Tarantino goes old-school with 'Hateful Eight,' and 'Joy' is nothing to be happy about

As if the Christmas movie marketplace wasn’t already crowded enough, more awards-season contenders have come out this week than ever before.

The one real contender is probably the film no one would ever have predicted: the formally challenging financial-collapse comedy/drama “The Big Short” from “Anchorman” director Adam McKay. That must-see movie came in at No. 3 on my Top 10 Movies of 2015 list.

Also new this week, 2015 Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne stars as “The Danish Girl,” showing at Liberty Hall.

'The Hateful Eight'

In the 21 years since “Pulp Fiction,” Quentin Tarantino has crossed over from dangerous outsider to beloved provocateur; anything he releases is a Hollywood event. His new film “The Hateful Eight” doubles down on his unique position in the film world, as he aims to replicate the big-theater “roadshow” movie-going experience of yesteryear.

Todd-AO, Ultra Panavision and Cinerama are 70mm systems used in the late 1950s and '60s that were photographed and displayed in a super-wide 70mm aspect ratio. A night out at the theater for an epic movie like “Lawrence of Arabia” consisted of a musical overture, an intermission, and a 70mm print that has four times the pixels of Blu-rays and your average theater’s current projected digital resolution. “The Hateful Eight” itself was shot using the same lenses that were used to film “Ben-Hur.”

“The Hateful Eight” will be released nationwide in a shorter digital version on Jan. 8, but on Christmas Day the film will be released in a limited number of theaters in its full running-time Ultra Panavision 70 roadshow format. (AMC Town Center in Leawood is the only theater in the Kansas City area that will project this version.)

I saw the full cut of “The Hateful Eight,” but it was a digital projection, so I have yet to have the full 70mm experience.

In addition to its picture format, Tarantino’s latest is also old-school from a story standpoint. Set in post-Civil War Wyoming, the film brings together eight colorful characters, waiting out a snowstorm in a cabin. From bounty hunters The Hangman (Kurt Russell) and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) to fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), all the characters have their own backstory and intentions and their own very good reason to lie about them.

The ironic thing about “The Hateful Eight” being in the grand 70mm format is that the movie itself is not a traditional large-scale spectacle of cinematic achievement. It’s a chamber drama. Tarantino puts his own spin on the classic Agatha Christie-style parlor mystery set-up. Rather than a whodunit, “The Hateful Eight” is a who’s-gonna-do-it. Even as Tarantino has gravitated toward revenge thrillers in his last five films, he’s still the master of suspenseful one-on-one showdowns, and this film is full of them.

Many of the director’s fetishes (cartoonish, ultra-gory violence; extreme low-angle shots; wildly racist characters; flashbacks that revive dead characters; Mexican stand-offs; torture; QT universe product placement) are still on display, but limiting his chicanery in such a tight setting shows off an attribute some might not think of when considering Tarantino — he’s got considerable classical filmmaking chops. At three hours, “The Hateful Eight” is still a taut piece of work, even if it doesn’t provide anything beyond surface-value kicks.

“The Hateful Eight” 70mm roadshow is 187 minutes. The digitally projected 167-minute version is out Jan. 8. Both are rated R for strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, language and some graphic nudity.

'Joy'

Ever since his comeback in 2010 with the work-for-hire picture “The Fighter” (which was way better than it had any right to be), writer/director David O. Russell has developed a repertory company of sorts: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro have all played damaged characters with a lighthearted touch and more than their fair share of quirky behavior in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.”

The trio is back in “Joy,” but the magic is decidedly not. The story of a struggling single mother who achieves success with the invention of the Miracle Mop is mishandled in so many ways, it’s no wonder the film went through four editors. Russell piles the misery upon Joy (Lawrence) with a huge family that is truly suffocating. Her father (De Niro), mother, ex-husband, and step-sister all take advantage of Joy in scene after monotonous scene, draining her energy and spirit.

It’s draining on the audience as well. Russell tries to resurrect the same serio-comic quirkiness he used to great effect on his last two outings, but he’s trying too hard and the script can’t support it. For the first time in one of his films, everyone comes across as a caricature. As Joy starts realizing her dream of the self-cleaning mop, she must rely on her family for support. Tragically, it isn’t there, and “Joy” continues a choppy downward spiral of tribulations that becomes increasingly impossible to pull out of. By the time Joy decides to take matters into her own hands, her turnaround feels forced and is supported in the most hackneyed way: strutting down the street to a song, wearing black clothing and sunglasses.

In an attempt to bring some positive energy, Cooper overacts in a way that’s distracting and introduces yet another tone to the movie that its patchwork editing can’t fix. “Joy” has its heart in the right place, as it tries to pay tribute to the tenacity and unheralded ingenuity of working mothers everywhere. Unfortunately, it’s the first true misfire in Russell’s filmography.

“Joy” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and overworked family drama.

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