Quentin Tarantino

The Hateful Eight

Tarantino. Scorsese. Lee. Fincher. Nolan. These are some of my favorite filmmakers, and I hold their work up as a measuring stick by which I judge others. Regarding Quentin Tarantino, I’ve been a fan since 1997’s Jackie Brown. His catalogue is varied, but his unique trademark is stamped on each film. He has a penchant for dialogue, frequently utilizes strong female protagonists (see the aforementioned film and Kill Bill), and rarely shies away from controversy. From his gratuitous usage of the n-word to his characters’ oft-displayed bloodlust – the polarizing director sparks rigorous debate in cinematic circles. When I saw a commercial for The Hateful Eight I couldn’t discern what it was about, but I noticed some stylistic similarities to Django Unchained and was sufficiently intrigued.

The eighth (how appropriate) film from Tarantino finds a bounty hunter named John Ruth (Kurt Russell, Furious 7) transporting an outlaw for execution across a frozen, unsettled 1870s Wyoming into the town of Red Rock. The outlaw may be a woman, but she’s no lady. In fact, the surly Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Jacket) is quite a handful. Through swirling, snowy winds they traverse America’s heartland, the brash Ruth determined to claim the reward for his felonious charge. Traveling via stagecoach, Ruth and his driver O.B. (James Parks, Django Unchained) happen upon a hitchhiking Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson, Chi-Raq), a Black former Union soldier on his way into Red Rock with bounty of his own.

The first half hour of the film is very dialogue-driven, and although these early moments establish the dynamic between characters, some viewers may find it difficult to keep their eyes open. The language is coarse and both Domergue and Ruth address Warren disrespectfully, as would’ve been expected during the time. Eventually the rag-tag party picks up yet another wayward traveler – this time the new sheriff of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, Django Unchained), who is stymied by the impending blizzard on the way into town. He boards the stagecoach and the quintet continues on, but not without stopping at Minnie’s Haberdashery on the way.

When our party arrives at Mininie’s, things take a much more interesting turn. There they meet three other gentlemen who appear to be simply enjoying the warm refuge of shelter and whiskey. Now that the gang’s all here, we have our original group of five, plus three haberdashery patrons including Jon Gage, Oswald Mobray, and simply “Bob.” This dour ensemble comprises “The Hateful Eight,” and they must wait out the blizzard before heading to Red Rock. John Ruth is particularly suspicious of his newfound company, guarding against anyone trying to liberate his prisoner. When one of the gang ends up dead, Tarantino masterfully transitions to a whodunit, and the storytelling shifts into high gear.

Tarantino’s greatest strength lies in his superior storytelling, and he used flashback to effectively break up the action and keep viewers engaged. Once his characters are all assembled at Minnie’s Haberdashery, the setting becomes fixed. In order to hold the viewer’s attention, the dialogue and action must be compelling. It’s challenging to have your characters confined to one place, but the static setting allows the performances to shine through. I was pleasantly surprised that the film only got better and better as it wore on, cresting with each successive moment and culminating brilliantly.

If I had any criticism of The Hateful Eight it would be that it started too slowly. Furthermore, I grew a bit tired of the gratuitous usage of the n-word. Yes, it’s historically accurate to place the word within the context of this movie; no – we don’t have to hear it every two seconds. One can achieve sufficient realism and authenticity without assaulting our eardrums at every turn. That aside, Tarantino is masterful at what he does, and The Hateful Eight was a worthy addition to his stellar filmography. I believe it deserves the recognition it has received during Awards season. Grade: A

The Man With the Iron Fists

I was rather excited when I saw the commercial for RZA’s The Man With the Iron Fists.  The Wu Tang Clan super producer finally had the chance to bring his demonstrated love of Chinese martial arts culture to the big screen.  RZA has been fusing Chinese culture into music since he first beckoned us to enter the 36 chambers back in 1993.  Wildly creative, even when it produces mixed results (anyone remember the Bobby Digital album?) – RZA has never been afraid to forge new ground.  It should be no surprise that his first foray into filmmaking yielded positive results, even though he relies on some help from a talented cast that included Russell Crowe (The Next Three Days), as I’ve never seen him.

RZA stars as an unassuming blacksmith in ancient China.  He calls Jungle Village home, a town overrun by powerful clans.  Caught between warring factions, the blacksmith must fashion weaponry for the gangs without pledging allegiance to any particular one.  Running a profitable but dangerous enterprise, he earns his keep so that he and his woman Lady Silk (Jamie Chung, Sucker Punch) can leave town and make a better life for themselves.  Things take a turn for the worst when the leader of the Lion Clan is murdered by his own lieutenant.  The turncoat is Silver Lion, a ruthless warrior who wants to take over Jungle Village.  He and Bronze Lion conspired to murder Gold Lion, the leader of their gang and a relatively peaceful captain.

After his death, his son Zen Yi (Rick Yune, Ninja Assassin) travels to Jungle Village to investigate and avenge his father’s demise.  Complicating matters is the Lion Clan’s planned hijack of a shipment of gold bullion belonging to the governor of their province.  The shipment is being guarded by the Gemini Twins, a pair of deadly martial artists.  Also tracking the bullion is Jack Knife (Crowe), a British soldier who seems like he prefers the brothel to the battlefield.  Earning his moniker through handiwork with a scissored blade, Jack is a formidable opponent who is not afraid of the Lion Clan.

The backstory of the movie involves Lady Silk’s employer, Madam Blossom.  She runs Jungle Village’s Pink Blossom brothel, where both the Lion Gang and Jack Knife are shacking up.  Madam Blossom and her stable of lovelies have their own designs on the gold bullion and are not to be underestimated.  RZA’s blacksmith is the titular character of the movie, but the wide cast of characters shape his existence and are an integral part of the storyline, which ventures all over the place.  The blacksmith’s loyalty to Zen Yi costs him dearly, but he eventually uses his newfound disability to his advantage, becoming the man with the iron fists.  With Jack and Zen Yi as allies, the stage is set for an unforgettable showdown with the Lions.

The Man With the Iron Fists won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.  The dialogue is often campy and “on the nose,” and even the costumes and makeup are ridiculous in some instances.  For example, Silver Lion looked like Prince, at least to me.  Despite these laughable elements, I thought the movie was great – and even those comical aspects may have been intentional.  Those old Kung Fu movies that probably inspired RZA weren’t exactly known for their profound acting performances.  Any shortcomings by the cast were more than made up for by the performances of Lucy Liu and Russell Crowe.  Crowe particularly seemed to relish his role, a fun and raucous departure from his more recent efforts.  Lucy Liu is no stranger to the physical demands of her character, having played O-Ren Ishii in Tarantino’s Kill Bill vol. 1, which was not so coincidentally scored by the RZA.

Speaking of Tarantino, his imprint is all over this one, which is not a bad thing.  Of course RZA is no Tarantino, but this was a fun movie that will undoubtedly please its intended audience.  RZA has his own style, and his musical background provided for some unique cinematic sequences.  I don’t know how involved directors typically are in scoring their movies, but the musical choices here were perfect.  RZA eschewed traditional filmmaking and created an unconventional movie with a dope score to boot.  It won’t ever be nominated for Best Picture, but it sure makes for a cool day at the movies.  Grade: B

This review first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

Let me begin with the disclaimer that we over here at The Fast Lane do not advocate drug use.  That being said, it’s very clear that A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas was meant to be viewed under the influence.  If you’re sober when watching (as I was), chances are you’ll be more exasperated than amused.  That’s not to say that there weren’t a few laughs, but it was about as stupid as I expected it to be.  This movie is for stoners and 13 year old boys.  Everyone else – watch at your own risk.

This was one of those movies that didn’t really need to be in 3D – but hey, whatever.  When we pick up with the cannabis-loving compadres, it’s obvious that Harold (John Cho, Flash Forward) and Kumar’s (Kal Penn) bromance has tapered off.  Harold is married and Kumar is…well, getting high every waking moment.  His girlfriend has recently dumped him, and he’s been wallowing for months.  When she tells him that she’s pregnant, he’s too high to respond like an adult.  Harold is the exact opposite.  He’s very stable and settled, and his life is quiet and simple, at least until his father-in-law shows up for Christmas.  Humorously portrayed by that menacing dude from the Tarantino movies, this guy is incredibly hard to please.  Upon his arrival he trashes Harold’s Christmas tree because it’s fake.  He brought his own fir tree that he’d grown for 8 years to decorate instead.  While Harold’s wife and father-in-law attend Midnight Mass he promises to decorate the tree.  The fact that his father-in-law grew the tree for 8 years should let you know how crazy he is about Christmas; so decorating the tree is a really big deal.  Harold hopes that if he does this successfully he can finally win the guy over.

Harold and Kumar have been estranged, because Harold thinks that whenever Kumar and weed are around things go tragically wrong.  This is borne out when Kumar shows up on Harold’s doorstep with a Christmas package for Harold that was delivered to his apartment.  They open it and see it contains a jumbo-sized joint.  Harold wants no parts of it, but Kumar sparks the spliff before he can stop him.  In the first of a series of truly ridiculous mishaps, the joint ends up setting the Christmas tree on fire.  Now Harold is tasked with replacing the tree before his wife and father-in-law return at 2:00 AM.  As soon as Kumar reappears, things start to go wrong – which confirms Harold’s recent exclusion of his old friend.

While they’ve lost touch they have each made new friends, though these new buddies aren’t the same.  Harold’s pal is Todd, played by the always hilarious Tom Lemmon (I Love You Man, Reno 911).  Kumar’s buddy is Adrian, who has convinced Kumar to tag along at a party in the city where he hopes to smang a girl he met online who claims to be a virgin.  Exactly. How much more juvenile can we get?  Harold realizes he could get another Christmas tree from the house party, while Adrian tries to score.  What transpires for the movie’s duration is a hodgepodge of misadventure as Harold and Kumar end up fighting off mobsters and dancing onstage with the strangely omnipresent Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother), among other things.  All in a mad quest to get a perfect tree on Christmas Eve.

I can’t be mad, and I can’t say that I wasted an hour and forty minutes of my life.  The movie was exactly what I thought it would be.  It never took itself seriously, and shame on me for expecting it to.  Gratuitous, pointless 3D effects were peppered throughout, as well as obvious 3D references in the dialogue.  There were lots of boobs and drugs.  Neil Patrick Harris was funny as always, poking fun at his sexual orientation and generally looking like he was having a good time.  I didn’t have high expectations (no pun intended) to begin with, but I still found the movie a little disappointing.  Just because it’s a stoner movie doesn’t mean that you can just throw anything against the wall and hope it sticks.  Smarter, funnier stoner movies have been done, such as Pineapple Express and the Friday movies.  Just wait for this one to come out on DVD.  That way it’s cheaper, and when you get the munchies – it’s a short walk to the kitchen.

This article first appeared at http://poptimal.com/2011/11/a-very-harold-kumar-3d-christmas-review-stoners-retreat/ and was reprinted with permission.