Review: THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

NOTE: This review made possible in part by donations to The MovieBob Patreon. If you want to see more like it, please consider becoming a Patron.

Being a fan of Quentin Tarantino (or, really, even just being a critic inclined to award one of his films an asterisk-free positive review) has of late been a frustrating exercise in repeating the phrase: “Yes, but he actually pulls it off!” 

In the two decades since PULP FICTION, the onetime insurgent has firmly established himself as the Id of contemporary American cinema, and as such tends to operate within attention-getting parameters that only appear all too easy to imitate to lesser filmmakers. “No, you see, I’m actually commenting on racism!” “You’re supposed to be grossed-out!” “She gives and gets as good as any of the men, so we’re treating her as an equal! These are the familiar retorts of Tarantino’s legions of lesser imitators, wannabes and in some cases acolytes (looking at you, Eli Roth;) deployed on cue to deflect criticism or (if we’re being frank) to whip defenders into a rhetorical frenzy. And in 99.9% of case, it’s bullshit – increasingly tiresome bullshit, at that.

But, damn it, above it all (and evermore above nearly everyone else) there still stands Quentin as the living, breathing 0.01% – the guy who just keeps getting away with it. Not because he’s popular, or because he’s famous, or because the sons and daughters of the cinematic world he exists as the heart of (he’s the tone-setter: Whatever obscura he conjures today will be the new bar of “cool” tomorrow and mainstream enough to be mixed into Marvel epics and Disney fairytales a year from now) but because he always backs it up. The wannabes’ bullshit-bravado consistently turns out to be his real deal. The fakers’ dodges are his stone-cold truth. Where other would-be provocateurs wield smoke and mirrors, Tarantino remains the magician who really can part the sea and call down the lightning.

And, as you’ll likely have already surmised, this power is once again on full and righteous display in THE HATEFUL EIGHT; whose basic conceit – eight bad guys, zero good guys, one location, let’s watch what happens – sounds an awful lot like the sort of shallow excuse to load the screen with self-indulgent perversity (Matt Zoller Seitz, in his negative review, described it as just watching a bunch of scorpions in a bucket,”) and dismiss any critique with “It’s a meditation on violence!” followed with “What’d you expect – we put ‘hateful’ right in the title!” And in 99.9% of cases, you’d be correct to call that out for the obvious cop-out that it sounds like.

But this is that 0.01%. And, damn it, he actually pulls it off.

(SPOILERS from here on out.)

The setup really is as basic as you’ve been led to believe: We’re in Wyoming, sometime not long after the end of the Civil War. A blizzard has waylaid bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), his prisoner-in-transport (Jennifer Jason Leigh as a venom-spewing hillbilly murderess called Daisy Domergue), fellow bounty hunter and former ex-slave turned Union mankiller Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and a racist ex-Confederate marauder named Chris Mannix who claims to be the incoming Sheriff of Red Rock (Walton Goggins) at a remote mountain inn; where something seems “off” as soon as they arrive: The door is broken (you have to nail it shut every time someone enters or exits), the owners have apparently left on Holiday with a mysterious Mexican named Bob (Damian Bichir) left to manage things, and the space is already occupied by fellow travelers including a chipper Englishman (Tim Roth) identifying himself as Red Rock’s incoming (professional) hangman, Bruce Dern as an aging Confederate General familiar to Mannix (and at least one other…) and Michael Madsen as quietly-withdrawn cowboy Joe Cage. (That makes eight, with Tarantino veteran James Parks as a decidedly non-hateful stagecoach driver none the less marooned with the titular octet of villains.)

There are other clues of something unsettling being afoot (an “unlucky” half-plucked chicken, an unexpectedly bad-tasting pot of coffee, a lone jellybean lying out of place on the floor) and John Ruth – who, this being The Tarantino Universe, is expected to have some experience being stuck in the snow with unfamiliar company – thinks he’s got a pretty good idea what’s up: One or more of his fellow occupants is an ally of Domergue’s, waiting to spring a trap. But, either way, everyone is still stuck together for awhile; and to make matters worse several of the players already have entirely separate reasons to be at eachother’s throats. For example: Major Marquis’ head was once a prized-bounty for the now-former Confederacy, and Dern’s General has come to Wyoming to symbolically bury a beloved son who hasn’t been seen for awhile…

I got into a (fulfilling) conversation not long ago on the subject of HATEFUL and it’s seeming shallowness, and – after having opined that Tarantino typically has more to say than he let’s on – found myself stuck trying to articulate exactly what he may have been saying here. It’s a tricky question, mainly because Tarantino doesn’t, in fact, always load a message into his work; and when he does it’s usually something pretty difficult to argue over (“Nazis were bad.” “Slavery was bad.” “Misogyny is bad.”) Quentin is a creature almost purely of and by the cinema, and he’s never seemed particularly interested in matters of morality or philosophy. That’s not to say moral or philosophical elements aren’t part of the fabric: DJANGO UNCHAINED, KILL BILL or even DEATH PROOF do end up having a lot on their mind (he’s too smart and much too detail-oriented for things like that not to make it in), but he’s clearly more invested in what films say about themselves, the process of their making or the way they’re received by an audience. That’s not shallowness – that’s Aestheticism.

And in HATEFUL EIGHT, Tarantino The Aesthete (or Aesthetician?) is primarily interested in exploring the nature of narrative itself. It’s a film about storytelling and stories, how they can be used as weapons or traps, and how an audience processes the story being told. That makes it less a cousin to fellow racially-charged Western DJANGO and more akin to INGLORIOUS BASTERDS; which not only featured movies as both literal and figurative weapons of war but also begins by letting audiences revel in Jewish-American avengers brutalizing Nazis but ends shortly after showing off a theater full of Nazis themselves in a Goebbels-produced propaganda film that looks very much like the Nazi flip-side of the same breed of pulpy mythmaking (right down to a shared visual-cue of swastika’s carved by knives in very different contexts.)

The metaphor is more explicit in BASTERDS, since the setting and story allowed for film to feature literally in the story. EIGHT is set just before the (practical) dawn of Motion Pictures, so instead the storytelling here is all about oral-tradition: The Hateful Eight are mostly strangers or threadbare aquaintances, mainly “knowing” eachother through reputation, self-exposition or by minor bits of documentation that are supposed to identify them (John Ruth’s warrant for Daisy, Oswaldo the Executioner’s calling-card;) with Joe Gage spending his hours quietly scrawling his life story (“only thing I’m qualified to write”) in a journal for those in need of less subtle indicators of where the game is at this time.

The point is that stories like these are only as good as our faith in the telling, and given the people involved that’s not very good at all. At one point, John Ruth reacts to the revelation that a particular fact of Marquis’ backstory that had endeared The Major to him is a complete fabrication (and what’s worse, an obvious one that everyone but Ruth had already seen clear through) with abject betrayal – as though his heart had been ripped out, Which is all the more odd, considering that John Ruth is a vicious sadist who goes out of his way to catch his quarry alive just to watch their executions and takes repulsive pleasure in beating Domergue to a bloody pulp every time she speaks out of turn (but then, Domergue is a murderous racist, and so on down it goes.)

The film goes on like that, with each new revelation (there’s a time-reversal flashback that flips our understanding of prior events on its head midway through, a Tarantino signature) designed to manipulate and throw-off the audience’s perception of reality and present-narrative. But more so than even that, the writer/director is clearly taking obvious enjoyment in playing with audience expectations about genre, narrative and the story itself: The title is actually an understatement, as we soon come to realize that these aren’t just hateful people but genuinely rotten, subhuman monsters: Ruth is a proud sadist, The General earned “The Butcher” as a wartime nickname, Mannix is of a family of vigilantes specializing in ravaging free Black towns, Daisy is something like a screaming witch out of Shakespeare and just wait til you find out what Bob, Oswaldo and Joe Gage have been up to.

For a long while, it feels like The Major will at least be some sort of antihero, given his DJANGO-reminiscent backstory and Jackson’s totemic place in the Tarantino canon; and Quentin teases that possibility out as long as possible before cruelly ripping it away in a monologue sequence wherein The General finally learns (in detail) the fate of his missing son that represents a new career highlight for both writer/director and performer and a grim revelation that a presumed plurality of the audience has been caught rooting for a guy who’s among the worst of the whole crew. That Daisy Domergue gets repeatedly slugged across the jaw is a recurring bit of ugly scene-punctuation throughout the film, but in aesthetic terms nobody in HATEFUL EIGHT gets smacked around as hard as the audience…

…even if they don’t realize it. Tarantino is a student of base-satisfying grindhouse schlock above all else, and he knows better than anyone how to stage a moment to trick an audience into accepting acts of grueling brutality as righteous catharsis. The Major’s monologue, climaxing with the relation of an act of violence that’s warranted a sentence of death by samurai sword in at least two other Tarantino yarns, has been greeted by cheers and laughter in screenings nationwide, which one can easily imagine soiling a more sober observer on the film itself – particularly if one is (for some reason) inclined to take Joe Popcorn’s applause as evidence that he (or she) actually understands what they’re actually applauding.

HATEFUL EIGHT may not be the new all-time champion of using the cheers of clueless viewers as a self-indicting punchline (of the audience, not the film); that’s still Paul Verhoeven’s STARSHIP TROOPERS. But unless one is predisposed to imagine Tarantino as an unironic gawker at the Roman Colosseum, it’s hard to imagine how anyone can see these sequences and not picture Quentin himself perched in the high-shadows, watching the watchers and rubbing his hands with puckish satisfaction: “You dumb assholes. Think about what I just got you to applaud for.” There’s an argument to be made where there’s a level of cruelty to that, as well – the skilled, clever filmmaker lording his mastery of the form over the pathetic masses – but that doesn’t mean he’s not good at it or that it doesn’t work.

And to be certain, Taratino’s technical chops are sharper than ever. The stagebound screenplay rockets by feeling barely half as long as it is (this review concerns the 3 hour “roadshow” version, which features an overture and intermission) and what first feels like the techno-fetishist joke of shooting a single-room piece in expensive 70mm UltraPanavision film reveals itself as a canny way to make every inch of the frame sparkle with life and important detail – rarely has the gag of putting vital actions in the background of a seemingly-unrelated moment worked to greater effect; while the legendary Ennio Morricone’s clever, playfully self-referencing score loads every scene with mythic emotional undercurrents that serve to ease the transition when the film abruptly cuts from being a talky, meditative chamber-piece to an absurdly over-the-top locked-room bloodbath at about the midpoint. Midpoint, incidentally, being the point where Leigh’s Domergue, who’s been simmering like a rattlesnake for the most part, gets to cut loose with a savagely energy that could well make hers the latest career salvaged by Tarantino’s unparalleled eye for pairing talent with role; though it’s Goggins who walks away as cast MVP, easily.

Speaking of cliche’s that are tiresome regarding other films and filmmakers but ever-appropriate for Tarantino, THE HATEFUL EIGHT is an endurance test on multiple levels. It’ll be too long for some, too talky for others, too violent for many and too unmoored from tepid moral/philosophical concerns for plenty; and even some who’ll no doubt come to love it will have done so by failing the test to comprehend it: If you think there were any “good guys” by the end, that anyone was “redemeed” or that we’re supposed to be “happy” about what’s transpired, you missed the point – and if you’re “happy” about what’s transpired, well, thanks at least for becoming part of the entertainment for those who were paying attention.

This is mean, nasty, utterly uncompromised visionary filmmaking straight from the lizard brain of the filmmaker who is himself the lizard brain of his chosen medium; and the only thing more disturbing (yet repugnantly thrilling) about what he’s accomplished is just how fabulously he accomplished it. Supposedly, Tarantino plans to fold up his director’s chair after two more features – we should all be hoping against all hope that walking away turns out to be the one act as director he isn’t capable of.

This review made possible in part by donations to The MovieBob Patreon. If you want to see more like it, please consider becoming a Patron.

Urban Jungle

So Disney comes in just under the wire to finally tell us what ZOOTOPIA is actually all about, after about a year of low-key (for Disney) marketing mainly focused on anthropomorphic animal visual puns. The result:

So. The basic premise for the main character is already pretty interesting from a thematic standpoint. The animals-as-people trope has pretty much always worked best when it’s making points about human behavior/society/etc by associating personality types and social-structures with (broadly-held assumptions about) animal behavior – i.e. putting any kind of identifiable human uniform/costume on an animal automatically makes a statement – and the angle here is pretty nakedly all about professional gender/class/ethnic discrimination; in as much as our lead heroine is Zootopia’s “first rabbit police officer” (Ginnifer Goodwin as “Judy Hopps”) apparently working to crack her first big case while facing doubts, dismissals and the stigma of “tokenism” about her abilities due to size/species/etc.

Yeah, okay. That’s a solid starting-point, certainly the first place I’d imagine one would have to go with an “Aesop in 2015” pretext. But it’s the hinted-at main storyline (re: Judy’s big case) that looks to have a lot more to unpack, theme wise: The idea looks to be that Zootopia (the city) is a kind of futuristic metropolis that’s able to exist via animals of all species having long ago evolved beyond (by agreement? By happenstance?) their predator/prey/circle-of-life “natural” relationship, and that this balance is threatened by a phenomenon of seemingly-random animal citizens (only predators?) inexplicably “going savage” aka reverting back to their primal red-in-tooth-and-claw instincts. Being a “one lone cop with a hunch” story, this presumably involves some sort of far-reaching conspiracy – a G-rated cartoon-animal version of the “everybody freak the hell out” button from KINGSMAN, maybe?

It feels like there’s a lot to unpack there, yes? At the most basic, you’ve got a lady cop versus danger posed by (chosen? encourage? forced?) reversion to violent “natural” tendencies; which has some fairly ugly parallels in the Men’s Rights/PUA scene (i.e. “I should be dominant and brutish because that’s how nature/evolution intended it!” “Boys are supposed to be out-of-control little monsters! It’s normal!”) that couldn’t have been lost on whoever was working out this premise, given that Disney projects spend ages in story-development.

But more broadly, the idea that a “bright future” civilization in the upscale L.A./San Fran mold (sunny, hyper-diverse, public-transit, prevalent mall/juicebar architectural-aesthetic) held together by the citizenry agreeing to curb behaviors that would infringe on the greater whole – implicitly, even in they come “naturally” or some have more “curbing” to do than others – being a societal ideal is (intentionally or not) a pretty close shot across the bow to trendy lowercase-l “libertarianism.” It’s also, thematically at least, a close cousin to bugbears of the above-mentioned takes on “human nature,” in as much as the idea of boys/men lashing-out because society is evolving in a “feminized” direction where they’re (supposedly) unwelcome in their “normal” state being a cornerstone of MRA ideology.

Obviously, you can’t expect any of that to be (explicitly) stated in the movie-proper. It’s a funny-animal movie for kids, and the premise almost certainly blossomed less out of deliberate metaphor building than something more “organic” like “Okay, city of animals – how does that actually WORK?” But on the other hand, George Miller didn’t deliberately set out to make the fourth MAD MAX explicitly about patriarchy, either – sometimes the theme finds the project. Given that picking through Disney features for underlying subtext is something like a national sport at this point, I can’t imagine I’ll be the only one making note of it if the actual movie plays out on the same lines the trailer suggests. And since we now live in a world where casting a woman and a black man as the new leads of STAR WARS can now trigger (hilariously impotent) calls for boycott, the results should be pretty interesting.

ZOOTOPIA opens March 4th, 2015.

NOTE: This post made possible in part via support of The MovieBob Patreon. If you like what you read and would like to read more like it, please consider becoming a Patron.


You voted, so the next round of “PITCH ME, MR. B” pieces (hypothetical pitches for plausible movie reboots/revivals/etc) will play out in the following four-part order:

(Hypothetical Marvel Cinematic Universe re-introduction)

(Based on the game series from Capcom)

(“Roadmap” pitch for multi-film/year series)

(Real-time sequel, set 25 years in continuity after GREMLINS 2)

This means that the potential 5th option, a (new/unconnected) remake of NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) will have to wait for another day – or, y’know, if anyone from WB/NewLine is both reading this and buying. As ever, those who enjoy content like this and wish to support and/or speed-along these projects are invited to check out The MovieBob Patreon.

Announcement: PITCH ME, MR. B – THE SEQUEL

Hey! Fans of this blog will likely recall this recently concluded bit of business, whereby we had ourselves some fun at the expense of reboot-happy Hollywood and held a little poll of various psuedo-dormant pop-culture franchises I figured I could (or had already) easily/amusingly brainstorm a “modern” pitch-treatment for. The last poll wound up with pieces for CAPTAIN PLANET, MEGA-MAN, X-MEN (a “joining the official MCU” version) and CARE BEARS.

Long story short, since it’s the end of the year and I could always use the distraction and the writing exercise, we’re going to do another one – but this time with a two little twists:

Firstly, in addition to counting votes made in the comments for THIS post, I’ll be conducting random Twitter-based polls as well and factoring in the totals from that at the end of voting. Secondly, this time, to keep everyone invested and (hopefully) sharing the post and links, there’s going to be FIVE possible choices instead of the previous four, and while the top four will still be written/published in order of popularity, choice #5 (aka “the loser”) won’t be written/published at all (or at least not until if/when I do a third run of these. So, basically, if there’s one you’re particularly enamored of? Do your part and get the word out 🙂

In any case, your FIVE potential “nominees” are:

Hypothetical new adaptation as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Real-time sequel set 25 years after the conclusion of GREMLINS 2.

Adaptation of the game series, primarily based off SFII with broader series tie-ins

Re-imagining of the NOES series, not connected to either the original series or the remake.

This would be a pitch for an entire series of interconnected films based on new versions of the classic Universal Monsters. This is something Universal is actually doing, but I bet they wouldn’t do it how I would – so it’d be fun to lay that out.

Alright. Get yourselves down into the comments and rank your choices from 1 (being most) to 5 (being least), and keep eyes on my Twitter (@the_moviebob) and let’s see who comes out on top. Polls will close at Midnight on Christmas Day.


NOTE: This review is possible in part through contributions to The MovieBob Patreon. If you enjoy it and want to see more, please consider becoming a patron.

It’s fine. Relax.

SPOILERS (not big or important ones, but story details and allusions) FOLLOW: CONTINUE AT YOUR OWN RISK.

The weirdest moment in my evolution from movie fan to professional film critic (SHUT UP it is too a real job!) was when I realized that I had been both totally wrong and totally right about the STAR WARS prequels (SHUT UP *again!* – that era is now as over as it’s gonna get you got your way you can afford one more look back).

Viewed objectively, the prequels are “bad films” for the same reasons that plenty of other (substantially worse!) special-effects blockbusters are bad films: Poorly scripted, badly acted, tonally askew, etc. But as a young-ish fanboy back in the day, what really bugged me was that they didn’t “feel” STAR WARS enough, by which of course I mean that they didn’t remain slavishly devoted to the aesthetic and trappings I’d grown up obsessed with and didn’t throw out nearly enough references and callbacks and, well… “Star Wars” stuff. Whatever bad things you can say about THE PHANTOM MENACE, you can’t accuse George Lucas of pandering to the audience – that was ATTACK OF THE CLONES

My point is: I’ve long held a sneaky (and depressing) suspicion that if the prequels had been exactly as lacking on a technical filmmaking and storytelling level BUT had also been suitably packed to the gills with the requisite amount of fan-service, said fans would’ve largely overlooked those flaws and still be arguing their merits today.

And I’d been worried that I’d get a chance to test this hypothesis ever since it became clear that Disney and Lucasfilm were intent on selling THE FORCE AWAKENS based almost-exclusively around proving that they’d been listening to the last decade-plus of fanboy complaints; with a pre-release hype machine that ignored almost all discussion of story, themes or characters in favor of: “We’re using practical effects and models again!” “NO midichlorians!” “X-Wings and Tie-Fighters and Storm Troopers and The Falcon!” “Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie are all back!” Heck, they even went so far as to hire JJ Abrams – a remarkably UN-remarkable talent whose only skillset of genuine note is being an exceptional mimic of the style and feel of other peoples’ movies. If ever there was going to be a recipe to make O.G. STAR WARS fans spontaneously combust with joy *regardless* of whether or not the movie was actually any damn good, this was it.

BUT! My hypothesis will have to wait for another day. Because in spite of all that (and, if we’re being far, probably because of some of it) STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a pretty damn good movie. And since it in no way needed to be, I suppose that’s damn impressive in its own right.

Make no mistake though: What we’ve got here is effectively the world’s first $200 million STAR WARS fan-film – and I don’t use that designation to be flippant nor entirely critical. THE FORCE AWAKENS is scratching a nostalgia itch out of pure profit motive, but for good or ill the attachment generations of filmgoers have to the sights, sounds and characters of the original trilogy is a real, palpable thing that exists on a level above the base toy-salesmanship that grew to feed off of it. Yes, the narrative is pretty much a leisurely stroll down memory lane (with frequent detours onto Homage Avenue) but mostly feels organic and natural about it at least until you stop and start questioning the coincidences that have always been a big part of the series’ storytelling.

Which, it turns out, is equal parts amusing and frustrating: Abrams isn’t even half as clever a storyteller as he thinks he is… but he IS pretty darn clever, and his sleight of hand trick here is to make both the cyclical nature of the STAR WARS canon and a mad drive to re-live (and live-up-to) the events of the Original Trilogy part of the subtext and “meta”-text of the overall piece; in as much as our new bad guys (The First Order) appear largely to be a cult of Empire-revivalists while our heroes (and at least one villain) are consumed with finding and honoring the spirit of the exploits of Luke and company which, to them, are the stuff of (literal) legend.

This, depending on your point of view, either necessitates or allows for Abrams’ most naked stroke of “fan-film”-ism: That the actual surface-level story of THE FORCE AWAKENS is a deliberate, near blow-for-blow retread of the original STAR WARS; as we once again concern ourselves with a droid who crash-lands on a desert planet carrying top-secret information regarding an old Jedi Master, a newly-completed planet-destroying battlestation and a high-ranking villain in a black mask who’s more personally invested than they’re letting on.

The film (and filmmakers) aren’t simply playing with the original series’ vintage toys, they’re using them to re-enact their favorite parts with their own tweaks and revisions. To be honest, if you can picture a modernized remake of the first movie but where they actually knew the big revelations from EMPIRE and could allude to them ad-nauseum (plus an admirable diversity-boost to main cast), you’re a long way to knowing more-or-less what you’re getting from EPISODE VII; with Abrams clearly feeling comfortable enough in his term-limited position as Star Wars Fanboy King For A Day to also find room for his own versions of Mysterious Uber-Villains Meant To Be Explained Later, a character with a cool, instantly-iconic look who gets a ton of tangential build-up but ultimately doesn’t really do anything and an angry confrontation about paternity on an absurdly-unsafe catwalk.

I’d be lying if I said that this level of reliance on mythic reference for gravity and scope doesn’t start to wear thin at the seams – Abrams is putting way more of his weight on Lucas than Lucas himself *ever* leaned on Joseph Campbell – but it eventually holds together and proves (mostly) able to stand up as its own thing thanks to the one Original Trilogy lesson it seems to have commited most of all to heart: That a lot can be forgiven with compelling characters and a sense of humor. Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron are all fun, engaging characters whose future exploits I’m already looking forward to; and despite all the homage and allusion the plot puts them through there is indeed a lot more to each of them than simply “the Luke” or “the Han” from scene to scene.

Boyega in particular essays a great likable everyman caught way above his head by his own good intentions, Ridley is compelling and strong even while saddled with the unfortunate duty of having every word spoken by or about her coming branded with a footnote reading: “THIS WILL MEAN SOMETHING IN EPISODE EIGHT!” But it’s Isaac who pretty-much walks away with every scene he’s in – making probably the biggest and most instantaneous turn from “Good actor you’ve seen around” to “HOLY SHIT this kid is a born movie star!!!” since… well, yeah. And speaking of which, while they occasionally get right up the line of it, the returning Hall of Famers acquit themselves admirably and largely avoid overstaying their welcome.

Possibly most interesting of all is Adam Driver as Kylo-Ren, ostensibly the “new” wannabe Darth. I say possibly both because his storyline is another one that’s clearly being left half-realized so as to be a “to be continued” for the next movie, and also because it’s not fully possible to talk about him without getting into a series of huge spoilers. Suffice it to say I was profoundly intrigued to see Abrams and company introduce a character whose (no exaggeration) entire being feels conceived as a pre-emptive “fuck off” to whiny, entitled, backwards-looking, legacy-obsessed, easily-enraged fanboy culture itself (think Superboy Prime) only to say: “Y’know what? This will work better if we’re subtle about it.” Of all the characters new or old, his is the story I’m most interested to see play out further.

If there’s a weak link, it’s in the writing. Not necessarily in the overall storytelling – the story they’ve got is fine even if you can hear the gears turning a little too loudly as they attempt to reverse-engineer Lucas’ original “think up a giant epic, then tell one small part of it” approach – although it does do a fine job of using the fallout from a casually-revealed, seemingly “major” plot detail that at first feels like it should have been a huge twist as a narrative smoke-screen to conceal a much bigger twist *almost* well enough that you’ll be irritated with yourself during the credits when you start thinking: “Wait a minute, that might be one astronomically massive coincidence too many.”

The problem, rather, comes in the dialogue – where too often a character’s already perfectly-clear reaction to something goes on several beats longer than it should while they lay out the emotional-exposition for said reaction to a third party. There isn’t too much of this, but there’s enough that you start wondering if there’s a joke being told that you don’t have the proper context for.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that it’s possible to give a fair and complete overview of THE FORCE AWAKENS that will stand the test of time – much like the Prequels, it feels structured around a sense of pre-planned inevitability in a way that frustratingly obscures which moments of under-writing or “plot-holes” are “bugs” of clunky screenwriting and which ones are “features” of setting up the next two movies: for example, DON’T go in expecting to find out WHY the First Order formed, HOW it’s buildup was accomplished or WHAT they’re grand scheme or unifying ideology is all about just yet.

For now, what I can safely say as a film critic is that – if the stated goal here was to emulate the original 1977 STAR WARS? Mission accomplished: Both films are energetic, hugely enjoyable, visually-spectacular space-adventure romps from imaginative filmmakers who are perhaps better as technicians than auteurs that are immensely fun to watch and contain intriguing glimpses of a bigger world and more substantive story just beyond the frame. And if this commitment to emulation continues, then here’s hoping next time we once again get the deeper, richer, more narratively-satisfying continuation made by a better director (they’ve already got that second part pretty-much locked-in.)

And as a STAR WARS fan? …yup, it’s pretty goddamn awesome. In the end my objectivity and detachment were no match for just how satisfying it is to see all The Good Stuff polished up like new and our Old Friends stepping back up to take their well-deserved bows; and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t experience visceral, powerful emotional response to a handful of big payoffs – even when you can see them coming from miles (or years away.) THE FORCE AWAKENS has practically been *genetically engineered* in the vast Disney manufacturing collective to make long-time STAR WARS fans shrug off the weight of Prequel Disappointment, get all misty and gratefully declare “Star Wars is back.” And… yeah, so be it, I’ll say it, you guys win:

STAR WARS is back.

NOTE: This review is possible in part through contributions to The MovieBob Patreon. If you enjoy it and want to see more, please consider becoming a patron.

"Well Played."

NOTE: Film coverage like this made possible in part through donations to The MovieBob Patreon.

I’m a confirmed “hater” of the JJ Abrams STAR TREK reboots so far. Bent over backwards trying to like the first one so as not to be judged as a change-averse reactionary, openly and utterly hated INTO DARKNESS on every conceivable level (mostly because it was bad on every conceivable level) and have pretty-much written the series off. And yet, the trailer for STAR TREK BEYOND just dropped and… I kind of like it? A lot?

…and I seem to be in the minority on that.
I won’t say that I don’t “get” why this has people apprehensive. The feel of the trailer, as an individual piece of work apart from what it’s selling, is aggressively “anti-fanservice;” especially in that it’s structured (seemingly deliberately) among the most obnoxiously in-your-face “Not your father’s Star Trek!” things from the first reboot movie i.e. the anachronistic Beastie Boys track and super-obvious “extreme!” action beats (motorbike-jumping, in this case.) And yeah, that I can see – just like I can already hear the rage coming as people make the connection between “I saw a vehicle-stunt” and “Director from FAST & FURIOUS movies.” The pitch here is entirely “Star Trek as an action flick,” and if the very idea of that is anathema to you, well… yeah, anathema. There you go.
For me, though, the issue with Abrams’ STAR TREK was never that he made it “action-y.” Frankly, after multiple Generations (see what I did there?) of Trek being ponderous and navel-gazing, I was more than ready for a deliberate return to the “big ideas plus exciting pulpy space adventure” stylings which, from where I sit, defined the original series and was thus the true heart and soul of the franchise. Which is why it was all the more disappointing that Abrams’ vision (over two movies) was not only not particularly exciting or adventurous, but also had nothing in the way of big ideas beyond references to better previous films, convoluted self-justification (the first one) or inane 9-11 “truther” allusions (INTO DARKNESS.)
Now, to be certain, the BEYOND trailer isn’t exactly promising any big ideas (yet); although I am intrigued at hearing Idris Elba’s (I think?) unidentified alien character talking about “The frontier pushing back” – If TREK has an under-explored element to itself, it’s recognizing that it’s Utopian progressive self-image is somewhat at odds with the Colonial/Expansionist undercurrent of the “To Boldly Go…” business. But so far that’s just an inkling of potential in a trailer that’s mainly selling a big-scale action/adventure movie in the TREK universe.
So why am I so enthused by this (and puzzled to the point of minor irritation that so many others seem to not be?) I’ll be honest: It could just be that seeing actors in TOS-style uniforms scrambling around on colorful boulders with aliens in weird/elaborate makeup feels aesthetically closer to “Classic Trek” than everything else in the reboots so far and that I’m an unapologetic mark for exactly that, but mostly I just like that it looks like it’s trying to be fun. And if there’s one thing that’s been missing from this series so far, fun would be it. Sure, there was plenty of action; but of the portentous, grim, “People sure seemed to love that DARK KNIGHT picture!” type – and that’s never been STAR TREK, even at TNG’s mopiest low-points.
What I think this exposes, at least to a degree we haven’t really had to “confront” in awhile, is that there’s still a fundamental split in STAR TREK fandom. For a long time “Trekkies” (or Trekkers, or whatever) have been treated like a monolith in the popular culture, particularly as the post-TNG aesthetic came to dominate the ancillary arms of the franchise and the revival of “Wars v Trek;” but it isn’t. TOS vs TNG/etc is still very much a thing, and I feel like you can really see it (and will see more of it) in the reactions here.
See, I’m TOS/Kirk all the way. So for me, the mere presence of some bike-jumps and martial-arts (that’s Sophia Boutella from KINGSMEN as the lady alien, incidentally) doesn’t in itself undermine anything essential about STAR TREK – especially since it’s the Kirk-era that’s being rebooted here. Original-recipe TREK (“my” TREK) was always at its best balancing adventure and intrigue with big ideas and forward-thinking vision. Yes, it would explore out-there sci-fi concepts like parallel-evolution or time-travel and grapple with issues like race, class and philosophy, but it would also “hook” you with action, melodrama, alien monsters, etc. TOS would frequently (an unapologetically) use whatever space-magic it could conjure in order to throw Kirk and company into old-west gunfights, gladiator arenas, monster battles or whatever else – if they could’ve afforded a motocross stunt, I’m sure they’d have done it and Shatner etc would’ve been all over it.
But that’s me, I’m a TOS guy. If you’re coming from the (totally legitimate) place where THE NEXT GENERATION and it’s progeny are the “true” STAR TREK, well… firstly I’m always interested to hear how that squares with the now widely-understood revelations that TNG was only able to flourish creatively when other writers and producers were able to wrest control away from Roddenberry. But beyond that, I “get” where this looks like a total pass for you.
Or I could be completely wrong. Right now, I’m digging the audacity (which is a different animal from from the plain “not getting it” of the Abrams movies) at play here, and it’s not difficult for me to see where the mix of solid action chops and team-dynamic skills that Justin Lin brought to the FAST & FURIOUS movies could turn out to be what the franchise needs to salvage itself, even as its biggest liability (Chris Pine remains a charisma-vaccum in everything other than his INTO THE WOODS comic turn) continues to be present. But this could just as easily be a bad idea all-around. For now, though, I’m feeling good about it.

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ID4: RESURGENCE Trailer Debuts

Give Fox a certain level of credit for not promoting this over a year in advance. They’ve got a near-gauranteed gargantuan blockbuster on their hands just based on the title and hitting the Millennial Nostalgia market at what’s probably going to be its peak (don’t forget: JURASSIC WORLD just got done becoming the biggest hit ever) – regardless of how you feel about INDEPENDENCE DAY (I’ve made my position pretty clear) there’s an audience to whom it’s a generational touchstone who will turn out in force for this – so they can afford to not bury the planet in advertising before now:

In any case, I mostly like what I’m seeing. I’m curious to see how they solve the problem presented by the aliens (part of the charm of the original is that it treats “alien invasion” like an impersonal natural disaster that doesn’t need much explanation or any background, but we’ll probably need some of that this time) and it feels anticlimactic to lose Will Smith’s character offscreen (see below), but otherwise it looks like the best pitch you could reasonably have for this. I’m especially interested in the idea that they’re going with an significantly altered timeline (with the original invasion still dated to 1996 and this being an alternate 2016 world spinning out of those events) rather than futzing around trying to keep a “normal” present like the last three TERMINATOR sequels. Hell, given the ongoing state of the world, “endless war-preparation even as the inciting attack gets further and further into the past” is eerily appropriate.

Along with the trailer, they’ve also launch a “War of 1996” viral site to handle some inter-film worldbuilding. This is where we learn (among other things) that Stephen Hiller (Smith) died in a test-pilot accident (Jessie Usher is playing “Dylan Dubrow-Hiller,” i.e. Jasmine’s now-grownup kid from the first one) and that David (Jeff Goldblum) has become a sort of Steve-Job-but-for-weaponry guru leading the adoption of alien tech by humanity; along with other (potentially) interesting details like surviving Invaders still being alive (and fighting with human troops) in Africa.

So… call it a maybe. Well-intentioned failures aside, Emmerich remains one of the best action-spectacle filmmakers working, and I’m excited to see him return to full-on science fiction after all this time. We’ll find out on June 24th (the July 4 weekend having been previously claimed by Spielberg’s BFG adaptation and, for some reason, Warner Bros’ new TARZAN movie.)

NOTE: Film coverage like this made possible in part through donations to The MovieBob Patreon.

"X-MEN: APOCALYPSE" First Trailer

So… yeah, they pretty much say right upfront that Apocalypse is, in fact, God – as in “the God.” That’s something you probably wouldn’t have seen in a mainstream superhero movie a decade ago.

Beyond that? Looks okay. The lack of more than a handful of people in any given scene kind of undercuts the “epic” feel (scale, along with action, simply isn’t Singer’s forte) and it looks like Jennifer Lawrence is going to have to keep seeking out roles where “palpable lack of engagement” is the only appropriate trait to express; but it looks the least Bryan Singer-ish of anything in the franchise apart from FIRST CLASS, so that’s a good thing – though I imagine plenty of people are going to be disappointed in Archangel looking like nothing so much as a fashion-show floorwalker.