REVIEW: “The Hateful Eight”

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Quentin Tarantino. A mere mention of that name sparks a fire in the hearts of his devoted and vocal fanbase. It immediately brings praises of excellence, grandeur, and eminence. It evokes a level of enthusiasm within fans that no level of criticism can quell. Quentin Tarantino is considered by many to be a cinematic master, the greatest working filmmaker, a peerless screenwriter, America’s premiere auteur. Considering all of that, why is it that I still haven’t bought into the Tarantino hype?

Make no mistake, Quentin Tarantino is an auteur. He has defined himself with such a heavy yet specific style of filmmaking that genuinely feels foreign to all other visions. He dabbles in all sorts of genres and his love for cinema, all kinds of cinema, finds its way into every one of his pictures. But he has such a strong allegiance to the aforementioned style and I often find his films rely too heavily on it. And the response to his style is overwhelmingly positive which leads to Tarantino often getting passes when it comes to his shortcomings particularly in his writing.

Still, no one can deny that a new Tarantino release is an event filled with pomp and pageantry and that brings me to “The Hateful Eight”. It’s Tarantino’s eighth or ninth feature film (depending on how you look at it) and his second western in a row. As with every one of his pictures “The Hateful Eight” draws inspiration from all directions. Where “Django Unchained” drew from the spaghetti western genre, Tarantino says this film takes more from the television westerns of the 1960s although I would say very lightly.

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The story is broken up into six  chapters although that is more of a stylistic choice. Individually each chapter is more or less the same. It opens shortly after the Civil War with a rough and surly bounty hunter named John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell) on a stagecoach escorting his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the Wyoming town of Red Rock to be hanged. Along the way he meets an old acquaintance and fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Once the two meet Tarantino wastes no time developing a racial tension that will permeate his entire film. It is only magnified when they pick up Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins) a Yankee-hating Confederate renegade claiming to be Red Rock’s soon to be new sheriff.

With a strong blizzard approaching, the three men, the prisoner, and the stagecoach driver (James Parks) take shelter in a remote lodge called Minnie’s Haberdashery. Inside are four other characters seeking refuge from the storm. A Mexican named Bob (Demián Bichir) is watching over the place while Minnie is visiting her mother. Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) is a chatty Englishman who also happens to be the territory’s hangman. General Smithers (Bruce Dern) is a cranky old Confederate officer. And then there is Joe Gage, a soft-spoken cowboy on his way to see his mother for Christmas.

The title is a reference to these eight men trapped in the lodge together until the storm blows over. It’s here the story becomes somewhat of a mystery after John Ruth randomly discerns that someone in their company is there to rescue Daisy. The film then begins its looooong trek to discover who isn’t the person they claim to be. And when I say long I do mean long. The majority of the film is confined to this big one-room lodge so Tarantino can’t fall back on his vivid visual style of storytelling. Therefore his script has to carry much of the load and, as with some of his other films, that is the movie’s greatest weakness.

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In a nutshell “The Hateful Eight” is insanely overwritten. Tarantino can undoubtedly write good dialogue and there are exchanges here that are fantastic. At the same time he bogs his movie down with pointless and sometimes repetitive back-and-forths that drag the movie to a halt. I didn’t see the full 187 minute roadshow version, but the 167 minutes I did sit through definitely had its lulls. Even more surprising were some fairly obvious plot holes particularly in a pretty important flashback segment.

And some of his dialogue is certainly suspect. Again, I’ll grant that Tarantino wants to make some kind of statement on racism, but frankly his constant flippant use of the N-word didn’t offer me any meaningful commentary and what may be there is thinly represented. I give filmmakers a ton of room for expression, but I can easily see where his use of such incendiary language could be offensive. Same with the brutality towards the main female character some of which is played for laughs.

Also QT’s obsession with jarring, over-the-top content is here as well which in this case isn’t a positive. We get it through sudden bursts of gratuitous violence some of which was just too silly to appreciate. And the worst comes in one absurd flashback sequence narrated by Major Warren. It’s a bizarre and over-the-top scene that felt much more at home in “Pulp Fiction” than “The Hateful Eight”. It took me out of the moment and felt terribly out of place.

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But so as not to completely slam the movie it’s worth noting the positives. The film looks really good. Again, I didn’t get to see the 70mm roadshow but this version had plenty of nice visual flare even though the majority takes place in a one big room. I also loved what we got of Ennio Morricone’s original score. Unfortunately he isn’t allowed to score the entire film, but what he does is superb. And despite my misgivings with much of the script, Tarantino gives us some wonderfully unsavory characters that each have their moments.

I also think all of the performances hit the right notes. Jennifer Jason Leigh is getting a lot of awards buzz and she’s really good despite mainly serving as Tarantino’s physical and verbal punching bag. Kurt Russell is a surly hoot sporting the burliest of handlebar mustaches and Walter Goggins is surprisingly great in what is one of the film’s meatier roles.

It may not sound like it, but I do appreciate many of the ideas Quentin Tarantino plays with in “The Hateful Eight”. Unfortunately those ideas are weighted down by an indulgent and overblown script that wastes too much time trying to be clever and edgy. Even Tarantino’s signature humor misses more than hits its mark. I’m sure Tarantino die-hards will love it, but for me “The Hateful Eight” comes across as an hour’s worth of good material stretched well beyond its limits.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS 

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Top 5 Performances of 2013 – Lead Actor

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This is it – the final ‘Best of’ list for the 2013 movie year. For me, narrowing down this particular category to just five was the most difficult of any of these best performance lists. It pained me to leave off so many great performances from 2013, but someone decided that Top 5 lists can only feature five picks so I’m sticking to it. No need to drag this out any further. Here are my five favorite performances from a lead actor:

#5 – Robert Redford – “All is Lost

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All is Lost” may be a film that feels too familiar for some but I felt it had more to it than you may first perceive. But regardless of that, no one can doubt the incredible work from 77-year old Robert Redford. It’s such a physically demanding role and we immediately notice Redford’s 100% commitment. But being he is the only cast member, he is tasked with having the audience invest in him and he definitely succeeds. Considering there are only three lines of dialogue in the entire film, it is amazing how much he tells us through expressions and gestures. It’s just brilliant work.

#4 – Bruce Dern – “Nebraska

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What a joy is was to watch the great Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska“. Dern’s career started in 1960 and since then he has shown a wide range of mostly supporting roles. But here he gives one of the saddest yet most endearing performances of the year. His character isn’t the warmest or the nicest. Yet over time you begin to sense he’s more than we may think. Payne’s script brilliantly hides little details about the character and the audience gets to put the pieces together as we go. But it’s Dern that keeps us fixated and invested. With so many big and showy performances this year Dern probably won’t take home an award. But he’s certainly worthy of one.

#3 – Oscar Isaac – “Inside Llewyn Davis

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I’ve always been a fan of Oscar Isaac and I was thrilled to see him get the lead role in the Coen brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis“. He certainly didn’t disappoint. There are so many things I loved about Isaac’s work. First, he’s the perfect fit for the Coen’s signature unique and slightly offbeat lead character. But Llewyn Davis is much more than that and Isaac masterfully peels back all of these layers. Another beautiful element to this performance can be found in the music. Isaac performed all of his own songs and the musical scenes in the film were all recorded live, never dubbed. It’s just another reason this performance was so good.

#2 – Chiwetel Ejiofor – “12 Years a Slave

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Perhaps the most daring and courageous performance of the year came from British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. What tremendous work he does in Steve McQueen’s gripping and bold “12 Years a Slave“. There is nothing disingenuous or halfhearted about Ejiofor’s depiction of Solomon Northup. With amazing commitment and a ton of emotion he brings this reflective and unsettling story to life. There are so many scenes that will cut deep and stay with you well after the credits role. You immediately connect with him. You root for him. You hurt with him. If done poorly this role could have sunk the whole film. Ejiofor never allows that to happen.

#1 – Mads Mikkelsen – “The Hunt

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Regardless of the criminal omissions by the Award types, Mads Mikkelsen’s performance in “The Hunt” was my favorite of the year. The story itself is tough and unsettling and it needed a good actor to give the film the gut-punch it was looking for. Mikkelsen is the perfect guy. It is painful to watch what his character endures both physically and emotionally. Mikkelsen’s performance invests us in this man’s story, his plight, and his emotional state as things unfold. We watch and shutter as this man’s life is changed forever. This is an immensely crowded field full of great actors and performances. It says a lot that Mads Mikkelsen is at the top of that field. Brilliant work. HONORABLE MENTIONS: Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips“), Hugh Jackman (“Prisoners“), Christian Bale (“American Hustle“), Joaquin Phoenix (“Her“), Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station“), Ben Stiller (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty“), Jude Law (“Side Effects“) So what do you think? Who did I miss or who did I rate too high? Please take time to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

REVIEW: “Nebraska”

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In the comedy/drama “Nebraska” Bruce Dern plays an elderly man named Woody Grant from Billings, Montana. Woody receives a marketing flyer in the mail that convinces him he has won $1 million. All he needs to do to collect is travel to Lincoln, Nebraska and claim his prize. The problem is his two sons and his cantankerous wife all know it’s a scam. But Woody is determined that he is going to Lincoln even if he has to go on foot. To appease Woody, David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him to Lincoln and hopefully have some bonding time with the father he barely knew.

That’s the main story, but this is an Alexander Payne film so you know there is a lot more under the surface. Payne has always been interested in characters and this is a character-driven picture. “Nebraska” touches on a variety of real life subjects including alcoholism, greed, family dysfunction, and declining health of the elderly among others. And while there’s nothing inherently funny about these things, Payne and writer Bob Nelson don’t allow the movie to drown in its seriousness. In fact at times it’s a very funny film – that near perfect mix of comedy and drama.

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One of my favorite things about “Nebraska” is its authenticity. This could easily have been a conventional comedy featuring a stereotypical old codger. Instead it’s a very real story featuring real characters and set around a very real depiction of small-town America. With a few small exceptions, “Nebraska” never hits a false note. The majority of the time the characters feel just right and the Nebraska locations seem yanked out of real life.

I also love the choice to shoot the film in black-and-white. While it wasn’t popular with the studio, Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael saw it as an intricate part of their storytelling. I think it was a brilliant choice. It creates a very gloomy and bleak look that is perfectly in tune with much of Woody’s story. But it also works in the film’s portrayal of America’s dying small towns. There is a striking parallel between Woody and these rural locales that I found fascinating and the black-and-white made it all the more powerful. But at the same time there is a beauty to the look of this picture – a classic beauty that I don’t think color could provide.

That hints at another facet of the movie that really worked me. As someone born and raised in a place very similar to Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, I was impressed with the film’s accuracy in capturing the essence of the small town. Payne, a Nebraska native, was able to show the sad side of what these places look like now while also painting a beautiful picture of how they once were.

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But once again it’s the characters that gives this film its life. Bruce Dern delivers one of the most earnest and committed performances of the year. Woody is a captivating character with more layers than you may think. He’s deeply flawed yet genuinely sympathetic. He can be unintentionally hilarious yet also sad and depressing. There is also a cloud of mystery that surrounds Woody. We get hints that he’s battling some form of dementia but it’s never clearly stated. Also, through the eyes of his wife and sons, we see Woody as a pretty bad husband, father, and man. Yet we learn new things about him from the people in his hometown that tell a slightly different story. There are numerous other nuances to this character that I loved.

The great film critic Leonard Maltin noted that “Payne has a Fellini-like eye for great faces”. I couldn’t have said it better. Much like a Coen brothers film, there are an assortment of memorable faces which add so much character and detail to the setting and the story itself. Everywhere you look there is one small character that feels a part of the fabric that makes up “Nebraska”.

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There are also an assortment of other great characters many of which are comic spark plugs. Perhaps the most talked about is June Squibb as Woody’s mean and degrading wife Kate. She undoubtedly has some of the movie’s funniest moments, but she also exposes one of the film’s only problems. Payne takes her snarky, belligerent, and sometimes foul attitude a bit too far. Don’t get me wrong, I laughed my butt off at some of her antics, but Payne overdoes it. Here’s an example. There’s a great scene where Kate, Woody, and David are visiting family grave sites at a small country cemetery. It’s a fantastic scene with the right mix of drama and humor. That is until the Kate character suddenly does a vulgar act clearly intended for a cheap laugh. It really hurts what could have been a brilliant scene.

While Payne does overplay his hand which hurts the movie a bit, I still found “Nebraska” to be one of the strongest films of the year. Not only is it a piercing examination of some very real issues, it’s also one of the funniest movies of 2013. And if Bruce Dern doesn’t get a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his phenomenal work, it will be hard to take the category seriously. I really like “Nebraska” and I think it’s a better film than Payne’s beloved “The Descendants”. It is smart and fresh filmmaking that I really hope gets rewarded this awards season.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS