Face Off: Night on Earth (1991) and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

You’re out late on a weekday night at the only bar in the whole dusty town. Been a rough day, not that you want to talk about it. Not that there’s anyone else in the bar even if you did want talk about it, except the bartender. He’s a wiry hipster in skintight plaid and heavy black glasses, like the 3D kind they give out at the movies only with the red and blue lenses removed. The kid perks when you arrive, a lone customer, live in three dimensions. He offers you a berry-infused session ale inspired by some monks somewhere, which you decline in favor of the cheap stuff inspired by simple thirst. “I’m Dylan if you need me,” he says, and you nod as if to confirm this is the perfect name for him. After an hour of drinking in silence the kid can’t help himself and he pours the monk berry ale into what looks like an Erlenmeyer flask and says “on the house” with a wink. You thank him, sip the syrupy purple goo. “Such a unique finish,” Dylan notes. “Anyone joining you tonight?” You shake your head. He recommends an app for meeting new people.

It’s just as aimless out on the street, despite the single sandy road leading only one place. The cinema, glowing like the lure of an anglerfish, is showing a double feature tonight: Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth and the Coens’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs. You buy a ticket from the ancient woman at the box office, her spindly witch’s fingers clutching your money and then waving you into the theater. You sit with your popcorn as the first segment of Jarmusch’s film begins. The only other people in the theater are a young couple talking loudly a few rows behind you, a guy and a girl, but their voices sound so similar it’s hard to tell who’s who. One says “Gimme some Skittles, Sammy, willya?” and the other says “Why didn’t you get your own? Jeez. Syd, stop it. Okay. Just put your hand out and I’ll pour them.”

Continue reading Face Off: Night on Earth (1991) and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

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Deadwood (2019)

It’d be tough to think about the Deadwood film as that alone, a mere two-hour tour through a corruption-riddled mining town in the waning days of the 19th century. The movie exists very much as a long-awaited finale for the Deadwood series, which was unceremoniously canceled after three seasons at HBO more than a decade ago. To enjoy the film without the context of the show is possible, probably, but it’d also be akin to starting in on the last episode of a television series. It’d be equally tough to refrain from using the f-word multiple times while writing about Deadwood, so consider this a spoiler warning for both series and film and a graphic language warning to fucking boot.

In the ever-expanding slew of reboots and revivals intent on wringing out every droplet of goodwill you might have once had for an old TV show — take Twilight Zone, X-Files, Twin Peaks, the upcoming Amazing Stories or, sure, fine, fucking Roseanne — it’s possible that Deadwood fares well out of necessity, plain and simple. The show never had an ending and the movie gives it an ending. Few truly wanted more Zone, more Files, more Peaks; not a fucking soul wanted more Roseanne, except for maybe the refined Ms. Barr herself. But the clamor for more Deadwood has really only intensified since that fateful cancellation in 2006. Fan-driven revivals aren’t guaranteed to turn out well (see: Anchorman 2) but if you have to watch your favorite characters get dragged out for one last ride, squeezed into their old costumes, it’s more comforting to think you’ve dragged them out yourself for good purpose.

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Ikiru (1952)

It’s entirely possible that the West’s fondness for Akira Kurosawa is borne of the fact that he frequently addresses themes of individuality, personal distinctiveness, and the importance of being true to yourself. Those aren’t very Japanese themes, traditionally, even if the popular “nail that sticks out gets hammered down” axiom is a bit simplistic these days. But the corporate-cog-finds-new-lease-on-life narrative seems especially well-suited to the notoriously workaholic Japanese culture, and nowhere is that narrative more effective than in Kurosawa’s Ikiru. Now streaming on The Criterion Channel, Ikiru stars Kurosawa stalwart Takashi Shimura as a spiritless bureaucrat grappling with the futility of his mortal days.

There is a sequence in the film — possibly the most famous in a film full of memorable sequences — where a group of parents approach a number of different government offices in an attempt to get a local cesspool drained and replaced by a park for their children. The first office refers them to another, that office refers to a third, and on and on. The buck is passed until the parents are so worn down by the perpetual runaround that they give up. If you’ve never seen Ikiru or would just like to rewatch the scene, you can stream the sequence here.

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Watchmen (2009)

A lot of what Alan Moore has created is now considered classic. V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, The Killing Joke, his run on Swamp Thing…to say this stuff is at the vanguard of comic-book storytelling is to undermine the fact that this stuff is the vanguard of comic-book storytelling. But it’s important to remember — crucial, actually — that Moore’s never purposefully written a “classic,” meaning his tales are almost exclusively nontraditional narratives that toy with genre and literary consciousness. The writer has a few reasons to despise Hollywood, but the primary point of contention must be that each film adaptation of his comics seems to shove the original tale back into a traditional, classic structure. It happened with From Hell, when Moore’s exploration of evil was spun as a simple murder mystery. It happened with LXG, which discarded crisscrossing episodic adventures in favor of a flat three-act team-up. It happened with V for Vendetta, wherein morally conflicted characters were replaced by obvious Good Guys and Bad Guys. And it happened, to a certain degree, with Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen.

Our Writer Series on Alan Moore typically dives into this abyss between page and screen, sometimes providing side-by-side comparisons of comics panels and film stills in an effort to highlight the divergent artistic choices of Moore and his cinematic adaptors. But Watchmen looks almost exactly the same across both mediums, with Snyder and DP Larry Fong essentially using the graphic novel as their storyboard — reminiscent, a woebegone cynic may claim, of a slacker passing in someone else’s homework:

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The Stranger (1946)

As is the case with the work of many a cinematic genius, the filmography of Orson Welles is especially revealing when considered as a whole. Hits, flops, stretches of obsession, gaps of inactivity, passion projects and moneygrabs — in some ways this kind of retrospective review can tell us more about the filmmaker than the films themselves. It’s the “God’s-eye view,” to steal the name of an aerial shot favored by Welles, and it serves to highlight the ideas that the writer/director would experiment with, return to, or transform entirely in successive efforts. The other edge of the sword, of course, is that each individual film inexorably loses something when viewed alongside a slew of cinema which may otherwise share little by way of plot, theme, style or cultural impact.

The best case-in-point: The Stranger, Welles’ 1946 Nazi-hunting thriller. It was either his third or fourth feature outing, depending on whether you account for one technicality. His first two were Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, utilizing a special technique called setting the bar high. But studio meddling with Ambersons soured Welles on Hollywood, and so his work on 1943’s Journey Into Fear is that aforementioned technicality. Tied up in a tussle over the final cut of Ambersons, Welles received no directing, producing or screenwriting credits in Journey, only appearing in a minor acting role as a Turkish inspector. In actuality Welles directed and wrote portions (at least) of Journey, and the theatrical poster seemingly has no issue declaring this as “ORSON WELLES’ Production…Starring ORSON WELLES.” Coincidentally or not, Journey Into Fear is a fairly feeble thriller that barely justifies a brief hourlong runtime.

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Avengers: Endgame (2019)

April 2019 was a pretty earth-shaking month in pop culture terms. We had the first tangible fallout from the Disney/Fox merger and some really interesting developments in the Great Streaming Wars (the launch of the fantastic Criterion Channel, details on the upcoming Disney+), we had new blockbuster releases (Shazam!, Hellboy, Pet Sematary), and we had strong holdovers from March (Captain Marvel, Us). Even beyond all that, this month seemed to consistently mark the climax or conclusion of cultural behemoths known all over the world. Game of Thrones launched a final season that culminates the biggest television production in history. The announcement of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker gave us a glimpse at the film that will round out the Skywalker Saga. But for the moment, even those sort of seem like drops in the bucket compared to Avengers: Endgame.

The implications of such a convergence of influential entertainment raises interesting quandaries about the ways in which we as a society consume…oh, who am I kidding. We just saw Avengers: Endgame and internet etiquette dictates we lay down a few buffer paragraphs as a necessity, lest any spoilers be spoilt. But no one’s really here to discuss industry patterns — we’re here to discuss that badass part where SPOILER uses a massive SPOILER as a freakin’ SPOILER. So if you haven’t yet seen the blockbuster-to-end-all-blockbusters, then I highly recommend Robert Mueller’s heavily-redacted review of the film until you manage to get tickets for the next available Endgame screening 30 years from now.

Seriously, massive spoilers below. Good to go? Good. Let’s go.

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Luce (2019)

Julius Onah has a lot to say. He stepped onstage just before Luce, his third feature as director, screened as the Opening Night film at this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston. Typically a pre-movie appearance from an auteur amounts to a wave, a bow, a “thanks for coming out!” or, at worst, a visible hostage situation at the hands of a ruthless moderator. Onah, in the span of what seemed like less than a minute, reflected on Luce‘s premiere at Sundance and his hopes for the conversations the film will continue to spur; he referred to the movie theater as “his church”; he drew parallels from the film to his own life experience, having emigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria when he was ten; and he even snuck in a playful dig at IFFBoston, noting that he’d submitted several short films for consideration years ago, all of which were rejected.

His film is similarly assertive of numerous ideas without ever being overly verbose. Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a star high school student in Arlington, Virginia who spent the first seven years of his life surrounded by the violence of war-torn Eritrea. His adoption by a white upper-class American couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) meant a new start, though it also meant a long period of adjustment and self-reconciliation. When his stern (some would say “bitchy”) teacher Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) reads an unsettling essay by Luce and finds illegal fireworks in his locker, the question arises as to whether that period of self-reconciliation is actually still underway. Is Luce the model young American everyone makes him out to be? Or is there a darker side within him, manifesting itself as a sociopathic danger to others?

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Molly’s Game (2017)

What’s the worst thing that can happen in sports? That’s the question voiced by the title character as the curtain goes up on Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut and latest produced screenplay since 2015’s Steve Jobs. The wording immediately conjures another Sorkin sports project, Moneyball, which followed Billy Beane’s seemingly-miraculous turnaround of the flailing Oakland A’s baseball club. That film was directed by Bennett Miller (sidebar: where’d Bennett Miller disappear to?) and contained a brilliant sequence dubbed The Streak: a quick-cut montage of the A’s unprecedented run of winning, winning, winning. We may never lose again, reads a poster in the stadium stands. Winning, you may have heard, is basically the best thing that can happen in sports.

The worst thing is more varied, more subjective, and far more interesting, at least as a concept for a narrative feature. It’s easy to see why Sorkin thought so, and easy to see why the writer was drawn to Molly Bloom’s account of her time hosting high-stakes underground poker games in L.A. and New York. Molly’s Game allows Sorkin to tap into the fast-paced verve of a sport (poker being “a game of skill,” as Molly asserts) that just so happens to require players to gather, seated, around a tense table. Molly herself is a quintessential Sorkin character in that she talks fast, has daddy issues, and is often the smartest person in the room by a longshot. Above all, the fact that Molly’s Game is a true story makes it all the more fitting for this writer’s wheelhouse.

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Shazam! (2019)

Is the DCEU still a thing? Conceived as the answer to Marvel’s unfathomably successful Cinematic Universe, DC’s interconnected supertales never quite coalesced the way they were intended to. You could point to any number of reasons for this derailment: a lack of a Kevin Feige-type visionary at the helm, or a violent shift in tone from one movie to the next, or poor casting in crucial roles, or the general cart-before-the-horse nature in which this series was rushed into existence. Those are all blameworthy when considering the ineffectiveness of a franchise. But because each individual film in the DCEU — Man of Steel, Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman, Wonder Woman, Justice League, Aquaman — is mighty flawed in a vacuum, I’m inclined to point to crappy, one-note villains as an unfortunate recurring theme which, if given proper TLC, might just right the DCEU ship.

Well, you’re saying, that sounds like a massive oversimplification. It is, probably, considering we’re now in an era so dominated by superhero movies that the more experimental outings are the most interesting ones. Deadpool, Logan and Into the Spider-Verse all have villain types we’ve seen before, but they still manage to break the mold. Exactly, you’re saying, and besides, I happen to like General Zod and some of the other DC villains. Granted, ascribing a matter of opinion as the sole reason for the failure of a billion-dollar film franchise could be a stretch. Definitely, you’re saying, and besides, aren’t you supposed to be talking about the new one instead of whining about the old ones?

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Us (2019)

Jordan Peele’s Us is nothing short of exceptionally entertaining horror. Starring Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke as the mother and father of a prototypical American family, Us joins a long tradition of doppelgänger horror while still emerging from that tradition into definitive modernity. Like Peele’s debut Get Out, the American Dream — as a white-picket-fence fantasy and as a dark reality — is crucial not only to the implicit themes of the film, but to the reason both films are scary in the first place. Yes, Us has a preponderance of classic horror moments, from jump-scares to home invasions to creepy coincidences foreshadowing a coming threat. But these tropes become entertaining again only in context of a strong underlying assertion that speaks to something in our everyday life, and while Us may not speak as explicitly as Get Out, the potency of the film is drawn from a similar source.

That aforementioned line of doppelgänger-narrative-as-horror is an interesting one, and one that makes perfect sense for Peele’s sensibilities as a writer. It’s a premise that’s been used for terrifying stuff like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dead Ringers, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, and a number of unsettling works from David Lynch. Last year’s venture was Annihilation, which played with the doppelgänger motif in a supernatural way. It’s elementally creepy, the idea of meeting yourself. The question it raises is as existential as it gets: if that’s me…then who am I?

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