Sunday, January 31, 2016
In 1967, Roy Orbison starred in his one and only film: a lightweight and gimmicky western called ‘The Fastest Guitar Alive’. It wasn’t a successful endeavour for anyone concerned. Orbison wrote a passel of bland songs for the soundtrack, only one of which – ‘There Won’t Be Many Coming Home’ – had anything specific to say. The producers, concerned that it was too serious and not in keeping with the film’s lighthearted tone, removed it. Forty-eight years later, Orbison’s civil war ballad is restored to the soundtrack of a western. A Quentin Tarantino western. And if the producers of ‘The Fastest Guitar Alive’ thought it sounded too serious in that film, it comes off as downright flippant here. Tarantino’s use of the Orbison song is the final irony in a 70mm epic that spends three hours bristling with irony, righteous anger and the kind of wallowing self-indulgence that characterises its director's approach to filmmaking.
Now, regular readers of this irregularly updated blog (I tries, folks, I really does) will know that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Tarantino fan. I can entirely appreciate why people don’t dig his work, and completely sympathise with those whom it renders decidedly uneasy. But, because of a number of interrelating vectors, from being blown away by ‘Reservoir Dogs’ at the impressionable age of twenty, to meeting the man himself two years later when he was guest of honour at the Broadway Cinema’s Shots in the Dark festival, the trajectory of my cinephilia has progressed in tandem with Tarantino’s career. He’s the only director whose entire filmography I’ve seen on the big screen.
So, yes: I likes me some Tarantino. I even like ‘Death Proof’. And I don't edge uneasily back from his work, convinced he’s a racist because his scripts use the N-word. No racist would gift such iconic parts to black actors. What I’m not sure about, however, is his attitude to women, and nowhere have I had such doubts than with ‘The Hateful Eight’. Reader, I’m going to come straight out with it: ‘The Hateful Eight’ is the first time I’ve come out of a Quentin Tarantino film not quite sure what to make of it.
It’s been about a week since I saw the film and the more I think about it, the more I’m tempted to narrow down my rationale to one of two options:
1) Tarantino, deciding that his usual critics will accuse him of racism anyway, structures a three-hour roadshow epic in such a way that his audience will be sent stumbling into the intermission in the immediate aftermath of an almost Shakespearian soliloquy, delivered in half-mocking-half-menacing fashion by Samuel L Jackson, the (ahem) thrust of which is the phrase “big black dingus”;
2) It’s a remake of ‘Reservoir Dogs’ disguised as a remake of John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ with Kurt Russell in the Kurt Russell role and a certain interchangeability between Jennifer Jason Leigh and Channing Tatum as regards the role of the thing.
Either way, it’s a film of two halves. The first documents the stormy stagecoach journey that brings bounty hunter John Ruth (Russell) and his shackled charge Daisy Domergue (Leigh) – the running joke about the mispronunciation of her surname is the script’s subtlest aspect – to Minnie’s Haberdashery en route to the town of Red Rock (aficionados of ‘Django Unchained’ won’t be surprised at the ‘Blazing Saddles’ homage). En route, Ruth reluctantly ends up giving a lift to fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) and Red Rock’s sheriff-to-be Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). Arriving at their stop, Ruth and Warren are suspicious that Minnie (Dana Gourrier) and her husband and business partner Sweet Dave (Gene Jones) are nowhere to be seen and the establishment has been left under the stewardship of taciturn Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir). Also at Minnie’s, seeking shelter from the storm, are dandy English hangman Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth) – the proximity of the character’s name to notorious blackshirt Oswald Mosley cannot be coincidental – enigmatic cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) and doddery Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). What follows is a series of variations on a theme, the theme being how downright fucking loathsome all of these individuals are in their own special way. Racism, snobbery, intransigence, intolerance and the deep social, political and geographical divisions created by the civil war all come to the fore. At one point, various parties suggest that the cabin itself be divided in two (I couldn’t help but think of the ‘Steptoe and Son’ episode where Albert and Harold reduce the family home to a microcosm of apartheid) as a temporary alternative to killing each other.
The second half is marked by at least two tonal shifts, the first of which is done to brilliant effect. The linear, classical storytelling of the first half goes out of the window, to be replaced with voiceover, flashbacks, shifting perspectives … basically, the whole non-linear playbook that Tarantino has delved into with zero restraint throughout his career. For approximately half an hour, ‘The Hateful Eight’ morphs into an Agatha Christie locked room mystery, with Warren in the Miss Marple role, if Miss Marple packed a pair of pistols and everyone in St Mary Mead used the word “nigger” like it was going out of style. This, for me, was easily the most focused part of the proceedings and I could happily have watched “Samuel L Jackson in a drawing room mystery with swearing and pistol whipping” for the rest of the movie; however Tarantino curtails this section with a short sharp shock of a rug pull, immediately seguing into an extended flashback that manages to be sweatily tense even though we all know, by this point, exactly how it’s going to play out.
Then we’re back to the present and the final act. Which is where the film seems to start juggling desperately – it’s a state of the nation piece; no wait, it’s an essay on how ideology deflates in the face of survivalism; no wait, it’s a variation on the theme of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”; no wait, it’s a Corbucci checklist replete with amoral cynicism and violence against women; no wait, it’s an ugly ironic statement on how liberal hand-wringing for interracial tolerance is founded on the big self-delusion of the liberal hand-wringer wanting to feel better about themself – and never fully commits to a final statement. Maybe this is what Tarantino intended. Or maybe he just decided that America – and by extension the world – is fucked and the best we can do is laugh at the sheer absurdity of it while we pointlessly kill each other.
Whichever, this is Tarantino we’re talking about and the man couldn’t do existential despair if he binged on Bergman, Tarkovsky and Tarr for a year. And that’s what gives ‘The Hateful Eight’ its wilful perversity: never mind the unpleasant places it goes, Tarantino’s sheer exhilaration in the process of film-making is splattered across every frame like a valentine’s love heart made of blood squibs.
Thursday, January 28, 2016
For all of the things that it did well, 'Skyfall' remains, for me, an awkward movie. Certainly an awkward Bond movie. On the one hand, it strives to be resolutely unBondian, documenting its protagonist's psychological depletion and building towards a low-key finale (by the standards of the franchise, anyway) in which 007's past is effectively obliterated; yet on the other, it shamelessly panders to the fan-boys (the Aston Martin with modifications; M's old office). 'Skyfall' stretches an act of transition across two plus hours, maneouvring Daniel Craig's Bond from the origin story and flawed coda of 'Casino Royale' and 'Quantum of Solace' respectively to a point of reference recognisable from the early Connery to mid-period Moore years.
'Spectre' was mouth-watering in its potential: a cold, ruthless Bond going head to head with a re-imagined Blofeld, the antagonist back after a decades-long rights wrangle.
Then the reviews started coming in and they were lukewarm; some outright hostile. With expectations at rock-bottom, I hauled myself off to my local multiplex and caught a screening the day before its run ended. Maybe it was the low expectations that did it, maybe it's because I never quite embraced 'Skyfall' the way everybody else seemed to, but I enjoyed 'Spectre' a lot.
There are, I should add with some degree of haste, caveats. First and foremost, 'Spectre' suffers from a two-and-a-half hour running time not remotely bolstered by anything resembling a plot. "Bond looks into some things that pissed him off from the earlier movies" is about as sophisticated as things get narratively. Basically, Bond receives a posthumously instruction from Judi Dench's M to take out an entirely disposable bad guy, after which he joins a series of heavily telegraphed dots, finally ending up at a secret base owned and operated by our old mate Ernst Stavro. Said dots serve as a tying up of loose ends from the preceding three movies (Quantum, in turns out, is little more than a sub-contractor to Spectre), but whereas those movies each have something at stake, the only thing 007 seems to be racing against the clock to prevent is the new M (Ralph Fiennes) being made redundant.
In a subplot that has more nuance and credibility than the main action, an MI5/MI6 merger is on the cards and politically-savvy hatchet man Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) is hellbent on shutting down the Double-O programme while brokering an information-sharing agreement between security services on a global level. There was a moment in the film where I really hoped that Christoph-Waltz-as-villain was merely a feint and Scott would be revealed as Blofeld, nicely exploiting his already iconic turn as Moriarty in 'Sherlock'. But no. Waltz plays Hans Oberhauser, a figure from Bond's past who fakes his own death and re-invents himself. Blofeld's his mother's name. Yes, the revelation really is that ho-hum.
On the plus side, however, the pre-credits sequence is Craig's best yet (which is saying something after the fantastic set piece that kicked off 'Skyfall'). Even its immediate supplanting by Sam Smith's truly fucking horrible theme song and a title design that is bizarre to the point of hallucinatory can't detract from how good it is. Even if it does homage 'For Your Eyes Only' a little too slavishly. The rest of the action more or less maintains the quality: a car chase, a plane/jeep chase (one of the film's best self-contained sequences), a speedboat/helicopter chase, a shedload of explosions and an extended bout of hand-to-hand combat in the narrow confines of a train. Even if it does homage 'From Russia With Love' a little too slavishly.
In fact, let's just call it: 'Spectre' is the most self-reflexive Bond movie since 'Die Another Day' wallowed in the non-hilarity of its parade of in-jokes. Granted, director Sam Mendes and scripters John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth attempt to work them cohesively into the narrative, but it doesn't take long for deja vu to set in. In addition to the above cited examples, we have the mountaintop clinic from 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service', lifestyle porn hospitality as a prelude to torture from 'Dr No', and the collapsing building/trapped heroine finale from 'Casino Royale'.
Speaking of the heroine, let's drag this review back on course and notch up another high point for 'Spectre'. All hail Lea Seydoux, the most capable Bond girl and character-in-her-own-right since Diana Rigg provided the franchise’s apex in this regard in 'OHMSS'. And also the most unlikely. Seydoux plays Madeleine Swann (a clunky but more-or-less thematically valid nod to Proust) – Mr White (Jesper Christensen)'s daughter. Not much further down the cast list, but with criminally less screen time, Monica Bellucci provides Bond with the frisson of a dalliance with a woman who isn't young enough to be his daughter; although she's little more than a plot device to take Bond one step closer to Spectre and Blofeld, she achieves an edgy chemistry with Craig that works to the film's benefit.
There's also a nice vibe going on between M, Q (Ben Wishaw), and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). Mendes has great fun throwing them together for a little fieldwork during the extended (perhaps overly extended) finale.
And here I find myself unable to escape the defining tone of this review: everything I liked about 'Spectre', every aspect of it I thoroughly enjoyed, triggers a caveat. Believe me, I'd love to have pounded out 1,000 breathless words, adjectives cascading like spent cartridges from a semi-automatic weapon*, and sung its praises. But there's no avoiding the fact that 'Spectre' is flawed; not tonally as 'Skyfall' was, but structurally and narratively. Simply introducing Blofeld as a fully formed supervillain and giving him some kind of doomsday device would have helped matters no end. After pursuing the Bond origin story and its psychological fallout over three consecutive films, staging 'Spectre' as the Blofeld origin story seems equally transitional. Maybe next time we'll get a straight-down-the-line Bond movie.
*Yeah: I’m classy, me.