Tuesday, December 22, 2015


(This is a review of the roadshow version of The Hateful Eight, which will be screening in true 70mm in about 50 theaters across the country during the first two weeks after the movie’s release on Christmas Day. The same roadshow version will also screen in other venues digitally rather than on film. Before the roadshow engagement ends, a slightly shortened version, sans overture and intermission, will go into general release on December 31, so if you’re interested in seeing the roadshow version—and if you can, you should see it—read your newspaper or Internet theater listings carefully.)


Once upon a time, not so very long ago, a friend and I had a friendly discussion online about what it was that made a story a “western.” It seemed to him that, beyond the usual interchangeable trappings of the genre-- six-shooters, ruthless bad guys, conflicted lawmen, a showdown on Main Street and lots and lots of cattle, et al-- the very placement of the story itself in America a couple of decades either side of the middle of the 19th century during which the settlers began moving West itself made the story a western. He then challenged me to come up with a movie or a TV show that disproved his premise, which caused me a bit of a struggle before I came up with Little House on the Prairie, a series of books from whence came the popular TV show about family life in frontier America— one would hardly call Little House a western, though it may have occasionally featured a cow or a horse or a visit from the local lawman.

I thought of this conversation frequently in sorting through my response to writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s latest, The Hateful Eight, which despite a post-Civil War setting and being knee-deep in stagecoaches, morally questionable bounty hunters, big handguns, an assortment of scurrilous, law-breaking varmints and big, nasty, percolating pots of pitch-black coffee, is no more a western than the Ingalls family saga was. Turns out that Tarantino has employed the Ultra Panavision 70 format, a wide-screen process which hasn’t been used in decades (at an extra-wide aspect ratio of 2.76:1, it is in truth a Cinerama presentation, and that company’s logo appears before this movie’s opening credits), to tell what is essentially, once the setup of the first half hour is complete and the action moves away from the snowy outdoors, a chamber drama seasoned with more than just a dash of the old ultra-violence, a racially charged whodunit which owes as much to Agatha Christie as to Sergio Leone and the countless other references Tarantino throws into the stew.

After an overture highlighting Ennio Morricone’s lush score (assembled, apparently, from themes written for but eventually discarded from Morricone’s score for The Thing, with cherry-picked segments from Morricone’s familiar music for The Thing and Exorcist II: The Heretic thrown in for good measure), the story commences. One of those morally questionable bounty hunters, John Ruth (Kurt Russell), is on his way across a snowy mountain pass in possession of a prisoner, the mean-spirited Daisy Domergue. (The movie can’t seem to decide whether the name is pronounced DOM-er-goo or Do-MING-gway, but it does seem to know that she’s played by Jennifer Jason Leigh.) Domergue’s crimes are initially unclear, but her obviously psychotic personality and apparent indifference to being punched in the face by her captor seem to endear her to the hangman’s noose for which she is bound. Their stagecoach stops to pick up two unexpected passengers—another bounty hunter, this one an ex-Union officer by the name of Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), and Chris Mannix, an ex-Confederate raider (Walton Goggins) who claims to be the newly elected sheriff of the town in which the prisoner-in-transit is scheduled to be executed.

Once the new passengers are on board (and that process takes a while, as does most everything in The Hateful Eight, Tarantino being the self-delighted dawdler he is), the whole party is forced by an impending storm to stop at a trading post, Minnie’s Haberdashery, where four other unlucky travelers—a mysterious cowpoke named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), Oswald Mowbray, a garrulous hangman (Tim Roth), cranky Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) and Bob, the shady caretaker of the outpost (Damian Bechir)—have already taken refuge. Including the stage’s nondescript driver (James Parks), that’s a hateful nine, though the late arrival of yet another lawless reprobate tips the movie’s grand total forward toward 10 and confirms our suspicions (hell, at three hours and seven minutes, our hopes) that all is not as it seems to be in this snowbound hotbed microcosm of moral and racial tension.

And of course all is not as it seems to be. The problem for me (at least one of them) is that by the time our presumptions start getting upended and Tarantino starts pulling his usual tricks of time refraction in order to expand the story backward as well as forward, a potentially taut thriller centered around a thin, familiar story has been lost in a bloat of narrative digressions and self-conscious dialogue. Tarantino is so in love with his own shadow in The Hateful Eight that narrative developments which could have been telescoped, trimmed or outright discarded and shaped into a sharp, focused first hour here take fully two before the movie wheezes into intermission, with an hour left to endure.


Another issue is how simultaneously underwritten, in terms of character and the story, and overwritten, in terms of the movie’s showy dialogue, the script is revealed to be. This movie may be logy and self-satisfied—a simple dinner scene with everyone seated at the table seems to spin on forever with precious little wit on display—but its unrelenting verbosity also veers dangerously close to self-parody. With the exception of the one played by Samuel Jackson, every character sounds virtually indistinct from the other, as if the screenplay had been hijacked by one of the countless QT imitators that have emerged from and crawled back into the cellar since Pulp Fiction exploded. Believe me, there was no pleasure to be had in realizing that the eighth movie by Quentin Tarantino (which the opening credits, in typically grandiose fashion, helpfully remind us that this is) is the first of his that could accurately be described as boring.

Amidst the pre-intermission directorial hemming and hawing which dutifully sets the table for what Tarantino is really interested in (hint: it involves a lot of viscera), there are a couple of touchstones at play besides the obvious nods to Agatha Christie and Sergio Leone. The first that came to mind is Andre De Toth’s seething, eloquently tense western Day of the Outlaw (1958), in which citizens of a tiny mountain outpost town have to put aside their differences when they’re held hostage by a band of criminals. De Toth uses the interiors of the town saloon, where everyone is holed up, to create an oppressive claustrophobia, but he knew what that treacherous exterior terrain was for too. The orchestrated balance between the threat within and the threat awaiting in the mountains in Day of the Outlaw made for great drama, a great western. But in The Hateful Eight Tarantino never finds a way to make the great outdoors a real character—all those gorgeously framed wide-screen, snow-covered mountains are reduced to a wintry backdrop, glimpsed largely through windows and doors, as the increasingly gruesome goings-on escalate on the inside.

The other touchstone is, of course, Tarantino himself. In form and in its absurd elongation, The Hateful Eight resembles nothing so much as a feature-and-a-half-length version of the masterful basement bar sequence in Inglorious Basterds, a sequence its detractors have already claimed went on far too long. (I was not one  of  those detractors.) In that magnificently deranged 2009 movie, there was hardly a more assured half-hour than the one which took place in that basement, where elements of identity, culture and impersonation (crystalized in the guessing game around which the sequence is constructed) melded together to create an impending sense of helpless doom, one in which we began to fear, for the American and German resistance fighters as well as the German soldiers and the proprietors of the establishment, that no one could possibly get out of the situation alive. There’s the same sense in The Hateful Eight, but the crucial element of empathy is missing, so the standoff that engulfs the second half of the movie feel less organic, more perfunctory. We’re set up here not to squirm and project ourselves as viewers into the situation, but instead to giggle at the presumably clever, nihilistic inevitability of the director’s dramatic scheme.

And speaking of schemes, as confused as I initially was when I heard of his now well-publicized plans, I actually admire the perversity of Tarantino’s decision to use such an outrageously gorgeous format to create claustrophobic interiors. This is called a director challenging himself-- absolutely nothing wrong with that—and it links Tarantino’s purpose here to the sort of temporal juggling and rug-pulling strategies that have often characterized his best work. But it also hints that this self-imposed challenge might be a way of staving off boredom. As visually arresting as much of The Hateful Eight manages to be, the more the camera begins to swirl restlessly, especially in the second half, the more the director seems to be trying to conjure stuff to do with that super-wide format, and the desperation to justify his indulgence begins bubbling to the surface. 

It’s no stretch to connect the lunatic beauty of the opening train station sequence of Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, with its gargoyle close-ups of Jack Elam and the station platform that looked as wide as the American plains themselves, to what Tarantino attempts here. But of course Leone also knew that such extremity of focus needed to be balanced by vastness in order to be understood and commented upon. After a while The Hateful Eight begins to take on the oppressiveness of being locked in a closet at the mercy of a nasty playmate who doesn’t particularly care whether or not you feel like keeping his violent games going any longer.

Tarantino has been working overtime in the press in the months preceding this week’s release of The Hateful Eight, dictating the response to the movie in his own terms like an expert catcher framing balls and strikes tossed by a wobbly pitcher, hoping the movie might be received in a manner meeting his approval. (The strategy, if earliest reviews are any indication, seems to be jelling nicely.) There’s a lot of talk in Tarantino’s recent interview with Village Voice critic Amy Nicholson about the movie being about “race, cruelty and justice,” as well as the director’s own statements about being connected to the zeitgeist in his script’s apparent reflection of hostilities that have recently exploded in Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, New York and cities all over the country. 

Unfortunately, the movie itself makes race a subject in the most puerile and superficial ways, pushing buttons one might reasonably expect Tarantino would be growing tired of pushing in the relentless manner of that nasty closet playmate, but without any residual illumination of furthered understanding. The use of the word “nigger” in The Hateful Eight hurts more than it usually does in a Tarantino movie, which is a good thing, and that’s entirely due to the post-Civil War context in which it’s being used. But that doesn’t mean you can’t feel the writer-director’s taunting delight in making audiences squirm over hearing it-- he’s becoming the Gaspar Noe of racial epithets. It’s a measure of the movie’s basest consideration of race that one of its biggest laughs, and gasps, comes at the expense of Dern’s Smithers as he’s told the story of his son’s sexual humiliation and death at the hands of a very well-endowed black Union soldier. The story is most likely bullshit orchestrated to enrage the old man, and Tarantino only cares about the shock value, but his audience experiences it as storytelling truth, and the unleashed power and racial anger with which the general is confronted is dissipated by the familiar sound of a gunshot.

(Despite inferences in that interview to the contrary, the best movie in the country now playing—barely—about race and cruelty and justice, and, oh, yeah, also about sex, a subject that has never much interested QT, is not The Hateful Eight—not by a long shot—but rather Spike Lee’s brilliant musical satire Chi-raq, in which Jackson also appears.)

Even more unfortunately, the movie takes the same tittering, taunting attitude toward its presumptions about its audience’s feelings about violence directed at women. Tarantino’s insistence in interviews is that Leigh’s murderous Daisy Domergue is treated just like one of the guys, meaning, of course, that she is fairly or unfairly subjected to the same sort of pitiless behavior as anyone else. But it wouldn’t take a latter-day Andrea Dworkin to notice the delight, shared by many of the Tarantino faithful who jammed the screening I was in, at every Dolby-enhanced bash in the teeth Domergue endures. We have only the word of bounty hunter Ruth to assure us that she deserves every tooth-crushing, skull-threatening blow. Meanwhile, however perforated or violated their bodies may be at any given moment in The Hateful Eight, the rest of the male cast is at least not subjected to protracted humiliations to be piled on top of the circumstances of their grisly deaths. The hysterical fever pitch of Domergue’s eventual fate suggests a scale better reserved for a genocidal dictator rather than the murderous leader of a gang of cutthroats who wouldn’t, Tarantino’s delicious details aside, be out of place in any run-of-the-mill western.

Daisy spends the entire movie in chains, and we only hear secondhand about her crimes—with the exception of one sneaky-deadly move, we never see her do anything but respond to the rest of the cast in a racially, misanthropically vile manner. Maybe she’s the most hateful of these eight, but her protracted humiliation still seems bizarrely out of balance. By that point the movie has succumbed to hysteria anyway, and even the most interesting of the director’s characters, Major Marcus Warren, has been reduced to pummeled meat in Tarantino’s outpost abattoir.

But however mangled he might end up, Jackson is the only performer who emerges from the confines of The Hateful Eight’s hellish haberdashery with his dignity intact, with Russell coming in a close second. Both men display their customary commitment and vitality in animating Tarantino’s world, and they represent its ruptured, malignant center with the most resonance. But to a man, and a woman, the rest of the cast, abandoned within the fetishistic conviction of their director’s design, turn in close to career-worst performances. Dern merely sits and glowers; Bechir growls unconvincingly under a scraggly beard; Madsen’s droopy-eyed gunslinger projects less intimidation than narcolepsy; and Tim Roth, in the absence of Christoph Waltz, has apparently been asked to witlessly channel the two-time Oscar winner with a dash of Terry-Thomas seasoning to insure full-scale annoyance. Walton Goggins cartoonishly overplays almost every aspect of his ex-Confederate soldier’s white entitlement and outrage, so much so that the power of the character’s eventual move toward racial cooperation, at least as far as he can take it, is undermined. And speaking of overplaying, Jennifer Jason Leigh rewrites the book as Daisy Domergue, a performance seemingly calculated to make Jeanette MacDonald’s Dirty Sally look like subtle character work. Leigh serves here only to illuminate a writerly conceit-- she stays far away from the sort of brushes with humanity that might encourage the audience to respond to her confinement with something other than the cackling glee the director inspires.

As might be obvious from that tall tale spun for the benefit of General Smithers, The Hateful Eight is a movie rife with untrustworthy narrators. Is Mannix really the new sheriff? Are those folks already warming their boots by the fire when Ruth and company arrive with Domergue who they say they are? Does Bob know where Minnie and the rest of the outpost regulars might really be? And does anyone know who made that delicious coffee? As the movie resumes after a 12-minute break, Tarantino’s voice is heard on the soundtrack catching us up on what happened before the intermission, and also what happened while we were out for popcorn or making that much-needed bathroom break. It’s another conceit worth a chuckle, but it made me wish every single thing in The Hateful Eight didn’t have quotation marks around it. It’s a shame that the most untrustworthy narrator of them all turns out to be Tarantino himself, who abandons his cast in a set that looks as vast as one of Leone’s dusty main streets in favor of playing with technological toys he’s not entirely sure what to do with, as least as far as the amplification of story is concerned.

In several ways this movie is a circus of technical control, an accomplished, veracious illusion of a specific time and of American social tensions within a genre framework. But it also feels, in comparison to the genuinely audacious Inglorious Basterds or Jackie Brown’s consummate directorial assurance and expression of character, like an especially ugly Ultra Panavision circle jerk, a scenario constructed primarily for the amusement of its creator and his fan base, with the rest of us encouraged just to play and cheer along. I prefer The Hateful Eight over Django Unchained, which allowed genuine pain and horror to degenerate into wish-fulfillment silliness (a quality Basterds’ wish fulfillment avoided), but this new movie now has the dubious honor of being the second Tarantino picture I have no wish to revisit. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing it, of course, especially if you can manage to see it in in 70mm. But despite it being, to paraphrase the wisdom of Blazing Saddles’ Olsen Johnson, not precisely a western but certainly the biggest, widest, most authentic frontier gibberish in town, The Hateful Eight is the first Tarantino movie that feels something like punishment. That ought to be no one’s idea of fun. 


Saturday, December 19, 2015


Of the Big Three new wavers of German cinema—Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders-- who “came of age” as it were in the ‘70s, when I was in college and my own stake in the movies was budding into something more learned and substantial than what it was when I first discovered my love for them, Herzog has emerged as the director who most speaks to me now as an adult. I think that’s true at least in part because when his movies do speak to me it never feels like a one-sided conversation. I feel like I’m in there engaging in a push-pull with Herzog’s ability to seduce me (disarm me?) with his simplicity of approach, an ability which rarely seems satisfied to consider subjects from the less-perverse of two perspectives, and his tendency to rhapsodize and harangue and sidestep visual motifs and dialogue from lyrical expression into pontification and back again by a simple authorial command, or perhaps by unconscious movement.

Wenders and Fassbinder must be considered, due to the period in which the three were at their most prolific, to be brothers-in-arms of a sort with Herzog, though even the most reductive core sample would demonstrate that their movies couldn’t be more dissimilar, in structure or temperament. Fassbinder and Wenders, though clearly operating in a realm in which they developed voices which were truly new and inimitably personal, found at least some inspiration in the voices of the past. The archetypes and influences of American literature, and particularly American movies, are shot through films like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Kings of the Road, The Marriage of Maria Braun, The American Friend, Veronika Voss and The State of Things-- Fassbinder made direct spiritual reference to Douglas Sirk and Billy Wilder throughout his career, and Wenders revered Samuel Fuller and Nicholas Ray so much that he cast them both in his own movies (The American Friend, The State of Things) and even made a film about Ray (Lightning Over Water).

But unlike his enge Freunde, Herzog’s movies rarely reference recognizable signposts of cinema or literature from which to extricate either context, significance or emotional resonance. (Which is different than not being influenced, which you will see in a paragraph or two.) On the contrary, a Herzog movie often feels as if their maker had never even seen another movie before. For better, for worse, but always to great interest, Herzog’s movies, like the pitiless, blackly humorous musings which are an inextricable element of the director’s public persona, seem to leap directly from his subconscious through the camera and onto the screen, without much regard for the expectations an audience might place on pacing, design, even performance.

His movies are often pitched and function at the level of opera, but never self-consciously so, even when the subject is as grandiose and foolish as the one at the heart of Fitzcarraldo. And when he does make conscious connections to a cinema outside his own, he’s as apt to disaster as to transcendence—Herzog drew a mesmerizing line between Murnau and the rich history of German artistic culture with his version of Nosferatu, which was as steeped in German folklore and music (Wagner plays a glorious role on the soundtrack) as it was in the vampiric legend so translated by his great forbearer; but he made his worst movie, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? when he settled for aping David Lynch, who was an executive producer on the film. 

At their best, Herzog’s films and their excruciating, infuriating, ecstatic dance between the mysteries of human nature and the intractable, harsh, unforgiving beauty of nature are singular creations. Few movies have the ability to simultaneously chill my soul and make it soar in quite the manner of the opening shot of Aguirre: the Wrath of God; or Jonathan Harker’s walk toward the Carpathian Mountains and his ghastly fate in Nosferatu: Phantom du Nacht; or the stunning, alien visual symphonies conducted from under the ice in The Wild Blue Yonder; or Herzog himself assessing the grandeur and violence of overwhelming landscapes in The White Diamond or La Soufriere. At one point in Nosferatu, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani, so ethereally, hauntingly beautiful here that she seems imported directly from a silent movie herself) implores a resolutely rational, disbelieving Van Helsing, whose role as vampire hunter she subsumes in Herzog’s version, that “faith is the faculty in man which enables us to believe in things we know to be untrue.” What better capsulation of Herzog’s cinema could there be?

Herzog has been on my mind a lot lately as I’m in the process of devouring Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed, a series of discussions conducted over several years and multiple sessions with writer Paul Cronin, masterfully edited into what amounts to a book-length interview with the filmmaker in which Herzog offers his philosophies, his contradictions, his passions, his helplessly Germanic self-aggrandizement, his impatience and his singular, sometimes maddening, always entertaining perspective on his career, his work and his own cultivated public persona. (A version of Cronin’s book first appeared in 2002 as Herzog on Herzog.) The director’s only apology, offered within Cronin’s introduction when recounting the process of convincing Herzog to undertake the project, is for the possibility that the format might make him seem long-winded and narcissistic. Even if this sometimes seems true, it is never to the detriment of the reader—A Guide for the Perplexed is emerging as the most unlikely obsessive page-turner I’ve ever encountered in my long, spotty history of consuming literature on the movies.

This book tops out at 542 pages and I’m only up to page 169, yet so much of what I’m reading so far has been compulsively enjoyable, hardly the dry tome I expected when I first set eyes on it in my local bookstore. It’s so enjoyable, in fact, that this week, in lieu of actual writing, I’ve decided to give you some of my favorite excerpts in the hope of inspiring you to find a copy and read the whole damn thing yourself, or perhaps buy one as a Christmas gift for a movie-mad friend who absolutely needs to read one of the most compelling, exasperating books ever dedicated to a single director—it seems destined to share a special place on my shelf alongside other favorite books on favorite filmmakers like Hitchcock/Truffaut, Joseph McBride’s Hawks on Hawks and Cameron Crowe’s Conversations with Wilder. (I hope now also to be able to clear my copy of the seeming hundreds of bookmarks that drop to the floor every time I turn a page.) Behold a few morsels, Herzog on Herzog and whole lot more.

On his first movie experiences:

“I didn’t know cinema existed until I was 11 years old and a traveling projectionist for remote provincial schools showed up with a selection of 16mm films. Although I was stunned that such a thing was possible, I wasn’t particularly taken with the first film I saw, about Eskimos constructing an igloo. It had a ponderous commentary and was extremely boring. Having to do with a lot of snow as a child, I could tell the Eskimos weren’t doing a very good job; they were probably just actors, and bad ones at that. There and then I learnt that the worst sin a filmmaker can commit is to bore his audience and fail to captivate from the very first moment. The second film, about pygmies building a liana bridge across a jungle river in Cameroon, was better. The pygmies worked well together, and I was impressed with their ability to construct such a well-functioning suspension bridge without any real tools. One pygmy swung across the river on a liana like Tarzan and hung from the bridge like a spider. It was a sensational experience for me.”

On the meaning of the term “fata morgana,” the title of one of Herzog’s earliest films, a documentary shot in the Sahara Desert which he describes as “a distant echo of science fiction, with its imagery of the beauty, harmony and horror of a world that is obviously our own, even though it seems like a distant alien planet”:

“(A fata morgana is) an image, one which you can film in the desert. You can’t capture hallucinations—which are only in your own mind—on celluloid, but mirages are something different. A mirage is a mirror reflection of an object that exists and that you can see. It’s similar to you taking a picture of yourself in the bathroom mirror. You aren’t really there in the mirror, but you can still capture the image of yourself on celluloid.”

On obtaining new images, and space travel:

“I would never complain about how difficult it is to get images that belong to the recesses of the human heart, that show unexpected things we have never seen or experienced before, that are clear, pure and transparent. I would go absolutely anywhere; that’s my nature. Down here on Earth it’s hardly possible anymore. I wouldn’t hesitate for a second if given the chance to venture out with a camera to another planet in our solar system, even if it were a one-way ticket. It’s frustrating to me that astronauts never take advantage of the photographic possibilities available to them. On one of the Apollo missions they left a camera on the moon, slowly panning from left to right, then right to left, for days. I yearned to grab the damned thing. There are so many possibilities up there for fresh images, and I always thought it would be better to send up a poet rather than an astronaut; I would be the first to volunteer. I did actually once seriously consider applying to NASA to be on one of their missions. Space travel is unfinished business for me, though these days I wouldn’t be allowed. You need a complete set of teeth to get inside a spaceship.”

On the influences of art:

“There is a 17th-century Dutch artist I feel close to, a virtual unknown called Hercules Segers. He was one of those clairvoyant and independent figures hundreds of years ahead of his time. Little is known about his life, and only a few of his works have survived. The man was an alcoholic, and considered insane by those around him; he was so poor he printed on anything he could find—including tablecloths and bed sheets—and when he died many of his prints were used for wrapping buttered bread…. His landscapes aren’t landscapes at all; they are states of mind, dream-like visions full of angst, desolation and solitude. Things emanate from deep underground and rocks that aren’t physically there, yet seem present nonetheless… Human figures rarely appear, and when they do they show up like tiny specks, like sleepwalkers. Entire mountaintops—flying in the atmosphere—seem not to comply with gravity. Seger’s images are hearsay of the soul… It’s an outrage that I haven’t met a single art student who has even heard of Segers.”

On the influences of film, good and bad:

“I think about what an extraordinary cultural upheaval would have taken place throughout the world if cinema had been discovered a few hundred years earlier, if Segers, Kliest, Holderlin and Buchner had expressed themselves through film. Of the filmmakers with whom I feel some kinship, Griffith—especially his Birth of a Nation and Broken Blossoms—Murnau, Bunuel, Kurosawa and Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, which isn’t so beholden to his theories of montage, all come to mind. I always saw Griffith as the Shakespeare of cinema, though everything these men did has a touch of greatness. I like Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia and Dovzhenko’s Earth, while Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari contains wonderful poetry, and no one who appreciates film can fail to recognize Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room… 

Then there are the essential films, things like kung fu, the car chases and smashes of Mad Max, a good porno—more watchable than a pretentious, artsy-fartsy film—and the ingeniousness of Russ Meyer, who captured the vilest and basest instincts of our collective dreams on celluloid. “Movie” movies, so to speak. Fred Astaire might have had the most insipid face, but his dancing is the purest in all of cinema… Astaire’s emotions were always wonderfully stylized, and compared to a good kung fu film someone like Jean-Luc Godard is intellectual counterfeit money. Anyone who claims that cinema is “truth 24 times a second” hasn’t an ounce of brain. He isn’t even French, but tries to out-French the French.”

On risk aversion:

“The world is impossibly risk-averse these days, and panics are almost completely out of proportion to reality. Years ago, during the mad-cow crisis, it was obvious to me that more people would die crossing the road getting to the butcher than ever would from eating contaminated meat. These days six-year-old children have five different helmets: one for roller-skating, one for baseball, one for bicycling, one for walking in the garden, one for God knows what. Parents these days even send their children to the sandpit with a helmet. The whole thing is repulsive. I would never trust a man who has had multiple helmets by the age of five. Wall-to-wall protection is devastating because children are conditioned not to be intrepid; they will never grow up to be scientists who jump across boundaries into the unknown. And every time I walk past a hand sanitizer—those bottles attached to walls everywhere across America these days—I want to tear it down. They are an abomination. I never use antibiotics and have taken maybe 10 aspirin in my entire life. Such things will be the death of us all. A civilization that uses pain relief at every turn is doomed; we can’t know what it is to be truly human without experiencing some level of discomfort and physical challenge. When you read in a travel book that the author has taken a snakebite kit on his journey into the jungle, you know the paperback in your hand is fit only for feeding the campfire. Life knows no security. The only certainty is that we all die despite helmets and life-insurance policies. These days people cut their finger or graze their knee and consider it a life experience.”

(Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed is available everywhere from Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publishers.)


Saturday, December 12, 2015


Despite its rampaging monster approach to the holiday season and the imposing, sort-of terrifying giant horned goat-man who provides its title, Krampus isn’t, at heart, an anti-Christmas picture-- it has at least one bloodshot eye pitched toward seasonal classic status. The movie’s story is centered on a family at war with itself—semi-sophisticated suburbanites Adam Scott and Toni Collette and their kids hosting a clan of boorish, right-wing Walmart-warrior relatives headed up by David Koechner and Alison Tolman— who finds itself besieged by the impish and deadly forces of Krampus, the flip-side of holiday cheer, Darth Vader to Santa’s Obi-wan. When the only child left in the family who still clings to his belief in Santa Claus has the last vestiges of Christmas spirit (here so defined as the will to make sacrifices for the good of others) derided out of him, he tears up his last sincere letter to the North Pole and hurls it to the wind, where it is swept up in a wintry curl and apparently delivered straight to the frozen netherworld. It’s an invitation to Krampus, who definitely knows when you’ve been naughty and could care less that you’ve been nice, to crash the party and demand a whole lot more than his share of the wassail.

Director Michael Dougherty has already delivered a holiday classic of sorts, having directed the terrific Halloween omnibus Trick ‘R Treat (2009), and I hoped he could go two for two with another perennial here. The movie opens with a terrifically detailed, lovingly slo-mo Black Friday stampede, raising hopes that the satirical stakes would remain raised throughout. Unfortunately, the new movie doesn’t have the narrative playfulness of Trick ‘R Treat’s jumble of connections, and as a director, and the cowriter of the Krampus screenplay, Dougherty lacks the visual pop and the subversive glee that Joe Dante brought to the Gremlins party. Now, there was a movie that shared in the delight of its titular creatures' anarchy, laying waste to the lovingly fetishized small-town Christmas-y atmosphere in a way that suggested a horde of tiny Tasmanian devils wound up and turned loose in a holiday snow globe. I can’t think of a Christmas-themed film other than Gremlins that has at its center a monologue of torched mythology as bitter and twisted (and funny) as the one Phoebe Cates delivers about the night she stopped believing in Santa Claus, surely one of the most subversive moments in any mainstream American movie.

Dante’s 1984 hit has certainly inspired the template of Krampus; there are sinister snowmen that mysteriously appear in the front yard (a very nice touch that doesn’t really go anywhere) and a rampaging pack of razor-toothed gingerbread men that provide Krampus’s best balance of terror and comedy, and even then you’ll be thinking how much those killer Christmas cookies sound like gremlins. Dougherty also interrupts the onset of his own holiday mayhem for a strange reverie in which the family’s grandmother, a WWII refugee, relates her own childhood experience with the creature, whose Austrian-Bavarian mythology is proven to her to be rooted in the real world. There’s no grisly punch line a la Cates in store here, but the interlude is rendered in a mournfully eerie style of animation similar to the Laika studios style of Coraline and The Boxtrolls, which serves its otherworldly purpose but also makes you wish the whole movie would have been made this way.

Unfortunately, the heart of the matter is that apart from those little gingerbread bastards, there isn’t a lot in the way of genuine fright here either, and the movie marches rather steadily and perfunctorily along to a predictably nightmarish denouement. Krampus himself is an imposing figure, but he really doesn’t do much and, most damningly, he’s not that scary—all the real mayhem is left up to his minions, including a nifty slug-type snowman who wreaks havoc in the family attic, but sadly also including a bunch of rubbery-looking elf things who look like holdovers from Willow or Labyrinth. The movie doesn’t have the conviction of fearful mythology either—here we’re left with the suggestion that Krampus watches over us just like Santa Claus, but instead of punishment his real motivation is to inspire, through means of an illusion of terror, the sort of good behavior that Santa likes to observe and reward. For a holiday monster movie, that’s a pretty treacly, and a pretty conventional place to wind up.


Of course there are plenty of other Christmas movie treats available to warm your cockles as the holiday approaches, and if you live in the Los Angeles area you can see many of them on the big screen. For the most irreverent of holiday revelers, the Egyptian Theater and the American Cinematheque is pulling out a double bill of Scrooged and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation on December 18, Frank Capra’s essential holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) on December 19, and the Christmas-oriented shoot-‘em-up pairing of Die Hard (1988) and Lethal Weapon (1987) on Sunday, December 20. (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation provides the other unacknowledged comic template for Krampus, and pound for pound it might just match it for scares too.)

Over at the Cinematheque’s Aero Theater in Santa Monica there’s a slightly more traditional bent, with a double-up of White Christmas (1954) and Holiday Inn (1942) on December 18 and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) on December 20, sandwiching the Santa-rrific one-two punch of Elf (2003) and Bad Santa (2003) on December 19.

The Cinefamily is providing multiple chances to see It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen, with showings on December 19, 21, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but the theater also lives up to its reputation as the alternative cinephile experience by also offering up Arnaud Desplechin’s acidic, unsentimental portrait of a holiday family gathering A Christmas Tale (2008) starring Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric and Chiara Mastroianni, thus providing the real spike in the more traditional holiday nog.


And following the Cinefamily right off the usual holiday rails, the New Beverly Cinema has programmed Christmas week with a bunch of unexpected holiday-themed treasures, many of which are definitely not among the first to occur to most programmers of repertory Christmas fare. They start on Monday, December 21, with a nifty pairing of Daryl Duke’s rarely screened, Christmas-set and very nasty thriller The Silent Partner (1978; written by Curtis Hanson) with John Frankenheimer’s also Christmas-set Reindeer Games (2000). And speaking of nasty, the New Bev’s annual screening of Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), which beat John Carpenter’s Halloween to the holiday punch (or the slash) by four years, paired with the decidedly less effective Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), commences on Tuesday, December 22. The following night, December 23, the New Beverly showcases a double feature of the none-too-beloved Christmas comedies Trapped in Paradise (1994) and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s materialist holiday carol Jingle All The Way (1996), with Christmas Eve saved for another appearance by Detective John McClane providing relief for besieged office workers in Die Hard, this time paired up with Sydney Pollack’s wintry CIA thriller Three Days of the Condor (1975), taking you right up to midnight and leaving just enough time to get home and set out the milk and cookies for Santa, or the bear trap for Krampus, whatever the case may be.

If you’re not geographically able to take advantage of any of this bounty of holiday screenings playing in Los Angeles, if you live in a city where either a repertory theater or a film society hangs its shingle make sure to check their schedules. There’s likely a chance you too could see some of what’s on the plate here, and maybe even other delights that have escaped these eagle-eyed programmers, projected on a big screen near you.

And if you’re dependent, as most of us are, on our home theaters to provide the audio visual holiday cheer, don’t despair. Most of the titles noted above are available on DVD, Blu-ray and various streaming services, so you can set up your own film festival by the twinkling multicolored light of your Christmas tree. Here’s some additional suggestions that none of the repertory programmers mentioned above made room for which would go great on any Christmas movie list.

Harold Ramis’s caustic crime thriller The Ice Harvest (2005) is Trapped in Paradise—John Cusack is a sleazy lawyer trying to make it out of Wichita with a bagful of stolen cash during an ice storm-- as a tag team of Don Siegel and the Coen Brothers might have envisioned it.

Steven Spielberg’s brilliant big-scale farce 1941 (1979) takes place in the days just after December 7 of that year and mixes its satire on American can-do jingoism with plenty of anarchic holiday spirit. The extended version, out now on Blu-ray, features tree farmer Hollis P. Wood (Slim Pickens) being attacked by a horde of Japanese sailors dressed as Christmas trees!

Overlooked by almost every source I could find this year recommending Christmas viewing, Ted Demme’s The Ref (1994) must now qualify as at least potentially forgotten, a nasty comedy more in the vein of Desplechin than Capra that devastates the holiday family gathering scenario with vicious relish.

The most traditional of my choices, Mitchell Leisen’s splendid Remember the Night (1940), from a script by Preston Sturges, sends shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck and her courtroom prosecutor, Fred MacMurray, on a Christmas trip to visit relatives, hers and his. The movie beautifully balances Sturges’ peerless wit with Leisen’s talent for finding the undercurrent of pain beneath the familial pull. Around our house, this is a traditional yearly treasure.

And easily the movie that most encompasses the relentless cheer, the mania, the materialism, the sentiment and, of course, the gleeful immolation of everything good and sane and delightful that Christmas stands for, has to be A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas (2011). If you can somehow see it in 3D, please do— along with Piranha 3D it uses the stereoptic technology to greater ends that just about any movie of the modern 3D era. But even flat it’s still a raunchy riot. Watch this one and Remember the Night back to back for a guaranteed merry Christmas.

Hats off as well to the “All Through the House” segment of Tales from the Crypt (1972-vintage, if you please), hands-down the creepiest murderous Santa story ever filmed. Ho-ho-ho!


Friday, December 04, 2015


Paolo Sorrentino makes movies the way musicians create music—lingering themes swirl together with short spurts of philosophical flirtation and bawdy jokes, placid imagery routinely collides with florid representation and the occasional heavily laden visual metaphor. But they also have an ephemeral quality which suggests a certain resistance to the rigidity of interpretation, that the experience of the way the images and sounds come together (or don’t) is the primary attraction. And it’s all seemingly colored by an underlying suspicion that whether it’s the devil or the divine in the details, to resist luxuriating in them would be to risk missing the overarching emotional pull Sorrentino’s movies are capable of, which for all their intellectual dabbling is what ends up being their most potent and meaningful quality.

A movie like The Great Beauty seems itself to sing, its techno-blasted party-at-the-edge-of-eternity vibe in contrapuntal balance with the mournful countenance of antipathetic writer Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) and his resistance to capitalize on his fame and fully confront the tragedy of the past. Conversely, Sorrentino’s strange, haunted, not-entirely satisfying This Must Be the Place (2011) orbits around an aging singer-musician (Sean Penn channeling the Cure’s Robert Smith) who still indulges in the signature fashion of his glory days yet is so recessive in manner that he barely even seems to have a voice at all. Despite its own obviously musical tendencies, including an appearance by David Byrne and the interweaving of the song that provides the film’s title within the musical cues on the soundtrack and in the story (it’s a Talking Heads wrinkle on The Long Goodbye), This Must Be the Place often seems, at least on one level, to be about the inability to sing.

Sorrentino’s latest, Youth, begins by setting us down on a rotating stage, our gaze fixed on a pop singer who performs while her audience, the guests at a posh Swiss resort, swirl around her in the shadows. Among those guests are Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), an aged composer-conductor who near the film’s beginning politely refuses a request by a representative of Queen Elizabeth to perform his signature composition, “Simple Songs,” for Prince Phillip’s birthday. (Subsequent refusals from none-too-easily dissuaded royalty become increasingly impolite.)

Ballinger travels with his daughter/assistant Lena (Rachel Weisz), married, but not for long, to the son of Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), Ballinger’s longtime friend, a film director current brainstorming his latest picture, which Boyle imagines will be a summation of his artistic ambitions, with the help of a cadre of young screenwriters who seem pleasantly dazed by their posh surroundings. Paul Dano rounds out the cast as Jimmy Tree, a hipster movie actor burnt out on fame who attaches himself to Ballinger, with whom he senses a kindred spirit in professional weariness. (Like a friend and fellow Sorrentino fan expressed to me, I too was hoping for a Toni Servillo cameo, but alas, it was not to be.)

Ballinger’s decision whether or not to perform the piece, and the impending revelation of the “personal reasons” he has for resisting the opportunity, are Youth’s primary concessions to plot. And despite the occasional wry humor wrung from struggles with unpredictable prostates, the movie, no surprise, turns out not to be the slightly more somber and contemplative wrinkle on Grumpy Old Men suggested by its domestic trailer. It lacks a compelling figure, like Jep Gambardella, around which everything else seems to orbit, throbbing to overwhelming beats and soaring symphonic flourishes which seem natural extensions of that core presence. Instead, Sorrentino conducts a poetically infused system of moments in which the characters are allowed to basically think out loud in interaction with each other, to express uncertainties, to wrangle with the formation of ideas, to confront experiences of loss, ambition, failure, betrayal, epiphany and surrender to either despair or hope.

These moments that compose the majority of Youth are like tiny arias echoing among the finery of a beautiful landscape that might swallow them up, were it not for the vividly imagined, occasionally precocious imagery rendered by Sorrentino’s favored cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi (easily my favorite name in the hall of great directors of photography). Sorrentino and Bigazzi seduce the audience into a sort of waking dream—everything feels clear, immediate, yet the effect of the imagery as a whole is diffuse, as if the whole movie were being transmitted on gossamer and constantly subject to floating away on a brisk curl of mountain air.

Not all floats on that breeze, however. There are exchanges which may be philosophically sound (“Desire makes us alive”) that still clink with the sound of an Italian writer-director striving for transcendence in a language not his own. And early on, when Ballinger describes, with a dash of narrative portent, his bemusement with monarchy to the queen’s man (“It’s so vulnerable; remove one person and it all falls apart… like a marriage”) I began to wonder if the metaphors, this one and those surely to come, might all play better in Italian, with subtitles, so we might imagine a more eloquent phrasing the exclusively English-speaking among us can’t understand. Caine carries the moment though, and every moment he’s in, through the tremulous sadness and resign in his voice. He gives the movie blessed, earned weight, especially when he’s forced to confront the awful finality of two dear voices forever silenced, and the tender note of ambivalence on which he ends his stay with the audience made me marvel at how simple he makes holding that audience seem.

In fact, among those tiny arias, the good, the wonderful, and even the clunky, there are only two major scenes in the film that revolve around extended exchanges of dialogue. One is given to Rachel Weisz, in which she takes a potentially musty monologue centered on her bitter relationship with her father and seems to alchemically invest it with fresh, beautifully modulated reserves of anger and fearful frustration. The other is given over to Jane Fonda as Brenda Morel, the prepossessed, frighteningly assured actress around whom Doyle is fashioning his latest film. Fonda embraces the fierceness of this woman, from her harsh honesty through to the desperation lurking just under her mask of Hollywood-inspired preservation, and Sorrentino holds us in her piercing gaze. She hasn’t had a moment like this in a movie since Bree Daniel checked her watch.

Sorrentino’s indirect, affected, decidedly more European approach to storytelling risks putting some people off, and several seated in the screening where I saw the movie began to get noticeably restless around the halfway mark. But if you can find your way to his wavelength, the music he makes, in collaboration with Bigazzi and a cast of familiar and unfamiliar faces, which might seem banal at first, ends up on notes of genuine, perhaps even inexplicable empathy. The brilliant soprano Sumi Jo performs Ballinger’s “Simple Songs” near the movie’s end, and something about the moment made the emotional effect of Youth, which seemed pent up for so long, coalesce into something that maybe I don’t want to fully understand— on some level I’d rather preserve the mystery of what Sorrentino manages to do when he’s really cooking. By the time I became overwhelmed by David Lang’s haunting medieval incantatory “Just,” which plays as the end credits roll, I had to concede that, as Doyle argues to Ballinger before he leaves the resort, emotions are all we have. Youth is a gorgeously orchestrated movie which pays eloquent musical homage to that simple song, and it sent me back out into the world on a melancholy high.