Thursday, 14 January 2016

Review of The Hateful Eight (2015)

It almost seems daft, really, given that Quentin Tarantino has effectively made a career out of mining his own idiosyncrasies for profit, to level the criticism of "too odd" at his latest effort and eighth film, the bounty-revenge-Western-thriller-sorta-whodunit-but-more-whowilldowhat "The Hateful Eight". And odd is the wrong word anyway. Maybe... Idiosyncratic? Oh dear.

To point; this film, which runs to three hours long, has been shot in a long-retired 70MM format, has a new score from maestro Ennio Morricone, and has a cast billing that reads like a who's-who of Tarantino's greatest hits (Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Madsen, Philip Roth, Bruce Dern and more). It's maybe Tarantino's most 'mounted' film in terms of the prestige and craft that has been utilised to bring it to the screen, and the truly odd thing is how slight and insular the story it's telling is. If I were the kind of critic prone to making trite references to Shakespeare, I'd say something about this film being much ado.

A harsh blizzard is threatening the mountains and valleys of Wyoming. Kurt Russell's John "The Hangman" Ruth has captured Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and is bringing her in to collect the $10,000 bounty on her head and also to watch her hang, since that's his thing (he claims it's because he likes to keep hangmen in business, but since he says this to a hangman he's just met we assume this could be out of politeness, and also the film makes a point of making us distrust what characters say. I suspect it's another idiosyncrasy and also a device to keep Leigh alive).

On the way to the town of Red Rock, where Ruth can collect his bounty, they are stopped by Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) who manages to talk his way onto the coach through charm and the fact that the two have met before. Then they're stopped by Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), a racist gang-member who claims to be the new Sheriff in Red Rock; Ruth doesn't believe him, but can't risk it, since Mannix would die in the snow and leaving him out there would constitute murder otherwise. There's also the coach driver, O.B Jackson (James Parks), but he seems fairly calm and non-violent, almost friendly.

This takes about half an hour. They arrive at "Minnie's Haberdashery" to shack up for the night, where they meet Oswaldo Mobray, aforementioned hangman (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), and Bob (Demián Bichir). All the characters embody types; Mobray is British, sardonic, overly polite. Gage is grouchy, distrusting and monosyllabic; Smithers is a racist veteran who doesn't leave his chair; Bob is also distrustful, but at the same time tries to be neutral. Minnie and her husband are nowhere to be seen.

As the film goes on it's pretty clear people are playing people and everyone is not quite who they seem. Of course, it's not long before blood starts to be shed; and in true Tarantino fashion, it pours. The most obvious structural reference point is, fittingly, "Reservoir Dogs"; this basically has the same structure as that film but with a half-hour prologue, and the gunfight at the end lasts for over an hour this time, and with a lengthy flashback for good measure.

The fact that it is so long and the length in service of so little is the first and most pressing of the film's issues, but far from its only one. For a start, there's the treatment of Leigh's character. There's an easy defence of the violence perpetuated towards her in that she is a murdering outlaw who has stepped into a man's world. But too often she's hit in the face (in brutal, thwacking, look-away-now crunches) and it feels like the punchline to a joke. Of course violence is often a joke in Tarantino-land (think of Marv from Pulp Fiction), but this feels a little too exaggerated and dwelt-upon for it to actually be funny. It feels like Tarantino is too often making a point of the fact that it's her being treated so cruelly, and this I found troublesome (I also felt the same way about Tarantino's persistent use of the n-word, which feels like he drops it in just so he can; why?)

This is also, to me, the film where Tarantino's vaudeville brand of comedy falls flattest. There's one protracted sequence involving a letter Warren has from Abraham Lincoln that probably runs to ten-plus minutes that grows steadily more risible by the second (although the payoff, where Warren explains the true origins of the letter, is maybe the only time the film gets at something more than just what's onscreen). But so much is made of the exaggerated delivery of words and the humour is so crude that it failed to take off; the levity it could have bought to the film felt heavy in itself.

Also... Once more, it's redundant to say that a Tarantino film goes too far, since he makes his films not so much in spite of but because of those kinds of criticisms, but there is one midway sequence involving a scene of cruelty that would get another less renowned film-maker into trouble. And there is so much of that violence for violence's sake attitude to the film that it becomes wearying. Django Unchained at least had the main character's established desire for revenge, and Inglorious Basterds seemed to be making a genuine statement (or as much as Tarantino can) about Jewish attitudes towards the cruelties enacted towards them in World War 2.

Here... People distrust each other, and then they die. We can never tell who's telling the truth to who, and they occasionally explode. The usual narrative tricks are played, including a voiceover halfway through which was as subtle as a brick through a window. There's no real sense of paranoia, or tension, just the ceaseless knowledge that at some point we're going to be expected to enjoy some death.

Maybe it sounds like I've expected things from a Tarantino film that he was just never going to deliver; too uneven, too violent, too unsubtle, too ultimately meaningless. The point is what's onscreen, he'd (probably) say. But there is no escaping the fact that this story is not worth the effort that has gone into the telling of it. It ultimately comes across as an Agatha Christie novel, if Agatha Christie had a penchant for ruining her twists halfway through and also a fetish for watching people get soaked in other people's brains.

It was too well-made for me to hate it with every fibre of its being (the score and cinematography saw to that), but inside this is by far Tarantino's most morally bankrupt work, and underneath the pretty artifice there is a putrid rotting corpse, at which Tarantino seems to want us to point and laugh.

Forgive me for looking away this time.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Review of "45 Years"

For a film about a marriage slowly but surely tumbling out of control, it's astonishing, and something of a coup, how assured and precise Andrew Haigh's "45 Years" is. It's a film which doesn't so much ape as embody the spirit of a cinematic mathematician like Haneke, where every shot feels fine-tuned for effect, every angle maximising some important aspect- or throwing us a red herring. A work of some kind of mastery, basically. 

All this would be for naught if it was in service of nonsense, or worse, something meaningless, but luckily "45 Years" has an emotional reach to meet its technical precision, and is mining deep thematic wellsprings of ambiguous but bold feeling. 

Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Jeff (Tom Courtenay) have been married for 45 years. We start the film on a Monday- their anniversary party is on Saturday. Their events organiser observes how that's an odd number of years to celebrate, and Kate informs him they would have had it five years ago but Jeff was unwell. You feel that waiting until the 50th anniversary wasn't an option. There's a lot to celebrate.  

In that same scene, the organiser also points out that the room in which they're celebrating has a rich history, like any marriage. It was even home to the celebrations of the Battle of Trafalgar. "Didn't Nelson die in the Battle of Trafalgar?" Kate knowingly probes. The organiser replies yes, but a victory like that is worth celebrating. 

This is a clever piece of offhand dialogue that in a lesser film would simply set the stage for the upcoming jaunt, but here outlines and echoes the entire themes of the film. Earlier that day, Jeff had received a letter from Germany saying that the body had been found. "My Katia", he says. Kate looks on in worry. We find out that Katia was somebody Jeff was with many years ago. They were climbing a mountain, and one day- she was gone, with nothing but a scream (Jeff's description of that scream is one of the most evocative and perfect pieces of perfectly delivered dialogue you could choose to hear). 

But now her body has been unearthed, frozen, and perfectly preserved, which is fitting, because her presence is felt by both Kate and Jeff for the remainder of the film.

There's not much more to the plot itself, and the film explores the ways in which this revelation impacts them in the run-up to a party in honour of their love. 

Jeff responds by becoming distant and vague. Not there. He starts to research climate change and becomes intensely interested in how people can be preserved in ice. Kate expresses interest in all of this (with reservations, such as her gentle dissuading of Jeff going to Switzerland to see the body), but soon it seems like this has impacted her in more ways than even she thought. Is she jealous? She can't be jealous of something that happened before (although, we learn, not too long before) Kate came into Jeff's life.  

However, Kate knows Jeff, and we can see she senses something's off. Why is he being so mournful over something that happened so long ago? The narrative screws are inevitably tightened and whilst there are late in the day revelations, they are delivered subtly, for us to consider for ourselves, instead of being told how to feel. 

The film succeeds so brilliantly because of many reasons. Haigh's screenplay, in a very short space of time and in some quite restrictive conditions (about 85% of the film is just conversations between the pair, or Kate on her own), manages to draw the outline of an entire marriage. We sense their love through small conversations only old married couples can have, such as Kate's quiet surprise that Jeff is reading Kierkegaard again. "You have three editions of that book, but I don't think you've ever got past the final chapter." 

The acting is another reason why the film is successful. Where others might play it with an eye to melodrama, Rampling and Courtenay do the opposite. If this is the tale of a marriage falling apart, and I leave that up to you to decide, it's a marriage imploding as opposed to exploding. The sense of routine and order brilliantly established in the first two scenes doesn't dissipate throughout the whole film. Nobody shouts, and lines are delivered with the true emotions implied, not stated. Only two masters of their craft could convincingly pull this off, and there's enough evidence here to suggest that that's just what these two are. Talk has been had of an Oscar nomination for Rampling; she deserves it. Every aspect of her performance is controlled, and studied, to perfection. Every pause, intonation, and look seems utterly natural but tells us something words can't. 

Then there's the filmmaking itself. Largely composed of static shots just observing the dialogue being spoken, the film plays with placing and framing to tell us things and give us clues. Look at how Kate tends to be placed nearest the camera, or how many shots there are that show Kate side-on, looking left or right. The film is studying her. It wants us to feel her feelings, in close up. It's an extraordinary example of cinematic empathy. Her feelings become ours. 

That's it. There's music, but it comes from characters playing it, as opposed to a non-diegetic soundtrack. There are no fireworks, no drama, no explosions. Just a gentle thawing, like the ice that has preserved Katia, and a trickle that becomes a stream that slowly becomes a jet of feeling. The characters try their best to contain it, but it's there. Whatever happens by the end of this film, and it's left open to debate, things have been altered in unforeseeable ways. Haigh, Rampling and Courtenay are masters of their craft.