My Month in Film: September 2019

The Hole in the Ground and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

I am happy to say that, after a couple years of real-life chaos, I’ve returned to the world of amateur cinematic critiquing. Plus, TV Good Sleep Bad has returned for another run of cult TV randomness. All of this and more, if only I can get the hang of WordPress’s so-called “improved editing experience.” Feh!

September Content Recap

This month’s full-length reviews:

TV Good Sleep Bad: Episode 32 — Gravity Falls and Liquid Television

Other podcast appearances: The LAMBCast #496: It Chapter Two

Capsule Reviews

The Hole in the Ground

I reckon one of the upsides to not having children is that I never have to spend sleepless nights worrying that they’ve been abducted and replaced with physically exact duplicates possessing inhuman strength and a sudden taste for spiders.

Thus, I cannot relate to predicament Sarah, the young single mother played by Seána Kerslake in The Hole in the Ground, finds herself in after she and her young son discover the titular ginormous Hole in the Ground (which looks like a cross between a giant’s eye and the Sarlacc Pit from Return of the Jedi) in the immense, dense woods behind their new house. Which they’ve just moved into after fleeing Sarah’s abusive ex.

I hope you like your horror movies blatantly, unsubtly metaphorical, because so much of this movie fails to make sense if taken literally. (“How has no one other than Sarah and her son managed to notice this god damn huge sinkhole, even though it’s clearly been there since the ’80s at least?” is only one question that that film will not even attempt to address.) Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, until about half-way through, when director/co-writer Lee Cronin shifts gears and decided he wants to spice the pot up with the sort of kick-ass motherhood that was all the rage in early 2010s horror movies.

It has quite a few lovely scenes, and also James Cosmo, who always seems to be at hand when Irish children are menaced by the supernatural (see also: Citadel). And it’s very pretty. Unfortunately, the narrative doesn’t seem to have any ambition beyond “The Babadook, but Irish” which ultimately ends up letting the end product down.

Starring Seána Kerslake, James Quinn Markey, Kati Outinen, James Cosmo. Directed by Lee Cronin. 90 minutes.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Nobody loves Hollywood more than Quentin Tartantino. So I was more than a little surprised when Tarantino’s latest turned out not to be a work of symbolic fellatio. His fairytale of L.A. proves to be quite compelling, largely through its meticulous recreation of the collective American folk-memory of Tinseltown in the first half of 1969, late enough in the ’60s for hippies and Vanilla Fudge’s cover of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” but before Manson and Altamont. (Considered in this light, the film’s much-maligned ending makes perfect thematic sense.)

Key to this is Margot Robbie, a talent whom, like Tarantino, I find myself often adopting a cynical attitude towards even if I’m impressed with her body of work overall. Much has been made of Robbie’s lack of lines in the film, but unusually for QT, her performance works not on the basis of her ability to recite stylized dialog but her ability to embody Sharon Tate, or at least Tate as we collectively fantasize her to have been, not as she actually was. (Which isn’t to say the portrayal isn’t accurate; I don’t know enough about her to judge.) Leo and Brad may get all the QT dialog (although my favorite line of the film, “I’m as real as a donut,” is uttered by someone named Austin Butler), but it’s Margot we’re all going to walk out of the theater remembering.

As with most fairytales, it’s somewhat on the shallow side. Which is fine; Hollywood is not a particularly deep place, or at least, it won’t be until, in the words of Bill Hicks, “L.A. falls in the fuckin’ ocean and is flushed away” and leaves “nothing but a cool, beautiful serenity called Arizona Bay.”

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. 161 minutes.

The Hateful Eight

Only Quentin Tarantino could make a film like The Hateful Eight. For that matter, nobody else would even be allowed to make a film like it.

United States. Directed by Quentin Tarantino, 2015. Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bechir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern. 187 minutes (roadshow edition). 9/10

In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, would turn out to be a Western homage to the John Carpenter version of The Thing. Tarantino pretty much built his career by recontextualizing chunks of genres and even specific films and assembling the pieces into something new. When Ennio Morricone, who famously swore off scoring Westerns and Tarantino films, agreed to compose the music for a film about Kurt Russell snowbound and stranded at a remote outpost…well, we should have seen that as a clue to what was going on.

To which I say: cool! I’ve always wanted to see QT play around more with horror elements in his directorial work; I thought Grindhouse would have been much more interesting if he’d directed Planet Terror, not Death Proof. The Hateful Eight doesn’t quite qualify as a horror film, but it’s the closest Tarantino has yet come.

Tarantino casts Russell as a bounty hunter escorting his latest quarry, the murderess Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to the hands of the law (and, not coincidentally, a handsome payday), only to find the two trapped at a Wyoming outpost by a brutal blizzard alongside some shady characters: a fellow bounty hunter and former Union war hero (Samuel L. Jackson), a one-time Reb terrorist turned lawman (Walton Goggins), a retired Confederate general (Bruce Dern), the local executioner (Tim Roth), a quiet cowpoke (Michael Madsen), and the Mexican left to take care of the outpost in the owners’ absence (Demián Bichir). The distrustful Ruth suspects one or more of the men may not be what he says he is, and believes a plot to free Daisy might be underway.

The story unfolds in classic Tarantino style; in the three-hour “roadshow edition” (featuring extra footage, a musical interlude, and an intermission), almost everything before the break consists of talking, and everything after it consists of action. Dialog-heavy sequences almost always live and die on the actors performing them, doubly so in QT’s efforts. Much of the cast are veterans of previous Tarantino films–Madsen and Roth have been with him since Reservoir Dogs, Jackson since Pulp Fiction–even minor players such as Dana Gourrier and Zoë Bell. Something about working with him seems to fire up his frequent collaborators; Jackson in particular, who seems more engaged with his material than he has in other recent projects such as Oldboy. But the standout here is Leigh, who interprets Daisy as a nexus of chaos given human form.

Tarantino returns the favor by giving the cast great material to work with: meaty dialog and vivid characterization. None of the dramatis personae are heroes or even particularly sympathetic; instead, they’re bastards and psychopaths to a man (and woman). Russell, ostensibly on the side of the law, spends much of his time beating up Leigh; Jackson’s true self hides behind a well-constructed veneer that’s nevertheless as fake as Roth’s Monty Python accent. With the assistance of Morricone’s creeping sinister score, Tarantino never allows the audience to become too comfortable with this lot, with new information constantly forcing us to re-assess what we think we already know. Of course, everything eventually goes south, but there’s no catharsis in the graphic violence that ensues, no sense of karma or justice playing out.

Even at three hours, The Hateful Eight keeps a steady pace–not slow or brisk, but deliberate, not allowing any sequence to drag. The much-vaunted Ultra Panavision 70 format does wonders for the snow-covered exterior vistas, which we knew it would; surprisingly, it plays just as well in the interiors, bestowing a sense of intimacy to the close-quarters sequences.

Like him or lump him–and I’ve been known to do both–Quentin Tarantino remains one of our most steadfastly singular filmmakers, and The Hateful Eight constitutes another feather in his cap. Nobody else could make a film like this. For that matter, nobody else would even be allowed to make a film like this, and that’s what makes it special.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT poster.