The Hateful Eight (2015)

Whatever else it might be accused of, it can’t be said that Quentin Tarantino’s latest film isn’t a coup du cinéma in its 70mm ‘roadshow’ version, harking back to a lost showmanship of printed programmes, overture fanfare, intermission and extra-wide widescreen format. There are many things indeed that I might accuse the resulting film of, yet I find it difficult to build up the necessary steam of self-righteous anger. In short, it is everything that everyone most vociferously damns it for: it is a distillation of all Tarantino’s most annoying tropes, all the abused women (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and their abusers (Kurt Russell), racist Southern rednecks (Walton Goggins) and gentlemen (Bruce Dern), noble yet weirdly homophobic black men (Samuel L. Jackson), and disarming patter of movie-literate self-reflexiveness against the backdrop of real and disturbing historical periods (the post-Civil War Reconstruction period). It sets up a beautiful wintery world using its widescreen palette, quickly drawing us into the single remote location where the eight title characters (as well as one nice guy, and some surprise late arrival characters vying for equal hatefulness, one of which is the director’s voice) spend much of the film battling for one-upmanship, but it leaves a bitter aftertaste as it descends into the usual Grand Guignol of bloodshed that you expect. However, Tarantino’s filmmaking is so desperate in its mugging for cinematic approval that even the nastiest events (with the exception of a hanging towards the end) just pass by with a shrug of my shoulders. Perhaps the title should be a hint that its protagonists are hardly likeable, but for me the film isn’t either and that’s a problem. It doesn’t seem to speak of anything so much as of all the films Tarantino has seen (so no change there). Others have enjoyed this opus, others have eviscerated it. Me, I just can’t be bothered anymore.

The Hateful Eight film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Quentin Tarantino; Cinematographer Robert Richardson; Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern; Length 187 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Leicester Square [70mm], London, Sunday 10 January 2016.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

For all that I’m trying to watch films with some element of female authorship, this adaptation of a comic book written by Jane Goldman and directed by Matthew Vaughn (the team behind the stylish and misanthropically nasty Kick Ass) doesn’t exactly give me a great deal of hope. It has enough stylishness in its staging, with the kind of set design and gaudy palette that fully justifies its origins, that it has won over plenty of people. It also stars Colin Firth, putting in an impeccable performance as the kind of heightened Englishman he’s so often called to be in films, in a film that itself lovingly curates an overabundance of signifiers of English-ness (my favourite being an underground workshop packed with taxicabs and red London Routemaster buses, amongst other such iconic machines). Which would all be fine, except these signifiers include the mock-Burberry-clad working-class ‘chav’ — whose apparently natural environment is picking fights in pubs (one which is actually a really very pleasant pub, it should be pointed out, should you find yourself down the Lambeth Road anytime soon) — and it does so with a level of subtlety that makes Attack the Block seem the very model of kitchen-sink drama. Then there’s the sickening attitude to violence that would orchestrate a mass killing to a jaunty soundtrack and self-consciously stylish camerawork and then try to exculpate itself by painting the victims as merely bigots, but then this is all of a piece with a film that also finds plentiful humour in some kind of anal-fixated homophobia, not to mention a bit of racism (there’s a quip in relation to Samuel L. Jackson’s bad guy about “colourful megalomaniacs” that’s straight from the Cumberbatch playbook). But, you know, it’s FINE, right, because it’s a SATIRE about spy films, exposing all of this as the seedy underbelly of the genre (albeit one that’s always been pretty clearly on display throughout much of the Bond cycle, to the extent that I was almost thankful that Kingsman‘s cribbing from Skyfall of the value of a 50-year-old whisky wasn’t turned into a cheap gag at the expense of a woman’s death). So, in short, no I didn’t much like it, though the plentiful laughter from the young woman along the row from me at the cinema suggests this might just be one guy’s grumpy opinion. There’s a self-aware refrain that’s repeated a few times that this isn’t “one of those kinds of films”, but it just leaves me wishing that it had been. Instead, if you’re a fan of violently nihilistic misanthropic nastiness clothed in the natty threads of the aristocratic English gentleman, knock yourself out. This is probably your film of the year.

Kingsman: The Secret Service film posterCREDITS
Director Matthew Vaughn; Writers Jane Goldman and Vaughn (based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons); Cinematographer George Richmond; Starring Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 29 January 2015.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

It’s difficult to revisit this film after so many years, not because it’s not still a solid piece of cinematic entertainment (it is), but because for many of us who were film fans in their late-teens when it first came out, it has something of a watershed status. I initially saw it somewhat illicitly, with the thrill of being (slightly) underage at the cinema given its 18 certification, and subsequently watched it many times on home video — probably too many times, meaning I haven’t looked at it for a very long time. Plus so very much has been written about it over the years, I daresay there’s little I can add. In any case, this most recent screening was on account of its 20th anniversary (20 years!), and I can confirm it still holds up. Like director Quentin Tarantino’s best works, it has a loose shaggy feel to it, while still being tightly structured, and if there are strands and characters I’m less keen on, the overall effect remains undiminished. Part of that loose structural feeling comes from the fact that it features a number of separate stories, introduced by title cards and linked by some shared characters and — eventually — shared locations seen from different perspectives, but the tightness is in the interwoven nature of the storylines, which recalls Altman’s Short Cuts of the year before (and indeed the short stories of Raymond Carver on which that film was based). At the film’s heart are Jules and Vince, a pair of hitmen played by Sam Jackson and John Travolta, early and mid career highs for each actor respectively. Tarantino always was good at showcasing the best of his (often unfashionable) actors — here including Bruce Willis and Uma Thurman — but that sadly doesn’t extend to his own appearances; his infatuation with blaxsploitation filmmaking combined with a vocabulary that seems partly indebted to the gangsta rap of the period is not anything that should really be coming from his own lips, though I suppose his willingness to declaim it marks some kind of honesty. His other up-front influences are rather more delightfully integrated, including an obsession with Jean-Luc Godard that you’d perhaps expect from a filmmaker whose production company is called A Band Apart, and which manifests itself in an early shot of Jules and Vince framed from the back of their heads, and continues into Vince’s dance with an Anna Karina-like Mia (Uma Thurman), not to mention other little self-consciously cinematic flourishes. That’s not to say Tarantino lacks his own style, but a key part of that style is grounded in his own pop cultural education, and Pulp Fiction is where that all came together most forcefully, and still does.

Pulp Fiction film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Quentin Tarantino; Cinematographer Andrzej Sekula; Starring Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames; Length 154 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Tuesday 20 May 2014 (and at the Paramount, Wellington, in 1994).

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

There’s a point that can be reached in any serial work of art where it becomes so baroquely self-referential and so enveloped in the minutiae of its own mythology that unless you’ve been following it across all its media appearances, tracking its development, and discussing it in detail, you can feel lost. It’s not a point that I think film series often get to, and is more the preserve of cult television and (one assumes) comic books, so perhaps that makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier something of a Rubicon for so industrialised an art form. It undoubtedly has already hugely pleased the (very many) fans of the Marvel franchise, but for the casual cinemagoer — even me, who has seen almost all the recent Marvel films — it is baffling. I don’t mean to say it’s bad, for there’s plenty to recommend it, it’s just quite exhausting.

The television connection I allude to is certainly not by chance. Many of the franchise’s more memorable character actors found initial fame on the small screen (with, in many cases, these shows’ iconic characters referenced in the Marvel characters they play), while the directors of this outing are familiar to me from their work on the early, foundational, seasons of the cult television show Community, itself wrapped up in meta-commentary and fandom. I’m not saying Captain America is not at some level a straightforward superhero action film, but there are few films I’ve seen that work harder at making connections across multiple levels of meaning, gradually but insistently building up a web of dense allusive textures. By the end the film, it is weighed down with so much referentiality that the physical fact of enormous flying battleships crushing swathes of a city are almost inconsequentially forgettable.

Partly, of course, that’s because it’s not really a film about these battleships, which function more as the classic ‘MacGuffin’ device of being the thing that the characters care about within the plot. The now familiar trope of crushing metropolitan destruction (Washington DC where formerly it was New York) becomes less of a focus in this film’s denouement, because the untouchable superheroic inevitability has been displaced by some fallible, emotionally-compromised men locked in combat. For the audience, as for the filmmakers, the title is probably the key to the film, and it’s done rather slyly. This is because Captain America is not The Winter Soldier as the colon implies. Or rather, these may be two separate characters, but that colon links them together — perhaps as two sides of the same person, at the very least in a relationship, a combative one, but tender at some level too.

To get to that point, though, involves a lot of plot, and a lot of dashing hither and yon. The very Winter Soldier character, for all his importance in the end, gets barely any on-screen time — though largely one suspects that’s because the filmmakers are trying to hide the big ‘reveal’ of his identity (which isn’t much of a surprise once it comes, really). Instead, then, we get more of Samuel L. Jackson’s militaristically-inclined Nick Fury character, apparently neutralised by Robert Redford’s conniving demagogue Alexander Pierce, while Chris Evans’ clean-cut American hero pulls together his crack team of Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Sam (Anthony Mackie), a fellow military running buddy he meets cute at the start. Via the Fury and Pierce characters, we end up getting quite a bit of detail about the politics of this world and about the unstable hierarchy of the SHIELD organisation (with its own Nazi-throwback black ops unit tying in the World War II-era setting of much of the first Captain America film).

Yet for all the feeling that the filmmakers have for the characters — with cute gags like Steve/Captain America keeping a notebook of the cultural touchstones he needs to catch up with while he’s been out of circulation (it’s apparently a slightly different list in each country the film’s been released), or the fond exchanges between Natasha and Steve as she tries to set him up on a date — there’s still the nagging sense that some of their ideas are based too much on generic clichés. For example, there’s the one where Steve is staking his life on unlocking brainwashed memories within the Winter Soldier, and launches himself into this task not so much with a strategy as with a blind faith in the effectiveness of the familiar generic trope to succeed (a variation on ‘search your feelings, you know them to be true’). The filmmakers also seem to lack a sure touch in choreographing the action sequences, most of which pass by in a frenzied incoherent blur. It’s times like these when you wish they’d had as much faith in the power of the camera (with images a bit calmer and more steadied) as they do in one or two sequences where the soundtrack takes on the work, cutting out in moments of emotional crisis, or taking over as when Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” leads a montage sequence.

I suppose my point may ultimately be that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not really made for me, but that’s no failing of the film’s by any means. It follows through on the superheroic derring-do sufficiently well that one’s desires on this front are sated, and puts enough characters into play that those who follow the minutiae of the Marvel universe will find plenty to enjoy. But while there are hints towards these characters’ shadowy back stories, by the end of the film, there’s really very little extra that we know about Natasha or Nick or most of the others. As befits its title, it’s Captain America and the Winter Soldier whose stories matter the most here.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier film posterCREDITS
Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on the comic book Captain America by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby); Cinematographer Trent Opaloch; Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay [2D], London, Wednesday 2 April 2014.

Marvel’s The Avengers (aka Marvel Avengers Assemble, 2012)

There have in recent years been a lot of comic book-based superhero action films, most of them ‘reboots’ of older film series, but with a few new characters brought into the filmic fold. With this film, called Marvel Avengers Assemble in the UK, four of the Marvel superhero film series were brought together, along with a few extra characters who hadn’t had their own films, in a blockbuster which was much trailered and anticipated (indeed, many of the most recent individual films had included a post-credits teaser for just this collaboration) and surely all-but-guaranteed to do well at the box office. The surprise, then, is that it’s quite a jolly enterprise, even if, as expected, it’s far too long.

All these superhero films run a range of styles from the dour (take a bow, Man of Steel) to the, well, comic book, but it’s fair to say that Joss Whedon has done what he knows best from his previous TV work, which is to say self-knowing media-literate jokiness. It’s an angle that probably works best for Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man character, who has now had three of his own films, and who stands out in this ensemble piece too, if only by virtue of being most in tune with Whedon’s script.

That’s not to say that the other characters aren’t honoured, with Captain America (Chris Evans) retaining his mien of humourless patriotism and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) his petulant anger, though Hulk impresses in his dual persona thanks to new recruit Mark Ruffalo as harassed scientist Bruce Banner (the Hulk films never did well at the box office, which may account for Edward Norton’s absence). Added to the mix is a rather superfluous Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, and Scarlett Johansson returning from Iron Man 2 (2010) as the persuasive Black Widow, neither of them superheroes exactly (at least, not ones with superpowers).

Perhaps I’m not the best person to review superhero movies, which in the past decade or so have taken on a lot of the characteristics of the action movie. I do like a good action film, but the bigger and louder and more pummelling the action setpieces — and there are plenty of these in Marvel’s The Avengers — the more the film needs to be grounded in real human characters you can care about and identify with, and that’s always been a problem for me with superhero movies. Whedon does his best to humanise these characters, and there are lots of nice quiet scenes — by far the best in the film — when they are around each other, sharing jokes, and making fun of some of the absurdities of the genre. And yet, it’s never quite enough to make me care for those long stretches when yet another major American city is being destroyed by monsters sent from an alternate plane of existence by a shadowy evil overlord.

It’s a good film, though, and for those who count themselves fans of the superhero genre, there’s a lot to enjoy in it, not least just the simple fact of having all these disparate characters interacting with one another. This, after all, is at the heart of the movie (as the British title recognises) and Whedon’s script shows great affection for all of them. But at times, as the film ticks on into its third hour, I do find myself getting a bit misty-eyed for the olden days of the superhero film, when villainous plans could be foiled with rather less sound and fury.


© Walt Disney Studios

FILM REVIEW
Director Joss Whedon | Writers Zak Penn and Joss Whedon | Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey | Starring Robert Downey Jr., Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson | Length 143 minutes || Seen at Vue Islington, London, Sunday 29 April 2012 (and at home on Blu-ray, London, Thursday 27 June 2013)

My Rating 3 stars good