The Hateful Eight (2015)

The Hateful Eight (2015) movie poster

director Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 12/31/2015 at Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD, SF, CA

The latest film from pop auteur Quentin Tarantino, shot and notably projected in special occasions in 70mm, is his second Western in a row.  After his slave revenge film, Django Unchained (2012), something about the genre must have stuck with him, long as his films gestate, and he turns out a very different film, but as very typical of Tarantino, a very entertaining one as well.

In many ways, The Hateful Eight is the writer-director at the top of his game, weaving a story of eight (or more) villains stuck in an isolated cabin in a blizzard in the nowheres of Wyoming, each with their own set of backstories (or lies, but stories nonetheless), giving them ample reason to suspect that everyone else wants to kill them.

Kurt Russell is “The Hangman”, a bounty hunter with a filthy, mouthy Daisy Domergue in tow (a spectacular Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman with a $10,000 bounty on her head.  And Russell’s Hangman is known to “bring ’em back alive” even if that is not necessary, because he likes to see ’em hung.  Their stagecoach encounters Major Marquis Warren (Tarantino go-to Samuel L. Jackson) with a pile of dead bodies he’s bountied up, followed by running into another feller, Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins) who claims to be the newly hired Sheriff of the town of Red Rock, to which they are heading.

Jackson and Tarantino were made for one another.  He delivers Tarantino’s dialog better than anyone, and Tarantino gives Jackson the roles and opportunities that have turned him into such a major star over the past 20 years.

At 3 hours in epic length, the film if anything, seems to be quite simply about “storytelling”.  It’s a complex set of events and backstories that sets the characters on the stage of the cabin, unfolding in six titled chapters, zipping back and forth at times in unfolding, populated with many a dialog of reveal of a character’s past, true or untrue, uncovering motivations, acted upon or not.

And so, when suddenly in Chapter Four: “Domergue’s Got a Secret,” a voice-over narrator pops in to tell the audience something that Tarantino has chosen not to “show” us, it’s of course Tarantino himself.  Hey, it’s his movie, of course he’s going to be the narrator if there is a narrator.  He’s got to insinuate himself in there somehow.

Tarantino’s idea, which he told was to put “‘a bunch of nefarious guys… together in a room with a blizzard outside, give them guns, and see what happens’ ” is constructed tightly and cleverly.  It may be 3 hours long but he snares the viewer early on and his storytelling prowess is flowing freely.  But in a Tarantino picture, you put a “bunch of guys in a room and see what happens” you know what is going to happen: everybody is going to get shot.

As much as I looked for deeper meanings in the text, the only things that stood out was one when Jackson says, as he takes a gun from somebody that “a black man only feels safe when white men are disarmed,” followed perhaps by the title of the sixth and final chapter “Black Man, White Hell”.  I considered if there was some underlying meaning being laid out here, especially with Tarantino’s recent involvement in police protests, but I’m not sure that it’s the biggest point of the film at all.

I keep coming back to Tarantino as narrator, Tarantino as storyteller, and really, that’s where the film sings.  Now, that said, Tarantino loves his own storytelling voice so much that his voice comes through in many of the stories being told, through many of the voices telling the stories, even Jackson’s.  And that is perhaps Tarantino’s great weakness: his admiration for his own skills as a writer and director (and at times actor).

The Hateful Eight is very good entertainment, a great time at the cinema.  If you’re lucky enough to see it on 70mm, I hear that is the way to go.  Unfortunately, I wound up seeing it digitally projected (whatever).  It has its flaws and short-comings, some of them perhaps deeper than others.  But I enjoyed it.  And I’ll look forward to his next film, whatever he does.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Pulp Fiction (1994) movie poster

director Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 11/14/2014

Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 epic Pulp Fiction may (or may not) be the best film of the 1990’s, but it’s pretty easily one of the most important and influential films of the last decade of the 20th century.

Interestingly, and perhaps uniquely, until now, I’d only seen Tarantino’s crime portmanteau once, in the cinema back in 1994, and then never again for 20 years.   The oddity herein is that Pulp Fiction, like a lot of other popular cult films of the 1990’s was watched over and over and over again by fans almost immediately upon its release.  With its classic musical soundtrack featuring snippets of dialogue as well as Tarantino’s hand-picked tunes, even if you’d been like me, and only saw the film on its release, you were still inundated with popular elements from the dialogue, scene snippets replayed, or even played to death almost in its praise.

I’d recalled reading a someone referring to Pulp Fiction as a “shot of adrenalin to the heart of American filmmaking” or some such thing back in 1994 when it came out.  And I’d always thought that the apropos if obvious metaphor, lifted directly from one of the film’s most famous scenes, to describe the movie’s inventive story and its resonant effect on the film industry of the time.  Pulp Fiction invigorated a lot of careers directly associated with the film, but gave berth to the “Indie” as the Hollywood machine lumbered forth with bloated blockbusters and Oscar fodder, with nary an invention in sight.

I still recall the excitement of watching the film in 1994.  It was clever, inventive,   surprising, and fresh.  But I also sensed to overwhelming fan-obsessive qualities that drowned the film in manic praise for years to come.  While it was still a pre-internet media world that embraced and celebrated the movie, the tonality was a precursor of the incessant overworking of popular movies by the multitudes who dedicate their time to any particular cult obsession.  And so, I never felt the need to see it again.

Not long back, I rewatched Reservoir Dogs (1992) for the first time.  Though I’ve kept up with Tarantino, watching his movies over the years, I don’t know that I’ve ended up re-watching any of them before now.  Though now, 20 years out from Pulp Fiction seems as good a time as any to reassess the writer/director/actor who changed the landscape for filmmakers in America.

Overall, I think Pulp Fiction is pretty great film-making.  It’s funny, but like in Reservoir Dogs, the kitschy pop dialogue that made Tarantino such the hipster hero to so many aspiring screenwriters (and video store clerks) at the time seems to be the film’s weakest element.

Where Tarantino excels, however, is in selecting and directing actors to deliver his words.

Samuel L. Jackson.  Of course this guy is exactly the guy you want to read “Go the Fuck to Sleep”.  He even makes bad Capitol One Quicksilver card commercials entertaining.

But Tarantino does a great job of shooting these scenes, not just getting good actors reading his lines, playing his characters, but pulls off the ballet of set-ups, framings, cuts, and everything to make Pulp Fiction ridiculously entertaining and watchable.

And iconic.  Maybe that is one of Tarantino’s biggest coups, making such iconic moments out of a film so jam-packed with homage and cultural reference.

The bottom line is I enjoyed the movie again, seeing it just now.

I’ve been thinking about the 1990’s in part, I think, because my film queue has a number of films like Pulp Fiction that I saw once back in the day but never got around to seeing again.  Films with huge cult followings.  And I started to wonder about the 1990’s.  What are the best films of the 1990’s?  Is Pulp Fiction the best film of the 1990’s?

My short answer, I think, is: No.  There are other cult films from the 1990’s that I have watched over again, but there are a lot that I have not.  There are actually quite a few good movies from that decade; who’s to say what is “the best”?

This film diary, since I write about every feature film I see, has sort of pushed against re-watching.  It’s not that any one response I have is so definitive about a film, but there is a bit of tedium and futility in writing a full response to the third viewing or fourth viewing of a movie.  And there are so many movies that I haven’t yet seen…

Pulp Fiction‘s importance is easily appreciated.  And I think its impact will keep it in the discussions of American films of the 1990’s for ever and always and rightly so.  And, as I said, I think it’s highly entertaining.  It’s also pretty damn long.  And it has its shortcomings.

I will be delving further into 1990’s movies.  So, doubtlessly more to come on the topic, and references to Tarantino and Pulp Fiction will abound, no doubt.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Reservoir Dogs (1992) movie poster

director Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 08/18/2014

Like a lot of people, I saw Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs on its initial release in 1992.  And unlike a lot of people, I never saw it again.  Until now.

Not because I didn’t like it (I did.)  But Tarantino’s films were what they were for me and I did not become obsessive over them.  And oddly enough, as a result, I think my relationship with the film is possibly less common than most.

It’s a very good film, especially at its best, which is what I would say is in the more dramatic and cinematic narrative portions of the film.  Tarantino’s career exploded overnight with Reservoir Dogs, and one big portion of this was its pop culture references from Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” to the merits of Pam Grier and 1970’s music.  Personally, I don’t think that stuff is all that strong.  The chit-chat dialog that riffed on pop culture, I think, is the film’s biggest weakness.  It sounds like it was written by some nerdy video store geek.

The film’s real coup is in its casting.  Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Lawrence Tierney, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Michael Madsen.  Those guys, that script, Tarantino’s amazing sense for music as significant part of the movie (influenced certainly and heavily by Martin Scorsese) makes for the kind of film that really gave Hollywood and American filmmaking in the 1990’s the shot to the heart it needed.  And also led to decades of wannabe knock-offs (as well as paving the way for other very talented unique visions).

The film’s best scene is easily the torture scene in which Madsen’s character cuts off the cop’s ear and douses him with gasoline all to the tune of “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel.  It’s not just the dance and the cold-hearted menace to a groovy AM radio jive from the 1970’s but the whole of the scene arc, as Madsen goes out to his car to get the gasoline cannister from his trunk and slides right back in on the song’s next beat.

It’s classic stuff.

In the time that I’ve been writing this blog, since 2002, I’ve turned around on Tarantino.  His career has gone from red hot to strong but mixed to arguably very bad to his more recent masterworks Inglourius Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012).  We can debate my opinions and his merits and shortcomings (everyone is entitled to their own opinion), but I do believe that history will appreciate his work, not as perfections but for its heights and its great pieces as well as its lesser elements.

Django Unchained (2012)

Django Unchained (2012) movie poster

director Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 12/25/2012 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Love him, hate him, feel ambivalence to him, Quentin Tarantino inspires a variety of responses, usually strong and pointed.  His revisionist Western about a freed slave turned bounty hunter, Django Unchained, will keep those emotions strong, though you might shift your position one way or another.

For me, it’s the most inspired big theatrical release of the year.

What’s inspired about it is the entire concept.  A revenge film about a freed slave empowered to high gun-slinging cowboy hero, shot in a style heavily informed by the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960’s and 1970’s, it’s an anachronistic fantasy, absurd and yet profound, and more than anything, quite damn entertaining.

The Western genre represents a classic form of American drama and identity, defined from the end of the period itself in cheap magazines and novels and quickly taken up in cinema.  It’s a genre that started with the general heroism of European settlers taming the Wild West, fighting the brutal land and the native peoples who lived there, as well as the best and worst of human character in battles between the good, bad, and ugly.

And until the 1960’s, this was a white man’s version of America.  Even in films that were subversive or culturally critical, the fact of the matter stood that the heroes were white, no matter what color they wore.  Revisionist Westerns, which began in the 1960’s started to take up the mantle of the Native Americans, no longer purely posing them as savage villains but trying to begin to accept the reality of what was America’s first most atrocious defining reality: not simple mistreatment and misrepresentation, but the genocide that cleared the West for “American” settlers from sea to shining sea.

While it’s doubtful that the Western has ever come to full terms with that, revisionism to the classic and codified tropes of cinema for this genre opened doors for other angles as well.  But outside of Mel Brooks’ satire Blazing Saddles (1972), I can’t think of another important Western that really dealt with an African American protagonist in this largely historical genre.  Many films have been centered around pre- and post- and during the Civil War, but slavery as a key topic is most unusual.

Why I call Tarantino’s “Spaghetti Western” conceit inspired is that it gives license to the story to not have to hew to utter historical truths.  Adding in a musical score featuring funk and hip-hop, he rises above mere meta-commentary, film referencing and, much like he did in Inglourious Basterds (2009), with his fantasy revenge of Jews massacring Nazis in World War II, he sets a stage for a radical narrative in a world of mixed history and “truthiness”.

The criticism that has arisen about his use of the word “nigger” in Django Unchained seems incredibly off the mark.  The world depicted here, the pre-Civil War South is the place that such an epithet was defined, and as ugly as it is to hear it, it’s probably one of the more close to historical truth aspects of the film rather than unpleasant indulgence as it was in his contemporary film Jackie Brown (1997).  It’s far more fantastic, this whole concept of this German dentist turned pro-emancipation bounty hunter, than the commonality of that word in that period in that place.

It’s a radical concept, this film, and more than anything, it’s funny, brutal, clever, surprising, inventive, and exciting.

Jamie Foxx is great as Django, as Christopher Waltz is as Dr. King Schultz.  But Leonardo DiCaprio gets the best role as the juicy horrible slave owner Calvin Candide.  Samuel L. Jackson is also fantastic in his role as Candide’s head house slave, with his own virulent racism and complex relationship with the worst people in the film.

I have to say that this is probably the best new film that I’ve seen in 2012.  Tarantino is suggesting that he wants to step down from film-making before he starts to “get old” and start turning out lame films as many of his hero directors did.  But oddly enough, it seems that he’s actually at the top of his game at the moment, tapping into things that somehow touch on much more profundity than arguably his earlier films did.

This is a very good film, I think.  A clever, inventive, inspired concept, executed aptly and beautifully.  One of the best trips to the theater in a long while.

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 09/05/09 at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, SF, CA

Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is a bit of a surprise for me.  He’s the kind of guy that either evokes rabid appreciation or absolute disdain.  And after his last film, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007), I was reaching more deeply into the latter camp.  What is surprising to me is not that Inglorious Basterds has also received either rapt appreciation or utter scorn, but rather that I find myself in between those two extremes, finding myself in the place of “liking”, not loving, not loathing.

The movie is an entertaining romp of sorts, following a group of “Nat-see” hunters, led by Brad Pitt, a group of Jewish soldiers who run an Apache-like murder spree of any and all Nazi soldiers they encounter.  But also it follows the story of a French Jewish girl, who escapes her family’s slaughter, moves to Paris and runs a cinema, and has a passionate desire for revenge.  It all culminates in a successfully catastrophic end to WWII, one that has nothing to do with history, other than it picks its characters from it to an extent.

It’s a fantasy version of WWII, a revision of history.  It’s a revenge film in the classic sense, revenge of the Jews against the Nazis, empowering the Jewish portion of the resistance to be the ones who take down Hitler, Goebbels, and the rest of the Nazi hierarchy who are all trapped in a cinema, watching a propaganda film about a German sniper who killed over 200 American soldiers in one day.

The film is also significantly focused on cinema.  Typical of a Tarantino script, with characters who all have a grand knowledge of directors, actors and movies, but this film includes the notable destruction of the Nazi party by burning them alive in a cinema.  A cinema burned down with highly flammable nitrate film, while a film of the proprietress projects ghostly onto the screen and the smoke, taunting them as the burn and are shot to death by two Jewish-American soldiers.  One member of the Basterds is a former British film critic.  The whole plot turns around the promotion of one propaganda film.  And the Mata Hari-like spy is a top German film actress.  And Goebbels himself, is a filmmaker.

So what does all this mean?  In cinema: revenge?  And why a revenge film focused so much on Jewish heroism, violence, and retribution?  What is the intent or meaning?

Tarantino, as well, cites himself.  Thankfully, his visage is never really onscreen, but his self-reference is powerful.  In the recognition of cinema, the French people’s appreciation for “directors”, but even in his own citing of his trademarks.  It’s well-known that Tarantino uses “the Mexican stand-off” as a recurring trope, something he confiscated from other movies he liked, in which a number of characters are caught in a scene pointing guns at one another, waiting for something to happen before the carnage ensues.  In this case, Pitt’s character actually uses the term in discussing the nature of the situation to a German soldier, citing in plain language the set-up of the scene and drawing attention to the director.

But ultimately, the very ending scene, after Pitt has carved a swastika onto the face of a Nazi villain, the camera, looking up at Pitt and another “basterd”, catches Pitt’s estimation of his work, looking down upon the cinema’s audience, and he says, “I think this just might be my masterpiece.”  Cut to “Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino” on the screen.  Um, that is one trope that I did understand.

The thing is sprawling and strange.  The whole set-up, an alternative universe version of World War II, set entirely for the possibility of the scenario of the film, this revenge destruction of the Nazis by the very people that they had sought to exterminate.  On a grand scale of course.  But what the heck is he trying to say?  It doesn’t feel like it makes a lot of sense, outright.

But it is entertaining, not grating or hateful as Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof.  And it had me thinking, spinning cogs and wheels in my brain, though not to any significant conclusions.  So, masterpiece or not, and I would lean toward the “not”, it’s hardly as atrocious or spectacular as one might hear or suspect.

And if anybody has a better handle on the “read” of the film (and not just saying that he doesn’t even know himself), please feel free to ping me and let me know.  And because of the intentionally mysterious re-spelling of “basterds”, in which he is quoted as saying that he’ll never reveal why he changed the spelling (the film at one time was intended to be a re-make of Enzo G. Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards (1978), though it’s not at all the same).  I don’t know.  It’s a perplexing wonder, though not necessarily profound.

Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof

Death Proof (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 04/11/07 at CinéArts @ Empire Theater, SF, CA

The second half of the Grindhouse double feature is Quentin Tarantino’s homage to car race road movies, which is actually a pretty obscure subgenre.  Whereas Robert Rodriguez seemed to totally manage to capture the spirit and the style of the genre, Tarantino likes to insert a great deal of himself into the film, modernizing and post-modernizing the film.  Which is fine.  In concept.

Tarantino’s worst qualities come out in Death Proof and his qualities are clear, but highly limited within the context of the obnoxious dialogue and cultural references.  The soundtrack is typically totally excellent, capturing all kinds of great music, but also drawing so much attention to it.  The bar that the first group of girls hangs out in features a magical jukebox that plays 45’s of all sorts of cool old music that everyone seems intimately familiar with, but are not necessarily all that well-known to the general public, I would bet.  The taqueria that they hang out in is postered with lots of cool old movie posters.  Everyone has great knowledge of trivial, hip things and they all talk exactly alike.

The music is great though.

And some of the action sequences are pretty hot.

But the bulk of the film is banter and dialogue between two groups of four young, attractive women.  They all could switch dialogue roles and essentially be the same people.  You could swap out group one for group two and they would be the same.  That is except for Zoe Bell, a stunt-woman who plays a stunt-woman, but is able to do her own stunts, which makes for some nice action filming.  But that said, her biggest stunt is totally stupid and is so put on that it doesn’t have any tension.  And she’s unsurprisingly not much of an actress.

The only actor who gets his due is Kurt Russell, who plays the psychotic menace of Stuntman Mike.  He actually has the best lines, the most believable character motivation, and the only one who actually seems like he’s in a real movie.

This is easily the worst film that Tarantino has made.  The pretension of his self-conscious, highly cultural referencing dialogue, and the fact that he has to “act” in both of these films just underscores the largest criticisms of the man, the writer, director, actor, fool.  His acting is actually worse than everything else that he does.  He is obnoxiousness personified and is a terrible character actor.  He is totally out-shined by Rodriguez in this double feature presentation.  Maybe he should just run a movie theater, showing all the cool movies he knows about and DJ somehow to continue to compile the music that he has good appreciation for.

Or maybe he’ll get his groove back.  He certainly needs to.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1

(2003) dir. Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 10/13/03 at Loews Theatre at the Metreon, SF, CA

In the San Francisco Chronicle (a terrible source for critical reviews but is the newspaper that I read regularly), critic Mick LaSalle totally lambasted Quentin Tarantino and Kill Bill: Vol. 1 for the violence of the film. My understanding is that this reaction, as extreme as it is (reported not only in the initial review, but in a follow-up article later the week that the film was released), is in tune with a number of other critics of the film.

While I have mixed feelings about the way violence is portrayed in media (probably only more mixed as I now have a small child and begin to be more concerned with the world that he sees), I also have an affection for a number of types of action genres that are among the most violent in cinema. And if there is anything that this film is trying to do, it is trying to emulate and pay homage to a number of those films and their genres. I have to wonder how long has it been since these people, if at all, have seen some of the types of films to which Tarantino is referencing? I can only think that people who are reacting like this have spent too much time watching the latest (more typical) Miramax releases and mainstream “art house” films and have completely elided kung fu, the revenge film, and exploitation films from their worlds.

I found Kill Bill to be pretty damn entertaining, sashaying between moments of almost campy comedy (the dialogue was sort of intentionally bad, I am guessing) to stunningly pleasureablely choreographed action set-pieces with lots of dismemberment and geysers of blood.

Because the film was “chopped” in two, this being the first of two parts, it’s hard to draw a lot of conclusions about this film and what it is really about. It’s largely a visual spectacle, and it’s also sincerely steeped in homage. The film opens with a Shaw Bros. logo, which is followed by retro placeholder intertitle that reeks of the 1970’s. Tarantino doesn’t isn’t all too subtle with his referencing and tribute-paying. That aspect is seriously foregrounded in this film.

There is a campy quality to the violence as well. Anytime that a limb or head is severed, blood spurts from the wound in a comical stream, spurting and spurting, a couple beats longer than seems logical. The bursts are quite similar and so numerous that it quickly feels absurd. The absurdity is intentional, as it is a part of the camp and humor of the genres that Tarantino plays with. What the film’s attitude toward violence is I can’t say. But from an initial viewing, I would suggest that it’s almost like something from Monty Python, though it certainly veers toward drama to an extent.

As pure spectacle and entertainment, I liked it.