With the launch of the Criterion Channel this past April, I was finally able to achieve that which humankind has been trying to accomplish since we first emerged from the Garden of Eden: watching every Akira Kurosawa movie back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Before you ask, Kurosawa directed 31 feature films spanning 1943-1993, and as most of them clock in over two hours (and a few approach four), we’re talking almost 100 total consumption hours of Kurosawaness. And before you ask, yes, that’s going on my résumé.
Bottled retrospectives like this are typically undertaken in order to then distill all of that beautiful creative magic into a ranked list ascending from “worst” to “best.” I’ll spare you that, except to say that the five Kurosawa films that stuck with me most are (in loose order):
We’ve already gushed a bit over Mindhunter, which returned to Netflix for a second season a few weeks back, but the work of David Fincher and Co. on that series really can’t be undervalued. There are two scenes in the first three episodes of the new season — all directed by Fincher — that are particular standouts. The opening of the season is just masterful tension achieved with so little: a rope tied to a doorknob, a slight rattling of the door on the other side, a trembling hand reaching out to open it. Fincher holds this almost to the point of hilarity before letting it all break open. The second scene in question is set in a car, with Agent Tench interviewing a subject who’s had his face mutilated by the BTK Killer. Without giving away the device, the camera placements and shot choices make for an utterly gripping sequence that happens to take place in a parked car.
Both recalled Panic Room, Fincher’s most claustrophobic effort and possibly his most overlooked. It’s about as simple as a plot can be: Meg (Jodie Foster) and her daughter (Kristin Stewart) lock themselves in a well-equipped panic room when three burglars (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam) invade their new home. Coming off the comparatively bonkers Fight Club, Fincher still managed to turn this single-location shoot into a consistently twisty thriller.
Pretty much everyone knows Indiana Jones. He’s a popular guy! The hat, the jacket, the bullwhip. If you’ve met him, these facets of his character ensure that you’ll remember him; if you haven’t, these facets still get thrown around in rumor and legend and make it feel like you’ve met him. I’m not talking about you and I, of course, or the world in which we happen to live, although pretty much everyone does know Indiana Jones. But Indy’s own world, in-movie, isn’t so dissimilar in that regard, and in fact his popularity might even be greater amongst the countless supporting characters who’ve seen him in action, experienced his -ness, or simply caught wind of his legendary adventures.
We talked about the much-feared superheroification of Indiana Jones in our review of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and thankfully that hasn’t happened yet (although we came pretty damn close in 2008). The hat, the jacket, the bullwhip — memorable, yes, but not actually the things that make Indy Indy, any more than the Walther PPK and the martini make Bond Bond. Still, they are the non-lingual facets of his character that have universal appeal, building a mythology such that you could sketch the character’s outline and have it be recognizable to anyone.
Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is out this month, and it seems like a culmination of sorts for the film fanatic writer-director. Each of his movies toes the line between self-awareness and immersive cinema, continually winking at the camera and yet lost in a world of its own, packed to the brim with pop culture references but still stylish enough to become a pop culture reference. Tarantino, who worked at a video store as a kid and has been devouring several movies a day ever since, has few rivals when it comes to an encyclopedic knowledge of the art form. To see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood framed around film and television sets in 1950s L.A. is quite the prospect, because that encyclopedic knowledge serves as more than a wink or a reference.
That explicit love of movies, to be fair, is a place that several Tarantino films have ventured before, though never carrying such importance as it must likely carry in Hollywood. The primary one is Inglourious Basterds, which uses the state of German cinema as both a unique backdrop for a World War II adventure and, eventually, as a major climactic catharsis that achieves nothing less than the rewriting of history. Christoph Waltz and Brad Pitt steal top billing (and, in Waltz’s case, the Oscar) as The Bad Guy and The Good Guy. But Basterds becomes a truly great film for the inclusion of Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), theater owner and Lady Vengeance Incarnate, and Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), young Nazi-turned-propaganda-film-star. These characters are opposed in every way except their love of film, which both brings them together and kills them in the end. Theirs may technically be the subplot, but Tarantino’s passion for cinema sings loudest when his characters share in that passion.
In our year-end Best of 2018 list — an infallible writ if ever there was one — we awarded the animated romp Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse the #10 slot, along with the following explainer:
Someone recently said of the late Marvel Comics giant: “When Stan Lee made better comics, he made comics better.” Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the latest superhero movie in an industry landscape that sometimes feels like it’s traded originality for IP. But Spider-Verse is gleefully, genuinely, finally a better comic book movie — and it might make comic book movies better.
Spider-Verse pushed a boundary that superhero films haven’t been able to push in a long, long time. It was fresh in the way only a non-franchise movie can be, and it was about as original as possible for a story based on existing characters. The goal with most modern superflicks, conversely, is to tie it all together, linking an ever-expanding franchise by deepening character relationships, furthering multi-film arcs, and reviving heroes and villains in such a way that prompts either “oh shit, it’s him!” or “wait…who’s that?”
When author Thad Beaumont decides to go public with his pen-name “George Stark” in an effort to get back to meaningful writing after churning out a few commercial bestsellers, strange things start happening. After Stark’s “death”, people — real people — start actually dying, largely in brutal fashion and largely in connection to Thad himself. It’s a conundrum of a case to everyone but Thad himself, who’s slow to give in to what he knows must be the truth: George Stark, his pulp fiction pseudonym, is somehow real, walking around, back from the dead. And he’s not going back to the grave quietly.
It’s an awesome premise, one which gels with Stephen King’s knack for what if…? setups that are mind-bending and yet pretty damn simple. What if an author’s pen-name comes to life and kills people? — that’s the whole pitch for The Dark Half. It also gels with his occasional preoccupation with writing about writers, which typically ends up as a fascinating meta-commentary on the art itself. Sometimes this niche of King’s makes for a great movie, like with Misery. Other times…well, yeah. You know where this is going. And I don’t mean Secret Window, although that one’s a slog, too.
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.
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.
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.
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.