So we kind of took a little holiday there, didn’t we? I hadn’t really planned it, but as the actual holiday season stretched on, it became nicer and nicer to have a break from writing. Every once in a while, it’s good to spend some time away from even the things you love doing. And in the meantime, I just relaxed. Enjoyed time with friends and family. Went to the movies. Read some funnybooks. So let’s start with the movies, and see where we go from there…
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens
by Lawrence Kasdan, JJ Abrams, and the Walt Disney Corporation
So, yeah, just like every other dork on Earth, I saw the new Star Wars movie. And I liked it. It’s fun to watch. The new characters have interesting backstories, and it’s nice to visit with the old characters again as they pass the torch to the new generation. There are intriguing mysteries and dark legacies, kinetic action and funny jokes. It’s slick and professional, just about the best continuation of a corporate franchise you could hope for.
Which is kind of the problem with it. It’s a little TOO slick for my taste, a little too… clean. Not visually; the technology looks satisfyingly lived-in, as it should. But in tone, it’s lacking something. The original Star Wars films have a bit of a streetwise edge to them, an acknowledgment of the harsh realities underlying all the space battles and heroic derring-do. Even farmboy Luke, for all of his idealism, understands how the world works. But Han Solo is the best example of this. Han is a cynical soldier of fortune. A smuggler. A scoundrel. The kind of man who really would shoot first. He’s still a hero for all that, of course. His return to save the day at the end of Star Wars is a pivotal moment, reminding us that, even if the world is kind of shitty on the whole, there are still things worth fighting for.
The Force Awakens lacks that dichotomy. It pays lip service to it, with new heroes who are both escaping from pretty shitty lives: Rey’s a scavenger on the desert planet Jakku (which is not, I repeat, NOT Tatooine. Really. No matter how much it looks like the burned-out husk of the Lars moisture farm might be waiting just over the next dune). And Finn’s been raised from childhood to be a Stormtrooper. But neither of them is very streetwise. Rey can fight (boy, can she ever fight!), but she doesn’t have much personality. Finn’s a little better on that front, but even when he’s serving as semi-competent, half-cowardly comic relief… There just ain’t much there. To be honest, they’re both kind of bland. They lack quirks. They lack charm. They don’t seem like real living breathing people, and so I don’t really care about them.
This is a problem I had with the movie as a whole: the endearing cynicism and comedic bickering that I consider as important to Star Wars as Jedi Knights and Death Stars just isn’t there. And neither is the weirdness, the uncanny menace of the villains and the monsters. It’s too damn clean. The good guys are too nice to each other, and the bad guys aren’t scary. Sure, they blow up some planets. But the First Order still comes off like a lazy Nazi pastiche. They’re almost funny (I certainly spent a lot of time laughing at them, anyway). You never feel the hobnailed boot of fascism clamping down on anybody’s throat. Not even Finn’s, and if any character ought to make you afraid of the bad guys, it’s him. The film is so busy being reverent to everybody’s memory of Star Wars that it forgets to actually do the stuff that makes me love those movies as much as I do in the first place.
Except, of course, for when Han Solo shows up. Han is among the best adventure heroes ever created, a charming mix of heroism and overconfidence that’s hard not to like. And he’s having a freaking field day here. Seriously, this is a great Han Solo movie. Almost good enough to make up for how poorly he was written in Return of the Jedi (almost). The moment he walks on-camera, the film comes to life. But that only makes the new cast’s general blandness stand out in stark relief. Han seems alive in a way that they don’t, and that weakens an otherwise well-crafted adventure film.
And it is well-crafted, make no mistake. The Force Awakens really does have a lot going for it, especially in terms of plot. Not the plot of this first movie by itself; that’s pretty much a carbon copy of Star Wars. But when you look at it going forward to the rest of the trilogy, it’s fascinating. There are intriguing mysteries to be solved, revenge to be had, and redemption to be sought. It also gets the Star Wars surface gloss right, the excitement of space ships and evil empires and the Force. And that’s nice to have back on the movie screen. It’s fun. I like it.
But I don’t love it. There’s something artificial about it, something a little too safe. It lacks attitude. It lacks a sense of danger and weirdness. It lacks soul. Ultimately, it feels less like a film than it does a product. And that’s terribly disappointing to me.
The Hateful Eight
by Quentin Tarantino
This movie, on the other hand… This movie, I love more and more the further I get away from it. Like The Force Awakens, it continues a cinematic legacy: it’s the eighth film from Quentin Tarantino. Unlike The Force Awakens, it’s not a corporate franchise being continued by hired guns. Instead, it’s a personal, idiosyncratic film that could only have been made by one guy. Moreover, I’d argue that it’s his best film in years, a tightly-written Western about crime, punishment, race relations and, more than anything else, sheer damn meanness.
That’s another thing separating this film from Star Wars: there are no heroes here. The closest thing we’ve got is Kurt Russell’s character, The Hangman John Ruth. He seems a comparatively decent sort, a bounty hunter who believes rather deeply in the rule of law. But he’s also a blustering bully who enjoys watching his bounties hang, and whose rough treatment of his prisoner, wanted woman Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Lee), raises red flags of abuse.
There’s also Ruth’s fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), an emancipated slave who fought for the Union in the Civil War, and who carries with him a letter from Abraham Lincoln, with whom he corresponded during the conflict. But we first meet Warren as he’s sitting on a pile of corpses in the middle of the road, and he quickly makes it clear that he’ll happily shoot a bounty in the back rather than take on the risks involved in bringing a desperate man to justice. So his sinister side comes out early, and only gets deeper as the film goes on.
But that’s the way it is with The Hateful Eight: it’s a story about complex characters who refuse to fit into neat boxes. Take Walton Goggins’ Sheriff Chris Mannix, for instance. Mannix is a craven con man and a racist. The son of a Confederate commander who refused to surrender at the end of the war, Mannix took part in his father’s continued raids (which were really just an excuse to kill black people), and has now somehow finagled his way into a job as sheriff. It would be easy to cast him as a clownish villain in opposition to Sam Jackson’s Major Warren, but instead Tarantino reveals him to be a man with some small bit of honor in spite of his flaws, a man who takes the responsibilities of his new position rather seriously. Unlike Marquis Warren, for instance, Mannix won’t shoot an unarmed man in the back. So, yes. Even the racist assholes have depth.
Which brings us to the film’s real heart and soul: race relations. And things are going to get pretty damn SPOILERY from here on out, so I’d suggest you skip to the end if you haven’t seen The Hateful Eight yet.
So. Racism. An ugly thing that was nonetheless prevalent and accepted in the years following the Civil War. Most of the white characters in this film (though never John Ruth, interestingly) utter the slur “nigger” at some point or other, and it’s kind of a shocking thing to hear in a movie these days. But it serves to underline how all-pervasive racism was at that time. So when it’s revealed that Major Warren’s Lincoln letter (the subject of much conversation and even awe among the rest of the cast) is a fake…
…it’s easy to understand why he concocted the lie. The Lincoln letter won him respect from white people. It got him into places he otherwise wouldn’t have been admitted, and smoothed his way in situations that otherwise would have been difficult for him, at best. The revelation that it’s a fake drives a wedge between Warren and John Ruth (who seems genuinely hurt at the deception). But oddly, it seems to bring Warren and the racist Mannix closer. Not that they become buddy-buddy or anything, but when shit gets real (and it gets pretty freaking real before it’s all said and done), it’s Warren and Mannix who wind up working together to get to the bottom of the whodunnit at the center of the plot.
This is all capped off in the film’s final scene, when Mannix reads the Lincoln letter out loud. In it, “Lincoln” offers hope for a better future of better relations between whites and blacks in America, a future he thinks Marquis Warren is a harbinger of. And in the strangest, most perverse manner possible, slowly dying of blood loss alongside a racist cracker who might have happily killed him only a few years earlier… he is.
So that’s The Hateful Eight. A beautiful film about ugly things, and an epic so tightly-written that I can’t say a single minute of its near-three-hour running time is wasted. I loved it so much I paid to see it twice. Once just to see it, and a second time to really sit back and appreciate it. It’s a pleasure to watch a movie this good, after all, so I was determined to make the most of it.
Whew. That’s a lotta movie talk. I read a lotta funnybooks on my vacation, too, but I don’t think I’ve saved any room for them. So I guess we’ll get to those next time…