The Hateful Eight (2016)

★★★★

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The Hateful Eight PosterDirector: Quentin Tarantino

Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (US); January 8th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Crime; Drama

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight almost feels like a career denouement. Fittingly, its structure loosely resembles that of the director’s inaugural feature, Reservoir Dogs, though experience has clearly softened his haste. One can imagine a young Tarantino, exuberance overriding patience, penning a screenplay too snappy to tempt overstaying its welcome (at less than 100 minutes, it is his shortest film). With over 20 successful years to his name and having perfected his incomparable style — arthouse blockbusters — snappy screenplays no longer have a place in the auteur’s workshop. The Hateful Eight reflects just that, seemingly to the point of no return.

Post-Civil-War tensions are rife in what is essentially a courtroom western. In non-revelatory terms, let’s run through some of the prosecutors (after all, Tarantino’s screenplay does the best descriptive job). John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is pure Americana, the type who gets glossy-eyed reading a letter written by President Abraham Lincoln. He is transporting criminal Daisy Domergue to Red Rock where she will be hanged — Jennifer Jason Leigh, oddly enough, increasingly channels The Breakfast Club’s Allison with each disconcerting grin and her general weirdness. Along the way they meet Major Marquis Warren, practical and thoughtful, played by Samuel L. Jackson.

He hitches a ride after some toing and froing, as does Chris Mannix who the trio find flailing around frantically in the brewing blizzard. Mannix, the prospective Sheriff of Red Rock, is weaselly and the most out-there of the entire bunch. He is played by Walton Goggins, the film’s MVP on the humour front. Tim Roth (Oswaldo Mobray), Michael Madsen (Joe Gage), Bruce Dern (General Sanford Smithers), and Demián Bichir (Bob) are already huddled up in Minnie’s Haberdashery when the travelling troupe arrive seeking shelter from the storm. Turns out the snow would have been a safer bet.

This rabble, though most engaging, are a noxious bunch. They use “during wartime” as a reductive excuse for past misdemeanours when really those misdemeanours were, and are, a way of life. “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice,” muses Roth’s Mobray with ominous foreboding. Much has been made about the treatment of Domergue, and it’s plain to see why: she gets throttled often and without much in the way of retaliatory action. The characters are almost universally vile, Domergue included; the abuse is not funny nor, crucially, do I think it is meant to be. It didn’t offend me (the N word is again invoked with consistency) but others mightn’t be so kind.

For around an hour and a half, you get the feeling Tarantino and co. are taking the material seriously, so much so that those doing the striking gain a nasty reputation. But when the spaghetti violence takes form later on, that conscientious veneer ceases to exist and gory absurdity reigns supreme. Perhaps justifiably, given the caricature-esque group involved. At this point the violence is played, at least to an extent, for laughs and shock value — although it is worth noting most of the amusing moments arrive via verbiage. Ruth, for instance, intentionally has the worst comeback patter: “My pistol plays a tune… Domergue’s Death March.”

Jackson gets the best of the dialogue and subsequently repays Tarantino’s faith. He delivers a whodunit monologue with such devious joy; you can just about see the actor licking his lips as he succumbs to the satisfying taste of the words rumbling around his mouth. On the topic of audio, Ennio Morricone delivers another resplendent score, thoroughly grandiose and absolutely worthy of the occasion: his return to the genre for the first time since Buddy Goes West (1981). Galloping horses carry a distinctly cinematic sound and Tarantino, a movie lover, knows it. He also knows and cherishes the woody authenticity of film as a shooting medium, making Robert Richardson’s immaculate visual serving a welcome non-surprise.

There are times, and this is true of all Tarantino outings apart from the aforementioned Reservoir Dogs, when you find yourself actively egging conversations towards their conclusion. This is especially applicable in “Chapter One” of The Hateful Eight, when Warren is attempting to nab a seat in Ruth’s convoy. It might be a genuine attempt to flesh out key characters or simply a matter of self-indulgence, or possibly a bit of both. Tarantino writes and writes, and then writes some more, and when you see one of his films you just have to accept that. Because when he gets it right — and let’s face it, he does get it right quite a lot — even Aaron Sorkin must look on with a hint of jealousy.

Having said that, there isn’t much depth beyond the obvious cultural and political divisions (which are so plainly invoked they barely register as thoughtful). The certainty of death manifests via blood-trails in the snow — these rose markings could also represent the importance of evidence on the path to justice, though I might be clutching at straws with that one. Tarantino makes it work, however, by subbing in rich characters and the unrepentant screenplay I have already alluded to. The film exists in an era that demands people declare their backstory upon meeting a stranger and those variably truthful backstories are thoroughly enticing to hear.

A chapter in the film’s second act expertly refreshes proceedings just when you think the film might be turning stagnant and a tad repetitive. “The name of the game is patience.” It is true; patience welcomes more positives than negatives in The Hateful Eight. Quentin Tarantino is the sort of director who would rather swim across an ocean than take a speedboat in order to prove his point. You’ll know by now whether or not you enjoy that sort of storytelling. Regardless, there is something charming about a film that keeps you in the cinema a little longer than necessary — especially if said film has a lot going for it.

The Hateful Eight - Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh & Bruce Dern

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company

12 Years a Slave (2014)

★★★★★

Director: Steve McQueen

Release Date: November 8th, 2013 (US); January 10th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o

“I will not fall into despair till freedom is opportune!”

Those purposeful words, you will have heard over the last few months in trailers, adverts and previews. They are strong-willed; in one sense uplifting, yet in another more visceral sense, haunted by humanity’s most evil endeavours. Despair and freedom, traits inversely diverging in the life, rather, the existence of Solomon Norfolk. Steve McQueen challenges us to consider and then reconsider as his depiction of the animalistic slave trade hammers with shock, but does not rely on it. For the most part, the moments of solitude and silence profoundly exhibit a monstrous reality lived by those such as the remorseless slave owner Edwin Epps. There are no punches pulled, no whippings recoiled; McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a harrowing watch without question. More than that though, it is a necessary watch. Not to reassure a cultural ridding that hasn’t fully been expunged. Rather, to condemn what should never have occurred, and to shed a flicker of true resilience on a truly despicable time.

A well-off and considerate skilled carpenter, Solomon Norfolk (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tends to the every need of his young family. It’s 1841 and the slave trade is rife with wealthy disregard. Approached by two not noticeably iffy gentlemen, Solomon — a fiddle player at heart — is offered an extended musical job, an offer greeted with appreciative acceptance. After a drunken night, he awakens in chains, stripped of his identity and mercilessly pawned. 12 Years a Slave tells Solomon’s harrowing story, as he is traded from a would-be sympathetic slave owner (that is, if such a juxtaposition exists) to the vile, despicable Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) who has abomination clenched in his fists and the abyss peering through his eyes.

This is an intense watch, no doubt. Not necessarily because it’s another retelling of a horrible time — though that alone warrants attention and denouncing. Rather, it comes down to how Steve McQueen unflinchingly tells the story. His directorial application is admirable in that no disservice is done to those who fell victim to slavery, this isn’t in any remote sense a Hollywood-esque drama bloated full of riveting set pieces or manipulative tones. Nor is it buoyed by a somewhat ironic, semi-exploitative raft akin to that of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a cinematic spectacle in every sense. 12 Years a Slave is real life, a reflection of events not so long gone. You may judge success on ticket sales, or audience reception, or even personal affirmation, but there’s also a genuine feeling abound that McQueen’s priorities are and would always have been aligned alongside authentic storytelling regardless. His straightforward devotion to re-imagining the unimaginable is admirable, and it’s this wholeheartedness that enables the viewer to watch with an only just an ounce of ease, but an ounce nonetheless.

From the point of his wrongful capture, Solomon wrestles with a tragic dignity-driven dilemma: does he succumb to hate to become bastion of support for his helpless compatriots already grappled by despair, or does he stoutly, fearlessly stare directly into the heartlessness of one of humanity’s worst episodes? Initially, Solomon is disbelieving, perhaps as much of slavery’s existence as of his own forced manoeuvre into it. “They were not kidnappers, they were artists… fellow performers,” he wrongly assures, detailing those absolutely iffy gentlemen. Maybe if he can convince someone, anyone, they’ll see sense. But there is no sense, not in the racist pits of Southern USA. Everywhere Solomon glances there is a monster in human skin. The slave-trader, auctioning off people like watches (“My sentimentality stretches the length of a coin”). The plantation owner, who treats his slaves fairly well — but to treat a slave well would be to treat a slave as a human, not an object, therefore not to treat a slave at all. His empathy is misguided. The hired carpenter, a white pre-Nazi figure teaming with abhorrent spew. Yet through these early trials, Solomon remains resilient and hopeful — freedom is still vaguely in sight.

Wholly, 12 Years a Slave is mighty, but a number of moments stand out in their contrasting potency. As a twenty-first century audience, we’ve sponged it all, and have resultantly become immune to most atrocities displayed in film or any other art-form. There’s something to be said, then, for an act of depicted violence that leaves you mouth gaping, eyes watering and mind searching. In a sickening whipping display not far removed from The Passion of the Christ, the film emphatically compounds its horrors. Yet it remains realistic, and that rankles the stomach. Conversely, a scene of isolation is striking. Surrounded by an audibly hissing nature, pupils dark and eclipsing, Solomon slowly stares right and left before catching the camera’s lens. Profound, absolutely. Painful, worryingly. You wonder whether Solomon has approached the point of no return, the despair, and assume thereafter that he has seen no end. It’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, perhaps the most poignant all both in delivery and meaning.

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s depiction of Solomon is utterly remarkable. He is defiant in hope, upsetting in pain and compelling throughout, embodying this range in absolute earnest. The role is a difficult one; Ejiofor must reign in grief and disperse it invariably at the correct moments, or risk devaluing the man. At the same time, Solomon’s sympathetic nature cannot restrain, and instead Ejiofor has to symbolise at least partial hope where there is none. Ejiofor masterfully accomplishes all of this, and more — every strained note from his mouth rings with plea, and his eyes bulge with emotion. As diabolical slave-owner Edwin Epps, Michael Fassbender demonstrably bewitches himself in a spell of pure evil. At one point Epps falls flat on his face, yet you cannot muster up the slightest node of joy because it’s obvious that his repulsive mindset enjoyed the discomfort.

Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is also incredible. She plays Patsey, a young female slave whom Epps fantasies over and hates himself for it. Nyong’o displays an air of vulnerability, whilst at the same time commanding the screen with her undeniably astute presence. Paul Giamatti has a minor role as the aforementioned slave-trader, excelling in cruelty, the same uncaring sensibility as Paul Dano, the aforementioned hired carpenter. Brad Pitt oddly appears as a different carpenter, Amish beard and all. His random arrival is slightly off-putting, though the co-producer of the film (ah, that’s why) is solid enough. Benedict Cumberbatch is William Ford, the empathetic plantation owner whose sentences begin with an English accent and end in a southern drawl. Having said that, Cumberbatch is an excellent choice to play the role, that much-loved real life personality giving the character some small semblance of decency.

Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is exquisite, offering a pristine vehicle for the film to vibrantly beam out of. A contagious scent of excellence must’ve attached itself to each component on set, and Hans Zimmer’s score is no different. Moving and soaring, Zimmer’s orchestral harmonies wrap around events on screen as if to comfort the forsaken humans. This contrasts with the weighty Roll Jordan Roll, a roar of solidarity that you don’t want Solomon to contribute to for fear of his own confirmation of plight.

If not the best film of the year, 12 Years a Slave is certainly the most important and probably the least comfortable to watch. Steve McQueen powerfully unravels a horrific period lived mercilessly by those far wickeder than any revised history suggests, and endured harrowingly by those whose suffering is unrelenting in its depiction. It’s stark and honest, so much so that you’ll exit the cinema, mind image-strewn, wishing the film never had to be made.

The Counsellor (Out November 15th, 2013)

A new image released by Entertainment Weekly.
A new image released by Entertainment Weekly.

Talk about star power.

I have no idea how I managed to miss this one when it was announced. The Counsellor is an upcoming thriller film about a lawyer who gets embroiled in the world of drug trafficking, perhaps a little further than he had hoped, and is set to be released on October 25th in the United States and on November 15th here in the United Kingdom. It sounds like your average crime drama, right? Well, check this out.

The film will be directed by none other than Ridley Scott (who recently enlightened our minds with Prometheus), a man who consistently blends out good to exceptional films and whose dedication to perfecting the visual element of his work is second-to-none. Spanning five decades, his directorial career has cultivated films such as Alien (1970s), Blade Runner (1980s), Thelma & Louise (1990s), Gladiator (2000s) and Prometheus (2010s), as mentioned beforehand, and it does not seem to be slowing down at any rate, with Scott having released almost one film per year since 2000. In my eyes, Scott is one of a handful of directors who the audience can put their wholehearted faith in to create a hugely enjoyable and commercially successful film, in any situation.

The cast of The Counsellor is composed of Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem (need I go on?). Fassbender, who will play the lead character, has been on career ascension like no other since appearing in Hunger in 2008 and then Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds a year later, both of which he received mass amounts of praise for his performances in. It does not get much bigger than Brad Pitt when it comes to names in the film industry (or any industry, for that matter), and Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz are two very accomplished actors (or actresses, whichever you prefer) who can more than hold their own in just about any film. Javier Bardem has just come off a BAFTA nominated performance for his portrayal of Bond villain Raoul Silva in Skyfall, and it is apparent that has been churning out excellent performance after excellent performance in recent years.

“Is this Transformers?”

The screenplay of The Counsellor has been written by none other than Cormac McCarthy, the author of novels such as the brooding No Country for Old Men and the heart-wrenching The Road (which have been adapted into Academy Award winning and critically successful films, respectively). Even though this will be McCarthy’s first feature-length screenplay, it is obvious that he has a knack for penning exceptionally good literature and it will be intriguing to see how his screenplay comes across directly on film.

The first trailer for The Counsellor has just been released and, although 44 seconds is a hardly a significant amount of time to be making too many judgements on, the film comes across as everything from gritty to slick to atmospheric to precise. It also sounds majestic. Of course, visually it appears a Ridley Scott film as the visuals are, for lack of a better description, ‘top notch’, and we get a brief glimpse of some of the characters involved — Bardem looks like he could be a show stealer in this department. As I just mentioned, this is only a short trailer and therefore it is likely that the full-length one will be made available in the coming months, by which time we will hopefully know a little more about Scott’s next cinematic outing. But for now, check out the short trailer below. And in answer to my somewhat rhetorical question at the beginning: No, not really — in fact, not at all.

Talk about star power.