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Chaos Walking (2021)

Chaos Walking has been shrouded under the ominous reputation of “troubled production” from its very inception. It’s based on a 2008 YA science fiction series by Patrick Ness and has gone through writer after writer, trying to hone this story into a visual medium. At one point, Charlie Kaufman was attached as the screenwriter, and if Kaufman, the man who turned his struggle to adapt a book about flowers into a meditative and meta experience, can’t find a way to make your story work, then I doubt many other Hollywood writers can. It began filming in 2017 with director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) and sat on the shelf for years, with the studio execs reportedly dismissing the finished version as “un-releasable.” Fifteen million dollars in reshoots took place in 2019, helmed by Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe), and now the finished movie has been quietly dumped to theaters and on-demand markets. Chaos Walking is, indeed, chaotic, but it’s mostly dull and simplistic with a premise that feels ripe for social commentary that the movie has no interest in because it would detract from its eighteenth depiction of another forest chase.

In the future, mankind has settled on an alien world with some unexpected results. There is a strange quirk about this planet – the men are incapable of hiding their inner thoughts, which materialize in front of their heads as visuals with their narration echoing (nick-named “The Noise”). Women, for whatever reason, are unaffected. It’s been so long since another supply ship from Earth has come that life on this alien world has begun to resemble the struggles of the early terrestrial pioneers. Todd (Tom Holland) wants to impress his small town’s authority figure, Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen), and become an adult faster than he might be ready. Viola (Daisy Ridley) has made the multiple-generations trip from Earth but her spaceship crashes. Todd finds her and panics because she may very well be the only woman alive on the planet. He elects to hide her and try and reach an old technological outlet, while the Mayor leads a posse to round her up and maybe kill Viola.

Given that premise, you would think that Chaos Walking was setting itself up for some sharp, uncomfortable, and relevant social commentary about the plight of being a woman in a modern society. If Get Out was a horror story about being a black man in America, I was thinking Chaos Walking would be a horror story about being a woman in America, but I was wrong. Think about the premise, with every woman subjected to a society of men that cannot hide their unconscious objectification, their leering harassment, their distressing ulterior motives, where every man’s uncontrollable thoughts will be broadcast. It’s an empathetic and horrifying glimpse into the daily dismissal, exploitation, and condescension that woman experience. You add the extra element that women are immune and now they also become the subject of projected male resentment, that they feel judged, and this only makes the men more hostile and confrontational. Being “the last woman” also presents an obvious threat of sexual violence as well. It’s all right there, and yet Chaos Walking barely even toys with its explosive gender commentary; there’s a reason all the women are dead on the planet, but it’s not exactly revelatory, and its inclusion, at the expense of all other notable social or political commentary, makes the explanation feel more perfunctory. Why even bother having a premise that features a gender disparity if you’re not going to really say something about the treatment of women? If you think about those old movies where it’s one man on a planet entirely of women, or some similar dynamic where there is a giant gender upheaval, and they always say something about it. What would be the point of making an exception for one kind of person and then ignoring the larger implications? Well, I’ll never truly know, because Chaos Walking doesn’t seem to know either.

I can see why this premise works on the page where the reader is already able to immerse themselves in the inner thoughts of a point of view character. I’ve never read the source material but I can imagine it being like a jigsaw puzzle of first-person perspectives. It’s a little harder to translate into a visual atmosphere in a clear and meaningful way, especially when you’re limiting what it all says. As its portrayed onscreen, The Noise is often muddled and visually hard to decipher, and while it mimics the half-formed nature of thoughts (people don’t typically think in complete, declarative sentences) it’s still too abstract and confusing. The wispy visuals are opaque and glisten like sunlight in gasoline pools, which makes the imagery less easy to determine. It’s like someone made a sci-fi thriller and just ladled on extraneous visual elements but didn’t want anyone to properly decode these special effects. Sometimes the premise works, like when Todd is trying to hide his fears, like when he envisions a beat-down from a dangerous crowd, or when he purposely imagines scary imagery to spook a rival’s horse. Too often The Noise just feels exactly like that when it comes to the narrative. It’s a peculiarity that is underdeveloped and could well be forgotten. It’s such a strange experience to watch a high-concept movie where the filmmakers are seized by indifference with their high-concept. I don’t know if maybe this is a subtle acknowledgement of defeat.

There’s one character that symbolizes the futile adaptation of The Noise and that’s Reverend Aaron (David Oyelowo). He’s living in conflict with his own community and his Noise is more apocalyptic, fire and brimstone, and he views The Noise as a connection between man and God. Now that is interesting, looking at this quirk as a gift or curse from God and trying to make a spiritual understanding over why man, and only man, has been given this ability. It seems to radicalize him. At long last, here is a character with a direct and personal relationship with The Noise, the hook. How does this change his relationship with God, his sense of self, and his feeling of disconnect from being so far away from home in this alien world? Well, all of that tantalizing characterization and potential depth is cast aside. Reverend Aaron is merely a religious zealot and a boring one at that. It’s hard to determine whether he’s gone over into violent extremism or is seeking absolution, which makes him just another dangerous antagonist that appears here and there but you can’t quite square. This character could have been legitimately intriguing from the story specifics of how he would respond to drastic change, isolation, introspection, and a crisis of faith brought on by the environmental turmoil. Instead, he just becomes a secondary heavy chasing characters for vaguely unsatisfying reasons.

Chaos Walking is not a fascinating failure or a so-bad-it’s-amazing fiasco, it’s just a mediocre chase movie. It’s patterned after Westerns visually and structurally, with the frontier town being lead by a Black Hat who is chasing after the Drifter who represents a threat to the status quo. It’s not just the horses, dusty trails, vilified natives, and small-towns shootouts, Chaos Walking is very intentionally a science fiction Western, a pairing that seems to keep getting tried on by Hollywood studios like an old pair of cowboy boots they’re positive fit perfectly once long ago. As far as space Westerns go, it’s fine. The action is fine, though I grew tired of the visual mundanity of characters continuing to walk in the woods, run through the woods, and take refuge in the woods. For an alien landscape, Chaos Walking often feels frustratingly plain and unimaginative. All of these interesting science fiction asides and additions and it’s really just interested in being a second-rate space Western. The screenplay is held together as a series of rote chases. The main characters are bland and Ridley’s straw-like blonde wig gave me bad memories of Kate Mara’s bad wig from the infamous Fantastic Four reshoots. For its 110 minutes, you won’t exactly be repelled from the screen with boredom but you won’t be tempted to pay close attention either. Chaos Walking is too generic, too safe, and too derivative to be anything more than passing entertainment. I wish it was more chaotic and un-releaseable just to be more memorable and worth your time.

Nate’s Grade: C

Godzilla vs. King Kong (2021)

Godzilla vs. Kong is the kind of movie where you need to question what your qualifications would be for its true entertainment value. Four films into the fledgling MonsterVerse, we’ve set up its Batman vs. Superman, its Infinity War, its climax, the biggest names on the biggest stage to settle the score once and for all. With indie director Adam Wingard at the helm, best known for peculiarly violent genre-defying movies like You’re Next and The Guest, the results with G vs. K (I’m not writing the full name every time) strictly fall into the realm of dumb fun. It’s up to you which of those categorical designations will reign supreme, the dumb or the fun.

The gigantic 100-foot tall ape Kong is being kept in a caged atrium by the Monarch organization. Godzilla is running amuck and attacking a shady company that may have a shady conspiracy afoot. Kong and Godzilla are two alpha predators, the last known titans, and it’s believed that Godzilla is seeking out Kong to put him down for good. The government is trying to protect its great ape, figure out why the big lizard is acting up, and maybe explore this kooky Hollow Earth theory. There’s a reason I haven’t mentioned any human character names because, once again, they don’t really matter.

This movie is going to entirely depend on how much your love of monster brawls can, essentially, push aside crazy, incoherent plotting and meaningless human characters. If you’re the kind of fan going to G vs. K and expecting nothing else than bruising knockdown fights that decimate the landscape and ensure untold death, no matter how many times we’re told the entire city of Hong Kong has miraculously evacuated in minutes, then the movie delivers. There are three big brawls and each one of them is satisfying and has a weighty quality to them; they really do feel like heavyweight title fights, with each side giving it their all and then some. It’s an epic showdown and we demand the best from this clash of the titans, and Wingard comes alive during these sequences, finding stylish ways to demonstrate and develop the carnage so that the brawls feel unique rather than stale. Each of the three major battles takes place in a different location and uses that environment to its advantage when developing its action particulars. The first bout is at sea and Kong is chained to the galley of a warship, so Godzilla capsizes the ship, attempting to drown Kong. The water is also a far more friendly place for Godzilla, with Kong forced to jump from ship to ship like platforms in an old school video game. The rematch takes place in downtown Hong Kong and offers the traditional metropolitan cataclysm we’ve come to expect from disaster escapades (again, with vague reminders that somehow all these buildings are empty). Godzilla’s fire breath becomes a laser field that Kong must avoid with drastic escapes. Wingard’s camera finds fun ways to communicate the back and forth, at one point seemingly attached to the monsters as they pummel and move, like an arty Darren Aronofsky film. He finds ways to make two age-old creatures fighting still appear visually fresh and exciting. When the creatures are slugging it out, G vs. K is at its best as big-budget popcorn escapism.

I also must applaud that filmmakers that, four movies in, we finally have monster fights where the audience can see what is happening. 2014’s Godzilla reboot kept teasing the big lizard and giving glimpses, a foot there, a closing door here, that built anticipation but also tried audience patience. My biggest complaint was I wanted more Godzilla in my Godzilla movie, and 2019’s King of the Monsters answered this complaint, providing four different monsters to duke it out for monster supremacy. However, the supernatural slug-fests were undercut by sequences that were hard to see. Whether it was in the rain, at night, in a blizzard, in the fog or smoke, it was hard to tell what was happening because of all the annoying visual obfuscation. We had more monster fights, yes, but they weren’t that much easier to see than in 2014. Thankfully, this movie seems like a direct response to that chief criticism. The big fights take place entirely during the day, and not only that, it’s clear and even sunny, making sure we can soak up every loving CGI detail of these two giant pretend creatures having their big pretend rumble. It may sound like I shouldn’t be too congratulatory for a franchise that dares to allow its paying customers to actually see the spectacle that they paid to see, but after several other films of mitigating results, I’m happy we at least can enjoy the big brawls after so much build-up and delayed gratification.

But if you expect more from a versus film other than predicated pugilism from your preferred participants, then G vs. K is going to disappoint. It is a vast understatement to say that this movie is extremely loony. It is so goofy that you will either shrug and go with the silly twists and turns, or you’ll be like several of my friends, and my girlfriend, who just stared stupefied and shook their heads, muttering how much more crazy-pants bananas things could possibly get.

For a franchise that started fairly grounded in 2014 from a science standpoint, and whose sequels have more or less hewn to that tonal vision, G vs. K says, “Hey, what if we…,” and injects whatever it deems might be insane and awesome, like an improv game that never meets resistance. Whatever you may be prepared for, this movie goes deeper and crazier. It literally goes to the center of the Earth and back. If I were to describe the parameters of the final fight, it would sound like I was drunk or needing of mental check-ups from concerned loved ones. It feels like the Asylum version of what a Godzilla and Kong match-up would be, and by that I refer to the low-budget studio known for its schlocky knockoffs and crazy all-you-can-eat buffet-style sci-fi plotting. There’s one solution that literally involves dumping alcohol onto a computer. Again, maybe your exact sensibilities will be a match for this wilder, sillier tonal wavelength; maybe you felt the earlier MonsterVerse entries took themselves too seriously. I’ll readily admit that they devoted far too much time to human drama I felt was, no pun intended, irritatingly small-scale. 2017’s Kong: Skull Island is the high watermark for this monster cinematic universe, and definitely better than you remember, and it didn’t take itself too seriously but found an agreeable baseline that allowed the film to have its spectacle while holding the human drama to be meaningful and entertaining itself. The movie was stylish, fun, and your brain didn’t melt when the big creatures were off-screen for long duration.

With G vs. K, any sense of established connectivity with the other movies is thrown out the window. Sure, there are faces that reappear (hey, Millie Bobby Brown), but they might as well be new characters. Even more than that, the tone of the movie is shifted so forcefully into self-parody, cheesy ludicrousness, including a spaceship serving as a moving defibrillator and psychic skulls, that it’s hard to take anything remotely seriously. I can already hear some detractors saying why should a movie about a giant ape fighting a giant lizard ever be taken seriously, and maybe you’re right you detractor you, but every movie needs an established baseline to provide a foundation of what is real, what is meaningful, and what is exceptional. If everything is crazy, it makes the monster action seem more mundane, and if anything can happen at any moment, it makes the plotting less important of careful setups and development, and satisfaction will be capped.

If you’re just looking for a movie about a giant ape punching a giant lizard with top-notch special effects, well Godzilla vs. Kong has that aplenty, and if that’s enough for you, then enjoy. It’s far more of a Kong sequel with the occasional special appearance from Godzilla, so if you’re more a fan of the big lizard you may be a little miffed at the big guy being a second banana. The action is fun and splashy, and I wish I watched this titanic title match on the big screen where it belongs, and I’ll admit that likely has dulled some of my experience. The sharp tonal shift for the MonsterVerse, and the escalating silliness that climaxes into insanity is either going to be selling point or a breaking point for every viewer. You’ll either rock with glee and happy that this franchise has finally evolved into the schlocky spectacle you’ve been dying for, or you’ll be trying to hang on to the silly, over-the-top plotting to orient your staggered senses. Godzilla vs. Kong is everything the title suggests and little else, and for many that will be enough. For me, I think it kind of lost me somewhere between here and Albuquerque.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Midnight Sky (2020)

The Midnight Sky is really two sci-fi survival movies in one. In 2040, the world is experiencing a planet-killing ecological disaster. A team of astronauts, lead by a pregnant Sully (Felicity Jones), is returning from a multi-year mission to check if a moon of Jupiter is habitable. On Earth, Augustine (George Clooney with a Santa beard) is the lone scientist left at an Arctic research station. He has cancer and sees his life as having run its course, that is, until he finds a small girl (Caoilinn Springall) who missed being evacuated. They band together to brave the wintry, poisonous elements to travel to another outpost to better communicate with the returning astronauts and possibly secure an escape from this dying world. It sounds like it should be a very exciting and interesting movie. There are even sinking ice floes, space walks amidst deadly asteroids, and Augustine having to stop at points lest he overtax his frail body. In practice, the movie isn’t so much exciting as it is ponderous, grasping for a larger philosophy and existential meaning that seems entirely elusive. We’re treated to several flashbacks of a young Augustine (different actor but still voiced by Clooney) that seem superfluous until a grand reveal that made me audibly groan so loud I thought my neighbors would complain. I kept waiting for the relevancy between the stories to be demonstrated, and when it happened it was not worth the two-hour wait. The realization was so hokey that it retroactively made me dislike the movie’s moments that had been working earlier. As far as direction, this might be one of Clooney’s strongest turns as a visual storyteller, even if he borrows liberally from other recent sci-fi movies, notably Gravity, The Martian, and Interstellar. There are moments of stark beauty and terror. Ultimately, the whole movie amounts to a sad man taking stock of his life and legacy (is he a metaphor for the Earth? Is the Earth a metaphor for him?), and I’m still wondering how something this glum could also be so maudlin. The pacing is another issue. I was always eager to jump to the other storyline to see what they were doing (a cinematic “grass is greener” mindset). The acting is fine and I wish I could have spent more time getting to know the crew of this space mission (including Kyle Chandler, Demian Bichir, David Oyelowo, and Tiffany Boone) or conversely gotten to feel more of bond between Augustine and his near-mute charge that felt like it was providing insight into this man. Looking back, there’s a reason for some of the stilted characterization, but having an excuse for why your characters aren’t better developed is like preparing an excuse why you did something self-sabotaging. The rest of The Midnight Sky doesn’t better compensate for this storytelling choice, and so the movie feels too dull, frustrating, opaque, and overly manipulative, aided and abetted by Alexandre Desplat’s sappy score. No more than the sum of its parts, you can soon watch The Midnight Sky on Netflix and fall asleep to it on your own couch.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Nun (2018)

It’s amazing to me that The Conjuring series has become a literal billion-dollar franchise and in only four cost-effective movies. Rare is the film franchise that births spin-offs so readily, but The Conjuring has already introduced two Annabelle movies, one Nun film, and an upcoming Crooked Man feature. It’s almost as if any supernatural creature given a minor spotlight in the James Wan-produced series is destined for greater things. It’s like the Conjuring universe is a pipeline to stardom for America’s next big malevolent demon. I’m thinking the Conjuring 3 could spend 30 seconds on some tall tale about a haunted plunger and it would be spun off into its own franchise within a year, tops. The Nun is the fifth film in the series, the second spin-off film, and probably the movie with the least amount of narrative substance given its starting material. It’s a mixture of old horror staples and exorcism mumbo-jumbo, and it’s also not half bad.

In 1950s Romania, a small abbey is being haunted by an evil presence that had been confined behind a door that ominously warned, “God ends here.” A nun has committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. Father Burke (Demian Bichir) is called by the Vatican to investigate the strange happenings. He teams up with a local nun-in-training, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), and a traveling merchant Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) who first discovered the dead nun’s body. The sisters inside the abbey are behaving oddly and it’s not long before our characters realize they’re trapped in the abbey with something wicked looking for a human host to escape.

There’s not really much to the plot of The Nun so the emphasis comes in the realm of atmosphere, unsettling visuals, and unnerving set pieces. The investigative process with our priest and nun-in-training doesn’t amount to many revelations, and the information won’t be new for the audience considering this specific demon Valak has been seen in two other Conjuring-related movies now (maybe three?). It becomes a haunted house thriller and, like the earlier and much ballyhooed Hereditary, a movie of moments. So your mileage will vary depending upon how affected you are by the atmospherics and imagery. With The Nun, I felt like the visuals were built upon more rigorous Catholic religious iconography and a foundation of decades of accumulated exorcism film imagery. Plus the very design of the titular nun is just super unsettling by itself, let alone placed in a spooky setting with spooky lighting. Director Corin Hardy (The Hallow) finds visually pleasing and distressing imagery that he emphasizes for better effect, like a team of faceless nuns standing in formation, or a tormented boy with a snake that slithers out of his screaming mouth. It’s not subtle in the slightest but credit for not relying upon an inordinate number of jump scares for its chief spooks. In the realm of schlocky horror, The Nun is actually a little restrained when it isn’t being ridiculous, but it’s the kind of ridiculous that makes you laugh and anticipate the next scene rather than check your watch. Again, your mileage will vary, but I enjoyed the theatrics and imagery more than the overrated Hereditary.

This brings me to the biggest head-scratcher in the movie that would have seemed designed to ensure audience investment. I had no idea Taissa Farmiga (TV’s American Horror Story) was going to be in this movie let alone the co-lead of the movie. As soon as I saw her face I leaned forward, newly intrigued. My working assumption was that the younger Farmiga was going to be the prequel version of the character played by her older sister, Vera Farmiga (yes, they’re sisters and not mother/daughter). Suddenly this made her character that much more interesting and created a direct connection from the events of the nuns to the larger Conjuring universe, providing a back-story for the Warrens to lean upon. It also allowed me to transfer my feelings for the character onto Taissa Farmiga, making me care far more about her well-being as she creeped around dimly lit corners than if she had been any other woman in a habit in a bad place. The fact that The Nun had so effectively hidden Taissa Farmiga’s presence from the marketing made it feel like an intentional surprise, something to let the audience know the filmmakers weren’t skating by. It raised my opinion of the movie and my enjoyment from scene-to-scene.

And then I found out Taissa Farmiga’s Sister Irene is a separate character from Lorraine Warren. Huh? Of all the young actresses in the world to select, choosing the literal younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who looks strikingly similar, feels far too intentional to be coincidental. Why isn’t she just the younger version of Lorraine Warren, setting her up for a life of hunting the supernatural after this formative experience? She’s even presented as a nun in training and not a full-fledged bride of Christ. Even the decades in age difference would add up. It’s not like you’re playing that close to the facts of the case when it concerns the Warrens who, by modern accounts, are considered frauds by many. Come on, James Wan. Come on Conjuring universe. What are you doing here? The solution was right within reach and you deliberately ignored it.

The Nun is a moderately entertaining movie subsisting on strong production design, exorcism iconography, and solid performances from capable actors. It’s not really more than the sum of its parts but, for me, there were enough effectively creepy moments and punchy images that won me over by the end of its 96 minutes. If you’re a fan of the Conjuring series, or particularly demonic possession/exorcism movies, then you’ll likely find enough entertainment to be had, even if the filmmakers absurdly decide not to have Taissa Farmiga play the younger version of an already established central character. Was this a late-in-the-game rewrite to absolve her of her connection to Vera Farmiga? I’m happy for anyone connected to the production to contact me and clear this up (after my surprising conversation with a key creative on Sherlock Gnomes, I’ll just start openly asking for clarifying correspondence from Hollywood filmmakers now). The Nun in essence does just enough to be silly or scary when needed and possibly worth a watch for horror fans. Now about that haunted toilet plunger. I may have a pitch ready if you’re open to it, James Wan. After all, what’s scarier than a broken toilet?

Nate’s Grade: C+

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Was Prometheus really as bad a movie as fans made it out to be? While the 2012 Alien prequel could be rather obtuse, and the characters made some of the stupidest decisions as reportedly intelligent scientists, it had an intriguing central mystery, moody sense of atmosphere, great sets, some viciously memorable sequences like Noomi Rapace’s self-directed surgical operation, and a delightfully supercilious Michael Fassbender bot. By the film’s end there were still plenty of outstanding questions unanswered, and so five years later director Ridley Scott has returned with Alien: Covenant to further confound and entertain. The crew of a colony ship takes a detour to land on a habitable world and trace the mysterious transmission belonging to the android David (Fassbender). As expected, all is not what it seems and the crew is almost immediately put into jeopardy. For fans who wanted more answers from Prometheus, there is a surprising amount of carryover to serve as a resolution for the prior film. There are a few big reveals, particularly about the xenomorph evolution, but the overall Alien storyline is moved just mere inches forward, slightly closer to the events of the 1979 original. The biggest problem with Covenant is that it’s too pedestrian for far too often. It sticks pretty close to the formula we’ll all familiar with, so we know it’s only a matter of time before the xenomorphs hit the fan. There is a dearth of memorable scenes here. The characters in Covenant aren’t that much smarter and make their fair share of stupid decisions (hey, let’s ignore the existence of wheat on an alien world or the possibility of killer microbes being in this breathable air). There’s just more of them to be killed off. The movie doesn’t really bother getting to know a far majority of them, consigned to the fact that they’re only here to be later ripped apart and exploded in gore. Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) does a fine job as a Ripley replacement. Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down) has some effective dramatic moments too. But the best reason to watch Covenant, an altogether middling Alien sequel/prequel, is for twice the Fassbender robot action (there’s a Fassbender-on-Fassbender kiss, which will likely break Tumblr). Alien: Covenant is a missed opportunity of a movie hampered by a disappointingly predictable script, tedious characters, and a lack of strong set pieces. It’s acceptable entertainment but not much more. The moral: don’t be a dick to robots.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Hateful Eight (2015)

the-hateful-eight-posterThe Hateful Eight almost didn’t happen thanks to our modern-day views on copyright and privacy. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino sent the first draft of his newest script to three trusted actors, and within days it had spread to the outer reaches of the Internet. Tarantino was so incensed that he swore to shelve Hateful Eight and never film it. After a staged reading in L.A. with many of the eventual actors for the film, he changed his mind, to the relief of his sizable fanbase and actors everywhere. The Hateful Eight is a drawing room mystery with plenty of Tarantino’s signature propulsive language and bloody violence, but it’s also the director’s least substantial film to date.

In post-Civil War Wyoming, famous bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is taking the outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to hang for her crimes. Along the way, he meets up with Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter who served in the North and carries a letter written to him from none other than Abraham Lincoln. They’re both heading to Red Rock to extract their bounty earnings. Due to an oncoming blizzard, they’re forced to make a stay at Minnie’s haberdashery, except Minnie isn’t anywhere to be found. There’s Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir) who says Minnie left him in charge, a foppish hangman Oswaldo Moblay (Tim Roth), a quiet cattle driver Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a Confederate general, Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the son of a Confederate rebel who claims to be the newly designated sheriff of Red Rock. Over the course of one long night, everyone’s true identity will be learned, because someone is not who they seem to be and is secretly waiting to free Daisy and kill the rest.

Even as lesser Tarantino, The Hateful Eight is still an entertaining and talky stage play put to film. The setup is strong and invites the audience to play along, to scrutinize the assorted characters and determine who is telling the truth. There are plenty of twists and turns and some violent surprises to keep things interesting. The conversations of the characters are such a pleasure to listen to; I want to luxuriate in Tarantino’s language. His wordsmith abilities are unparalleled in Hollywood. There’s a reason every star is dying to snag a part in a Tarantino movie, especially now that they’ve caught Oscar fire as of late. That’s somewhat crazy to think about. Cinema’s ultimate indie voice with his encyclopedic knowledge of the medium, high and low art, has become an institution within the system and his violent period films are now looked at as year-end prestige pictures. Tarantino’s M.O. has been to take B-movies and to transform them into A-movie level talent and intelligence. Never has a Tarantino flick felt more B-movie than The Hateful Eight. It was inspired from episodes of TV and it’s easy to see that genesis in its execution. It’s a self-contained mystery that comes to a head. It’s a limited story that’s likely taken as far as it could possible go, pushing three hours. I’m a tad befuddled why this was the movie Tarantino insisted on filming in “glorious Panavision 70 millimeter.” It’s almost entirely set in that one-room interior location. The extra depth that 70 millimeter affords would appear to be wasted, unless you enjoy looking at general store items on shelves in the background. Still, The Hateful Eight is a movie that doesn’t feel like three hours and harbors enough intrigue and payoffs to hook.

I tried to diagnose why this felt like lesser Tarantino, and it’s because over the course of almost three hours we don’t have much at stake because the people inhabiting the movie aren’t really characters but tough-talking facades. Tarantino is often cited for his uniquely florid dialogue, and nobody writes dialogue like Tarantino and his naturally stylized cadences, but another of the man’s skills is how great he can write a coterie of colorful characters that pop from the big screen. You might not be able to remember many lines from Hans Landa or Vincent Vega or Django, but you remember the vivid characters. Tarantino is preternaturally skilled at building characters that feel fully realized with their own viewpoints and flaws and prior experiences. He can make characters stand out but he also has the great ability to make the larger-than-life characters feel real, which is truly genius screenwriting for characters so flamboyant. The older romance in Jackie Brown is perfectly captured and felt. It’s downright mature. This is the first time I would say Tarantino has disappointed when it comes to his characters.

There are broadly drawn folk aplenty onscreen and they still talk in that wonderfully florid language of Tarantino’s that actors must savor like a fine steak, something they can sink themselves in for and enjoy every morsel. However, the characters onscreen have never felt this empty before. They are what they are and the only real change that occurs is that many will be dead before the end credits. They don’t have arcs per se but end points. It’s all about unmasking and identifying the rogues in a room full of rogues. Beyond Warren and Mannix, we’re left with precious little for characterization beyond bravado and nihilism. The effect of how empty they are would be felt less if we weren’t stranded with them for near three hours. Trapped in a room with a group of suspicious characters can only go so far, and ultimately it’s a parlor game that cannot sustain longer staying power. I doubt I’ll ever watch this with the frequency of other Tarantino flicks.

“You keep talkin’. You’re gonna talk yourself to death,” says one of those hateful numbers to another member. I’d pay to listen to Tarantino rewrite the phone book, that’s how excellent the man is with his dialogue. The man likes to hear his words and I like listening to them too. The problem is that The Hateful Eight has no reason for its gargantuan running time. As stated above, the characters we’re getting are nowhere near as complex or interesting as previous Tarantino escapades, so the talking can grow weary. Tarantino has patented a new formula from 2009’s Inglorious Basterds that involves characters playing a game of I-know-you-know-I-know while they suss out the truth, all the while the tension finely simmers until it blows. It’s a long fuse of suspense that can pay off rich rewards, like the near-perfect tavern scene in Basterds. The dinner table scene with Candie and the skull of his favorite house slave is another good example. Once our titular eight have gathered at Minnie’s, the entire movie is this sort of scene. It may be broken up into chapters and flashbacks but it feels like one long scene.

There’s also far less at stake than there was with Basterds or Django Unchained, even Reservoir Dogs, and that’s because the protagonists had goals and we had built up far more allegiance and time with them. When they were in danger, it mattered. The danger doesn’t feel as immediate because so little else is happening. There are plenty of comparisons to Dogs, which also utilized a hidden identity and a confined location. I think the difference was that, besides it being Tarantino’s first foray as a director, the tension was felt more because the danger was immediate from the start and we cared about character relationships. I cared about Mr. Orange and Mr. White and their bond. I can’t say I cared about any of the characters in Hateful Eight. I found them interesting at points, sure, but they were all a bunch of rotten bastards with little variation short of a burgeoning understanding between Mannix and Warren. The wait at Minnie’s feels like the Basterds tavern scene on steroids, pushed to the breaking point, and yet absent the urgency.

The acting is yet another tasty dish served up by Tarantino, and it feels like the actors are having the time of their lives playing their lively scoundrels. Jackson (Kingsmen: the Secret Service) settles in nicely and always seems to elevate his game when he’s reciting Tarantino’s words. He’s icy cool in scenes where the other characters are trying to do whatever they can to fire him up. He’s less bombastic than we’ve come to expect from Jackson. For bombast, there’s Russell (Furious 7) who cranks his performance to the broad heights of his bellicose lawman. Goggins gives a sly and extra caffeinated performance that answered the question of what it would sound like if you dropped his character from TV’s Justified into a Tarantino movie. Roth (Selma) feels like he’s doing his best manic Christoph Waltz impression. Dern (Nebraska) is a racist codger with a soft spot for his kin. Madsen (Kill Bill vol. 2) seems somewhat wasted as a taciturn “cow puncher.” Bichir (The Heat) gets some laughs as a seemingly aloof caretaker. It’s Leigh (Anomalisa) who steals the show, especially in the film’s second half. Daisy is a character that relishes being bad, and Leigh takes every opportunity to enjoy the fun. Her character plays a bit of possum during the first half but it’s the second half where she lets loose and becomes unhinged, and her exasperated and grotesque responses are often played for great sputtering comic effect. It’s a boys movie but it’s the lone woman who will prove most memorable. Tarantino’s last two movies have won acting awards and Leigh just might make it three-in-a-row.

20150511105106982878uThere are also some uncomfortable elements that can deter your viewing enjoyment, which isn’t exactly a foreign charge against Tarantino’s career. At this point you can probably repeat the oft-cited accusations: flagrant use of the N-word and exploitative violence. At least the historical background provides a context for the other characters unleashing the N-word, and I’d argue it tells us something about the characters as well. The characters that use the N-word when referring to Warren are the ones with allegiances to the Confederacy and those viewpoints don’t vanish even after you lost a war. They’re dismissive and intolerant and view Warren as sub-human. It also doesn’t approach Django Unchained-levels of excess, so I let it slide (I know my perspective as a white male makes my opinion on this effectively meaningless). It was the violence that got to me, specifically the violence directed at Daisy. Tarantino’s penchant for violence goes all the way back to his ear-slicing debut, so it’s nothing unexpected. He often tells stories about violent men and women fighting their way in a world governed by violence. I accept that these characters are bad to their core. That doesn’t excuse behavior. Violence on screen can be tempered with authorial commentary, but it’s the association that bothered me with Hateful Eight. For the entire movie, Daisy is put through the physical wringer. Our very first image of her is with a black eye. She’s a nasty woman and Ruth often expresses his distaste of her by punching her in the face, which is played as dark comedy. This happens repeatedly. We’re meant to recoil from much of the bloody violence on screen but repeatedly we’re meant to laugh at the violent suffering of Daisy. Tarantino has often used over-the-top violence as dark humor, and I’ve laughed along with it. This was one instance though where I stopped laughing and starting shifting uncomfortably in my seat.

Even lesser Tarantino can still be plenty entertaining and superior to most of what Hollywood usually cranks out as product. The Hateful Eight can be exciting, funny, surprising, and plenty of things, but what it can’t be is more than a lark. Tarantino has taken stories that would seem like larks, particularly the Kill Bill series, and infused them with pathos and meditation and soul to go along with all that snazzy genre stuff. It’s disappointing that Hateful Eight isn’t more than what’s on screen, but what’s on screen is still worth watching, though I don’t know whether it’s worth watching a second time.

Nate’s Grade: B

Dom Hemingway (2014)

MV5BMTczMDYzOTAwM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDg5OTgwMDE@._V1_SX214_AL_Undeservingly lost in the shuffle, Dom Hemingway is a brash and wildly entertaining dark crime comedy. Jude Law is a sheer force of nature as the title character, a charismatic and garrulous criminal with no shortness of ego or volume. He’s just getting out of a 12-year jail sentence and taking stock of his life. His wife is dead, his grown-up daughter (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke) hates him for his absence, and his bosses are ready to reward him for his long silence. The only person who could screw things is up is Dom, and he does, as he’s prone to impulsive fits, shouting matches, and oversized bravado. This is really a series of comic vignettes and vulgar monologues, but the writing by Richard Shepard (The Matador) is slyly hilarious, leaving me in stitches throughout (“I am not burying your body today! I didn’t bring the right shoes for it.”). The comic voice here is assured and finely attuned to the broad wavelengths the characters. It’s not exactly he colorful, cartoon criminal universe of early Guy Ritchie films, but there’s a definitely heightened atmosphere here that blends well with the manic nature of Dom. Law is bouncing off the walls; you may have to wash the spittle off your TV. But he’s compelling from his first minute onscreen to his last. The third act squeezes in a degree of emotions though by then we’ve been enjoying the depravity too much to switch focus. I don’t think the work has been put in to make Dom a three-dimensional character, but that won’t stop Dom’s film from being a blast of entertainment with swagger to spare.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Heat (2013)

the-heat-poster2Essentially a buddy cop movie with the typically macho roles swapped out to women, The Heat is an intermittently enjoyable action comedy thanks to the chemistry between Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. The joke ratio of hits to misses has a lot of whiffs but I laughed solidly every ten minutes or so, some of the comedic set pieces were well developed, and McCarthy’s strong ability to improv saved many flailing scenes. I enjoyed that these two women were seen as professionals and didn’t need to be bogged down with the kind of plot elements you’d find in your standard Katherine Heigl vehicle. There isn’t a romantic interest nor a love story; in fact, various guys come up to McCarthy throughout asking why she hadn’t called them back after a one-night stand. It’s a little thing but it establishes that a woman like McCarthy’s can have a fruitful love life and have it be no big deal. The overall plot about a dangerous drug baron with a mole inside the government is given more complexity than necessary, and I’m not sure the action bits feel well integrated into the movie as a whole. Part of this may just be because director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) seems much more interested in grounded, human comedy, but I think it’s mostly because we’d rather be spending more time with our leads arguing. Bullock and McCarthy are an engaging team, their comedic styles nicely ping-ponging off one another, and there are enough ribald gags to justify watching it. The Heat isn’t revolutionary by any sort but maybe, in the end, that’s the point. Also it’s got Dan Bakkeddahl (TV’s Veep) as an albino DEA agent. So there’s that too.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Savages (2012)

Savages has been described as a “return to form” from prolific director Oliver Stone, who has spent the last decade making straight biopics (W., Alexander) and safe feel-good movies (World Trade Center). The less said about Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps the better. You never thought one of the world’s edgiest filmmakers would follow such a square path. I can’t fault people for getting excited by Savages, hoping this drug-addled crime thriller can revive the gonzo sensibilities of the man. Well, Savages isn’t going to satisfy most people, especially those looking for a cohesive story, characters that grab your interest, and an ending that manages to stay true thematically with the rest of the movie. In short, Savages is a savage mess of a movie but not even an entertaining mess. It’s just a boring mess, and that is the film’s biggest sin.

Best friends Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are living the American dream. They began farming their own marijuana plants, using the best seeds form Afghanistan while Chon was on tour with the military. Together, the guys have produced a product high in THC that blows away the competition. They have flourished in California. Now a Mexican cartel, lead by Elena (Salma Hayek), wants in on their business, and they won’t take no for an answer. The cartel kidnaps the boys’ shared girlfriend, O (Blake Lively), and promises to hold her ransom for one year unless the boys agree to their terms. Chon and Ben decide to use their considerable resources to put the squeeze on Elena and her team of scumbags, all the while looking for a way to rescue their shared love of their life.

It’s a lurid movie all right. Plenty of sex, drugs, and violence, but man oh man is it all just empty diversions because the movie cannot survive its trio of unlikable, uninteresting, and painfully dull characters. O, Chon, and Ben have a dearth of charisma; light cannot escape their black hole of charisma. What sinks Savages is the realization that it’s just a shoddy movie filled with a lot of skuzzy characters but hardly anyone that merits genuine interest. We’ve got skuzzy good guys, skuzzy bad guys, but where are the personalities? Where are the quirks or the hooks to drive our interest? Just having Benicio del Toro (The Wolfman) act weird and mumbly is not enough to cover the shortcomings of his character. I’ve read reviews where critics cite del Toro as “hypnotic.” I have no idea what they’re talking about. He’s just your average skuzzy bad guy you’d find in any mediocre crime picture; he just so happens to be played by Benicio del Toro. The DEA Agent John Travolta (From Paris with Love) plays is your typical skuzzy desk weasel; he just so happens to be played by John Travolta. And that’s where the movie falters. We have all these characters on all sides of the law but we couldn’t give a damn for any of them. O comes across like an annoying, privileged, faux intellectual. Chon is a meathead. Ben is an amorphous do-gooder. I don’t care about their problems and I especially don’t care about them retrieving O so they can return to their vague polyamorous lifestyle. She wasn’t worth all the effort, nor where these men worth dying over. At any point in the film, I wanted these characters to hastily die so that I might, just out of chance, come across a more interesting figure. I received no salvation.

Our trio of bland characters is made flesh by a trio of bad performances. First off, people have got to be realizing that the kind of lived-in, edgy, and compelling performance Lively pulled off in 2010’s The Town is more the exception than the rule. Stop casting her in gritty parts unless they are directed by Ben Affleck. As O, our zombie narrator, she does little to make us sympathize with her dumb plight. Then there’s Kitsch (Battleship) who is just having a record year of high-profile flops. He’s done fine acting work before, but as Chon he’s just another ramped-up hothead with little else on his mind. Johnson (Kick-Ass) has the most “flavor” of the trio, acting granola-y and with philanthropic ambitions, but he’s still just another meathead just in different clothes. All three of these characters are idiots and the young actors don’t find any way to redeem them.

Actually, I found Salma Hayerk’s character the most interesting and would have enjoyed a movie based around her dilemma. Elena’s husband was the head of a drug cartel. He was assassinated, so the duties would have fallen to her son, but in order to protect him she assumed power. She has an estranged relationship with her youngest daughter, Magda (Sandra Echeverria), who is ashamed of her mother. This, Elena tells us, makes her produ; she is proud that her daughter is ashamed. Now just look at all those contradictions and complexities inherent with this character. She’s assumed a duty she did not want, something she knows is morally wrong, but she does so in the interest of protecting her children, even if it means pushing them away and having them despise her. And because she’s a woman, any wrong move and her competitors would be ready to pounce. Plus you add the day-to-day anxieties of a life of crime, the threat of betrayal or some upstart wanting to make a name for himself, and you have the makings of a great character drama. But do we get even a little of this? No. Instead, Elena’s just portrayed as another colorful villain. The supporting cast is peopled with what should be seen as “colorful” characters, but really these people are just as skuzzy and boring and personality-free as our loser ménage a trois.

I suppose there is a certain pleasure seeing Stone return to his blood-soaked, violent, gonzo self. The man has a certain enviable madness when it comes to composing a movie, a mad fever of images and sensations. From that standpoint, Savages is at least watchable even though you would rather see most of the characters get hit by a car. I just wish if Stone was going to go nuts that he committed and went all the way, bathing this movie in his lurid predilections as we tumbled down the rabbit hole of the underground world of organized crime. If you’re going to assault my senses with excess then at least have the gall to be excessive. How can you make a lurid movie but EVERY woman onscreen engaging in sex is clothed? That seems unrealistic even for a movie this stupid. Stone seems to have no problem dragging out uncomfortable rape scenes, so who knows what the further implications of that are. There are several grisly torture scenes and some random brutality, so you’ll at least be kept awake in spurts by people screaming.

Too much of this supposed crime picture is caught up in the oppressively irritating soap opera between O, Chon, and Ben (a little part of my soul dies every time I have to type “Chon” as a main character name). The script, based upon Dan Winslow’s novel, adapted by Shane Salerno, Stone and Winslow as well, is a mess but not even an enjoyable mess. Some of this dialogue is just laugh-out-loud bad. O opens the movie saying she has orgasms but Chon, you see, has… “wargasms.” Oh ye God, that one hurt. Every time we’re subjected to O’s protracted, monotone narration the movie loses whatever momentum it may have had.

She keeps saying, “Just because I’m telling this story, doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end.” Can you promise me that? Then there’s the very stupid ending, where the movie tries to have it both ways. It gets its bloody, operatic, tragic lovers ending…. and then in the next breath a happy ending as well, a ridiculously inappropriate happy ending. At least bloody and dead would have been satisfying. It’s a cop-out, a cheat, and a mystifying way to end a movie.

I wanted Savages to be a wild thrill ride. I never expected to be bored. Even when things go off the rails, the movie struggles to keep your interest. Blame the inane screenplay that eventually resorts to a cheap, cop-out of an ending, one that barely rises above the “it was all a dream” blunder. Blame the pathetic character and their lack of personality. Blame the strange feeling that Stone is holding back. Blame the bad performances. Blame the lack of fun. Blame the overwrought nature of the title the movie twists into knots trying to give some philosophical meaning. And finally, you might want to blame yourself for thinking that this movie would be any good in the first place. When movies are this mediocre, this lacking in intrigue, you almost wish they had tipped over completely into irredeemable garbage just so you’d at least have something worth watching. Savages is a strange crime thriller that manages to assemble all sorts of exploitation elements and then fumbles them all. If this is Stone in a “return to form,” I weep for what that entails.

Nate’s Grade: C

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