“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” (2015) Review

 

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” (2015) Review

Following the success of his 2012 movie, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, Quentin Tarantino set about creating another movie with a Western theme that also reflected today’s themes and social relationships in the United States. However, due to circumstances beyond his control, Tarantino nearly rejected the project. And if he had, audiences would have never seen what came to be . . . “THE HATEFUL EIGHT”.

The circumstances that nearly led Tarantino to give up the project occurred when someone gained access to his script and published it online in early 2014. The producer-director had considered publishing the story as a novel, until he directed a reading of the story the United Artists Theater in the Ace Hotel Los Angeles. The event was organized by the Film Independent at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) as part of the Live Read series. The success of the event eventually convinced Tarantino to shoot the movie.

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” is at its heart, a mystery. I would not describe it as a murder-mystery, but more like . . . well, let me begin. The story begins in the post-Civil War Wyoming Territory where a stagecoach rushing to get ahead of an oncoming blizzard, is conveying bounty hunter John Ruth aka “The Hangman” and his handcuffed prisoner, a female outlaw named Daisy Domergue. The stagecoach is bound for the town of Red Rock, where Daisy is scheduled to be hanged. During the journey, an African-American bounty hunter named Major Marquis Warren, who is transporting three dead bounties to the town of Red Rock, hitches a ride on the stagecoach. His horse had died on him. Several hours later, the stagecoach picks up another passenger, a former Confederate militiaman named Chris Mannix, who claims to be traveling to Red Rock in order to become the town’s new sheriff. The stagecoach passengers are forced to seek refuge at a stage station called Minnie’s Haberdashery, when the blizzard finally strikes. The new arrivals are greeted by a Mexican handyman named Bob, who informs them that Minnie is visiting a relative and has left him in charge. The other lodgers are a British-born professional hangman Oswaldo Mobray; a quiet cowboy named Joe Gage, who is traveling to visit his mother; and Sanford Smithers, a former Confederate general. Forever paranoid, Ruth disarms all but Warren, with whom he had bonded during stagecoach journey. When Warren has a violent confrontation with Smithers, Daisy spots someone slip poison into a pot of coffee, brewing on the stove. Someone she recognizes as a fellow outlaw, who is there to spring her free from Ruth’s custody. And there is where the mystery lies – the identity of Daisy’s fellow outlaw.

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” marks the sixth Quentin Tarantino movie I have ever seen. I also found it the most unusual. But it is not my favorite. In fact, I would not even consider it among my top three favorites. And here is the reason why. “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” struck me as being too damn long with a running time of two hours and forty-seven minutes. I realize that most of Tarantino films usually have a running time that stretches past two hours. But we are talking of a film that is basically a character study/mystery. Even worse, most of the film is set at a stagecoach station – a one-story building with one big room. Not even Tarantino’s attempt to stretch out the stage journey at the beginning of the film could overcome this limited setting. And due to the limited setting and film’s genre, “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” is probably the least epic film in his career, aside from his first one, 1993’s “RESERVOIR DOGS”. At least that film did not stretch into a ridiculously long 167 minute running time.

I also thought Tarantino made too much of a big deal in the confrontation between Major Marquis Warren and General Sanford Smithers. Apparently, Warren had a grudge against Smithers for executing black troops at the Battle of Baton Rouge. I find this improbable, due to the fact that there were no black troops fighting for the Union during that battle, which was a Union victory. There were no black Union or Confederate troops known to have taken part in that particular battle. Tarantino should have taken the time to study his Civil War history. But what really annoyed me about the Warren-Smithers confrontation was that Tarantino thought it was necessary to include a flashback showing Warren’s encounter with Smither’s son, which resulted in the latter’s death. I realize that the Warren-Smithers encounter allowed Daisy’s mysterious colleague to poison the coffee. But a flashback on Warren and Smithers Jr.? Unnecessary. I also found Tarantino’s narration in the film somewhat unnecessary. Frankly, he is not a very good narrator. And I found one particular piece of narration rather unnecessary – namely the scene in which Daisy witnessed the coffee being poisoned. Tarantino could have shown this on screen without any voice overs.

Despite these flaws, I must admit that I still managed to enjoy “THE HATEFUL EIGHT”. It featured some outstanding characterizations and dialogue. And it seemed the cast really took advantage of these well-written aspects of the script. I am not surprised that the film had received numerous nominations for Best Ensemble. Although the running time for “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” might be longer than it should, I have to give Tarantino kudos for his well-structured screenplay. He took his time in setting up the narrative, the mystery and his characters. And although he may have overdone it a bit by taking his time in reaching the film’s denouement, Tarantino delivered quite a payoff that really took me by surprise, once he reached that point. Unlike many movie directors today, Tarantino is a firm believer in taking his time to tell his story. My only regret is that he took too much time for a story that required a shorter running time.

But what I really liked about “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” is that it proved to be a new direction for Tarantino. In this age filled with lack of originality in the arts, it was refreshing to see there are artists out there who are still capable of being original. After viewing the movie at the theater, it occurred to me that is was basically an Agatha Christie tale set in the Old West. Tarantino utilized many aspects from various Christie novels. But the movie resembled one movie in particular. Only I will not say what that novel is, for it would allow anyone to easily guess what happens in the end. Although many of Christie’s novels and Tarantino’s movies feature a good deal of violence, “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” featured very little violence throughout most of its narrative . . . until the last quarter of the film. Once the Major Warren-General Smithers confrontation took place, all bets were off.

I wish I could comment on the movie’s production values. But if I must be honest, I did not find it particularly memorable. Well, there were one or two aspects of the movie’s production that impressed me. I really enjoyed Robert Richardson’s photography of Colorado, which served as Wyoming Territory for this film. I found it sharp and colorful. I also enjoyed Yohei Taneda’s production designs for the movie . . . especially for the Minnie’s Haberdashery setting. I though Taneda, along with art directors Benjamin Edelberg and Richard L. Johnson, did a great job of conveying the Old West in that one setting.

Naturally, I cannot discuss “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” without mentioning the cast. What can I say? They were outstanding. And Tarantino did an outstanding job directing them. As far as I know, “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” marked the first time at least three members of the cast have worked with Tarantino – Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Channing Tatum and Demián Bichir. Otherwise, everyone else seemed to be veterans of a Tarantino production, especially Samuel L. Jackson. “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” marked his sixth collaboration with the director. It is a pity that he was not recognized for his portrayal of bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren. As usual, he did an outstanding job of portraying a very complex character, who not only proved to be a ruthless law enforcer, but also a somewhat cruel man as shown in his confrontation with General Smithers. Actually, most of the other characters proved to be equally ruthless. Kurt Russell’s portrayal of bounty hunter John Ruth struck me as equally impressive. The actor did an excellent job in conveying Ruth’s ruthlessness, his sense of justice and especially his paranoia. Walton Goggin’s portrayal of ex-Confederate-turned-future lawman seemed like a far cry from his laconic villain from “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. Oddly enough, his character did not strike me as ruthless as some of the other characters and probably a little more friendly – except toward Warren. Jennifer Jason-Leigh has been earning acting nominations – including Golden Globe and Academy Award Best Supporting Actress nods – for her portrayal of the captured fugitive Daisy Domergue. Those nominations are well deserved, for Jason-Leigh did an outstanding job of bringing an unusual character to life. Ironically, the character spent most of the movie as a battered prisoner of Russell’s John Ruth. Yet, thanks to Jason-Leigh, she never lets audiences forget how ornery and dangerous she can be.

Tim Roth, who had not been in a Tarantino production since 1995’s “FOUR ROOMS”, gave probably the most jovial performance as the very sociable English-born professional hangman, Oswaldo Mobray. Bruce Dern, who was last seen in “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, had a bigger role in this film as the unsociable ex-Confederate General Sanford Smithers, who seemed determined not to speak to Warren. Despite portraying such an unsympathetic character, Dern did an excellent job in attracting the audience’s sympathy, as his character discovered his son’s grisly fate at Warren’s hands. Michael Masden gave a very quiet and subtle performance as Joe Gage, a rather silent cowboy who claimed to be on his way to visit his mother. And yet . . . he also projected an aura of suppressed danger, which made one suspect if he was Daisy’s collaborator. A rather interesting performance came from Demián Bichir, who portrayed the stage station’s handyman, Bob. Like Madsen’s Gage, Bichir’s Bob struck me as a quiet and easygoing man, who also conveyed an element of danger. I was very surprised to see Channing Tatum in this film, who portrayed Jody Domergue, Daisy’s older brother. Although his role was small, Channing was very effective as the villainous Domergue, who could also be quite the smooth talker. “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” also featured excellent supporting performances from the likes of James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Lee Horsley, Zoë Bell, Keith Jefferson and Gene Jones.

Yes, I found “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” too long. I feel it could have been cut short at least by forty minutes. And I was not that impressed by Quentin Tarantino’s voice over in the film. I could have done without it. But despite its flaws, I cannot deny that I found “THE HATEFUL EIGHT” to be one of the director’s more interesting movies in his career. With a first-rate cast led by Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins and Jennifer Jason-Leigh; and a screenplay that seemed to be an interesting combination of a murder mystery and a Western; Tarantino created one of his most original movies during his career.

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“FURIOUS 7” (2015) Review

 

“FURIOUS 7” (2015) Review

Following the success of 2013’s “FAST AND FURIOUS 6”, I felt sure that the FAST AND FURIOUS movie franchise would finally end. After all, Universal Studios and director Justin Lin had proclaimed the fourth, fifth and sixth films as part of a trilogy. But to my utter surprise, the producers announced their intention for a seventh film by ending “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” on a cliffhanger.

Anyone who has seen the sixth film knows that Dominic Toretto, Brian O’Conner and their circle of friends had assisted Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) Special Agent Luke Hobbs in taking down mercenary Owen Shaw in exchange for the clearance of their criminal records and finding Dom’s lady love, the amnesiac Letty Ortiz. Their actions had left Shaw in a coma and a return to normal life. However, Dom and his friends learn that Shaw’s older brother, a rogue special forces assassin named Deckard Shaw, is seeking revenge against the team for what happened to the younger brother. The end of “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” revealed that the older Shaw was responsible for Han-Seoul-Oh’s death in Tokyo, which was first seen in the 2006 film, “THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT”. Next, Shaw nearly kills both Agents Hobbs and Elena Neves in an explosion at the DSS Los Angeles Field Office, leaving Hobbs seriously wounded. After Shaw sends a package that destroys the Toretto home in Los Angeles, a C.I.A. covert team leader named Frank Petty recruits the remaining friends to help him prevent a mercenary named Mose Jakande from obtaining a computer program called the God’s Eye that uses digital devices to track specific people, in exchange for allowing them to use the latter to find Shaw first. Unbeknownst to the others, Shaw has allied himself with Jakande to take down Dom, Brian and the others.

I must admit that on paper, “FURIOUS 7” struck me as a first-rate story. Screenwriter Chris Morgan, who has been writing for the franchise since “TOKYO DRIFT”, did an excellent job of continuing the story first set up in “FAST AND FURIOUS 4”. He even managed to skillfully connect some of the story acrs of the franchise’s past films with this latest plot. This was especially the case for Han’s death in “TOKYO DRIFT”, his romance with Gisele Yashar and friendship with Sean Boswell; Letty’s amnesia, which was never resolved in “FAST AND FURIOUS 6”; and, of course, the Shaw brothers. Morgan also did a solid job in utilizing the situation regarding Frank Petty, Mose Jakande and the God’s Eye device for the team’s search for Deckard Shaw. And although I feel that James Wan lacked Justin Lin’s more technical skills as a director, I thought he did a pretty good job in handling a high budget production that was nearly derailed by Paul Walker’s death.

One would have to be blind not to notice how beautiful “FURIOUS 7”. Then again, that has been the case for the entire franchise since the first movie. One has to thank Stephen F. Windon, who has worked on the film franchise since “TOKYO DRIFT”, and Marc Spicer for their colorful and sharp photography. The beauty of their work was especially apparent in the Abu Dhabi sequences. Speaking of Abu Dhabi, it also featured some of the movie’s best action scenes. One of them featured a fight between Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty Ortiz character and martial artist Ronda Rousey, who portrayed the head of security for an Abu Dhabi billionaire. Another featured an attempt by Dom and Brian to steal the billionaire’s car, which contained the God’s Eye device. This scene also led to one of the most spectacular stunts I have ever seen on film. In an attempt to escape the billionaire’s security team, Dom drives the stolen car through a series of hi-rise buildings that . . . hell, I do not know how to describe this stunt. It has to be seen on the movie screen in order to believe it.

The movie also featured another over-the-top stunt, in which the team airdrop their cars over the Caucasus Mountains in Azerbaijan, in order to ambush Jakande’s convoy and rescue Megan Ramsey, the creator of God’s Eye. For some reason, I was not that particularly impressed with this particular stunt. Perhaps it is because I found the sequence a little too frantic and clumsily shot. The best aspect of the Azerbaijan sequence was the fight scene between Brian and one of Jakande’s men, a martial artist named Ket. Not surprisingly, the film’s producers hired martial artist/actor Tony Jaa to portray Ket. They were also lucky in that Paul Walker had been a martial artist for several years, himself. The pair, along with fight choreographer Jeff Imada, created a first-rate fight scene. They also managed to repeat themselves with another excellent fight scene staged inside an empty building in downtown Los Angeles. Imada also served as the choreographer between the Rodriguez/Rousey fight scene in Abu Dhabi and a surprisingly effective fight between Dwayne Johnson’s Luke Hobbs and Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw near the film’s beginning. The only fight scene that failed to impressed me occurred between Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and Shaw on a downtown L.A. parking structure. If I must be honest, there seemed to be too much testosterone and dialogue, and not enough skillful moves to impress me. It almost seemed as if director James Lin overdid it in his attempt to transform this particular fight into a showstopper. Instead, the fight simply bored me.

However, the Toretto/Shaw fight scene was not the only disappointing aspect of “FURIOUS 7”. I had other problems with the movie. Exactly how many years had passed between “FAST AND FURIOUS 6” and “FURIOUS 7”? After watching the 2013 movie, I had assumed that Deckard Shaw had killed Han Seoul-Oh at least a few months after the events of the movie. But in “FAST AND FURIOUS 6”, Brian O’Conner and Mia Toretto’s son Jack was still an infant. “FURIOUS 7” revealed that young Jack was a toddler between the ages of 2-5 around the time of Han’s death. So . . . I am confused. Another problem I had with the film was the dialogue written by Chris Morgan. I might as well be frank. Dialogue has never been a strong point with the FAST AND FURIOUS franchise. But I was surprised that only three characters were forced to spew some of the worst dialogue I had ever heard in the entire movie franchise. And that bad dialogue came out of the mouths of Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham. It seemed as if the three actors were engaged in some kind of verbal testosterone contest to see who is the toughest. No wonder some critics had claimed that the movie’s three worst performances came from them. And if this was not bad enough, I had to endure that uber-macho fight scene between Diesel and Statham that really unimpressed me. Worse, the movie featured a moment in which the convalescing Agent Hobbs becomes aware of a struggle between Dom’s team and the combined Shaw/Jakande alliance inside his hospital room. So, what does he do? Hobbs flexes a muscle, forcing his cast to tear apart. It was one of the most wince-inducing moments I have ever seen on film.

According to the movie’s publicists, Universal Studios and the producers had decided not to kill off the Brian O’Conner character, because of actor Paul Walker’s death. For that I am utterly grateful. Learning about his death had been difficult enough. I certainly did not want to see the same for his character on screen. However, the public was told that instead of being killed off, Brian’s character would retire at the end of the movie. This announcement left me confused. Retire from what? Brian’s law enforcement career ended in “FAST AND FURIOUS 4”, when he helped Dom Toretto escape from a prison bus. His brief career as a criminal ended, following the successful Rio de Janeiro heist in “FAST FIVE”. Brian and the rest of the team’s actions in the sixth movie revolved around their search for an amnesiac Letty Ortiz and efforts to get their criminal records cleaned. As for this seventh movie, they were mainly concerned with finding Deckard Shaw before he can kill them all in retaliation for his brother’s condition. So, from what exactly was Brian retiring? The producers could have simply stated that Brian, Mia and their son had moved to another city . . . and away from Dom and Letty. How did retirement fit into all of this?

I also had one last problem with “FURIOUS 7” – namely the Roman Pearce character, portrayed by Tyrese Gibson. Ever since his first appearance in 2003’s “2 FAST 2 FURIOUS”, I have been a fan of Roman and Gibson’s portrayal of him. But I have become aware of the franchise’s recent portrayal of him as the team’s clown. When this happen? Oddly enough, it began with “FAST FIVE” in which the Tej Parker character made a few snarky comments at his expense. In the 2011 film, it was mildly amusing. In “FAST AND FURIOUS 6”, it got a little worse. But the Azerbaijan sequence pretty much solidified Roman’s role as the team’s clown. This sequence nearly made him a dye-in-the-wool coward, when he originally refused to participate in the car jump. What the hell? Roman has always been a verbose, temperamental and impulsive guy. But he was also a very pragmatic man, who always seemed to have a more realistic view of their situations than any of the other characters. This does not mean he was gutless. Why on earth did the franchise decided to make him this embarrassing clown? And why team him with Tej, who always seemed hell bent upon humiliating him? One of the aspects of “2 FAST 2 FURIOUS” I enjoyed so much was that Roman and childhood friend Brian O’Conner had struck me as a well-balanced screen team. Brian never went out of his way to constantly humiliate Roman . . . like Tej. And Roman never treated Brian like some adopted offspring . . . like Dom. But the producers were determined to exploit the original Dom/Brian relationship in the movies, starting with “FAST AND FURIOUS 4”. And in order not to leave Roman out of the loop, they teamed him with Tej Parker, whom he first met in the 2003 film. Unfortunately, Tej (through screenwriter Chris Morgan), has transformed poor Roman into a clown.

Clown or not, Roman had the good luck to be portrayed by Tyrese Gibson, whom I believe is one of the better actors in the main cast. Mind you, he is no Kurt Russell, Djimon Hounsou or Elsa Pataky, but I still believe he is slightly better than the other actors and actresses in the movie. Speaking of Russell, he gave a dry and witty performance as shadow agent Frank Petty. The actor injected a good deal of sharp wit into a film nearly marred by bad dialogue. As for Hounsou, he made an effective and intelligent villain, capable of thinking on his feet and quickly exploiting a situation or individual. In my review of “FAST AND FURIOUS 6”, I had commented on Paul Walker’s increasing skill as an actor. This improvement of Walker’s acting skills were obvious in scenes that reflected his character Brian O’Conner’s struggle to adapt to a family lifestyle, his conversation with wife Mia two-thirds into the film and his reaction to Dom’s decision to drive a stolen car through the window of an Abu Dhabi skyscraper. Another memorable performance came from Michelle Rodriguez, who continued her portrayal of Letty Ortiz’s struggles to deal with amnesia. This was especially apparent in a scene in which the actress had to convey her character’s frustration in facing fleeting memories of the past and Dom’s attempts to help her regain her memories. The movie also featured solid performances from Jordana Brewster (who was missing throughout most of the film), Chris Bridges aka Ludicrous, Nathalie Emmanuel, Lucas Black (of “THE FAST AND FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT”), Elsa Pataky, Ali Fazal and Tony Jaa. Even Ronda Rousey, despite her lack of acting experience, was appropriately intimidating as the billionaire’s head of security. She is no Gina Carrano, who acting managed to improve by “FAST AND FURIOUS 6”, but she was effective.

I know what you are thinking. What about Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham? Surely they were not that terrible? All three actors are pretty decent performers. But “FURIOUS 7” did not show them at their best. As I had earlier hinted, all three were hampered by Chris Morgan’s machismo dialogue and attempt to raise the testosterone level, via their characters. But each actor had their moments. Diesel’s best moments were featured in his scenes with Rodriguez. Johnson’s best moments occurred in the film’s first half hour, which included his character’s fight against the Deckard Shaw character and his playful interactions with Elsa Pataky’s Elena Neves. And Statham’s best scene in the film, at least for me, was his first. This featured Deckard Shaw’s visit to his comatose brother’s hospital room, in which he expressed tenderness and family concern for the latter (portrayed by Luke Evans in a cameo appearance). Otherwise, Diesel, Johnson and Statham proved to be problematic for me in so many ways.

I am not saying that “FURIOUS 7” is a terrible movie. It would probably be considered terrible by certain fans and moviegoers, whose tastes in films are a lot more elitist or intellectual. But as action films go, it is pretty decent and a lot of fun to watch. Yes, I found it difficult to endure some of the movie’s bad dialogue, the re-imaging of the Roman Pearce’s character into a clown and the over-the-top machismo portrayed by Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham. And James Wan does not exactly strike me as skillful a director as Justin Lin. But, I believe “FURIOUS 7” is still a fun-filled action flick and a worthy last film for the late Paul Walker.

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R.I.P. Paul Walker (1973-2013)