One of the Coen Brothers’ most popular works, and with good reason, No Country for Old Men opens up as a dark-hearted thriller with a suitably soul-churning slow-burn style and some stunningly subfuscous cinematography from long-time Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins, and concludes as a burning bullet into the American soul and a deliberate, deeply textured dissection of Western iconography and the myth of the American Dream. For all its thematic heft, it’s an astoundingly sensory motion picture, where theme and content merge with form, and style becomes substance; every image and sound, no matter how slow and cavernous, coalesce into an abominable whole that attains a sort of lurching, poisonous, unspeakably despairing propulsive forward movement. It’s an indefinably visceral motion picture, the kind that feels humanity’s worst sorts in its very bones, and it sits back and shakes its head with a sense of hopelessness. For everything crawling under its skin, it never feels obtuse or over-written, and looking back on the 2000s, few cinematic achievements find craftsmanship so pure and perfected. Continue reading
By this point, it would seem apparent that if ’80s popular cinema was at an all-time low in larger-scale narrative creativity and form, at least ’80s genre cinema often knew it was as chintzy and fake as all hell and tried its damnedest to use this as an asset rather than a detriment. By 1987 we find this trend at its absolute apex with one of the few true unambiguous comedies to seek to re-energize tired genre filmmaking: Rob Reiner’s arch-fantasy parody The Princess Bride. And like most of the best films to come out of this trend, it approaches its chosen poison-pen love letter topic, fantasy, from a place of love rather than the smug self-superiority that would engulf and cloud any such genre riff post-1995. For this reason, more than any other, it attains the sort of genial fluffiness and ebullient effervescence most fantasy films can’t even dream about.
It’s a known quantity to criticize our corporate masters for breaking apart book adaptations for the sake of profit, and this is an avenue of criticism I tend to shy away from. If the individual films, broken apart, are compelling, I don’t much care for the “completeness” of having a “full” adaptation of a source in one film. And complaining about cliffhanger endings have always seemed a red herring to distract from actually discussing the film. But good god is Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay hurt significantly by being cut in half. Or, at least, this first part is. While The Hunger Games and its sequel Catching Fire weren’t perfect films, they were never unwieldy. Snug filmmaking was the order of the day, except when they sought to make good on their pop-Terrence Malick aspirations and linger on the poetic depression of the earth, which was itself lightly satisfying in its own way. Continue reading
Following 2007’s brilliant Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men, and faced with the decision of what to do with your fancy new McCarthy adaptation, the best, most exciting decision you could possibly make would be hiring John Hillcoat, the man who made The Proposition, just about the best ever film adaptation of a book McCarthy forgot to write. Hiring Viggo Mortensen, a mad mastermind of an actor when he wants to be, is the second-best decision you could make. It seemed, thus, that everything was in place for The Road to just tear up the film world, and indeed, to whisper something confrontational to No Country for Old Men and ready its fists for a prime licking. The rhythms of this paragraph likely signal a huge, heaping “but”, and that they do. They also likely signal a bad film. That they do not, thankfully. But they signal a decent film where a masterful one might have been, and that is almost as bad. Continue reading
It’s an easy thing to see the success of Coraline the film resting squarely on Neil Gaiman’s shoulders. Indeed, his sly storybook writing is the base of the film’s narrative, which sees young Coraline (Dakota Fanning) stuck in the day-to-day doldrums of a dreary, lifeless existence in suburbia. Every detail of narrative is very much Gaiman-esque (which, if not yet coined, most certainly will be soon enough). One day, Coraline finds a portal to another world, alike in some ways but different in many others, as though it was built by the same architect in an altered state. There she meets her “other” parents, alike in every physical detail except one: black buttons sewn in where eyes once were. Emotionally and mentally, however, the new parents are polar opposites. While her old ones are overworked and uninterested, her new mother and father spend every waking moment perfecting Coraline’s world. It’s a dream come true, but young Coraline is about to discover that behind every dream lies a nightmare waiting to burst out. Continue reading
Richard Ayoade’s second film is certainly an ambitious affair. Not only is it an adaptation of a famous work of literature, the novella of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky, but it’s more an experiment in filmic language than a narrative proper. The story of a man, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), bored with his life and introduced to another, darker and more aggressive version of his self, the narrative is rather proudly enigmatic and obtuse. Writer-director Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine run layers around themselves as they subvert their narrative not so much through scripting complication but more through visual chicanery. We do not learn much about what is going on from the script – in some sense, it is an experiment in challenging the audience with a narrative that has no real beginning, middle, or conclusion. We’re left to look to the visuals to save us from our confusion, but Ayoade has other things in mind. Continue reading
Stanley Kubrick spent a long time lost in the wilderness of The Shining, and perhaps fittingly for the famously brutal director, it has a back-story to match its on-screen horrors. Most famous is the off-screen feud between Kubrick and the author of the book the film is based on, Stephen King. King’s voice was becoming increasingly popular when the film was released in 1980; he was on his way to becoming a genuine pop culture phenomenon, and his famous distaste for the film drew much media attention, so much that it threatened to overshadow the film itself. Thankfully, Kubrick was an imposing, conniving, controlling maelstrom of a director, the kind of man who, for good or bad, would never release a film that would stand behind its backstory in import. Perhaps because of all the tensions surrounding the film’s production, he had no real choice but to up and direct a masterpiece. He succeeded.
Edited May 2016
Preface: Now that I’ve finally decided to go “old” with the blog, I’m doing it in style with not just a regular “old” film, but two, and two that have ripened with age. For this week’s Midnight Screenings, the ’90s, ’80s, ’70s, ’60s, ’50s, and ’40s wouldn’t do. I’m taking it back to two of the granddaddys of filmmaking from the early ’30s, two of the earliest “talkies” and two supreme influences on Midnight Cinema from a time where films could be more openly playful and subversive as filmmakers were still trying to prod and poke at the medium to expose its limits and possibilities.
After the monstrous (I couldn’t resist) success of James Whale’s extremely influential 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein, production on a second film was almost a sure-thing (after all, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the book, had yet to be wholly adapted). As the first film was loved even in its day, one would assume re-creating this formula with slight changes would be sufficient for another success – a sure-thing, in other words. Taking a good, long four years to release it however, Whale and new screenwriter William Hurlbert had something else in mind. Bride of Frankenstein is less a horror movie than a Gothic playground hopped up on psycho-sexual energy, a carnival of camp and winking terror, a delightful parlor-trick of a film spreading its wings and exploring every nook and cranny of the human condition it can find, and doing so with such a sheer sense of joy it can’t but be contagious. It is a film mirrored by nothing before and, quite possibly, nothing since. Continue reading