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.
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?
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?
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?