25 for 25 – Epilogue

“I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.” -Pauline Kael

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Whelp, I did it. 25 reviews in 25 days of 25 movies I think had a hand in the development of my lifelong cinephilia in order to celebrate my 25th birthday on the 25th day of June. I want to thank everyone whose been following this blog and the few who have supported it via Patreon for your very support in this blog’s continuation. Y’all keep this kicking and it’ll still keep on kicking (in fact my eye is between the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Transformers series, or the Pixar output for the next series but those are all painful daunting tasks, it seems).

For the sake of easy access, here is the complete list of reviews for the series. Read on and enjoy and thank you guys again! Keep the reel rolling.

  1. Night of the Living Dead
  2. Seven Samurai
  3. Close-Up
  4. Miami Connection
  5. The Dark Knight
  6. Oldboy
  7. Vertigo
  8. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
  9. The Passion of Joan of Arc
  10. Duck Soup
  11. Repo Man
  12. Stop Making Sense
  13. Begone Dull Care
  14. The Room
  15. Jaws
  16. Suspiria
  17. Rock n Roll Nightmare
  18. Akira
  19. City of God
  20. 8 1/2
  21. Brick
  22. The Red Shoes
  23. The Young Girls of Rochefort
  24. Casablanca
  25. Blade Runner
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25 for 25 – Tears in Rain

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Like I said just before, two movies battle for the spot of My All-Time Favorite Movie in my spot and I don’t want my decision to end on the film Blade Runner to imply that I actually give the edge to it as my favorite (even as it appears as number one in the actual posted list from last year, I find myself more and more aligned with Casablanca as I grow older), but mainly the fact that Blade Runner and I happen to share the exact same birthday: 25 June, so given that the special occasion of this series of reviews is in fact my 25 birthday on that day (35th birthday for Blade Runner and the year of its imminent sequel in October Blade Runner 2049), I may as well finish up on that very film that shares its nascency with me. And sure, it came out a full 10 years before I came to the world, it also didn’t truly earn its canonical status in cinema until the misnamed “Director’s Cut” (based on director Ridley Scott’s preferred notes without his direct involvement) came out on the exact year of my birth. So there’s squaring all of the anniversary and yearly stuff and blah.

The house cleaning in that above paragraph is without even squaring with the multiple cuts of Blade Runner that do exist in many forms, the most notable distinction being in which versions have the narration and what note it ends on (some have a direct statement as to the nature of the lead character’s existence, one infamously has an optimistic ending tonally separated from the rest of the movie). I just wanna be clear – ANY version of Blade Runner could be my favorite movie, I love it that much. But for purposes of identify directly what I’m talking about, my preferred version is the 2007-released Final Cut which is essentially the director’s cut (i.e. no narration, “unicorn dream”) with cosmetic changes that fix up any flaws and make it feel modernized and high quality in its visuals.

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For you see, Blade Runner is a movie extremely reliant on its visuals and atmosphere for my high praise of it*, being involved in two of the most visually demanding genres in any form of art… science fiction and neo-noir. Demands that cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth and designers Laurence G. Paull and David Snyder and concept artist Syd Mead are all willing to meet with, providing a decrepit zombie of urban Los Angeles in 2019 that can only barely stand to feel dynamic based on the poisonous neon lights threatening to evaporate the near-constant rain. It’s like if somebody caught pre-Giuliani New York City on its worst day and decided to give it glowsticks to cheer it up but that only depressed it more. That compliments the pessimistic mood of Blade Runner and meshes well with the nihilistic ideology of the noir genre without even having to deliver a single line of dialogue. Sure, these days the sort of aesthetic is seen in any given dark future picture, but Blade Runner originated most of it and feels like an assemblage of the perfect amount of pieces the same way that Halloween feels so with the slasher genre. And all that style is in benefit to the story, it’s not just what we’re looking at here but what it tells us:

What it tells us is the story of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an ex-Blade Runner – police hired to kill android replicants in 2019 – who is pulled back into the profession after the escape of four Nexus-6 brand replicants, the ones most highly capable of emotional responses to their scenarios and the most updated model: imposing Leon (Brion James) who initiated this search after his attempted murder of an active Blade Runner, sharp Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), naive Pris (Daryl Hannah), and her leader boyfriend Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Deckard’s investigation takes him to the creator of replicants himself Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) and the discovery that his Rachael (Sean Young) is in fact a highly advanced form of replicant. So advanced even she doesn’t know she’s a replicant.

Batty has his own problems: The Nexus-6 has a built-in fail safe of a four-year lifespan and so he’s on the hunt for Tyrell in order to acquire the opportunity for an extension on he and his fellow replicants’ clearly numbered days.

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The themes of this sort of premise immediately write themselves – the identity crisis of Rachael discovering most of her life to be a fabrication, the dehumanization and amorality of Deckard’s line of work, the existential crisis facing Batty as he faces his own mortality – it doesn’t take much to understand what Blade Runner will explore just from a synopsis or flesh those out (and I do believe Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’ script very loosely adapted from Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? does the bare minimum of its requirements), but that doesn’t mean there is a whole range to the mysteries and answers Blade Runner tries to provide in the span of itself, as well as its dissection of its central genres. Just looking at the very two lead performances from Ford and Hauer – Ford was very famously antagonistic to Scott and the material and yet that contempt for the movie ends up being its best friend in how it translates to cynicism and reluctancy for a character that doesn’t want to be doing this job in the first place. In a genre like noir where apathy and inevitability hang over the protagonist always like cigarette smoke, we have a genuinely apathetic presence from an actor’s genuine attitude. And Hauer himself is so excitedly controlled and deliberate in his movement that it demands our eyes look at him when he enters the room, the chill of his eyes promising a savagery that we are paid with the film’s pseudo-slasher final chase, and coldly intellectual in even his expression of sorrow and pain at his comrade’s slaughter that we can believe he’s trying to understand these emotions developing in him while finding profundity in his actions and words (not for nothing can he sell sci-fi jargon like “I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhausen Gate” and make it possibly my favorite line of dialogue of all time. In fact, the whole “Tears in Rain” holds me down) and believing him as artificial perfection. He’s like a child who learned to run instead of walk and is now trying to figure out walking. It’s incredible.

Now, very few intellectual subjects interest me more than the concept of the self and what it means for such an abstraction to give our individual lives such weight. And it’s a very scary topic, one that it’s easy to fall into several downhill spirals. Scott, in one of the few times his attempts at pop philosophy actually works out, provides one of the most welcoming explorations of that concept in Blade Runner and that all comes from how he knows the darkness of those intellectual corners can be given visual root within a city made up almost entirely of shadows without weak lights visually defining what’s on-screen in a minimalist fashion. Our mind fills out the rest of those shadows or we just leave them be, depending on how we look at things. And Blade Runner‘s ambiguity on certain plot threads allows that same level of impressionism on its narrative (though I personally feel there is a direct answer to the “Is Deckard a replicant?” debate within the Director’s and Final Cuts; one that seems to be contradicted by the existence of a Blade Runner sequel where Deckard is still a character). And that versatility to what the viewer gives or takes away only once again goes full circle to the film’s attempts to square with identity and what truly makes one human. Is it their deeds, is it their makeup? Is there actually an absolute answer?

I dunno, but I like thinking about it and for some reason, despite the pessimism of its visual world, I like doing it within the realms of Blade Runner‘s universe. Drifting away from the barely consequential plot to think about it in the middle of the heavy rain (Blade Runner is probably why I love rain) and under the lullabies of Vangelis’ pensive and mechanical synthesizer score (Blade Runner is probably why I love synthesizer music as well). Inside the broken blue-hued shells of the metropolitan nightmares that remind me of living in Far Rockaway provided by its matte paintings and its model visual effects (some of the best practical effects live inside of Blade Runner matching up to 2001: A Space Odyssey in their tangibility and surpassing it outright in imagination and fantasy). It’s all a space for me to draw out my thoughts in between the movie’s runtime. I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again and let it be the final note on this movie and this very review series: my greatest dreams live inside the world of Blade Runner.

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*And indeed, I find it very interesting that I can have Casablanca vie so heavily for my favorite movie slot based on its narrative consctruction and Blade Runner based on its aesthetical elements. What a split in me.

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25 for 25 – Everybody Comes to Rick’s

“Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.” -George Carlin

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Casablanca is to me the quintessential example of Hollywood alchemy and it comes right at the very point where the studio system was beginning to drop off from its golden years in the 1930s, explaining how the production was so hands-off from the Warner Bros. superiors to director Michael Curtiz and producer Hal B. Wallis’ involvement. And yet such a tossed-off afterthought to the movie is now one of the most firmly entrenched entries in film history. Which makes it feel somewhat like a last hurrah to a kind of movie-cranking style that you simply don’t see anymore these days, much as cinema today still seems indebted to nostalgia towards those eras – what easier way to spur that nostalgia than Dooley Wilson’s sweet voice serenading “As Time Goes By” – and try to imitate it in homage form. You can’t recreate Casablanca by any means, no matter how much you try to ape from it. It is a product exclusively of its time and of its situation, only the right combinations at the right moment could have coalesced into this perfect form of cinema, the way Casablanca gets to be formed.

So, for God’s sake, stop aping from it, Foodfight!

Anyway, I’ve been going through quite a phase in my life over the past few years where two movies altogether struggle within me for my top spot of My Favorite Movie of All Time and I think they both have to do with how powerfully well each one speaks to me, so it’s time for another extremely subjective review where I just square with what Casablanca says to me about myself.

And that means getting into the root of what is, to my mind, the most perfective narrative work of screenwriting that all started when Hal B. Wallis of Warner Bros. purchased the rights to husband-and-wife team Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s then-unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s. In the end, the real MVPs of the story – notoriously writing it and re-writing it over and over until the bitter end – are Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein (other notable writers were Howard Koch providing more political elements while the Epsteins worked on another piece of agitprop Why We Fight and Casey Robinson touching up on several meeting scenes). The cobbled together aspect of the story, throwing in further and further dramatic reveals and shading characters with more dimensions on each page, can be somewhat seen in the urgency of every development in the script but it’s still incredible how flawless the story cogs work within it and how quotable it remains on top of it.

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But I still didn’t elaborate on what those story cogs are: The Nazis have arrived and occupied Morocco and Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) has been stationed there in order to see to the immediate re-capture of concentration camp escapee and resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who would have to go to Casablanca en route to salvation in America. At the center of this is the apathetic Rick Blaine’s (Humphrey Bogart, my favorite actor in the role that makes me want to be him) Cafe Americaine, a hot spot where incidents are always happening and the latest one of which is the sudden arrest of the ill-fated criminal Ugarte (Peter Lorre) over the death of two German couriers with MacGuffin-esque can’t fail letters of transit out of Casablanca. Only problem is Lorre left those letters in Blaine’s hands and while Laszlo would very much like those letters, Blaine has complex history with the woman Laszlo is fleeing with, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman).

There’s a real balance in this film with the desires of the screenwriters and director Curtiz, as it’s clear that the screenwriters want to focus on the melodrama of the scenario – every single motivation is covered and staked and communicated clearly with no room for ambiguity except in the very perfect ending – but Curtiz wants to up the romantic element which is probably why if the scene can spare as much framing as it can on Rick and Ilsa, with poor Laszlo nearly out of the picture, it can. The movie sells the chemistry between Rick and Ilsa as dynamic and interesting (while Laszlo and Ilsa are still remarkably sweet together thanks to their performances) and that’s what makes it easy to be convinced Rick may be off to the deep end with what he does with the letters of transit. I mean, I don’t think anybody doesn’t know what happens in Casablanca at this point, in the moment, Rick’s actions and statements are so very grey and cynical that I’m not convinced he knew 100% what his decisions were going to be until the end and Bogie himself does oh so much to sell that indecisiveness (the only thing he does better than tease the possibility of being a villain in his career despite earning our trust is play drunk and hardboiled and sharp-edged and… ok he does everything great) while Bergman herself sells her need to square her romantic history and bravery in trying to spare her husband of any pain in the truth. Frankly, I don’t think Casablanca is very generous on paper to Ilsa as anything more than a gendered second MacGuffin between two men, but Bergman stands tall and proud in that thankless role that it’s not a surprise to find why she was a star afterwards.

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This doesn’t mean Casablanca doesn’t take seriously its political elements. They’re a strong presence on paper that OF COURSE they’re going to come through in the final product and the movie’s second most memorable scene is not a political Laszlo scene for no reason. “La Marseillaise” drowning out the vain singing of the Nazis absolutely uplifts and tugs at the heartstrings in the most overt manner and I don’t give a damn. Those are real immigrants fleeing from German occupation right there in the scene singing along in defiance at the moment the world needed it most. Julius Epstein claimed the movie was full of corn, but that’s dismissive of the real sincerity of the emotion on the film and the most invested usage of extras I can imagine in any film. If THATs corn, then I don’t know what’s real in movies.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be too real. Casablanca fills me with a romantic feeling, every element of it perhaps due to the artificiality of it instead of its being in spite of it. I’m not gonna be fooled by the production design of this B-movie-in-all-but-name when I’m actually from the Sahara and have been to Morocco myself, but it gives the film such an exotic atmosphere (something that aids during the central flashbacks in the end of the first act) that only heightens it as manufactured but convincing romanticism. As much romanticism as isn’t already provided by the fact that World War II is to our minds the last war to actually have clearly defined heroes and villains and thus making us yearn for more moral conflicts than the ones in our day and age, so having a movie not just made in that time period but actively pushing towards an attitude for the war that desires we get right to Europe and fight the Nazis head-on. It’s essentially the mythologizing of history right before our very eyes and I can’t imagine getting to have that sort of retrospective attitude toward this movie that fuels its battle for my Favorite Movie of All Time without being born 50 years after its existence. And yet there’s no distance in its mythologizing because of the immediacy of World War II. That very inspiration that it provides directly to the audience somehow is able to transcend time and its dated context to the very writer of this post every time I watch it. It’s a weird paradox of time of reception that is hard to explain, but it’s there.

Anyway, I’m a cynic, an exhausting cynic that curses and makes sardonic cracks and teases indifference and selfishness same as Rick on the screen. I make sarcastic quips when I don’t need to, I keep to myself deliberately and sometimes inadvertently, I get angry easy, these are all things people around me attribute to me. And it’s honestly not something I want to be, much as I doubt anybody wants to be a cynical angry person. Casablanca is certainly THE movie that helps to convince me I’m a romantic, just as much as the charmingly corrupt Capt. Renault (Claude Raines threatening to steal the whole damn movie from an already stacked cast) implies in his gamble with Rick Blaine. Blaine’s ability to make a decision by the end of the film for the fate of Laszlo and take a side for the war after the film shakes him angrily and demands it… that’s illuminating. It means there is something he’ll fight for, something to believe in within the war, and seeing myself in Rick means that maybe I want to be a romantic too which brings out my attempt to be the best version of me I can be whenever I can be aware of my actions. Which fuels a much better feeling in myself and yeah, a form of confidence. It’s not for nothing that this inadvertently became the movie I keep showing any girls I date.

It’s so that when we inevitably break up I can look them in the eyes and send them off with a “We’ll always have Paris” and “Here’s looking at you, kid”.

Holy shit, that is cynical, maybe I should watch Casablanca a few more time.

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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!

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.

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!

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!

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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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!