Category Archives: Movies

THE NIGHTINGALE or The Evening Redness in Tasmania

By Jake Sweltz

If I called Jennifer Kent’s THE NIGHTINGALE a feminist neo-western revenge thriller, you might assume you’re getting KILL BILL or something.  This is not that.  In fact, Kent’s film is a direct refutation the sort of film that would rather stylize violence for entertainment than reckon with its traumatic reality.

During the course of THE NIGHTINGALE’s nearly three-hour-long running time, I didn’t have a lot of fun.  That’s entirely the point.  The plot isn’t dissimilar from TRUE GRIT or any number of other classic Hollywood westerns: a woman named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is wronged, her family destroyed, and she sets out for revenge with the assistance of a wily companion, in this case an aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykal Ganambarr).  But tonally, the work it most resembles is Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic western novel BLOOD MERIDIAN, where the sadism is so thorough as to become nearly invisible, as much a part of the landscape as the trees or the sky.

Film, though, is a very different medium than fiction, and the violence (particularly the sexual violence) in THE NIGHTINGALE is too immediate, too immersive to become invisible.  You can’t escape it, let alone ignore it.  You’re inside of it.  Kent emphasizes this with repeated close ups and POV shots from the perspective of characters upon whom unspeakable acts are being perpetrated.

The film demands a lot from its leads, and both Franciosi and Ganambarr are excellent as reluctant companions on a hellish journey through the literal ruins of their pasts.  Sam Claflin is also appropriately domineering as Clare’s abuser Lieutenant Hawkins, but the part is so cartoonishly evil it verges on comedy.  Nevertheless, the narrative’s broadly allegorical nature allows for broad performances to match, and several scenes use the Hawkins character to illustrate how abuse is passed from one person to another like a virus.

There’s an extended interlude featuring a “kind” Englishman whose attitude seems to contrast that of the sadistic, racist soldiers.  He invites Clare and Billy into his home and has his wife feed them supper.  This sequence has been misread by some critics as an example of cowardice on Kent’s part for not sticking to her guns.  What they’re missing is that the Englishman’s “acceptance” of Billy at his dinner table is the final humiliation of a subjugated people whose way of life has been completely supplanted by another in their own homeland.  It’s the kind of sequence Ousmane Sembène would appreciate.

Fittingly, there’s no real catharsis when Clare finally does catch up with her tormentors.  After brutally murdering one of Hawkins’ underlings, she finds herself paralyzed the moment she has the man himself in her sights.  Is Clare too shaken from her first murder to inflict that kind of violence again?  Or does her catatonic reaction reflect the kind of passivity many survivors of sexual crimes report in the presence of their abusers?

The main feminist thrust of THE NIGHTINGALE is one of intersectionality; it suggests that what ultimately bonds oppressed people (in this case, women and aboriginals) is trauma.  They may speak different tongues and even have opposing values, but they both know how it feels being raped by whitey.  Kent’s film is explicitly designed to make us (i.e. predominantly white, male critics and viewers) feel it, too.

The opening sequence, in which Clare sings onstage for a troop of leering Englishmen, is instructive.  Kent turns the camera on the audience of filthy men, most of whom are more focused on the—ahem—beauty of the singer than the song itself.  After Clare finishes singing, we cut to the title card.  It’s a masterful metaphor for how plebeian male audiences typically regard even the most high-minded films.  “Who cares what you’re saying?  Just get to the sex and the violence.”  Rest assured, THE NIGHTINGALE gives us plenty.  And in delivering the goods reminds us to be careful what we wish for.

image c/o Google Images

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The Good Old Days: Collective Memory in ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD

By Jake Sweltz

Image result for young john carpenter

One of the joys of late-period Tarantino is watching him invent new ways to quote himself.  Early in his latest film, ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD we’re treated to an excerpt from the film career of fictional 60s TV star Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.  The clip shows us the climatic sequence of a Corman-esque WWII film called the 14 FISTS OF MCCLUSKEY in which Dalton gleefully torches the Nazi high command with a flamethrower.  The sequence is deliberately staged to evoke the climax of QT’s own INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, in which a theater full of Nazis are burned alive in a similar manner. The reflexivity of that reference is amusing enough, but grows more impressive when you remember that in QT’s universe (the one in which MCCLUSKEY was produced), that actually was how WWII ended.  Hitler and the Nazi high command really were assassinated in a giant inferno by undercover American soldiers.  And if that was true, then naturally the movies of the following decades would reflect that version of history.

Among other things, Tarantino’s new film is a rich exploration of the relation between pop culture and collective memory, how we remember the past and how our memories influence the stories we tell ourselves.  His movie plays with our perceptions of history, inviting us to consider the fluidity of the past and our recollections of “the good old days.”

On the simplest level, this means memorializing the pop of his youth through direct homages to the TV shows of the 50s and 60s.  Before the events of the film, Dalton starred in the fictional series BOUNTY LAW, a RAWHIDE ripoff for which the filmmakers have shot and edited actual sequences in 35mm.  Later, we see Rick’s appearance in a contemporary episode of THE F.B.I., a real series Tarantino clearly idolized. Off the lot, the film depicts late 60s Hollywood as an idyllic, sun-drenched paradise; QT is literally viewing the past through rose-colored glasses.  But all is not well in Tinsel Town; siren-like hippies lurk around the edges, foreshadowing the rise of New Hollywood and the depraved 1970s.  

Here, QT employs his usual metatextual casting method, deploying the children of famous actors (e.g. Rumer Willis, Margaret Qualley) as Manson’s hippie acolytes.  Even more winking is the casting of noted 00s TV cowboy Timothy Olyphant (JUSTIFIED, DEADWOOD) as 60s TV cowboy Jim Stacy (LANCER).  Choices like these remind us of Hollywood’s cyclical nature, how its legacy is always reviving and reinventing itself for future generations.  Everything new is old is new again.

Rick Dalton is a man reckoning with his own increasing irrelevance.  DiCaprio’s performance is all cigarette butts and shredded nerves.  Rick sees the end of his career reflected in the paperback western he’s reading and breaks into tears.  He shuffles about swigging from a flask and muttering reminders to himself: “you’re Rick fuckin’ Dalton!” as though he might forget and disappear completely.  He fantasizes about getting a part in his next-door neighbor Roman Polanski’s next film, and in the end maybe even wins an opportunity.  Again, the stories we tell ourselves have a way of dictating the direction of our lives.

In a meeting at Musso & Frank’s, an old-world agent named Schwarz (played with sublime precision by Al Pacino) explains that if Rick keeps agreeing to TV guest appearances as a villain, it will have a “psychological effect” on the audience.  The movie is not subtle in its emphasis of the deep, sometimes unconscious influence pop culture has on us. Throughout the film, the pervasive presence of pop music, film, and TV bonds all the settings and characters together.  Songs and radio programs blare from car stereos.  Sharon Tate listens to Paul Revere & The Raiders as Brad Pitt’s stuntman Cliff Booth fixes Dalton’s antenna on the roof next door.  Everyone watches TV, of course, including the murderous Manson Family hippies; one of them even recognizes Rick from his old show. For better or worse, pop culture gives us a common experience, a shared history.  And it’s perhaps the primary source through which we sustain our collective memories.  

The most sentimental evocation of this theme occurs when Sharon Tate drops in on a screening of THE WRECKING CREW.  The sequence is both an ode to the joy of movies and a reclamation of Tate’s legacy as more than just the victim of a terrible tragedy.  She presumably worked hard to land that role, to learn her lines and nail down the fight choreography.  And we get to see Tate enjoying the fruits of that labor as the audience laughs and claps along to her performance.  It’s a beautiful sequence and probably the most touching thing Tarantino’s ever filmed.

The film is dotted with behind-the-scenes memories of the industry through character flashbacks, the funniest of which involves an argument on the set of THE GREEN HORNET that turns physical between Cliff Booth and Bruce Lee.  We remember Lee as a mythic figure, and the movie knows this reputation wasn’t earned through modesty.  But when Lee’s boastfulness strays into “I could beat Cassius Clay” territory, Cliff can’t resist putting him in his place.  Every legend, it turns out, has its limitations.  

Meanwhile on the set of LANCER, Dalton recounts almost getting Steve McQueen’s role in THE GREAT ESCAPE.  As Dalton recalls how McQueen nearly passed, putting him in line to play the part, we cut to Dalton literally playing the part, with DiCaprio spliced into footage from the actual film, FORREST GUMP-style.  Once the past is written, certain images and events calcify in our memory.  Like watching an old movie, it becomes impossible to imagine things turning out any other way.  But Tarantino wants us to imagine how easily they could have been different.

By presenting us with alternative versions of what we already know, QT highlights the simple twists of fate that launch or destroy careers, change lives and alter the course of history.  To that end, the film’s conclusion reads as half nostalgic wish fulfillment, half conservative punchline (no pun intended) about what might have happened if only those murderous hippies had stumbled into a different house on Cielo Drive…

Just as with BASTERDS, the film subverts our expectations by flipping the historical script and giving the murderous Manson Family hippies their comeuppance.  But the magic of the ending derives not from the cathartic burst of violence that has become QT’s trademark, but from what comes next.  After the whole bloody affair is over, Rick is invited into the Tate residence for an introductory visit.  The gates swing open, and Jay Sebring (played by Emile Hirsch) beckons Rick like Saint Peter ushering him into the kingdom of Heaven.  Tate greets the pair at the top of the driveway and they enter the house, but the camera lingers outside as the credits roll.  We’d like to imagine they all lived happily ever after, but the emotional power of that final shot comes from our knowing the sad reality of what actually happened to the people in that house.  Like the entire film, the conclusion is ultimately both a tribute to the power of pop culture and a poignant reminder of its limitations.  The movies can’t change history, but, to quote a similarly wistful denouement: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Image c/o Google Images

Notes on a Scandal: Reading QT’s The Hateful Eight

By Jake Sweltz

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The screenplay for Quentin Tarantino’s now-defunct project The Hateful Eight is 146 pages of cotton candy.  It reads like a sugar rush, gives you ulcers the size of gum balls, and finally leaves you feeling empty and rotten.  But confectionary greatness isn’t about nutrition; it’s about flavor.  And The Hateful Eight is admittedly pretty freaking delicious.

Note: the following contains major spoilers re: the setting, plot, and characters of The Hateful Eight.

THE STORY:

Set in post-Civil War Wyoming, the plot involves two bounty hunters who encounter one another en route to a small town called Red Rock.  They are each transporting recently captured bounties, including three dead outlaws and one live female prisoner named Daisy Domergue.  An approaching blizzard forces the group to shack up in a small, saloon-like haberdashery with an assortment of wily misfits who may or may not be in cahoots to free Daisy.

Most of the movie is devoted to the various games of verbal poker that take place amongst the motley crew as they wait out the blizzard.  Here are all the classical signposts of a typical of a QT feature: the colorful snatches of character backstory, the sudden bursts of brutal violence, the elaborate feigns and bluffs the characters make as they maneuver to conceal/reveal each other’s true identities and motivations.  Plus: a strangely affectionate attention paid to coffee as a crucial plot motif.

THE CAST:

Before the script leaked, Tarantino had reportedly sent copies to three actors: Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, and Michael Madsen.  The latter two are Tarantino regulars, and if the movie ever made it to the development stage, I expect we’d have seen plenty of faces familiar to long-time QT fans.  Luckily, since the film will never actually be committed to celluloid, we’re free to eternally indulge in every fanboy’s favorite pastime: throwing out a ton of hypothetical casting decisions and then drooling over how awesome they would be.

Now, this movie is called The Hateful Eight for a reason.  In the tradition of flicks like The Dirty Dozen and the myriad other hyper-masculine westerns from which QT draws inspiration, pretty much all these characters are rotten bastards.  Correspondingly, I’ve tried to fake-cast this non-picture with actors who can convincingly play villainy, actors who can wear the black hat.  Which, in this case, is especially appropriate since a few of the characters literally wear black hats.

Having said that, here’s my Hateful Eight Dream Cast (brought to you by Sega™):

Maj. Marquis Warren : Chiwetel Ejiofor (Understudy: Samuel L. Jackson)

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A few articles mentioned that Tarantino had written this part with Jackson in mind, but reading the script, I couldn’t help but visualize Chiwetel Ejiofor instead.  Fresh off his very somber work in 12 Years a Slave, it would have been an intriguing change of pace to see Ejiofor in a role as pulpy as Maj. Warren’s swashbuckling bounty hunter.  Plus, the stage veteran’s theatre bona fides would surely come in handy given that the entire movie mostly takes place in one small room.

John “The Hangman” Ruth : Matthew McConaughey (Understudy: Michael Madsen)

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Middle age has done something magical for McConaughey.  He’s still as charming and roguishly appealing as ever, but his rom-com prime is behind him.  The cracks in that stunning visage are starting to show, and his whole persona has been grown subtly darker.  Starting with 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer, and continuing through his work in Killer Joe and True Detective, McConaughey’s performances have taken on a hint of menace.  Sure, his characters have always been mischievous, but it wasn’t until recently that they’ve actually felt dangerous.

At this point in McConaughey’s career, I can think of no director better equipped to bring out his glorious bastardry than Tarantino.  The idea of matching QT’s alternately playful and sinister dialogue with McConaughey’s famously slithery silver tongue is, to me, a no-brainer.

Daisy Domergue : Reese Witherspoon (Understudy: Chloe Sevigny)

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While we’re talking McConaughey, we might as well make this a Mud reunion and cast good old Reese as John Ruth’s fiery prisoner, Daisy Domergue.  Daisy is handcuffed to Ruth for most of the script, and throughout the story the two develop an interesting “frenemy” type of chemistry.  It would be great to see Witherspoon in a role where she could tap into some of that Dukes of Hazzard outlaw craziness she unleashed in Atlanta last year.

Chris Mannix : James Franco (Understudy: Adam Driver)

In the text, Chris is introduced as an “early thirties, untrustworthy, rotten teeth hillbilly.”  Hmm.  Lots of options here, but I’m thinking we should probably call the dude who turned himself into this guy:

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I’m not the biggest Franco fanatic, but I think that he could bring just the right flavor of zany energy to this role.  Spraaaang breaaaaak foreeeeeeeeever.

Bob the Frenchman : Denis Menochet (Understudy: Jean Reno)

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It was rumored that had this movie actually been made, Christoph Waltz would have been tapped for this role.  But y’know what?  I kind of don’t want Christoph Waltz in a (hypothetical) third consecutive Tarantino movie.  Especially since the dude is not even French to begin with.  Besides, Bob is too terse a character for an actor like Waltz.  Perhaps future drafts would have expanded this part, but given Bob’s relatively thin dialogue, I was thinking the role would actually be perfect for Waltz’s sparring partner from the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds, French actor Denis Menochet.  As dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite, Menochet achieves a strong, quiet dignity, even as Waltz’s relentless Col. Hans Landa is slowly tearing it to pieces.  I’d be interested in seeing him bring that same element to this story’s mysterious Bob.

Oswaldo Mobray : Jude Law (Understudy: Tim Roth)

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Oswaldo is described in the script as “a blonde little man who wears a grey european cut business suit” and is “a bit of a Fop.  Not a gigantic Fop, just a bit of one” (sic).  This is ostensibly the role that Tim Roth would have read for, but my first choice would be Jude Law.  Another stage vet, Law exudes the kind of slimy smugness that’s perfect for Oswaldo, an eloquent British gent who claims to be a traveling hangman.  His recent work in Dom Hemingway proves he can play rough, plus Law can ham it up with the best of them.  I’d love to see him deliver Mobray’s juicy monologue about how his duty as the passionless executioner separates “real” justice from “frontier” justice.

Cowboy Joe Gage : Woody Harrelson (Understudy: Josh Brolin)

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This laconic “wise ass” of a character is a tough nut to crack, fake-casting wise.  He doesn’t have a ton of dialogue, but he’s still an important character and his scenes are compelling.  One of his exchanges with the extra-suspicious John Ruth is among the script’s funniest moments.  Ruth is interrogating Gage about who he is, where he’s headed, etc.:

Gage: I’m a cow puncher…I was coming up here to spend Christmas with my mother.

Ruth: Really?

Gage: Really.

Ruth: Funny, you don’t really look like the coming home for Christmas type.

Gage: Well then looks are deceiving.  Because I’m defiantly [sic] the coming home for Christmas to spend it with my mother, type.

Reading this, I was reminded of Josh Brolin’s less-is-more approach to playing Llewelyn Davis in No Country For Old Men, and the dry humor he displayed in his scenes with Woody Harrelson and Kelly McDonald. Eventually, I settled on Brolin as my first choice…

…until I realized that Harrelson is actually the real answer here.  He’s more suitably cartoonish than Brolin, his resume practically screams “laconic wise-ass,” plus casting him here nets bonus points for turning the above exchange into a revival of McConaughey and Harrelson’s crackling True Detective bromance.

Gen. Sanford Smithers : Bruce Dern (Understudy: Harrison Ford)

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This is most likely the role that Bruce Dern was supposed to read for, and honestly, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate actor to bring Gen. Smithers’ to life.  This proud old Confederate general is a cranky bastard, but he’s also wounded and vulnerable, sadly making his way to Red Rock to bury his son.  What he learns about that son’s death while holed up with the other bastards in the haberdashery I won’t spoil (at least not yet), but suffice it to say, it is…rather unpleasant.

Jody Domergue : Jeremy Renner (Understudy: Brad Pitt)

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Jody, head of the infamous “Domergue Gang” isn’t introduced until later in the story, but his presence is instantly electrifying.  He’s a dangerous outlaw, but when we first meet him, he is posing as a kindly country preacher man, his demeanor that of a perfect gentleman.  Renner is one of the few actors I can see convincingly embodying the charisma, chivalry, and wickedness the part requires.  Besides, we need to get this guy some more work outside of the Avengers franchise.

 

THE THREE MOST TARANTINO MOTIFS OF THE SCRIPT:

1.) 70MM SUPER CINEMASCOPE.  In between scenes and/or long stretches of dialogue, Tarantino frequently inserts notes about how the rugged Wyoming landscape will be shot in “big super cinemascope 70mm filmed gloriousness.”  He mentions 70MM SUPER CINEMASCOPE repeatedly throughout the script, but always with slight variations on how gorgeous and amazing it will look.  His emphasis on big, outdoorsy exteriors is probably at least partly about contrasting the cramped, claustrophobic interiors of the story.  But you also get the feeling like the guy just really loves cinemascope.  His enthusiasm for the format is very palpable, and it lends a fun bit of continuity to the reading experience.

2.) HATS!  QT is one of the most unabashed stylists in Hollywood.  His characters are always distinctive, not only in their speech, but also in their dress. (Who could forget the iconic French gangster suits Jules and Vincent don in Pulp Fiction, or the Bruce Lee-inspired bumblebee jumpsuit Uma Thurman rocks in Kill Bill, Vol. 1?)  In The Hateful Eight, QT again indulges his sartorial fetishes, giving us at least half a dozen rich outfit descriptions to go along with his character intros.  Capping nearly every one of these descriptions?  A word about what sort of sweet hat is being worn.  There’s John Ruth’s “drop dead black hat” and Joe Gage’s “cool brown cow puncher hat” and Maj. Warren’s “supercool non regulation cowboy hat he picked up sometime after the war.”  You’d think the main reason QT wanted to write another Western was just so he could dream up some fresh head gear.

3.) Coffy.  As I mentioned earlier, coffee (or “coffy” as QT spells it throughout the text), plays an important role in The Hateful Eight.  Before John Ruth and company initially arrive at the haberdashery, he comments several times on the quality of the coffy there.  “Hot, strong, and good,” is the film’s running tagline for the stuff.  This setup provides a few good jokes and one huge plot point, which isn’t really worth spoiling here.  It’s been awhile, but this isn’t the first time Tarantino has made coffy a fulcrum of conversation in one of his movies.  Remember Jimmie from Pulp Fiction?  The suburban white dude that reluctantly plays host to Jules and Verne as they frantically try to dispose of poor Martin’s dead body?  If you recall, the passive-aggressive chat between Jules and Jimmie starts off with the former awkwardly complimenting the latter’s home brewed coffy.  It stands to reason that QT is something of a caf-fiend. (as in, a fiend for caffeine).  “No kidding,” responded everyone who has ever seen Tarantino give an interview.

THE THREE MOST BATSHIT INSANE PARTS OF THE STORY (NOTE: EXTRA SPOILER-Y)

1.) The part when Jody Domergue and his gang infiltrate a rest stop posing as a a contingent of devout Christian gentlemen before blowing everyone away in a hail of gunfire and burying them all in a shallow mass grave out back.

2.) The part when John Ruth is poisoned and responds by violently assaulting and then puking blood all over Daisy Domergue as she cackles maniacally.

3.) The part when Maj. Warren (a black Union Army Major) recounts to Gen. Smithers (an old white Confederate General) the story of how he captured, tortured, orally raped, and killed Smithers’ son in excruciating detail….just before setting the old man on fire and watching him burn to death.

THE VERDICT:

The script’s non-linear progression, confined setting, slowly ratcheting tension, and explosive finale recall several memorable scenes and tropes from Tarantino’s earlier work, specifically Reservoir Dogs and Inglorious Basterds.  In many ways, The Hateful Eight reads like an expanded variation on the “basement bar” scene from the latter film, with its deliberate build-up and guns-under-the-table climax.

Obviously, the script isn’t perfect.  There are a number of character-related odds and ends that don’t quite add up, and a few interesting story threads are introduced only to be left hanging loose and unformed for the rest of the film.  The dialogue, though sparkling in places, is clearly far less developed than it would have ultimately become had the movie been made.  And for all the salivating tension that Tarantino creates leading up to the end of the story, the conclusion is a bit of a letdown.  QT has come a long way since Reservoir Dogs, but he’s still a sucker for a good old Mexican stand-off.  Unfortunately, in this case the gimmick feels less like a natural culmination and more like regression.

But keep in mind, this is a first draft, and most of the problems are a result of there being too many ideas rather than not enough.  If you’re a QT enthusiast, you really couldn’t ask for a more entertaining read.

Overall, I’d give it 4 out of 5 cups of coffy.

 

(all images courtesy of Google search)