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Movie Review: “The Hateful Eight”

Love him or hate him, Quentin Tarantino is an exceedingly talented filmmaker. And even though I hold the unpopular opinion that Tarantino peaked with “Pulp Fiction,” and that “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” were exercises in overindulgence, it’s impossible to deny that all his work has an inimitable postmodern flair. “The Hateful Eight” applies that flair to the Western genre, resulting in a final product that departs from Tarantino’s recent approaches and successfully evokes the director’s heyday.

(I was lucky enough to snag a showing of the 70mm “roadshow” version – featuring an old-school overture and intermission – and would highly recommend doing likewise.)

For a Tarantino film, “The Hateful Eight” has an uncharacteristically linear plot: bounty hunters Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and John Ruth (Kurt Russell) find themselves escorting captured desperado Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the nearest town to face justice. When a blizzard descends on their stagecoach, they must take shelter in a remote haberdashery along with a colorful cast of other wayfarers. It soon becomes clear, however, that some of the travelers may have violent intentions.

In its claustrophobic setting and ruthlessly linear plot, “The Hateful Eight” evokes none of Tarantino’s movies as strongly as “Reservoir Dogs.” Here, there’s the same combination of knife-edge tension (that inevitably erupts into grisly violence) and effortlessly dynamic clash between characters. Where “Django” and “Basterds” seemed to lose focus partway through, drifting through a series of larger-scale set pieces, the severely restricted setting of “Eight” works to the film’s great credit: every scene crackles with hair-raising intensity. Coupling this ambiance with a dash of narrative nonlinearity (a la “Pulp Fiction”) results in a fusion that feels both classic and fresh.

Tarantino is very, very good at two things – dialogue and carnage – and both of those are on full display here. Whereas “Basterds” and “Django” drew their narrative energy from adrenaline-charged genre tropes (revenge against Nazis and revenge against slavers, respectively), “Eight” is a much slower burn that relies on character interactions to propel its plot. One of Tarantino’s great strengths is his ability to instantly create memorable characters who transcend their settings, and “Eight” demonstrates that proficiency to great effect. (And yes, for those who view Tarantino films to see such things, there’s tons of bloodshed once the guns come out). As an aside: Ennio Morricone’s score (the first soundtrack the composer has done for a Western in several decades) is a major highlight, and probably the best score I’ve heard in months.

“Eight,” like most of Tarantino’s movies, is about half an hour too long. It’s never dull, but it’s exceedingly deliberate in its pacing (which some viewers will no doubt find off-putting) – I found myself often thinking how well it would translate into a stage play. There’s also one groaner of a plot choice (unfortunately present in many other “whodunit”-type stories) that detracts from the cleverly crafted narrative…though this is a small gripe. And it almost doesn’t warrant mention, given the director’s notoriety, but this is by no means a film for all ages (there’s lots of violence, profanity, gratuitous use of racist language by villainous characters, etc.).

“The Hateful Eight” will probably polarize Tarantino fans. Stylistically, it’s a throwback to an earlier mode of storytelling, and departs from the sprawling “epic” approach seen in the director’s more recent movies. As someone underwhelmed by Tarantino’s last two films, I found “Eight” a highly satisfying change-up…but not all will agree.

VERDICT: 8/10
A lushly filmed, welcome return to form for Tarantino.

Normalized Score: 5.8

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Posted by on January 7, 2016 in Historical

 

Movie Review: “Pawn Sacrifice”

I am not particularly good at chess – I don’t have the discipline to study complex openings and embrace the meta-strategy of the game. I do, however, have the utmost admiration for those who excel at it, and who are able to visualize thousands upon thousands of possible patterns and outcomes before they unfold. From where I’m standing, that kind of mental juggling is enough to drive anyone insane.

And indeed, that is precisely the territory that “Pawn Sacrifice” probes.

“Pawn Sacrifice” is the story of international chess superstar Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and his much-publicized match against Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). More compellingly, however, “Pawn Sacrifice” chronicles Fischer’s slow downward slide into paranoia and schizophrenia…illnesses that lurk beneath the surface of Fischer’s arrogant, larger-than-life personality. This side of Fischer unfolds through turbulent relationships with his trainer Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) and government handler Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg): underneath Fischer’s ridiculous rock-star demands, a deeply troubled psyche continues to crumble.

It’s all very interesting material, much of which I’d never really heard before. That being said, director Edward Zwick (“The Last Samurai,” “Glory”) lacks the bravura to lift “Pawn Sacrifice” into Oscar territory. What unfolds onscreen is heavily plot-centric (“X occurred at Y location on Z date, which we must depict”) rather than character-centric. It’s really a shame, because Fischer is a fascinating tragic figure who doesn’t get quite the attention he deserves. In Zwick’s haste to situate the film historically (“America versus the Soviet Union!”), “Pawn Sacrifice” comes off more as a chess-themed version of “Rocky” or “Miracle” than as a study of insanity and genius. One is left thinking that perhaps Darren Aronofsky or David Cronenberg would’ve brought a suitably terrifying intensity to the project…and a glimpse into Fischer’s tormented mind. But “Pawn Sacrifice” is aimed at mainstream audiences (my “edgier,” Fischer-centric proposed approach would definitely lack the appeal of Zwick’s version), and works as an engagingly atypical “sports movie” of sorts.

None of this is to suggest that “Pawn Sacrifice” is a bad movie; it’s just not a particularly memorable movie. The third act is suitably nail-biting (even for those who know how things ended up, historically speaking). In the lead role, Maguire is satisfyingly unhinged as Fischer, channeling no one so much as his own dark Peter Parker side a la “Spider-Man 3.” Schreiber brings a suitable gravitas to his turn as Spassky, and the final chess scenes are charged with a frenetic intensity.

Is it worth seeing? For sports film fans looking for a drama that trades in brainpower rather than testosterone, “Pawn Sacrifice” delivers. Those hoping for a slightly more off-kilter approach to the movie’s subject matter, however, must look elsewhere.

VERDICT: 6.5/10
An engaging, if sometimes sports-movie formulaic, historical drama.

Normalized Score: 2.4

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2015 in Historical

 
 
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