Critics Corner: Westward Ho Tarantino Style

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The Western is the oldest genre in the movies, first appearing in 1903 with The Great Train Robbery. When the villain pointed his gun at the audience and started shooting, it was an assault that had people screaming, fainting or running for the exits.

Westerns are rare in movie theaters today, so it is a treat when two high-profile examples ride across the big-screen horizon. Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is reviewed this week by Jeffrey Anderson and Roger Leatherwood, two fans of the Old West on the big screen. In early January, the Critics Corner will return with a pair of reviews for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant.

The Hateful Eight opens in 100 theaters projected from 70mm film with an Overture, Intermission and six minutes of scenes that will not be in the wider-release digital version.

H8teaserby Jeffrey M. Anderson

Quentin Tarantino returns to the Old West with The Hateful Eight, a film that has much in common with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s upcoming Western The Revenant — an epic running time, a snowy setting, shocking violence, etc. — but it doesn’t really offer any big bang moments. It’s very much in love with its own characters, rhythms, and sounds, at any given moment, whether talking or shooting.

Structured in several chapters, it begins with a long sequence on a stagecoach. Bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell, also in S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk earlier this year) is traveling to Red Rock with his captured quarry, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), just ahead of a big snowstorm.

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hateful_eight_ver2by Roger Leatherwood

It seems every Tarantino film, certainly since Kill Bill’s appropriation of the colorful Shaw Brother’s aesthetic and dream-logic plotting, requires knowledge of some cultural subtext that explains and informs it and adds historical context and resonance. How can you appreciate Grindhouse if you haven’t lived through the period when crappy, poorly edited action movies dragged themselves over drive-in screens? And while you don’t need to remember Pam Grier’s or Robert Forster’s low-fi/high-jinx films from the 1970s to appreciate the revisionist one-more-chance twists of Jackie Brown, it helps.

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The Hateful Eight

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Quentin Tarantino returns to the Old West with The Hateful Eight, a film that has much in common with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s upcoming Western The Revenant — an epic running time, a snowy setting, shocking violence, etc. — but it doesn’t really offer any big bang moments. It’s very much in love with its own characters, rhythms, and sounds, at any given moment, whether talking or shooting.

Structured in several chapters, it begins with a long sequence on a stagecoach. Bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell, also in S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk earlier this year) is traveling to Red Rock with his captured quarry, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), just ahead of a big snowstorm. Along the road, he meets another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who has a pile of frozen corpses and has lost his horse. Ruth and Warren know each other by reputation — they even met once — and Ruth agrees to let Warren ride along. Before long, they meet another lost soul, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the not-yet-appointed sheriff of Red Rock. He takes another seat in the coach, and there is much discussion about who is who.

Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 12.17.29 PMBut all that stopping and talking has allowed the storm to catch up, and the coach must hitch at Minnie’s Haberdashery to wait it out before finishing the journey. Minnie is not there, but Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) has apparently been left in charge. Other stranded travelers include Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), who presents his card as the hangman of Red Rock; stoic gunman Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), who says he’s going to see his mother for Christmas; and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a bigoted Civil War veteran from the South.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT THE HATEFUL EIGHT

From there, it becomes a one-room pressure-cooker as tensions mount. Ruth decides that some, or all, of the people in the room are hoping to take Daisy from him, and he attempts to collect guns and assert some control over the situation. Warren becomes sure that some, or all, of the people in the room are lying about who they are and what they are doing there. Tarantino begins dropping little clues and uses flashbacks to show that someone has poisoned the coffee, and that something is definitely afoot. The one-room setting, plus the casting of Roth and Madsen, certainly recall Reservoir Dogs, and the flashback device showing slightly different perspectives on the situation was used brilliantly in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, both of which also starred Jackson, as well as in Reservoir Dogs.

QTscriptWhether Tarantino wanted these comparisons, or whether he was just working with his favorite actors, is not clear, but by calling up the comparisons, The Hateful Eight seems like the lesser film. In all three of Tarantino’s early pictures, flashbacks and structural changes are used to deflect expectations, to change the viewpoint of the violence. In The Hateful Eight, nothing changes the fact that, as expected, the entire three-hour movie is building toward a bloody shootout. Of course, who lives and who dies is still a surprise, but the structure doesn’t much change our perception of any of the characters, so it almost doesn’t matter.shootemupAlso, the story doesn’t seem deserving of an epic running time; indeed, it seems more suited to any half-hour episode of any TV Western of the 1960s (surely an inspiration for Tarantino). Part of his concept was to pay homage to the “roadshow” presentation that certain king-size movies had up to the 1950s, a presentation that usually included an overture and an intermission, as The Hateful Eight will have in its initial big city openings. And, understandably, he wanted to work with the legendary Ennio Morricone, who is 87 and has composed hundreds of film scores, many of them works of genius. Tarantino has often stated that the Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), with one of Morricone’s best scores, is his favorite film.

Moreover, it has been suggested that he chose the title The Hateful Eight to signify that this is his eighth film, much as Federico Fellini called his eighth (and a half) film 8 ½ (1963). But Fellini used that film to explore his own creative process, while Tarantino, rather than saying anything about the roadshow or Morricone (or Fellini) – offering an explanation or a critique – is merely acknowledging that they exist. His earlier films brilliantly subverted genres and expectations, but here he’s just asking the audience, “Isn’t this cool”?

H8 QT directsActually, it is cool. Despite all complaints, Tarantino proves that he’s still an expert director, using the limitations of his one-room space to choreograph maximum tension, choosing what to show and what not to show, and knowing, after lots of chatter, just when to shut up. It’s lesser Tarantino, and that does not necessarily mean bad Tarantino. The Hateful Eight offers immense amounts of pleasurable, teasing fun; it’s full of actors who look like they’re having fun, and guided by a man who most certainly is having fun. Even at his laziest, Tarantino is incapable of being impersonal or unenthusiastic.

JeffreyMAndersonJeffrey M. Anderson has written about movies professionally since 1997. He writes regularly for the San Francisco Examiner and Common Sense Media. His work as a freelance film critic has appeared in The Oakland Tribune, The Metro (Silicon Valley’s Weekly Newspaper), the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Las Vegas Weekly, FlickNation.net, MacWorld’s online blog TechHive.com, Cinematical.com, Movies.com, Greencine.com, and BayInsider.com. In addition, he maintains his own movie review website, CombustibleCelluloid.com. He holds a master’s degree in cinema, is the co-creator of a movie-matching site and has appeared as an expert on film festival panels, television, and radio. He is also a founding member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He even worked in a video store.

EDF FilmStriph8 posterby Roger Leatherwood

It seems every Tarantino film, certainly since Kill Bill’s appropriation of the colorful Shaw Brother’s aesthetic and dream-logic plotting, requires knowledge of some cultural subtext that explains and informs it and adds historical context and resonance. How can you appreciate Grindhouse if you haven’t lived through the period when crappy, poorly edited action movies dragged themselves over drive-in screens? And while you don’t need to remember Pam Grier’s or Robert Forster’s low-fi/high-jinx films from the 1970s to appreciate the revisionist one-more-chance twists of Jackie Brown, it helps.

The film-geek fun, and the aesthetic frustration, of every new Tarantino film is how he’s compelled, and apparently unable to fight the urge, to rely on appropriation of specific and explicit genre tropes from past filmmakers, mostly trash programmers from his youth (kung-fu films, Spaghetti westerns, violent crime movies). He recreates and also turns them on their head, at a price much beyond what the original filmmakers had in their grasp. We’d all like to make our own Spaghetti western or Sonny Chiba film but the budgets Tarantino has at his disposal obscure the low-rent charms of his nostalgia.

Watch Almost Every Pop Culture Reference in Director Quentin Tarantino’s Movies in Under Six Minutes.

The $53 million cost of Grindhouse, for example, seemed to steal all the authentic charm a more modest effort might have stirred in audiences. Tarantino, god love him, seems to love the complicated process of filmmaking, and his process directs his stories rather than the other way around. Grindhouse relied on the viewer’s knowledge of low-budget exploitation films, but not on a faithful recreation of them. Inglourious Basterds tested the audience’s patience with the transgressions and digressions many bad WWII action films placed between the spectacular action set-pieces, a possibly overly-clever (or accidental) meta-fictional homage. (And not that those digressions are bad in IB – in fact, they’re my favorite parts of the film.)

Courtesy

Courtesy: tocaimacomics.com

Django Unchained, its subtext enriched by 1970s Blaxploitation tropes and old Franco Nero westerns, shows how those two genres, disparate on their face except for the historical proximity in time, actually inform each other. It’s a savvy way to make something both familiar and seem new.

Tarantino’s films are so dependent on, and, some insist, derivative of, the work of others, the question arises if the effort seems less than worthwhile.

twogunsamThe latest, The Hateful Eight, is really a chamber piece, a one-set Western costing $60 million. The cultural discussion surrounding the film for weeks before it opened centered on the 70mm production and its release in 50 markets in that format, a roadshow extravaganza with an intermission and Overture and Entr’acte music, the whole bloody affair. We have to appreciate and should enter any discussion of the film through that lens – Tarantino’s intent – of such an audacious and expensive gesture paying homage to an old mode of public presentation while he still can, following the leads og Paul Thomas Anderson’s(2014) The Master (2012) and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). After the near bankruptcy of Kodak and the rumors of the death of film (slightly exaggerated and given a stay by, of all things, filmmakers who shoot in 70mm), Tarantino’s resurrecting for at least a month the obsolete and troublesome 70mm format in its full glory.

70mm in snowThe gesture is the process, outside the text, but very much a part of the way we’ll view it, aggressively engaging with the cultural conversation again, with what the art of film means to a new digital millennial audience, and vice versa.

And as reports suggest (foreshadowed by numerous screening problems for Interstellar last year and particularly from that bad screening of The Hateful Eight at the Crest Theatre in Westwood Dec. 2 which had more to do with a lens than the print), releasing your film on 70mm at more than a handful of specialty venues (Anderson’s gesture with The Master) strains resources and the ability of old-time projectionists and projectors that have actually handled 70mm film before. Although other screenings went without a hitch, that showing was the one that captured the media’s attention (but knowing the Crest, it didn’t entirely surprise me). We’re more interested in what happens if someone sees the latest and greatest Tarantino film properly projected and if there’s a scratch or something. We don’t want physical film to die, although we certainly haven’t supported it for a decade. But we know it’s unpredictable and that makes us nervous, and also a little excited.

From lefty, Tim Roth, Quentin Tarantino and Kurt Russell pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'The Hateful Eight' in London, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)

Tim Roth, Quentin Tarantino and Kurt Russell pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film ‘The Hateful Eight’ in London, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)

And what of the actual film? It’s another western – like Django Unchained, taking place in a visually stunning snow-bound setting (although he called Django an “Eastern,” pretending to take its geographical setting literally). Eight seems to take its cues from actual old-school John Ford oaters, on the face of it another tightly-wound group of desperate men in a snow-covered landscape and in rustic log buildings. But here Tarantino borrows from somewhere else, fetishizing the authentic detail and long shots that remind me more of Sergio Leone than Sergio Corbucci [1966’s The Great Silence, referred to more than once in preview articles, comparing this and the upcoming The Revenant (2015, Iñárritu)], probably because of the snow. Tarantino’s even got a classic-sounding Ennio Morricone soundtrack.

standoff

Yet, with a setup that’s smaller and more claustrophobic than expected, riffing on what he’s admitted is a take on those old television western episodes where you get a Pirandello set of characters trapped in a single location, the film begins to feel less than the sum of its parts.

The cast is fine as are the production and set design. Kurt Russell seems born to play in Westerns, this turn as enjoyable as his role in Bone Tomahawk. Samuel L. Jackson seems born to play in Westerns written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. While he ultimately steals the show here, it’s been handed to him on a silver platter. No one else has a chance once the script gets going with his beat-poetry speeches and perfectly rendered insults.

shoutingThe script is also more disciplined than a three-hour running time might suggest. Yes, there are digressions, but they belong to the fabric of the piece. Eight (or so) characters sitting around killing time in a blizzard are wont to spin tales and ramble on. Tarantino’s reported desire to bring it to the stage (and after a successful table-reading in 2014 as proof of concept, he already knew it didn’t need to be served purely by cinematic means) makes a lot of sense.hateful-eight-shooting

And still, this ensemble piece, populated with colorful, duplicitous and shifting characters, is rendered with 70mm Ultra 70 Panavision cameras. Tarantino even starts the thing with an old-school Cinerama logo (which garnered a respectful amount of applause in the screening I went to) and landscapes and wide-angle framing to remind us that wide screen hasn’t been used properly since the late 1990s, when Hollywood movies began to be framed and shot for the aftermarkets of TV and home video. The spell he casts lasts well into the second hour.

But Tarantino’s nostalgia is for something that doesn’t quite exist. The intermission is problematic in that it underlines the true size of the thing and forces one to consider the need to spend this much time. Like all Tarantino films it’s talky, and we’re not sure he’s even gotten to the good part yet.

Then he can’t seem to keep the props under it. The second half begins with a recap narration by Tarantino himself (off-screen), a rhetorical imposition the loose-limbed first half didn’t need, then goes into his favored trope of going back half a day to show us another side of events previously alluded to. It’s a gimmick way back from Kubrick’s 1956 The Killing, a device Tarantino first used in Reservoir Dogs and best exploited in Jackie Brown, and still a tool he depends on to this day. It also foregrounds the presence of him as writer/auteur, at the same time the backstories we were enjoying in a careful state of suspension start to reveal themselves, and the film seems to untangle the con and soon turns increasingly blood-soaked to double cross/revenge mode.

The epic size of that 70mm roadshow Western we were luxuriating over starts to deteriorate at this point – with a sudden increase of the Tarantino flavor of dialogue and sudden violence that blurs the nostalgia act. We feel strangely like this is all more familiar than the thousands of Westerns Tarantino is paying tribute to. It reminded me a little of how the fake emulsion scratches on Tarantino’s Death Proof disappeared halfway through, like he got tired of the game or had a short attention span or some other larger meta-fictional conceit in mind, two movies in one. Did I walk into a different film after intermission?

Indeed, like Kill Bill, the two pieces are rather different in tone; as if he has, in a way, gone on too long in one direction and is going to have to regroup and back up and change the rules a little to get to where he really wants to end up. One reason why Kill Bill was cut in two was he couldn’t make the first antic action-heavy half jibe properly with the second conversation-heavy second part. It’s two movies. Literally. And it worked perfectly.

The Hateful Eight doesn’t suffer the peaks and valleys of Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds, but the violent undercurrent I feel is here for simple narrative shock, the only way out of a cabin with eight hateful characters, and seems a necessity, perhaps politely being relegated from the retro languor of the opening to a gently and respectfully segregated second half. When you run out of words, you just start having people shoot each other’s heads off.

CineramaThere are hints nibbling from the very beginning. After Tarantino teases us with that retro Cinerama logo at the beginning, the next title card tells us this is “The eighth film by Quentin Tarantino.” A self-referential literal aside too early that’s trying too hard to make sure you’re keeping score the same way he is.

I’m not sure the math adds up to eight, but hey, he’s the boss. It looks like Tarantino is either counting the two Kill Bills as one or not including Death Proof. I’m guessing the former. He’s also got a short in Four Rooms and a bit in Sin City – he could work the numbers to have made it nine, or maybe 8 1/2, but then Fellini isn’t his touchstone.

He wants to make each film count, an opus. And that’s a problem in attitude he must be aware of. The necessary limitations of the setting reduce the film’s ability to be about anything much more than an experiment as a locked-room cozy. Tarantino’s prior intentional injections of meaning, whether upending race relations or rewriting the Holocaust, tend to fall on deaf ears except for critical anxiety over the number of times he used the “n” word.

Same here. He’s placed The Hateful Eight an unspecified but small number of years after the Civil War, and the questions of slavery, a humiliated South and race relations make up a subtext as thin as the Navaho blanket hanging on the back wall. It’s really about that delicious dialogue Jackson gets to spit out, and the way Michael Madsen moves through a room in cowboy boots. At $60 million dollars, it elicited a similar response in me as Grindhouse, an homage to a mode of film-making dependent on and shaped by limited skill and budgets, yet made with unlimited professionalism and resources. It exhibits a fetish for an analog past, rendered for the most part through his viewpoint, self-aware to a fault and a little too inside baseball – disingenuous and strangely insincere.

I have a feeling that the shorter version of The Hateful Eight, with the intermission and at least six minutes cut, will feel like more of a whole. A little less precious, and closer to, if not at, the right size. And I think it will do very well.

RogerLeatherwoodRoger Leatherwood worked in all levels of show business over the last 20 years, from managing the world-famous Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland to projecting midnight movies to directing a feature about a killer, Usher (2004), that won numerous awards on the independent festival circuit. He currently works at UCLA managing the instructional media collections, which to him is its own kind of show business. His film writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Bright Lights Film Journal, European Trash Cinema magazine, and his mondo-cine.

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