THE GOOD DINOSAUR
screenplay by Meg LeFauve
directed by Peter Sohn and Bob Peterson
starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, a bear, angry junketeers
screenplay by Mark L. Smith & Alejandro G. Iñárritu
directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu
THE HATEFUL EIGHT
starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern
written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
by Walter Chaw Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) is the runt in a frontier family of stylized dinosaur herbivores who struggles to live up to the example of towering Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) on the family farmstead. He's clumsy, though, and easily frightened, and when he finds himself incapable of killing a mammalian vermin (Jack Bright), he unwittingly causes the death of his father. Arlo joins forces with the vermin, eventually, dubbing him "Spot" (he's a little orphaned human boy) and relying on him to forage sustenance for him in the wild world outside. Spot, in return, relies upon Arlo for protection in the film's final set-piece as Spot is set upon by a flock of fundamentalist pterodactyls. Pixar's The Good Dinosaur is, in other words, a horror western about a frontier bespotted with monsters and monstrous ideologies, set right there at the liminal space--as all great westerns are--between the old ways and the encroaching new. It's far more disturbing than has generally been acknowledged and, in being disturbing, it offers a tremendous amount of subtext layered onto a deceptively simple story. It posits an Earth where the dinosaur-ending comet misses impact, leading to millions of years of evolved adaptations and ending, as the film begins, with the emergence of homo sapiens on schedule, but skittering around on all fours and howling at their saurian masters. The Good Dinosaur is an existential horrorshow.
Consider the campfire tale told by cattle rancher/T-Rex patriarch Butch (Sam Elliott), an explanation of scars with a frankly horrific coda that provides less a moral than a clarification that life is a brutal struggle often ending in absurd, horrible death. Lost in the rush to judge the film as just another children's entertainment about the little guy earning his stripes is that The Good Dinosaur's most direct antecedents are The Fox and the Hound in its denouement and Sartre in its overall outlook. Arlo's journey proves not his courage but his acceptance that life is fear and struggle. His mid-film encounter with a deranged dinosaur who's collecting a retinue of totemized sidekicks (birds and small mammals) he's assigned symbolic power speaks to the film's general conversation around myth as a means to contain chaos. It's very funny in the way that insane people who think they can ever be protected from the dark, or death, or even mosquitoes, is very funny. The Good Dinosaur is a sophisticated play on the essential, inexplicable terror of childhood. Consider that the corn silo Arlo's family constructs as bulwark against starvation is infiltrated, easily, by Spot. The climax of the picture is when the generally unflappable Spot learns fear. It leads to an epilogue where he and Arlo discover that the only illusion of safety is with others of your own kind; and that the only comfort in life is the promise that you'll die among loved ones instead of alone in the wilderness. Oh, and it's beautiful to look at, and has a sequence in there that's as good and for the same reasons as the Pink Elephants on Parade number in another Disney horrorshow, Dumbo.
Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Good Dinosaur is called The Revenant and is based on the frontier tall-tale of he-man Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who was already mythologized once in Richard Sarafian's Richard Harris/John Huston-starring Man in the Wilderness. According to legend, tracker/scout Glass was half-eaten by a grizzly and left for dead by his crew of fur-trappers who were then hunted down by the irritated Glass, sustained as he dragged himself through the flyblown tundra by a healthy dose of vengeance and resentment for having been treated so poorly. Iñárritu makes deeply stupid movies laced with pretension that generally reveal he doesn't have much insight into the things he's ostensibly educating his audience about. He's the shrillest of the three Mexican filmmakers who emerged together (Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón are the other two), the one most likely to seem desperate and the one, especially after last year's already-fading Birdman, to rely on a single gimmick and a payload of sour, thin-skinned theses. Given the reins of a movie about machismo, however, Iñárritu's mortal weaknesses are actually strengths. There hasn't been this level of glorious cock-opera produced since John Woo in the heyday of Hong Kong's heroic bloodshed period. The Revenant has the same technical audacity, the same masculine melodrama, the same elevated sense of itself in romanticizing the cult of man. I mean "MAN." An early shot of a raft emerging, silent, from a fog bank evokes Aguirre the Wrath of God, and as the legend of how awful was The Revenant's director and shoot continues to embellish and multiply, the comparisons to Herzog don't end there. The film is a masterpiece of vapid, preening chest-thumping. It's that episode of "Gravity Falls" with the "MANataurs" that are "Half MAN, half...um...taur." Hemingway without all that nancy stuff about nurses and babies and shit. It's the best Mel Gibson-directed movie since the last actual Mel Gibson-directed movie. The Revenant is absolutely as dumb as every other Iñárritu flick--that just happens to suit the material this time.
Freed of having to listen to someone you don't really respect tell you something you didn't need him to tell you, The Revenant is a technically proficient--at times brilliant--adventure film with occasional hallucinatory idylls that inflate womanhood and fatherhood to the lofty climes of Madonna and Child. Hugh's Native American wife was murdered, you see, leaving him the sole steward of his half-breed boy, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Giving Glass a son is like Justin Kurzel's Macbeth getting a son. It's something to avenge and thus shifts the focus of the piece from simple survival to misplaced paternal ambition. Hawk is killed by feral Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), leading to the moment spoiled by the trailers--the entire movie, beat for beat, is outlined in the trailer, so if you've seen it, you know what's going to happen (as if you didn't already)--where Glass snarls that he's come all that way (200 miles, according to legend) to kill the man who killed his boy! By the end, Glass will avenge not only his kid but also the ghost of his wife through a surrogate in a subplot that promised to be smart only in the end to be typically stupid. No worries, it's cool, bro, and that's what matters.
The Revenant is this year's John Wick, a film I liked better but for the same reasons. In that one, someone kills Keanu Reeves's dog and so Keanu Reeves shoots 100 people. In this one, someone kills Hugh's dog and Hugh crawls 200 miles, Tauntauns a pony, and eats raw bison in order to kill a few guys. It's likewise a triumph of film craft, exciting and brilliantly-choreographed. The opening sequence of an Irikawa raid on a trapping camp is a marvel of practical stunt work, CGI, and obsession. It has a corollary to Spielberg's Omaha Beach showstopper from Saving Private Ryan. It's truly harrowing and among the best sequences in 2015 cinema. The bear attack that cripples Glass is likewise an instant classic. It's developed this bizarre Internet half-life where folks have speculated that the bear literally rapes Glass rather than figuratively. It's a girl bear defending her cubs so I would say the act isn't sexually-motivated, but, for those in the camp who say that rape is about power and not sex...I would still say that I didn't see Glass stimulated into penetration of the girl bear against his wishes--or at all. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the grizzly doesn't rape Glass, though it does maul the ever-loving shit out of him. Dennis Muren, ILM legend, oversaw this section and I had the great pleasure of telling him the bear was the most-developed character in the movie. She has a complete character arc, demonstrates recognizable emotions, and is a fearsome badass motivated by something other than greed or revenge. As for the many Terrence Malick-y scenes of slow-motion reflection and tilts up into the swaying treetops as "what is this war?" stuff goes on beneath insensate nature--yes, it's stupid grandiloquence made instantly trite by any comparison to no-shit-high-art like The Thin Red Line, but it's the kind of stupid grandiloquence I can get behind. Especially when, after noticing he can't eat because everything he puts in his mouth falls out of his neck, Glass cauterizes the gaping hole with gunpowder. Fuck yeah.
Then there's Quentin Tarantino's eighth film, The Hateful Eight, featuring eight hateful people trapped in a small space during a blizzard. The hullabaloo surrounding the release has to do with the production shooting in an extinct widescreen format (70mm anamorphic) and putting up a lot of money so that it can be screened accordingly in select theatres. A few critics have misidentified its vistas as belonging to Wyoming (it was filmed in Telluride, Colorado), which is understandable given that only about five minutes of the 187-minute running-time is spent outside. There hasn't been a Tarantino feature until this one that I haven't loved; I believe he is our finest working film critic. He understands things about the movies he pulls from--that certain traditions of Japanese and exploitation filmmaking are strongly feminist, that blaxploitation was initially empowerment before it was instantly gentrified, that the best slave narratives involve legacies of violence, which is why Lalee's Kin and Django Unchained have a biological connective bridge. I've learned more about movies from watching Tarantino than I have from watching Godard, who's actually trying to teach me something. I think the Kill Bill saga is a remarkable statement about motherhood. I find his dialogue to be distinctive and sometimes exhilarating. I struggled with disliking The Hateful Eight for each of its 187 minutes. It's the first time I've ever understood the popular criticism of Tarantino as self-indulgent, nihilistic, misogynistic, even racist. I don't agree with every charge, but I do get it now. It's the first time, too, that I was troubled by a plot point in his film: there's someone in the piece who hates Mexicans, see, but when we get a flashback to this person engaging with a Mexican, we see that this is a fallacy. I can't figure out if this was intentional; I fear that it wasn't. I fear, more, that this is evidence that for the first time Tarantino has lost control of his screenplay. I also finally felt the loss of Sally Menke, who was his Marcia Lucas. I hope it's not a harbinger of things to come.
For me, the reason The Hateful Eight doesn't work is that Tarantino has a lot to teach about exploitation cinema and not very much to teach about Howard Hawks. The picture is essentially a remake of the Hawks-produced The Thing from Another World, complete with Ennio Morricone's lost score for John Carpenter's remake starring Kurt Russell, who also headlines The Hateful Eight. The premise that over the course of time, people trapped together might be trying to kill one another, is familiar--as is the tick-tock checking-off of characters one-by-one in a "Ten Little Indians" closed-room intrigue. There's a long monologue just before the roadshow version's Intermission (which feels like affectation, let's be honest; this ain't The Sand Pebbles--why does it want to be?) in which the Samuel L. Jackson character provokes a Confederate general with the story of how he made said general's dead son suck his big black dick before putting a bullet in his brainpan. This scene has already been read as a commentary on the sexual mystique of the black man. Hawks does a similar thing with homosexuality in Red River when he has John Ireland and Montgomery Clift discuss the virtues of handguns and ask to hold each other's pieces. There it's done with a beautiful economy of images and language. Tarantino bloats this scene with a dozen pages of dialogue. The film reminds me a lot of Crimson Peak in that this is a filmmaker showing off what he knows rather than offering insight into what he understands. There's even a musical interlude, à la Hawks's similarly claustrophobic Rio Bravo, to break the mood and build some character, with Jennifer Jason Leigh's desperado Daisy performing a song. (Leigh's singing a lot on screen this year). But then bounty hunter John Ruth (Russell) 'Blutos' the guitar against a post and...and nothing.
Ruth is bringing Daisy to hang, but he's waylaid by the blizzard and forced to spend a fateful evening ("the fateful eight?") in Minnie's Haberdashery, a little general store in the middle of nowhere. Along the way, he's picked up a Union war criminal, Maj. Marquis Warren (Jackson), plus newly-starred sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who, lately, had run with a band of murderous hillbillies. This causes some racial tension. Already at the Haberdashery are Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir), Christoph Waltz (Tim Roth), broken-down journalling cowpoke Joe (Michael Madsen), and dotty Reb General Smithers (Bruce Dern). Is that eight? They spar; Warren takes on the position of investigator, wondering where in the world Minnie could be seeing as how it's her haberdashery; and Ruth periodically punches Daisy savagely in the face, since this is commentary on violence against women in addition to commentary on racism and capital punishment. The Hateful Eight is the first Tarantino that's self-important. It seeks to bolster and explain a body of work that needs no bolstering or explanation, lest you equate the historical esteem afforded Hawks to that afforded Sergio Corbucci. In so doing, it invites uncomfortable comparisons to just exactly why Hawks's films work (economy) versus why Tarantino's do (excess). Fusing Hawks with Peckinpah, in other words, is messy business. There's a lot of tissue rejection in that kind of graft. The patient invariably dies.
The oral rape sequence, then, comes off as merely a jutted chin and a chip on a shoulder. It's meant to shock where other moments in Tarantino's films that do shock (like the shooting of Marvin in the back seat) build character and explicate genre. They used to be grace notes, now they're the melody and bass line. Whatever The Hateful Eight has to say about race, it revolves around a letter from Abraham Lincoln that Warren carries around with him and allows white people to read once in a while to lend Warren some cachet. There are revelations around this letter that aren't very interesting. There's a moment where Warren realizes that his fate is in the hands of a bunch of inbred crackers, which should have led to a different conclusion, I think, because the current one is perilously close to a "bros before hos" thing that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, given the universe Tarantino's created. And the other late revelation--I'm loathe to give it away, except that the cast list gives it away--feels a lot like an unfair contrivance when others in Tarantino's oeuvre, like the gimp shop in Pulp Fiction, feel more in line with a savant-like understanding and honouring of predecessors. It's a deus ex machina--right? Or at least from the basement. This is also the first time Tarantino's use of "nigger" has bothered me, as it's the first time I've heard that typewriter labouring and this artist reaching for relevance. I imagine it's like the fourth hour spent alone with Don Rickles. It's shocking, I get it.
Still, The Hateful Eight is beautifully photographed (by Robert Richardson, once Oliver Stone's go-to DP, now Tarantino's). The detail of these fine actors and their fine faces is strikingly present. The performances are accomplished, as expected, the production design is above reproach, and the special effects, when it comes time to do them, are vivid. The film's cruelty is expected, its nihilism is not--but neither is it well-explored: the ending is in fact sort of hopeful in a way that neither version of The Thing could be said to be. It mostly fails as a Hawks shrine, in other words. (Ultimately, the film's bullying unpleasantness just feels like nihilism.) I want to say that it will satisfy Tarantino fans, except that I'm a huge Tarantino fan and found it wanting. I waited weeks to write about it, because I wanted to first see it again in case I missed something. Like the sense of displacement and the uncanny in The Thing, I look at what should be familiar and beloved and I don't recognize it. It's existentially peculiar for me to be on this side of the fence, but so it goes: I didn't like The Hateful Eight. I didn't like that it's not nihilistic enough (if that's what it wants to be), that it's self-consciously provocative, that it doesn't have anything to say about race on the heels of Django Unchained, an amazingly insightful film about race. I didn't like that it uses the violence against Daisy as a bucket-of-water gag, or Warren's dick as a metaphor, or "nigger" as an affectation. Whatever's there to recommend The Hateful Eight is overshadowed by this feeling that it's trying too hard. I'd never felt that before about a Tarantino joint. He's got two more to go. I hope I don't feel this way again.