Friday, January 29, 2016

MUNDANE MELANCHOLIA: a review of "Anomalisa"

Screenplay Written by Charlie Kaufman
Produced and Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

Many years ago, while making one of my frequent trips to the now defunct local video rental store Bongo Video, I was happily engaged in one of my also frequent conversations with one of the movie enthusiast clerks on duty. On this one particular day, this clerk and I were intensely discussing Writer/Director Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" (2008), a film that I have placed highly upon my personal listings of the very best films of the decade between 2000-2009.

The clerk in question agreed with my feelings towards that film and truth be told, I  think he even went many steps further than myself. At one point, he passionately exclaimed that he hoped that Kaufman would never again make another film simply because he felt that "Synecdoche, New York" was not only so perfect, but so conceptually, philosophically, spiritually and artistically complete that there really was nothing else that could be said about the subject matter which revolved around nothing less than the concepts of how we live and most specifically, how we die. I, on the other hand, could not go that far personally, because for me, I felt that a creative talent as singular as Kaufman's demanded to be heard as often as he wished to voice it and I anxiously awaited whatever would arrive next...even though, I did also wonder what other subject could he even possibly tackle considering the completeness of what I feel to be his masterpiece.

And now, seven years on from the release of "Synecdoche, New York," Charlie Kaufman has, at long last, returned with a new film and in some ways, it feels fitting that he would accomplish this feat within a completely different medium. "Anomalisa," Kaufman's collaborative project with Co-Director Duke Johnson and based upon his original play, is a deep and lushly presented delve into the world of animated films, and yet it is no less provocative or furthermore, any less adult than any of Kaufman's past work, which includes his groundbreaking, peerless screenplays for Director Spike Jonze's "Being John Malkovich" (1999) and "Adaptation" (2002) as well as Director Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" (2004). And yet, something this time felt, While Kaufman explores and mines some very difficult emotional, psychological and existential territory once again, the overall results felt akin to a dispassionate shoulder shrug, a quality I never expected to feel from an artist as daring, probing, and as deliriously inventive as Charlie Kaufman. So much so, that I am beginning to wonder if that Bongo Video clerk had been correct all along.

"Anomalisa" tells the tale of lonely, depressed and increasingly emotionally isolated self help author Michael Stone (voiced perfectly by David Thewlis) en route to Cincinnati, Ohio to promote his latest book at a hotel customer service convention. While on his flight, in the cab ride to the hotel, checking into his room at the front desk and being aided by a bell boy and the room service attendant, Michael endures one banal, soul sucking non-conversation after another, during which every single voice he hears, regardless of age, race and gender, all sound exactly the same (and are all voiced brilliantly by Tom Noonan).

Michael Stone is consumed with loneliness, an increasing feeling of disconnect from his wife and young son and is haunted by the memories of Bella, an old flame with whom he disastrously reconnects in the hotel bar (again, all characters aside from Michael are voiced by Noonan).

But suddenly, Michael hears a female voice in the hallway just outside of his hotel room. Racing to find the source of the voice, Michael soon meets Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a painfully shy woman attending the convention who happens to be a fan of Stone's. The twosome share drinks together and return to Michael's hotel room for a long night of conversation and intimacy. Where Lisa does not find herself to be remotely special or interesting, Michael is captivated.

Now, that he has found a true individual, completely unique to everyone else in the world around him, will Michael finally be able to find true love and a sense of tranquility?

If I were able to solely rate a film over ambition and execution, then Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's "Anomalisa" would be the very best film of 2015 without question. It is a gorgeously conceived and presented film with the stop motion puppet animation proving itself to be compulsively watchable as it's warm visual palate and rich, meticulous details keep your eyes riveted to the screen. The presentation of the film's humans is also conceptually startling as the faces all appear to have these subtle lines, as if the faces could detach at any moment. This is not necessarily a disturbing feature but one that plays beautifully into Kaufman's primary themes.

For an animated film, "Anomalisa" is indeed a very R rated adult film filled with mature themes alongside appropriately effective profanity and yes, there is even a sex scene of surprising intimacy. Even further, are the themes of feeling existentially displaced in the only world one can even exist within, which makes the technique of animation especially effective as we int he audience are able to view ourselves in a distinctly different fashion. The "mask-esque" quality to the faces speaks directly to Kaufman's themes of the masks that we all wear when navigating the world and how they play into the perceptions others make of us as well as the perceptions we have of ourselves, all of which may be correct or deceptive or even exist in a simultaneous or symbiotic state. There are points within the film where Michael sees people gradually beginning to appear as being completely identical to each other, something which flies in the face of his self help presentation speeches (a very sly, satirical touch) that compassionately praises the notion of the individual and the inherent quality of every single person's life. And the fact that these statements arrive from a character who is so sadly, and almost insufferably, misanthropic injects a powerful inner conflict that turns Michael inside out.

David Thewlis and Jenifer Jason Leigh turn in performances that are indeed marvelous, and multi-layered. As Lisa, Leigh is especially tender as she beautifully creates a character who is just dazzled that anyone in the world would take even one moment to pay attention to her. Her sense of self discovery over the course of the film is undeniably warming as well as humorously awkward. Lisa's penchant for Cyndi Lauper makes for one particularly delightful moment while also filled with a certain eggshell tension between herself and Michael.

It is here where Kaufman and Johnson's "Anomalisa" begins to exist within the same cinematic universe as both Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson's off-kilter romantic delirium of "Punch-Drunk Love" (2002) and Writer/Director Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation" (2003), as this film also features two lost souls who almost magically find each other and begin to forge a soulful connection. Kaufman's script is very perceptive in the ways that people do tend to throw caution to the wind and completely reveal themselves when existing in situations where the possibility of seeing the other individual again is unlikely. Watching the spirits of Michael and Lisa begin to bloom was indeed as captivating as the visuals.

But remember, this is a Charlie Kaufman experience so everything is certainly not all candy and roses. And here is where the brilliance of Tom Noonan enters the proceedings. Having Noonan voice every other character in the film was a conceptual masterstroke. I should note that Noonan does not alter his voice to reflect gender, age or race, as he always utilizes that flat, monotone, Midwestern voice for everyone. Where Noonan does alter his voice is through the actual performances, giving every character, from Michael's wife, child, ex-lover and so on, a distinct personality even though Michael is unable to discern from one individual to the next.

Certainly, this tactic perfectly illustrates a quality of life I am certain that we all experience to varying degrees as we move day-to-day through the world. Days where we are just not able to deal with any other human beings. Days where the repetitiveness is numbing. Days where everyone we encounter actually does begin to sound exactly like everyone else. Days where we feel a disconnect from anything substantive or meaningful. Yet, for Michael Stone, he is essentially falling into an existential crisis, fearing that he will never differentiate between people again but also fearing that he is also losing sight of himself (as depicted in one nightmare sequence). Tom Noonan's performances, despite the apparent sameness, is truly one of startling diversity and tremendous empathy and alongside his co-stars, it is a shame that all three of them were not recognized during this current awards season.

Now, for all of this high praise, "Anomalisa" just didn't quite hit the mark as I am unable to award the film my personal highest rating solely based upon all that I have just described to you. Again, ambition and intent plus its gorgeous visual presentation is just not enough. I guess my issue with the film is that one it began reaching its end and definitely by the time it had concluded, the entire enterprise just gave me a feeling of...well..."meh." Ever since I have seen the film,  have been questioning as to what it was that I felt to be missing. At first, I wondered if I felt that I needed to have a stronger sense of resolution. But that being said, Kaufman and Johnson were bold enough to not wrap up the film into a tidy bow because sometimes, there is no resolution, there are no lessons learned, there is no growth and we just continue to spiral downwards. Even so, it all felt to be for naught, a middling exercise in navel-gazing, like the film was just misanthropic for the sake of being misanthropic, a quality which diffused the potency of its poignancy. To paraphrase that great song by Peggy Lee, by the end of watching "Anomalisa," I wondered to myself, "Is that all there is to a psychological breakdown?"  

Perhaps what I was looking for was a sense of emotional resolution or that feeling that I have received from past Kaufman works as he has turned a concept so fully inside-out, resulting in a sense of completeness, a feeling that he has truly exhausted every single conceptual, philosophical and spiritual element. I think of the unfiltered abandon with which Kaufman's screenplays for both "Being John Malkovich" and Spike Jonze's "Adaptation" (2002) circumvented every conceivable Hollywood cliche while rapturously diving deep inside the rabbit hole yet always following the story to its most logical conclusions. But, it was with "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," where Kaufman's exploration of the elusive and at times, unreliable qualities of memories and perceptions of self and others fueled what still just may be the most effective cinematic love story I have seen in over 10 years.

Yet what remains most powerfully is "Synecdoche, New York." Even nearly eight years after its release, its power and pull continues to be darkly profound and it possesses a certain chill that resurfaces anytime I happen to think about it. For his directorial debut, Kaufman created an experience that was triumphant and devastating. Anchored by a revelatory performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (man, do I miss him), "Synecdoche, New York" is a film that is almost impossible to describe. But utilizing the creative and inner life of an artist, with all of its inventiveness and failures and the psychological turbulence that ensues, Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" became an uncompromising, polarizing, demanding, labyrinthine and almost impenetrable film. It was essentially looking at a box inside of a box inside of a box and so on. And yet, it was still warmly enveloping with shattering empathy and grace.

I still contend that the film it not necessarily depressing but Kaufman defiantly forces viewers of that film to think about the very nature or existence and mortality in ways we would rather not. I have seen the film perhaps three times, and while I do have the film within my personal collection, it is indeed one that I have not watched in years because I know that doing so will again wrap me within its distinctly formidable cloak and refuse to relinquish its hold for quite some time after viewing it. The first time I saw it, I vividly remember not being able to really move from my theater seat even after the house lights went back up. I mention all of this because while "Anomalisa" did possess that similar uncompromising ambition and vision, the end result was slight by comparison. I am able to recall the feelings I had when I saw "Synecdoche, New York" easily, even after all of these years. "Anomalisa," on the other hand, I have barely given another thought in the few days since having seen it.

In fact, now that I ponder, I think Spike Jonze's "Her" (2013), a film that was incidentally not written by Kaufman but by Jonze himself, is exactly the film that "Anomalisa" wishes it could have been as both films cover similar territory but Jonze's film probes so much deeper to truly make a sobering statement about our collective emotional health in the 21st century. "Her" is the film that cuts to the bone, much like the bulk of Kaufman's past work. where "Anomalisa" really is only skin deep.

And now, perhaps, I understand what that clerk from Bongo Video was talking about. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's "Anomalisa" is nothing resembling a bad film but it almost feel like leftovers from past and better material. "Anomalisa" essentially doesn't really say anything new about Kaufman's familiar subject matter therefore leaving me with something that's really just grumpy and sad. I would hate to think that Kaufman has already expressed everything he has felt the need to express in the past as I still wish for him to have a fruitful creative future. But for now, and as I said before, with "Anomalisa," is that all there is?

Friday, January 22, 2016

HEART OF DARKNESS: a review of "The Revenant"

Based in part upon  the novel by Michael Punke
Screenplay Written by Mark L. Smith &  Alejandro G. Inarritu
Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu
**** (four stars)

If Leo doesn't win an Oscar for this, he ain't never gettin' an Oscar!

Dear readers, "The Revenant," Writer/Director Alejandro G. Inarritu's muscular, majestic follow up to his Best Picture Oscar wining "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)" (2014), is a beast of a film. Certainly not resting upon any of his creative laurels and definitely not coasting upon his most recent grand success, Inarritu has pushed his energies even dangerously further out onto the edge and the result is a pummeling, powerfully haunting, beautifully brutal experience that demands to be seen upon the big screen. Yes, the film is garnering that awards season heat and deservedly so, for it is a fearless, uncompromising, multi-layered work that proves without any doubts that Alejandro G. Inarritu is one of our cinematic masters.

Set in the early 1820's, "The Revenant" stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, a frontiersman aiding a collective of military hunting party members as they hunt and trap for pelts in the unsettled American wilderness. After most of the hunting party is slaughtered by a surprise ambush by the Arikara Indian tribe, Glass and the survivors--which includes his half Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and the belligerent, cunning and racist hunter John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy)-- escape by raft and continue to attempt to evade both the Arikara and Pawnee tribes.

While scouting ahead to determine the best route for advancement, Glass stumbles upon a den of bear cubs and is soon brutally attacked by the protective Mother bear. Although Glass kills the bear, he is mortally wounded, leaving the hunters without their guide as they now have to carry him upon a makeshift stretcher. With their progress dangerously slowing down, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) offers payment to any of his men who offer to remain behind with Glass as well as the promise to give him a proper burial once he dies. In addition to Hawk, young hunter Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and the selfish Fitzgerald all volunteer, allowing Captain Henry and his group to depart for safety.

Once all alone and consumed with mounting fear over being discovered and killed by the Native American tribes, Fitzgerald attempts to murder Glass, who is unable to speak due to his wounds from the bear. As Hawk arrives right at the attempted murder and defends his Father, Fitzgerald kills Hawk and forces Bridger to partially bury Glass alive before making their getaway.

From here, Glass, haunted by the memory of his dead Native American wife, mortally wounded and consumed with revenge against Fitzgerald over the murder of his son, begins his odyssey to track down and kill John Fitzgerald.

Alejandro G. Inarritu's "The Revenant" is every inch as much of a high wire work of cinematic artistry as "Birdman," and perhaps even moreso. Much has already been written about the film's extremely challenging and arduous production, which involved a most intensive, and in-sequence filming schedule in remote (and frigid) locations solely with natural lightning, meaning that filming could only be accomplished during a few short hours during each day and making the urgency of completion that much more paramount.

Whatever the risks taken, every single one of those risks paid off in spades as Inarritu has presented a film that is nothing less than absolutely stunning to regard. Tremendous credit must be delivered to veteran Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who makes every shot in the film glisten with piercing sharpness and clarity. From the film's spectacular opening long take ambush sequence, which unfolds in flowing fury to all of the images of the landscapes, the trees, the snow, the skies, the sun and especially, the water, Inarritu and Lubezki's crystalline display of the environment is shattering in its beauty. Perfectly augmented the visuals is the evocative, glacial score by collaborating Composers Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto and The National's Bryce Dessner. As with the imagery, the sound of "The Revenant" superbly envelops.

With the effective simplicity and ferocious directness of its plot supplemented by the visual and aural display, Inarritu's "The Revenant" is a work that exists within the same punishing yet hallucinogenic universe as Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (19790 and for a more recent example, even George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road." In all of those films, the simplicity of the story sets the stage for us to explore an entire world via a certain geographical landscape where the environment functions as a full character alongside the human protagonists. Just as Coppola's Captain Willard is tasked with travelling upriver during the height of the Vietnam war to assassinate the insane Col. Kurtz, and Miller's Max Rockatansky aides Imperator Furiosa in her redemptive quest to emancipate the imprisoned women of a ruthless dictator in the post-apocalyptic wastelands, Alejandro G. Inarritu's "The Revenant" takes Hugh Glass and the audience upon a merciless journey through the wilderness of 19th century America straight into the heart of darkness for its characters, the audience and our country as a whole.

One of the most indelible images contained within "The Revenant" actually arrives near the very end of the film. Without going into any story or plot details, I will describe to you that all we see is a sustained shot of the brilliant wintry landscape with falling snow covering the trees and mountains with crystal clear river waters flowing into infinity, yet the snow covered ground at the forefront of the screen is profusely soiled with spilled blood and gore. Visual poetry that is especially violent. I have seen some reviews of the film that have bristled with the overall brutality contained within the film as if what we are watching is not too far removed from the "torture porn" aspect of horror films but something more like "pain porn," as we witness Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass endure one back-breaking extremity after another, including the disemboweling of a dead horse in order to sleep inside of its carcass to remain warm for the night. And to that, I reject those notions because this film is decidedly not "Dances With Wolves" (1990).

Despite its often dream-state presentation, Inarritu has delivered a film that feels to be of a more authentic tone of what life in the rural environment of 19th century America may have been like. Essentially, Inarritu has reconstructed the Western by taking any and all sense of romanticism and fantasies of frontier justice and games of "cowboys and Indians" out of the mix. For Inarritu, he is allowing "The Revenant" to help us explore our own violent past, how it has informed and influenced our present and how prevalent our inner conflicts remains in the 21st century. Returning to that piercing image from the film I described earlier, I think that what Inarritu is asking us to acknowledge and explore is how symbiotic everything in existence happens to be, whether person to person or person to the environment.

Within "The Revenant," we see how unforgiving humans are to each other as well as how unforgiving the environment is to humans. Perhaps, it is only through a sense of mutual respect and adherence to those forces more powerful than oneself can there be any sense of harmony or resolution. This may sound to be a bit more New-Ageish for some of you. Yet, with how bleak and grim "The Revenant" actually is, Inarritu is holding up a mirror to ourselves, suggesting overall that the ways we do tend to treat each other and the world in which we live has not served us well to date, so is it time for an alternative or should we just continue onwards, forever ensconced in conflict?

Just as with Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight," Inarritu has emerged with a story that cuts appropriately and uncomfortably to the viscious core of how America as we know it was founded and built upwards, with the seeds of racism, subjugation and genocide planted deeply and forever growing. With the two characters of Glass and Fitzgerald, we are witnessing two sides of a certain coin where one White figure has attempted to try and assimilate himself within an indigenous culture while the other White figure exists to exterminate it.

One scene early in the film, in which Glass protectively admonishes his biracial son for being confrontational to the members of the hunting party, most notably John Fitzgerald, provides a perfect echo to the world children of color must face against White authority figures, regardless if the content of their character is deserving of respect or not. Glass fiercely tells Hawk to remain silent no matter what is said by Fitzgerald, a repellent, greedy, self-serving figure who makes horrific statements, often referring to Native Americans as "tree niggers," and who feels himself simultaneously superior, entitled and yet somehow victimized, therefore justifying his bottomless anger. I think the connections to our current socio/political landscape are as apparent as they are poetically delivered.

Additionally, and most pointedly is the character of Elk Dog (Duane Howard), a Pawnee leader searching for his captured daughter Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk'o). Within one of the film's earliest scenes, we see how the taking of Powaqa exists as just one more atrocity committed against the indigenous peoples of this nation as land, animals, resources and now family has been stolen. Again, Inarritu leaves the connections for us to make but I do think that his agenda and provocations are clearly weaved into the narrative, which makes "The Revenant" exist as far more than an extended revenge yarn.  

Leonardo DiCapiro's performance is magnificently towering and grueling. What is especially remarkable this time around is how the character of Glass, due to his injuries from the grizzly bear, is essentially a silent for the grunts, moans, and screams of course. Therefore, DiCaprio is delivering a performance that is essentially wordless for much of the running time, making the expert usage of all aspects of his physicality that much more incredible to regard. For an actor who never "phones it in," and always seems to twist himself inside out for every role he has chosen to play, DiCaprio's work in "The Revenant" is especially intense to say the least, making all of the accolades bound to arrive for him all more than well deserved.

As the film's antagonist, Tom Hardy is absolutely formidable. While Hardy's performance is completely representative of the cowardly yet unrepentantly cruel nature of John Fitzgerald, he is also compulsively watchable, threatening to steal the screen from DiCaprio every time they share the space. This sense of healthy competition and partnership between DiCaprio and Hardy only serves the film as a whole for the better, as Fitzgerald's fear and racism based rage (note how Fitzgerald has already been partially scalped by the film's opening) works as a counterpoint to Glass' grief fueled rage, resulting in a constantly revolving cycle of violence.

Alejandro G. Inarritu's "The Revenant" illustrates the work of an artist unwilling to take the easy route as this filmmaker continuously searches for ways to keep himself inventive and challenged and we, in the audience, are fully able to reap the rewards of his efforts. Inarritu has helmed an outstanding film that far transcends the boundaries of its genre, and unearths a stirring experience of remarkable profundity while dazzling the senses with white-knuckle fury.

"The Revenant" is one of 2015's highest successes.

Saturday, January 16, 2016


Well, at least they didn't nominate Meryl Streep for anything this year. Thank goodness for small favors.

I have to say, dear readers, that this year Oscar nominations have snuck up on me as I didn't realize that they were going to be announced this week until perhaps the day before. Now that the nominations have been revealed, I almost would have preferred that they had completely passed me by altogether.

The nominations for the 2016 Academy Awards were revealed this part Thursday morning and I have to express to you that I have not been this disappointed in the nominations in an extremely long time. I fairness, I did feel that 2015 was kind of a strange year for the movies. If you randomly scroll through my reviews, you will see that I awarded quite a number of films my highest rating. That being said, there were so many films that I either completely avoided throughout the year or there were some films that major critics completely fawned over that left me feeling less than celebratory. So, I figured that some of the nominees were more than predictable from "The Big Short," "The Martian" and "Spotlight." Yet, I was surprised that Steven Spielberg's Bridge Of Spies" received top honors by being nominated in the Best Picture category--something that felt to be more of a legacy nomination as for me, that film is good Spielberg, not GREAT Spielberg. Perhaps that is a reason for not including him in the eternally problematic Best Director category (more on that later...)

I was also very surprised to see Bryan Cranston nominated for "Trumbo," a film that was not showered with critical praise or box office but of course, Hollywood loved to celebrate itself and since this is a film about the famed blacklisted screenwriter, then why not, I suppose. But to insert Cranston over...well, I'm getting to that.

I think the thing that I found to be terribly upsetting this year were the omissions, and I mean some very obvious omissions. First, and for all of the extremely deserved nominations that George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road" received, I find it wholly inexcusable that Charlize Theron was not nominated for Best Actress for her thunderous performance, and honestly, the entire reason that film even exists as far as the film's storyline is concerned. Theron is the greatest engine driving that film and to leave her out is well...beyond stupid.

Additionally, where were both Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino in the Best Adapted and Original Screenplay categories as these two figures did indeed write two of the very best scripts of the year with both "Steve Jobs" and "The Hateful Eight," respectively??? And especially with Tarantino, who redefines "original" every time he releases a new film. In fact, as far as I'm concerned both "Steve Jobs" and "The Hateful Eight" more than deserve to be placed within the Best Picture category, as they were each so incredibly, bold, brazen works that demanded the fullest of attention...but hey, what do I know?

And again there is that terrible Best Director category which always has the knack of omitting Directors of films nominated within the Best Picture category. Since we have eight Best Picture nominees and five Best Director nominees, that means someone is bound to get left out, also inexcusable and beyond stupid. So, Ridley Scott, for his universally praised and box office smash "The Martian," you're out of luck. Spielberg, you as well. And for John Crowley who directed "Brooklyn," I guess your film directed itself.  Look Oscar, this is an easy fix. If you nominate 5 films or 8 or 10, just re-adjust the Best Director category accordingly. This isn't brain surgery.

It just broke my heart to see Director Bill Pohlad "Love And Mercy," his beautiful, stunning, impressionistic musical biopic of The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson completely ignored, as I felt that it could have been nominated in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original  Screenplay and even Best Sound Design. Most notably, where were both John Cusack, who delivered the performance of his career as 1980's Brian Wilson, as well as the completely transformative work of Paul Dano as 1960's Brian Wilson? The omission of this film is nothing less than a cinematic crime to me.

And now, for the elephant in the room...

Last year, Oscar received some vehement and rightful criticism of the fact that no actors of color were nominated in any of the acting categories. Now, last year, I felt that the criticism should not be laid at the feet of Oscar necessarily but moreso at the feet of the Hollywood studio system that does not have any studio heads of color in the position to greenlight projects made by and starring filmmakers and actors of color. I still think that the blame should be laid at Hollywood's feet but this year, I am piling it on at Oscar's feet as well. Talk about being inexcusable and beyond stupid.

2015 was the year of the universally praised "Beasts Of No Nation" starring Idris Elba. Where was he in the Best Actor category? Nowhere to be found. No Will Smith for "Concussion"? What of "Creed"? Yes, Sylvester Stallone was rightfully nominated for his wonderful performance but dear readers, he would not have had that performance to deliver without the film's Co-Writer/Director Ryan Coogler and leading actors Michael B. Jordan and Tessa Thompson--all of whom are Black. Their omissions were insulting to say the least.

What of "Straight Outta Compton," also universally praised and incidentally the highest grossing musical biopic of all time plus being the highest grossing film made by a Black Director, was fully shut out save for one sole nod in the Best Original Screenplay category. There is just no conceivable way to justify how the film itself, plus Director F.  Gary Gray and actors Corey Hawkins (as Dr. Dre) and especially, the wonderful Jason Mitchell (as Eazy-E) were left out entirely. Hollywood essentially said "Bye, Felicia!" to the entire enterprise, which was indeed one of 2015's finest films by a mile.

What of the sharp, sly and hugely entertaining indie satire "Dope" from Writer/Director Rick Famuyiwa and starring Shameik Moore, Kiersey Clemons and Zoe Kravitz? Not even one mention.

And while Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" would never have stood a chance in Oscar's eyes, that film did make it's arrival in 2015 and aside from being Lee's best film in 15 years, it was an audacious, pulverizing feature loaded end to end with Black talent in front of and behind the camera and again, to ignore absolutely ALL of that talent just makes me angry. Like the old joke about how films concerning the Holocaust will automatically receive nominations, I am wondering if films about Black people--but ones that are relegated to the past and involving our subjugation and enslavement rather than our present, which involves tales of empowerment--will be the only ones that Oscar will take notice of. People may complain about Hollywood's supposed liberalism. But trust me, they ain't that liberal.

This batch of nominations and omissions almost makes me not want to watch the show this year...almost....

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

SCREAM: a review of "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2"

Based upon the novel Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
Screenplay Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong
Directed by Francis Lawrence
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

I have to say that I really wasn't exactly holding my breath to see this film.

Dear readers, you have heard me go on more than enough about my personal fatigue with the excess amount of sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes and re-imaginings that have permeated our theaters. And to add to that list would be the extended, multi-chapter "final" installments of serialized films, which began admirably with the "Harry Potter" film series but, as these things go, have been abused for solely financial gains as we have seen with the "Twilight" series, and most egregiously with Peter Jackson's downright unnecessary and mercenary three film series of the one novel known as The Hobbit.

With the cinematic adaptations of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy, I felt that these films began at a high point with Director Gary Ross' initial installment from 2012 and even ascended to greater heights with Director Francis Lawrence's "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (2013). Yet, by the time we reached the third and final book in the series to adapt for the silver screen, here we went again to a more financially driven decision to cleave one volume into two parts, which by most accounts of those who have read the original novel, have all informed me that this could have easily worked as one film (By the way, I have read the first two novels but not the final one as I just did not respond well to Collins' prose style.)

When I did see Lawrence's "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1" (2014), I did feel severely let down by the proceedings. While it was overall a film of value with challenging, thought provoking content and it did indeed improve over the course of its running time, the entire enterprise did feel to be nothing more than a place holder, the wheel-spinning preamble for the inevitable war film to come. And that is where I found myself at my most disheartened, because if there as anything that I just didn't need to see even one more time was yet another "chosen one" mythology storyline leading up to a war driven finale filled with soulless, bombastic CGI effects from end to end and all signifying absolutely nothing. Frankly, I've seen it all before and better and what was really the point of going through it all over again?

That said, and feeling that since I had traveled this far into the story, I once again plunked down my hard earned money for a ticket and to my surprise, the film not only demonstrated a supreme rebound in quality from the turgid third installment, Francis Lawrence's "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2," delivered a finale that was an impassioned, often wrenching and ultimately sobering ode to the nature and consequences of war, especially in a world of "eye for an eye" politics and inhumane grandstanding. Now that we have reached the conclusion, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2," much like the first two episodes of this series, proved itself to be a better, stronger and more thought provoking series than it had any right to be and the rewards are all ours as a result. This indeed was a grand finale.

"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2" opens just moments after the conclusion of the third film with the rescue of the captured, tortured and now brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) from the Capitol and the clutches of the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) as well as the evisceration of District 12, the home of our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the former "Girl On Fire" now known as the titular "Mockingjay," the symbol of the revolution against Snow.

After surviving an assassination attempt, and desiring only to kill President Snow herself, Katniss sneaks away from the rebels' underground compound led by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) to join the squadron, which includes Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Finnick (Sam Clafin), Cressida (Natalie Dormer) and even a manacled and not fully recovered Peeta (due to his intimate first-hand knowledge of the Capitol) among others on their march through the booby trapped streets to invade the Capitol. Yet, unbeknownst to Katniss and her friends, President Coin has her own duplicitous plans underway to not only usurp power from Snow but doing so in a way that will completely undermine Katniss's mission to end the tyranny of this fascist regime as well as endanger Katniss' life and the future of Panem.

As promised, Francis Lawrence's "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2" is indeed a war film but thankfully, it is not the CGI overload that I was fearing the film would become. After a somewhat sluggish opening (which really is inexcusable considering the slog of the entire third film), Lawrence keeps his film urgently paced with mounting tension and presented with many sequences of furious intensity. I especially loved the sections set just above and within the depths of the Capitols' sewer system, where our heroes are confronted by attacking Peacekeepers, a sea of deadly black tar, an army of mutated creatures called "mutts" and even heated lights that incinerate upon contact. As Katniss and crew encounter one death defying trap after another, there were points when the film recalled for me nothing less than the heights set by Director James Cameron's "Aliens" (1986).

Even with all of that pulse pounding action and even more that follows, I was surprised and pleased by the level of restraint Lawrence offered to the proceedings by having many sequences of quiet, demonstrating that "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2" will be a war film not showered in ear shattering sound, CGI frenzy and hollow fury but a war that is depicted as moving forwards in laborious inches--emotionally and psychologically as well as physically. Really, just regard the sights we witnessed in both Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug" (2013) and even disastrously worse, "The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies" (2014), compare them with what Francis Lawrence has delivered and you will certainly notice a marked difference in quality, intention, and execution. Instead of having Katniss and her crew just running around in circles, Lawrence ensured that his war film will carry a rightful weight making Katniss and the rebels' attempts to overtake the Capitol on foot would exist as a step-by-step siege unto itself, and one where the nature and consequences of war are never disregarded.

Now, at the outset of this review, I mentioned that "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2" was better than it really had any right to be, a sentiment that I have expressed for the first two films in this series as well. This may not make that much sense initially, but hopefully, the following explanation will clear up matters. While watching, I was reminded of a criticism that I had seen in several reviews where there were complaints that the film was relentlessly dark and terribly grim. To that perception, I offer a gobsmacked, "Well...yeah!" because it should be relentlessly dark and terribly grim!

While the entire "Hunger Games" series is set within the realms of dystopian science fiction, what sets it apart from the likes of "Star Wars," "The Lord of The Rings," and the "Harry Potter" series is that where those collections all live within fantasy, "The Hunger Games" is presented as allegory. What else has this series been but an indictment of political fascism and oligarchical society as driven by the big business of war and a fear based power structure designed to keep the masses at bay and entirely subjugated? What else has this series been but a condemnation of the wealthy power structure who recklessly and heartlessly make the decisions to send children to die in war and how the media had been utilized as a tool for propaganda based messages to misinform, confuse and even terrify the public at large? What else is this series saying other than the quotation attributed to Catholic historian, politician and writer Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."  

Because of these clear, passionate messages from the source material of Suzanne Collins' novels, it would have been a tremendous mistake to transform her story into edge-of-our-seat popcorn films. These movies have to be relentlessly grim for we are dealing with a story where children are being forced to murder each other on live television at the beginning and now engaged with fighting and dying for their own emancipation at the end. It is a story where we are asked to seriously contemplate what it means when the government is conspiring against you rather than representing the will of its constituents. It is a story that criticized totalitarianism while it also explores the shifting sands of rebellion and revolution, suggesting that we are all pawns in a much larger and more sinister "game," and therefore, no one's hands are clean...not even Katniss' whose own agenda carries deadly consequences, to which she must perform her own soul searching should she retain any sense of humanity within an inhumane world.

Francis Lawrence, his writers, his crew and his entire cast, again led beautifully and brilliantly by Jennifer Lawrence (and even an especially strong Josh Hutcherson), pay strict attention to all of those concepts and ideas, making sure that "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2" never becomes a cinematic thrill ride. This is a sobering, painful film that unleashes profound tragedy, a haunting conclusion and rightfully so, for in this world there is no safe place and any potential for peace arrives at a high cost. In fact, I think the film even questions the concept of peace itself by wondering aloud if it is something that can ever be found in a world that has already been so disastrously compromised and abused. These are not the themes to be found within a straightforward popcorn movie and thankfully, the filmmakers adhered to Collins' original vision and not to any desires of the Hollywood bean counters who are already attempting to find ways to keep those "Hunger Games dollars" flowing even further with potential prequels. And what is this that I have read about some sort of "Hunger Games" theme park, of all things? Clearly those people have no idea whatsoever of the story being told. And none of those ideas are remotely worthy of our time and dollars, so let us not give them any credence.

With "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 2," the series has concluded upon a high note. It was a series, due to the mistake of separating the final chapter into two parts, threatened to voyage from a blood curdling scream to a muted whisper but with this final installment, Francis Lawrence ensured that the story, the characters and the literary vision of Suzanne Collins returned to its passionate scream.

And scream it did at full throated volume and also with thought, compassion, and the deepest sense of humanity.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

A SOAP MOPERA: a review of "Joy"

Story by Annie Mumolo and David O. Russell
Screenplay Written by David O. Russell
Directed by David O. Russell
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Now this is much more like it!!

To faithful readers of Savage Cinema, you are more than aware of my loathing of Writer/Director David O. Russell's "American Hustle" (2013), so I will not burden you with any re-hashings. That being said, I hated that film so very much that it made even the idea of seeing his latest effort a possibility. No, I didn't wish to give up on Russell as I have long admired his purely idiosyncratic nature as a filmmaker. But even so, the quality control of his entire output has been wildly uneven.

From his strong, early independent features like "Spanking The Monkey" (1994) and "Flirting With Disaster" (1996) and his truly great films like "Three Kings" (1999) and "Silver Linings Playbook" (2012), we have also been given the highly ambitious but outright messy "I Heart Huckabees" (2004) and overrated and surprisingly pedestrian "The Fighter" (2010). I suppose that as I look over Russell's filmography, I have enjoyed more than I have not. But, when he misses...

Anyhow, and now that both my cinematic trips to Quentin Tarantino's old west and certainly, J.J. Abrams' wonderful journey to that galaxy far, far away are behind me, I felt it was time to take the plunge back into David O. Russell's film universe. Thankfully and surprisingly, "Joy" is easily one of his finer efforts. With a rich storytelling canvas that is exploratory, complex, unorthodox and complete, Russell, like Tarantino and Abrams, has delivered a movie filled to the tip top with story and a collective of characters so involving, the end result felt akin to reading a terrific novel. Additionally, he has proven that his cinematic relationship with Jennifer Lawrence was no fluke, as "Joy" marks their best collaboration to date.

Loosely based upon the life of inventor/entrepreneur Joy Mangano, "Joy" stars Jennifer Lawrence as Joy, a divorced single Mother of two young children, living in an increasingly dilapidated house on the South Shore of Long Island. While employed as a booking clerk for Eastern Airlines, the threads of Joy's life are gradually and rapidly being stretched thinner and thinner as she also cares for her depressed, shut-in, soap opera obsessed Mother, Terri (Virginia Madsen), as well as her ex-husband Anthony (Edgar Ramirez), who lives in the basement, her supportive Grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd) and now, her Father, Rudy (Robert DeNiro), newly divorced for the third time, now contentiously sharing the basement with Anthony and running a failing auto repair shop at which Joy also performs duties as an accountant and book-keeper.

After a short spell from his third divorce, Rudy soon begins dating Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), a wealthy widow who possesses a strong head for business. On a wintry afternoon as the family takes a boat ride with Trudy, a spill of red wine on deck inspires the ever inventive Joy with an idea to create what would eventually become the Miracle Mop. But the road from idea to lucrative success is a long, complicated, arduous one with fraudulent deals, increasing to the point of nearly devastating financial costs, endless needling from her bitterly competitive sister Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm) to even attempting to find a home upon the fledgling QVC network at which she feverishly tries to win the favor of QVC Executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper).

While Joy remains intrepid, are the qualities of intense tenacity and innate creativity enough to achieve her dreams of financial stability and ultimately, her independence?

As previously stated, David O. Russell's "Joy" is a veritable feast of a film with more than enough story, twists and tuns of the plot and a rich band of characters to weave into a sumptuous whole. Like Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight," Russell's film is not in any bit of a hurry to get anywhere (a quality that Russell unfortunately does not handle as well as Tarantino as there are some bits here and there that drag). But Russell does indeed continuously and consistently ups the stakes and increases the personal turmoil for Joy, making her a protagonist that you not only root for vigorously, you truly feel the grueling nature of her odyssey quite effectively. When she hits a wall, you definitely feel the fall and sense of failure. But when she scores, the lift is unquestionable.

While Jennifer Lawrence, now at the age of 25, has been criticized for perhaps being too young to take on this role, I felt that she once again exhibited a tremendous sense of command and empathy. Often, as I watched, I found her to be almost a spiritual cousin to cinema's long beleaguered George Bailey from Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946) as Joy is presented to be a genuine, decent person who tirelessly gives of herself for the betterment of her family, regardless of how dysfunctional and maddening that they all happen to be. Often at the expense of her own well-being and sanity, Joy accepts these people for whom they are and without judgement, even when she has more than enough rights to feel judgmental and even resentful of those who consistently make her life difficult to the point of misery, exhaustion and at times, psychological despair that invades her dreams.

For some, the towering high level to which David O. Russell places obstacles in front of Joy may feel to be excessive, but here is where I thought that Russell displayed a certain creative touch that makes his film stand out. Yes, there is a certain sense of heightened reality at work, as if Joy's journey from rags to potential riches, which admittedly, Russell presents as nearly Sisyphean, is essentially the fable of the American Dream where that can-do, steadfast attitude can ultimately reward with a wellspring of fortunes. Now, we know that sort of concept is entirely relative but even so, that framework does sit at the heart of "Joy."

But for me, I felt that David O. Russell had even more fanciful ideas with this story and the level of trials and tribulations that our bruised yet undaunted heroine would undertake. To me, "Joy" often felt to be cut from the same cloth as a film like Tim Burton's "Big Eyes" (2014), which possessed a certain adult fairy tale quality. Who else is the character of Joy but a modern day version of Cinderella, the perpetually put-upon heroine on which the stars will ultimately shine? But, even further, "Joy" feels to be David O. Russell's real world version of nothing less than the soap operas Joy's Mother is addicted to, a story where our unstoppable heroine is beset by all manner of pitfalls from which she will hopefully overcome.

Yet unlike fairly tales and soap operas, Joy, and powerfully so, is never waiting for her Prince (or anyone for that matter) to rescue her. In fact, any potential suitors never arrive within this story, an element that was indeed strongly refreshing. Joy is the sole heroine of her life and this film spins a tale where we witness how her ingenuity, her cunning, her integrity, her accessibility, her uncompromising nature and pureness of heart and spirit will combine to be her sources of strength in an unforgiving world where life owes none of us even one single thing. Unlike in "American Hustle," where I felt that Russell left Lawrence completely stranded, with "Joy," the two are working in lockstep rhythm. It is as if Russell is throwing the absolute perfect pitches for Lawrence to always hit that grand slam and their collaboration is so tightly focused that it makes me anxious to see what they come up with next time.

Most of all, I admired "Joy," the film and character, as we now have another film where the female lead is the one who exists as the full engine driver of the story, much like we have seen this year with Charlize Theron in George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road," Rebecca Ferguson in Director Christopher McQuarrie's "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation," Daisy Ridley in Director J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and even Jennifer Jason Leigh in Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight." Yes, most of those films exist within the fantasy realm where "Joy" is a real world drama, but the intent is precisely the same. The stories of all of those aforementioned films, and now "Joy," cannot exist without any of those actresses and their respective characters and none of them are ever defined by their sexuality and or prospective love interests. These women are ONLY defined through the content and actions of their characters. Certainly, this should not be a novelty but sadly, and eve in 2015/2016, it pathetically remains. But these roles are indeed a source of progress, and "Joy" does indeed make a very strong statement.

I suppose that this is how it is going to be with David O. Russell. Prolific, inventive, restlessly creative and consistently inconsistent. Whether I find his next feature to be great, or a failure or something in the middle, "Joy" is one that is not to be missed.

Friday, January 1, 2016

GREAT VENGEANCE AND FURIOUS ANGER: a review of "The Hateful Eight"

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
**** (four stars)

8 for 8!!

"The Hateful Eight," proudly and brazenly announced as the 8th film from Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino in the opening credits, continues the controversial filmmaker's cinematic winning streak and then some!

Uncommonly gifted as a writer, storyteller and filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino's track record is essentially nothing but peaks and absolutely no valleys--the only difference stemming from how high each particular artistic peak happens to be. For my personal tastes, his latest film sits at the very top, right alongside the brilliant "Pulp Fiction" (1994), the orgiastic "Kill Bill" (2003/2004), the revisionist history revenge fantasy of "Inglorious Basterds" (2009) and especially, the astounding howl of moral outrage that was "Django Unchained" (2012).

His own body of work is a seriously tall order to follow to be certain, and yet here is Tarantino, once again, defiantly marching unafraid (or is that a swagger?) to his own beat, creating one distinctly idiosyncratic feature after another and his latest film, another Western, filmed in stunning, glorious 70 millimeter Panavision and displaying a cast of all stars including the inimitable Samuel L. Jackson, is one of the very best films of 2015 hands down. Naysayers may complain about Tarantino's public persona, his devotion to his own skills which could be read as insufferably arrogant. But let's face it. If you could write and direct a film like Quentin Tarantino, you have more than earned the right to be a bit arrogant. And with "The Hateful Eight," Tarantino has written and directed the hell out of his movie.

Set a few years after (yet still dangerously close to) the end of the Civil War, "The Hateful Eight" opens on snowy day somewhere in Wyoming as we meet the stranded war veteran turned bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), adorned with three bodies of outlaws he plans to turn in upon arriving at Red Rock. After flagging down a horse drawn carriage occupied by bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his captive, the feral, viscious and racist Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to whom he has handcuffed himself, Warren is trepidaciously welcomed aboard, as is also another stranded war veteran, this time a Confederate, and the supposed new Sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins).

Due to a rapidly approaching blizzard, the collective is forced to hunker down at Minnie's Haberdashery, a stagecoach lodge, for a few days, an obstacle that only increases the already powerful tension between the foursome. Yet, inside the haberdashery rest more individuals that complicate the proceedings. In addition to the surrogate proprietor Bob "The Mexican" (Demian Bechir), we meet the elderly Confederate veteran General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), the reserved writer Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and the officious, British and new Red Rock hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth).

Over the course of one long, frigid night, stories are shared, suspicions are risen, and distrust is rampant before everything explodes into a voluminous bloodbath.

Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight" is a splendidly handsome production. Armed once again with his peerless dialogue and storytelling gifts, and stupendously aided by his stellar cast, longtime collaborator the legendary Cinematographer Robert Richardson, and even boasting Composer Ennio Morricone's first Western film score in 40 years, the film fully stakes its claim into your local cineplexes as a wide screen experience that demands to be first witnessed within a movie theater, not a flat screen television.

To that end, "The Hateful Eight," in actuality, is Tarantino's most theatrical production, something that could easily work upon the stage as so much of the film takes place within the haberdashery. To some, this decision may make the usage of 70mm film stock seem unnecessary, but on the contrary, the tactic works brilliantly as we are given the opportunity to study the complete span of space within the haberdashery, as Tarantino slyly wants us to watch what is happening in the background as well as the foreground, ratcheting up the intensity of his Agatha Christie/Alfred Hitchcock styled mystery which unfolds at a deliberate pace.

Yes, "The Hateful Eight" is a slow burn of a film. It is not in much of a hurry to get anywhere and for me, that was also a brilliant approach as we are then able to have as complete pictures of this multi-layered band of baddies as possible, to luxuriate ourselves within the stunning dialogue and also, as with the characters, we can embark upon the overall mystery as to what is or is not true, who is indeed who they claim to be or not. "The Hateful Eight" therefore is Tarantino's most interior film--even moreso than his calling card debut feature "Reservoir Dogs" (1992), the film to which this one mostly resembles. But, trust me, the interior nature is much grander that location, for within this film, Tarantino goes philosophically and psychologically deep, for his characters and frankly, the country itself.

Alongside "Inglorious Basterds" and "Django Unchained," I feel that with "The Hateful Eight," Quentin Tarantino has unleashed his largest, most wide-sweeping political statements to date. From the title, you already know that we will be dealing with a group of irredeemable characters. Yet, as we are subjected to the punishing verbal and physical brutality on display, the endless overt racial and sexual epithets hurled back and forth, and furthermore the fear of retaining some supposedly lost ideal of the United States plus the self-righteous and rage based idea of utilizing increasingly cruel vigilantism and vengeance as some sort of bastardized version of justice (labeled here as "frontier justice"), all of this sounds precisely like life in the 21st century doesn't it?

"The Hateful Eight" represents not only America's past but its precarious present and even exists as Tarantino's warning of its future should we continue to carry onwards from our current position, which as far as I am concerned is decidedly backwards from any progress that has been achieved over the 40 plus years that I have been in the world. In fact, I am wondering to some degree, if Tarantino himself is fearing that any progress made has actually been cancelled out due to the vitriol on display in our political discourse, the gun violence epidemic fueled by the (NRA financially backed) misreading of the 2nd Amendment, the consistent murders of African Americans at the hands of corrupt police officers and the institutionalized racism that offers no justice, the rampant racism that has pervaded our political speech from hopeful political leaders and especially, in the cowardly realms of social media where faceless individuals anonymously spout off the most inconceivable diatribes this side of the Nazi party's "Final Solution."

"The Hateful Eight" (with "Django Unchained" as its equal) offers Tarantino's most vehement cultural critique of America as well as a rightfully vulgar and merciless mirror to hold up to ourselves. In fact, both of the characters of Mannix and Warren utter perceptions that could easily be said today. For Mannix, he openly states that Whites are safest when Blacks are scared while Warren attests that Blacks are safest when Whites are disarmed, two views that represent the racial divide that has truly yet to be crossed, let alone healed. And returning to the metaphorical location of the haberdashery, we have to get deep and go downward into the basement, the ugliest basement to confront our country's darkest sins and monsters in order to have any hope of achieving some sense of release and ascension rather than endless retribution.

In fact, some of the film's greatest conflict is housed inside of Marquis Warren, the only Black character in the film, the one to whom I philosophically could understand the depth of his trauma and rage as being once a product of slavery, then a war veteran for the country that enslaved him and to then still confront the rampant racism of a country that never welcomed him. Armed with the intellectual brilliance of the finest detective and a letter that may or may not have been personally written to him by President Abraham Lincoln, Warren could be seen as a virtuous figure. But this is "The Hateful Eight" and no one is let off of the hook as Warren is also a man of pummeling cruelty (as especially witnessed during an especially nasty tale--that also may or may not be true--he weaves for the Old Confederate General) and he is indeed a figure consumed by blind retribution.

If you think back to "Pulp Fiction," and that climactic restaurant sequence set between hitman Jules Winnfield (beautifully played by Samuel L. Jackson) and would be criminal Pumpkin (also played by Tim Roth), where Jules, armed with a choice to murder in retaliation to Pumpkin's attempted robbery of him, ultimately relents. That is a level of personal evolution to which Warren has not even begun to find in himself, and frankly, how could he at a time so close to the literal end of a war that has only in fact, figuratively continued until this day.

There are charges of supposed sexism launched against "The Hateful Eight" as well regarding Jennifer Jason Leigh's manacled but no less ferocious character of Daisy Domergue. This woman certainly does take a severe beating throughout the course of the entire film but again Tarantino lets absolutely nobody off of the hook and the ironically named Daisy, in particular, is indeed profoundly reprehensible. She gives it even more than she takes it and Leigh goes full throttle, even in long stretches of the film where she has no dialogue. But, watch her body language at all times. She is as rabid as a caged wild badger.

Even so, I was curiously struck by audience reactions with the sexual and racial nature of the film. Whenever Daisy was punched or beaten by Kurt Russell's character, the audience often made audible gasps and recoiled in the horror of seeing a woman beaten so ruthlessly. Yet, whenever Samuel L. Jackson's character was forced to endure the stream of racist taunts and being addressed constantly as a "nigger" (which is again on massive display throughout the dialogue), there was silence throughout the audience.

To charges of Tarantino's perceived sexism, I reject those views as this is the man who gave us such full blooded heroines and anti-heroines in "Pulp Fiction," "Kill Bill," "Inglorious Basterds," "Jackie Brown" (1997) and "Death Proof" (2007). I think we can be able to handle a female villain as sadistically bloodthirsty as any of his male characters. But, you know, it was as if with "The Hateful Eight," Tarantino is playing a social game with all of us as to what we find acceptable or not. For if we are able to accept the humanity of a White woman regardless of how cold-blooded she is but not the humanity of a Black man no matter how cold-blooded he is, then how far have we really advanced as a society. Food for thought...

And now, we again come to the film's violence which is HARD R RATED extreme, such as it is for a Tarantino film. But trust me again, I found all of it, as gory as it becomes, to be as story driven as with any of his other films and he is a master of knowing what to display for effect, when to hold back and when to push hard. Frankly, I saw some trailers before this film that were more vulgar and recklessly violent than anything on display within "The Hateful Eight," because Tarantino takes the violence very seriously, and it is horrific to view...purposefully so.

That being said, this is a three hour film and it is nearly 80 minutes into the film before the first gunshot--to which there has been some of the criticism that we have essentially a 75 minute film elongated to an unjustifiable length. Yes, I guess it could be a 75 minute film--that is if you ejected all manner of story and character development just to get to the blood and bile. But this is a Quentin Tarantino experience, one that unfolds over six exquisite cinematic chapters and leaves no stones un-turned, giving you a film that is mesmerizing and explosive culminating in yet another towering achievement for this most unique filmmaker, who clearly  has much more on his mind than horses and bullets.

Saddle up, dear readers. For Quentin Tarantino's brilliant and brutal "The Hateful Eight" is one of 2015's very finest films.



Welcome to 2016, everyone!!! I am very excited to begin a new year at the movies with all of you and I hope that you are all ready to take the journey along with me. But first, there is some unfinished business from 2015 to attend to. 

In addition to my annual four part Savage Scorecard series, which wraps up the cinematic year of 2015 into a nice, big package, there are still some titles that I am compelled to see before tallying up my final lists.

On the last day of 2015, I saw Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight," so that review has yet to be written and posted for you. To hopefully join the ranks this month, will be the following features:
1. Director Alejandro G. Inarritu's "The Revenant" will have its wide theatrical release this month and I am hoping to see that one in about a week or so.
2. Writer/Director David O. Russell's "Joy," his third collaboration with Jennifer Lawrence, opened Christmas Day and I have yet to get to that one. If you have been keeping track on this site, you will remember that I loved "Silver Linings Playbook" (2012) while I loathed "American Hustle" (2013). Let's see where this one falls.
3. Charlie Kaufman's "Anomalisa," his first film since the singular "Synecdoche, New York" (2008), and animated as well...that one is very high upon my must see list. There have been no rumblings in my city concerning that film, so I may have to inquire as I do not wish to miss this one.

With that, I have more than enough to keep myself busy for the month, and perhaps a much needed new year's resolution for myself is to ensure that I get myself more rest so I am able to better keep pace with my own ambitions. We'll, wish me luck...

...And I'll see you when the house lights go down!!!!!