The Hateful Eight

There won’t be many comin’ home

hateful_eight-jennifer-jason-leighQuentin Tarantino and I are sort of like exes.  I remember our best times (True Romance, Jackie Brown, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Death Proof) as fondly as any memories I have; however, every few years, he attempts to reignite our relationship, and because he once charmed me so, I’m always seduced again.  “It’ll be like old times!” is what I hear.  My friends warn me against dating again, or they roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, I’m sure it’ll work out this time.”  And when it comes down to it, I’m never sorry that I gave it another try, but I can’t deny that things have changed, and I’m ultimately left feeling exhausted at how hard I’ve tried to convince myself that things could be the same as they were.

I introduce this piece this way because True Romance and some others meant so much to me on a cinematic level when I first saw them that I’ve since referred to Tarantino as “Quentin” in conversations with my friends about his films.  These conversations (in the past few years, at least) often involve whether Tarantino has “matured” as a filmmaker, which is to say, “Will he ever do a third act wherein everyone doesn’t get blown away?”  These days, it seems like he keeps doing that simply because everyone keeps criticizing it, but let’s explore a little.

The Hateful Eight, referred to in the opening titles as “The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino” (which gives him two more chances, if you’re keeping score) is a western not in the exact style of any other, but that borrows characters who might wander into a midseason episode of Bonanza and take Michael Landon hostage.  The story centers around Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter “open for business,” attempting to hitch a ride with a stagecoach occupied by another of his kind, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his current prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is wanted for murder but whose crimes are never explicitly revealed to us.  Through one thing and another, the trio, along with soon-to-be-sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), end up at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they plan on weathering a blizzard before they head into Red Rock.  However, when they reach their destination, they find that other folks – Englishman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Confederate General Sandford Smithers (Bruce Dern), and black-hatter Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) – are already making use of the premises, and caretaker Bob (Demián Bichir) wasn’t expecting another group.  Oddly enough, Warren, who has been to the haberdashery before, has never once seen Bob, and notices that owners Minnie (Dana Gourrier) and Sweet Dave (Gene Jones) are inexplicably missing.  None of this aids the paranoia of the already-paranoid Ruth, who makes a big show of warning the others to stay the hell away from his prisoner.

The film is essentially Reservoir Dogs if the latter took place in the mid-1800s.  It involves several hours of dialogue between very bad people on a single set, initially concerning everyone’s suspicions about one another, and later confirming them in Clue fashion.  It also features Tim Roth not only as a mole, but in a role where he spends a good portion of the film bleeding from the abdomen; and Michael Madsen as another violent maniac who receives the same tracking shot he got in Dogs: walking out of the main set to grab something from his “car” in order to commit another heinous act (and in the process, maybe embracing the fact that he still has not escaped the shadow of Mr. Blonde).

But there’s another layer to The Hateful Eight.  Warren is a black man in America following the Civil War, and is constantly threatened by men like Mannix and Smithers, who resent even sharing a room with him (Smithers, otherwise a kindly-seeming old man, is particularly despicable in that he won’t even speak directly to Warren, instead having Mannix relay the insults for him so that Warren hears them twice).  Not that there are many Tarantino films in which the N-word isn’t employed, but it seems heavily topical in this case, not only for the characters, but in general, when one considers the current social climate in America.

Warren, though, essentially the protagonist of the piece if we have to pick one (making Mannix the deuteragonist), is no Django.  He’s not a straight/narrow good guy simply because he once lived on a plantation.  His actual deeds (if he’s telling the truth about a certain encounter with Smithers’s son) are as bad as those of the other characters, and he’s not shy about relating his experiences in extreme detail while laughing, not to mention using them to goad a feeble old man into a deadly duel he can’t win (not that he doesn’t deserve it).  Samuel L. Jackson once again plays a layered and intense character, and although he has appeared in most of Tarantino’s work in some form, his characters never become repetitive or blend together (something that cannot, sadly, be said for frequent contributor Madsen at this point).

The other real wildcard is Daisy, who acts like she doesn’t much care about being taken to her death by Ruth (although she doesn’t appreciate it much when he blatantly elbows and punches her in the face for so much as talking or singing a song he doesn’t like).  She’s a hardened criminal, but we can’t quite see her as a villain when surrounded by so many other bastards.  Add to that the fact that she’s the only woman among these gruff brutes, and that she’s in chains throughout the entire movie, and she doesn’t seem so bad next to neurotic lunatic Ruth, racist war criminal Smithers, stoic-butcherer-of-innocents Bob, or, y’know, Mr. Blonde.  Regardless, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays what could have been a one-note psychopath as someone that we’re constantly keeping an eye on because she’s just so damn exciting to try to figure out.

Early on, Ruth suspects that someone in the haberdashery was planted there in order to spring Daisy loose, and Tarantino plays curiously close to formula by not only having Ruth be correct, but in some cases telling us what’s going to happen (literally: Tarantino himself voices the narrator who lets us know that “Somebody poisoned the coffee!” while we were watching something else).  Having nearly everyone who was waiting at the haberdashery be involved in the prison-break plot seems obvious and too easy, especially since both Warren and Ruth guess as much two hours before it’s revealed (whereas Mr. Orange being revealed as a cop was a genuine surprise that also made sense with context).  Alas, Gage/Mobray/Bob are all just bad guys who that very morning executed poor Zoë Bell and a cast of the most unsuspecting, likable ingénue-types you’ve ever seen, with the help of Daisy’s brother Jody (for some reason played by Channing Tatum, who seems out of place).  If the intention is to have the result be unexpected because it’s what the audience thought they were supposed to expect, it doesn’t quite work, simply because it’s too tamely handled (even with the vicious actions of the outlaws), and renders some very interesting details we thought we were supposed to be paying attention to (for example, wondering how a pink jellybean wedged between two floorboards ended up where it was) relatively futile.

I’ll give Tarantino this, though: he avoids the extended Django-esque shootout in favor of having each shot fired count for something.  Scenes in which characters are killed take not the form of action scenes, but of old-fashioned duels and straightforward executions.  Appropriate and realistic (aside from the buckets of blood), yes, but still fatiguing after we make it to the end, sitting with the last living characters (who are soon to be goners anyway) and thinking about what we’ve just been through and what it was all worth.  The union of Warren and Mannix is a nice illustration of how things may have been if the South simply looked at slaves as human beings, or perhaps how things could be now if everyone chilled the fuck out and loved one another, but it’s done in such Rocky IV fashion that you have to ask, “What else?” after the credits pop up, even after being in the theater for three hours.

As usual, Tarantino brings out career-highlight performances from the actors, especially Jackson, Leigh, and Goggins, keeps it all hilariously and satisfyingly in-universe (Red Apple Tobacco, anyone?), and leaves us feeling like we’ve witnessed something big happen.  Much like Basterds and Django, it’s not a film I’d probably watch again (something that hurts me to say about a Tarantino piece), but it’s enough to keep me, y’know, casually seeing him.

220px-the_hateful_eightThe Hateful Eight (2015); written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Walton Goggins.

 

Rob the Mob

The future ain’t what it used to be

robmobRaymond De Felitta’s Rob the Mob fictionalizes the early-’90s Bonnie/Clyde tale of Tommy and Rosemarie Uva, two ex-cons who accidentally contributed to the apprehension of twenty-plus members of various New York City crime families after burglarizing Italian social clubs.  In a film, an audience has to be able to at least sympathize with the protagonists (read: understand why they do what they do, not necessarily root for them), so there’s plenty of highfalutin contrivance as far as Tommy and Rosie’s motivations go.  But at heart, it’s a Non-Mob movie and a love story, and the fact is, no audience wants to spend time with criminals who remind us of real criminals.

Tommy (Michael Pitt) serves an eighteen-month sentence after robbing a flower shop.  Trying to go straight, his girlfriend, Rosie (Nina Arianda) gets a job at a debt collection agency, probably one of the only businesses hiring in NYC in ’91, and eventually gets Tommy a job there too.  But Tommy is more interested in the trial of Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, the notorious Mafia hit man whose testimony moved federal crosshairs towards Gambino-family boss John Gotti.  When the couple begin receiving paychecks for fifty dollars, they realize a “plan B” is in order.  Tommy procures an Uzi, and decides to stop robbing small businesses and instead go for Italian social clubs, which consist of “old guys playing cards,” and where weapons are not allowed.  He learns from Gravano’s trial which clubs are Mob-run.  When Rosie, the pragmatic one, suggests that this might not be a great idea, Tommy cites his father’s abuse at the hands of the Mob as further reason to brutalize them (it’s an unnecessary addition whose purpose is to make sure the audience thinks of Tommy and Rosie as good guys, and it brings back sad memories of Oliver Stone’s unforgivable revisions to Quentin Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers script).

The narrative stays with Tommy and Rosie until they rob their first club, and then, as it must, the scope gets wider.  We meet Big Al Fiorello (Andy Garcia), a fictional, composite mafioso on whom the feds are keeping a close eye.  He still technically runs things, but he spends most of his time with his grandson, playing games and sharing the secrets of cooking rice balls.  Oddly enough, Al is the gentlest, most morally sound character in the film, and when he reveals the circumstances of how he ended up a mobster in the first place, we really don’t want the feds (played by Samira Wiley and Frank Whaley) to catch him.  The third piece of perspective goes to Jerry Cardozo (Ray Romano), a journalist who has covered the Mob for thirty years.  He becomes fascinated with Tommy and Rosie, going so far as to interview them about their Robin-Hood-ism, and serves as a conduit to how crooked the feds really are – he even proclaims to a federal agent, “You guys are worse than [the Mob]!”  Yes, screenwriters, we get it already.

Long story short, Al’s hand is forced due to “The List,” a MacGuffin inexplicably entrusted to the aging Joey D (Burt Young), which is taken by Tommy and Rosie when they rob the Waikiki Club.  Al puts out a hit on the couple, who seem to be the only ones who do not realize how serious this is.  Count how many times someone asks them, “You know what’s gonna happen, right?”  By the end, for all their belligerence, they really haven’t figured it out.

The First Rule of Non-Mob Movies (i.e. movies that aren’t about the Mob per se, but feature characters who get involved with gangsters) is that they must become Mob movies halfway through, for the simple reason that filmmakers cannot resist making a Mob movie when they have a chance to.  A prime example is last year’s The Iceman, about Richard Kuklinski.  As soon as he gets involved with the Mob, Ray Liotta’s mob boss character suddenly gets his own scenes and conflicts that have nothing to do with the main character or storyline, and serve only to add more shopworn “gangster scenes” to the pile.  Rob the Mob follows the same rule, but it’s handled more responsibly, and Andy Garcia’s character is someone we can genuinely understand and even get behind.  This way, there are no “bad guys” in the movie, just polarized characters who cannot possibly all win (though to be fair, Big Al’s henchmen are all typical mooks, one of whom, played by Michael Rispoli, can’t even understand why Al would want to spare him the task of murdering someone).

Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda are a golden duo, and both manage to play the characters as honest-to-goodness lowlives with enormous aspirations and one very bad idea about how to achieve them.  They could have easily been depicted as misunderstood Robin-Hoods, and even with the creative licenses the film takes, it never gets too precious about anything but their for-better-or-for-worse love for one another (in fact, whenever anyone says something serious, piano music plays).  As you’d expect, the film contains plenty of nods to earlier Mob movies, and a surprising amount of subtle Quentin Tarantino references (think True Romance).  Romano’s character is relatively flat and straightforward, more a plot device than a character, but he never takes more than his fair share of screen time.  Garcia’s turn as the goodhearted mafia don is wonderful, and my only regret about the casting is that Pitt and Arianda never share a scene with Garcia (which makes sense story-wise, but is still a bit sad in retrospect).  Unfortunately, the film does perpetuate the popular depiction of Italians as pasta-slurping goombas and greasy wiseguys who know how to do three things: cook, play cards, and talk about whacking people.  Two gangsters write messages to each other in tomato sauce.  Garcia at one point declares, “There’s no Sunday without cavatelli and braciole!”  Is the idea that most people don’t know what that means, and will just think it sounds obscure and authoritative?  Because those of Italian descent (myself included) groaned a little.

Hats off to Rob the Mob for doing a different Mob movie.  One that cares more about the non-mobsters, involves no real violent imagery, and doesn’t festoon itself with profound ideas.  And, y’know, for reminding us how much sense Yogi actually made sometimes.

Rob the Mob (2014) written by Jonathan Fernandez; directed by Raymond De Felitta; starring Michael Pitt, Nina Arianda, Andy Garcia, and Ray Romano. 

 

 

 

Burt Wonderstone

Escape what?

wonderstoneThe Incredible Burt Wonderstone begins at the very top of Vonnegut’s Fortune Graph, then quickly dips to the near-bottom and pulls some clever loops.  Thankfully, there’s some nuance.  Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) is at the top of the Las Vegas magician circuit along with his partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi).  The duo perform a ten-year-old act in a theatre named after themselves, and their act is the exclusive property of tight-fisted hotelier Doug Munny (James Gandolfini), who tolerates their show’s repetitive nature as long as they rake in the bucks.  Mixed in with their stage crew is the mature and intelligent Jane (Olivia Wilde), an aspiring magician who looks up to Wonderstone until she realizes what a self-involved, sexist fop he really is.  Out of seemingly nowhere, magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), from the David Blaine/Criss Angel school of street-combing, heavy metal non-magic, appears on the scene and makes everyone wonder whether his act, which involves little more than self-mutilation, is the future of magic.

At this point, does anyone really care about the future of magic?  By “everyone,” I mean the real-life audience of this film, because the characters within are certainly concerned enough.  The great illusionists were the most wonderful novelties of their time, and even magicians like Blaine were enjoyable if you couldn’t figure out his year-one card tricks and could get past the fact that his enthusiastic onlookers were plants, but now, in the Age of Irony, the magic of magic would probably be lost on the Youtube generation, who are all too eager to type “FAKE!” in the comments section before a video even ends.

Burt Wonderstone is a formula screwball-comedy; any strange craft or activity could have been implemented in the place of Vegas magic shows for funny results.  The film does some interesting genre-hopping, however; much of the humor, particularly anything involving Jim Carrey, is dark and visceral (I actually looked away during one of Gray’s street tricks), but then, not five minutes later, we receive family-oriented dialogue about friendship.

With Gray becoming more popular, Wonderstone and Anton decide (with more than a little strong-arming from Doug) to change their act.  This leads to an amusing parody of one of David Blaine’s “stand still in public for a week” spectacles, and for these two, the results are calamitous.  With a friendship and a career in shambles, Wonderstone is reduced to rags (near-bottom of the graph!) and must, as we know he will, bounce back and reignite his career while learning a lesson or two about giving.  The problem at the outset is that he’s a horrible person.  His heightened “accent” makes Everett McGill sound like Morgan Freeman.  He’s also unbelievably bigoted, and tells Jane (who refuses to be either his sexed-up assistant or a one-night stand) that she can never be a famous magician because she’s “a girl.”  He also constantly refers to her as “Nicole,” the name of his previous assistant.  His very sincere apology concerning this behavior later in the film makes one wonder whether he’s just been playing a character his entire life.  He admits that he knew her name the entire time and deliberately objectified and insulted her.  Given the joyless and mechanical way he performs in the beginning (including sex with a groupie played by the multi-talented Gillian Jacobs), could he have been acting this way simply because it’s expected of him?  Worth thinking about.  Regardless, he becomes a much more sympathetic protagonist once he admits he was wrong, stops wearing a platinum blonde wig, and begins speaking like a normal person.  The “romance” between Burt and Jane, though, feels completely dialed-in, and I daresay it was not in the script until a big-name studio got involved.

The sexism chat leads to one of the funniest exchanges in the film.  Burt: “I’m sorry.  Back then, women did not have the same freedoms they have now.”  Jane: “It was a month ago.”

Alan Arkin appears as Rance Holloway, the magician whose home kits inspired Burt to do magic in the first place.  There’s some good era-specific humor when, in the 80s segment, Rance’s commercial states, “I’m Rance Holloway.  You’ve probably seen me on the Merv Griffin show.”  Whomever did Arkin’s makeup for this film should win an Oscar next year. Gandolfini plays the voracious Doug as a straightforward parody of Vegas hoteliers: he opens a billion-dollar resort named after himself (“The Doug”), cannot remember how old his son is, and has even fewer layers to his character than Virgil from True Romance.  Buscemi is hilarious and heartwarming as usual in these comedic roles that he loves, and after watching him for three years on Boardwalk Empire, this role is borderline novel.  Wilde plays Jane as a down-to-earth career woman whose character could have potentially been far more than a love interest (though she does achieve her dream of becoming The Astonishing Jane in the end).  Carrey’s Steve Gray is something else.  Even in middle-age, he’s successfully brought back the material he did in The Mask; a kooky niche character who, despite being crazy, manages to be more than a caricature.  Not much more, but Jim Carrey has effectively returned.  Gray is the quintessential celebrity magician who doesn’t care how his dangerous acts affect children.  Jane asks, after Gray mutilates himself at a birthday party, “What if kids try to copy you?”  Gray answers, “I’ll sue them.  It’s my trick.”  Finally, there’s a great cameo from David Copperfield, the guy who made me love magic shows when I was a kid.  I won’t spoil his involvement in the movie, but I still cannot figure out how he did that “interact with your TV” trick wherein you always end up on the moon.

In this case, if you’re entirely sure about what you saw, you overthought it.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone; written by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein; directed by Don Scardino; starring Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, and Jim Carrey.

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