The films of the Safdie Brothers tend to share a few recognizable qualities. Most apparent is the kinetic, stressful energy with which each of their films unfolds, a ride that weaves unexpectedly while continuously approaching a breakneck speed. Those weaves are almost always a result of character decisions, though, and I respect that the Brothers keep memorable figures at the fore through even their most plot-twisty jaunts. They seem drawn to slightly-delusional protagonists, too, if not fully-delusional, and so the common logline usually follows a familiar trajectory: Main Character makes increasingly dumb decisions and pays for it. And then there’s the street-level realism, from the single-parent struggles of Daddy Longlegs to the exploration of addiction in Heaven Knows What to the petty life of crime in Good Time.
So why does Uncut Gems feel so different? Increased production value, sure, and an increased profile to match. Before Gems the Safdies weren’t household names unless you caught Good Time, which most probably saw for Robert Pattinson more so than the directors. And of course Gems not only has the excitement of Sandler returning to a dramatic role, but also his most remarkable performance ever (fight me!) as Howard Ratner. These things alone set this particular Safdie outing apart.
“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.
The Human Stain tackles a great many things, with racism and African-American struggles being only the largest of the many themes at play. The dehumanizing power of racism is an undeniable part of America’s past, but it was every bit as important a discussion in the early years of the new millennium when the film came out. It’s every bit as important now at the time of writing and will be every bit as important there, where you are, in the future, at time of reading. As with anything so powerful, so socially destructive, the cultural perception ebbs and flows with time and with provocation. Do we remember that dark past? Do we really? Do we hold a part of it in secret? These questions pry at Coleman Silk, our “hero”. Before we delve into Coleman it must be noted that The Human Stain (the novel) should be a mainstay of every contemporary African-American literature curriculum, and it was written by an Old White Jewish Guy.
That guy is Philip Roth, an author so prolific that it’s surprising so few of his works have been adapted to the screen. The long-gestating adaption of American Pastoral, arguably Roth’s most famous work, is now looking set for the year ahead with Ewan McGregor taking on directing and starring duties. And the adaptation of Indignation just played at Sundance a few days ago to positive reviews, too, so maybe we’re in for a bit of a Roth resurgence in the same way No Country for Old Men prompted a scramble to adapt the best stuff by Cormac McCarthy. Here in The Land of Hypothetical Roth Adaptations we’d cast Johnny Depp as the possibly-demented Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater, so when that happens in real life just know that you heard it here first.
It’s fitting that The Revenant pushes the limits of film, ceasing mercifully only just before breaking, because that’s exactly what happens to Hugh Glass. If you’re one of the people behind the film, crafting it, then you have to push the limit: you’re Alejandro Iñárritu or Emmanuel Lubezki, coming off the exquisite Birdmanand arguably at the height of your career, seemingly happy to be shouldered with the weight of expectation or otherwise just left with no choice. If you’re one of the people in front of the film, watching it, you want it to push the limit: if you’re watching The Revenant in the first place, you’re likely quite certain that you’re in for a challenging watch and not a brain-switched-off actioner.
But if you’re one of the people inside the film, acting in it, living it, then being pushed to the limit means actually being pushed to the limit. Throughout 2015 stories of the extremely arduous on-location filming of Revenant trickled down from that remote region of Alberta, from the torrential rains of British Columbia, from the freezing southernmost tip of Argentina. Ten people quit or were fired during production. In July Hollywood Reporter ran an article about the brutal conditions on set, prompting more and more questions about the safety precautions and the direction of the film. Blurbs from Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and the rest of the cast make The Revenant shoot sound more life-threatening than that of Apocalypse Nowor Fitzcarraldo; Iñárritu himself has since taken to referring to the cast and crew as “survivors”.
To my mind, two things played a major role in spawning a resurgence in post-apocalyptic storytelling in the past decade. The first is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a bombshell of a novel from 2006 that depicted an ashen, desolate earth struggling to grasp the faintest glimmers of hope. It became a decent John Hillcoat film a few years later, but the craze spun off into more than just that: The Book of Eli, I Am Legend, Tom Cruise’s Oblivion, last year’s brilliant Snowpiercer, last year’s crappy Young Ones, that crappy now-cancelled NBC show Revolution, etc. etc. They’re not all directly borne of The Road, of course, but the genre itself certainly received a huge boost from McCarthy’s novel. That’s why the time was right to revisit Mad Max with Fury Road, and why the likes of Blade Runner is getting a new treatment as well. Heck, just this week there’s talk of Christopher Nolan being involved with the long-awaited Akira adaptation.
The second influential piece of post-apocalyptic storytelling is The Walking Dead, the massively popular AMC show that launched a thousand other zombie-related things and an official spinoff of its own (Fear the Walking Dead, which is pretty good if almost exactly what you’d expect). The thing that pushed TWD ahead of the pack was the format of a television series: movies and books are comparatively finite, but the long-term storytelling at hand in a TV series (or a comic book series, like the one TWD is based on) serves the genre in the perfect way. In both cases — Road and TWD — the aim was to create a new world out of the old one, to watch characters deal with the differences, to play witness to what fantastic and terrible things might arise after something alters life as we know it.
These days, Westerns seem to either be smaller art-house fare or destined box-office flops. Michael Agresta’s phenomenal article “How the Western Was Lost (and Why It Matters)” touches on a few reasons why — see The Lone Ranger, Cowboys & Aliens, Jonah Hex, or don’t see them — and a few reasons the erosion of the genre marks a sad day for American Cinema. Agresta is mainly writing about the public perception of the Western and not necessarily about whether Jonah Hex is any good or not (it’s not), and so the commentary on the smaller art-house stuff is limited. He’d agree, though, I think, that the more limited platform of independent and small-studio filmmaking is where the majority of “good” Westerns are being produced these days.
And Slow West is somewhat of an interesting film to consider in the larger context of The American Western, a long-standing genre with a hugely important but slightly malleable history as outlined by Agresta. Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee as the young dreamer Jay and Michael Fassbender as the mysterious drifter Silas, Slow West is an undeniably style-heavy piece that takes full advantage of the fact that it’s not a big-budget tentpole. In doing so, the film retains a self-awareness that manages to be less wink-wink than you might expect.
“There are two wolves,” says Casey of Tomorrowland. “One represents darkness and despair, the other light and hope. Which one survives?” To be sure, the philosophizing throughout Brad Bird’s latest film is never any more subtle than this (or less). Casey, optimist to such a ridiculous degree that we learn that about her before we even learn her name, disregards any need for subtext and instead just states the thing itself: “I’m an optimist”. She answers the wolves question in a similarly matter-of-fact manner. Which one survives? “The one you feed.”
Happily, we put this very quote to work in our review of an episode of The Red Road called “The Wolf and the Dog“. It’s much less of a stretch here in Tomorrowland, and again, you don’t really have to stretch at all. It’s plainly clear that the vast majority of today’s storytelling is geared towards the grim, towards the harrowing action-filled future, towards the Cormac McCarthy-style doom and gloom. This is true of almost every medium and almost every target audience, but since Tomorrowland is so much in line with the present Young Adult craze (and because Casey is a teenager) we’ll deal in that genre. The examples should leap readily to mind: Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Giver, Divergent, The Mortal Instruments and Ender’s Game are all youthful dystopias with damn similar plots and damn similar everything else. Even Harry Potter, while not dystopian in any way, was a kid’s story turned dark and brooding on screen (see: everything after Daniel Radcliffe grew up).
Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s follow-up to his Best Picture-winning Birdman will be The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a frontiersman left for dead by his fellow trappers after being mauled by a bear. A revenant is “a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead”, according to the OED (I love that especially supposedly bit), a term derived from High Middle Age folktales. These tales generally held that revenants would return from the grave either to seek revenge on a killer or wrongdoer or just simply to harass friends and family members. That latter class of revenants really sounds like a bunch of assholes.
The story upon which Iñárritu’s Revenant will be based (specifically a 2002 book of the same name by author Michael Punke) has already been filmed as Man in the Wilderness, casting Richard Harris in the central role of Zach Bass (DiCaprio will be “Hugh Glass”, but it’s the same character). Wilderness and Revenant are the same story told two different ways, and one would assume that Iñárritu’s approach would hew much closer to the more recent book. It will be interesting to see how influential Wilderness actually is, though, because it holds some sequences and motifs that kind of seem at home in Iñárritu’s wheelhouse.
I have no idea who Charlie Kaufman is. I’m aware that he’s a screenwriter, that for a while he was known mostly as “the Being John Malkovich guy”, that he’s forayed into directing, and that he’s the esteemed subject of this Writer Series (one lucky guy). I’ve seen his movies, read his scripts, watched his interviews. I’ve done all of that all over again. I could zip over to Almighty Wikipedia and tell you his middle name and age and birthplace and favorite Dr. Seuss book (probably Hop on Pop), but the point is that when the only access point to a person is their art, it’s difficult to say you really know that person at all. In much the same way that a picture of a person is not, in fact, the real person, poring over an artist’s work hardly gives any insight at all to what kind of person they really are.
…that’s the easy answer, at least, and it’s one of many possible answers to the fantastic knit ball of questions that is Kaufman’s second collaboration with director Spike Jonze. The beautiful, prismlike nature of Adaptation. really can’t be overstated: dynamic and poignant, sensible and absurd, heartbreakingly sad and riotously funny. It respects and follows a certain structure while simultaneously succeeding in not giving a single shit about structure, consequently managing to start at the literal beginning of time and nonetheless distilling those billions of years into a single keystroke.
There’s a movie called Bob and the Trees that premiered at Sundance last month. It’s about a guy named Bob, and it’s about some trees. Bob’s a logger in rural Massachusetts, and when winter sets in he starts encountering problems. The premise alone isn’t particularly exciting, so Bob and the Trees draws compelling cinema from another source: the fact that Bob is played by a logger named Bob, and Bob the character is very much a version of Bob the logger. It’s fiction, of course, but it’s also true (“nonfiction” doesn’t seem like the right word). The characters are reading a script, but they’re more or less reading it as themselves. It makes Bob and the Trees into a kind of hybrid that looks and feels — again, for lack of a better word — real.
David Gordon Green’s Joe isn’t exactly that. It’s not a true documentary, not docudrama, not cinéma vérité, not kino-pravda (“film-truth”), and not even as factual as Bob and the Trees. But damn if it isn’t close, and damn if it isn’t Green’s most balanced and lifelike film since his 2001 debut George Washington.