“The setting is the Texas-Mexico border. The time is our own.”
This is how the synopsis on the back of the first edition of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men begins. One of these things is inarguable: we’re definitely in the Southwestern U.S. borderlands, weaving along the imaginary line separating Texas from Mexico. But the other bit — “the time is our own” — seems at the very least a strange thing to say about a story set in 1980. Then again, one could sit through the Coen Brothers’ meticulous 2007 adaptation and reasonably assume it to be set in the present day. Maybe the dusty West will always be stuck in time throughout the future of American film, a land pioneered from the 1800s but never truly transformed in the ensuing centuries. One of two hints in No Country comes when Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) references Vietnam explicitly, having served in two tours in 1966 and ’68; the other, of course, comes courtesy of the oracular Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who holds up a quarter from 1958 and muses on the coin’s 22-year journey into his hand.
But the ill-defined nature of time is more than just a peculiar facet of this bloody yarn. We mistake the time period for today, and yet in actuality it’s nearly forty years in the past; if the film centers on the concept of progress, then this curiosity becomes darkly ironic. As is the case with nearly everything by the Coen Brothers (and everything by McCarthy, for that matter), the assertion of numerous interpretations and readings usually leads only to more questions, more ambiguities, more uncertainty. This uncertainty is admittedly fitting of the landscape of the film, and of its inexplicable antagonist. But moreso than “Chigurh as Fate” or “Chigurh as Death” or “Chigurh as Capitalism,” the implication of Anton Chigurh as the living manifestation of Progress seems to make the death knell of No Country for Old Men ring all the louder.
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?”
For a good long while the prestigious mantle of Most Overdone Superhero Story was without a doubt the origin tale. Dead parents, ancient birthrights, Chosen Ones, freak laboratory accidents — after a while people caught on to the fact that all of these were basically following the same formula. We’ve seen Bruce Wayne witness the death of his parents upwards of seven different times. Time for something new! Take the third season of Jessica Jones, a show which gracefully skirted an origin tale in its first season only to backtrack into one for its sophomore outing. Surely the third season of the most unlikely Marvel/Netflix venture must break fresh ground, especially considering that this third season is also the last. Right?
To be fair, it’s more likely than not that Jessica Jones was never intended to conclude after Season 3, what with the collective axing of Jones, Luke Cage, Daredevil, Iron Fist, Punisher and any future spinoffs Marvel/Netflix might have had in the oven. Despite the popular rumor that Disney might resurrect some of these properties for their Disney+ platform, that seems doubtful to me. And with the increasing tedium characteristic of each and every one of those shows, maybe that’s a good thing.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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.