Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. “The Hateful Eight” Tests 70mm Format. In case you have not heard, Quentin Tarantino’s new film “The Hateful Eight” has opened in 100 theaters across the United States and Canada exclusively in a 70mm roadshow format. For many theaters, it’s the first time they’re projecting a movie on film in many years, and thus this can reasonably be considered an experiment. The New York Times’ Ben Kenigsberg examines how “The Hateful Eight” tests the 70mm format and strongly claims that though there were problems at several screenings, “these incidents seem to have been the exception rather than the rule.”
Facing capacity crowds over the first weekend, the Weinstein Company has decided to rush out the shorter, digital version early, beginning on Tuesday evening in addition to the roadshow version. Most theaters no longer use standard 35-millimeter film, let alone 70 millimeter, which is known for its breathtaking clarity and which had not been shown in this many theaters in the United States since 1992. “It is a tricky, unforgiving, high-maintenance format to run correctly,” said David Kornfeld, head projectionist at the Somerville Theater in Somerville, Mass., who was running a “Hateful Eight” screening when he spoke by phone. “Because the picture area of 70 millimeter is three to six times greater than 35, you have three to six times more area to make a mess of.” His sense of the “Hateful Eight” release was that theaters with qualified technicians were doing well, but that problems would occur when a technician wasn’t up to snuff. One common complaint is that the image doesn’t fill the entire screen, but that is, in most theaters, intentional. “The Hateful Eight” was shot in an unusually wide aspect ratio of 2.76:1, meaning that the picture should have 2.76 feet of width for every foot of height. Modern multiplex screens vary, but a significant amount of them will have empty space at the bottom for “The Hateful Eight.” Sally Strasser is one of many projectionists traveling for the run. (She has projected films for the Museum of the Moving Image and the Sundance Film Festival, and owns the State Theater in Tupper Lake, N.Y.) Her sons, who trained on 70 millimeter for “The Hateful Eight,” went to Hamilton, N.J., and Farmingdale, N.Y. Calling just after intermission from the AMC Loews Waterfront in West Homestead, Pa., outside Pittsburgh, Ms. Strasser was enthusiastic. “The audience is coming up to my booth window and staring at it and taking pictures of the projector,” she said. Whatever setbacks have occurred need to be seen in the context of the project’s scope. “It’s very easy for people to talk about the failures and forget about the successes,” said Chapin Cutler, a founder of Boston Light & Sound. “But the bottom line is, over all, this thing should never have come off — and it did.”
2. Why Westerns Are Tragically More Relevant Than Ever. On Christmas Day, two Westerns entered theaters in limited release. First, there’s Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” and then there’s Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s “The Revenant” as well. These two films, along with others like “Slow West” and “Bone Tomahawk,” make 2015 a year chock-filled with Westerns. Rolling Stone’s David Ehrlich argues that in the year 2015, Westerns are tragically more relevant than ever.
“Where life had no value, death had its price.” So begins Sergio Leone’s “For a Few Dollars More,” the film’s opening title card succinctly setting the scene for the carnage to come. And yet, for all of its ominous portent, the preface betrays a certain shortsightedness: Just because the film is set in the past doesn’t mean that it should speak in the past tense. More than 40 years have elapsed since that spaghetti Western first hit theaters — and more than 100 since the twilight of the late 19th Century frontier that it depicts. But life still has no value. Death still has its price. We live in a country where there are officially more guns than there are people, where gun violence seems nearly as prevalent in movie theaters as it is on movie screens, and where a significant portion of the populace is subject to so much acquitted violence that a national movement is required just to reinforce the fact that their lives matter. Life is tenuous, and death is a closed circuit of ritualized forgetting. In a Leone film, a saloon shooting would be followed by a short hush before a sharp look from the proprietor would urge the piano player to resume hammering away at the keys. Today, we wait for the news to churn through 24-hour cable networks and be regurgitated through the “thoughts and prayers” of Presidential candidates. In searching for a narrative through-line to connect our nation’s recent spate of violent tragedies (i.e. the murder of Michael Brown, the assault on the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, etc.) and the political sideshow that provokes and perpetuates them in equal measure, there’s only one thing that more fundamentally binds them together than guns: genre. It’s 2015, and the United States of America is more of a Western than ever. As if on cue, a swell of new oaters has tumbled into view this year to prove as much, and each of them in their own way plays less like a period piece than it does a mirror. In addition to spirited indies like “Slow West,” “The Keeping Room,” and “Bone Tomahawk,” the two most significant new contributions both galloped into theaters on Christmas Day. Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” is a microcosm of modern America: A racially diverse and morally ambiguous coterie of suspicious characters are stranded together in a log cabin during a fierce Wyoming whiteout, each paranoid about their safety in a shared spaced that ultimately doesn’t belong to any of them. As the tense and tangled stalemate between them is inflamed by suspicion, racism, and residual dramas from the recent Civil War, the brittle crust of harmony starts to crack. An armed society begins to seem less like a polite society than it does a recipe for mutually assured destruction.
3. Leslie Jones: Always Funny, Finally Famous. Leslie Jones has made a name for herself on the comedy club circuit for years and years now, but didn’t really touch the mainstream until she became a writer and cast member on “SNL.” Now, she’s set to be in the “Ghostbusters” reboot, a film that will certainly heighten her exposure. Ahead of these exciting developments, The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz profiles Jones about her comedy career, her brand of comedy, and the systemic struggles she has faced.
That November, before the podcast with Jones came out, Kerry Washington hosted “Saturday Night Live.” During the opening sketch, an announcer apologized for “the number of black women” Washington was being asked to play, “both because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent and also because ‘S.N.L.’ does not currently have a black woman in the cast.” It got laughs, but it was a comedic response to a serious problem. Meanwhile, the show was secretly planning auditions for black women. The producers looked at more than a hundred women, most of them associated with the troika of traditional “S.N.L.” feeder troupes: Second City, in Chicago; the Groundlings, in L.A.; and Upright Citizens Brigade, in New York. Jones was not among them. A dozen women were selected for callback auditions, which took place in December, on the “S.N.L.” stage, at 30 Rockefeller Center. A few days before the callbacks, Chris Rock had dinner with Lorne Michaels, the creator and executive producer of “S.N.L.” “You should look at Leslie Jones,” Rock said. “She’s the funniest woman I know.” Michaels agreed to give her a chance. An “S.N.L.” audition is notoriously tough: the studio is dark and cavernous, and the producers sit silently near the back. Jones recalled, “I got onstage, took the mike out of the stand, and went, ‘Nope. Y’all are gonna have to move up to where I can see you.’ And Lorne got his ass up and moved.” She did not attempt impersonations or funny voices; she did her act. She opened with an autobiographical anecdote about being a gangly ten-year-old who longed to be a petite gymnast. “I wrote it in 1987,” she told me. “It’s the closest I’ve come to a perfect joke, but it took years before I was talented enough to perform it.” The joke is an allegory about defying parental and societal expectations, and it includes two cartwheels. I saw her perform it at Carolines three nights in a row, and it earned an applause break every time. After the “S.N.L.” audition, Jones flew back to L.A. and waited. A week later, she heard the news: the job had gone to Sasheer Zamata, a twenty-seven-year-old improviser and sketch performer at U.C.B., who is Disney-princess pretty. Jones said, “I understood why they gave it to her — she’d been doing sketch for a long time, she’s a natural fit — but at the same time I was fucking pissed.” The next day, she got a call from Michaels, who asked if she would take a job as a writer. “I went, ‘You know I have no fucking idea how to do that, right?'” Still, she accepted the offer and moved to Harlem. “I’d spent a while in the real world,” she told me. “I’d seen some shit.” Most of the other “S.N.L.” writers had graduated from élite colleges within the past decade. “But one thing I learned — they’re not racist. They’re just white. They don’t know certain things.” During her first week on staff, Drake was the host. Some of the writers wanted to do a sketch about “The Glass Menagerie.” Jones told me, “Now, I know what it is. I’ve been to college. But I went, ‘People in Compton smoking a joint, they’re changing the channel when this comes on. It doesn’t matter if Drake is in the sketch. They don’t care what a fucking menagerie is. They think it’s “The Glass Ménage à Trois.”‘” The sketch bombed at the dress rehearsal and was cut. “Leslie is a pretty good litmus test for what America will think is funny,” Zamata told me.
4. Exploring Things: Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman on “Anomalisa.” Charlie Kaufman’s first film in seven years “Anomalisa” opens in limited release today. The film has garnered mostly universal acclaim for its touching voice performances and unparalleled animation. RogerEbert.com’s Brian Tallerico speaks with Johnson and Kaufman about their new film at the tail-end of the the festival circuit earlier this year.
Q: Well, then let’s talk about how you create a Rorschach Test. A lot of filmmakers would say “This is the thematic purpose of this piece.” How do you create something for which there are multiple interpretations, multiple thematic purposes?
Charlie Kaufman: The way I do it when I’m writing is to look at something as an exploration of something that I’m exploring, and not come to a conclusion. Not say, “And it’s important to love.” Or whatever. “Family is everything.” I’m going to look at this idea about loneliness, or inability to connect. Or an experience in a relationship. And you just explore it. You don’t have a goal in the end when you’re writing it. Let whatever happens happens. And so it starts to be an experience to the person writing it, which helps it be open to other people.
Q Is that nerve-wracking in terms of process?
CK: Yes! But, so what? It feels honest to me. I try to do something honest when I’m working. My job isn’t to make myself comfortable.
Duke Johnson: When we were working together I thought it was a really interesting way to work. I went to film school. What are the themes? What do I want to say with this movie? That’s what you’re taught to talk about, and we didn’t do that with this movie. We would talk about … there was almost sort of an intuitive understanding. I felt I knew what it was about. But we didn’t really talk — this is what this piece is about. This is what Michael is feeling; this is what Lisa is feeling in this moment. This is what he wants. This is what she wants. This is why. We would delve into the character’s emotional experiences very specifically from beat to beat.
Q: But not the overall picture?
DJ: We would talk generally about some things. It’s difficult to connect — the broad themes. But not making a statement about something. Again, just my opinion, I heard somebody say once, Kubrick or somebody, “Great art asks questions but doesn’t give any answers.” I think there’s some truth to that. Exploring ideas.
CK: When I’m writing a script, before I can write dialogue or anything, I have two or three hundred pages of notes, which takes me a year. So, it’s not like “what happens next.” I’ve got things that I’m thinking about but I don’t settle on them. And if I try to write dialogue before then, I can’t. It’s just garbage. There’s a point I can get to where I start writing character and then through the dialogue, after all of this preparation, the thing starts to feel like it’s a character developing through the dialogue. A lot of character traits do come from writing dialogue, but I have to be ready to do it.
5. Back to the Future: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and the “Do-Not-Fuck-It-Up” Era. There have been plenty of reviews of the new “Star Wars” film, and many have been very good, but there’s always one that stands out above the rest. Reverse Shot’s Eric Hynes reviews “The Force Awakens” and discusses the blockbuster franchise mantra of “not fucking up,” how the film looks at its own past instead of the cinematic past, and the problems with having your heart in the right place and not your head and soul.
Throughout the “Star Wars” films, friends separate and then come back together, become estranged and reunite. They’re missed, longed for, and embraced. There’s no limit to what friends are willing to do in order to help, save, or find one another. Han forsakes his hard-fought free agency to help Luke overtake the Death Star. Luke abandons his Jedi training to try to save the captive Han and Leia. Luke and Leia both try to spring Han from Jabba’s cryogenic imprisonment. There are variants to these in the prequels among Anakin, Amidala, and Obi-Wan. While family ties in the films are often fraught, needing to be overcome, severed, or vanquished — especially those between sons and fathers — friendships are relatively pure. The erotics of “Star Wars” are centered in friendship, in the longing for and belonging to elected compadres. It’s friends that meet cute in “Star Wars.” Friends that embrace on tarmacs. Friends that leaven their magnetic attraction to each other with soft-pedaled put-downs, eye rolls, and caustic asides. The two greatest rapports in all of these films are between the droids C-3PO and R2D2, who are like a junk metal Laurel and Hardy or Bert and Ernie; and Han Solo and his Wookiee copilot Chewbacca, whose interspecies bond is forged on physical ease, soldered trust, and eye-rolling sarcasm, placing them somewhere on the spectrum between Huck and Jim and Mr. and Mrs. Roper. It’s fantastic that the interactions between newcomers Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) have already been analyzed and celebrated for their homoeroticism, but friendships have always had that energy in these films, leading characters to behave bravely for one another in variably romantic ways. The Chewie-Han rapport is back in “The Force Awakens,” with Harrison Ford reunited with the hirsute-costumed Peter Mayhew, very much looking the part of a wizened old couple. At times their exchanges feel lived-in and sincere, and at other times it telegraphs poignancy; the film knows that simply putting those faces together in the same frame will have an emotional effect. It’s a line walked throughout, the success of which can vary according to the viewer and viewing. For my first watch, on opening night amongst a boisterous crowd in Brooklyn, almost everything came off as calculated, corporately determined. A second viewing a week later, among a muted Christmas Eve crowd in suburban New Jersey, went much better. Such that those three last lines resonated beyond the borders of the “‘Star Wars’ Universe” — a considerable feat in light of the craft and effort put into establishing a brand-managed echo chamber.
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