Monday, December 28, 2015
‘HATEFUL 8’, ‘KEEPING ROOM’ REVIEWED, PLUS BIG DOINGS AT THE AUTRY!
Kurt Russell & Samuel L. Jackson
THE HATEFUL 8 – A Film Review
In Wyoming, in the dead of winter, a chartered stage-coach is flagged down by Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter with a stack of frozen outlaw cadavers – he needs to get them to town for the rewards. But the renter of the coach, bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell), wants no more passengers, living or dead: he’s already transporting murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whom he intends to hang, and the company of another bounty hunter holds no appeal. John Ruth finally gives in, and the trio of passengers are barely on the road when who else appears, thumbing a ride, but Sheriff Clay Mannix (Walton Goggins), the new lawman at the town where both Ruth and Warren are expecting to collect their bounties.
Tim Roth, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh
The group arrives at a stagecoach stop, and find it full of an interesting and sinister mix of characters: Bob (Demian Birchir) is minding the place while the owners are away; Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) is a British traveling hangman; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) is a hard-looking cowboy and would-be writer; and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) is a former Confederate officer still clinging to his past status.
Guess what? They’re snowed in: everyone will have to spend the night. This concerns John Ruth because he’s convinced that someone, perhaps more than one someone, is not who they say. Someone is there to free Daisy Domergue, and will willingly commit murder to do it. And he’s right, of course. From there, 99% of the movie takes place in the one big room of the log house stagecoach stop, as characters confront each other, secrets are revealed, and people die.
That’s right, it’s what’s known in the TV vernacular as an ‘elevator show’ or a ‘bottle show.’ It’s a funny and audacious decision by Tarantino to do a big-budget theatrical feature version of what is done on TV to save money. Tarantino explained in an interview with DEADLINE HOLLYWOOD that his influences were series like THE VIRGINIAN, BONANZA, and THE HIGH CHAPPARAL. “Twice per season, those shows would have an episode where a bunch of outlaws would take the lead characters hostage. They would come to the Ponderosa, or go to Judge Garth's place — Lee J. Cobb played him — in The Virginian and take hostages. There would be a guest star like David Carradine, Barren McGavin, Claude Akins, Robert Culp, Charles Bronson, or James Coburn . I don't like that storyline in a modern context, but I love it in a Western, where you would pass halfway through the show to find out if they were good or bad guys, and they all had a past that was revealed. I thought, 'What if I did a movie starring nothing but those characters? No heroes, no Michael Landons. Just a bunch of nefarious guys in a room, all telling backstories that may or may not be true. Trap those guys together in a room with a blizzard outside, give them guns, and see what happens.”
Samuel L. Jackson & Walton Goggins
What happens, very entertainingly is the HATEFUL 8 – it’s full of the droll characters and crackling dialogue that helped make Tarantino famous. And this kind of claustrophobic DESPERATE HOURS sort of story is the kind that he excels in, as he proved in RESERVOIR DOGS (1992). Are the characters over the top? Sure, but they’re meant to be: this is stylized story-telling, not docudrama, and the ensemble is a delight to watch.
Tarantino loves to shock us, of course, and there is a lot of blood and vomiting, and there is an extended sadistic story-telling sequence where Warren psychologically tortures General Smithers with what may be a real story, or one as invented as the characters’ identities. It’s too ugly, and too long, but at least its flashback gets us out of the cabin for a bit.
Of course, Tarantino has fun with his inside jokes. Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Major Marquis Warren, is a nod to novelist, independent Western filmmaker and screenwriter Charles Marquis Warren, a protégé of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was one of the great story talents behind GUNSMOKE, RAWHIDE and THE VIRGINIAN series. Tim Roth plays Oswaldo Mobray as a delightful impression of British character Alan Mobray. And Michael Madsen’s Joe Gage character is a wink at Nick Adams’ character, Johnny Yuma, from THE REBEL series, a former soldier roaming the West and writing about his experiences.
The acknowledgment of THE REBEL is particularly interesting because, while this sort of snowed in ‘Zane Grey meets Agatha Christie’ story can be found in other series – the STOPOVER episode of THE RIFLEMAN, directed by Budd Boetticher and written by Arthur Brown Jr, is particularly memorable – an episode of THE REBEL, entitled FAIR GAME (1960), written by Richard Newman and directed by Irvin Kershner, is unexpectedly close to HATEFUL 8. It’s fascinating to see what Tarantino does expanding what was a thirty-minute plot to 168 minutes. The entire run of the exceptionally good THE REBEL series is available from Timeless Video, and after you’ve seen the feature, it’s definitely worth your time to watch the short, as well as the whole series.
One of the great joys of HATEFUL 8 is the new score by the maestro Ennio Morricone. Although he made his name putting music to Sergio Leone’s ‘man with no name’ films, he hadn’t scored a Western since MY NAME IS NOBODY, forty years ago.
One of the great virtues of HATEFUL 8 is the beauty and grandeur of its outdoor visuals for the brief time that the story is out of doors. Thrice Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson has shot several other films for Tarantino, as well as for Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone: he knows how to get details and definition out of what could simply be a whited-out snowscape in other hands. It may seem like a crazy film to shoot in 70mm Panavision, but that decision halted Kodak’s plan to shutter their movie film stock production entirely.
The whole presentation sentimentally harkens back to the time of road-show movies of the 1950s and ‘60s, when seeing a big movie was a big deal, like going to the real theatre. People dressed up, the seats were reserved, there was a musical overture, and an intermission. Moviegoing, like the rest of life, is less ‘special’ today. People go to real theatre today attired in a way I wouldn’t dress to mow the lawn. So, see HATEFUL 8, and if you can, see it in the longer road-show version, with the overture and intermission. And maybe dress up. Just take off your Stetson when the lights go down and the curtains part.
THE KEEPING ROOM – a Film Review
Brit Marling takes aim
In 1865, in a location identified only as ‘The American South’, three women survive on a crumbling plantation, trying to keep body and soul together, and just barely managing. Augusta (Brit Marling), perhaps twenty, is the daughter of the plantation’s owner who has gone off to war. She hunts rabbits for stew. Mad (Muna Otaru), a young slave, searches the overgrown fields for edible vegetables. Louise, (Hailee Steinfeld), is sixteen, Augusta’s baby sister, and unable or unwilling to face the realities of war; she refuses to work, and seems at times to drift into a fantasy world, donning her late mother’s elegant clothes when she should be dressed for picking and planting. When asked by her sister to work, she refers tersely to the woman who helped raise her. “The nigger should do it.”
Her sister Augusta responds, “Like I told you, Louise. We all niggers now.”
Unbeknownst to the three women, greater danger than starvation is on its way. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman is coming, cutting his bloody slash “…from Savannah to the sea.” And in advance of his army come his foragers, or as they were known, ‘Bummers,’ men sent to seize supplies or destroy them, to prepare the ground for invasion. Mostly they are unregulated, many of them destructive, sadistic, and homicidal. A pair of them, Moses (Sam Worthington) and Henry (Kyle Soller) introduce themselves with an apparent rape and several murders that mark them as men without conscience.
Back at the plantation, the power shifts between the three women with each challenge they face, until everything comes to a head with a potentially disastrous accident: Louise is bitten by a raccoon, and they lack the medicine to treat the infected wound. Augusta heads to town looking for medicine – the ‘town’ being a single business, a store, saloon and brothel – and comes to the attention of the Bummers. She barely escapes, and soon the Bummers are on the hunt for Augusta and the other women.
Not a traditional Western or War Movie by any measure, THE KEEPING ROOM is also a suspense and adventure story, and above all a character study of three finely drawn, very different women. Elegantly written by first-timer Julia Hart, it’s directed by English-born Daniel Barber, whose previous Western, the short THE TONTO WOMAN (2008), from the Elmore Leonard story, garnered Barber an Oscar nomination.
Cinematographer Martin Ruhe, known for filming crime thrillers like HARRY BROWN (2009 – directed by Barber), and THE AMERICAN (2010), worked with natural light and source light – lanterns and candles – to give an authentic and often beautiful look to the interiors. The exteriors, forest and field, are equally convincing. Remarkable to think that they were found not in Georgia but in Romania, where COLD MOUNTAIN (2003) and HATFIELDS & MCCOYS (2012) were also filmed.
The structure is unusual, and often admirable. Among the highlights are a pair of intercut sequences where the women are separately stalked. Author Hart has a fine ear for dialogue, and the script is at times unexpectedly generous, allowing a humanizing of the Bummers, and raising intriguing questions of how life might have been, had the characters met under different circumstances.
The cast is tiny – only seven actors have speaking parts, and only two scenes have any extras at all. This serves to make the story intimate and personal, and it also puts a great burden on a very few individuals to carry the entire story, which is fraught with tension and suspense. Fortunately, the triumvirate of actresses are up to it. Muna Otaru, a relative newcomer, seems all the more powerful for her halting, soft-spoken performance. Hailee Steinfeld, playing a weak and self-centered character diametrically opposed to her Matty Ross in TRUE GRIT, turns us off, then wins us over when her character rises to the occasion. And blonde and beautiful Brit Marling, half Matty Ross herself, and the better half of Scarlet O’Hara, is who we all wish we’d be when the chips are down.
Of course, no film is perfect. The smallness of the cast can be a problem: would Sherman ever send just a two-man force, and if he did, why didn’t the Southerners just pick them off? And as smart as Augusta is, why does she keep ignoring warnings to leave the store, and why does she keep making eye contact with men she should know to avoid?
Highly recommended, THE KEEPING ROOM, from Alamo Drafthouse, will be available on VOD in early January.
PLENTY HAPPENING AT THE AUTRY IN JANUARY & FEBRUARY
Kenneth Turan, renowned film critic for The Los Angeles Times and NPR, will be introducing the first two film programs for 2016 in the Autry’s monthly What is a Western? series. On Saturday, January 16th at 1:30 pm he will introduce the John Ford/John Wayne classic THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962). On Saturday, February 13th, at 1:30 pm he will host a double feature, SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956) and RIDE LONESOME (1959). Star Randolph Scott and producer Harry Joe Brown had formed the Ranown production company, and these two films are part of the fabled ‘Ranown cycle’ of exceptionally fine, tiny budget Westerns, all starring Scott, all directed by Budd Boetticher, and written by Burt Kennedy.
Also screening at the Autry on February 27th at noon are a double-bill of Gene’s films, BACK IN THE SADDLE (1941 Republic) and RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING PINES (1949 Columbia).
On Wednesday, January 20th at 12:30 pm, Rob Word will present the Cowboy Lunch @ The Autry. After lunch it’s Rob’s A Word on Westerns discussion. This time the topic is KINGS OF THE COWBOYS, and as we get closer to the date I’ll let you know what exciting guests Rob has lined up.
For folks who still remember how to read (there are still quite a few of us), One Book, One Autry is a year-long series of programs focusing on Owen Wister’s genre-creating THE VIRGINIAN. The first two events are Saturdays, Feb. 20th & 27th, with more to come. If you don’t have your own copy, you can get one at the Autry Store. (And you can read it, and learn that the great HIGH NOON is actually plagiarized from the last seven or eight chapters).
Sunday, January 3rd is the last day to see the magnificent exhibit Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and The West. From February 6th through March 20th you can enjoy Masters of the American West, and if you have deep pockets, you can buy!
Between book signings, performances and other events, I’m barely scratching the surface. You can learn more by visiting the official Autry website HERE.
And admission is free on Monday, New Years Day, and free Saturday and Sunday, the 2nd and 3rd, to Bank of America card holders.
THAT’S A WRAP!
I hope you had a wonderful Christmas (see above, a favorite gift from my wife), and I wish you a Happy New Year! I’ve got a lot of stuff cookin’ but I don’t want to say too much and jinx myself. But I’m very excited that I’ll be a guest of Jim Christina and Bobbi Jean Bell on THE WRITERS BLOCK radio show on Thursday, January 7th at 8 pm, when the BIG guest will be LONGMIRE creator Craig Johnson! If you haven’t tuned in to this entertaining and informative interview show about the art and craft of writing, here’s the link: http://latalkradio.com/content/writers-block.
All Original Content Copyright December 2015 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved