Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

Release: Friday, July 26, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is among the biggest names in the biz today and in his ninth and apparently penultimate film he’s relying on clout more than ever to get mass audiences invested in something that he takes as seriously as Jules does Ezekiel 25:17 — and that’s cinematic history. Yawn if you must, but with QT you can safely assume you’re going to be getting something with a little personality. With Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood he’s reminding us of how great the Golden Age was, those good old days when original narratives and marquee names were actually worth a damn. More specifically, he’s harkening back to an era when creative collaboration meant even stunt doubles had a say in what would happen in a particular scene.

Sure, this grand paean to how it used to be is kind of predictable from a guy who rejected film school and yet still obsesses over just about every technical, romantic aspect of filmmaking — he’s one of those loud voices decrying digital projection and remember how he rolled out The Hateful Eight as a “roadshow” presentation, replete with intermission and everything? Hollywood is both his home and his Alma Mater, the place where he took in more films as a kid than any human being might reasonably be asked to view in a lifetime, constantly observing, absorbing, studying in his own way.

However, the way he carries out his long-gestating passion project proves a little less predictable. Dare I say it’s even . . . wholesome? Maybe I shouldn’t get too carried away.

In Once Upon a Time (the title an obvious homage to Italian director Sergio Leone, father of the so-called spaghetti western and a huge influence on Tarantino) he trades out buckets of blood for buckets of nostalgia. The surprisingly gentle, more meditative approach finds the gorehound putting the clamps on his violent tendencies, creating a more good-natured, less bloody affair that isn’t propelled by a single narrative objective as much as it is a mood, a feeling of uncertainty brought about by change. Indeed, Once Upon a Time is a different cinematic beast, chiefly in that it isn’t very beastly, not in comparison to his last three outings, a string of ultra-violent, in-your-face western/revenge thrillers beginning with the Nazi-slaying Inglourious Basterds (2008) and culminating in what is arguably his ugliest and most deliberately nasty The Hateful Eight (2015).

The timeline spans just a couple of days but a TRT that approaches three hours, coupled with extraordinary period-specific detail, make it feel like a tapestry that covers much more ground. Set in 1969, at the crusted edges of what was once Golden, the story mostly concerns the career tailspin of fictional TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as well as the relationship he shares with his stunt-double, driver and all-around gopher Cliff Booth (a briefly shirtless Brad Pitt — contractually obligated, I’m quite sure). Their friendship takes center stage as the two professionals are forced to negotiate rapid change. This was a time when people like Cliff had more creative input in productions, where actors and their doubles were attached at the hip working on multiple projects together. Today freelancing has opened up myriad opportunities, thereby eroding that closeness and this is just one aspect of the modern industry the filmmaker clearly laments.

I mentioned earlier how big a deal the name is. Nowhere is his status as Big Time Filmmaker more apparent than in the cast he is graced with here. It’s an embarrassment of riches Tarantino somehow manages to allocate just the right way. I just named DiCaprio and Pitt and that’s only two of the three principles. Famous faces are everywhere, in bit parts and in more extensive supporting roles. Australian rep Margot Robbie joins them in a tangential role as American tragicon Sharon Tate, who moves in next door to Rick on Cielo Drive with her famous director husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), setting up the much-talked about arc that puts a wholly unexpected spin on one of the darkest chapters to unfold in 1960s Tinseltown.

Elsewhere, Al Pacino plays a hot-shot agent named Marvin Schwarz (that’s SchWARz, by the way, not SchwarTZ) channelling — yes, still — Tony Montana. He’s here to present a gut-check for the sensitive actor, reaching out to Rick with an offer to take part in an Italian Western. Rick’s appreciative of Marv’s offer but outside his presence he’s inconsolable, confiding in Cliff that he believes this is a sign that his career is well and truly over. Cliff, however, would like him to reconsider, because hey, he’s Rick “f-word” Dalton, and Cliff can’t get any work until Rick does because of vicious rumors circulating the old mill about the stunt man having murdered his wife some years back. Ergo, we go to Italy, right?

Bruce Dern is in it briefly as George Spahn, the owner of Spahn Movie Ranch, the site where many westerns were once filmed, now overrun by a cult of hippies who turn out to be not exactly all about peace and love. While we’re at it, it isn’t just in the way he handles the Tate/Polanski angle where QT shows restraint (and paradoxically absolutely no mercy, if only toward those “damn hippies.”) A sidebar shows Cliff making a brief visit to the Ranch after dropping off a scantily clad hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and while he’s there he’d like to check in with his old friend and the now-blind owner to ensure he’s not being taken advantage of by these layabouts. It’s a scene pregnant with tension, a stand-off from a western wherein long, cold stares precipitate a sudden and brief outburst of violence. But Tarantino feels nothing but contempt for those brainwashed by Manson’s Helter Skelter bullshit, turning the tables on them and converting what should have been another grisly murder into something resembling a farce.

Then there are bit parts snatched up by the likes of “intrinsically 60s” Kurt Russell as a stunt coordinator/Cliff’s former boss, and a highly entertaining Mike Moh doing a bold impression of famed martial arts actor Bruce Lee; Timothy Olyphant is a co-star on one of Rick’s late-career shows; Damon Harriman, for the second time this year plays Charles Manson (albeit in a cameo here while his other appearance was in the second season of Mindhunter — it must be those eyes); and Luke Perry in what turns out to be his final screen appearance (he passed away in March). Tarantino also makes a brilliant discovery in newcomer Julia Butters, who plays a precocious child actor who takes Rick to school in on-set professionalism. All of these characters add little considerations to the world Tarantino is reconstructing — resurrecting — and while some arcs leave more to be desired they each contribute something of value.

The pacing of the film no doubt languishes. It’s not his most action-packed film ever. In fact, save for that controversial house call, it’s his least. Yet because Tarantino is so obsessively compelled to detail environments and lives it might just be his most insightful. Not a scene feels wasted or unnecessary, maybe a little indulgent in length at times, but excisable — I’m not convinced. The rich mise en scène steals you away to a decade long since buried underneath modern multiplexes touting the latest CGI spectacles, and I particularly enjoyed the little meta moments he provides, such as clips from Dalton’s most popular gig Bounty Law, or when Robbie’s Tate decides to check out a matinee showing of her new movie The Wrecking Crew at the old Bruin Theatre — the latter a nod to QT himself attempting to check out True Romance (a movie which he wrote but did not direct) when he was a young pup.

All of these details add up to the very antithesis of the movie I had anticipated when it was first announced. Once Upon a Time is proof that you can indeed teach an old reservoir dog new tricks. Or, rather, Tarantino has taught himself some new tricks and empathy looks good on him. He’s successfully created a modern fairytale out of Old Hollywood. It’s a surprising movie, one full of surprising moves but still imbued with that irascible energy of his. It’s one hell of a good time.

Margot Robbie puts her best foot forward as Sharon Tate

Recommendation: It’s a film full of intrigue for those up for a little history lesson as far as the industry and some of the early ingredients that formed the QT soup are concerned, while reports of “less violence!” and “more sympathy!” can only be a good thing in terms of attracting a broader audience.

Rated: R

Running Time: 161 mins.

Quoted: “When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Release: Friday, May 5, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: James Gunn

Directed by: James Gunn

One of the things that struck me about the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy is how obviously the returning cast carry their swagger around. It’s as if they just got done saving the entire galaxy. But has this level of cockiness really been earned? All they needed to do was stop a villain with the personality of a toaster. Forgive me for sounding arrogant here — I haven’t saved any galaxies myself (yet) — but they made it look pretty damn easy.

I have been so on the fence about this movie since it came out. It’s both everything fans wanted from a sequel and not quite enough ironically for the same reason: it’s Volume 1 all over again; yet the law of diminishing returns already seem to be kicking in. You argue there’s a new villain, with new circumstances, but really what we’re talking about here is a parts exchange. The formula is very much the same. Everyone jokes around a lot — too much at times — bickers a lot, procrastinates a lot, and then, just in the nick of time, do some firing of some lasers and engage in some exciting fisticuffs just before end credits usher them off the screen like an acceptance speech on Oscar night.

Vol. 2 backtracks to the source of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)’s heartache — his mysterious family history. Kurt Russell is in as the powerful Celestial PlanetmanbeardMacReady, a creation that dates back to the early Bronze Age of Marvel Comics. He’s got a proposition for his estranged son, whom he suddenly finds — after millions of years of scouring the Greater Universe — on a cast-off planet to which the Guardians have narrowly escaped after doing a very Guardians-y thing (well, Rocket does a very Rocket-y thing, stealing an important battery thingy from a race of people called the Sovereign, who all look like Shirley Eaton circa Goldfinger).

Russell’s Ego (but really, that’s his actual name and yes he’s also a planet — that part I wasn’t being silly about) tells Peter about his higher calling. But this attempt to rip him away from his custodial services as a Guardian of the freaking Galaxy is poorly conceived. Granted, not by Ego himself, but rather the script, which once again lay at the feet of the one-man wrecking crew James Gunn.

Guardians 3 would have been a much tougher sell should Star Lord have gone to the dark side. (And someone remind me, how did that work out for Tobey Maguire?) We’re well aware of the acrimony that has arisen amongst the crew before, but this isn’t like pondering whether or not we should be concerned about Anakin Skywalker’s hot temper. Gunn doesn’t necessarily force us to draw that exact comparison, but that’s the nature of the father-son dynamic here. It’s old-hat, the suggestion of breaking bad feels awkwardly episodic, and Russell’s utterly forgettable within it.

Elsewhere, the others are sorting through relationship issues of their own. It’s like a soapy space opera. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is confronted with her own guilt when she’s forced to spend more time with her psycho sister Nebula (Karen Gillan, wooden as she’s ever been). Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) is still the least subtle thing since Donald Trump, yet he’s actually endearing with his sledgehammer, awkward commentary. He cuts through the crap we humanoids generally like to call social etiquette like a combine harvester, especially when he strikes up a friendly rapport with Ego’s bug-eyed personal assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff).

Where Vol. 2 does manage to find separation, however, is in the exploration and comparison of Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (Michael Rooker)’s criminal pasts. As the film expands and fractures the foursome into their own little thematic camps, it’s the insight we get into the lonely life of a space-bound raccoon and Yondu’s fall from grace that really hits a nerve. There’s legitimate gravitas attached to their character arcs, something a film as outwardly flamboyant and noisy as a Guardians of the Galaxy installment kinda-sorta needs more of.

The production design remains as elaborate as anything Marvel has created before. In fact, it’s dazzling to the point of eyeball overload. But of all the problems this new and underwhelming iteration has, that’s at least a good one. The cosmic wonders of the universe work overtime to compensate for another lacking story. Overcompensatory is a fairly accurate way to describe the characters this time around as well. Baby Groot is cute, we get it. Drax doesn’t get the art of subtlety. We understood as much within the first ten minutes of his first appearance. Amusing, but one-note. Also, Gamora and Quill continue to act like magnets when you try to put the wrong ends together.

Vol. 2 is of course not a bad film. That’s ridiculous. In fact it inherits many of the qualities that made its predecessor an enjoyable and endearing farcical adventure. The characters are well-established and unique, only they’ve lost some of that novelty and a few limitations might already be on display. The cast-director chemistry is as palpable as ever. Listen, they’re all good vibes, but let’s hope the next mixtape is more inspired and has more memorable hits.

Recommendation: More of the same, for better as well as for worse, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 I believe has done just fine without my recommendation. Hasn’t it made a trillion dollars at the box office by now? 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “He may have been your father, Quill, but he wasn’t your daddy.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Fate of the Furious

Release: Friday, April 14, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Chris Morgan

Directed by: F. Gary Gray

Sometimes I find myself asking how we have managed to get to the point where women and children are being threatened by cyber terrorists in a franchise built around car racing. I find myself wondering if things have gotten a little too out-of-hand. Of course, with each passing installment it has become increasingly clear this isn’t car porn anymore. Sadly, the narrative can no longer concern itself with the thawing of a once bitter rivalry between a street racer and an undercover cop either.

Out of necessity The Fast and the Furious have had to evolve, and though they have definitely become less furious they haven’t become any less fun to watch as each new chapter has placed them in some situation more ridiculously physics-defying than the last. And The Fate of the Furious is absolutely the most far-fetched demonstration of their newfound collective purpose yet. I suppose how we have arrived here isn’t that much of a mystery. They say formulaic writing can only get you so far, but it actually has netted Universal at least eight films and well over $5 billion.

The — let’s call it natural, even though that’s stretching the term — evolution of the family and Dom Toretto in particular finds us wading into legitimately dramatic territory in The Fate of the Furious. F. Gary Gray’s first time behind the wheel steers the story in an altogether more somber direction, pitting the star with a type of gasoline as a last name against his loyal compadres after being manipulated by cunning cyber terrorist Cipher, played with true menace by Charlize Theron.

For better and for worse, Chris Morgan’s screenplay remains as knowingly outrageous (and clunky) as those he has penned before. That this ragtag bunch of car enthusiasts could be the difference between World War III happening or not happening is pushing it, even for this franchise. Though Dom’s relatively unique trajectory is going to generate most of the post-viewing discussion, the specifics of the plot are as reliant as ever upon his crew’s mutually beneficial relationship with Kurt Russell‘s government agent Mr. Nobody. (And on that note, can someone please enlighten me as to why we needed Scott Eastwood’s Little Nobody? Also: how someone born of Eastwood blood can be so bad at acting.)

Fate succeeds in cementing its familial themes by way of finding redemption for characters hitherto on the periphery. In the wake of Dom’s theft of an EMP device at the behest of Cipher, Special Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) finds himself having to set aside past differences with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) as they work to take down a common enemy. After what happened to his brother, Deckard is eager to settle the score, even if that means working alongside a team who had once pooled their resources into eliminating him.

Gray’s film finds plenty of surprises along the way, like Dame Helen Mirren making a brief appearance as matriarch Magdalene Shaw, clad in leather jacket and brass knuckles (well, those are more or less implied). The character may be more plot device than person but Mirren’s quietly simmering intensity doesn’t allow her to be quite as dispensable as the script would like her to be. There’s also something vaguely amusing about seeing an actor of her stature in a film like this. (Ditto that the first time Kurt Russell appeared.)

With the integration of more Shaw’s into the narrative, you can think of Fate as one big, bullet-riddled family reunion. With nuclear submarines and Game of Thrones-sized enemies thrown in for good measure. Given the situation, you would think forgiveness would be a particularly high virtue to which these characters aspire, especially in a movie where the bonds of family are being “tested as never before.” It’s disappointing that that aspect is more convincingly framed through Hobbs’ and Deckard’s banter than it is through the evolution of Dom and Letty’s relationship.

While it’s heartwarming to see former enemies arrive at a place of mutual respect — after all, maturity is one of those tenets this multi-billion-dollar franchise has been built on — the lack of weight attached to the final, obligatorily dinner-table-set scene proves a major step backward for a film that otherwise was able to convince me that this was indeed the most serious situation our exonerated heroes have yet faced.

Recommendation: The Fate of the Furious offers more of the same. A lot more. Two-plus-hours more. In the absence of Paul Walker, it’s a testament to the comfort we have with the others that not much feels “different,” although certainly his absence is noted. Fate succeeds far more in elevating the action stakes than the emotional ones. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “. . .it’s neon orange. The International Space Station will see it coming.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Deepwater Horizon

deepwater-horizon-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 30, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan; Matthew Sand

Directed by: Peter Berg

Peter Berg’s dramatization of the BP oil spill in April of 2010 is a decidedly solid account of human bravery but it is an incomplete picture. Curiously, a film that spends time hashing out all the gory details never manages to open up a dialogue on the ecological damage caused by BP’s alarming two-month long, three-million-gallon whoopsie. Instead it remains a run-of-the-mill survival story that fails to ask bigger, more provocative questions.

Of course, it was probably a conscious decision not to take a firm moral stance on the issue of man’s impact on the environment. That should be a red flag for activists hoping this major Hollywood film will share in their outrage over the largest oil industry-related debacle in American history. In fairness, Berg effectively conveys the terror and the tragedy of being aboard this doomed oil rig and there’s a palpable rage over the recklessness and general interference of Big Business Execs who had grown tired of waiting for results. It’s a distinctly human experience that will be warmly embraced by anyone who enjoyed Berg’s previous collaboration with star Mark Wahlberg in the 2013 war drama Lone Survivor.

Marky-Mark finds himself operating in a similar capacity here as the quiet hero Mike Williams, Deepwater Horizon’s chief electronics technician. He’s the quintessential American good-guy with the big smile and even bigger heart. Williams not only ended up contributing to the rescue efforts considerably but the manner in which he had to abandon the rig apparently was tailor-made for the movies. Wahlberg is perfectly suited for the job — not so much for the (many) physical stunts but for providing the film its stoicism; he’s a stand-up guy who is passionate about his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson), supportive of his precocious young daughter, and well-liked by the crew.

Mike is one of three we see leaving behind their ordinary lives for another stint off the Louisiana coast. Kurt Russell‘s rig manager Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell and Gina Rodriguez’ Andrea Fleytas, rig navigator and the crew’s sole female member, are also seen departing for what might later be described as a bad day at the office. One of the worst, in fact. By the time they would return home, 11 crew members would have lost their lives, many more would be left with horrendous injuries and BP’s would-be profits would have started to leak into the Gulf of Mexico and would continue to do so for the next 87 days.

The bulk of the first half closely follows Williams around the ship as he prepares for another typical shift. As a director Berg seems to really be able to inspire camaraderie amongst his cast, while a collaborative script from two Matthews finds a nice rhythm interweaving the casual conversations with technical mumbo-jumbo. With actors as convivial as Wahlberg and as accomplished as Russell it’s not hard to get the good times rolling. (As good as they can be if you’re working a job like this, I guess.) The initial slow pace engages surprisingly well considering we are watching what can only be described as routine operations proceeding . . . routinely, but it’s not long before tensions are rising and things stop working so smoothly.

A group of BP execs, led by the slimy Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), decides to muscle its way in and Vidrine insists on expediting the process as they are already 43 days behind schedule. He also doesn’t mind overlooking safety protocols, like making sure there’s enough of a concrete base established around the drill to counteract the pressure that comes with drilling at historic depths of 30,000 feet. The experienced TransOcean crew believe the suits are pushing their luck, but of course there’s nothing they can do about it. Soon enough it’s drill, baby, drill — and, well . . . yeah. You know what happens next. Deepwater Horizon goes from 0 to 60 in the span of a minute as bolts and various chunks of metal are converted into missiles as oil and mud come spewing up from below at an alarming rate. The ensuing half hour is pure pandemonium . . . and loud. Very, very loud.

I still find it difficult even today to shake those images of the aftermath, and yet they are notably absent in Berg’s film. Aerial photos depicting a molasses-colored snake slithering through the once-crystal clear blue of the Gulf of Mexico drew an eerily artistic parallel to the smoke rising out of Manhattan in the weeks following 9/11. This disaster was similarly of human design. Deepwater Horizon has nothing but picturesque pans of the wide open water, and only in the latter half of the film do we become consumed by the fireball that was apparently visible from 40 miles away. If there’s anything approaching iconic or even significant about the film, it’s the Michael Bay-esque explosions that light up the night sky, an inferno of orange and red caused by immense pressure surges and greed.

From an entertainment standpoint the film finds modest success, though maybe it’s awkward describing Deepwater Horizon as an “entertaining popcorn thriller.” I’ll stop short of calling it a thrill ride, even though ultimately that’s what this is. This is no message film and it really should have been. Despite how gripping it truly becomes, some part of me can’t help but feel Deepwater Horizon is a lesser film for not considering the sheer scope of the situation. This was much more than a miraculous survival tale, this was a blight on our planet; a disgusting and sticky mess that took far too long to be resolved. Never mind the fact there was no real-world ‘happy ending’ to all of this, the big bad BP guys got off scot free. There’s the reality we should be appalled by, should be moved by — with all due respect to the heroic actions taken by this crew, of course.

uh-oh

Recommendation: The events of April 20, 2010 get a dramatic and noisy overhaul in this suitably heart-pounding spectacle. It is a film that had much potential to be more and I sound like I’m really down on it but I did enjoy most of it. In the end it is a bit too formulaic and basic and it doesn’t send much of a message but good performances and a sense of panic and doom heightened by some frenetic camerawork help make the strong parts of the film really memorable. Recommended in the big screen format for sure. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “Dad, I want you to get me a fossil. I wanna hold it up and say my daddy tames the dinosaurs.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 30, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino isn’t softening in his old(er) age. The Hateful Eight might be one of his most vicious pieces yet, an ode to the frankness of life on the frontier as filtered through the perspectives of some of the meanest, nastiest sumbitches this side of the Continental Divide.

It’s a testament to the power of Tarantino’s snappy, whip-smart dialogue that a film that takes place essentially in two rooms — a traveling stagecoach and a remote Wyoming outpost known as Minnie’s Haberdashery — passes by almost in the blink of an eye. Or in this case, with the speed of a bullet to the groin. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. After all this movie runs the length of a basketball game — commercial breaks included — and it’s even longer if you experience it in the fancy-pants 70mm Ultra Panavision format, which comes complete with a little intermission.

First things first. There are quite a few things that The Hateful Eight is not. It’s not Tarantino’s most sprawlingly ambitious, nor is it his most poignant social commentary. It’s not family or date-friendly (but you knew that already), and it makes no concessions for those who were put off by the writer-director’s liberal usage of a certain racial slur in Django Unchained. As the time passes by in awkwardly disproportionate chapters it becomes a less sophisticated thing to watch. It’s not action-packed, and the writing isn’t quite as disciplined as it’s been in the past.

What it is, besides being a brilliant spin on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None — a classic whodunit wherein a group of strangers are invited to a remote estate and become suspicious of one another when they start getting picked off one by one — is the eighth reminder that filmmakers like Tarantino are all too rare. It’s a chatty chamber piece, and although it takes place almost exclusively in between the walls of a would-be cozy log cabin there’s no shortage of excitement . . . or bloodletting. Similar to Christie’s imaginative mystery thriller, viewers are complicit in the discovery process. Patiently we wait for the yarn of half-truths and three-quarter lies to fully unravel, to find out who these people really are and what their intentions are.

We’re introduced to Samuel L. Jackson’s Union soldier-turned-bounty hunter Marquis Warren, who flags down a passing stagecoach and asks for a ride to a shelter as a blizzard moves in. The horse-drawn carriage is transporting John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), himself a bounty hunter, who is handcuffed to the fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They’re headed for a town called Red Rock. Don’t let the mustache fool you: dude’s a roughneck — surly and prone to violence. After some banter back and forth he allows Warren to come aboard. Soon enough they’re stopped once more by another man caught out in the cold. This is Walton Goggins’ Chris Mannix, who advertises himself as the new sheriff of Red Rock. He’s also trying to make his way back there.

The wagon pulls up to the Haberdashery and instead of being greeted by its proprietor, they’re met by Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) who tells them Minnie has taken off for a few days. Inside awaits another three men John wasn’t expecting. There’s the polite Englishman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth, channeling perhaps a little too much Christoph Waltz‘s Dr. King Schultz). It turns out he’s the hangman of Red Rock . . . by all accounts Domergue’s grim reaper. But at least he seems nice. By the fireplace sits the cranky General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), responsible for murdering many a black Union soldier in the war. You could say he doesn’t take too kindly to Warren’s presence. And in the back corner sits lone cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), who is apparently waiting for the weather to clear so he can visit his mother on the outskirts of Red Rock.

The destination of Red Rock isn’t the common denominator these people share, per se, though I’m loathe to reveal specifics about what that really is. Let’s just say it’s something a little more personal.

Tarantino keeps mostly to this space in order to draw out the best (or is that the worst?) of these eight nefarious characters creatures. It’s determined they’ll be sharing the space for a few days since the weather is so bad. Soon enough the room becomes a bubbling cauldron of tension and distrust, John Ruth instigating much of it. His severe skepticism of everyone around him leads him to take precautionary measures. Domergue remains chained to his wrist. “Sheriff” Mannix constantly shifts loyalties. Warren is hostile and a notorious liar. Bob remains suspiciously quiet, and so too does the hangman. Ditto that for Joe Gage, while Domergue continues to suffer from her captor’s physical and verbal abuse.

For a film exceeding two-and-a-half hours and rarely taking advantage of its gorgeous natural environs outside, pacing isn’t much of an issue. Instead, more technical things stand out, and rather obviously. For a ragtag group of frontiersmen, these are some very eloquently spoken people. Call it a nitpick, but I prefer to call it an inevitability after paying such intense attention to what people are saying while also trying to figure out why such a wider, higher-resolution film was utilized here. Call it cabin fever. Something about the occasional verbal tirades, the overexploited art of romanticizing language, feels affected this time, almost as though Aaron Sorkin had gotten his hands on the script. (Shucks, now I sound like I don’t like Aaron Sorkin.)

But, I digress. It’s a new Tarantino offering and it’s more fun than it probably should be.

It’s also a film that almost never was. We’ve all heard the story: Tarantino vowed to scrap the project after a draft of the script was leaked late in 2014. He then considered turning it into a novel. Thankfully a live table read of the script convinced him to stick to his guns (e-hem) and commit to turning it into his next movie. Overly familiar creative flares notwithstanding, he’s once again acquitted himself the way any fan would want. The Hateful Eight is delightfully cynical, downright ugly at times and predictable in the best way possible.

Recommendation: Fans have another three hours of QT to pour over. The Hateful Eight doesn’t stack up to his weightier social commentaries and these characters are very, very difficult to like. They’re actually not likable at all but that’s one compelling angle to consider as you navigate your way through a labyrinthian web of relationships that grows ever more volatile as time ticks away. This is no pleasant winter retreat to the cabin in the woods. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 167 mins. (+20 min intermission if you see the 70 mm version)

Quoted: “When you get to hell, John, tell them Daisy sent you . . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Furious 7

furious-7-poster

Release: Friday, April 3, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Chris Morgan

Directed by: James Wan

With James Wan behind the wheel, Furious 7 surprises by not only representing an exciting new direction for the young director but possibly the best this franchise has to offer.

It’s no secret that over the last few films the stakes have been steadily rising for Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and company. Now with the blood of Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham)’s brother Owen on their hands, they have never been higher for the streetwise thugs-turned-protectors. When attacks hit close to home as Deckard goes on a murderous rampage in a quest to avenge what he’s lost Dom and Brian find themselves having to once again reassemble The Family in yet another grandstand of spectacular physics-defying stunt work and globetrotting that even the most worldly Travel magazine writer would be jealous of.

In this latest installment the pavement scorches under screeching tires as well as the fiery mid-day Arabian sun, the scent of burning rubber has never been more palpable in a medium where smell is all but impossible to gauge, and the loss of Paul Walker has breathed an entirely new level of drama into a franchise where sentimentality once felt pumped in by Hollywood execs high on the fumes of one of the most financially successful action packages of the last couple of decades. With the Malaysian-born horror aficionado now shifting the gears, what could have turned out to be a deal-breaker has turned out to be the real deal.

Rare are the follow-ups that manage to perpetuate the kind of energy and emotional power that’s been generated by Rob Cohen’s The Fast and the Furious, an adventure that, when compared, feels now like a juvenile frolicking through the streets of adolescence. When a franchise has lasted as long as this one has, it’s dually impressive that there’s this much consistency even when the narrative continues to be plagued with cliché, subpar acting and unbridled sensationalism. Furious 7 may represent inevitability 14 years in the making but there’s little sign of this ride being over.

Plot is once again mercifully undemanding as The Family — a ragtag crew we’ve come to embrace in Dom, Brian, Letty, Roman, Tej and Hobbs — joins forces with an even more ambiguous form of government (imagine a time where Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs is second to the Person You’d Never Want to Double-Cross, and that’s where we exist now) to track down an elusive international terrorist named Mose Jakande (Djimon Hounsou). This guy is supposed to make Statham’s Deckard look like merely a pawn in a bigger game but unfortunately the emphasis there is lost amid the chaos of all the action. Nevertheless, we’re drawn into another popcorn-obliterating episode where the government has bigger plans than these street racers; where somehow they are the ideal candidates to help track down such a notorious bastard.

Kurt Russell makes his Furious debut as Mr. Nobody (actually his name is Frank, but that’s pretty anticlimactic) and he’s seeking protection for a particular hacker who invented a high-tech device called ‘God’s Eye,’ a McGuffin also known as the world’s most powerful tracking bug. If Dom will help track down the ruthless terrorist and prevent him from obtaining ‘God’s Eye’ this mysterious government entity is all-in for helping the crew bring Shaw to justice. As Dom has already been strung-out in his attempts to help Letty come back around to her former self following the events of Fast Five and Fast and Furious 6, he’s really in no position to argue. Plus, you know, there’d be no pivotal plot point otherwise.

When The Family and Russell’s slicked-back hair join forces the film hits its stride in terms of adrenaline and emotional gravitas. Actually, it’s difficult to gauge which is better: the point where these stories intersect or the earlier introduction of one of Jason Statham’s most ruthless characters ever. As a rogue special forces operative bent on revenge Statham is a one-man force of destruction that’s equal parts fun to watch as he is dangerous. He hospitalizes Hobbs in a particularly brutal fight sequence early in the film, and single-handedly almost eliminates everyone in the absolutely over-the-top finale. More than any other, Statham clearly relishes reintroducing his nastier side, as if knowing himself that his action star status has been dangerously stagnating for the last several outings.

Wan’s film will be distinguished as the most bittersweet of all the entries given the tragic circumstances surrounding Paul Walker. Though some have drawn attention to the fact his character here is an amalgamation of him, his brothers and some impressive CGI work, to focus on the presentation of his character is to overlook the spirit thereof. Fortunately the final montage doesn’t do any overlooking. Walker’s Brian has always remained a decent, loyal man — brother to Dom, now a father and husband.

It may not be appropriate to become sentimental over someone I never knew, but how can anyone imagine his fictional life not mirroring how Paul dictated his life off the silver screen? The most painful realization lies in the irony of his fate, but in some weird way perhaps it is fitting that his greatest life’s work — if it’s not his presence in this then it is what was introduced as a genuine love for cars in The Fast and the Furious — similarly mirrors the price we all pay for caring, for loving and ultimately, for living.

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Whatever happened to just using a flare gun at the start of a race?

3-5Recommendation: James Wan surprises with his seamless transition into the world of action filmmaking. Granted, it was smart of him to not tinker too much with the formula that has sustained the franchise for at least the last three entries, but this was undoubtedly a big project to take on. It successfully encapsulates everything fans have come to love about these films while building upon the character development and expanding the drama beyond racing. Furious 7 also serves as a fitting tribute to Paul Walker. If you’re a fan of these kinds of things, you by now have already bought yourself a ticket. Right?

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “I’m here for the team that crippled my brother.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Miracle (2004)

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Ladies and gentlemen, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games are upon our doorsteps. While most of the world’s eyes are going to be set on Sochi and their questionable accommodations, hopefully there will be a few to spare as we push forward into February on TBT. After the polls closed on Facebook in which I asked which theme would be most suitable for the month of February, my buddy Josh suggested I look back on films that dealt with the Olympics. Great call, since I both love sports stories (despite the cliches) and I absolutely am transfixed by anything Olympics-related. The amount of talent and competition on display is something we should all marvel at, even if we don’t understand a damn thing about curling; even if we don’t care much about men in tights spinning in circles on ice to music that sucks. The point is that, for a brief moment, the world seems to put all of its cat-fighting on hold for the sake of watching some truly compelling competitive drama in a variety of disciplines across a wide range of sports action. Behold, the month of February on TBT

Today’s food for thought: Miracle. 

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Release: February 6, 2004

[Netflix]

Kurt Russell is Head Coach Herb Brooks. His team is an unlikely band of collegiate hockey players. The opponent is the dominant Soviet Union hockey team, who haven’t lost in 15 years. The stage is the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York.

Miracle may not break free of the genre’s cliches, but let me know of a sports film that really and truly does. If you want to sit there and gripe about how many ways in which this film sticks to formula, you can go ahead and sit in the penalty box. Or be a benchwarmer, for Gavin O’Connor’s film is a sensational realization of a most absurd circumstance, one that helped transfer the bitterness of the ongoing Cold War onto the ice.

At the time of the XIII Olympic Games, anti-Communist sentiment had reached a fevered pitch in the United States as the U.S.S.R.’s involvement in Afghanistan became increasingly violent and unstable. This was reflected in the sea of signs and banners present at the many venues in Lake Placid, also evidenced in many shots throughout O’Connor’s film. The politics made the showdown between American collegiate athletes and the heavily favored Soviet juggernaut all the more epic. Since the Russians had dominated virtually all levels of men’s ice hockey since 1954, logic follows that Coach Brooks would bring top American talent to the Games in an attempt to match their skill and athleticism. Such was not the case.

As the iconic Coach Brooks, Russell delivers an impressive, intimidating performance. He makes sure that for the majority of the film, he won’t be your buddy. His dedication to whipping his players into shape through brutal training is put on display in this two-plus-hour sports drama. Instead of relying on naturally gifted players, he built up a team whose power would be generated from their conditioning and hard work. Under the leadership of this less-than-personable coach, life for Team U.S.A. was more akin to life in the military.

One moment in particular remains vivid: during a qualifying game for a spot in the Olympics, a few players on the bench are commenting on some of the girls in attendance. After the game, Coach ‘rewards’ the team’s distraction during gameplay by forcing them to do ice sprints (later termed ‘Herbies’) for an unspecified amount of time — needless to say, this punishment lasted long enough to ensure they were the last people out of the building that night.

Coach Herb Brooks didn’t only invoke questions from his own players, but his unorthodox methods — an overhauled training schedule and his unwillingness to allow anyone other than himself select the final team roster — sparked serious concerns from the overseeing Olympic Committee from the outset. Miracle opens with an immediately engrossing discussion between Coach and the governing body as to how they might go about facing a seemingly unstoppable Soviet Union squad. In a single scene we get the impression of a team leader endowed with supreme confidence. As the movie expands, we learn where such confidence is derived from.

Though this is that same story of a man haunted by his own personal shortcomings, using a deep pain to fuel his team’s future, it’s nonetheless inspiring, without ever going over-the-top. Given that we know the real-life outcome, the film’s a foregone conclusion in which beauty lies in the details. O’Connor sets a brilliant pace that guides us through all the requisite growing pains, the failures and the tiny window of success Coach Brooks managed to squeeze his team through. It’s a two hour film that is over in what feels like a few minutes. Rocketing towards an awesome final half hour of hockey action, in which almost no detail is spared — save for the excessive swearing and trash-talking that undoubtedly occurred — the other three-quarters of Miracle is equally moving, as we also learn of the personal challenges faced by Coach Brooks. Having to balance work with family life can never be an easy task, and because of the magnitude of his own ambition, it’s a miracle in itself the guy doesn’t wind up in a divorce.

Patricia Clarkson portrays Patty Brooks with a warm empathy that offers a welcomed change of pace from the cold machinations of a former player-turned-coach trying to do whatever it takes to drop the prefix ‘im-‘ from ‘impossible.’ Though he must often be away from family, Patty keeps Herb from disappearing completely into an obsessive state.

In many senses, O’Connor’s third directorial effort is a classic. Providing all the hallmarks of a biographical sports drama, it perhaps sets a new standard for inspirational. How one former University of Minnesota hockey coach managed to unite 20 players from different schools is one step. Taking them to the Olympics, quite another. And then going on to claim the gold medal? Scripts like that would ordinarily seem hokey if drafted for fictional purposes. Some moments in sports history are naturally born to produce winning films, and this belongs among the best of them.

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4-5Recommendation: It took yours truly until this year to get to Miracle, which is pretty embarrassing. Sure, it’s a sports film through-and-through, but the underlying story, coupled with great performances, makes for a great movie for even the casual viewer. If you haven’t checked this film out yet, then no time is better than now, particularly as we head back to Russia for another fortnight of spirited competition. Tell me, where do you hail from, and who will you be rooting for this year?

Rated: PG

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “Great moments… are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here, tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One game. If we played ’em ten times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, WE are the greatest hockey team in the world. You were born to be hockey players. Every one of you. And you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw ’em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.movieleadership.com; http://www.imdb.com