The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015) – A bloody, bloody brilliant fusion of Western, horror and black comedy that confirms Tarantino's return to relevance after the glorious surprise that was Django Unchained, a swaggering, effortless movie following 17 years of self-conscious, self-plagiarising films.
The Hateful Eight is even better: potentially self-restricting in its claustrophobic, dialogue-heavy set-up, but with an ambition and chutzpah that causes it to leap from the screen. At times it’s reminiscent of a Ranown movie – one of those cynical, weary chamber pieces that marked a highpoint of the B-Western – with some DNA shared with Carpenter's The Thing, but when anyone is talking… well only one person could have written those lines. The stylisation in his writing is still there, but then it always was: what’s changed is that his naturalism is back and so is his range: for a while, every character in his films seemed to speak in the same, stilted way – or actually in one of two ways, sassy woman or malevolent man – but now they’re distinct, different and speaking in a way that drags you into the film, not reminds you that you’re watching one. I think that by Inglourious Basterds his writing was once more starting to sing, and his gift for suspense was much in evidence, but such virtues were rather obscured by the film’s overbearing smugness and silliness.
This one begins with bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) transporting $10,000 prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock. En route, he and driver O. B. Jackson (James Parks) pick up a former Civil War hero, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and a self-proclaimed sheriff (Walton Goggins), before a blizzard drives them to a haberdashery. There, a loquacious English hangman (Tim Roth, sounding like Edmund Blackadder), a hulking Mexican (Demián Bichir), a racist retired general (Bruce Dern) and a mystery man named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) are waiting, and at least one of them has a secret that’s about to soak these walls in blood.
Since reading Truffaut/Hitchcock earlier this year, I’ve begun to look at films in a different way, particularly the way in which they create suspense – and by suspense I don’t just mean nerve-shredding tension caused by sky-high stakes (though I do partly mean that), but also basic dramatic interest. Tarantino does this unbelievably well from the get-go: from a standing start we care implicitly, overwhelmingly and relentlessly what happens next, and frequently we care so much not because the characters are likeable (see: the title), but because of Tarantino’s imagination, specificity and meticulous, tight-as-a-drum scene construction. Catharsis, when it comes, is via revelation, sardonically cartoonish violence and some of the best jokes in ages. For a director who sometimes gives the impression that he’s making films so black people will think he’s cool, he certainly gives his give detestable, racist antagonists some of the funniest lines. In a more straightforward but equally crucial sense, the film is spectacularly unpredictable, and when we can guess what's about to happen, that too's a tool, Tarantino using it to ratchet up the tension we feel.
The performances are generally good, but with superb work by Jackson (in unusually committed, dynamic form – he hasn’t been this good in 20 years), Goggins, a foully credible Dern and – probably best of all – Jennifer Jason Leigh. She’s always been a cracking actress and here she’s just superb: putrid, virulently unpleasant and increasingly covered in blood, she becomes more and more central to the story and, with it, grows in power, reaching an apogee of almost supernatural gothicism. It’s slightly ironic, then, that Tarantino seems to have borrowed her surname from RKO actress Faith Domergue, the most notoriously untalented (and most conspicuously underage) of Howard Hughes's innumerable mistresses.
I said earlier that Tarantino’s worst films seemed to be cursed by self-plagiarism. I think the problem was that this seemed more like desperation than auteurism, as here he also draws on his past, but to devastating effect. Reteaming Roth and Madsen isn’t the only sign that he’s reviving the spirit of Reservoir Dogs, the mesmerising mission statement that announced his arrival as a major new director. It’s dressed in furs, not sharp, identikit black suits, but The Hateful Eight is also a talky, gun-heavy movie about eight bad men trapped in a single room, trying to work out which one of them sold out the others. John Carpenter would appove: his hero Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo three times in various guises, before Carpenter himself had a go with Assault on Precinct 13.
The Hateful Eight might not be for all tastes – if you cringe at the n-word or gratuitous gore, give it a wide berth – but it seems an objectively good film. The scene-setting is inspired, Morricone’s sparsely-used music is marvellous, and Tarantino’s dialogue is incredibly rich: unmistakably his yet steeped in the Western tradition, with its grand allusions to the Civil War, its bitter dark humour and its contemporary resonances (which are basically what the Western is for). The film takes a massive gamble with an hour to go, and takes a little while to stop wobbling – its raison d’etre less compelling, Zoe Bell farcically wooden – but even then it regathers itself and goes again, before a final chapter of dazzling, blood-drenched Carpenter-esque Boys’ Own potency. I’ve long since given up trying to reconcile Tarantino’s embarrassing public persona – braying, posturing and misrepresenting his cinematic forefathers – with the man who can write like this.
So yes, Django wasn’t a happy accident, a brief hiatus from a spiral downwards into complete irrelevance, it was a comeback: an invigorating example of a filmmaker rediscovering his voice. The Hateful Eight goes one better, breathing new life into a moribund genre. It’s a delirious, down-and-dirty exercise in restrained mayhem that doubles as a clarion call: Tarantino is back and if he’ll never make another film as incredible as Pulp Fiction, the very literal car crash that was Death Proof is receding in the rear-view mirror, after a Western one-two of power, persuasion and startling panache. (4)
See also: I love Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
CINEMA: Chocolat (Roschdy Zem, 2016) – A prestigious French biopic of black clown, Chocolat (Omar Sy), who became a superstar in the first years of the 20th century, which succeeds on the strength of its story and performances, but could do with playing a little less safe.
There's no denying that the story is a grabber: a penniless black refugee, posing as a 'savage' in a travelling circus, graduates to becoming a clown and become one of the most celebrated comics in the country – but longs for respect in a deeply racist society, while dealing (somewhat less interestingly) with the temptations of sudden fame.
And the mighty Omar Sy, star of that massive international hit, The Intouchables, gives it his all, delivering a deep, multi-faceted performance that infuses the film with whatever mood it's attempting to evoke, from knockabout fun to the melancholic self-loathing that comes with debasing your race for a living (even if it means giving people of your background a success story to cheer, a situation that later faced Hollywood character comics like Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best).
He's well supported by (the exceptionally handsome) James Thierrée as Footit, the arrogant, closeted but basically decent clown with whom he forges a partnership and proceeds to take Paris by storm, though most of the other characters merely represent viewpoints or challenges faced by Chocolat, and that's indicative of the film's shortcomings.
There are some nice flourishes – a notably fine wide shot of the circus stage, shot from low down; a neat montage trick that feels both slick and old-fashioned, as different parts of the frame are filled with smartly juxtaposed shots – but in a lot of ways the presentation, and the writing, are functional rather than arresting. A feeling seems to pervade the film that the story and the performances are enough to ensure that it works; and it does, but it should be more than that. Certainly there are few biopic or period piece clichés that aren't checked off (a rise-and-fall narrative, a moustachioed villain enticing our hero to betray his conscience, a man with TB coughing blood into a hanky), and its closing moments betrays a certain artlessness that frustrated me: why pan to a night sky, rather than a circus tent?!
But for all that, it is a good film. The story is fascinating, the movie never pulls its punches when dealing with difficult and even morally complex subject matter, and Chocolat and Footit's routines are impressively and exuberantly evoked, particularly given that at first you wonder if this is going to be a chore, because clowns.
More importantly than that, it's a welcome corrective in sharing Chocolat's neglected story with the world, and provides a showcase for Thierrée and more importantly Sy, who in some ways is his character's spiritual successor: a brilliant black performer in a racially-divided France, who risks his career as a comic to take on ambitious and important roles with real social significance. While the film may be safe – at least in its lack of formal ambition – its leading man is anything but. (3)
"THIS IS AN EMERGENCY!"
CINEMA: Chi-Raq (Spike Lee, 2015) – It seems a bit churlish to say it, but Spike Lee’s important film about the ongoing scandal of gun deaths in Chicago is an absolute shambles. It sometimes seems like he’s never seen a film before (in terms of his structure and scripting, not his natty visual sense) and while at the beginning of the movie that’s a virtue – his confrontational collage crackling with life – by the end it’s because he’s asking you to swallow an incoherent mixture of mawkishly-done melodrama and incredibly boring sex comedy. There’s a real argument for making entertainments out of critical issues, as Adam McKay did so well with The Big Short recently, because it’s a way of reaching a mass market and changing minds. But the pitfalls are obvious from Chi-raq, which simply alternates between speechifying and superficiality, and ultimately fails a subject that Lee clearly cares deeply about. Perhaps he’s just too close to this issue.
Kicking off with a dazzling credits sequence that’s basically just a YouTube lyrics video, the opening is decidedly grabby: a black urban update of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, with musical sequences, rhyming dialogue and some shouty fourth-wall-breaking from Samuel L. Jackson, basically doing his tiresome Barclaycard schtick, because he’s apparently unable to do anything else nowadays. Like Lysistrata, it’s a comedy about a sex strike, which here sees gangster’s girl Teyonah Parris trying to bring an end to mob violence by padlocking her poonani (not literally, that would be awful) and agitating for other women to follow. Nick Cannon is her eponymous lover, an extravagantly tattooed rapper with twitchy pecs who might as well be a different species considering how little I could relate to anything he said.
There are elements that work: a eulogy from throaty local priest John Cusack that starts as mere journalism but builds to a ferocious climax; a fine performance from the mighty Angela Bassett as a voice of angry, responsible reason; apposite song choices, moments of cinematic style and bits of blistering rage from a filmmaker who’s always had plenty to spare. But as a film it’s increasingly shapeless, redundant and, well, tedious, ultimately to the point of severe embarrassment. By then I was too bored and annoyed to be turned on. (2)
CINEMA: Remember the Night (Mitchell Leisen, 1940) – My all-time favourite film: a work of simple grace and beguiling beauty about the relationship between a shoplifter (Barbara Stanwyck) and the DA who lands her in jail over Christmas (Fred MacMurray), before feeling the first stirrings of conscience.
The marriage of Stanwyck's consummate, unique artistry and screenwriter Preston Sturges' fusion of the hard-boiled and heartfelt begins to work its magic instantly, and by the time they pitch up in Indiana to spend the holidays with MacMurray's family, I'm a mess. MacMurray too is astonishingly good, giving far and away the greatest, deepest performance of a long and erratic career.
Probably the 12 most moving moments in cinema history are crammed into this one film – among them, a meltdown at a New York nightclub, Elizabeth Patterson's love letters and Stanwyck's immortal "you bet" – while former costume designer and set dresser Leisen's very specific style (including props in the foreground to colour the whole frame) leads to some astonishing imagery: including a New Year's kiss shot through streamers and a Niagara Falls scene filmed almost entirely in silhouette. Its atmosphere is like nothing else I've ever experienced.
The movie's hilarious too, from MacMurray's ironic admission of state-sanctioned hedonism ("Oh yes, my life is just one endless parade of whoopee"), through Sturges' memorable ruminations on honesty, to a climactic courtroom scene that's both emotionally redolent and gloriously petulant, as MacMurray goes from intimidating the defendant to insulting the jury. Even the supporting characters are given pure gold: deftly sketched personas spouting stellar lines, including a ludicrously loquacious lawyer (Willard Robertson), dullwitted bondsman Fat Mike (Tom Kennedy) and overstretched orphan Willie (Sterling Holloway) – working for his supper at MacMurray's ma's house.
But the film's much more than a smart, moving, even heady rom-com: it's a plea for love, tolerance and social justice, a film about second chances, the malleability of human nature and the conditions that breed criminals, all masquerading as a holiday romance.
I've seen it perhaps a dozen times now – this was my second time on the big screen this year – and there's nowhere I'd rather be than at Beulah Bondi's house, as her son Jack (MacMurray) and the thief he's prosecuting (Stanwyck) swap songs, stories and presents, while falling desperately and irredeemably in love. (4)
See also: Here's my all-time top 25, with Remember the Night in first place.
Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class by Owen Jones (he’s the author, he didn’t demonise the working class) (2011/12) – Jones’ star-making polemic is a very fine book: hopeful, angry and humane as it drags the media and politicians of all stripes over the coals for systematically destroying the British working class, sneering at the consequences and then managing to shift the blame to immigrants. Much of the material is familiar if you’re a student of modern British political history (one of the few things of which I’m a student), but there are surprises – who knew that more people worked in call centres in 2011 than ever worked in coal mining at one time? – and the accumulation of detail allied to Jones’ clear-sighted analysis and rich on-the-ground reporting adds up to a populist polemic of urgency, eloquence and unusual power. Despite the crispness of the writing, there’s a little too much repetition in both his contentions and his language (he repeatedly uses the words “rump” and “brew” like some sort of bawdy northern witch), but it’s an immensely valuable work and also a prescient one, laying bare the sheer irrationality and cruelty of a country as unequal as the one in which we live, as well as anticipating the continuing rise of the far-right, which makes it as relevant to the post-Brexit dystopia we’re inhabiting as the world Jones was addressing five years ago. (3.5)
Next up: Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies.
Thanks for reading.