Monday, January 18, 2016

December 2015


     In years past, Academy Award nominations for movies such as “Room,” “Brooklyn,” “45 Years” or “Mad Max: Fury Road” would have been surprises. Now, with all the detailed coverage in the weeks leading up to the announcements, nearly surpassing the reporting done before the Super Bowl, even the smallest, most obscure picture and the actors from those films are well known to anyone paying attention.
      In fact, the entire idea of getting an Oscar snub is the product of procrastinators identifying films, filmmakers and actors as “sure things.” But I’ve railed on about that before; this year I have a new complaint.
     The press is all worked up because a handful of contending actors and a single film (“Straight Outta Compton”) failed to garner enough votes to secure a nomination. The reason for the uproar is that these few performers are African-American and represented the only hope that the awards world not be another “all white” affair. (Host Chris Rock and other presenters don’t count, apparently.)
    I’m embarrassed for the media that they keep heaping the blame for the lack of diversity in American film onto the Oscar voters. It’s like blaming voters for selecting too many African-Americans for the NBA All-Star team when black players constitute 75 percent of the league.
      I’m guessing but, probably 90 percent of Hollywood movies are made by and star whites. The reasons for that are many and complex, but it has nothing to do with giving out awards at the end of the year. The Oscar nominations are certainly emblematic of the lack of diversity in films, but story after story seems to be holding the Oscar voters (especially the “old white ones”) responsible.
    These are the same voters who, in the last few years, have given nominations to such unknown black actors such as Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique from “Precious,” Octavia Spencer in “The Help” (who also won the Oscar that year), Quvenzhane Wallis from “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and foreign-born blacks Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o (winning the Oscar) from “12 Years a Slave.” I think we can trust these voters to be color-blind in their selections.
     Overall, I was mostly in agreement with the Academy selections. Among the eight best picture selections (I hate that it’s not rounded out to 10), only “Bridge of Spies” is undeserving and should have been replaced by “Youth,” or “Brooklyn” or, dare I say it, “Star Wars.”
      My biggest disappointment on Thursday was the absence of Michael Keaton in the best actor group, especially considering how well “Spotlight” did, with nominations for Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams and two for writer-director Tom McCarthy. Neither Bryan Cranston nor Michael Fassbender deserved inclusion in the category.
     And what is Jennifer Lawrence doing in the best actress category for “Joy”?—a mess of a film and not one of her better performances. If they love Ms. Lawrence so much, why not award her incredible work as Katniss Everdeen. That also would have opened up a spot for Alicia Vikander, who was clearly the lead actress (just not THE girl) in “The Danish Girl,” and then give this impressive Swedish actress a support nod for “Ex Machina.”
     The most egregious mistakes were leaving Ridley Scott, whose balancing act with the different elements of “The Martian” was most impressive, off the best director selections and omitting young Jacob Tremblay, who plays the child in “Room,” from the supporting actor picks. Few pre-teen performances have ever been so affecting.
    For the record, here’s my 2015 Top 10 (with a more detailed “best of” coming early next month):

     1  The Revenant (Alejandro González Iñárritu )
     2  Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)
     3  Youth (Paolo Sorrentino)
     4  The Martian  (Ridley Scott)
     5  Room  (Lenny Abrahamson)
     6  The Big Short  (Adam McKay)
     7  Brooklyn  (John Crowley)
     8  Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams)
     9  Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Vinterberg)
   10  Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

    A long time ago (actually 39 years) in a galaxy far, far away (Western Pennsylvania), I saw this film; it was simply called “Star Wars.” The movie became the biggest cultural phenomenon since the Beatles landed in New York in 1964, along with changing (a.k.a. ruining) the film industry forever.
     After the first film, now known as “The New Hope,” and its sequel “The Empire Strikes Back,” creator George Lucas looked like a visionary filmmaker with a long career ahead of him, destined to take moviegoers to unimaginable places. Instead came the uninspired “Return of the Jedi” (1983), and then, a decade and a half later, the badly told sequels, interesting only for supplying the back story for the first trilogy. 
    Ten years after the ill-advised episodes I-III, the franchise, now a Disney product and under the direction of “Star Trek” helmsman J.J. Abrams, returns to its former glory with a highly entertaining, if totally unoriginal, picture. It succeeds both as a stand-alone film and as the continuation of the original tale of Luke and Leia Skywalker and Han Solo fighting for the Republic’s survival. The movie is practically a remake of the original, but at least they picked a good film to plagiarize.
    All those original characters return, but it’s a new character, Rey (Dixie Ridley), a tough, resourceful scavenger, who makes the film stand with the first two iconic pictures. To summarize a long, but briskly told, story: she joins up with Finn (a rather dull John Boyega), a deserter from the Storm Troopers, and our old friends Han (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to track down the last of the Jedi warriors (at least that’s what the evil First Order think), the elusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).
     Ford clearly is enjoying himself being back in his star-making role, offering his sarcastic quips and array of raised eyebrows as he takes Rey and Finn under his wing. I never understood why anyone would want to find Luke after all this time, but it’s about the journey not the destination.
        The film also benefits from Abrams’ keen sense of popular entertainment and the return of “Empire Strikes Back” scribe Lawrence Kasdan (not to mention “Indiana Jones”) and Oscar-winner Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”). 
     And, just in case you needed reminding of the first film, there’s a cool alien bar scene and a Darth Vader-like character.
     But without Ridley’s Rey, this would be no better than a YouTube mash-up. Virtually from her first scene, it’s clear a star is born. The 23-year-old Brit exudes the kind of moxie her character needs to go from a quirky loner to the central figure in a battle against the most powerful force in the galaxy. Somehow she makes it believable. Obviously, the force is with her. 

     What makes this visceral epic, the story of one man’s resurrection from near death, such a singular movie experience comes from the way it visualizes the deep contrast between the stunning beauty of the land and nature’s unfathomable harshness. No doubt, more films have explored the vast stretches of the American West of the 1800s than any other time and place from the past, yet “Revenant” offers an unrelenting visceral intensity rarely matched by previous cinematic visits to this astonishing, unforgiving world.
     Neither do I recall many films that put you right into the action: stalking through the woods, nervously waiting at the camp site, hiding from possible predators, feeling the threat of death. The inventive direction of Alejandro Iñárritu and his trusty cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (both 2014 Oscar winners for “Birdman”) create a documentary-like feel to the drama even as they mix in the mystical spirit invested into the land by the Native Americans.
     From the opening scene, where the camera makes you feel as if you are walking aside two hunters through the forest, the filmmakers bring the viewers into the middle of a wild scene of fur traders under siege by Pawnee Indians. Anyone who has watched many Westerns has seen hundreds of Indian attacks on white intruders, but the suddenness and the complexity of the chaos captured in this film stand out, setting the tone for the rest of the journey. Danger is always in the air.     
      Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) serves as the guide for this group; a taciturn, intuitive man who has lived among the Natives for awhile and travels with his Indian son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), his only family after the boy’s mother was killed by federal troops. DiCaprio totally inhabits Glass in this nearly 90 percent physical role—all scruffy beard and piercing blue eyes—as he spends most of the movie without the ability to speak. This is one of the most psychologically complex performances you are likely to see with so few lines; I doubt his lines would fill even a half-dozen pages of script. 
     As much as I have read about what the filmmakers and the cast had to endure to make the film, it doesn’t prepare one for what’s on the screen. The turning point of the film—the scene it will be forever remembered for—is the bear attack. The sequence is both an astonishing piece of filmmaking magic and an almost unwatchable dramatization of man vs. nature.
     Glass, doing early morning advance scouting, stumbles onto a mother bear and her cubs. She senses danger from the alien visitor and viciously attacks. The brutality of the scene is a microcosm of the film—this is a world that doesn’t belong to man, that can’t be overcome or tamed by weapons or intellect.
     Barely alive, Glass becomes a burden to what’s left of the band of trappers. After struggling to take him along, the decision is made to leave him in the care of two of the men and his son until help can be sent back.
   Fitzgerald (a bearlike Tom Hardy), who volunteers to stay behind, has little interest in aiding Glass, showing his dislike and distrust of him from the start, and instead leaves him for dead. The second half of the movie follows Glass’ stubborn refusal to surrender to the elements, inspired to survive by an obsession to seek revenge against Fitzgerald.
    While I am hardly a big fan of outdoor adventures, I was riveted by Glass’ journey every second of the way. The incredible resolve of the character as he faces the unrelenting conditions of winter and the obstacle-like terrain turns simple revenge into an exhilarating experience. Words are hardly needed.
    DiCaprio has long been one of the most ambitious star-actors of his generation, though often coming off as too immature in such roles as “The Aviator” (as Howard Hughes), “Gangs of New York,” “J. Edgar” (as FBI’s Hoover)” and even in “The Departed.” But with two films in 2013, “The Great Gatsby” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” he showed a maturity and relax confidence that has added the needed layers to his acting.
     In “Revenant,” made during the actor’s 40th year, he found the perfect role at the perfect time. Ten years ago, he couldn’t have believable played Glass, but now he has both the instincts of maturity while maintaining the physicalness of youth. Most actors hit their stride from their late 30s through their late 40s: it will be fascinating to see if DiCaprio can live up to the expectations of his youth, placed on him over 20 years ago after superb work in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and “This Boy’s Life.”
    With back to back films of this caliber, Iñárritu stands as arguably the best director working in English-language films (with superbly made but less interesting  works, “21 Grams” and “Babel,” coming earlier.)
     “The Revenant”—meaning someone who returns after an absence, possibly from death—reminded me of the two recent space exploration movies, “Gravity” and “Interstellar,” more than any great Western (though there are elements of John Ford’s “The Searchers” and Sydney Pollack’s “Jeremiah Johnson” in the film). Like those outer space adventures, this seemingly impossible journey takes place in a mostly deserted environment where man is a newcomer and shows it.
     Be it 1820 or 2020, on Earth or in space, man remains an explorer in this universe, seeking the answers that will help all of us continue to survive. Hugh Glass’ determination to return from the “dead” offers a slice of that theme, packaged by the filmmakers in sweeping grandeur that turns the movie into the year’s finest.

ROOM (2015)
    Taking as its subject one of the darkest, most inhuman of contemporary crimes, this intense indie film grows unexpectedly complex and more universal as it moves past its initial setup.
     “Room” begins seven years into the captivity of a young woman (Brie Larson) and her now five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), the product of rape by her kidnapper. They are confided, 24/7, in a small room with only a skylight connecting them with the outside world. Their confinement is punctuated by nightly visits from Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who brings food supplies, occasional toys and has his way with Jack’s mother (she’s only referred to as “Ma”) while he sleeps behind a curtained-off bed just a few feet away.
    Ma does her best to make Jack’s life as normal as possible as this is the only world he has ever known other than the “imaginary” life on television. She doesn’t explain much about the reality of their situation until his fifth birthday spurs her to think about the possibility of escape.
    While the details of the escape seems a bit far-fetched, it moves the film into its second and most interesting act, as Ma and Jack attempt to acclimate to life beyond the “Room.”
    Clearly, it is not as simple as embracing freedom, celebrating your homecoming and restarting life after a youth spent as a sexual prisoner. As for Jack, he might as well have just arrived on a new planet.
     Her parents, superbly played by veteran actors Joan Allen and William H. Macy, deal with the “end” of the tragedy in very different ways, as does the mother’s new live-in companion (Tom McCamus), a calming force amid the storm.
    What holds this film together is Tremblay, in one of the best juvenile performances I’ve seen in decades. A complete natural, the nine-year-old never seems like he’s acting while beautifully communicating deeper feelings through his occasional narration. This, like so many pre-teen performances, is probably a one-off, but it is an impressive one that truly deserved Oscar recognition.
     Equally effective is Larson as the kidnap victim who, because of her son, creates a world so orderly in the room (actually a shed behind a house) that she finds dealing with the real world almost impossible. Larson previously earned good reviews in “Short Term 12” as caring social worker, but here her character deals with problems and emotions that would challenge the strongest among us. Her acting, along with the keenly observed script by Emma Donoghue (from her novel), shines a light on just how difficult simply facing life day after day can be.
    Director Lenny Abrahamson—who directed one of the strangest films of 2014, “Frank,” about a rock singer who always wears a Jack-in-the-Box like Styrofoam head—never allows the film to become exploitive or manipulative; he’s interested in the deeper psychological effects of trauma in our lives and the incredible resilience of the human spirit.  

TRUMBO (2015)
    There is something about chronicling the lives of well-known real people that seems to turn screenwriters into hacks.
     I’m probably being harsh, but “Trumbo” serves as example No. 323 in the long tradition; a compelling story filled with interesting, smart people, all turned into simplistic, one-dimensional caricatures. Normally reliable actors turn into hams, as if playing real people gives them the freedom to discard all subtly and acting acumen.
     Brain Cranston, who I’ve seen rarely but won four acting Emmys for his lead role in “Breaking Bad,” is a study of squints and ticks and facial hair as Dalton Trumbo, the highly paid screenwriter of the 1940s who became the spokesman and most famous martyr of the Hollywood blacklist.
      The film depicts the industry’s growing hatred of anyone associated with the Communist Party following World War II, led by the very powerful gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and rightwing actor John Wayne (David James Elliott).
       Trumbo’s informal group of activists, including actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg, giving the film’s most authentic performance) feels the heat as the House Un-American Activities Committee turns its focus on Hollywood.
    As crazy as it sounds today, Trumbo and the rest of the Hollywood 10 (the most prominent among the hundreds who were blackballed) went to prison and were banned from ever working in American films again.
     The most interesting segment, but just as cartoonish as the rest of the film, chronicles Trumbo’s life as a ghost writer (his screenplay won an Oscar for “Roman Holiday” though another writer’s name is on it) and working for D-level movie maker Frank King (a gargantuan John Goodman). Those sections are fun and frantic, which is what director Jay Roach (“Meet the Parents,” “Austin Powers”) does best.
     The film is an excellent history lesson for those unfamiliar with this dark chapter of Hollywood (and American), but it plays more like a second-rate television movie than a major motion picture. In this case, Trumbo would have wanted his name removed from the credits.
    Cranston tries too hard to imitate Trumbo, someone who few filmgoers would know from Adam. I refuse to believe that this ultimate professional screenwriter was just a collection of clichés.
     The screenplay, by John McNamara from Bruce Cook’s bio, moves the story along sometimes too quickly, without any inter-titles explaining the time frame; I was taken aback when his daughter suddenly went from a child to a young adult, while his wife (Diane Lane) never aged a day.
     This important story more than deserved a first-rate script, but this cautionary tale of screenwriter needed, at least, one more rewrite.  

CREED  (2015)
    There’s absolutely no reason why this continuation of the long dormant “Rocky” franchise should be worth the price of admission. Yet, for some reason, the legacy of Rocky Balboa abides.
      Honestly, I enjoyed “Creed” more than the 1976 Oscar-winning original. The story of Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son plays as hackneyed as you’d expect, yet director Ryan Coogler (who guided the superb “Fruitvale Station”) brings the kind of directorial touches that turn a mediocre story into a first-rate film. He focuses on the details—the training, the process, letting the camera linger over his actors a bit longer than usual, letting the truth seep into the story from their expressions more than their words. And then, when it comes to the big moments, he knows exactly how to make you feel as if you are in the middle of a major event.
    This old-fashioned crowd pleaser also elicits two superb performances: Michael B. Jordan, also the star of “Fruitvale Station,” as Adonis Creed Johnson, whose silver-spoon upbringing belies his desire to follow his father’s legacy; and the man himself, Sylvester Stallone, playing the punch-drunk Philly fighter for the seventh time.
     Stallone has been a bad actor for so long (though occasionally an interesting presence) that to watch him actually work on his character, digging for something more than the clichés that have defined his Rocky, is very satisfying. It took him 40 years, but he’s finally nailed this character.
    You know, or can guess, the story: orphaned boy fights his way through childhhood before his famous father’s wife takes him in and his life changes. But he can’t get his father’s legacy out of his head and he starts boxing on the side.
    Then, he tosses his financial career aside and heads to Philly to find his father’s greatest opponent, Rocky Balboa. The rise of the young man comes way too fast, accelerated when a promoter finds out he’s Apollo’s son.
    The relationship between Creed and Rocky holds the film together even as the plot plods ahead in familiar fashion.
    Also adding reality to the tale is an up-and-coming singer (Tessa Thompson) who falls for Adonis. While boxing has faded from the spotlight of American sports (I couldn’t even guess who current holds the heavyweight crowd—a name every male knew in the 20th Century), it remains a popular film subject. A lesser film, “Southpaw,” did very respectable at the box office this summer.
     But this is more than a boxing movie; as was clear from the audience’s reaction at the first notes of the “Rocky” theme. This franchise, despite so many awful sequels, remains a culture touchstone with Rocky holding forth as one of the most beloved fictional characters of modern cinema, right there with Harry Potter, Mr. Spock, Batman and Forrest Gump,

YOUTH (2015)
      While the American cinema remains, for the most part, wedded to the same template that first proved successful about 100 years ago (if it ain’t broke…), European filmmakers tell stories in an often stylized, grand manner; even sometimes mixing time frames so it’s hard to follow for us linear traditionalists. 
For Americans, action is everything; in Europe, it’s more about ideas, philosophy and images, all meshed together.
     This English-language picture from acclaimed Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (his “The Great Beauty” is one of the few masterpieces of this century) is really nothing more than a series of conversations, most of them between Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), a curmudgeonly English composer and conductor, and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), an equally acclaimed American filmmaker. The unlikely pairing of Caine and Keitel could not have turned out better.
      I wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone under the age of 50: this is a requiem to old age, to regrets and shifting remembrances, to last chances and missing loved ones.
    Set in a high-end European spa that caters to celebrities (an obvious homage to Fellini’s “8/1/2”), the film follows Fred and Mick as they roam around the facility, indulging in the type of conversations only lifelong friends can have. Though they made their names in different disciplines, their lives are intertwined, as Fred’s daughter (Rachel Weisz) is married to Mick’s son.
    If you are looking for a plot, Fred is being wooed by the Queen to perform his most famous composition for a public birthday celebration for Prince Phillip while Mick and his team of young writers are desperately trying to come up with an ending to his next movie.
    Jane Fonda shows up late in the film, playing a legendary actress who Mick has written his film for; she arrives at the spa to announce that she’s taking a television series and dropping the film he has been laboring over. She pronounces film dead and offers other truths that no one wants to hear. Truth is rarely the friend of old age.  
     Also excellent in a supporting role is Paul Dano as a hotshot actor who is smarter than he appears. While the actor has costarred with a series of top-notch actors (Brian Cox, Robert De Niro, Daniel Day-Lewis) in ambitious films, this is the first time I felt he was totally comfortable with his role and resisted over-playing his character.
    At the heart of the film are these two iconic actors, whose characters grow more interesting because of the audience’s long association with Caine and Keitel; no single actor is more important to post-war British cinema than Caine and Keitel’s early work with Martin Scorsese was enough to make him an essential figure of the New Hollywood of the 1970s.They have both made plenty of bad films, but they’ve never stopped working, maintaining a constant  presence in the cinema, Caine at 82, Keitel at 76.
      Fred holds forth as the forlorn pessimist filled with regrets while Mick acts as if he’s 40, a feisty braggart who, unlike Fred, refuses to retire. I could have watched their bantering for another two or three hours.  
      “Youth” is an often inscrutable mess that seems as if it’s going nowhere (applicable to both this movie and what we categorized as our “youth”), yet it has more insight into how we conduct our lives than a year’s full of Hollywood product.

    A tone of desperation, appropriate considering its subject, pervades this energetic adaptation of Michael Lewis’ insiders’ look at the mortgage crisis of 2007.
       Ricocheting between screwball comedy and devastating drama, this fictional film tosses in Michael Moore-style documentary images to illustrate the times and emphasize the public’s cluelessness. While a handful of fast-talking, over-caffeinated money managers predict a life-changing economic crash, photo collages highlight an American public enjoying the booty of a juiced-up Wall Street.
      Also breaking up the film’s narrative, the filmmakers occasionally have the actors speak directly to the camera (pointlessly, really) and then, making matters worse, enlist a handful of “celebrities” to speak directly to the audience to explain complicated financial issues. I can’t image why anyone thought that was a good idea; each time it brings the film to a grinding halt.
     The drama focuses on six investors, based on actual people: a very rich, socially inept physician (Christian Bale); an angry, cynical and outspoken professional (Steven Carell); a self-promoting banker (Ryan Gosling); a pair of upstarts looking for a shot at the big time (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro); and, as their adviser, a Zen-like, ex-Wall Street player (Brad Pitt).
     Pretty much at the same time, they discover that the housing market, which has been monetized by financial companies by bundling good and bad loans into investment products, has peaked and is about to collapse. Bale’s Dr. Burry proposes to buy from the top investment firms an insurance-like policy that pays off if these mortgage units fail. The others follow.
      Writer-director Adam McKay (the “Anchorman” films) and co-writer Charles Randolph are asking viewers to sympathize with investors who are essentially betting that the U.S. economy will tumbling into a deep recession. It takes a cynical bent to thoroughly enjoy this film.
     Of course, they weren’t the only ones who recognized that the housing market was in trouble; banks, regulators, the U.S. government, the institutions whose job it is to safeguard the economy, all turned a blind eye to the problem, ignoring how much of the economy was intertwined with bad mortgages.
   While I cringed at so many points during this motion picture, I was totally enthralled; impressed in the manner it hammers away at the truth, as it comically satirized the ignorance and corruption of the economic system.
      Bale, who seems to never repeat himself (even when he’s Batman), turns the doctor’s quirky, obsessive personality into the most fascinating character in the film. He’s like the unrelenting journalists in “Spotlight,” who refuse to give up on the story despite the naysayers. Burry faces investor lawsuits and desertion by associates before he’s proven correct.
    Carell gives a more believable performance than his Oscar-nominated turn in “Foxcatcher.” He’s funny just by convincingly portraying this frantic investor who can’t believe the malfeasance he keeps encountering.
     Pitt, as the lone wolf who puts his truth in two just-out-of-the-garage wannabes, has become such a low-key presence (even in action films like “Inglorious Bastards” and “Fury”) that he now seems best suited for character roles. He nails this one.
     Let’s face it, if someone tried to make a straight-forward, didactic telling of the mortgage crisis no one is going to show up. Despite my initial objections, the filmmakers’ decision to turn it into a mash-up of styles, keeping the seriousness very off-handed, was a good one.

    Quentin Tarantino proudly announces in the opening credits that this is his eighth film, seemingly begging for a career appraisal. It’s rather sad, considering that this new film ranks as the least interesting picture.
     His meager production over the past 23 years includes two great films (“Pulp Fiction,” “Inglourious Basterds”), three good ones (“Reservoir Dogs,” “Jackie Brown,” and “Django Unchained”) and an ambitious failure (“Kill Bill, Parts I and II”). I’m not sure how to categorize his ridiculous homage to exploitation drive-in movies, “Death Proof,” part of his and Robert Rodriguez’ “Grindhouse” release, but at least that film had a sense of fun. “Hateful Eight” is just, well, hateful.
     It’s not that there aren’t the occasional entertaining moments in this three-hour endurance test, but during most of this film I felt like I was trapped in the bizarre world of Quentin Tarantino, where the only thing of value is the cleverness of one’s retort.
         Samuel L. Jackson, the writer-director’s go-to provocateur, spews incredible story after incredible story as a legendary Civil War veteran turned bounty hunter. He hitches a ride with another bound hunter (Kurt Russell, channeling John Wayne) as they both head toward Red Rock, Wyoming, along with Russell’s prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh as arguable the most repulsive character in the film), who is destined for the hangman.
     To make a very, very long story (with very little substance) a bit shorter, the bounty hunters arrive at Minni’s Haberdashery (actually a roadhouse) to find Minnie gone and a group of suspicious character hanging around as a violent snowstorm approaches.
     Needless to say, people die in exceeding repulsive ways as Jackson provides a steady stream of profanity-laden explanation. It’s all punctuation by an irritating score by Ennio Morricone of spaghetti Western fame.
     Even the script, which usually is the most consistent aspect of a Tarantino film, never finds its pacing; the most interesting conversations take place in the opening scene between Jackson and Russell as they ride in the stagecoach.
     Among the other actors trying to save this mess are Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Demian Bichir and Michael Madsen.
    Few have ever made the case for Tarantino as a screenwriter with much to say—he’s more interested in dazzling the viewer with one-of-a-kind characters and over-the-top action sequences. But when he sticks you in a room for three hours, you think there’d be more than profanity and cleverness. The iconoclastic filmmaker needs to quickly move on to No. 9.