Archive for the Thriller Category

Jason Bourne

Posted in Action, Thriller on July 30, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo jason_bourne_ver2_zpsmypfjyrl.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgThe current season has another month to go, but I’d like to dub the preceding 3 months as “The Summer of the Blah Blockbuster”: X-Men: Apocalypse, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Independence Day: Resurgence, Ghostbusters, and Star Trek Beyond. All big budget productions that made far less than their hefty price tags prescribed. The audience numbers have been underwhelming. To be fair, not all cinematic product is created equal. I found the latest  X-Men enjoyable, but I still wouldn’t call it necessary viewing unless you’re an X-Men completist. And that’s true of all of these releases. Other than an opportunity to make money, their stories lack a reason to exist. Did we need this film? The answer is no in every case. Into this atmosphere we get the creatively titled Jason Bourne. It feels right at home in the prevailing Hollywood climate.

Jason Bourne is the fifth installment of the Bourne series. This is a direct sequel to The Bourne Ultimatum, the third chapter and the last to feature Matt Damon. You’d think the previous star Jeremy Renner might warrant a cameo, but no such luck. Paul Greengrass is back directing, making this is third venture into the Bourne franchise. I concede that recounting all these facts is kind of boring to read, but writing about such a workmanlike movie almost demands it.

The story picks up 10 years after the events of The Bourne Ultimatum. Jason Bourne is hiding out in Greece and has taken up illegal brawling. This is a good time to note that Matt Damon is seen knocking a big guy out in one punch and it’s the most clearly shot action scene in the whole picture. Anyway, the former CIA assassin and recovering amnesiac is finally starting to remember who he is. Ex-CIA agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) has discovered some distressing information and has decided to contact Bourne with the info.  Bourne seeks to find out the truth behind the death of his father, Richard Webb (Gregg Henry). Meanwhile CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and CIA agent Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) aren’t happy with these developments. They are implementing a new program aimed at taking Jason Bourne down.

Jason Bourne is a somber thriller filled with dispassionate people doing very serious things. There’s some added nonsense about a Las Vegas tech convention with actor Riz Ahmed. He plays the CEO & Founder of a social networking app called Deep Dream. The CIA wants to spy on everyone through a back door surveillance program dubbed Operation Iron Hand. I couldn’t even summon up the energy to even give a care about this story tangent. I only mention it because actor Riz Ahmed was also in Nightcrawler and it’s another chance to promote the fine actor’s work in that film. At least his tech tycoon registers a little personality. None of the other actors express much emotion. No one even cracks a smile. Perhaps with Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones and Vincent Cassel, the stoicism is a bit more expected. However Alicia Vikander was such an effervescent presence in The Danish Girl. Although I admit she was also brilliant as a robot in Ex Machina. I’m just not sure why she was told to act like one here.

What follows is a lot of perfunctory chase sequences. We get shaky cam photography of chaotic movement edited with a hacksaw. Ladies and gentlemen, I present an entire feature made up of fast cutting. No scene lingers for more than 3 seconds before proceeding to the next shot. The ADHD cinematography can be frustrating. “Stop I want to get off!” I almost screamed, like right there out loud in the theater. Two people simply have a quiet conversation and the camera refuses to remain still – a nervous bundle of energy, constantly moving. Ok so at times it can be exhilarating as well. The camera jerks and dives to thrilling effect during a climactic fight. The motion gives the feeling of actually being physically hit before descending into a blurry mishmash where the human combatants are no longer discernible. Director Paul Greengrass is known for favoring this technique. He’s had much success in the past (United 93, Captain Phillips), but the plot developments aren’t memorable this time around. We’re just going through the motions.  In the end, I didn’t hate this movie. It’s too competent to be egregious. The effort fuses high production values with well choreographed action. Jason Bourne isn’t great, but it’s significant because it exemplifies how this kind of entertainment is now available on TV for free.

07-28-16

Green Room

Posted in Crime, Horror, Thriller with tags on May 2, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo green_room_ver2_zpsszgyt22s.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe release of writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival heralded an important new talent. Only his second feature, it was the winner of the FIPRESCI award that year. The chronicle was ostensibly about an emotionally damaged, shadow of a man, out for revenge. What made that grisly thriller so much more than just a routine genre exercise, was that we somehow sympathized with the lead character and his plight.

Now Saulnier is back with Green Room, another well constructed, but no less gruesome, labor of malevolence. It concerns The Ain’t Rights, a down and out punk band from the East Coast, desperate for a paying gig. They appear to be in their mid-20s. Despite their youth, the four group members (played by Alia Shawkat, Anton Yelchin, Callum Turner and Joe Cole) have a kind of a been-there-seen-it-all world weariness that is rather amusing. They steal gas by siphoning it out of other cars, wake up in a cornfield because the driver fell asleep, and attend a podcast interview that is incredibly awkward. A question about their favorite “desert island band” becomes an amusing running gag throughout the entire picture right up through to the very last line of dialogue. The movie teases with humorous asides initially, but humor is not really the fabric of the film.

The proper tale begins when the foursome is booked to play a gig at a remote club in the woods outside Portland, Oregon. Unbeknownst to them, the bar is actually a popular hangout for neo-Nazi skinheads. The young punk rockers aren’t too keen on white supremacists, but they need the cash, so they play their set for the rowdy patrons and collect their money. As they’re about to leave, an extremely tense situation develops and the band is prevented from leaving by the skinhead bouncers. This is all under the direction of the club’s owner, Darcy, a calm white supremacist leader, portrayed in an inspired bit of casting by Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Patrick Stewart. A less than committed skinhead (Imogen Poots), becomes an unexpected ally of our protagonists.

At first the band tries to calmly talk their way out of a sticky situation, but their negotiations fail. Now it’s punks vs. skinheads in an all out game of cat and mouse. The drama begins intelligently with words but ends morbidly with slaughter.  Ah but what are the stakes? There is an assortment of random human beings, but character development is anemic at best. Without that emotional connection, our desire to even give a care is severely diminished. Director Jeremy Saulnier relies on rising tension and it works for awhile. However after 60 minutes, the dialogue becomes less needed to further developments. Gore emerges as the story in the final third. Le carnage extraordinaire is the ultimate agenda for the day. People are sliced, diced and mutilated with guns, machetes and killer dogs. It’s competently done I suppose, but it’s not as terrifying as the intense standoff that came before it. It’s exactly what I expected would happen and after Blue Ruin, I expect more from Mr. Saulnier.

04-24-16

The Invitation

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on April 22, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo invitation_ver2_zpsdx4ycifp.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgHave you ever been invited to a dinner party you didn’t want to attend, but you went anyway because you figured the aftermath of skipping it would be worse than the actual event?  The Invitation concerns just such a get-together. As the story begins, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are driving up the Hollywood Hills to his former home. His ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard), is hosting an intimate soiree with her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). You can tell by Will’s demeanor that he’s dreading it. It’s been over two years since they’ve seen each other. The trip doesn’t get off to a good start. He accidentally hits a coyote on the way up and is forced to humanely kill the poor animal in order to put it out of its misery. The chance occurrence is random but it sets the tone.

A smattering of guests show up at the intimate gathering. There’s a mixture of mutual friends and a couple of unfamiliar acquaintances present too. Will’s relationship with his ex-wife Eden is key. They share a tragedy. Eden’s relationship with her new husband David is important too. Throughout the course of the film we gradually develop an understanding of who these people are and what makes them tick. Director Karyn Kusama injects brief flashbacks of Will and Eden’s former life together and we start to understand more about what happened in their marriage. Then the guests play a variation of the party game “Never Have I Ever” called “I Want.” You’ve seen this type of material before. The soul searching thirty-somethings expressing their thoughts over wine and hors d’oeuvres. But what makes The Invitation so effective is how it confounds expectations.

Writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi really take their time in establishing the characters. Hosts Eden and David are so cordial. Are they overtly so or is that just in our heads? Will senses something is amiss. He grows ever more anxious. There is a fair amount of build up. So much so that after awhile you may be checking your watch as to where all this is headed. Rest assured, the gradual unfolding of the narrative serves to make the denouement even more effective. Karyn Kusama is an American director who first made a critical splash with the independent Girlfight in 2000. Then went Hollywood with bigger budgets and did Æon Flux (2005) and Jennifer’s Body (2009). The Invitation would suggest that she’s at her best with smaller scale pictures free from studio interference. I haven’t gone into the point of The Invitation. That’s something the viewer needs to decide after watching. All I can say is, it most definitively made me feel something and I liked the experience.

Addendum: I love awkward dinner party movies. Rope (1948), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Clue (1985). A small gathering of people can produce uneasy situations of clashing ideologies. It’s a self contained universe. Back in 2014, American writer/director James Ward Byrkit came out with Coherence. It was nifty little independent picture. The Invitation reminded me of that film. You should watch them both.

04-17-16

Midnight Special

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 5, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo midnight_special_zpstoozevoh.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgRoy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are waiting for the sun to go down in a darkened motel room. A television is on in the background. As we listen to a news report, we learn these very men have kidnapped an 8-year-old named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). He sits reading comics with bizarre blue goggles over his eyes and noise canceling headphones on his head. Day turns into night and now they’re on the move again. A religious group and the federal government are both involved as well. Everyone seems preoccupied with the fate of this special little boy. It’s not even clear for awhile where our sympathies should lie. For example, is Roy a good guy or a bad guy? To even reveal that would be a disservice to the story.

The pleasure of this slow burn thriller is in the way it slowly disseminates information so that the audiences gradually understand what’s going on as developments arise. Our minds are held captive by the truth. The trick is how much to reveal and how soon. Midnight Special does a pretty outstanding job at keeping us interested for the majority of its run time. It’s fascinating how “wanting to know more” fuels our appetite. There are well placed reveals throughout and these have the power to satiate our desire. Director Jeff Nichols shows remarkable restraint. The full scope of the chronicle is a gradual understanding.

Less is more. If you were to boil Midnight Special down to its very essence, it’s essentially a chase movie. But there is beauty in simplicity. Nichols has always been a visual story teller and his latest is no different. This is his 4th directorial effort. The drama manipulates sci-fi into a tale about family. The spirit of Steven Spielberg permeates the account. As such it’s Nichols’ most accessible movie. Actor Michael Shannon has been featured in all of the director’s films. He’s appropriately intense. Kudos also to young Jaeden Lieberher as the enigmatic little boy. He was the central child at the focus of the wonderful 2014 comedy St. Vincent as well. What keeps Midnight Special from achieving greatness is that you ultimately need to have some sort of an ending. That’s the difficult part in a narrative that’s all about the journey. I liked being in the dark, but the script ultimately betrays its own ambiguity. It gives us a destination.  This could have been handled differently. The resolution is a little too, hmmm shall we say, specific in this case. It’s the finishing misstep that ultimately lingers in a movie that is mostly captivating.

03-31-16

Eye In The Sky

Posted in Drama, Thriller, War on March 24, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo eye_in_the_sky_zpsngimpfbv.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgA British mission to capture terrorists is led by Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren). The criminals are discovered in a safehouse in Nairobi. Among them are a radicalized British-born woman who has converted to Islam. There’s also her husband, a Somalian jihadi with American citizenship. The British operation is aided by on-the-ground intel (Barkhad Abdi) who uses remote controlled surveillance. These technologically advanced cameras work like something in a James Bond film. One is a robotic flying contraption designed to look like a hummingbird. It gives overhead views from a lamppost outside the terrorist’s house. The other is a tiny flying winged bug that has been carefully maneuvered to fly inside the house. This one is perched on a rafter giving clear perspectives of the individual rooms within.

Watching in safety from thousands of miles away at intelligence headquarters in London are the politicians and lawyers, including Powell’s military superior, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman). They are trying to determine whether to take action. There’s much protocol debate over the various consequences of their actions and how they will be perceived. American drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is awaiting orders in a claustrophobic trailer at Creech Air Force near Las Vegas. He’s the one with his finger on the actual button – a missile connected to a flying drone, an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV).

Eye in the Sky is a fascinating ethical study surrounding the decision-making involved between the military and the government. It’s a brilliant set-up. The scenarios allow for a careful consideration regarding the complexities involved. The operation becomes more complicated when the terrorists are observed gearing up for a suicide bombing – an act that will endanger the lives of potentially hundreds of people. The objective to “capture” soon develops into “kill” – at least that’s what Colonel Katherine Powell recommends.

The legalities of drone warfare is a highlight of this thoughtful discussion. What are the ethical ramifications? The ability for governments to execute people from the safe comfort of a remote location in a different country is addressed. Also the collateral damage, specifically the possible loss of innocent human life, is taken into account. Director Gavin Hood takes a long time to set up the plot, but once the story catches spark, it’s pretty tense. He’s so much more engaging when directing these smaller films (Oscar-winning Tsotsi) than the big budget Hollywood blockbusters (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Ender’s Game). The intricate consideration of numerous “what-ifs” form the crux of the drama. The moral dilemmas make Eye In The Sky essential viewing.

10 Cloverfield Lane

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller on March 14, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo ten_cloverfield_lane_zpse8bhkrgw.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgA woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) awakes from a car accident and finds herself in a concrete room chained to a wall with a saline IV in her arm. A heavy-set man named Howard (John Goodman) tells her that he is her solitary chance for survival. You see, it was he that “rescued” her and is now keeping her alive. Panicked, she tries to escape, but Howard sedates her. When she comes to, Howard explains that some kind of attack has already occurred in the world and the air up on the surface is now unbreathable. He speculates either the Russians, Koreans or maybe even aliens. His bunker is the only sanctuary left.

The title 10 Cloverfield Lane is supposed to recall the sci-fi monster movie Cloverfield from 2008. That picture was directed by Matt Reeves, written by Drew Goddard and produced by JJ Abrams and Bryan Burk. But just forget about any connection to that earlier picture. All of those guys are indeed back, as producers this time, but aside from some mutual personnel and the horror angle, this story has essentially nothing to do with that earlier production. Think of this as a spin-off of the Cloverfield universe. The sooner you let go of finding ties to that prior film, the more you’ll enjoy this one on its own terms.

If 10 Cloverfield Lane has a spiritual ancestor, it would be Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, the 1948 psychological thriller based on the 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton. This debut feature from director Dan Trachtenberg virtually takes place entirely in a single enclosed space underground. The success of this three-character chamber piece rests on the charisma of its principal players as they interact with one another. John Goodman is suitably creepy. He’s memorable in a rare dramatic role. Yet he’s so visually iconic in comedic portrayals that I never forgot that I was still watching John Goodman, the actor. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is an appealing presence as a woman in a stressful situation. She radiates a mix of helplessness and moxie that snares our full attention and compassion. A sympathetic cellar-mate named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) appears to be a fellow ally.

The atmosphere of this nail-bitter vacillates between a spirit of unease and relaxed camaraderie. The majority of the action is claustrophobic suspense that creates tension out of the unknown. What happened to the earth? Is life up there actually worse than their existence in the bunker? Can Howard be trusted? Questions of this variety fuel the narrative and warrant serious consideration as the drama plays out. We’ve seen this genre before. M. Night Shyamalan is a director that has built a career on this sort of thing. The fragments designed as a foundation on which to build a denouement that hopefully answers all of these questions and more.  The build-up is bit protracted, but don’t worry. Everything will indeed be explained by the time the credits roll. And let me affirm, I was more than satisfied by the resolution.

03-10-16

The Witch

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller on February 22, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo witch_ver3_zpsv3zoodmn.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgBleak supernatural horror about a Calvinist household in 17th-century New England. Faith is an important part of their life as father frequently cites scripture. Right at the start, he dismisses those in the community as false Christians and so he and his family are banished from the village. The specifics of the disagreement over beliefs is never explicitly stated, but given the family’s devout commitment we can only assume they were too strict. Was that even possible in Puritan society? The clan is comprised of Father William (Ralph Ineson) his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and fraternal twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). After a time they welcome the arrival of a fifth child, baby Samuel.

Initially the narrative suggests that their lack of money and failed crops could be the reason for their downward descent. But as time wears on, more definable tragedies torment the group. These events give rise to the idea that oldest daughter Thomasin could be an evil presence. These allegations, made by family members, have an effect on her psyche. The first sign that things are amiss is the fate of infant Samuel. While under Thomasin’s care, the baby vanishes from sight the moment her eyes are closed during a game of peekaboo. Later her frustration with the unruly twins’ behavior causes her to make an assertion she later regrets. The film’s main protagonist seems to fluctuate at first but Thomasin ultimately emerges as the lead.

The Witch is a beautifully realized period piece. A carefully constructed, deeply researched drama that utilizes the language of the time. A postscript informs the audience that the dialogue was inspired by court transcripts of the 1630s. To the contemporary ear it sounds just like Shakespeare. That would be the vocabulary of the Elizabethan era, but Jacobean is more accurate since this is the early 17th century. The spirit of the prose keenly enhances the atmosphere. Yet the isolation of their existence speaks louder than any words. The eerie hostility of the early American frontier is as nasty as a villain. The gloom of the surrounding forest takes on a malevolent nature. Even the animals like a goat they’ve named Black Phillip, and a beady-eyed rabbit who pops out of the forest, take on demonic overtones.

The Witch is a dark tale of foreboding. The austere, almost grim, daily existence is maintained throughout. Most modern viewers have a mixed understanding of Puritan society. Life in New England was a completely different world over three hundred years ago. It was a harsh reality. The Witch is set some 60 years before the Salem witch trials famously dramatized in The Crucible. Certainly the story recalls those historical events, but there are distinct differences. Arthur Miller’s play revealed how paranoia can spread to create mass hysteria in a community. Writer/director Robert Eggers chooses to depict the growing fear as it affects only one family – a close-knit group, separated from civilization. Another contrast is that the conspicuous rise in bizarre occurances would seem to justify their fears. There is definitely something sinister afoot, although the lies that follow undeniably tear them further apart. Director Eggers doesn’t rely on the traditional tools of the horror genre. This is more of a thought-provoking mood piece rooted in the Jacobean dialect of the times. As such, the deliberate pace won’t charm today’s audiences raised on physical shocks. However those partial to slavish attention to detail will find much favor here. This engrossing saga of a Puritan family’s worst nightmare is extremely artistic. That makes the thiller rather unique in this day and age.

02-18-16

The Revenant

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Thriller, Western on December 31, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo revenant_ver2_zpsqfyjk4tb.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgFrom Amores Perros to Babel to Biutiful to Birdman, director Alejandro González Iñárritu deals in dark, sometimes cruel subject matter. His latest is no different. The Revenant recounts the tale of real-life 19th century fur trapper Hugh Glass, an American frontiersman who who became sort of a folk hero after surviving a bear attack. Then he is left to die by the two the men assigned to take care of him [John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter)]. Hugh sets out to find his way back to their outpost under the command of Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). He’s mainly trying to stay alive, but he also seeks retribution. Hugh Glass has been documented in numerous books and was the subject of the feature film Man in the Wilderness (1971) starring Richard Harris. This production is based on a fictional 2002 novel by Michael Punke, inspired by real events.

Once again, Iñárritu has reunited with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The partnership is integral to the success of the picture. Set in the American Rockies in the 1820s, the shoot stretched over 9 months in the inhospitable Canadian Rockies northwest of Calgary often in subzero temperatures. However the ending was photographed in Argentina after the weather became too warm. No computer graphics or green screen technology was used to simulate the environment. These are actual people suffering barbaric conditions. The atmosphere has a physicality you cannot fake.

The Revenant has some of the most ravishing cinematography I have ever seen. Lubezki or “Chivo” shot on location using only natural light. He presents these snow covered vistas with a visual grandeur that is never less than breathtaking. With this work of art, Emmanuel Lubezki now ascends the shortlist for greatest cinematographer of all time. With his back to back wins at the Oscar, a 3rd would be unprecedented but equally well deserved. The quiet majesty present in his work here makes violent events and a harsh weather look strikingly beautiful. By all accounts, this was not an easy shoot. He, like Hugh Glass, tames the wilderness. He brings out the panoramic beauty of this unforgiving climate. I want develop stills from this movie and make a coffee table book.

However his effort would be in service of nothing if not for the human presence at the narrative’s center. Leonardo DiCaprio captivates the viewer’s attention with a physically demanding role. After one particularly memorable scene, his achievement becomes an almost wordless performance. Early talk focused around the scene where he is mauled by a bear. It is a stunning achievement that combines CGI with stunt people to create a visceral episode like no other. You will feel what it’s like to come face-to-face with an animal of that magnitude. It’s an immersive demonstration that will have you gripping your armrests in the theater. It’s that vital authenticity that makes this the emotionally compelling spectacle that it is.

The heart of The Revenant is centered around an absolute pedal to the metal performance by Leonard DiCaprio as the dirty, rugged mountain man. His survival odyssey is an emotional and physical journey conveyed without words. Hugh Glass travels some 200–300 miles often on his stomach clawing at the ground,. He forages for food, floats down rapids, jumps off a cliff and is followed by hostile Native American Arikara Indians across present day South Dakota,. At three hours, it’s pretty exhausting, but it never feels tedious. At one point, his quick thinking allows him to stay warm in a most ingenuous way that you have to see to believe. It’s creative touches like this that elevate the production into something we want to embrace. The punishing cold, the festering wounds – you will feel every brutal hand that this poor fellow is dealt. The movie is primal. The Revenant isn’t just a film, it’s an experience.

12-06-15

The Hateful Eight

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller, Western with tags on December 29, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo hateful_eight_ver10_zps13r4ig4p.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgBefore I begin my review, I must commend Quentin Tarantino for his commitment to cinematic style. The director has always been a student of film. He loves the medium and is well versed in its history. His latest was photographed using Ultra Panavision 70, a widescreen process usually preceded in print by the adjective “glorious”. It employs an anamorphic camera lens that allows for an extremely expanded aspect ratio of 2.76:1. The technology became obsolete due to cost. Most 70mm movies were also simultaneously released on 35mm for broader distribution. The format was only used on 11 pictures during the 1950s and 60s including Ben-Hur (1959) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). The last being Khartoum in 1966. That is until now.

The Hateful Eight was initially released on Christmas Day to 100 theaters in a special “Roadshow” prestation complete with overture, an intermission and a souvenir program. For two weeks people could see the picture as Tarantino had originally intended. In this age of digital projection systems, This meant that the Weinstein Company had to equip theaters with 70mm projectors just so they could play the print. Then they had to train staff so they could properly monitor the projector as it was being shown.

In theory, the format allows for an unmatched experience of wider dimension, resolution and artistry that should make for a richer cinematic experience. An experienced projectionist is clearly a rarity these days because complaints of screening problems at the Roadshow engagements have been rampant on the Internet. Indeed at my showing, the movie was interrupted no less than 5 times during the presentation. At one point the film actually stoped and you could see it literally burn on the screen. Whoopsie! Additionally focus problems infested the entire picture, with parts of the image being crystal clear and others being incredibly blurry.

None of this has anything to do with the quality of the feature, but it certainly doesn’t help that The Hateful Eight is (wait for it) a hateful film. I don’t even know what constitutes the worst offense, but let’s start with the story. This dark comedic riff on the Western takes place post-Civil War. Bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his fugitive prisoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are traveling by stagecoach to the town of Red Rock, Wyoming. Along the way they encounter another bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson) and a man who claims to be the sheriff of that town (Walton Goggins). These four must soon seek shelter from a blizzard. It is there, in a little general store called Minnie’s Haberdashery, that they meet four more degenerates (Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern).

The Hateful Eight is a step back for Tarantino in the storytelling department. Bill Desowitz over at Indiewire noted the plot suggests Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None as well as the films Stagecoach and The Desperate Hours. That’s fairly apt, although the manner in which the script cobbles those inspirations is an absolute bastardization of far superior references. For the first half, everything unfolds in the tiny compartment of a covered wagon. Things culminate at a rest stop when Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) taunts General Sandy Smithers (Dern) with a tale of what transpired when he met the former Confederate general’s son. The speech is memorable but it’s the lone highlight of a nearly 90 minute intro that is all talk. Well that, and frequent jabs to the face of Daisy Domergue. She enters the movie with a black eye and things only get worse. She seems to relish each assault she endures with a smile of masochistic glee. I guess we’re supposed to view her battery with apathy because she’s such a nasty person. Actually everyone is despicable. Hence the title. Daisy uses the N-word so many times I grew desensitized to its meaning.  After awhile she might as well been calling Samuel L. Jackson a nincompoop.

The proper story begins in the second half when the ongoing talk-fest is punctuated by bursts of cartoonish violence that are clearly meant to be funny. Sadly they aren’t. Or rather thankfully, if you think deriving joy from murder is a bad thing. This is nothing new for Tarantino. There will be blood. You know what you’re going to get, but here it feels childish and immature, like a 5 year old that has only recently discovered that there’s a red crayon in that box of Crayolas and has decided to cover every page in red wax. People projectile vomit blood. A character is shot in the groin. Someone’s head is playfully blown off in cartoon fashion without any warning whatsoever. Can you build a whole comedy around shock death? I’m not laughing.

Quentin Tarantino has a lot of power. How many studios would give a director carte blanche to make a film this empty. The plot of this simple drama could’ve been the basis of a brisk 90 minute chamber play. Instead the chronicle is stretched to the elephantine length of over three hours.  That includes a 12-minute intermission. That’s fine if we’re talking epics like Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia. However it’s the height of Ultra Panavision 70 irony that the majority of the production takes place in the single room of a dark claustrophobic den of a set. Add to that narrative a complete cast of characters we couldn’t even give a care about. These people talk so much that when the bodies start dropping, it’s a relief because that’s when they stop yapping. Don’t get me wrong. A long winded drama can be enjoyable if it has substance, but even the script lacks the snappy zing that usually typifies Tarantino’s work. These are awful people that say ugly things. The Hateful Eight is the soulless work of an auteur that has set the majority of a 3 hour production in a dark room, but then filmed it all in a “gloriously” expensive widescreen process, simply because he can.

12-28-15

Spectre

Posted in Action, Adventure, Thriller on November 6, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Spectre photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgDaniel Craig is back for his 4th appearance in the Bond series. For those keeping score, Spectre is the 24th entry made by Eon Productions. The greatest James Bond features have always worked as a cohesive whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. To put it another way, they are an assortment of action set pieces strung together to form a lucid story. Here the action rises and falls. Spectre is typified both by exhilarating highs and mundane lows that interact to produce an overall spirited good time.

The flick gets off to a rollicking good start in Mexico City, where celebrants have amassed to honor the Day of the Dead with a colorful parade. The color, costumes, and energy present contribute to feeling of excitement that is equally exuberant and sinister. The film’s heart-pumping opening chase take place in a helicopter high above Zócalo Square. It’s a logistically spectacular display that undoubtedly contributed to this being the most expensive James Bond production ever. It shows. The stunt ranks favorably with the best of Jame Bond. Then comes a credits sequence highlighted by Sam Smith’s wimpy falsetto theme “Writing’s on the Wall”. The corresponding images illicit more giggles than awe with a shirtless Bond being massaged by sexy ladies and octopus tentacles. The bad guys have a ring engraved with an octopus so that’s the connection I suppose.  It’s all a bit WTF but memorable for being so over-the-top.

The proper tale concerns Spectre, a nefarious international criminal network that wants to unite the world’s surveillance services into a global agency. It’s somewhat murky and there are more than a few conversations that could’ve ended up on the cutting room floor to benefit a more efficient running time. I mean a zippy adventure shouldn’t be prolonged to 2 hours and 30 minutes. That’s ridiculous. Honestly if they had shaved 30 minutes off this monstrosity it would’ve gotten a higher rating from me. Still what is here is very good. In addition to the spectacles I’ve mentioned there’s a nifty fist fight on a train barreling through Morocco with wrestler Dave Bautista as Mr. Hinx. He plays a henchman for the Spectre organization. There’s also rousing chase sequences through Rome, the Austrian Alps and London as well.

Spectre incorporates a lot of references from the past that sort of provide a unifying whole to the previous four Bond entries. Recurring characters M, Q and Miss Moneypenny all return. New addition Léa Seydoux as Dr. Madeleine Swann is an attractive presence, although too judgmental for a typical “Bond girl”. Spectre is the villanous global criminal network that forms the crux of the saga. Meanwhile the essential fate of the 007 organization is in jeopardy when a smug bureaucrat named C (Andrew Scott) takes over British intelligence. The pinnacle of evil is Christoph Waltz, whom Bond tracks down to his desert lair housed in a meteor crater. He’s a serviceable villain, but veers on the dull side. This is where you’re supposed to ham it up, Christoph! His head drilling machine is kind of nasty though. I cringed at the scene.

The Daniel Craig Bond era has been unusually strong. Over the course of four movies, the franchise has seen some of its most popular films. The series hit a zenith with Skyfall, an all around success by any standard. Quantum of Solace was execrable, but hey, three out of four ain’t bad. Spectre isn’t the best entry, but it’s good entertaining fun nonetheless. Daniel Craig has intimated this may be the last time he plays Bond. If that’s true, I will lament his decision. He’s been one of my favorites.

11-06-15