Tuesday, January 26, 2016

My Top 10 Films of 2015

            Aaaaaand we’re back!  It’s once again time for that great annual tradition of looking back and ranking the best of the best in cinema for 2015.  There were a lot of good ones that came out, so let’s get right down to it! 

            As in past years, my criteria for counting a film are as follows: any film that received either a festival screening or a limited and/or general theatrical release in either the USA (where I’m from) or Germany (where I currently live) can be counted, even if it got an earlier release in another country.  While this stretches the bounds a bit of what makes something a “2015” film, it also lets me make a list that’s a touch more unique. 

            Also bear in mind (if you are a new reader), for my Top 10s I don’t try to rank what I thought were the objectively best films of the year (since that will never not be a nebulous concept), but rather which films were my personal favorites.  There were a lot of excellent films I saw that are deservedly getting Top 10 mentions and/or awards nominations elsewhere (like Bridge of Spies, Carol, 45 Years, and Straight Outta Compton, among many others) but that, for various reasons, aren’t the sort of film I personally am inclined to sit down and watch again, which is my main way of determining whether or not I really love a film.  Some films just hit me harder on a personal level than others do, even if I can admit that those movies that do aren’t always the best.  So if you have a favorite you don’t see here, it in no way means I didn’t see it or didn’t like it, and if that is the case I would love to hear about it in the comments! 

            We will start things with a new category called Dishonorable Mentions.  I do everything possible to avoid seeing bad movies, so I never see enough disappointing or downright “bad” movies in a year to justify a full Top 10 Worst list.  However, there were a few that got by my best sensors and disappointed enough to merit one final smack before we wash our hands of 2015.  These are not necessarily terrible movies, but they were the main ones I saw that annoyed or frustrated me in some way, or just plain failed to impress. 

Dishonorable Mentions:  Joy, Jupiter Ascending, Queen of the Desert, Appleseed: Alpha, My Man

            And now, on to the honorables, the really fun and/or great movies that I just couldn’t quite justify squeezing onto my Top 10 list (and it was a great year, so there are a lot of them). 

Honorable Mentions: Kingsman: The Secret Service, StarWars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, The Salt of the Earth (documentary), The Revenant, Amy (documentary), Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, Spy, Mistress America, Room, Crimson Peak, Predestination, The Martian

            And now, the main event! 

10. Hello,Supernova (Yuichiro Konno)

            I have never seen a film like Hello Supernova before, and I honestly doubt I will ever see one like it again.  It’s a great example of how cinema, which we usually see as simply being a vehicle for explaining a story, can also an act of meditation.  There are no story arcs followed by the people we are introduced to in a small, strange city in Japan.  We are just offered moments and experiences.  And yet, we remember them.  They stick out in the mind.  It’s nothing like anyone would expect, so I anticipate some would be bored to tears by the seeming aimlessness of its wanderings, but for me, I was moved by this one in a way I can’t begin to describe.  There’s a beauty to that. 

9. WhenMarnie Was There (Hiromasa Yonebayashi)

            While The Wind Rises sparked a fair bit of controversy about its subject matter, and Princess Kaguya was rightfully praised up and down within the ranks of film critics, I am sorry to see that When Marnie Was There has garnered a much quieter and more downplayed reception since its release (it did manage to snag a nomination for Best Animated Feature, but we all know it won’t win).  Which I think is a right shame, because while it might not necessarily be on the same level as the best that Studio Ghibli has produced, it has a lot of deep subject material tucked in around the edges.  On the surface it’s a typical coming-of-age tale, but there is some heavy emotional stuff that gets unpacked in its best moments.  It also functioned better at being a strange mystery yarn/ghost story than any other film I saw this year.  While the conclusion might not live up to the build-up for some, I was entranced while I watched it, and I won’t forget the experience anytime soon. 

8. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)

            This should be the flick that brings back proper vampire stories.  Filmed entirely in black-and-white, with some of the best and smoothest cinematography in a year full of great camerawork, it slowly envelopes us in a seedy underworld of sex and drugs in a small, nowhere city, where a lone female vampire preys on criminals and abusers of women.  Taking its time to build up the tension bit by bit (the “full reveal” of the vampire is a good half-hour or so into the film), the movie only goes for a few big moments of fright, but when they hit, they hit hard, and are well-earned.  And yet, it also finds room to be strangely sweet in a few key scenes.  Take an evening to watch this one, and turn out the lights when you do. 

7. Pale Moon (Daihachi Yoshida) 

            Combining slick camerawork, one of the coolest-sounding scores of the year, and one of the best performances by a female lead, Pale Moon is a tale equal parts tragedy and comedy, as the main character bounces from one extreme to another in an effort to break out of the professional, cultural, and even ethical strictures placed on her by society by laundering her clients’ money for personal gain.  Is she a good person?  An awful person?  Neither, because existence is inherently meaningless and morality is dead?  The film is remarkably balanced, offering no judgment on her actions, letting us try to decide what we would have done in her stead.  This was one of the last films I saw at Nippon way back in June, and it’s stuck with me all the way through the year.  Absolutely worth a look. 

6. Ex Machina (Alex Garland)

            Ex Machina was easily the most creative, thrilling, and deeply thoughtful sci-fi film that I saw this year, as well as one of the most philosophical.  If AI is indeed possible, is it inevitable that we will project onto (or into?) it our own sexual, gender, and racial biases and archetypes?  Few films I’ve seen carry such challenging ideas about the nature of gender and how it is viewed and perpetuated in our world, and how that could easily affect the future to come (if you want a great think piece on the film, I highly recommend this gem from Feministing).  With all due respect to a certain other movie both Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson appeared in last month, here the two of them plus an astounding Alicia Vikander (whom the Academy nominated for the WRONG film) form the most compelling and fascinating trio of main characters in any feature I saw in 2015.   

5. The Big Short (Adam McKay)

            The Big Short is, in many ways, a spiritual successor to Wolf of Wall Street, carried along by the same frenetic energy and hectic pacing, but stripping out the drug- and sex-orgies so that its righteous anger can be more viscerally focused on the amoral f***ery that allowed the creation of the US housing bubble that, eventually, caused the global recession of 2007.  Anyone watching this with their eyes and ears open will come away angry at themselves for still not really understanding why the whole crisis happened, and how it is that those primarily responsible for a huge amount suffering in so many countries were allowed to walk away scot-free.  Like Wolf, it is a blast of an experience, but if your moral compass still works in any way by the time it’s done, your laughs will become hollow, and you will wonder if it’s ever possible that people will wake up enough to keep something like this from happening again. 

4. Chi-Raq (Spike Lee)

            Taking a lewd Greek comedy about sexism and gender roles that most people have never heard of (and fewer have actually read and understand) and using it as a springboard to rant about gang violence, inner-city degradation, broad societal racism, and the general failure of a country that claims to be based on ideals of freedom and equality to live up to those ideals in any meaningful way is the kind of bizarro, deliberately-provocative combination that could easily result in an utter disaster of a film.  But Spike Lee pulls it off.  He drives up to the edge of the precipice and wheels right over it with a brash and bawdy bravado that is remarkable to see play out.  It might not be as focused in its rage as The Big Short, but that in no way diminishes how powerful its best moments are.  Its resounding call at the end for everyone in this country to WAKE UP is one of the best endings to a film I saw all year.  While I can understand many of the criticisms of how Spike Lee approached the subject matter and whether or not choosing real-world Chicago as its setting was the most appropriate choice, I still argue that this is one of the genuine must-see films of the year, and I urge people to reserve judgment on it until they’ve seen it and thought about what it’s really saying. 

3. Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen)

            A blessed reminder that, despite the slew of less-than-stellar sequels coming out of the once unassailable giant, Pixar is in no way going to fall off the charts anytime soon.  Not only is this their best work since Up, it’s easily one of their best films ever.  It’s also (and please pardon the pun) one of their brainiest, creating a story that’s colorful and funny enough for kids to enjoy, but is also able to use remarkable subtlety and depth to convey complex ideas about psychology and personal growth, about how internal instincts and external events both effect and are affected by each other in complicated ways, and about the need to experience the full range of human emotions in order to truly mature as a person.  It was one of the funniest movies of the year, one of the most moving, and one of the most inspiring. 

2. Brooklyn (John Crowley)

            All due respect to Inside Out, which in true Pixar fashion tugs at the heartstrings relentlessly, but no other movie got me as emotional or made me cry as hard as Brooklyn did.  And I will fully admit (remember, I have no pretensions of being objective with this list) that this has a lot to do with the fact that I have recently been going through something very similar to what Eilis endures as she struggles to reconcile dual parts of her identity, having left her homeland behind to start a new life elsewhere, yet still feeling the tug of the other world and life that could be hers if she wanted. 

            I think there are two main aspects to this film and story that make it so affecting.  One is how matter-of-factly it presents the people, beliefs, and norms of the time period its set in, never making Eilis out to be a perfect model of a heroine, nor making any of her stumbles in life out to be the work of a nefarious villain.  She is a person, flawed and whole, same as the people she bumps into (and falls in love with) over the course of the film.  The second is its understanding of how frankly uncompromising some decisions in life must be- while everyone starts out with universes of possibility open to them, there are times when one path must be chosen over another, and it’s up to us to decide why we choose what we do, and to stick to it if we want to make something of ourselves.  The film’s understated embrace of this fundamental principle of life itself makes the ending vibrate with an emotional power and resonance that broke me.  Only the rarest of films achieve that. 

1. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

            You’re shocked, I know.  What can I say?  Put simply, Fury Road was hands-down my favorite movie of the year.  It crushed all competition in the category of best action movie of the year, with expertly-crafted set pieces that were stunningly beautiful to watch (and a big “f*** you” to all the Michael Bays of the world), yet still bone-crunchingly intense to experience.  It was one of 2015’s most daring films, with all the balls-to-the-wall nuttiness of its world on full display, no shame need apply.  Finally (and this counts for a lot in my book), the clever and detail-packed writing made for one of the most quotable scripts of the year.

            All of that taken on its own would have merited this film a spot on my Top 10 list.  However, it gets my number one spot because it doesn’t stand pat, content with simply being a two-hour, adrenaline-fueled joyride.  It goes the extra mile.  It might not have been the most “serious” film of the year, or directly tackled real-world issues (ala Chi-Raq, The Big Short, Spotlight, etc.), but beneath its crazy exterior lies a wealth of visual and thematic commentary on patriarchy and gender roles that made it, in my book at least, the best movie of the year to combine being both serious thought-piece inspiration AND a true cinematic experience.  It is the best kind of glorious spectacle to bear witness to.  

            And there you have it!  Another year gone, another Top 10 list.  Up soon will be my personal awards for 2015, as well as a brief run-down of my favorite soundtracks from the year, as well as my picks for the upcoming Oscars.  And after that, another year of film will open up to us.  I can’t wait to see what we get this time around. 

-Noah Franc 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

In Memoriam: Alan Rickman

            Screw you, Death. 

            Seriously, why you gotta have us starting EVERY year off like this?  Last year it was Spock, the year before we lost Uncle Phil and JewWario and The Hoff within about 6 weeks of each other, and this year starts off with us losing David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Brian Bedford, AND Glenn Frey over a span of just 8 freakin’ days.  I think your quota of cultural heartbreak has been officially filled for 2016, okay Death?  Just please leave Don Bluth alone long enough for him to finish making the Dragon’s Lair movie.  PLEASE.

            At any rate, here we are, and we once again find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of having to reflect on our own mortality through the knowledge that even the seemingly untouchable figures that, in their own right, are cultural touchstones for generations of humanity, must eventually leave us for whatever comes next. 

            I will mostly be writing about Alan Rickman here, since this is a film blog, and I was never really into work of either David Bowie or Brian Bedford enough to justify calling myself an informed fan of either of them.  For personal reasons, I must include a personal farewell to Glenn Frey, since the Eagles were a big part of my high school years, but even there his loss doesn’t hit quite so personally for me as losing the face that has defined Slytherin House for me since I was 11. 

            I had the immense pleasure of getting to briefly meet Alan Rickman in New York City about 4 years ago, after attending a performance of his in Seminar, one of his last major stage appearances (this was right before he was replaced in the cast with Jeff Goldblum, and the show promptly tanked).  Although it was freezing cold in the City, and the rest of the cast was waiting on him, he took the time to go around to those of us at the perimeter to sign anything we had, take pictures with those who asked, and shake a few hands.  He signed my show program, and when I asked if I could shake his hand, he graciously smiled and allowed me to do so.  I asked him if he had a preference between either stage or film work, and he said he really didn’t, “he just does one, then the other.” 

            These are such odd moments, when I think about them.  For the celebrity, something like that happens a thousand times a day, and the regular parts of anyone’s day, no matter how extraordinary they seem from the outside, always eventually become a bit repetitive , mundane, and often forgettable.  So I have no reason to expect he ever recalled that brief exchange, or that he would have recognized my face had we ever crossed paths again.  But for me, that will always be MY Alan Rickman moment, the time I spoke with him, however briefly, and he said something to me.  And thus, that will always have value to me, even if nothing of substance passed between us. 

            Not that Alan Rickman didn’t also have the capacity to make someone else’s day by remembering them when they thought he wouldn’t.  A friend of mine, who had obsessively went to every performance of Seminar she could while it was on Broadway, related to me once that Alan Rickman commented to her when she shook his hand after her fourth viewing that he thought he recognized her, and she told him she had already seen the show several times.  When she went back a fifth time, and was again waiting out back to see him, he saw her again.  When he did, she said, “Remember me?  I’ve already seen the show 4 times!”  To which he replied, “I know you have.” 

            And so, moving forward, as with other deaths of recent years, we are going to have a lot of moments over the next few years where this collective loss hits us all over again.  My memory of craning my head from the far side of the front row at my first theater viewing of The Sorceror’s Stone will be shaded, just a bit.  Our annual Christmas tradition of watching Love, Actually will hurt, just a bit.  And the crumpled, signed program I have tucked away with my other memorabilia in my grandpa’s old suitcase now has a new importance attached to it. 

            In the words of a tiny, green Jedi Master, “That is the way of things.”  The loss of so many great figures in such a short span of time has been hard to process.  All deaths have an immediate impact on those closest to them, but there are some, like these, that resonate across the world, because in their own small ways they were able to touch on common features of humanity that we all share.  Alan Rickman was one of those people, and he will be sorely missed.  Rest in peace, sir.  We will make sure you are always remembered.  Always. 

-Noah Franc  

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review: Chi-Raq

Chi-Raq (2015): Written by Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott, directed by Spike Lee.  Starring: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson.  Running Time: 127 minutes.  Based on the Greek play Lysistrata, by Aristophanes. 

Rating: 4/4 

            Chi-Raq is the sort of work of art that succeeds in being both wildly fun and entertaining to experience while simultaneously using its very existence as a blunt weapon to force any viewer paying attention to confront a world of uncomfortable hurts and truths they would rather ignore.  In its best moments, it walks right up to the line of being shallow exploitation merely dressing itself up as a message piece as an excuse, but always parlays its outlandish visual style and over-the-top tone into real thematic depth, making a slew of loud and challenging proclamations that those who wish to see a better world must WAKE UP, and take the initiative themselves to make it happen.  It lets no one off the hook, and spares none in its criticism.  It is controversial, it pushes every boundary it can, and many will be offended and/or turned off by the deliberately provocative title and how it treats its subject matter.  But because this is precisely what art is supposed to do, and because it does so with such amazingly self-assured style, I believe it is one of the best and most important movies of 2015. 

            The core story (though the film shoots off on quite a few tangents before the end), is based on the 2,400-year-old Greek comedy Lysistrata (which, fun aside, translates to “Army Disbander” in Ancient Greek), about a woman of the same name who convinces the women of Athens and Sparta to go on a sex strike until their husbands agree to end the Peloponnesian War.  Here, Spike Lee has transplanted the same tale onto the streets of Chicago, where, instead of city-states, we bear witness to the fighting and cost of a 21st-century gang war. 

            Here, our Lysistrata (an award-worthy Teyonah Parris) is the lanky, sharply-dressed girlfriend of Demetrius (Nick Cannon), aspiring rapper and leader of the Spartans.  The first sequences of the film are some of the best I’ve seen in years.  We are first shown a map of the US, made up entirely of guns colored red, white, and blue, and then switch to a black screen that shows us only the words of the opening musical number, a plea for humanity in the midst of terrible suffering.  After some statistics are shown comparing the number of victims of gun violence in Chicago to the number of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (hence the reference to the city as “Chi-Raq”), we transition to a dark, atmospheric, and rocking opening scene in an underground club, where Demetrius raps about all the ways he will crush Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), leader of the Trojans, while his adoring fans bang their heads in time to the beat and wave purple glowsticks (just about every piece of the costumes and sets possible are color-coded; purple means Spartan, orange means Trojan). 

            Lysistrata is right up there in the front, loving all of it- her man will be on top of the world soon, this is her life, this is her scene- until several events in quick succession shake her to her core.  The opening rap number is interrupted by a Trojan observer opening fire in an attempt to kill Demetrius, but instead hits one of his friends, who in turn fires back and strikes down the attacker. 

            Later that night, the Trojans strike again by lighting fire to Demetrius’ house, causing both him and Lysistrata to flee naked into the streets, with Demetrius firing back at his nemesis.  The next day, a young girl named Patti is found dead on the sidewalk, and the visible agony of her mother (Jennifer Hudson, who gets some of the movie’s most powerful scenes) drives Lysistrata to seek the advice of Miss Helen, who convinces her to lead the women of Chicago (and later, as we are shown in news clips, the entire world) in a massive sex strike, with one, overriding goal- world peace. 

            Guiding us through the affair is Dolmedes, played by a Samuel L. Jackson having an enviably palpable sense of fun strutting around the city in the brightest, eye-popping suits you can imagine.  His dialogue- in fact, nearly the entire film- is written in verse, but not your old-school, classic-sounding Shakespearean.  It’s packed with so many slang terms, all piled on top of each other and delivered with such quick, clean, and confident precision by a cast brimming with raw charisma and talent that I would honestly recommend watching it with subtitles, just to make sure you don’t miss something.  This is the sort of movie that completely renews my awe (and rekindles my needling insecurities) as a writer at the incredible craft needed to make a truly great screenplay. 

            Now, many are already aware of the intense controversy the trailer for the film sparked, particularly regarding the movie title.  My guess, however, is that much of this stemmed from the way the trailer presented the film and the fact that many of its harshest critics admitted having never heard of the original play before seeing the trailer.  And that fact is key, because without knowledge of the play and what it’s actual message is, it’s hard to pierce through the bawdy surface of this film and see what it’s really playing at. 

            Just going off of the trailer and nothing else, I can see why some people would have the impression that the film takes a terrible, complicated, and emotionally wrenching topic and boils it down to just sex, just about gang violence, and ignores larger social constructs of racism, state oppression, and generational inequality.  But by doing so, and not looking at the tradition of the play itself, and without seeing the actual FILM (which a number of the trailer’s critics did own up to) means you will miss how Lee takes the trappings of the ancient play and expands UPON it, veering from one commentary to another.  Granted, this does lead to the film often being a bit unfocused, and leaving a lot of themes and topics less developed and explored than others, but it does such a good job of sweeping you up with its endless energy that I couldn’t find it in myself to fault it for that.    

            Here’s the thing- people often like to punctuate debates or controversies about stuff like this with statements of “X, Y, and/or Z shouldn’t be happening now because it’s the 21st century, man!”  Declarations like this rest on the assumption that, just because we are now in a later time period compared to earlier eras of human history, there ought to be something fundamentally different about human behavior and society.  Something fundamentally better.  And if that were the case, then yes, Spike Lee’s decision to base his tale of modern sexism, racism, gun violence, and economic disparity on a millennia-old comedy about women forcing peace by withholding sex from men who can’t control themselves otherwise would indeed be silly, offensive, derivative, and backwards-looking.  It would indeed be both culturally and historically irrelevant and inappropriate. 

            But this is so clearly not the case.  Both the original play and this movie are not an accusation leveled against women that THEY are and have always been the ones responsible for bringing about peace, that they MUST be the adults in the room, because we poor men just can’t handle our own sexual urges with maturity.  It is in no way suggesting that the only value of a woman, the only contribution she can make, lies in her body and sexual abilities and how she utilizes them.  Of COURSE it’s absurd to think that women simply coming together and shutting men down via sex can or should solve all world problems.  It is absurd to have a society so restrictively patriarchal that, outside of the bedroom, men reflexively ignore or reject everything women have to say or contribute.  And yet, that is clearly the type of society we have had for some time, and it’s patently unhealthy.  That is the entire point Spike Lee is making…..and it’s the exact same one Aristophanes was making thousands of years ago.  Things really haven’t changed all that much in the interim.  And this makes Spike Lee’s storytelling and artistic choices all the more striking.    

            There are so many moments this film creates that will stay with me for a long time.  Jennifer Hudson trying to scrub the blood of her own daughter off the street.  Lysistrata, dressed to kill, ripping down a Confederate flag in the office of a rabid old general.  The last scene in particular ends with a wonderful subversion of the famous opening monologue from the classic war movie Patton, where, in one of the most indelible images in film history, he stands in front of a massive American flag covering the entire screen and gives a rousing speech about patriotism and the glories of war.  Here, Sam Jackson steps out in front of what could be the same damn flag for a different kind of speech, one calling for love above all else as the path to peace, and the flag falls to reveal….well, I guess I won’t spoil everything here. 

            Now, all this being said, I feel it would irresponsible for me to not confess my own limitations in understanding how some people would be upset by this, or indeed any, movie for using the very tragic and very real issue of inner-city gang violence as the setting for a satire like Chi-Raq.  I am a white man who has never lived in any inner city and have thus never been directly exposed to the true effects of systemic racism and gang violence.  People who are black (or indeed from any minority, or any subgroup that faces discrimination) and who have lost loved ones this way may very well react to the film completely differently, and wholly disagree with me.  I can’t blame someone honestly finding the subject inexcusable for comedic purposes (even if I strongly disagree with such a stance), regardless of the artistic skill on display (and some may even find the film as a film straight-up bad). 

            So I can’t dismiss the possibility (nay, the probability) that my race has a part in how I view the film.  I can also understand some critiques that Spike Lee might have shot himself in the foot by explicitly making Chicago his setting, even though the type of gang war he depicts is more relevant in other parts of the country and doesn't accurately reflect the particular circumstances of history of the city he gladly takes the title from.  Fair enough.  However, while I can understand people not liking the film because of the subject matter, I do disagree with those (and there have been a few) who claim that it lets whites off the hook, or that by taking the track it does it dismisses the very real and very wonderful work already being done on the ground by communities in Chicago and other cities to combat street violence.  I think, if you watch carefully, you will see a message of profound sorrow at the costs of all forms of racism, gun violence, and equality.  I think this is a film we need, a film worth seeing and worth debating about, because there is a clear anger and passion that shines through, even in its most flawed moments.  As one reviewer noted, with people literally dying on the streets of America, we don’t have the time to worry about politeness and decorum. 

-Noah Franc 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Review: The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight (2015): Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.  Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demain Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern.  Running Time: 167 minutes (187 minutes if you are watching the Roadshow version). 

Rating: 3.5/4

            Trying to review a Tarantino movie is never an easy task for the uninitiated, often because one can’t escape the sense that his movies contain layers of meaning and potential “in-jokes” that you just aren’t getting.  And if there’s a reason for that, that’s because that is often exactly what’s going on- Tarantino’s profound knowledge of the history of film, especially lesser-known pulpy subgenres, is already legendary, and far exceeds that which most people will ever have in their lifetime, so for all the controversies he sparks with his choices of subject matter, it’s hard to argue with the fact that he is clearly one of the smartest filmmakers in the game today, even if that can sometimes work against him.    

            Tarantino’s ability to weave subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) themes of the art of storytelling itself into the narratives of his films was something I was not yet able to appreciate when I saw Inglorious Basterds (a movie I owe it to myself to revisit) but that did strike me profoundly in both Pulp Fiction and his previous work, Django Unchained.  His newest foray into self-referencing film history, The Hateful Eight, takes this to a whole new level by centering almost entirely around the stories our characters tell about both themselves and each other, and since neither those on-screen nor those of us sitting in the audience have any solid evidence for anything we are told, deciding what to believe rests entirely in our own hands. 

            Any such judgment must be made carefully, of course, since the core eight characters of our little yarn are, as the title implies, very hateful figures indeed (and that word itself is probably putting it lightly), so there is no real reason to trust much of anything they say.  Forced to take shelter from an approaching blizzard out in the middle of Wyoming, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) decides to wait out the storm in a small mountain hideaway called Minnie’s Haberdashery with his bounty, a crude-mouthed murderess called Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh).  Along the way, he picks up two stragglers; Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union cavalry officer in the recently-ended Civil War (and now a fellow bounty hunter), and Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), the son of a Confederate fanatic who specialized in laying waste to freedman towns of former slaves. 

            When they arrive at the Haberdashery, things seem off.  The door is broken and has to be nailed shut, and instead of finding Minnie and her husband sitting around as usual, they instead find a lone Mexican (named “Bob”) who claims to be in charge of things.  There are also 3 additional guests, which particularly irks Ruth, since he wants as few people as possible knowing who he has chained to his wrist and why.  These include an oily-sounding Brit claiming to be the local hangman, a former Confederate general famed for massacring captured black soldiers (so as you might expect, both Mannix and Warren recognize him on sight), and a lonesome-looking cowboy named Joe Gage, who prefers to sit off by himself.  They bring us to our total of 8 “hateful” characters- the driver Ruth hired doesn’t really count, as he seems to be the only decent soul around for miles.  Not that that will spare him the fate reserved for nearly all who inhabit a Tarantino film. 

            Having made an uneasy alliance with Warren to protect each other’s bounties as long as they are traveling together, and harboring a mutual hatred and mistrust of strangers in general (and Mannix specifically), they both agree that at least one person in the house, if not more, has lied about their identity.  Ruth is convinced that the rat (or rats) is an associate of Daisy’s, looking for a chance to free her.  Obviously, this is not the sort of environment one would willingly bunker down into, but as we learned at the beginning, there’s a fierce blizzard a-comin’, so everyone is stuck there for at least a day or two until the weather clears over, and the game is afoot to see who will blink first. 

            That’s the premise at its most basic form, but as anyone who has seen more than one Tarantino film can tell you, it’s just a jumping off point.  Sticking to one kind of story per film is the sort of thing Tarantino is incapable of doing, so once the main pieces are in play, things veer off in wildly different (and, of course, horribly violent and/or crude) directions by the time the inevitably blood-and-brains-soaked conclusion arrives.  The trailer bills the film as a Western, but it enthusiastically mixes in elements of closed-room mystery yarns, exploitation flicks, and psychothrillers.  It is such a meticulously crafted piece of work (as indeed all of Tarantino’s films are) that it’s worth seeing just to see the level of remarkable artistry in play, even if you can’t get past or find any sense of redemptive purpose in the tremendous amount of carnage he forces you to endure.  Without spoiling anything, it must be acknowledged that this movie has the highest casualty rate of anything I saw in or out of theaters in 2015. 

            A big part of how the film itself is made and presented lies in Tarantino's particular choice to use 70 mm film, which was much-trumpeted in the marketing, and serves mostly to highlight an incredible amount of detail in the world around the characters.  Film is, in so many ways, the art of illusion- we always know we are seeing something fake, something being acted out in front of us, but only the best films are able to wholly override such knowledge during their run times, and make us feel like we are seeing real people in real places.  This is strengthened in The Hateful Eight by (and this is also par for the course with Tarantino) an absurdly well-put-together cast.  Everyone delivers perfectly on their respective characters.  You all know Samuel Jackson will be great (although here he doesn’t play nearly as sympathetic a character as some might want to believe at first), but Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, and Jennifer Leigh in particular all match him beat for beat, and Walter Goggins redefines the concept of “scene-stealing” with almost every line he utters. 

            I must admit that I did find myself wishing as I walked out of the theater that the movie had been a bit more thematically heavier than it actually is.  Part of this is the nature of the story itself that is being told.  Pulp Fiction deliberately ended with a twist revelation that lent an air of possible moral rescue from the morbid scenes we had seen earlier in the movie, and both Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained deliberately touched on hugely emotional and broad historical and cultural themes that lent greater symbolism to their every story turn.  The Hateful Eight does not rest within such a larger framework.  Yes, the setting and time period, plus the forced co-existence of a black Union officer and two holdovers from the defunct Confederacy, means that race plays a HUGE factor in a lot of the dialogue and character interactions (and is also key to the fate of at least one of the main "hatefuls"), but unlike in Django, there’s no message attached to it- it’s just there.  Taken as a whole, the film’s setup of throwing 8 of the worst examples of humanity together (Matt Zoller Seitz explicitly compared them in his review to a bucket of scorpions) into a confined space just to see how things play out is precisely what we get.  There is no salvation for anyone here.  There is no broader message.  Just a lot of death to behold, make of it what you will. 

            I don’t mean this as a criticism of the movie itself, but I think it is fair to say that it makes the film less memorable in some ways than Tarantino’s last two works, which will have a big influence on how it’s remembered outside of the realm of dedicated cinephiledom.  There is also the particular question of how the film treats Jennifer Leigh’s Daisy, the only female included amongst the main cast.  There is already some backlash against the film being indefensibly exploitative of her character- Ruth and Warren beat her mercilessly several times, she has snow and food thrown in her face, is called the “B-word” as often as Warren is called the “N-word,” and is deliberately shown in the ugliest, most unflattering light possible- but while I feel that these scenes were merely meant as confirmation of the irredeemability of everyone else on screen, the lack of any clear moral framework within the world itself makes that hard to parse out, and I feel I can’t fault anyone who disagrees and finds it excessive. 

            Ultimately, though, it’s hard to deny this movie its due- The Hateful Eight is another masterstroke by one of the best insane geniuses in the world of cinema today, one of the most thought-provoking works to come out in a year filled with thought-provoking works, and the sort of film I highly recommend seeing with in a group so you don’t have to think through it alone afterwards. 

-Noah Franc