by Evan Hernandez and Paul Deines
Editor’s note: So, to catch up with two of the most super-hyped films of 2015, I am joined by regular contributor Evan Hernandez to run down two bits of movie-nerd catnip: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and The Hateful Eight. Since these movies have both been out for several months, we’ll be a little freer with spoilers. Consider yourself warned.
STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS
The Force Awakens is one of the few movies I've seen that required a second viewing in the theater just to soak in all the awesome. The lightsaber battles are perfect; charged with the raw emotion of inexperienced warriors fighting to the death. The X-Wings and TIE Fighters battle wonderfully in 3D. The new leads carried their place at the center of this new Star Wars saga wonderfully, with humor and chemistry. I was carried away!
The film is a relatively simple story about three characters striving after a single goal. That's good movie-making. Put a locked box in the middle of a room and watch three protagonists discover their true strengths and weaknesses as they pit themselves against each other and the lock. It's hard to go wrong there, and writer/director JJ Abrams gives us exactly that in the story of Finn, (John Boyega) Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
But why did I feel so odd at the end of it? Why did I feel a little cheated?
Most people have attributed this nagging doubt about the film to the flimsiness of the political situation in the movie. Who are the First Order? How much of the galaxy do they control? Is the Republic in charge? So many questions left unanswered, but I can't say it bothered me all that much. I think they'll answer many of those things in the coming movies, but more importantly: who cares?
After a little soul searching, I think I have my answer. I felt cheated because this movie essentially throws out the character journeys of the original films.
When we left Han Solo at the end of Return of the Jedi, he was a changed man. No longer a skeptic, he believed in The Force. No longer a loner, he was in love with Leia and devoted to Luke. No longer a smuggler, he was now a general, someone who volunteered for dangerous missions and risked his life for others and for a cause. His character arc over the three original movies was profound.
Where do we find him in The Force Awakens? Sure, he's not a skeptic, but he has completely reverted to the loner, self-serving, double-dealing smuggler he was at the beginning of A New Hope. He's abandoned his family and his cause. They give us a decent explanation for it: his son's betrayal tears him apart and destroys his relationship with Leia. That isn't implausible. It happens. But it's a lame character choice.
As I left the theater I realized I wanted to see Han and Leia bicker with the old familiarity of a long married couple. I wanted to see the old smuggler chafing under the weight of his responsibilities – anxious to roam the galaxy but sacrificing his happiness for the greater good – only to be released into adventure by the arrival of a new crisis. But none of those hopes were fulfilled!
Leia is back to being an unlovable hard case the way she was in A New Hope. Gone is the affection that Han revealed in her as he was lowered into the carbonite chamber. Gone is the sisterly concern for Luke on Endor as he prepared to face his destiny. She has a few kind moments in the closing minutes of the film, but they're fleeting and unsatisfying. For the most part she is just General Organa, humorless hard-ass.
I have high hopes for Mark Hamill's performance in the next film. It could be the movie that defines his career. But for now, I can only lament that I will never see Han and Luke in the same room again, sharing all that history and companionship. The unlikely friendship that gave us the immortal line "And I thought they smelled bad on the outside!" is gone, and Luke is, once again, alone on a distant planet.
Another Death Star. Another TIE Fighter/Millennium Falcon battle. Another mysterious Emperor hologram. Another X-Wing trench run to glory... The props and set pieces of The Force Awakens are the thoroughly rehashed props and set pieces of A New Hope, set in a galaxy afflicted with an emotional reset button.
Fortunately, it is clear that the center of this new trilogy is not focused on nostalgia, or the past. Rey and Finn are my new favorite Star Wars characters. Their chemistry is joyous, their presence captivating, their characters wonderful and their origins mysterious. Even their droid friend, BB-8, took over that little shelf in my heart marked "Favorite Star Wars Droid". And Kylo Ren is such an intriguing villain that everyone has a different guess as to what his real motivations are.
So, enjoy The Force Awakens. It won't be hard to do. But if you're like me, what you will really enjoy is the anticipation. The next one will stand on its own, without the need to separate itself from the original trilogy. The starship is packed. Let the real adventure begin. (E.H.)
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is a picture pulled apart by its ambitions. On the one hand, it’s the director’s most contained film, yet it’s filmed in Ultra Panavision. It takes place over the course of 24 hours, but there’s an overture and an intermission. Its ensemble is comprised almost entirely of villains, but there is no satisfaction when they start bumping each other off. And while all of this filmmaker’s recent pictures have juxtaposed high-minded themes and cartoonish mayhem, this one feels genuinely disjointed.
The story is Tarantino’s simplest since Reservoir Dogs: two bounty hunters (Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson) and their captive (Jennifer Jason Leigh) become stranded in a Wyoming cabin in during a blizzard. There, they find themselves in the company of a group of untrustworthy characters, including a Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a newly-appointed sheriff (Walton Goggins), and a hangman (Tim Roth). No one trusts each other – nor should they – and soon the blood is spraying.
The wrinkle is that Eight seriously engages with race and nationalism through the prism of the Civil War. Characters wrestle with their roles in the war and whether they have a place in America in the Reconstruction era.
There’s also an exploration of vigilante justice. Remember how Pulp Fiction famously featured no law enforcement? Well, this story seems to be composed of nothing but lawmen, official and otherwise. One of the film’s earliest scenes is a debate between Jackson and Russell about the efficacy of murdering one’s bounties; Tim Roth gives an impassioned speech about the role of the hangman in ensuring Jeffersonian democracy. High-minded notions like due process and the rights of the accused are maintained only as long as they don’t impede vengeance and financial interest. It’s interesting considering Tarantino’s recent verbal skirmishes with law enforcement.
This is an exciting premise, and much of the execution works.
There are fabulous performances. Jennifer Jason Leigh is the standout (and the sole cast member to get an Oscar nomination) playing Russell’s prisoner, Daisy Domergue. Leigh has constructed a creature of true repugnance, sneering, snorting and spouting grotesque obscenities. Yet, she suffers innumerable torments at the hands of her captors, so out vitriol is curtailed.
Walton Goggins’ Confederate-diehard-turned-provincial-sheriff initially seems like retread of the mouth-breather he played in Django Unchained, but as events transpire, he turns sympathetic through Goggins’ inimitable slack-jawed credulousness that makes him seem both dangerous and vulnerable.
Jackson and Russell are more measured. Jackson is a Tarantino actor, and he’s never better than when he’s sinking his teeth into this writer’s words. His Marquis Warren is a doozy, a crucible-forged ore of pure marginalized rage. Some of Jackson’s finest work happens early in Eight, culminating in a bananas soliloquy that is tragic, terrifying and gloriously ribald. Then Warren is unceremoniously tossed into the maw of this film’s plot, and he becomes an amalgam of Hercule Poirot and Mr. Orange. It’s a disappointing final act. Russell, meanwhile, is introduced as Gary Cooper, a white hat with a moral code, but Tarantino quickly makes clear that he’s little more than an ornery jerk with little if any room to develop.
The maneuverings of nine snowbound characters (it’s an open question who, specifically, the titular Eight are) might seem too contained to justify the director’s lush widescreen format, yet the super-wide focus allows us to take in the shifting physical dynamics of our players. A single room has never looked grander. And anytime the camera exits the cabin into a blizzard, Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson create a vast hellish wasteland of unforgiving white. 70MM also enables Tarantino’s most stark, lovely shot to date: a seemingly endless opening take pulling back from a knot of wood to reveal a crucifix above the driving snow and a horse-drawn cart hustling down the road behind it. Set to Ennio Morricone’s eerie, baroque score, it gives the impression of a gnostic tale, some dread fable passed down through the mouths of hard, fearful men. At least that’s what I got from it.
But Tarantino allows himself a lot of leeway, and it’s apt to test an audience. Even taking into account the filmmaker’s affinity for huge swaths of dialogue, this film could benefit with some trimming. Take, for example, the agonizing sequence in which Russell individually threatens each characters upon entering the cabin, only to then offer a general threat to the room. Or Roth’s proposition that the cabin be divided evenly between Yankees and Confederates, an arrangement that lasts about five minutes.
And the ending is just so cruelly glib, it instantly raised my hackles.
See, Tarantino’s films are pastiches: Shaw Brothers preambles, the kitschy opening titles, textured film stock. When his pictures were crime thrillers, they were transcendent. Starting with Kill Bill, Tarantino’s films have become concerned with social ills. His protagonists now are victimized women, Jews, enslaved blacks. Sometimes he can thread the needle and sometimes he cannot. The difference between success and failure, to my mind is: does his casual cruelty detract from his theme? Assailing the Gone with the Wind romanticism of the Antebellum South is as much fun as its attendant bloodshed in Django Unchained. Conversely, the scene in Kill Bill where a hospital attendant blithely discusses the mechanics of raping the Bride’s comatose body sucks a lot of joy out of the badassery that follows.
The Hateful Eight, by design, is long on cruelty and short on basdassery. I think Tarantino is a genius, but the progression of this story is as enervating as it is energizing. At long last, made a movie without a triumph, taking us instead to the end of justice and leaving us exhausted. It got under my skin in a way none of his other films have. But what are we to make of the fact that the act of great national healing here involves an act of raw savagery against a woman?
So if you’re a Tarantino fan, you should see this.
On the other hand, I have no qualms with the people who’ve checked out on this director. If you cannot condone his liberal use of racial slurs, casual misogyny or his appropriation of historical atrocities for popular entertainment, then stay away. No movie is worth the torture The Hateful Eight will inflict on you. (P.D.)