Hatefully yours, Quentin


(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company


You may be one of those people who regard filmmaker Quentin Tarantino as a let-down.  You thought his early movies like 1992’s Reservoir Dogs and 1994’s Pulp Fiction showed tremendous potential and nodded approvingly at 1997’s Jackie Brown, which was calmer, less flashy and more reflective in tone and suggested an increasing maturity on Tarantino’s part.  But then you rolled your eyes at his 21st-century output: the Kill Bill movies in 2003 and 2004, Death Proof in 2007, Inglourious Basterds in 2009 and Django Unchained in 2012.


All that adolescent, cheesy stuff that you thought Tarantino had shaken off with Jackie Brown was suddenly back – squared, perhaps even cubed.  Copious references and homages to trashy old B and Z-grade genre movies.  Sequences of such violence and bloodiness that you wondered if he filmed them with windscreen-wipers fitted on his camera lenses.  Barrages of unsavoury racial epithets, particularly the n-word, usually fired off by or fired off at Samuel L. Jackson.  And scenes that went on and on and on because the characters in them never shut up, Tarantino being infatuated with the sound of his own voice (or his own dialogue), with the result that his films were hours longer than they needed to be.


Quentin, you’ve commonly thought over the past decade, I’m not angry with you.   I’m just disappointed.


Well, if you’re one of those people, I have good news.  You’re going to detest his latest, The Hateful Eight – ‘The eighth film by Quentin Tarantino’ as it’s grandly described on the credits – because in it he happily commits the above sins against mature filmmaking all over again.


That’s bad news for you, actually.  But it’s good news for me because I like the schlock-movie references, bloodshed and relentless talking in Tarantino’s movies.  (Admittedly, I get a bit fed up hearing the n-word all the time, but I suppose I can forgive him one over-indulgence.)  So I went home from seeing The Hateful Eight well-satisfied.


(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company


The movie is Tarantino’s second western and it takes place sometime after the American Civil War.  We meet half of the titular eight in the film’s first two ‘chapters’.  They are bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his unladylike lady prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); another bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson); and a former Confederate militiaman called Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims to be travelling to a town where, improbably, he’s just been appointed sheriff.  Warren and Mannix appear at different times to hitch a ride in Ruth’s private stagecoach, which makes him suspect they’re in cahoots to steal his prisoner and lift the bounty-money for her.  However, the animosity that develops between Warren and Mannix because of their war records – Warren served as a Yankee officer and was responsible for a lot of Confederate deaths – suggests that a secret alliance is unlikely.  That or they’re very good actors.


Chapter three sees the stagecoach arrive, just before a blizzard makes further travel impossible, at a store-cum-refuge in the middle of nowhere called Minnie’s Haberdashery.  And here the rest of the eight are introduced: Bob (Demian Bichir), a cheery Mexican who says he’s running the haberdashery for Minnie while she’s off visiting her mother; Mobray (Tim Roth), an aristocratic and garrulous Englishman who professes to be a hangman; Gage (Michael Madsen), a surly and solitary cowboy who spends his time scribbling his memoirs into a notebook; and Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), a sour old man whom Mannix and Warren recognise as a Confederate general of considerable repute or notoriety, depending on which side of the war they fought on.


Ruth is soon seething with paranoia because he sees these four strangers as additional possible threats to his prisoner and bounty.  But plenty of other questions emerge.  What’s really happened to Minnie and her staff at the haberdashery?  What became of the son whom Smithers is now in the territory searching for – and did Warren play a role in his death?  Is the letter that Warren keeps producing from his pocket and flashing around truly proof of a friendship he once had with Abraham Lincoln?  And is anyone in the snowbound haberdashery actually telling the truth about who they are and what they’re up to?


Chapter three ends with violence and the film’s first fatality.  By chapter four the blood is flowing freely and during chapters five and six…  Well, this is a Tarantino movie.  You know what to expect.


Several critics have pointed to Agatha Christie as a major inspiration for The Hateful Eight and dubbed it Ten Little Indians-out-west.  But the main template for the film’s plot, wherein a group stuck in a confined space try to identify one or more hostile imposters hiding among them, is surely Tarantino’s own Reservoir Dogs.  This is underscored by the fact that two of the original ‘Dogs’, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, reappear here.


I should say that the film’s also reminiscent of John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing, partly because of the hidden-imposters plot, partly because of the bleak snowy setting and partly because of Kurt Russell being in it.  Russell, of course, played McCready, the embattled hero of The Thing.  Indeed there’s a scene in The Hateful Eight where one character forces the others at gunpoint to line up against a wall while he tries to figure out who the enemy is; which evokes the famous scene in The Thing where Russell ties up his remaining colleagues prior to doing a blood-test that’ll determine who’s human and who’s secretly got tentacles.


(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company


The way the common criticisms of him are framed, Tarantino just can’t win.  On one hand, it’s fashionable to deride him as a shallow, sensationalist gobshite whose work is a monument to his trashy taste in movies.  Yet his modus operandi is in many ways quite highbrow.  As an artist he’s as literary as he is cinematic, writing film-scripts like playwrights write plays.  He defines his characters as much by what they say as by what they do and how they look.  He takes genuine pleasure in the ebb and flow, and the cut and thrust, of dialogue.  And he gives his scenes a theatrical length that allows his actors and actresses space to properly act.  Incidentally, he also insists on dividing his films into ‘chapters’, which is a rather literary habit.


Of course, in doing this, he lays himself open to the other line of attack, i.e. that his films are uneconomical, excessively talky and never know when to stop.  (For the record, The Hateful Eight has an imposing running time of three hours and seven minutes.)


But if, like me, you appreciate a movie where words – as opposed to, say, CGI – are the thing that matters, you’ll find much to cherish in The Hateful Eight.  It helps that the words here come out of the mouths of a first-rate cast.  Jackson is his usual inimitable self as Marquis Warren (a character named after the writer, director and producer Charles Marquis Warren who specialised in westerns, both movies like 1951’s Only the Valiant, 1968’s Day of the Evil Gun and 1969’s Charro! and TV shows like Rawhide and Gunsmoke).  Russell and Bruce Dern are good value too and I suspect Tarantino cast them because of their past western credentials.  Russell played Wyatt Earp in Tombstone (1993) and Dern made several westerns in his youth, including 1972’s The Cowboys, at the end of which he shot John Wayne in the back – the scumbag.


But the most memorable performances are those by Walton Goggins as the gormless and unreliable Mannix, a man who needs to keep his limited number of wits about him if he’s to survive events in Minnie’s Haberdashery; by Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ruth’s prisoner Domergue, a sly, cackling and occasionally rabid creature whom you really wouldn’t want to be handcuffed to; and by Tim Roth as the delightfully pompous Mobray, who seems to channel Richard Harris’s English Bob character in Clint Eastwood’s classic 1992 western The Unforgiven.  Demian Bichir and Michael Madsen make less of an impression, though, never quite managing to elbow their way past the other, larger-than-life characters to claim part of the limelight for themselves.


I didn’t feel breathless after seeing The Hateful Eight in the way that I did after seeing Pulp Fiction 22 years ago; but I’d still rate it as Tarantino’s best movie since the 1990s.  It’s more substantial than the schlock-obsessed Kill Bill movies and Death Proof.  And it makes more sense than Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, both of which seemed to abandon the laws of logic whenever it suited Tarantino’s storytelling.  That said, I did detect one lapse of logic in it – when the tensions that’ve simmered between the Yankee Warren and the Confederate Mannix and Smithers boil over halfway through the film, you expect repercussions afterwards; but there aren’t repercussions and this sub-plot abruptly disappears.  Otherwise, and especially compared to its two predecessors, The Hateful Eight’s plot is fairly cogent.


The Hateful Eight won’t win Tarantino new fans or win back the respect of those who went off him post-Jackie Brown.  But if, after nearly a quarter-century, you still have a fondness for le cinéma Quentin-ique, this should keep you satisfied till the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino – which will hopefully be due sometime around 2020.


By the way, I like this picture of him with Miss Piggy.


From muppet.wikia.com


Jamie’s got a gun: film review / Django Unchained


At long last – here’s that Django Unchained review…

(c) Columbia Pictures


According to a recent article in the BBC news-website magazine, a quarter of the cowboys in the old American West were black (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21768669).  Indeed, the black lawman Bass Reeves is thought to have inspired the character of the Lone Ranger; and the experiences of another black man, Brit Johnson, were the basis for The Searchers, the novel by Alan Le May that John Ford filmed in 1957 and arguably made into the greatest western movie of all.  But if you watched such movies any time between the silent era and the 1970s (when the western perished as a major cinematic genre), you’d be under the impression that the American West was entirely populated by white people.  Well, apart from those pesky Red Indians, who tended to all get shot anyway.


Going by the movie history of the Wild West, in fact, there was only ever one black person who lived there.  That was the great American-footballer-turned-character-actor Woody Strode, who appeared in American and Italian-made westerns such as Two Rode Together (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Professionals (1966), Boot Hill (1969), Chuck Moll (1970), The Deserter (1971), The Revengers (1972), Keoma (1976), Lust in the Dust (1985) and The Quick and the Dead (1995).  In 1968 he turned up in that rarest of beasts, a British-made western, Shalako, and the same year he appeared in the epic opening scene of Sergio Leone’s generally epic Once Upon a Time in the West – another contender for the title of greatest western ever.  Strode was a close friend of John Ford, the genre’s most influential director, who in 1960 cast him in the title role in Sergeant Rutledge, a western-cum-courtyard-drama in which a black sergeant in the US Cavalry in the 1880s is falsely charged with the rape and murder of a white woman.


Other than Strode, the black presence in western movies was negligible.  A few were made specifically for ‘coloured’ audiences in the 1930s, and a few ‘blaxploitation’ ones (usually starring the indefatigable Fred Williamson) were made in the 1970s, but that was about it.  Things only improved when the western no longer existed as a continuing genre, thanks to sporadic retro-items such as 1985’s Silverado (featuring Danny Glover and Joe Seneca) and 1992’s The Unforgiven (featuring Morgan Freeman).  In 1993 Mario Van Peebles directed and starred in Posse, about a group of black ex-soldiers in the late-1890s West – a story told in flashback by an old man played by none other than Woody Strode.  Despite its honourable intention of representing the ‘8000 black cowboys’ whose stories Hollywood ignored, the critical consensus on Posse was that it wasn’t very good.


It says it all that the most popular film from the western’s classic era that was both upfront in having a black hero and unflinching in showing the racism he was subjected to was none other than the 1974 Mel Brooks spoof, Blazing Saddles.  In Blazing Saddles, the ridiculous townspeople of Rock Ridge, threatened by an evil railroad company, are more concerned about the skin pigmentation of their new sheriff (Cleavon Little) than they are about their town’s impending demolition.  It says a lot for Little’s good nature that he hangs around and tries to protect their shithole town against the villainous railroad-men.


But now we have Quentin Tarantino’s new western, Django Unchained – yet another Tarantino ‘pastiche of already disreputable genres’, to quote that cultural Lord Snooty in the Guardian, Adam Mars-Jones (http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2013/jan/25/django-unchained-lincoln-tarantino-spielberg).  The Wild West in Django is pretty black.  The main cast is largely black (Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington and the inevitable Samuel L. Jackson), there’s a black-related theme – slavery, which was a rather big phenomenon in 19th-century American history, although for some reason most makers of western movies seemed not to notice it – and the soundtrack features some black musical genres, including blues and rap.  And this being Tarantino, the N-word is sprayed around in the dialogue as liberally as the bullets are in the shootouts.


I’ll start by getting my main criticism of Django Unchained off my chest, and the problem is the same one that spoiled my enjoyment of Tarantino’s previous movie, Inglourious Basterds: an ultimate failure of logic.  In the last reel of Basterds, we were expected to believe that in a cinema building where Hitler, Goebbels and pretty much the whole leadership of World War II Germany had gathered to watch a film, the Nazis would post two — yes, two — guards.  Obviously, the underwhelming security presence made it easier for Brad Pitt’s men to liquidise the enemy.  Tarantino would no doubt throw up his hands at this criticism and exclaim, “Hey, it’s set in a fantasy universe!  That sort of mundane detail doesn’t matter!”  But even as a fantasy movie, Basterds needed some internal logic.  And actually, earlier in the film, the Nazis had been shown to be paranoid about spies and infiltrators.


About a half-hour before the end of Django Unchained, the title character, played by Jamie Foxx, finds himself entirely at the mercy of vengeful forces that are ready to cut him into small pieces.  Yet they don’t.  After a wholly unconvincing reason is given, Foxx is allowed to live (and fight) another day – which goes against everything we know about the forces ranged against him.  The audience is left with the impression that Tarantino’s creativity failed him.  He just couldn’t think of a better way to get Foxx out of this tight scrape.  And in fact, it would’ve been better if Tarantino had simply ended the movie there, as Django feels at least half-an-hour too long anyway.


With that reservation out of the way, though, I can say that Django Unchained has much to enjoy.  Like Tarantino’s best movies, it contains both the sublime and the (knowingly) ridiculous, at times in the same scene.  A sequence involving a night-time raid by a group of prototype Ku Klux Klansmen invokes D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 epic Birth of a Nation before turning into an episode of comic idiocy that Mel Brooks could have concocted for Blazing Saddles in 1974.  And as usual with Tarantino too, the dialogue crackles.  While characters soliloquise and verbally spar, you feel you’re being treated to a sumptuous aural banquet of garrulity.  (That sounds like a phrase Tarantino might write himself, actually).


It helps that the actors spouting the dialogue are excellent.  As Dr Schultz, a German bounty hunter who frees Foxx from captivity and enlists him first as an informant and then as a partner, Christoph Waltz is at least as good as he was in Inglourious Basterds.  Here, he convincingly portrays a character who, despite being a state-sanctioned murderer, retains enough humanity to take Foxx under his wing and retains enough romanticism to eventually help him search for his wife, who is still kept as a slave.  It helps that Foxx’s wife, played by Kerry Washington, is called Broomhilda, a name that reminds Schultz of the quest of Siegfried in German legend.


Broomhilda, it transpires, is a slave on a huge southern plantation called Candyland, owned by one Calvin J. Candie, who is played by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Now probably like many discerning cinema-goers, I’ve been biased against DiCaprio in the past – the DiCaprio-mania that swept the world after he sank beneath the icy North Atlantic in the big movie of 1997 made me a bit prejudiced when it came to assessing his acting abilities.  But he is very good here, playing somebody who is both rottenly racist and rottenly decadent, but containing, just about, a streak of gentlemanly charm.


When Django and Schultz infiltrate Candyland on their mission to rescue Broomhilda, they manage to manoeuvre around Candie – but they fall foul of Stephen, the wily and poisonous ‘senior house slave’ who, despite his skin colour, might even be pulling Candie’s strings on the plantation.  Stephen is played by Samuel L. Jackson and this may be the best performance he’s provided for Tarantino, which is saying something.


A few people, including the afore-mentioned Adam Mars-Jones, have pointed out that for all the ballyhoo about Django Unchained being a western with a black hero, Django spends a lot of time hovering passively in Schultz’s shadow and letting the German make the decisions.  However, the film charts Django’s progression from slave to free-spirited gunslinger, so it’s a necessary stage of his development that he spends time as the bounty hunter’s apprentice.  It’s later in the film that he starts to think for himself and becomes proactive.  (Proactivity is something that I wish Kerry Washington’s character had more of, though.  For much of her screen time she merely stands around looking worried.  At one point she even faints.  For a Tarantino heroine, she is disappointingly un-kick-ass.)


Another criticism I’d defend Django Unchained against is the charge that it treats a serious subject, slavery, in an inappropriately cartoonish manner.  The movie undeniably has cartoonish qualities, especially in its later stages when bullets fly in ever-increasing quantities and ketchupy exit-wounds spurt with ever-more frequency.  But the film’s depiction of Candyland gives it some psychological weight.  In the warped society existing under Candie’s roof, the relationships between the oppressor and (a few of) the oppressed have become tangled.  Candie is terrifyingly brutal towards his human belongings but he can’t exist away from their company either.  Meanwhile, Stephen is a slave but, with his master, he conspires to be a monster to his fellow slaves.


In a speech Candie delivers in one scene, he recalls how his father was shaved every day by Stephen’s father with a cut-throat razor, yet the latter was never tempted to dispatch the former with a sudden flick of the wrist.  Candie explains this using the phony science of phrenology, claiming that blacks are inherently submissive thanks to the shape of their skulls.  But as we see Candie and Stephen connive, we realise that the real reason was probably a morbid symbiosis that has passed from fathers to sons.


Before signing off, I should say that Django Unchained is a treat for film buffs thanks to the number of old movie tough guys and character actors who appear in cameos or even micro-cameos.  Watch carefully, with your finger on the DVD-player pause button, and you’ll spot James Remar from The Warriors (1979) and The Cotton Club (1984); Don Stroud, whom I haven’t seen since he got impaled on the prongs of a fork-lift truck in the Timothy Dalton Bond movie, Licence to Kill (1989); Russ Tamblyn, who played Dr Jacoby in Twin Peaks back in 1991 and played Riff in West Side Story thirty years before that; Bruce Dern, who should need no introduction from me; Robert Carradine, brother of David and Keith – the three of them played the Younger brothers in Walter Hill’s 1980 western The Long Riders; Tom Savini, the famous gory special-effects man who worked on George A. Romero’s zombie movies; and John Jarrat, the Australian actor who played the psycho-killer in Greg Mclean’s terrifying 2005 film Wolf Creek.  Oh, and if you’re a connoisseur of old, crap 1980s TV shows, the guy who played Matt Houston and one of The Dukes of Hazzard are in it too.


Incidentally, here’s a guide to those black westerns, such as they were, that were made before Django Unchained: http://www.whogottherole.com/featured/list/western-cowboy-movies-you-never-herd-of-23307.


From www.intothewildunion.blogspot.com