though, he kind of gets away with it because, as the film’s title suggest, it’s a fairytale. A happy ending. An allegory for Hollywood itself.

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My preferred ending to the picture would have kept the meeting of Dalton, Sebring and Tate on the driveway, but the crane shot would have swept back to the open gate to reveal another car full of Manson children, implying that fate cannot be stopped.

I’m probably more disappointed about what the film could have been rather than how it turned out. Tarantino directing a period film in 1960s Los Angeles sounds unbeatable. First, we get that classic period-era Columbia Pictures studio ident at the top of the film, to set the scene. Then things start to break down.

Five minutes in, we get a blast of narration from Kurt Russell’s Randy Miller: ‘That’s a fucking lie!’ Do we get any more? Yes, but much, much later in the film (following Dalton and Booth’s return from Italy). Cliff Booth has a clunky flashback as he fixes the aerial on Dalton’s roof. Do we get any more flashbacks? Nope. And those crazy cuts – hat on, hat off – in the first scene between Dalton and Timothy Olyphant’s James Stacy? What the hell is going on with these half-hearted narrative devices?

The script across the film’s opening scenes – Booth explaining in the car who he is to Dalton, and Dalton explaining who Roman Polanski is – feels very clunky, like a first draft even. I did chuckle at the random line of dialogue: ‘Don’t cry in front of Mexicans’, which sounds like the oddest piece of racist advice from Brad Pitt’s character.

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And to expand on the issues with Pitt’s Cliff Booth, where do I start? The implication that he killed his wife, and the insinuation that she deserved it for being a nag, is just awful. As is the portrayal of Bruce Lee in the next scene. After two viewings, I still can’t understand why Bruce Lee is a character in this film. Is Tarantino making an example of him because he’s a mainstream kung-fu star, and Tarantino prefers more obscure films from that genre? What else could it be? I don’t think it’s particularly racist, but it’s definitely disrespectful, and more importantly, downright lazy.

I do love the soundtrack though, with the radio station framing – Boss Radio featuring Humble Harve and the Real Don Steele – harking back to Steve Wright’s radio announcements on the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack. It’s odd that the vinyl version of the soundtrack retains that compressed radio sound for the songs introduced by the Boss radio DJs, but the digital version I’ve heard on Spotify abandons this and plays the standard versions.

My only gripe with the soundtrack is the inclusion of Simon & Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson, a song that just feels too popular, too obvious, to be in a Tarantino picture. I did hear Tarantino explain in an interview with Edith Bowman, for her excellent Soundtracking podcast, that in fact the song choices were made for him. Looking for archival recordings of radio stations from the time, they found that somebody had recorded audio from Boss Radio in 1969 and he used this as the basis for sides A and C of the eventual soundtrack release. If songs weren’t played during this found recording, he didn’t put them on the soundtrack.

Overall, I expect better from Tarantino because he’s shown how strong a filmmaker he is. Man, I hope film number ten is a vast improvement on this let-down.

Hit: Mrs. Robinson – Simon & Garfunkel

Hidden Gem: You Keep Me Hangin’ On (Quentin Tarantino Edit) – Vanilla Fudge

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Rocks In The Attic #799: Various Artists – ‘Go (O.S.T.)’ (1999)

RITA#799Following hot on the heels of his breakthrough hit Swingers, Doug Liman’s Go is a quirky little film dealing with youth culture at the end of the 1990s. It borrows liberally from Quentin Tarantino, in particular the time-switching of Pulp Fiction, as it intertwines three stories set in one day in Southern California and Las Vegas.

In the first story, a group of supermarket workers head to a weekend rave and get caught up in a drug deal that goes bad, in the second story one of their co-workers heads off to Las Vegas with another bunch of friends, and the final story covers the tale of a pair of TV actors forced to take part in an undercover drug sting.

As much as I admire 1996’s Swingers, the film that made a star out of Vince Vaughan and boosted the profiles of Jon Favreau (also its writer), Heather Graham and Ron Livingston, I’ve always found it quite bleak. For a Vegas (and Reno!) film dealing with the seedier side of the city, away from the neon glamour of the tourist traps, I much prefer Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, released in the same year.

RITA#799aI found 1999’s Go to be much more of a fun ride than Swingers, although admittedly not as groundbreaking. It has an ensemble cast, featuring both Timothy Olyphant and Katie Holmes in early roles, and I’ve always wondered whether this was the film that Tom Cruise saw before he set his sights on Holmes. Or maybe he was just a Dawson’s Creek fan.

Sadly, Swingers and Go were the last small-budget indie films that Doug Liman directed. His talents were obvious and his subsequent filmography shows how much he impressed Hollywood with these two films. His next project after Go was 2002’s The Bourne Identity, and he followed this with similarly-sized blockbusters as 2005’s Mr. And Mrs Smith, 2008’s Jumper, 2014’s Edge Of Tomorrow and 2017’s American Made. He’s currently in post-production on a sequel to Edge Of Tomorrow, taking its name from the alternate title of the 2014 film: Live, Die, Repeat And Repeat.

The soundtrack to Go is very much of its time – all big beats and samples, typified by the inclusion of Fatboy Slim’s Gangster Trippin’. When I first heard the soundtrack was getting a vinyl reissue, I thought that it was another example of record companies scraping the barrel, and so I sat on it until I was able to pick it up in a sale. I’m so glad I did, as it’s chock-full of gems. No Doubt’s New and Len’s Steal My Sunshine get top-billing alongside the Fatboy Slim track, but it’s the lesser-known tracks that I’m here for.

Jimmy Luxury’s Cha Cha Cha, featuring a sample of the Tommy Rowe Orchestra, is a funky little gem, Air’s Talisman is one of the many highlights of Moon Safari, and Lionrock’s Fire Up The Shoesaw is just fabulous, not only for its stuttering sample of Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, but more for it’s delicious sample of Fight At Kobe Dock from John Barry’s score to You Only Live Twice (the title song of which, of course, was sung by Nancy Sinatra).

Hit: Steal My Sunshine – Len

Hidden Gem: Fire Up The Shoesaw – Lionrock

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Rocks In The Attic #671: Aimee Mann & Jon Brion – ‘Magnolia (O.S.T.)’ (1999)

150678 - SMALLER SPINECould Magnolia be the best film of the 1990s?

Rolling Stone rank it at a lowly #26, twelve places behind director Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous film, the arguably more accessible Boogie Nights. The magazine voted Scorsese’s Goodfellas at #1 (followed by a more esoteric run-down than you would expect from Rolling Stone: #5 – Pulp Fiction, #4 – The Silence Of The Lambs, #3 – Safe, #2 – Hoop Dreams).

A reader’s poll in Rolling Stone, ranking the twenty-five best movies of the decade, doesn’t even mention Magnolia, again with PTA’s Boogie Nights making the cut (faring a little better at #19). Not surprisingly, the poll’s top five are populist choices – #5 – Fight Club, #4 – The Shawshank Redemption, #3 – Goodfellas, #2 – The Big Lebowski, and #1 – Pulp Fiction.

RITA#671cBut who cares about polls and lists? They’re usually only there to provoke discussion – and quite why Rolling Stone could vote a three-hour documentary about basketball hopefuls from the inner-city slums as the second-best film of the year is anybody’s guess. I loved Hoop Dreams, but is it better than anything from Tarantino, the Andersons (Wes and Paul Thomas) or Fincher?

Even Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film – the casino-centric Hard Eight (1996), starring Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson, deserves a look-in. It’s the kind of film that makes you want to inhabit a casino, let alone visit one.

A textbook first film, you can see a lot of the visual flourishes that are the hallmark of films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia before he started to move away to more static filmmaking. The easiest of his trademarks to spot is the fast dolly-in, usually as a character enters a scene or an object becomes the focus of the narrative. These shots define PTA as much as the inserts and birds-eye views of Wes Anderson’s films, or the tracking shots of Scorsese.

The number eight resonates strongly with Paul Thomas Anderson and Magnolia. He debuted with Hard Eight – the number on the dice needed by the craps-playing Philip Seymour Hoffman; he’s just released his eighth feature, Phantom Thread; and the number eight is a symbolic fingerprint of Magnolia – the film culminating with the threat of Exodus 8:2: ‘If you refuse to let them go, I will send a plague of frogs on your whole country.’

RITA#671aSo Anderson spends the three hours of Magnolia interpreting Christianity and emerges with a delicious pun, insinuating that the biblical plague of raining frogs was caused by the producers of the quiz show who wouldn’t let Stanley visit the toilet. He would revisit the themes of religion more seriously later in his career, but this is where he put his toe in the holy water.

It could be claimed that nothing happens in Magnolia, that it’s boring and uneventful. And while it possibly does try to do too much, with too many characters – even Anderson himself has suggested that it’s overlong – its real strength comes from its pacing. I don’t think another film exists as dedicated to building tension as Magnolia. From its opening scene, until the aftermath of the frog-raining finale, the tension builds and builds, until the clouds break and we get a well-deserved resolution across each of the story arcs.

One important aspect, of course, is the music. The soundtrack is comprised of three key elements – pop songs from Supertramp and Gabrielle, together with snippets of the opera Carmen and Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, a suite of original songs from Aimee Mann, and a lush original score by Jon Brion.

This new release from Mondo Records represents the first time that the soundtrack has been released on vinyl. Split across three discs, the first discs offers the Aimee Mann songs, while the remaining two discs offer the Jon Brion score.

The beautiful packaging also follows the themes of the film, with new artwork by Joao Ruas and the three discs coloured in (1) Sky Blue, (2) Cloudy Blue, and (3) Translucent Gold – in other words, clear sky, cloudy sky, and frog!

Hit: One – Aimee Mann

Hidden Gem: Stanley / Frank / Linda’s Breakdown – Jon Brion

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Rocks In The Attic #642: Nirvana – ‘In Utero’ (1993)

RITA#642Last weekend I found a pair of perfectly good speakers on the side of the road. A handwritten sign – ‘FREE’ – was standing next to them. I did a quick u-turn and threw them in my car. New Zealand’s attitude to freecycling occasionally delivers gems like this. You could probably drive around all weekend and furnish your entire house with kerbside treasures that people are throwing away. The speakers are a lovely pair of Technics, standing 18” tall and my vinyl-collecting friend at work, who’s far more knowledgeable about hi-fi equipment, assures me they’re a very, very good find.

That’s if they still work, of course, because who in their right minds would throw away a perfectly good set of speakers? A quick trip to the local electronics store to get some speaker cable, and I can rest assured that not only do they work perfectly, but they also sound fucking awesome. It makes a world of difference to the set of (perfectly good for purpose) surround speakers I was running my turntable through previously.

Whenever I’m testing a new set-up – be it a new turntable, or a new amp, or a new set of speakers – the album I always turn to is Nirvana’s In Utero. My clear favourite of their three studio albums, it towers over their unripe debut, and their too-slick crossover follow-up. Steve Albini’s production sounds more like what I imagine the band’s natural sound to be, and it was the record I turned to when Kurt died as it was their final studio album.

The reason it’s so good to test hi-fi equipment is that it’s so dynamic, and so well recorded that it doesn’t sound like the product of pro-tools. After Albini’s initial production (foreshadowed by a great letter to the band), Geffen Records attempted to fix what they saw as an uncommercial record by employing Robert Ludwig to master it. Still unhappy, the master tapes were then given to REM producer Scott Litt, who remixed the singles alongside Andy Wallace (who had mixed Nevermind). With so many cooks in the kitchen, the album should sound conflicted, but to my ears it sounds perfect.

RITA#642aThe hi-fi recommendations in the inside cover of the CD booklet, something that you just don’t usually see in liner notes, have always made me chuckle. I suspect that rather than being a genuine instruction to listeners (unlikely), it’s an irreverent poke at the casual music fans the band were attracting (a more obscure jab than the lyrics to In Bloom).

RITA#642dAlthough I own a late ‘90s reissue of In Utero, I jumped at the chance to get the Steve Albini mix of the record, released to mark the album’s 20th anniversary. Running at 45rpm, and split across two discs, it’s a wonderful package. But while it’s very interesting to hear, I think I’ll always prefer the original version. Albini’s mix of the singles sound so much more in line with the rest of the album, and if anything the contrast shows how much the Scott Litt mix of those songs sounds like the range of dynamics you would hear on an REM single.

One thing I really liked around the 20th anniversary re-release was a memo that did the rounds on the internet, mocked up to look like a letter to record store owners, pleading with them to get behind the album’s reissue. I seem to remember some discussion at the time around whether it was genuine or not, but it’s clearly a joke – it’s dripping in cynicism, and reads like something that Kurt Cobain might have composed from beyond the grave.

I don’t usually pay much attention to the ‘thank you’ lists in liner notes, but there is one particular name on the In Utero sleeve that is deserving of a mention. The band listed Quentin Tarantino in this section – in 1993 a relatively cult director with only one film, Reservoir Dogs, to his name (and Pulp Fiction yet to be released). When the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction eventually saw the light of day in September 1994, Quentin repaid the favour and thanked the now-departed Cobain.

Hit: Heart Shaped Box

Hidden Gem: Radio Friendly Unit Shifter

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Rocks In The Attic #315: Various Artists – ‘Pulp Fiction (O.S.T.)’ (1994)

RITA#315What a soundtrack! Pulp Fiction came out in 1994 – the year I finished school – so I remember this soundtrack being the – erm – soundtrack to many parties over that summer. Whatever you might think of Tarantino’s films, his soundtracks can’t be beaten for pulling together forgotten songs and giving them another chance in the sun.

Tarantino has definitely lost his way recently – Inglourious Basterds is simply a patronising wish-fulfilment fantasy for the Jews, Django Unchained does the same for African Americans – but Pulp Fiction is almost perfect. I remember hearing so much about it; I bought it on VHS the day it came out. I’d missed it at the cinema (although I did eventually see it on the big screen, on a special screening a few years later), but I just had to see it. I don’t think I had even seen the trailer at that point – just a snippet of the film, the Jack Rabbit Slims dance contest, on Barry Norman’s Film ’94.

This was when I used to work at Tesco, so after my shift I bought the video together with some chocolate with potato chips – and consumed the lot that night (as in the chocolate and potato chips at the same time). I haven’t eaten chocolate and potato chips at the same time since – it is a pretty weird taste, and I can’t remember who recommended it to me – but it’ll forever be linked to Pulp Fiction in my memory.

I don’t think I’ll ever get over that fluffed line when Amanda Plummer repeats her expletive-filled rant at the diners towards the end of the film (‘Any of you fucking pricks move and I’ll execute every motherfucking last one of you!’ becomes ‘Any of you fucking pricks move, and I’ll execute every one of you motherfuckers!’) – and I do think it is a mistake, regardless of any well-thought out theories out there (love your thinking, Realiction) – but I’m constantly reminded of it every time I hear the dialogue that opens the soundtrack.

I do like to think though, that if I ever did commit an armed robbery, I’d announce it in Tim Roth’s wonderfully understated “Everybody be cool – this is a robbery!”

Hit: Misirilou – Dick Dale & His Del-Tones

Hidden Gem: Bustin’ Surfboards – The Tornadoes