Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Hateful Eight, Concussion, The Big Short, Joy Reviews

The Hateful Eight
Dir. Quentin Tarantino
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Before I get into the film, I just want to clear up its unique theatrical release. The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino's eighth feature, appropriately enough) is being released everywhere at the end of the month in regular ol' digital projection at all the chain multiplexes. At select venues, however, there is a special "roadshow" version, projected in 70mm film (not digital), complete with an overture, intermission, program booklet, and 20 minutes of extra footage. I was lucky enough to catch the roadshow version, so that may or may not have affected my ultimate opinion on the film.

The Hateful Eight is Tarantino's first Western proper (Django Unchained was more of a "Southern"), and is by far his most restrained picture. Playing out like an ultra-violent version of the game Clue, the film primarily takes place in Minnie's Haberdashery, an isolated mountainside stagecoach lodge. It's post-Civil War Wyoming and racial tensions are high. John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his fugitive prisoner Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), on their way to the town of Red Rock, are joined in their travels by another bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson) and a man who claims to be Red Rock's sheriff (Walton Goggins). Due to an oncoming blizzard, they all take shelter at Minnie's, where they meet the other half of the "eight": a posh british hangman (Tim Roth), a mysterious gunslinger (Michael Madsen), a Mexican running the haberdashery in Minnie's absence (Demián Bechir), and a quiet old war general (Bruce Dern). But, like the aforementioned Parkers Brothers game, not everyone is who they say they are, and as tensions slowly rise, you can safely guess that it doesn't go down without some bloodshed.

While I appreciate many elements of this film, I never clicked with its pace or characters - two things Tarantino is usually a master at constructing. Unraveling very similarly to a stage play, most of the film takes place in one location, though it doesn't feel very "stuffy" due to the ultra-wide camera lens. The dialogue is feels like Quentin Unchained, in a bad way - it feels very "written" and could have used an editor. The movie feels like 70 solid minutes of an interesting mystery indulgently fluffed up to 3 hours. Monologues go on and on, and the repeated jokes (like the door that keeps blasting open due to the weather) just aren't snappy or clever enough. The actors breathe some life into their parts (Roth is a ton of fun, Russell is basically doing a John Wayne impression, Leigh is a complete maniac), but I think this is possibly the most masturbatory of Tarantino's scripts.

In many ways, The Hateful Eight is Tarantino's extremely cynical view of America. This is sort of the third in his genre/revisionist history trilogy: Inglourious Basterds used the WWII "men on a mission" genre to give audiences the satisfaction of Jews killing Hitler, and Django Unchained used a blaxploitation angle to give its characters a slavery redemption tale. But The Hateful Eight doesn't have heroes that re-correct a deep-rooted historical wrong - everyone here is racist, misogynist, or flat out crazy, and any "progress" that's made results in either more bloodshed or just shifted hatreds. It's completely bleak, and to me, felt preachy and unsatisfying. After Tarantino's recent stint speaking at police brutality rallies, it feels as though he's using this historical western period to essentially play out his cynical fantasy of what America is today. That's a pretty bold, controversial thing to do, and I give him kudos, but it wasn't my thing. I love Tarantino's previous films for their cathartic violence (how damn satisfying is it when The Bride finally "kills bill"?), but The Hateful Eight's violence is anything but cathartic, since everyone is bad in some way.  While it is perversely fun to watch peoples' heads splatter from a shotgun blast, I didn't particularly care where the story went.

Tarantino is one of my favorite directors, and he remains so after this film, but The Hateful Eight is the first of his films I didn't outright LOVE (I even love Death Proof - which in my opinion features the single greatest cinematic car chase of all time). Maybe it will grow on me in time and maybe the regular theatrical version is a little more condensed, but my first impression is that I was somewhat underwhelmed. I liked the Ennio Morricone score (which sounded less like a western and more like a horror film), I liked the post-intermission flashback, I liked seeing the "Quentin All-Star" actors back in business, and the experience of the "roadshow" made it feel like a worth-leaving-the-house cinematic event, but The Hateful Eight just wasn't that great.

Rating: B-

Dir. Peter Landesman
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TELL THE TRUTH! Who knew that a sport where huge men violently ram into each other repeatedly would cause brain damage? Forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, that's who! Portrayed by Will Smith in a role that's getting a smattering of Oscar buzz, Concussion tells the story of the lone man who went against the NFL, an organization so powerful that they, as Albert Brooks touts in the film, "own a day of the week." While I was hoping this might be a biting exposé into the lengths the NFL went through to cover up its data on concussions and brain damage to its players, Concussion plays it safe and turns what could have been the Spotlight for the National Football League into a typical, sappy "American dream" story about this Nigerian immigrant.

While conducting an autopsy on former NFL player Mike Webster (David Morse), Dr. Omalu discovers some neurological damage and publishes his findings in a medical journal. As other athletes face the same diagnosis, Omalu goes on a crusade to inform the public about the dangers of football causing head trauma.

This movie kind of chugs along; Omalu's girlfriend (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in the film is utterly pointless and exists solely for there to be a love interest. Omalu himself, though well-acted by Smith, is also somewhat flat. We never really get a sense of his brilliance that the film constantly reminds us of; our introduction to the character literally has him listing off all of the degrees and accomplishments he has attained, but we don't see his genius at work. Also, the film plays up the American dream angle to a sickening degree, to the point where it overshadows the NFL's dirty tricks. At the end of the day, Concussion is a bland biopic that could have been much more.

Rating: C+

The Big Short
Dir. Adam McKay
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I, like I imagine most people reading this, am pretty ignorant when it comes to the economy. Yeah, I watched that documentary with Matt Damon, but put a gun to my head, I wouldn't be able to explain within any degree of accuracy what the heck a CDO is. Well, this widespread ignorance is what made the banks a shitload of money before the housing market completely crashed around 2008. While I can't tell you the intimate details of it, they basically gave out crazy amounts of "bad" loans to people, knowing they'd never be paid off, but it didn't matter. The back-and-forth borrowing of the banks created a loophole that made them stupidly rich, but the bubble was bound to burst. Back in 2005, an eccentric hedge fund manager (played here by Christian Bale), saw that the housing market was unstable and realized that he could profit from the situation by essentially betting against the banks. He, along with an investor Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and trader Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), all followed suit and bet against what was supposed to be a stable system.

Director Adam McKay, whose résumé includes Anchorman and Step Brothers, seems like one of the least likely people to direct an Oscar-y movie like this. But that's what made this such a great film - it's not dour or serious, and the trailer doesn't have the Inception WHOOMP sound effect - it's a genuinely funny movie. He takes into account that most audiences seeing the film won't understand the economics of it all, so the film will cut to random celebrities (from Anthony Bourdain to Selena Gomez) to explain them. Gosling's character often breaks the fourth wall to describe what's going on, and the whole film, if not for its serious subject matter, feels like a farce. Reality is a joke, if these bankers still aren't in prison for what they knowingly did, so why not make the film funny as well? The Big Short is an engaging, funny look at an important story that is very hard to tell without boring the audience with difficult jargon. It would make a great double feature with 99 Homes from earlier this year.

Rating: B

Dir. David O. Russell
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Joy is a story about the invention of a mop. David O. Russell directed a film that's simultaneously a biopic, another star vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence, and a dedication for "daring women" everywhere - and it's centered around a MOP! While the subject matter seems mundane, it's actually pretty fascinating. Joy Mangano became one of the first stars of the QVC shopping network after inventing the Miracle Mop, made from a continuous loop of cotton which enables hands-free wringing. I have no clue how accurate the film is to her story, but it showcases Joy's troubles both in her family life and in getting people interested in her groundbreaking new cleaning tool. I'm usually not a fan of David O. Russell's style, but Joy, in my mind, was at least a step up from American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook.

David O. Russell's usual trademarks are here: family drama, a very Scorsese-influenced classic rock soundtrack, and definitely a "gunning for the Oscar" tone. I liked Joy more than any of the characters in Russell's last few flicks; it's satisfying watching this woman transform from a horsewhipped-by-life homemaker to a serious business mogul. Her scenes with the producer of QVC (Bradley Cooper) are my favorites in the film, especially her first awkward TV sales pitch. But those scenes tend to be outweighed by the typical Russell-ian "neurotic family" hijinks from the likes of her addicted-to-soap-operas mother (Virginia Madsen), her ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez) who's living in her basement, her curmudgeon father (Robert DeNiro), also living in the basement, and his new business-minded girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini). These sequences bog down the film with weird dream sequences and very boring, broad characters (her sister is cruel for no reason and her best friend, Jackie, has no personality whatsoever). And as good as Lawrence is, I think she's miscast here - we really needed someone a little older, and more rough around the edges to portray the character in my opinion.

Rating: C+


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