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25 for 25 – Seaside Rendezvous

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Before the year 2014, I would have hardly been aware of the existence of Jacques Demy and yet came that year that I went to Cannes and had the privilege of seeing The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in all of its marvelous glory in a 50th anniversary screening at the Palais and now I am utterly in love with the man, prone to rewatching and revisiting every amount of his work if I’m just lounging and relaxing. It’s also perhaps the single biggest reason that even so late in the game of being a cinephile I found myself a born-again lover of musicals, both on the stage and on the screen. It’s also almost certainly the biggest reason I am a bigger fan of the Left Bank crew of French New Wave filmmakers (which also includes Demy’s feminist widow Agnes Varda, the experimental filmmaker Chris Marker, and the innovative and political Alain Resnais, all among my favorite filmmakers) over the Cahiers du Cinema clan (Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, all also among my favorites but lower on the list than the others). So there’s that I owe to Demy’s films.

Now, of course, it is the year 2017 and in the aftermath of Damien Chazelle’s wonderful La La Land, every halfway cinephile knows Demy’s name and so I don’t really have to give much introduction to the man’s works. And of course, because The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is the more opera-based, more canonical, the more dramatic, and the big Palme d’Or winner out of Demy’s output, that’s obviously the one that most find to be his best movie and I will not argue against that. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg feels like a more accomplished work of art than anything he ever made and it’s an unimpeachable showcase of craft with some of the best music ever made for film.

But it’s not my favorite Demy film. There is just one movie in his output that wows me more and perhaps sits most comfortably as my favorite musical of all time and that’s a relaxed two hours spent in a seaside town by the name of The Young Girls of Rochefort, which I saw the year after Umbrellas in 2015*.

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There’s a lot of stories in this town of Rochefort: a pair of twin sisters Delphine and Solange (played by real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac) teaching music and dance longing for a life outside of there. Their mother Yvonne (Danielle Darriuex) managing a cafe next to a popular convention site as she reminisces on the fiance she left behind over the embarrassing last name of “Dame”. Maxence (Jacques Perrin), a regular at the cafe preparing for discharge from his duty in the Navy by writing poems and painting and dreaming his “feminine ideal”. Etienne (George Chakaris) and Bill (Grover Dale), a pair of motorcycle salesman, arriving with their girlfriends and troupe to promote at the upcoming fair happening right at the grounds outside of Yvonne’s cafe. And those are just the one’s we focus most on. There’s the new music store clerk Simon (Michel Piccoli) that Solange is excited to indulge in songwriting talk with, not knowing that he might have deeper connection to her than she knows. There’s the news in the background of a serial killer attacking blondes, something the movie is way too light and frothy to give even the slightest gravity to. And Gene Kelly is in town! Well, obviously it’s just his character composer Andy Miller, but the movie is absolutely happy to show off Gene Kelly (and essentially everybody else in the cast, having grown into icons in one field or another but Kelly was THE international face of musical cinema by the 1960s) and frankly it feels like when Kelly isn’t directing and choreographing himself (here provided by Norman Maen), he’s a lot more relaxed and having a great time.

Relaxed… sigh… That’s the thing that makes The Young Girls of Rochefort so easily rewatchable to me: it’s not in any rush to do anything but dream and thus indulge in the dreams of its characters and it takes great Hitchcockian glee in letting the audience know just how close the characters are to what they’re looking for (ie. absolutely nobody is fooled into knowing that Yvonne and Simon are each other’s ex-fiances they miss so dearly) while Michel Legrand’s score is so lofty and sleepy and lax beyond the opening song number for the twins “Chanson des Jumelles” which is bouncy and brass-y enough to interest you in the two sister actresses and find them so very capable of holding the screen when they’re on (which is probably why the closest thing to a climax this movie gets is the girls doing a small showcase for the motorcycle salesmen singing about seasons in all of their romanticism).

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Even while the movie is just lounging and cruising within two hours, it’s not at all a boring movie. Maen’s choreography is balletic in both a paced and visually impressive way (I think Chakaris does it best, but the dude has poise for days!) and the very opening scene is just a languid boat ride where the occupants have nothing to do but dance and it’s so dazzling and entertaining before the story even gets a proper start (with a stopped truck on the boat to signal that the movie isn’t going anywhere). Demy doesn’t want to shake you with excitement, they just want to divert us for a little while with a beautiful town, bright summer colors on the costumes by Jacqueline Moreau and Marie-Claude Fouquet, and all the song and dance your heart could desire with just enough undemanding romantic melodrama in between to skip us from number to number adequately. And if some asshole wants to try to ruin the fun by killing people in the background, Demy won’t even trip.

It’s so easy. And not in a patronizing way, Demy and company just really love this town the same way Spielberg loves Amity Island or Lynch/Frost love Twin Peaks and would clearly spend as much time here with these characters if they could. But Demy also loves them too much to not grant them their very greatest desires by the end of the film and send them on their separate ways and the sincerity behind that charitability to its characters makes me long for one day being able to make cinema this charming and complete. It’s in clear opposition to Umbrellas‘ tragedy, but sometimes I just want to feel good watching a movie. And that’s when I return to Rochefort.

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*2014 may have been the year I was turned on to musicals, but 2015 is the year I was absolutely affected to re-aligning my whole life on musicals. Not only did I see The Young Girls of Rochefort on a whim at the IFC Center in Manhattan (the morning after seeing Moulin Rouge! in the very same theater), I volunteered at the Adrienne Arsht Center and the Actors’ Playhouse seeing so many musical productions that made me desire to be on stage, I saw The Sound of Music for the first time, witnessed a stage production of my favorite all-time musical Les Miserables, the Hamilton soundtrack was released leading me to discover my dream role in Aaron Burr, and I began doubling down on working in as many musical productions as I could as either actor, stagehand, or musician. So yeah, The Young Girls of Rochefort may be a spearhead for one of the many journeys I undertook in my life.

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25 for 25 – Put on Your Red Shoes and Dance the Blues

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Nowadays, movies are saturated all the way through with stories about struggling artists and that has been so since the nascency of the very artform (the oldest I can think of on the spot is the historical Jazz Singer from 1927, but you can be damn sure that’s a great underestimation on my part) and because every artist takes their art seriously, even if they’re talking about different artforms and mediums, they all essentially have some sort of emotional investment in the struggles of the artist. Life struggles, physical struggles, psychological struggles, financial struggles, it’s oh so very hard to be an artist but worth it because of what you create and how it obviously affects others, these are all the revelations each one of these movies discover over and over and over again.

And so I suppose on the very genesis of it, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger aka The Archers (always getting duo credits for director, producer, and writer, but  were not doing anything special when they decided to make a movie about a ballet based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale “The Red Shoes”, but the execution behind it… it leaves most of those other movies in the dust. The Red Shoes seems more intent overall as a movie to utilize as many of the tools of cinema as it can to make the psychological state of its lead dancer Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) into a complete abstraction and succeeds marvelously. Powell and Pressburger are responsible for some of the inarguably most beautiful movies of all time and I sincerely think The Red Shoes‘ design is easily their best. Meaning that I think The Red Shoes is one of the best-looking movies to ever exist, fuck it. And a lot of that praise from revolves around its central scene.

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I’m not sort of guy who subscribes to the idea that only one element being masterful is enough to carry a movie to pantheon-level. I like to think of film as collaborative and needing every element to work perfectly before it can get better. But if I end up talking exclusively about the ballet close to the end of this, I want you to understand: this is a movie shot by Jack Cardiff, the Archers’ regular, and designed by Arthur Lawson and Hein Heckroth and even the mundane one-on-one discussions are set in such aristocratic palatial interiors that it’s all wonderful to look at. But that ballet is why this movie is a masterpiece, just everything else around it is great. But first the context to that scene:

In the development of that very ballet adaptation of the Anderson story, the impresario of one of the most acclaimed ballet companies in the world Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook based essentially on Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballet Russes) has employed the dancer Vicky whom he finds an arresting amount of potential in and the young conservatory student Julian Craster (Marius Goring) whom he hires after discovering that one of the company’s composers has in fact been a professor of Craster’s and plagiarizing his work. There’s hardly much more beyond backstage drama going on within the film leading up to the ballet, but one of those very threads of backstage drama wraps itself around Vicky’s ankle and tries to tear her apart. And that thread is the romance that blossoms between her and Craster in their preparations and artistic arguments for the upcoming show that begins to disturb Lermontov. Not of a romantic jealousy, though. Lermontov is of the strict opinion that there is no room for domesticity in the hunt for artistic greatness and we earlier see him dismiss his prima ballerina Irina (Ludmilla Tcherina) for her imminent marriage. The gendered factor aside, it’s very clear that Vicky wants to be able to live her life in love with Craster AND wants to reach her full potential as an dancer under Lermontov’s guidance, but Lermontov absolutely will not allow her to have both and it leads to a domestic clash of attitudes between Craster’s young anger and Lermontov’s stubborn classicalism with the helpless Vicky in between unable to use her autonomy to truly pick one or the other and all three of the leads are superb on this front.

But Shearer gets the best most showy role and she gets to do it in the middle of one of the all-time greatest dancepieces ever put to film, particularly because it is the sort of dancepiece that could only be set to film. Scored by the Brian Easdale’s composition conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham with the Royal Philharmonic, the scope of Lawson and Heckroth’s sets and backgrounds to the play do not fit into any reasonable proscenium scale, there is no way this production can work within a stage, but because The Red Shoes is a movie and not a stage production, it gets to cheat at it and have all these angular, surrounding expressionist village sets full of depth despite their artificiality and the superimposed easy on the eyes skies of red and blue to begin heightening our emotional reactions to these colors and at the center Shearer and Leonide Massine (playing the Shoemaker within the play) pantomime essentially the relationship between Vicky and Lermontov, the Red Shoes being the most obvious metaphor for Vicky’s desire to dance and once they’re on her shoes in a magical movie trick of stop motion, she dances oh so elegantly and wonderfully and then precariously and then interminably and it turns from blissful to frightening just from the curtness of Vicky’s movements and the stamina Shearer must have and then the world keeps spinning around her and we witness that with her sways and the backgrounds now becoming easy light colors that would be so comfortable if it wasn’t obvious how much it pains the girl in the red shoes until the ballet itself climaxes in a manner that foresees the tragedy of the drama behind the production itself.

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The bad news is that it tells the story of the movie already in the most overt manner and once The Red Shoes reaches those heights, it never ever returns to them. Everything after seems mundane in its aftermath despite being made two of the least mundane filmmakers in all of 1940s British filmmaking. And it almost ends up being a waiting game for the rest of the movie to get to the ending you already know it’s heading towards, but maybe that’s just if you’re me and prefer your storytelling by such overt visual abstractions rather than by narrative drama. Because by god, do Shearer and Walbrook and Goring still do their best in their performances to match up in the Archers’ scripted melodrama what that ballet was able to do in craft and I personally find it worthy of a cool down. The Red Shoes feels like a complete challenge to Musical Cinema beyond, the 1950s being plumfull of centerpiece dance numbers like An American in ParisSingin’ in the Rain, and The Band Wagon trying to match up to Powell and Pressburger’s daring marriage of film and dance and music and stage to become the ultimate artform, but there can only be one pair of Red Shoes and it looks like Powell and Pressburger are wearing them. I guess they can split it.

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25 for 25 – Hard-Boiled Gumshoe

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Full Disclosure: If there is ever going to be a movie that makes me highly jealous, it’s Rian Johnson’s Brick. It’s not just the sort of movie I wish I wrote, it’s the sort of movie I wish I had made.

Which is more true than you think, since I spent a portion of my senior year in high school trying to re-adapt the script which I found online (and with Johnson’s knowledge and blessing) as a sort of therapeutic exercise and a chance to stretch out my filmmaking skills and while that never came to fruition or completion, the creative ideas that I came up with about the script are still so stuck to my mind that I usually picture them first when I think of Brick before I think of anything. Anyway, here we are today with Johnson directing the new Star Wars film and the most-acclaimed Breaking Bad episodes and me just kicking myself for never using that correspondence to try to work as an production assistant or something.

C’est la vie, because no matter what, once I actually watched the movie for the first time after scrapping the whole thing (I think it’d be around 2011 or 2012, half a decade after the film premiered), it ended up being a compelling, enjoyable work of neo-noir high school drama and the worst part of all is that it actually feels kind of effortless in Johnson’s strapped-cash lo-fi yet aesthetically interesting direction. Like TV shows like Veronica Mars are eager to showcase their detective yarns and while I haven’t watched Riverdale, I can’t possibly imagine that sort of movie not trying hard.

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Johnson’s film is relaxed and unassuming in a way neither of those two works could be, despite being no less heightened (maybe even more heightened) in its noir trappings than certainly Veronica Mars at least is. The very dialogue of the movie is not the sort of talk a high schooler goes through, all sharp and angry snaps with old-school hard-boiled crime novel slang, the kind that would make language feel dangerous back in prohibition era but now just feel dated in a very classical way. Which is very easy to do when your movie is essentially Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

This is not a secret Johnson hides or is even ashamed of. In interviews, he’d openly state The Coen brothers’ own pseudo-adaptation of Hammett’s works Miller’s Crossing as the biggest influence on Brick, Hammett’s book is the blueprint, no question. The character relationships, the dialogue, the plot structure, entire scenes are verbatim taken from the book and they just change phrases like “arrest me” or “administrative hearing” to “suspend me” or “parent-teacher conference” to fit the context.

In case, that Maltese Falcon slip doesn’t let loose the plot: Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt back when he was making interesting indie and pseudo-indie role choices and as a result giving the best and most challenging performances of his career) gets in contact from his long-estranged ex-girlfriend Em (Emilie de Ravine) where she sounds completely frightened and stressed, but when he tries to ask what her call is about, she uses phrases and terms that Brendan can’t make heads or tails of, though Em is not intending to be cryptic. Clearly, trouble is up and Brendan tries to get a pulse on it but before he gets half an idea, she’s killed. And now Brendan’s hanged up on trying to find out who put her on the spot to for that bullet, getting himself embroiled in the drug trade of the elusive Pin (Lukas Haas) and a femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner) who is so obviously tangled in this without Brendan being able to figure it out at first.

Now you can’t tell from that very small synopsis, but when you watch the movie, if you know your noir, you can map it out: Em is Miles Archer, Laura is Brigid O’Shaughnessey, there’s a missing brick of heroin that’s essentially the Falcon MacGuffin itself, the very self-aired Pin is Gutman, the hot-head enforcer Tug (Noah Fleiss) is the young gunsel by Gutman’s side, Em’s current druggie boyfriend Dode (Noah Segan) gets slapped about enough he’d have to be Joel Cairo. But while Brick can’t hold a candle to John Huston’s masterpiece adaptation, Johnson really isn’t trying to.

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Brick uses Hammett’s book as a launchpad for having and eating its cake at the same time. Most high school movies, even the ones that are entirely generous to their characters’ viewpoints like the John Hughes works, they have a narrative context that high school is itself this little microcosm of behavior, that the characters are in their own world separated from reality. And Brick is no different, essentially establishing that from the very first hallway locker scene with a ring of the school and keeping that going in almost entirely setting itself at Johnson’s former high school in San Clemente, California and Richard Roundtree’s authoritative vice principle popping to remind us that the weight given to these situations are not really much once they leave school, let alone the way they talk barely jiving with high school lingo* in the early 2000s (I was still in middle school in the year of its 2005 Sundance premiere and was just a month away from going to high school when it got its 2006 US release). And yet they still have oh so much weight and part of it is just the hardened dignity the cast provides every single one of their roles (except Haas knowingly establishing the Pin as an absent-minded pathetic and disappointing figure from the moment he goes into a tangeant about bats and horses; it’s also not for nothing that the only parental figure we see is for the one character that’s obviously in his 20s compared to all the teenagers).

Cliques and gangs are just a staple of modern high school and have been since before I went to high school. It’s not something to scoff and pretend doesn’t happen and most importantly there is a murder at the very center of it of a very troubled girl (and that’s only the first murder; the body gets a boost by the finale). And while Johnson’s script cares very much about this matter as does Brendan (and visually gives it infectiously moody lo-fi shadows accented by his cousin Nathan’s score), potentially the most cold-souled person in the whole movie (Gordon-Levitt gives him a harsh jaded cynicism that is very unproportional for any teenager and easily explains why he’s always the most hated person in the room, but obviously it’s an attempt at Humphrey Bogart cool that also makes him fascinating and in control), it also establishes the lack of awareness on the school’s part, let alone the police. That’s possibly the most nihilistic approach you could ever provide for a high school movie, where there are no adults to care even if you disappear for a good week and you barely have enough time to sleep, let alone go to class.

Anyway, I’m making it sound dark and serious and I think that’s essential for explaining how Rian Johnson’s Brick made understand just how versatile noir is as a genre template for application, because Johnson’s that smart of a writer and that inspired as a director, but it’s also incredibly fun to watch somehow through this darkness. It’s one of the most deliberately funny non-comedies I’ve ever watched and I know that’s tough to believe but the way Johnson stages Gordon-Levitt beating information out of Segan is its own screwball comedy there, Meagan Good as the vampish ex Kara stands out as such an outrageous and dangerously sexy cartoon that you can’t help wishing she had more screentime, Brendan’s deflections of Roundtree like a Howard Hawks film, football jock Brad Bramish (Brian J. White) is a punching bag acting how every picked-on kid in high school must have imagined their big dumb quarterback bully (it also has to be said how both that character and Brendan are exaggerated caricatures of high school tropes and noir tropes and yet it’s obvious Brendan is cool to the movie but not to the crowd and Brad is cool to the crowd but not to the movie).

Rian Johnson wants you to fun with Brick more than he wants to find it dark and he’s capable of pulling it off without removing any what makes it a compulsive mystery. If that’s not a sure sign of his tonal skills and the ability of noir to at once darken and ridicule subjects within the same context (something he experimented with later on in the 2012 time travel noir Looper), then I don’t know what is.

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*The very moment I decided to can my version was when a collaborator during pre-production complained that “people don’t talk like this” and trashed the whole script. It was seriously discouraging to have a guy so thoroughly miss the point.

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25 for 25 – Asa Nisi Masa

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Like I said in The Room review, I’m generally of the attitude that most filmmakers, regardless of skill or genre, imbue some part of themselves and their psychology in their art. After all, the way an artist chooses to shape their object doesn’t come from just anywhere, it comes from inside (it’s for this reason I don’t judge anyone who chooses to avoid Roman Polanski or Woody Allen movies, etc., though I don’t). Now, I don’t know how far back openly self-reflexive cinema has been happening, but Federico Fellini’s Italian masterpiece 8 1/2 strikes me as the most audacious dirty laundry-slinging you can possibly get away with before losing me as a viewer that everything after it that I’ve watched seems just floundering to catch up, whether New Nightmare or Annie Hall or Birdman. They just can’t hold a candle to 8 1/2 for me.

Its very opening scene is the kind of shocker that puts you right into the headspace of its lead character Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) and does that by way of putting us in a point of view shot for the majority of the time as he’s being asphyxiated by leaking gas in a car stuck in bumper to bumper highway traffic in the patronizing eyes of the other cars. He escapes through the sunroof and begins to glide and fly up into the sky before being caught in some rope from a shore below and the movie has already taken up a surrealist nature that overwhelms the viewer, pulled out of it once the person holding the rope tugs and Guido falls into our view and us out of what was presented as a dream. A cold awakening that sets the heightened theatrical tone of the film (though it should be noted that 8 1/2 is in many ways much more grounded than most of Fellini’s other works like Satyricon and Amarcord), the feeling of lack of self-control or freedom that fuels the frustration Mastroianni guides us through all within the film, and it aligns with Guido’s perspective irrevocably.

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All of this is tied to the fact that Guido, a film director (obviously representing Fellini himself), is in the middle of a big epic spectacle production that he has no clue what to make it about, a half-constructed rocket ship one of the major setpieces Piero Gherardi provides as towering monument of Guido and Fellini’s uncertainties and insecurities. He’s also in the middle of a break ostensibly for his health in a Catholic spa that Gherardi and composer Nino Rota craftly as a hypnotising carnivalesque white block (even more solid in the black and white stock of which 8 1/2 is shot) of “supposed” salvation and real confusion, the kind that you don’t really mind living in because it blankets you well. He’s also in the middle of dealing with his imminent separation from his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee) while his mistress Carla (Sandra Milo, Fellini’s real-life mistress) is staying right next door. And while the plot just in circles and circles with no real ability of Guido to make any creative decisions walking right past all of his assistants in the hotel or appease his clearly tired producer (Guido Alberti), any real attempt to present a solution is way too hard for Guido and he retreats into his hat or sunglasses to indulge himself in a memory of his childhood – like being punished for witnessing a prostitute’s dance – or a fantasy that is extremely telling of his flaws – such as the chauvinistic harem sequence.

Guido’s not a good guy, he’s spineless, he’s creatively bankrupt (at this point in his career), he’s a liar, he’s an adulterer, and that’s just the things that Fellini wants us to read into a character is essentially meant to represent him. Even if 8 1/2 is eager to forgive Guido’s faults by the end of it, I can’t pretend this decision on Guido’s personality is a brave move on Fellini’s part and it’s even more miraculous that 8 1/2 can be so entertaining as a movie, swinging around Rota’s big marches and fanfares to make start seeping in between Guido’s real circus of screen tests and press conferences and his fantasy escapes within his mind, so that by the end of the picture it becomes so overwhelming you can’t tell where one begins and one ends.

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But I’m almost getting ahead of myself, for what makes Guido still so tolerable a protagonist in spite of his faults is how humane and willing Fellini is to go backwards into his psyche to find the root of his problems with women, his art, his inner guilt, and the honesty behind 8 1/2‘s revelations end up feeling relatable as a result. The other big deal is how every cast member no matter how cartoonish he or she is presented by the film, they’re so involved in their own lives that it’s clear we’re witnessing real people only given a distorted lens by Guido/Fellini, most tragically towards Luisa who looks probably more like a stern killjoy to Guido, but Aimee is not willing to play along with that ruse and even before the screen test confessional where Aimee gets to do the best work out of everybody in the movie, she gives Luisa a sense of pain and embarrassment that feels so sharp it’s impossible not to understand her frustrations. Fellini as a filmmaker probably intelligently stays out of the casts way so that even Carla has inner life and we can imagine where she goes when not in the presence of Guido. Or Claudia Cardinale being pictured on the spot as Guido’s ideal woman (standing out in black amongst a sea of white in the resort) despite her clear ailings that brought her there to begin with. Fellini may not have an idea of how to craft these women, but the cast does and it only puts more perspective in how small Fellini/Guido’s own ailments are.

Nevetheless, while I wasn’t wrong in claiming 8 1/2 may be one of Fellini’s most restrained films, it still announces itself as theatrical even without all the fantasy sequences. Moments are full of metaphor within them such as Guido’s attempt to clumsily direct Carla in a love scene between them or Guido’s descent into a sauna feeling white hot as hell despite meeting with a cardinal in that very sauna. The connection that can be made between Guido’s inability for creativity and his sexual impotence implied by his own mind. All of this, when we’re reminded they all come from our alignment with Guido’s perspective, suddenly tell us that these real-life scenes are no less fantasy escapes than Guido’s mind-harem, they’re all Guido trying to rectify the fact that he doesn’t have an authority over his own life by visualizing them as big moments and himself as a big character in the center of his life. And who doesn’t themselves that way, director or not? Which is how the movie and Guido arrive to the final revelation that Guido doesn’t need to direct his life the same way he directs his movie, although whether or not Fellini truly believes that is up for question as even when Guido relinquishes absolute control around the end and is willing to start over, we see his younger self guiding his own life literally and figuratively in a dance it’s impossible not to associate with the finale of The Seventh Seal, albeit a bit more optimistically.

I don’t want to say 8 1/2 is an impressionistic movie. I don’t think think it’s ambiguous at any point about what it’s about or what it’s trying to say, but I don’t know. Maybe I just respond so well to that because I want to be a filmmaker myself. Maybe I just respond to it well because I’m a straight guy who has similar neurotic hang-ups. Maybe this essay is my own great big sloppy 8 1/2, for I have started and stopped over and over again writing this not knowing how or what to focus on (and indeed 8 1/2 is the sort of movie where there is so much about Fellini to unpack that I wouldn’t have known where to start), and so that will leave me with some sort of dissatisfaction about what I’ve had to say. But I can’t lie to myself about how I feel for 8 1/2 and how sometimes I find myself trying to escape even the slightest antagonism by dreaming within my own shades.

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25 for 25 – Can It All Be So Simple

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I hesitate to make the statement “I don’t think we’ll ever see a gangster movie with the scope of Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s Brazilian true crime film City of God” only because more than half a decade later the Italian film Gomorrah has nearly evaporated from my memory. I can’t reliably claim if Matteo Garrone’s film, a mosaic narrative, has as much focus on the area of the Campania as it does on the Camorra itself. So barring that blind spot, I will say Meirelles and Lund’s film, in all of its interest towards the Cidade de Deus favela and how its conditions are and how it leads to the criminal hoods, might be unmatched in scope by most gangster movies. It certainly not the all-around best gangster movie I’ve seen but it’s up there amongst the most ambitious and the epic aspect of Baulio Mantovani’s screenplay (based on the semi-autobiography by Paulo Lins) with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather duology (what is this third film you speak of?), and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. And I think City of God aims a lot wider in its focus on the entirety of the Cidade de Deus favela’s history. If there’s any work similar to City of God in my eyes, it’s not a movie but a TV series – David Simon’s The Wire is the only possible match in its focus on Baltimore as a city as City of God on Cidade de Deus and their respective histories.

Go even further, even if Gomorrah pulls off that level of detailed city overview, I doubt it does it as energetically as City of God does. At the level of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Meirelles and Lund have a lot to say in a little over two hours and so much to cover and so City of God begins with a sequence in the 1980s that is intended to rattle the viewer into confusion and get them excited as Buscape (Alexandre Rodrigues) chases after a chicken and ends up face to face with the most feared and violent hood leader Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) and his gang, who we had just shortly learned Buscape is in fear of being killed by. All of this chopped together with frenzy by Daniel Rezende that makes it look like Baz Luhrmann ghetto picture until the moment we start spinning around to get us ready for the speed in which Meirelles and Lund will have to give us narrative information and when the frame lands it’s not the tall halfway buildings with a modern blue to them, but small huts in a yellow baked landscape in the 1960s with the fuzziness of an old memory (and this is a pretty hot and sweaty picture overall thanks to cinematographer Cesare Charlone).

And that’s where we discover this isn’t Buscape’s story (played as a child by Luis Otavio) but the story of the city he lived in and the crime all around him and this is a story with so many threads that it’s a miracle the movie doesn’t lose track of them all. It starts out simple with the focus on Buscape’s idolization of his brother Marreco (Renato de Souza) and his Tender Trio gang with Cabeleira (Jonathan Haagensen) and Alicate (Jefechander Suplino), functioning Robin Hood and Merry Men for the Cidade de Deus that ends with their tragic fracturing due to their robbery of a wealthy motel occurring the same night as a ghastly massacre. And from there, we get introduced to other potential gang branches like the Runts, a group of extremely young boys engaged in robbery that look like they’re playing tag compared to the actions of Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva), a tagalong to the Tender Trio that would grow up to become Ze and so one of the threads comes full circle. But then there’s how Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaale) rises up from being a small-time drug dealer and Ze’s best friend Benny’s (Phellipe Haagensen, Jonathan’s brother) considerable amiability as a local gangster celebrity and he’s consideration of leaving with his girlfriend Angelica (Alice Braga) and how the beloved veteran Chicken Manny* (Seu Jorge) got pushed into joining an impending gang war between Carrot and Ze.

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These are all condensed through the perspective of Buscape’s interest in becoming a photojournalist (which also explains how enamored Buscape becomes with the hood life and how it obviously provides an escape from the low economy and living quality of the favela, as well as the sensational manner of the brutal violence when it occurs) and the details are so varied and impactful that it feels like the speed in which we’re witnessing all of it going on is a result of the pressure and density of the screenplay. The movie literally stops in its tracks to provide a crossfade one-angle short film about the history of a drug den apartment with efficiency and a real tangible sense of time-passing that before no time, we’re right back where we were in another story we were watching about Ze distinguishes himself from the desperation of the favela with the savagery of his wrath and violence. Or how Benny becomes the life of his going away party and a little travelogue of all the different cliques he interacts with amicably. Or how a recently deceased character planned his revenge for his father’s death, a daring storytelling decision done in the middle of the film’s climax and yet paced so well that we don’t even lose any of the energy of the gun battle it was interrupting. And in the meantime, the whole community is physically evolving in the background as part of the greater city of Rio de Janeiro that we barely notice the Cidade de Deus we leave at the end of the picture is not the same one we were watching at the beginning.

This could feel exploitative, but the presence of a whole cast of Cidade de Deus residents (all of them distinctive enough that it’s kind of disappointing only Jorge and Braga ever had a real international career) instead makes it feel like the city has come to life to tell its story and the story is honestly an angry one. Halfway through the movie, the violence that had mostly felt like throwaway exposition (with some exceptions like the opening motel robbery turned massacre, which feels like a thesis scene in some ways) of background figures, becomes grave and alarming and surrounding. And then from there only more threads expand onto its political implications – Buscape has to go through these hoops just to make money for a camera, the church is the only refuge Alicate finds from the bloodthirsty police, etc. – and City of God ends up having a lot more to say than “this is life in the favela”, but why it’s hard and what changes need to made.

Basically City of God is the definition of a dense movie. It’s thematically dense. It’s narratively dense. It’s stylistically dense. And against all odds, it’s carries that weight successfully. It’s a bit unwieldy and flawed and no movie can replace actual experiences and lives in the poverty of the Cidade de Deus favela, but I can’t imagine a viewer of the film being any less conscious or aware of the situation by watching the film and Meirelles and Lund are clearly fans of the techniques of Scorsese, Tarantino, and the French New Wave that make it go down so easy, you don’t realize until afterwards that you were eating your vegetables.

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*one of the big problems with reviewing City of God is that many of the names vary between the Brazilian-language and the English-subtitles. I opted to just identify each character by their Brazilian name simply because I think they’re almost unanimously better. This is the sole exception for me, where I prefer the English subtitle’s selection of Knockout Ned for Chicken Manny’s character, though that may be the Anglophone in me.

Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

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25 for 25 – E.X.P.L.O.D.E.

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Man, when I think about Otomo Katsuhiro’s 1988 anime adaptation of his own manga Akira these days, I feel bad. Once upon a time, as a teenager watching this movie in the middle of the night to avoid sleep, everything about it blew my mind and opened me up to exploring animation in film further than any moment of my life beforehand save for when I was a child and really ate that stuff up. And obviously, I don’t need to indicate that it was the same for most people here in the West long before I even had a chance to watch it. For the majority of American filmgoers, Akira is THE anime – the one that kept cyberpunk still rolling past its 1980s rule of science fiction culture to its optimization in the end of the 1990s by The Matrix and, more importantly, the one that introduced North America Japanese animation in cinematic packaging with all the storytelling elements that entails, including world-building, moral complexity, and gore, yo. Big time gore that 16-year-old me thinks makes the movie is the most mature piece of animation to ever exist and, to be sure, Akira is a hella mature film in a medium that was previously widely considered juvenile (something that always grits my teeth thinking about). Sure, the west didn’t need to go very far to find mature animation because Ralph Bakshi but there’s a clear difference between the puerile element of Fritz the Cat making it look too sexy for kids and the story-driven violence of Akira giving the environment a real sense of devastation and tension.

Anyway, later exposure to the works of Anno Hideaki and Kon Satoshi and, hell, even Takahata Isao has pulled me away from thinking of Akira as the best of even Japanese anime (as well as just subsequent viewings of the movie where it starts wearing out on me), let alone world animation. I think the only movie I’ve grown even more severely away from is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, but in the end, nothing can take away from Akira‘s watershed moment in anime exposure to us Americans or from making me suddenly want to get into animated movies again and so here we are squaring with what Akira is outside of what I owe it for my cinephilia.

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And what it is is, all the wear still on it, a very solid science fiction junked-future story. One that follows Kaneda (Iwata Mitsuo), the leader of the Capsule biker gang, as he witnesses his childhood friend and lieutenant Tetsuo (Sasaki Nozomu) get kidnapped by government agents in the aftermath of a heavy battle with their rival gang The Clowns and Tetsuo’s bike being destroyed in an encounter with a very sickly looking child who seems aged to corpselike form (Nakamura Tatsuhiko). During his arrest, Tetsuo would be the subject of tests by Doctor Onishi (Suzuki Mizuho) under the oversight of the grim Colonel Shikishima (Ishida Taro) and discovers that Takashi, the child responsible for his wreck, is among two other similar looking children Kiyoko (Ito Fukue) and Masaru (Kamifuji Kazuhiro) in being tormented by Onishi’s experiments into having psychic powers. Powers it seems Onishi is intent on unlocking inside of Tetsuo himself utilizing Tetsuo’s already existent angst and stress from his tragic life. Meanwhile, Kaneda is trying to find a way to rescue Tetsuo, aligning himself with a group of revolutionary terrorists intent on overthrowing the government, though that is almost accidentally through his attraction to the young woman Kei (Koyama Mami) involved with them.

It’s a complicated plot summary trying to compact way too much material from a medium that could handle that to something like film where it’s all limited to a little over two hours, but somehow that doesn’t lose me at all. In fact, it’s exciting for a while to see a movie try to figure out what to appropriate from its supposed genre (there’s moments of biker gang action, moments of political thriller, moments of horror, etc.) and stream into Kaneda and Tetsuo’s stories. From what I understand, Otomo and Hashimoto Izo’s script adapts the first three volumes loosely and it’s every man for himself from there. But, it honestly feels like the storytelling strands really come apart once those volumes are completely brisked through (by the time Tetsuo unlocks his power close to the level of the mysterious “Akira” entity which has close to no presence in this movie and more in the manga), Otomo was lost in a story he still hadn’t completely finished and had the opposite effect as George R.R. Martin, rushing instead to find some satisfying ending point to most of the precious plotlines he retained and that’s kind of where Akira sputters out for me as a tale.

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Anyway, Akira is not a movie I watched for its story even when I thought it was the best thing in the world (and mercy to those who do), but there was a clear though I had watching the opening biker battle/chase for the first time through the streets of a fully detailed rich-in-color (especially red) and textured background post-destruction neo-Tokyo in all of its urban age and tear desperately trying to keep some industrial metropolitan identity even though not a single building seems devoid of cracks and it’s not hard to picture areas of the city abandoned. And that was in the motion of the bikes zooming through the streets and the beatings and crashes occuring, all so very fluid (including an iconic shot of Kaneda braking to turn around that is one of my favorite moments in animation, covered in lightning to give it extra kineticism included in his intense acute diagonal angle) that it felt too fast to be real life and yet it was so easy to buy within the world of the film itself.

I’d later discover that the animation was done one frame per drawing (as opposed to traditional 2 frames) which gave it such energy that I honestly didn’t know I’d ever see in another animated film again and made me more aware of the process than I had been before (and I haven’t really seen it done elsewhere, save for maybe Kon Satoshi’s work). And that gives more impact to the violence and grotesqueries at hand, especially round the middle nightmare sequence that has an arresting and frightening vibe because the stuffed bear growing more and more monstrous is so swift we barely have time to register. There’s a particularly small moment of an innocent bystander in a restaurant being killed by crashing motorcycle landing on his head that shocks the hell out of me to this day and to say nothing of Tetsuo’s final mutation in a coliseum to the demise of his poor girlfriend Kei (whose presence is just to be the victim of some really severe nihilism).

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Add to that the incredible lighting design for the late 1980s animation and the ability of the facial features to distinguish characters so clearly in attitude (we’re obviously meant to like Kaneda a lot more than Tetsuo and that’s done easily by Kaneda’s big boyish rogue feature and design with his cool red jacket and souped up motorcycle; Tetsuo on the other hand looks sad from the very get go and when he becomes outright villain wearing a red cape, it’s kind of laughable and reminds me of One Punch Man) and Akira stands right next to My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies as an argument for 1988 as the best year for Japanese animation.

It’s a shame I don’t have the love I once had for it and I had over the years been exposed to works that I felt accomplished what Akira wanted to do even more fully (even before I saw AkiraBlade Runner was already a movie near and dear to me and Akira probably owes its greatest debt in design and atmosphere to it), but in the end it still means something to be the first. And Akira absolutely gets to hold clear to that claim, standing might proud at its place in animation history and the history of my personal canon, marveling at the ambition of Otomo as its creator whether or not I think it really works out.

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Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

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25 for 25 – We Accept the Challenge to Fight and Never Lose.

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This movie is going to be a conglomeration of things I had earlier explored and now bring full circle. I already came down on some of the best of Canadian cinema – as provided by the National Film Board itself. Even earlier, I took a look at some slasher culture. And even earlier than that came the look at movies that I deemed part of my fascinating trinity of inadequately produced ego trips, with our particular subject today flat-out mentioned as the last end of that. There was Miami Connection which was essentially Y.K. Kim’s attempt to leave a wise self-gravitas-granting message of peace and love sincere yet completely contradictory to its violent content. There was The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s warped and twisted life fantasy that allegedly provides him with a blanket of company he couldn’t find or reasonably match in his film that gave him lifetime adoration that may not be what he’s looking for. And now, we close that trinity off with Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare (although it is credited within the film as The Edge of Hella title much less descriptive and absolutely not applicable at all to the film it is attached to). Now, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare is much shallower than the previous films in its intentions. Produced and written by its star Jon Mikl Thor (the director John Fasano mainly had his career as a script doctor) – a Canadian bodybuilding Mr. USA and Mr. Canada champion who later took a dip into heavy metal music under the his last name as the mononymous Thor – The Legendary Rock Warrior! – all Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare really wants or tries to do is make Thor look really awesome and cool and badass.

It does not make him look cool or badass. It frankly makes him look silly.

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That is obviously bound to happen when your film starts with the bloodless death of a family by an unseen evil monster from the kitchen oven in their apparent farm home in the middle of Nowhere, Ontario. Following such an underwhelming overlit, broad daylight “massacre” of footage with the title card The Edge of Hell is very confident of them. And then once the credits are done, inexplicably, a band and their girlfriends somehow deciding this farm was a good place to record their new album and develop material for themselves despite the very obvious Horrible Over Monster Event That Happened Ten Years Prior to the Movie Proper (which just makes me think of how Trent Reznor made The Downward Spiral in the house where Helter Skelter happened and the sensationalism behind it kind of spills over to this) and Thor (the character is actually named Triton, but it’s so much easier for me to square with Thor as a character himself)’s trying to tell us Toronto is a culturally nourishing place to be making arts at. They’re not in Toronto. They’re on a farm that ain’t Toronto. Might be close to it geographically, but…

Anyway, the band also brings their girlfriends because this is essentially trying to be a slasher film and so we need gratuitous scenes of attempted shower sex while the actors waltz right into that shower in an insanely cartoonish amount of make-up making them look like extras from a Whitesnake video only randomly pulled together for the most softcore porn video you could ever imagine. Hell, most of the things this band does are pretty clean for 80s metal stars, they put in a good name for hair metal after Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization portrays all the sexual promiscuity and drugs in the culture, but heck away these guys just wanna make music and be with their own girls.

And my word… the music is catnip to a bad hair metal deviant like I. Hair metal is emblematic of nearly everything I think is silly and stupid about the 1980s and why I’m so lucky to have missed out on it. Big and loud and monotonous, but running like the train that could in high voices screeching voices and obviously Scorpions and Ratt inspired guitar riffs. And they’re earwormy in the worst ways, like hook worms, bruh. Every once in a while, “We Accept the Challenge” and “Energy” keep popping over and over in my head and I need the tunes from Miami Connection to save me.

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By the way, I’m not bothering elaborating on the characters or cast names beyond Thor because much as I ironically love Rock n Roll Nightmare, it’s a movie so bad I’d rather retain my dignity by only affording it cursory research because got damn, but from what I understand an unusual amount of it is made up of Assistant Directors. In any case, the only really distinguishable person is the drummer who starts off with the fakest most-Spinal-Tap-sounding Australian accent and somehow it gets dropped halfway through thus making him wholly anonymous amongst the other band members.

Anyway, this being a slasher film, they all get picked off in complete darkness with their deaths usually witnessed by a monsters that looks like color-coded versions of Beaker the muppet, except with an eye removed. There’s never any tension or horror because Fasano is simply not a good filmmaker with this roaming around and Thor clearly didn’t shell out too much for his glamor flick, but even if this were a well-shot and edited film… how on Earth can you see these creatures and not laugh? Are these the motherfuckers that were in the oven? What were they doing there?

Well, I’ll tell you what they are and this is unfortunately going to be SPOILER ALERT for a film that you’re probably better off EXPERIENCING THIS FIRST HAND so if you can hunt a copy of Rock n Roll Nightmare (which frankly tough for me but doable), GET ON IT.

But for those who stay….

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The events of this movie didn’t happen. It is a punch-drunk version of Six Characters In Search of an Author. Nobody who died (apparently not even the ten years ago family) ever really existed except as creations of Triton, an archangel, in order to lure and entrap the killer The Devil (or maybe the exhaustive laundry list of names Triton elaborates on when they finally come face to face) so that Triton can grab his 30 dollar Halloween decoration looking ass (which he seriously does look like the most expensive prop in the whole movie. Definitely less expensive than the metal makeup. And yet cheaper than my work shoes.) and bring him back to hell. And obviously this does not happen without a heavy metal battle, so while the music by the band never existed blasts as Thor suddenly Super Saiyans himself and wrassles with those Beaker muppets attaching themselves to his swollen pecs as he struggles.

It gets at its most pathetic Triton explains he was inspired by slasher movies as though he knew only the Devil could possibly be a fan of them. It’s an attempt to be self-reflexive that ends up having the movie trip and fall all over its face. And the moralistic (?) Christianity probably explains why the hair metal band is all into clean monogamous drug-free fun rather than actually acting like Poison or Warrant. Anyway, it’s ambitious of Thor, that’s for sure and the fact that he wanted himself to be at the center of this is hella braver than punching the Devil right in the face.

This is why I love the movie so much as trash and am willing to show it to as many people as possible. It’s insane, it’s bizarre, and it’s all in some shallow way that’s much less demanding than the psychoanalysis that seems imperative with movies like The Room and Plan 9 from Outer Space. And now that I wrote it out, maybe it does make Thor look cool now that I think of it. I wish I could look that constipated wrassling muppets.

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Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!

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25 for 25 – A Bedtime Story for the Damned

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I once was under the impression that movies can only ever be about the atmosphere and the visuals and that’s how I came to easily love Suspiria, Dario Argento’s colorful horror fantasia that’s remained one of the most iconic pictures in horror, Italian cinema, and cinema in general. It’s so easy to be into the stylistic overload of the picture with its austere set design covered in brash big primary colors when story is not what you’re coming in for. It’s what made me so appalled by a friend in my dorm building responding “unfortunately” when I asked if he saw Suspiria a long time ago. My mind was blanked into how utterly anti-logic Suspiria as a film seemed to be, to the point of aggression. It never crossed my mind to sit and think about the story by Argento and his then-wife Daria Nicolodi that seems so very far away from reality. But then I look back on all of the movie’s plotting, the way its substance doesn’t seem existent, the way it all just seems like context for the painterly elegance of its visuals and window dressing and I think it’s enough to forgive Suspiria its narrative transgressions.

The last two times I actually watched Suspiria (which were within weeks of each other), I had by then realized that film was a marriage of both style and content together and I had to square this with the horror film. And I actually ended up loving it more than already loved it as one of my favorite movies. Hell, I’d actually put Suspiria into the ballpark of possibly the BEST horror movie I’ve seen (though I’d throw my favorite hat on Night of the Living Dead). I mean, around that point a line I had always dismissed as nonsense “I’m blind not deaf, you understand that?!” suddenly clicked with other lines of dialogue and revelations and the movie started making more sense as I moved along.

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It’s not that Suspiria doesn’t have its plot or that the plot doesn’t make sense, but two small keys about it that if you can’t meet halfway, you’re going to be hanging by the edge of its aesthetic: the first being that the movie is heightened into some sort of nightmare atmosphere provided by the colors and design and especially by the underlying sinister score by Italian prog band Goblin (with a theme song that sounds like 70-year-old Mike Patton trying to cough up cigarettes he accidentally swallowed while singing the theme to Rosemary’s Baby; I also think it’s the inspiration for Coheed and Cambria’s “Domino the Destitute“), all already dizzying and hypnotic and blanketing the viewer. But the script follows suit, where Argento claimed to be inspired by the essay on dreams by Thomas de Quincey that the film is named after “Suspiria de Profundis” and a dream itself by Nicolodi.

But then the second thing is that the entire plot seems seated exactly for children. We’re in a school – granted a ballet school, the Freiburg-based Tanz Dance Academy – all the women students have dialogue and moments that are immature like comparing names with “S” like snakes and sticking their tongues out. They are reactionary in a manner a child completely unable to comprehend what’s going on around them would be made uncomfortable and Suzy Bannon (Jessica Harper), our lead who is just arriving to the school from New York one dark and stormy night, is utterly naive to everything supernatural going on around the school – from the sudden and violent death of a woman she saw rush away on her arrival screaming about secret irises (and hoo boy is it violent. Argento gets right to the visceral point killing two girls with one glass stone.) to the inconsistency of the school’s head instructor Tanner (Alida Valli) and headmistress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) in being able to accommodate a room for Suzy or not on her arrival. It’s all uncomfortable and shady but apparently not enough until the school begins invoking – SPOILERS for a movie where I honestly don’t feel that matters – witchcraft into this and causing her to weaken for some cultish reason involving the Greek witch Helena Markos. Bodies start happening and creepy crawly overtly horror movie things happen in bold form such as maggots falling on girls’ faces and shadows appearing in red light with creepy labored breathing.

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It’s really nothing more than a ghost and witches story (very notably not a giallo, since the story is not about a psycho killer in Agathe Christie vein but a  and its imagery is devoted heavily to that, but without its feet in the ground so that the viewer can be able to have a solid idea of what’s going until maybe later on when Udo Kier appears solely to give a great long exposition about the background of Markos in the movie’s only boring scene. I can see how some viewers would find such a whirlwind of a narrative to be off-putting or antagonistic, but I find Suspiria to be exciting and sensational for this reason. Nothing is scarier than an ability to tell what’s going on and slowly being able to stem out a true narrative after all is said and done suddenly stops me from dismissing the writing of Argento and Nicolodi as “utter nonsense”. Everything comes back and has a logical explanation. Not to mention that when your protagonist is a child, that atmosphere of not knowing what to do will make you feel within Suzy’s headspace more than the amount of nightmare imagery Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovolli could supply, which they do over and over framing Suzy trapped in glass mirrors and windows, the garish colors of blood and night blues, the skeletons and bugs, haggard skin, bats. At one point a whole room full of razor wire with a poor soul trapped inside of it suffering. It’s all like a live-action version of that skeleton room scene from The Shining if that scene didn’t fall flat on its face.

The movie is baroque and artful about its horror in a manner that feels so very different in manner from its comic book splashes of elements, but that’s kind of what makes Suspiria so powerful to me as a movie that helped me decide what I look for in movies. Sometimes, the style becomes the true substance of the movie and everything you can gain from the images and sound can prove to be a lot more filling to the experience than the dialogue that comes out of the characters, even if the characters are brashly victimized like Suzy and her best friend Sara (Stefania Casini) or as leeringly predatory like Blanc, with Valli’s wide eyes and grin, or Markos, a complete creature half made of shadows and sickly green skin once we meet her. Suspiria opened up doors for that to me and every time I watch it further doors are blasted open.

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25 for 25 – Cage goes in the water, you go in the water. Shark’s in the water. Our Shark.

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We live in a good ol’ time 42 years later since Steven Spielberg’s Jaws‘ big successful splash of a release in 1975 that – together with George Lucas’ 1977 Star Wars changed the whole game on American cinema, heralding the form from the New Hollywood Cinema that producers would adopt for their summer blockbusters, that somehow Jaws has proven to be so damn good, every shark movie that existed since feels like an utter knock-off of the beach thriller, no matter how different the premise or how good the movie is (and honestly I think only one good shark movie has been made in all those 42 years since, last year’s The Shallows). That’s how big and wide its footprint is in American cinema history and while the Hollywood popcorn movie has mutated into something like Jurassic World or Independence Day: Resurgence as these past few years are any indication, I’ve never felt like it reflected poorly on Jaws‘ quality one bit. When a movement is so good it started from the top (and I know calling popcorn cinema a “movement” is a heinous crime worthy of disqualifying me of ever watching movies but it is merely in the absence of better words to use. Please rectify that in the comments), it’s hard not to peak early and Jaws was simply that.

I’ve never ever engaged in a count to find out what the movie I’ve watched the most times is, but I feel like the closest possibility to that title is Jaws. I’ve been watching it since I was a kid. I’ve been watching it as I went to college for film, with co-writer Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log as a filmmaking bible for a while (Peter Benchley, the author of the original novel which Jaws is based on, was the other writer for this film). I’m still watching it as an adult and I can’t imagine myself ever stopping. For a movie somewhat dedicated in that low-key New Hollywood style of focus on characters (indeed, the town of Amity Island is part of what keeps me coming back, it’s like a less cynical Robert Altman picture) and spending half of its time with men sitting in a boat in the middle of the ocean, this is seriously an accessible film for anybody. My whole family unanimously loves the movie, it may be one of the few things we can all agree on. It helps that it was one of the movies that pulled in the high-concept that could be hooking an audience in from the very start: shark attack is all you really need to say to summarize and attract an audience. And well, the brilliant opening scene on a beach at nighttime beautifully illustrates it from its opening shot of a perspective stalking in the water like an angry slasher to his unseen consumption of a helpless teen (Susan Backline), bobbing into the water violently as she’s shoved back and forth before being silenced under the water, the camera only remaining on the surface. An early reflection of the talent of editor Verna Fields, who had early in the release gotten most of the acclaim over the then-green Spielberg, but now unfortunately forgotten for Spielberg’s accomplishments. Let’s bring that back over because is probably the biggest reason the movie works despite its mechanical shark famously breaking down, with her economy in showing the shark’s appearance and ability to give a moment like that attack its own shocking abrupt rhythm without being dissonant to John Williams’ forever iconic two-tone score. Go on, play it in your head. You know it’s already there, I ain’t gotta say nothing, those horns already are slowly running in your brain.

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But then that high-concept hook would be ignoring the richness of the characters on Amity Island (mostly provided by character actors in their subdued zone or natives of the movie’s filming location Martha’s Vineyard): including the source of the main conflict for the first half of the film, Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), new enough in town that he has to sound like an islander, attempting to close the beaches off due to this attack. This is resisted by Mayor Vaughan (Murray Hamilton), who points out that Amity Island is essentially a summer tourist trap and closing the beaches will do harm to its main source of income. This power struggle only causes them to be ill-prepared when a young boy Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) is himself killed and eaten, leading to a bounty for the shark’s capture that causes an amateur frenzy for the money (Benchley stated that had he known the ill effect his novel would have in fear-mongering towards sharks, he might not have written it, and dedicated his life after to shark preservation. Honestly, I think the bounty hunting scene illustrates exactly how horrific and destructive mob frenzy can be). It ain’t enough for veteran hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) who demands $10,000 and it isn’t satisfying for Brody’s requested oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) who quickly asserts that the tiger shark captured and displayed does not match the bite marks on the early teenager’s body, further infuriating Mayor Vaughn and getting them right back where they started and unable to help when another casualty happens in broad view of everyone that puts Brody’s son in shock, forcing him to take straight to the ocean after the animal with Quint and Hooper.

That all covers just the first hour of a movie a little over two hours and I’m sorry, I always forget how fast-paced that is a-movin’ as a scene (thanks again madly to Fields and Spielberg, for getting their storytelling skills focused on swift scenes like staircase steps, establishing how far along the town is to going crazy and how close Brody and the Mayor are to coming to blows). Nothing about it feels unearned or rushed and yet I simply feel almost as familiar with Amity Island as I would be the residents of Twin Peaks and it is enough to take up a whole feature film on its own, with brilliant anchors of everyman personality coming from Scheider and Dreyfuss.

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And yet it’s all just in service of establishing the stakes of the sea adventure Jaws becomes in the second half where Spielberg, Fields, and Bill Butler’s skill must truly come to the test staying on literally one location the whole time, Quint’s boat, and filling it with just as much momentum despite sitting in one spot and not having as much narrative to cram in its first half. And that also means the second half is where we spend the majority of our time with Shaw’s Quint and discover just how colorful and dangerous of a character he feels, all crusty masculinity and insane Ahab-esque unpredictability. Obviously the most memorable being on-screen, but his being stuck in a boat with the practical Brody and hothead Hooper proves to be just as compelling an anti-buddy character study as anything in Amity Island (even a source of class conflicts with educated Hooper and rugged working-class Quint).

And that’s before the shark shows up in the famous moment that led to “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”, once the shark starts fighting on its turf things get much compact and heated and the movie goes to being an escalator of tension at this point. Before no time, the actual action takes place and… man, there’s literally no scene that gets my heart pounding as much as the final showdown between the shark and the sinking wreck of a boat as Brody mutters “Smile, you son of a b–“. No matter how many times I watch this movie, knowing how it all turns out, I’m always at the edge of my seat.

Jaws is perfect. I won’t hear any of your complaints, sorry. I know there’s no movie that EVERYBODY loves, but the moment Jaws is dismissed from New Hollywood canon despite being no-less sophisticated or subdued or ambitious than any of the best of them, that’s when I just shut out all the movie’s dissenters. There’s not a frame or cut misplaced, there’s no performances that bother me, there’s nothing I can find bothering viewers beyond its successes that are absolutely not its fault. If I were Steven Spielberg, I’d be pretty full of myself for making such a success so early in my life (and of course there’s the famous “I can’t believe they picked Fellini over me” incident) because I can’t possibly find a way that a career so dedicated to popcorn cinema and summer movies can be improved upon after Jaws, no matter how good your movies are.

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25 for 25 – That’s a Funny Story, Mark

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I don’t know if other cinephiles ever have these humbling moments where somebody out of any corner of film watcher-dom introduces a film or culture that has clearly made a bold and big impact on the cinematic world that I had no idea was in existence and makes me rush to find out what it is. They still happen often and often, but the biggest one in my life was right when I was starting college in 2010 and hours after my arrival to Phoenix, my roommate tells me about the already seven-years-old and long in the middle of its cult phenomenon (hell, by that point it already had a video game made of it) The Room, made by the enigmatic fellow of Tommy Wiseau. And man, my roommate was REALLY selling this movie to the point of going through a plot synopsis of the movie in the middle of dinner with my dad at IHop and making me watch the Nostalgia Critic review.

I have since seen the movie 3 times – first with friends indulging in the cult actions of throwing spoons and such, then with Wiseau present on his “Love Is Blind” tour, and then after finishing The Disaster Artist (the infamous book by co-star and line producer Greg Sestero that elaborates on the production history of the film) – and all with an utter and immediate fascination that promised I’d be watching it another time. This is quite unorthodox because The Room is widely known as one of the worst movies to ever be made.

And it quite frankly lives up to that reputation every time.

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Just by looking at the synopsis of the movie is a Herculean task to parse out a straightforward premise. You can get to the center of the film, being that writer Wiseau (who also is the director, producer, and star of the film, but more on that later) wanted to craft a love triangle in the center between Johnny (Wiseau), a successful banker who is beloved by everybody around him and surrounded by friends, his fiancee Lisa (Juliette Daniel) who is bored by the idyllic life that Johnny provides for her, and Johnny’s mysterious best friend Mark (Sestero) who begins an affair with Lisa despite his utter disgust with his actions. Soap opera stuff, not entirely the sort of thing that holds up a 100 minute feature.

Then there’s the hodge-podge of non-sequitors and tangeants that have absolutely no weight on that primary plot, from the infamous subplot of Lisa’s mother Claudette (Carolyn Minnott) famously declaring her diagnosis of breast cancer before never bringing the matter up ever again, to the childlike Denny (Philip Haldiman) getting in debt-related trouble with the aggressive drug dealer Chris-R (Dan Janjigian). Perhaps Wiseau felt these sort of random events are reflective of how real throws things at you (I once had an acquaintance suggest a movie with the same sort of narrative logic as The Room and have avoided him appropriately), perhaps he just wanted to fill 99 minutes, perhaps he just keeps forgetting to delete all scenes related to whatever subplot. In any case, any possible sense of reality, sense, or logic in Wiseau’s screenplay is vacuumed and leaves something like an unfunny Adult Swim episode. These characters and their dialogue don’t sound like anything other than what Wiseau’s concept of how humans behave, and given Wiseau’s presence on-screen as the lead, it’s easy to see how Wiseau has trouble understanding human behavior. His presence seems like a desperate attempt to mimic it and it is an utter failure on that front.

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Everybody else in the cast seems to be desperately trying to sell whatever nonsensical word salad Wiseau mandates for them to do and it’s admirable, although I’m not sure we would be having any great performances out of them even if the lines made sense. Some are overly intense and out of the zone of the movie like Janjigian or Greg Ellery (in his one appearance), some are kind creepy in their sedateness like Haldiman, the only truly relaxed and casual cast member seems to be Minnott without a real care in her life about being embarrassed by Wiseau telling her to demand her daughter get her “hot buns in here”. Is it truly fair for me to judge a cast forced in this position?

I guess not because in the end everything is controlled by Wiseau and I guess I may as well confront my attitude towards The Room here and now. It’s not only how utterly collapsed The Room is narratively or aesthetically (the movie went through three different cinematographers and they all supply the same flat lighting that wouldn’t run for a made-for-TV movie on chilly designed production of rooftops, flower shops – “Hi doggy!” – and apartments), but how it is the only lens we get to the mind and life of Wiseau, alongside a Hulu series he made called The Neighbors which I have no intention of watching. I am not the first or even the last person who will claim that The Room is one of the most auteur-driven pictures of all time and I can’t see how this is deniable to anybody based on Wiseau not only had his hands on every major lever of the production, but how he is the most involved person on-screen. I kind of hold that is irrefutable proof that while the auteurist theory is a sensible map onto reading the works of a film artist, it’s not the end-all be-all way to validate a filmmaker’s output as irrevocably good, as people tend to do these days with the works of “vulgar auteurism” such as Michael Bay or Zack Snyder, refuting flaws and tossing the words “masterpiece”. It makes movies worth talking about, not worth praise. For The Room is very much a movie worth talking about, but not remotely worthy of praise.

And to dig deep into that psyche of why The Room would be worth those things, for one thing it’s lonely. The amount of adoration Johnny is surrounded by and how he’s so very much a source of support and help to every single person in his life (see how he valiantly dispatches of Chris-R or how he lets Denny down gently when Denny expresses lust for Lisa), it’s unrealistic to the point of fantasy. It’s like a twisted version of the memories from the Rick and Morty episode with mind-worms acting as imaginary friends, there’s only happiness, no conflict except from those devious ones, which leads to my second declaration about The Room. It’s very misogynistic in a shallow way, a representation of the sort of nightmare “nice guy” MRAs picture when a woman is given oh so very much everything and yet still selfishly goes behind her significant other’s back because it’s fun. And look how much it ruins Johnny*, look how he l– wait, no he’s always looked like that sort of ghost with a oily mop on his head, but look at how much Lisa tears him apart and how callous she is to his pain and support. Together, it only paints a sad portrait of Tommy Wiseau only desperately wanting to be loved, even through all the footballs being flung and the inhuman visual and verbal language. The inability to represent human interaction in any realistic way only further shows how distanced Wiseau is from having that sort of interaction nourish his life.

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That’s the sort of desperation that sets a work like Miami Connection apart from The Room, despite both essentially being ego-trips. One is simply out of positivity and excitement, the other is negative and desperate. One is full of color and liveliness, the other is set in a catalog-ready apartment for the majority of its runtime.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Wiseau’s not that sad as a person. Maybe he’s actually had a rich and filling life (and I am avoiding Sestero’s recollections in The Disaster Artist in this dissection, I’m only pulling from The Room itself) surrounded by loved ones. But that’s kind of the thing about film, it’s an art like any other and so it functions really as an extension of the artist. It’s a two-way communication between the author (whoever that is) and the audience and this is the sort of Tommy Wiseau that the man has opted to introduce to us (my reading is hardly deep, I think. It’s not even particularly profound on my part). And that makes The Room only all the more interesting to me as a feature film, in a way validating the ability of film to unlock many of the secret thoughts or desires of a being even when everything else may go wrong.

And The Room is, in the end, the epitome of everything going wrong.

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*I wanna note something… that was the SECOND time I accidentally typed “Tommy” instead of “Johnny” and had to go back and fix it. Take from that what you will.

Thanks for reading. Oh what’s this? A Patreon page? If you enjoyed my writing and would like to support it, share this post and tell your friends bout Movie Motorbreath on facebook. If that ain’t enough and you really want to give us financial support, go on that Patreon link and get you a bad stick figure of your favorite movie!