Sunday, January 03, 2016

The Hateful Eight: 70mm Roadshow Edition

According to the program of the roadshow edition of Quentin Tarantino's latest film, The Hateful Eight, the last time a film was shot in Ultra Panavision 70mm was in 1966 ... Wait a minute... Program? Panavision? What the hell is a Roadshow? That's right! Tarantino has ensnared us in a "Back to the Future" situation using his considerable Hollywood clout to present his latest film in the same format that he loved as a kid when he was discovering the great epics of the 1960s. Over 90 cinemas in the US, able to project 70mm, will treat audiences to a nostalgic throwback. There will even be a free program that goes along with the presentation (and modern sticker shock at the $22 ticket price to remind us that in 2016 we have to pay extra to run actual film in a movie house). Still, It might be years before a major release in the US will be projected in any kind of film format again.

This is Tarantino's second attempt at a western.  His previous film, Django Unchained riffed on one of the lesser-known works of the "spaghetti western" canon, but he derailed his own tribute by fusing the western story to a racial (and some will argue racist) homage to an even lesser-known film: 1975's Mandingo -- a blaxploitation movie that should have remained forgotten, except for its brilliant tagline which I remember from my own youth: "He's more than man, he is mandingo."

With The Hateful Eight, Tarantino returns to a West devoid of the legacy of John Ford, Howard Hawks or Anthony Mann. He's back inside the spaghetti western, but this time he goes straight to the main source, the director that best exemplifies all things spaghetti: Sergio Leone. His The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West revealed an elliptical, operatic Old West that forever changed the look, feel, and sounds of the genre. Tarantino has even used Leone's favorite composer, Ennio Morricone to score this film. And of course, he's used the widescreen and the length of the film (the roadshow version clocks in at 187 minutes) to resurrect the spirit of the Italian westerns of the maestro. But at the same time, Tarantino has admitted that the true inspiration for the film lies in the many westerns that played on TV during the 1960s.

Ironically, even though 70mm lends itself so well to outdoor vistas, 80% of the film is confined to Minnie's Haberdashery, a rugged, frontier stagecoach lodge that is a stopover before reaching the town of Red Rock. Cinematographer Robert Richardson does wonderful work whenever he has the opportunity to use antique Panavision lenses in order to capture fleeting but beautiful panoramic shots in wonderful snowstorms. But the heart of the film takes place indoors in a claustrophobic setting that thanks to the 2.76:1 aspect ratio never manages to feel claustrophobic.

It's the performances, driven by Tarantino's customary strong script, that drive this violent tale, and there are so many excellent stand-outs in this film. Samuel L. Jackson offers his customary Tarantino performance, which is to say that he nearly steals the show. Kurt Russell (it's nice to see him back on the screen) is no slouch either, at times reading his lines with a John Wayne cadence to his voice. And Jennifer Jason Leigh is a trooper, starting the movie with a black eye, and ending it with a face full with so much blood and gore that she reminded me of Linda Blair in the last reels of The Exorcist.  Other great performers in the cast include Demi├ín Bichir as a laconic Mexican, Tim Roth as a derby-wearing Englishman, and Bruce Dern as a grizzled confederate general. Quentin Tarantino wisely stays put behind the camera, but offers his talents as a cynical narrator.

It's a western, it's a homage to a forgotten genre, it's an attempt to revive careers, it's even an Agatha Christie mystery. But truth be told, it is a Quentin Tarantino film, and that's all you need to know. Attending the roadshow version will allow you to see more of the film, and to enjoy it (if that's the right word) in a format that, like the western itself, is destined to become a dinosaur.

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