Archive for The Master

A Hatful of Hateful

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2016 by dcairns

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To Edinburgh Filmhouse, to see THE HATEFUL EIGHT in 70mm, complete with overture and intermission.

Last 70mm opportunity was THE MASTER, which it was hoped would be projected at Filmhouse — they were promised a print from London. The London cinema put their best projectionist on the job. But for the press show, they handed it to someone with less experience, since it was only critics, only the people whose verdict might help bring the public in… and he wrecked the print. So no Edinburgh 70mm of that one.

I’m not really a film snob, though watching TRUMBO recently it was obvious to me that for certain kinds of period feel it’s always going to be superior. And the look of Tarantino’s film (apart from, surprisingly, one flickering shot at the start — not sure if this was a projection problem or a filming issue) benefits from the rich, fine grain of Super 65mm Cinerama. But as to the projection, were it not for one tiny scratch and the “cigarette burns” signalling reel changes, I wouldn’t have known it was film and not a DCP. Still, those little imperfections have a nostalgic value.

I have simultaneously been impressed and amused by the last couple of Tarantino films, while also finding them wildly offensive. A lot of negative reviews on this one made me suspect I might really hate it — more violence, more dubious use of racial epithets, more over-extended talk scenes. In fact, I didn’t find it quite as obnoxious as INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS or DJANGO UNCHAINED. It wasn’t about the Holocaust or slavery, is the simple reason why. It does purport to deal with race in America, however, and like its predecessors it comes up against the limitations of genre cinema in addressing complex, serious real-world issues. It doesn’t manage to highlight these problems in the way that IB arguably does, which might be that film’s redeeming trait (if we leave aside the funny bits and tense bits and clever bits), but its failure to bend the rules of the Tarantino universe to incorporate a coherent state of the nation address did not, for me, result in a film more unpleasant than DJANGO UNCHAINED.

Those who were incensed or bored by the film’s excesses do have my sympathy, but I got to that point two films ago, so I’m less upset about this one.

In the spirit of kindly critique — since I went with very shaky expectations, I don’t feel outrage is appropriate — I want to offer some thoughts on how the film might have succeeded better at some of its apparent goals.
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(ONE)

It feels like Tarantino has been trapped by his cool title. He’s compelled to populate his wide frame with horribly obnoxious characters. Yet while every single one of the protagonists of RESERVOIR DOGS was a career criminal, several of them were at least somewhat likable some of the time, and there were certain gradations of nastiness. Fiona, who first saw the movie on VHS, was snarling “Shoot him!” within five minutes of Mr. Blond’s appearance.

If this seems like I’m calling for the film to use more conventional, hence more boring characterisation, maybe I am, but would RESERVOIR DOGS be improved if Harvey Keitel were shown laughing at a woman being beaten, or if Steve Buscemi were a virulent racist? Wouldn’t the tension of HATEFUL 8 be increased if Kurt Russell were less brutish, Samuel Jackson less psychopathic? Wouldn’t everything get better if the characters weren’t all so SIMILAR? It’s my view that if you’re going to spend most of three hours shut in a room with a small crowd of characters, the more varied they are then the more entertaining the experience will be. Making them all variations on the cold-blooded killer model seems wasteful.

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(TWO)

Yes, the N word. And the repeated woman-punching. The explanations Tarantino has offered for his infatuation with that particular term do not satisfy. But he may believe some of them. I felt it was a bit ridiculous to protest the word’s inclusion in DJANGO UNCHAINED, given the social context — it was more worthwhile to protest the film’s falsification of that context (the fantasy of “Mandingo fighting,” for instance). But there’s one use of the word right at the end of DU, where the word is used as punchline to a Lone Ranger reference, which is pertinent here, because Tarantino is now using the word as punchline to jokes in which Samuel L. Jackson is the butt. (And I worry about how history will regard Jackson for his participation in these two films.)

As with the “humour” around Jennifer Jason Leigh’s frequent pummelings, it’s probable that Tarantino intends us to find this comedy uncomfortable. But it isn’t the comedy of discomfort you might find in, I don’t know, WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? The jokes are played straight, and it’s up to the audience to find them difficult IF the audience is sensitive enough. Straightforward racists and misogynists can just laugh.

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(THREE)

The films Tarantino admires include many taboo-busting, challenging movies from the seventies. He also likes lots of exploitation movies which gleefully present shocking and distasteful scenes. He wants to replicate the WTF factor of these movies, but either he knows he can’t get away with some of their excesses, or doesn’t wish to go there. His attempts to combine serious, shocking cinema with frivolous, shocking cinema seem foredoomed to me, because the two justifications he uses, “What? I’m making a serious point, here,” and “What? It’s only a bit of fun!” do not in fact reinforce each other, they cancel each other out. To use a western analogy, it’s a bit like the man accused of stealing another man’s horse, who says “I don’t steal horses, and anyway, you have a lousy horse.”

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(FOUR)

This is the second film (RESERVOIR DOGS being the first) Tarantino has made which essentially remakes John Carpenter’s paranoia/cabin-fever chiller THE THING. Here he even has the wintry locale and the same leading man and some of the same music. One character even accuses another of acting paranoid, a term I sort of doubt was common parlance at the time the story is set. The question of how historically accurate the film is meant to be, or feel, is frankly unanswerable, with “Completely” and “Not at all” both seeming possibly valid interpretations of the filmmakers intent.

The sense that QT is running out of ideas is exacerbated by the familiar play with time, which here mainly amounts to a long-ish flashback designed to explain and recontextualize the set-up we encounter at Minnie’s Haberdashery. In fact, the flashback supplies almost no important information we couldn’t guess (the mystery I was most concerned with — how the door got busted — is unaddressed, unless I missed something). The main point of showing this sequence seems to be to reveal that the people killed before the story begins were all lovely and innocent. Minnie, who we have been told hates Mexicans, seems a wholly delightful person, in a mixed-race marriage herself, and she betrays no prejudice when dealing with a Mexican character in the flashback. The suspicion grows that the stuff about her barring Mexicans was essentially only included because Tarantino couldn’t resist a racist joke.

Tarantino has invoked Agatha Christie, an odd reference since the only clear whodunnit does not arise until after the intermission, and the question is answered within what felt to me like twenty minutes. What I’m saying is, the film is not structurally as interesting as other QT movies have been (though I recall DJANGO UNCHAINED essentially plodding through its narrative in chronological fashion — have I forgotten something?)

I felt when I saw TRUE ROMANCE, a non-linear QT script straightened out and played in sequence by director Tony Scott, that QT’s stuff didn’t stand up to the clear overview provided by a chronological ordering. Had the film used the script’s “answers first, questions later” approach, I might have been less bothered by Christopher Walken vanishing from the story after killing the hero’s father, and I might have been less bothered by the hero generally causing death and destruction to other people wherever he goes, out of sheer idiocy. I like to think I would still have been quite bothered, but maybe a bit less. Getting dropped into the middle of a situation deprives you of an overview to be judgemental with — “you can’t see an environment when you’re in it” — and you just have to watch the characters attempt to deal with the situation. You can relate as soon as you understand the basic urgent situation. So the missing heist scene in RESERVOIR DOGS really helps — the problem of Tim Roth’s critical injury is allowed to outweigh his participation in an armed robbery, and his betrayal of his gang.

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(FIVE)

Roth (doing a mix of Terry-Thomas and what seems like David Puttnam) and Michael Madsen are back here. In each QT film, rather appealingly, he uses his clout to restore to prominence a star who has fallen by the wayside. Here, with a kind of full-circle inevitability, he rescues Madsen, whom he had initially boosted with his first feature. The eight are a patchwork of actors QT has mostly used before, with Jennifer Jason Leigh as standout new-to-the-fold star. I’m glad to have her back, but not sure I want her back like this. Though she does some nice physical stuff, scratching her head after removing her hat (because hats make your head hot and itchy), extruding a tongue to catch snowflakes. Odd, this emphasis on the tactile in a character virtually indifferent to extreme pain. Daisy Domergue’s ability to shrug off atrocious bodily harm is probably the best claim the movie has to be “like a cartoon,” as composer Ennio Morricone has said. But KING-SIZE CANARY is shorter. I could watch it twenty-three times during THE HATEFUL 8.

Walton Goggins is doing Burton Gilliam’s performance from BLAZING SADDLES. He doesn’t try to make Jackson sing “De Camptown Ladies” but he might as well.

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(SIX)

Here I get into spoilers, maybe — I won’t tell you what happens but you might guess some of it from my discussion of what doesn’t happen.

Is this a state-of-the-nation address, as Tarantino has claimed? I think if the ending had more of the horror of THE BIG SILENCE, we could buy that. I mean, it’s unpleasant, nihilistic and blackly ironic, but nothing about it is likely to disturb QT’s core audience. Had the sheriff made a deal with the bandits, killed Samuel L. Jackson, and ridden off happily into the sunrise, we would have been upset, despite the Jackson character’s frequent unpleasantness. We would have felt something wrong. But Tarantino doesn’t really want to distress the viewer in that way, so his films are only ever going to flatter his constituency — their knowing laughter is always going to be the correct response.

Like I say, I got more enjoyment out of this nasty, brutish and long film than I expected. Kurt Russell and Jackson and Roth and Leigh kept me entertained, and there’s something to be said for lingering over group dynamics in a single space for a looong time.

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Grain

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2015 by dcairns

Inherent-Vice

Pting. Vessooey. Wooch.

I never saw THE MASTER on the big screen. I missed the 70mm screenings in Dublin by days, and the big print never made it to Edinburgh. Apparently the London cinema that had first dibs on it had booked their best projectionist to handle it, but decided to save a little money by letting a less experienced employee take care of the press screening. He wrecked the print.

Bliffle. Wazzmap. Trintrintrittock.

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And I wasn’t completely sure I was going to bother with seeing INHERENT VICE in 35mm — Fiona, influenced by bad reviews, wasn’t interested, and a few friends reported disappointment and bafflement. I let the Cameo screenings slide by. But, on a whim, I popped along to Filmhouse 3 after work yesterday — and I really, really liked it. But it’s put me in quite a strange frame of mind. Vuvuvungle. Ilm. Fffffiip.

Another thing that had put me off slightly is that I had read the book, and found it extremely slight by Pynchon standard. Not just thin physically — The Crying of Lot 49 is also slender — but conceptually. It seemed filmable, but a director of Paul Thomas Anderson’s stature, should have selected a LESS filmable book and then grappled with its challenges/impossibilities.

I mean, we’d already had Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE, which maybe didn’t overtly male Philip Marlowe a stoner, but by casting Elliott Gould at least implied as much. And then THE BIG LEBOWSKI made it literal. Pynchon’s “Doc” Sportello seemed doubly redundant, and more so as a movie character. Trahumph. Crrrrk.

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Since seeing the movie, I have a Tourettes-like urge to make silly noises, rather in the manner of Jerry Lewis in WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT? when he can’t handle rejection. Vooolf.

Burke Stodger, Japonica Fenway, Puck Beaverton, Sauncho Smilax… Wrrrab. Sporf. Maybe it’s the onslaught of Pynchonian names, even more overpowering on the screen, where an actor has to actually introduce himself as Dr. Threeply. Giddiness sets in. Watching lots of drugs being consumed doesn’t usually produce any vicarious effect in me except perhaps boredom, though the fast cutting in the brownies scene in I LOVE YOU, ALICE B TOKLAS did make me feel kind of sick. FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, watched on a single glass of wine, did produce some kind of elation, and I kind of caught Brad Pitt’s mania from TWELVE MONKEYS. Preet. Prott. Hespelafigo.

Luckily there was nobody at the bus-stop after the film so I could Vrrroop and Pleck and Spraddlekoffup to my heart’s content.

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I will discipline myself. No more eruptions. Anderson’s film is flawed — I don’t mean that it’s impossible to follow — I actually understood most of it better than I understand THE BIG SLEEP, and I suspect a repeat viewing would clear up the remaining mysteries (which are not insignificant: what the hell was Bigfoot Bjornsen trying to achieve with the stolen drugs?). But there are plainly too many two-hander scenes in which Joaquin Phoenix (very funny) sits down with an informant and gets told some more plot. In one lengthy exchange over a canister of nitrous oxide (which literally induces laughter here, something I understand to be pharmacologically inaccurate), Anderson serves up the exposition in a pair of closeups against featureless white walls in a tiny cubicle, until I felt suffocated of all visual stimulation (kind of like the incomprehensibly long two profile shots outside the church in KILL BILL: death by understimulation). But those white walls showed up the grain nicely.

I wasn’t sure how nostalgic I felt about celluloid. When the censor’s certificate came on at the start, scratched to buggery and out of focus, I thought, “Oh, I haven’t been missing THIS.” But that dancing pointillist patina… a film that so successfully evokes its period would be impossible on digital, even with all the colour manipulation available. This experience is akin to time-travel.

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Oh yes, the movie’s flaws. It’s overlong and overshoots its climax by what feels like twenty minutes. But it has Owen Wilson, the heart of the movie. (The melancholy of the first scene, with the protean Katherine Waterston — one of a regiment of scratchy-voiced chicks rocking the natural look — sets up the undercurrent of sadness that Pynchon gets at in his prose sometimes but never in the actual SCENES of the novel, so it’s a brilliant piece of adaptation to me). It has Martin Short, channelling Burgess Meredith at his most Creep Factor 11, filtered through a layer of Phil Spector. Genius. I mean, NOBODY does Burgess Meredith. Short has a history of crystallizing the madness of whatever film he’s in, presenting it in a purer, more intoxicating form (MARS ATTACKS!). Josh Brolin, presenting the Tragical Comedy or the Comical Tragedy of Whiteman (to quote the Robert Crumb cartoon: “I must retain this rigid position or all is lost!”) Benicio Del Toro, underselling his quirkiness, which makes it even more striking. Some guys I don’t know so well are astounding: Jeannie Berlin, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jefferson Mays. And, in the “Where you been?” category, Eric Roberts and Martin Donovan.

This spaced-out Rockford Files won’t appeal to everybody. As I watched, I was wondering if my mum would like it. She enjoyed THE BIG LEBOWSKI… But this is more intense, peculiar, and dysfunctional. But it also has more of a purpose. Anderson, unlike Altman or the Coens, finds Sportello’s moral code admirable, I think. And the film’s elegiac quality, creeping up on you unexpectedly, is something far out of the register of its predecessors. Pynchon’s best bit in the book is the foreshadowing of the internet — it’s when the whole enterprise belatedly acquires some gravitas and atmosphere. Anderson deletes it entirely — but he captures the gravitas, and enhances the atmosphere.

Zzzzzzeeb! Hataracack.

 

The Cause

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2013 by dcairns

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Well, I meant to see THE MASTER on its cinema release last year, honestly I did. But both Edinburgh Filmhouse and its Dublin equivalent were making vague noises about 70mm screenings, and I decided to hold off seeing it digitally so I could have a rare celluloidular encounter — and ended up missing it completely. So I end up seeing it on DVD.

Where it still impresses. The palette of the film is subtly unlike any other modern movie, though neither is it a pastiche of late 40s cinema. It can evoke that era flawlessly when it wants to, though.

There’s something slippery about Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie-making that defeats my efforts to write about it. With this one I may be closer to figuring out a theory to account for him, though. I think his scenes alternate between bravura passages of pure cinema, like the wordless opening of THERE WILL BE BLOOD, with acting masterclasses designed to showcase how remarkable his performers can be. I’m not convinced there’s any overall concept to dictate what kind of bravura cinema or what kind of acting is needed, other than PTA’s own taste in such things, which makes his process closer to sixties arthouse filmmakers like Fellini than to the seventies American directors he originally seemed to be following (particularly Scorsese and Altman).

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HARD EIGHT is probably the only PTA film to follow a plot, strictly speaking, which means it has the most satisfying conclusion of any of them but doesn’t deliver the open-ended, elusive quality of the subsequent films. BOOGIE NIGHTS concludes with a series of happy endings, but a friend of mine complained that there was no reason or justification for them — it’s just that suddenly everyone’s happy. The problems tormenting them a couple of scenes back are just forgotten, not resolved. Should we see this as a fantasy? Perhaps so — Anderson’s statements at the time that the seventies porno scene could have evolved into a truly adult cinema in which sexuality was explicit but only one element of many suggests that the utopian scenario here is a kind of alternative universe.

MAGNOLIA’s frogs ex machina conclusion is somewhat prepared for by the references to the work of Charles Fort dotting the film’s running time — I tried to explain this to a couple of baffled women afterwards but they simply refused to accept that frog showers were a well-observed real-world phenomenon. Though I haven’t heard of one as catastrophic as the one LA is subjected to in that movie. Desperate wrestling with that film’s sprawling run-time may have resulted in some of the story’s more baffling lacunae, and the success of this may have inspired PTA’s subsequent casual approach to narrative structure. But I’m still at a loss to explain anything about PUNCH DRUNK LOVE. I quite enjoyed it though.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD ends with violence and a slide into self-parody, which both seem like the coward’s way out of a tight corner, but combined together are at least amusing. I think I’d have preferred tonal consistency, since the first two-thirds of the film are seriously compelling. I dunno.

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THE MASTER… may be PTA’s most successful evasion of what would normally be considered his responsibilities. The tone feels consistent, despite enjoying the freedom to vary itself; the tendency to not come right out and say what it means is established early on and stuck to, perhaps taking its cue from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s evasive guru who never seems to finish any of his Deep Insights; the showy acting is particularly showy, but not as exuberantly theatrical as D-Day Lewis’s John Huston impersonation. Beyond that, and admitting the great aesthetic pleasure derived from Johnny Greenwood’s score and Mihai Malaimare Jnr’s photography, with its searing cyan hues, I could do little but list the questions I was left with — I think you probably would have your own.