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25 for 25 – The Colour and the Shape

This thing is only 8 minutes long and I only realized after writing this that I’m gonna be overhyping the short film if you watch it after reading, so PLEASE watch it before going on:

I don’t have a source on which to plot my intention on reviewing avant-garde films. Especially not avant-garde animated short films. Nothing gives you a quicker shake than an object by which you know you are meant to read or respond to something without any real guide on how to deal with it. I know some viewers find that sort of work frustrating, like the hundreds of people trying to convince me Inland Empire is not the best thing in the world. And then I know there are a significant amount of people like myself who truly find such challenges exciting and exhilarating, the way such an unfathomable element of form and content forces your mind to craft answers and draw from the imagery an emotion at the least, a message at most. I don’t think any response is truly wrong, in the end, when it comes to the subjectivity of film-watching.

To be absolutely honest, I find myself a lot more comfortable to indulge with that in animation (and I do wonder if its easier to indulge in avant-garde work with animation than in live-action with the amount of control the artist has) and so when it comes to my idea of the relaxing kind of avant-garde work that can stimulate you without being aggressive in its challenges, Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambert’s Begone Dull Care is my immediate go-to. Hell, it’s one of my go-to for animation, given that Canada seems to put out the best kind. They’re the only industry that doesn’t seem to have a truly defined language due to the amount of experimentation they indulge in. French animation is sort of recognizable, American animation absolutely (that’s what happens when CGI rules the industry, although Canada broke through on that animation aspect before America did with Hunger), Japanese is possible the most recognizable national animation of all, but Canada goes from The Bead Game to The Cat Came Back to McLaren’s most popular work Neighbours (which is much less inscrutable than Begone Dull Care) and Canada has never seemed to abandon any true technique, still indulging in sand animation, CGI, stop-motion, pinscreen, and paint-on-glass liberally. This was all thanks to the National Film Board of Canada opening up an animation studio in the 1940s with McLaren and founder John Grierson’s involvement and their desperation to find talented animators who didn’t leave for the War in Europe, amongst them Lambart who would collaborate with McLaren in her early career before moving on to works focusing on ballet and inventing her own style of animation utilizing paper cutouts in lithographic form (my god, the creativity of these artists makes my eyeballs pop out).

McLaren’s specialty was drawing his works on the actual film stock to supply a sort of visual music, something to reflect the tone and mood of the music which would match the rhythm of the music playing. He had started it ’round 1940 with Boogie Doodle and then had some fun incorporating a character within the film stock responding to the scratches with Hen Hop (1942) before making Begone Dull Care at his most carefree (I mean, there is the title expressing it). The drawing-on-film animation style interests me most because of how it brings more awareness to the physical element of film, even when I’m just watching it on a crappy YouTube video and not some 16mm film projection, but the deliberateness behind every line and spot and the color changes makes a case that imperfections can be used as tools for emotional manipulation just as much as any other element of movies. ‘Course nobody these days is going to be buying film stock, especially just to mess around and vandalize the quality of the film, but there it is of a time.

Meanwhile, the ability of McLaren and Lambart to have such awareness of the music they’re working with – supplied by the Oscar Peterson Trio, thus appealing to the jazz lover in me – that they can match their visual representation to the music by understanding the frame rate and controlling it around that just… that astounds somebody like me who would get exhausted trying to calculate how to work that. Because keep in mind and remember that in this film’s case, the visuals work as the music’s accompaniment, not the other way around. It’s not like Begone Dull Care just sticks on one image for a measure before on to the next, it moves! It pops! It feels so alive.

And I know I started this by saying how I find avant-garde movies intellectually stimulating, but that doesn’t mean I can’t just have fun with some occasionally. Begone Dull Care is surrounded wholly by color and sound in a marriage that I don’t have to turn on my brain to really appreciate it. If I shut off the music (and I’d rather not because the Oscar Peterson trio is bouncy and vibrant), I still get a candied melange of shapes and hues that feel just as loud as the soundtrack. If I just listen to the Oscar Peterson trio musical score, I can sure as hell tap my feet and groove with it. But smack them both together and it’s a brilliant sensation that holds me down for just a few minutes so that afterwards I can’t listen to even a pop jingle without thinking about how I’d apply a visual schema to it (it’s probably unfortunate that almost every song I listen to, I start imagining a music video for it).

I don’t know how people can be so antagonistic to abstract art when it can be as exciting and moving as this.

Anyway, I hope you watched it on the link above before reading this because otherwise… overhype’s a bitch.

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25 for 25 – I Got a Girlfriend, That’s Better Than That

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There is something really positive about going to a live concert for a band you’ve never heard of or listened to and finding the energy within the crowd so exciting that you become fond of said band for at least those few hours spent right in front of them. It’s a discovery I was kind of blessed to experience when your college roommate was related to the owner of one of the local big music venues and while I didn’t exactly get introduced to any big names I didn’t already know, I found out how very easy it is to be a fan of any band when they’re right in your face jamming with the crowd and controlling your mood with the songs they’re playing. The last time this happened was when I was given by a friend tickets to Florence+The Machine last summer so it still happens but not as frequently or low-key as it once was.

I don’t get that vibe very much with concert films, even for ones where I already love the artist involved. The 2003 Led Zeppelin DVD release and The Last Waltz are all cherished in my collection, but they both feel significantly more like documents towards their subjects that happen to have pretty worthwhile performances in them. Maybe it’s that the visual element requires that I sit down and watch it rather than sway. And while the theater in which I watched The Big 4 livestream performance in Sofia, Bulgaria had a full-on moshpit during Slayer and Metallica’s set, I think that has less to do with the movie itself and more to do with the fact that Slayer and Metallica were playing and we metalheads are a very moveable and clumsy bunch.

Jonathan Demme is the only filmmaker I know who could give me that kind of energy from his concert films, which make up a fair enough amount of his filmography for a man who largely worked with feature films. But then Demme was a chameleon from the very get-go and such was that his skillset could be applied to so many different demands such as horror films, romantic comedies, domestic dramas, concert films and he could even dare mix them all together faultlessly.

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In this case, the demand was to make Talking Heads look and sound good. And the result is my favorite concert film of all time, Stop Making Sense, the only one that makes me want to get up and dance with the music until I remember this is my room I’m watching it in and I look pathetic. I do occasionally re-enact the lamp dance David Byrne lifts from Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding and applies to his performance of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”. Which happens to be one of my favorite songs of all time because of this particular performance, which also tuned me in real strong on Talking Heads. It wasn’t my first introduction to the band (that actually happened to be an earlier entry in 25 for 25 – Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon hence why I titled my review after a lyric) and I had already heard both Talking Heads ’77 and Remain in Light in full as a casual fan of the band, but something about actually seeing frontman David Byrne, bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz, and co-guitarist Jerry Harrison (with the help of assorted member of Funkadelic) at work turned me hella on to their sound.

The visual flourishes to the three nights’ worth of footage at the Patanges Theater in Hollywood don’t come from the film technique themselves. Or at least, they don’t call attention to themselves as it is brilliantly edited by Lisa Day with a consciousness to their pacing and an ability to catch the elements of the screens behind the band to catch the scope of their performance and then get close enough to capture the mood and psyche of the band members while the legendary cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth of Blade Runner fame captures the concert lighting scheme in cinematic expressionism (though from what I understand, the lighting was Byrne’s idea). In addition, there are almost no shots of the audience so I don’t really have a sea of anchors to associate my excitement with.

The performance itself however is outrageous in a manner that immediately communicated to me how idiosyncratic and out-of-the-box the stylizations of Talking Heads funky 80s art-pop. It also frankly communicated how obvious it was that Talking Heads and indeed this film is more an extension of Byrne himself, for while the Tom Tom Club. There’s a real narrative that one could craft out of this movie that doesn’t really supply much except an order of performances, starting with how Byrne walks out with a drum track playing on a little radio and performs their most popular song “Psycho Killer” on an acoustic guitar before starting to stumble and straggle around before finding his footing as only Weymouth comes in to join him for “Heaven”, a lonely yet hopeful sounding song about a gay bar, followed by Frantz starting to pep him and everybody else up with his snare runs in “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” and before no time it’s a goddamn party. I find it absolutely no coincidence that shortly after everybody, including the backup dancers and additional guest musicians are on stage, they get to playing “Burning Down the House”, a song so loud and exciting I’m willing to believe it literally burns fucking houses down. In no time, Byrne is using the stage as his own playground roaming around with shocks and slides with just enough time for reserved motions like Take Me to the River’s gospel zone or his pantomime with “Once in a Lifetime”.

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It’s just a given Byrne knows his music. He knows how to move along with it. And he lets us know how to too. When he takes a break for the Tom Tom Club (basically the band sans Byrne) to perform “Genius of Love”, it’s actually a pretty mellow and cool song in its own right, but it’s not as comfortable or fun without Byrne shaking like he got struck by lighting before he watched the movie. And when Byrne returns to the stage wearing a suit that would make Andre the Giant look small in it, it’s back to jam time one final moment.

But a great performance is one thing and a great movie is another and it shouldn’t be as much of a surprise that Demme would be able to craft all this into a wholly cinematic experience when many of his movies are so genius with their usages of music (Something Wild is probably the best example of this). It only makes sense that he know how to work with musical artists and concert films (Neil Young and him collaborated three times overall with Heart of Gold being another standout concert film) and that capture the heartbeat and energy of anybody he’s working with (which is also probably why he’s great and bringing out performances from musical artists in narrative films like Ricki and the Flash and Rachel Getting Married). I regret that I haven’t had the chance to see Justin Timberlake The Tennessee Kids (I’m waiting to buy a RokuPlayer because I can’t imagine watching a concert film on my laptop, sorry Netflix), but it seems all too fitting that his last work was in fact a movie inspired by his work with Stop Making Sense trying to take another creative musician and bathe him into an exciting onstage ball of energy. Demme had a very generous way of bringing out the best in actors and performers alike. And the full range of his career only promised that to be the tip of the iceberg in his talents.

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In Memory of Jonathan Demme
1944-2017


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25 for 25 – Life of a Repo Man’s Always Intense

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Summer 2013 was quite a formative time for me. It was the first summer I ever spent completely alone, or at least where it felt like I was alone (I certainly had a few people I could and did hang out with whenever the chance popped up). It was certainly the quietest summer I ever had. Prior to that, I’d spend every summer break from college returning back to meet up with my friends in Miami and from there things would be extremely eventful. That summer, though, matters required that I limited that visit to only one week and I remained for the time at the desert of Tempe, AZ working for the most part without anything else to do between except read and watch movies. That doesn’t really stop me from exploring the city or anything, but when there isn’t much happening there’s a lot more silence around you and that honestly endeared me to the city a lot more. It felt relaxing, I didn’t have much to worry or stress about, it didn’t feel all that lonely. It just felt life stopped and I was rudderless, which was good in its freedom and bad in the utter lack of momentum in my life.

It also endeared me to a lot of 1980s movie gaps I decided to fill myself full of, many of which bad enough to invite a friend and eat some pizza with, some unironically fun. Only one that I think has proven to be something with a lasting impression with an image that I sincerely saw a lot of myself in early on. That of punk rocker Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez) sitting on the floor of a dirty downtown Los Angeles railroad in the coming dusk doing absolutely nothing except throwing beer cans he just emptied shouting “TV Party” by Black Flag (which happens to be from one of my all-time favorite albums Damaged) to himself. An image that completely communicated everything about my feeling of having nothing but time and nowhere to go.

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Of course by this point into Alex Cox’s feature debut Repo Man, Otto has more of a reason to feel stuck in a rut than I did. He walked in on his ex-girlfriend Debbi (Jennifer Balgobin) cheating on him with his best friend Duke (the badassly name Dick Rude), something which also resonated with me in having just completely closed down a recent relationship to the point of helping her move out of the city (though my significant other hadn’t cheated on me). He just got fired at gunpoint from his entirely pathetic supermarket job with his friend Kevin (Zander Schloss shortly before joining the Circle Jerks, who appear in this movie). His fazed-out hippie parents (Jonathan Hugger and Sharon Gregg) used up all of his college fund, sending it to a televangelist. If my life was a dead end at that point (and it evidently was not, it just felt like one), Otto’s was a complete prison.

And yet Alex Cox’s script promised from the initial scene that eventfulness was about to come to Otto in the form of a radioactive Chevy Malibu ’64 that disintegrates any man who takes a look at what’s in the trunk, under the possession of insane one-eyed Dr. J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris) driving it straight to L.A. But the first man to reach Otto is a weird old man (Harry Dean Stanton) insisting his wife’s pregnancy is rushing him to the hospital and he needs Otto to drive his car behind them. Otto takes the car to a repossession agency and realizes he was just helping Bud, the old man, repo that car without being killed. The agency is so satisfied with Otto’s work that they offer him a job and, after briefly rebuking them, he decides to take it up for the money.

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And this is the absolute reason where I love Repo Man more than I probably should, but Otto finds himself loving the job. What’s not to love? The pay is great, he steals cars and gets to drive them around, Bud and Lite (Sy Richardson) show him the tricks of the trade. Sure, he gets shot at a lot and sometimes he finds himself beat up by rival repossessors the Rodriguez brothers (Del Zamora & Eddie Velez), but in the meanwhile Kevin’s working at a fucking burger joint. Hell, sometimes the cars are so nice he can pick up girls walking down the sidewalk, as he does with the UFO conspiracy nut Leila (Olivia Barash) driving her down to her workplace where she introduces him to all of this evidence of extra-terrestrial life.

Repo Man worked as a complete escape for me from brief mundanity at a point where it was this close to putting me into a depression. It mirrored my boredom at the start – aided by my affinity to punk rock since high school, listening to the Clash and Black Flag and Misfits and all – and Cox revs it all up to drive, introducing all these different strands of punk rock robbers, repossession adventures and the Code espoused by Bud (who seems very much dedicated to crafting verbal manifestos are the principles of capitalism and credit lines in America, while appropriating angrily the methods of Marxist relovultionaries), aliens, and radioactive disintegration. There’s no artful way to mash all these things up and Cox embraces the artlessness of his script happily by using the punk rock aesthetic of unpristinity in visuals and locations and unclassical acting to sell it. “Shaggy” is an inadequate word to use about Repo Man, this movie is a total mess in its hodge-podge of genre attempts and its contradictory elements and yet it works so well I want to claim it’s calculated. That doesn’t fly when you realize the production problems Cox would have (and continue to have, leading to a similar amount of energy in his subsequent films like Walker and Straight to Hell and so on), including an emergency rewrite that leaves the third act lagging when it should be intensifying, but nevertheless the cast rides it all the way, especially Stanton when his appearances start to dwindle due to fighting with Cox during filming. Which is a shame, since Stanton is easily best in show with how tuned-in he is to Bud’s mindset. It’s amazing to me that the same year he provided his underplayed and meditative performance in the Palme d’Or winner Paris, Texas, he could give such a teeth-gritting self-righteous assault as Bud and both of them ending up my favorite performances of his very accomplished career.

If this seems like I’m not really approaching it objectively, it’s because I can’t. It’s not a perfect movie and anybody with eyes can see that. It has weaknesses, it has flaws that I’m having trouble articulating beyond “artless” and “mess” and I’m not sure I want to. Some movies come to you at the perfect time in your life, everybody has one and hits you right in the heart and starts you up and that is Repo Man to me in every way. It was my biggest point of sloppy and beloved escapism via a film to a punk rock soundtrack with lo-fi effects (an arm is wrapped in foil and passed off as a robot arm, the rotoscoping of the skeletons being incinerated from the trunk, a glowing car, man!) and I will have an easier time trying to be objective with my favorite two movies (which will, needless to say, be the last reviews in this 25 for 25 series) than I can possibly ever have with Repo Man, possibly the movie that changed my life most.

The night before my birthday in that very summer when I was turning 21, I borrowed a car and drove 3 1/2 hours all the way down to Rocky Point, Mexico and spent the night there by myself. The next morning, I drove back up to Tempe, Arizona to continue my quiet slice of life. I didn’t tell anybody (except my friend who lent me the car and two people who wanted to hang immediately after), I didn’t bring anybody with me, I didn’t even plan it, I just went because I needed the break. I can not imagine the Salim Garami before seeing Repo Man doing that, but the Salim Garami after seeing Repo Man just went with it. Make life intense one more time.

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25 for 25 – Still a Better President than Trump

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I’m a socially awkward movie lover and that means that sometimes I lift my regular delivery of certain lines from movies. My favorite one to constantly use because a lot of people think I hate them is Casablanca‘s “If I gave you any thought, I probably would”. There’s a few others that my sleep-deprived brain isn’t bothering to think up right now but I know I wait with bated breath for the moment where I can liberally quote Mifune Toshiro in Yojimbo being a great big badass. Instead, I have to opt for being the sarcastic wit of Groucho Marx (born Julius Henry Marx) in Duck Soup, tossing off lines appropriate insults like “I bet s/he’s just using that as an excuse” if a person’s significant other doesn’t show up or “He may look like an idiot, he may sound like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He IS an idiot” if somebody’s an idiot. I may very well have plagiarized the image I gave to my friends who find me a charming bundle of sardonic humor from Groucho Marx’s antics, especially Duck Soup.

And yet, Groucho’s snappy statements are only the tip of the iceberg. He’s definitely the most readily recognizable of the family comedy troupe The Marx Brothers without even opening his mouth. All one has to do is recognize his greasepaint eyebrows and mustache with a cigar in his mouth. And yet, there’s also the dim Italian caricature of Chico Marx (born Leonard) and the boyish mute clown of Harpo Marx (born Adolph). And then there’s Zeppo (born Herbert Manfred), who I find somewhat underrated as a potential straight man (though whether or not that potential was reached… eh.) There’s also Gummo (born Milton)’s existence but that’s far before the Marx’s move from stage vaudeville to the silver screen. And for a time, they actually have been on top of the cinematic comedy world working with Paramount Studios in Astoria, where they were slowly gaining more and more creative control over their pictures until it came crashing down with Duck Soup finishing their Paramount contract and they were  in their own personal hell of ingenue romance subplots and diluted comedy in MGM Studios.

Which is a shame because I don’t think Duck Soup is the height of the brothers’ career, I think it is pound-for-pound the funniest movie I’ve ever seen. And here’s where I must humbly ask the reader’s allowance for what will almost certainly be the most subjective review in this whole subjective review series. Your mileage may vary on what you might find funny and all that jazz, but I’m not gonna let up on my review of Duck Soup, it makes me laugh. It makes me laugh so hard I have to catch my fucking breath. It made me laugh so hard I have reserve laughs for when I need them if I’m depressed. I’m sure there’s some kind of stone-faced people that might not find it even close to amusing but it’s a complete grab bag of gags and humor in all sorts of forms: verbal, physical, musical number (and oh I love the lyrics to the opening sudden musical number where he happily proclaims firing squad for chewing gum or losing a gentleman’s game), slapstick. It’s almost like Groucho, Chico, and Harpo felt themselves at their biggest hurrah and so pulled out any stop they could.

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Duck Soup is just a little over an hour. That doesn’t leave much time for anything but getting to the point and when you come to think about it there’s not that many plot points to the picture. For indeed, there is obviously a plot about Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho), the newly appointed “president” of Freedonia (despite not being appointed through any democratic means) being assigned to help the country out of bankruptcy, except he gets too distracted by trying to court the rich widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) who had him appointed in the first place. This gets him almost immediately in trouble with Trentino (Louis Calhern), the ambassador to the next-door country Sylvania. Trentino appoints Chico and Pinky (Harpo) to work as spies towards Firefly’s antics so that Sylvania can annex Freedonia and… y’know actually there is a plot. And not even one that really skips points very much, it’s all given some amount of narrative momentum by director Leo McCarey, an underrated master of 1930s filmmaking (his very Make Way for Tomorrow inspired Ozu Yasujiro’s Tokyo Story). Though I don’t think Duck Soup is a fair showcase of McCarey’s talent and ability. It’s entirely the Marx Brothers show. And I don’t think anybody’s watching Duck Soup for its plot, so very extraneous to the point that it’s pretty hard to call a movie based in politics to be a political satire in this realm of the upcoming World War II.

There is one great thing the plot provides other than a narrative anchor. In all of its irreverence and the ability of McCarey to allow it flow so naturally and coherently while stopping for lengthy brilliant cinematic vaudeville like the famous mirror scene (if you don’t laugh at this, you are dead) or Chico and Harpo bullying a lemonade stand salesman just because they can, there’s a very tight big bang of anarchy that runs its energy all the way through Duck Soup‘s 60 minutes up until the complete mess of its wartime finale where the Marxes spend the majority of the scene in one room shouting and making a fuss and acting like living Looney Tunes loud enough that you’d think they were simply at war with each other. It’s a shame MGM sobered them up because the Marxes were best when unleashed without oversight.

To end on an anecdotal note, when my friends and I attended Cannes 3 years ago, we had the damn movie playing every night before we went to sleep. You’d think that to be a sign of how much we loved it, but all four of us always fell asleep before the film had completed (given that we stayed up late). You’d think THAT to be a sign that we weren’t fans, except by the end of our two weeks at Cannes, we were are quoting Chico’s Italian accent liberally and saying “thassa goo, eh?” at any given moment. It’s like the film’s energy seeped into us via osmosis. Or we’re just entirely insensitive to the Italians. They ruined Italy after all.

Oh and one more thing: Tim Brayton on Alternate Ending opened his review of Monty Python and the Holy Grail with lamenting how that movie’s humor has been so ingrained into pop culture that the jokes aren’t as sharp anymore. Yeah, I bet that sucks.

Never had that problem with Duck Soup, but I bet that sucks.

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A Couple of Quick Words on Wonder Woman (and a Few Other Movies)

Obviously, I saw Wonder Woman. It was among my most anticipated movies of the year and I saw it earlier this week. And I’m gonna have to apologize to those of y’all who need me to validate your opinion and saying that my review will postponed until at most June 26 (it will literally be the next thing I write once I’m done with 25 for 25). 25 for 25 is taking all of my free writing time, time made extremely precious by the amount of school and work doubling down on me during the end of my semester. So, yeah, the Wonder Woman review will have to wait, but I might just make me apology by not only reviewing Wonder Woman, but the other two non-reviewed DC Extended Universe films – Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is significantly less movies to write about than the MCU when I was doing that retrospective in 2015, so that means less of a headache by all means.

I ain’t gonna apologize for being late on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Tell No Tales, because who the fuck is waiting on that?

In the meantime, I will take this time to acknowledge some of the movies I have seen over the past first half of 2017 with a bunch of brief no-more-than-3-sentences reviews (and might write full-length reviews for some of them if time permits over the summer) since my letterboxd has now just become the place where I make dumb jokes:

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Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins, USA)

Captain America: The First Avenger: “Who are you?”
Wonder Woman: “I’m you, but better in almost every way.”

(ok, I’m not above making dumb jokes here either, you guys should already know)

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (dir. Joachim Ronning & Espen Sandberg, USA)

Curse of the Black Pearl: “Who are you?”
Dead Men Tell No Tales: “I’m you, but worse in every single way.”
Curse of the Black Pearl: “Eh, you’re better than the rest of my sequels. You look as much like me as Brenton Thwaites looks like Orlando Bloom’s kid.”

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John Wick: Chapter 2 (dir. Chad Stahelski, USA)

Much much shallower than its predecessor and yet I’m not entirely sure it’s not better? It absolutely looks great and it ramps up the amount of action to an unfathomable amount.

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A Cure for Wellness (dir. Gore Verbinski, USA/Germany)

This movie is too fucking long. That’s that. And the places it decides to go within its last twenty minutes are unacceptable to me, even if it already had set up its trashiness from square one. But… I think it does haunted asylum super well and in such a non-bloody but still uncomfortable to watch way. Verbinski is a natural born horror filmmaker and all he has to do… is learn… to cut. Picturesque landscape shots of the Swiss Alps and creepy cold setpieces can only go so far.

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Your Name. (dir. Shinkai Makoto, Japan)

Remember when I mentioned how The Lego Batman Movie did some astonishing things with capturing lighting via animation? Well, Your Name. stepped right to the plate and told that movie “You’re Adorable!!!”

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I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (dir. Macon Blair, USA)

It was expected that Blair was going to pick up a lot of stylistic elements from his friend and director, Jeremy Saulnier, but Blair feels a lot warmer towards his characters than Saulnier could try to be. And who could blame him, Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood are great together. Pretty aimless, but I’m not sure that wasn’t the point.

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Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, Germany/UK/USA/France/Canada/Australia)

The worst of the franchise because holy crap that editing is bad. It’s one thing when Neveldine/Taylor do it, it’s entirely another when Paul W.S. Anderson does it after Retribution already had was a brilliant effort in video game adrenaline. Still, it’s also the most dignified way to end a series that’s always been a guilty pleasure for me with Milla Jovovich being her most physically impressive as an action hero AND giving her most interesting performance as Alice. The world only revolves around her in these movies and I love it that way.

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The Great Wall (dir. Zhang Yimou, China/USA)

Honestly, I’m kind of mad this isn’t made a part of Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse. It’s not all that great, but it’s better than Kong: Skull Island. Yimou’s costume epics are not always hits (House of Flying Daggers is still my least favorite movie of his), but they’re always interesting and The Great Wall has a color-coded metallic Power Rangers feel that made it fun to look at even when it started to drag in the middle.

Not a movie, but…

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Twin Peaks (crea. David Lynch/Mark Frost, USA)

The Return’s pretty damn great so far. Lynch gets pretty male-gazey though and one of the best characters from The Secret History of Twin Peaks is turned into bland eye candy because of this. MacLachlan is amazing in a frustrating way. Wally Brando is the best character in the history of television.

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The Bye Bye Man (dir. Stacy Title, USA)

This was the second movie I saw for #52FilmsbyWomen (which you can follow on letterboxd) and it’s so bad it almost made me hate them.

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25 for 25 – Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

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Carl Theodor Dreyer is, in my opinion, one of the greatest filmmakers of silent age, an era in cinema history that has absolutely no want for great filmmakers. In an era where many of his fellow European artists were indulging in the arch stylings of Expressionism (which Dreyer himself took a dip into with the 1932 Franco-German horror film Vampyr), Dreyer maintained a much larger interest in grounded realism and focusing on more rigid ways to bring out emotion in the audience. And that is not to say Dreyer’s storytelling isn’t arch, but it has to come in other forms beyond shadow and angular sets. Such as, in the case of The Passion of Joan of Arc, a steadfast focus on close-ups and corners and a powerful central performance, one that Pauline Kael herself called possibly “the finest performance ever recorded on film”. She’s hardly the only one to have that sentiment about Maria Falconetti as the Maid of Orleans herself and I would have to stand alongside that hyperbole. Falconetti’s performance is exactly the kind that earns the hyperbole.

Mind you, we almost wouldn’t be able to see this movie. The negative was destroyed long away in a fire and with it the only copy of the original version, before canisters of Dreyer’s original cut were discovered in a Norwegian sanitarium (OF ALL PLACES!) and maintained in the Norwegian Film Institute. This wouldn’t be the first time the original copy of a Dreyer film were lost given the unfortunate state of the German and French negatives for Vampyr and all of its copies. Film has to be preserved y’all! We’re losing great movies here!

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But let us not weep over what we lost (weep a bit), but instead celebrate over what we still have with us: The Passion of Joan of Arc stands highly as a picture where every frame invokes drama and the very title implicates the kind of passion play waiting for us within the silent film. Except instead of Christ being the subject of judgment and execution, it is Joan of Arc (Falconetti) after her many victories for the French against the English in the Hundred Years; War. Captured and brought to Normandy, Dreyer subjects her to eyes of the audience within his fixed lens and the leering aggressive eyes of her judgers: the infamous Bishop Pierre Cauchon (Eugene Silvain) who condemned her to death, a prosecutor (Andre Berley), the Dean of the Normandy province they preside in (Antonin Artaud), and several other inquisitors and judges that outnumber and surround Jean in such an overwhelming manner that the close-ups feel like an absolutely mercy. When Dreyer and his co-editor Marguerite Beauge indulge in rapidly moving from several angry or self-satisfied faces during the first part of the film’s trial, it’s disorienting enough that Falconetti’s face barely feels like an anchor from all the accusations flying at her (David Bordwell noted the negative space around the close-ups – an element of Dreyer neglecting the allegedly magnificent sets constructed for the movie – adding to that dislocation, by not allowing us to know the actual spacing or distance between the characters).

I feel like I’ve waved enough into the direction of the close-ups without truly recognizing what makes them work so well, which has to be the intimacy towards Falconetti’s entranced performance to me. Dreyer denied make-up for the actors, which leads to more defined facials and contoured shapes from the hard lighting (much much softer on Falconetti herself for obvious reasons) and while it’s not as expressive as a more controlled aesthetic, but it is definitely a lot more human and the actors are intense to carry the viewer. Most intense of all is Falconetti’s wide-eyed daze, all provided in different shades of strong emotions like sorrowful melancholy for her mother, fatigued persecution when the questioning becomes so much more overwhelming, solemn resignment when her jailors dress her up in a mock crown and make fun of her “Daughter of God” claim (and for a filmmaker as religious as Dreyer, God – despite being a source of contention in Joan’s trial – has no presence in this film), inner conflict (eyes dashing around) as she grapples with choosing between her physical safety or her spiritual convictions, subtle reservation at her confidence against her tormentors as she is immolated. It’s an unfortunate fact that Dreyer had been cruel to Falconetti for the performance, but the morality of that aside, Falconetti demands our alignment with her simply with her face and she earns it in so well that Dreyer could have made a boring visual film (and yet he didn’t – The Passion of Joan of Arc doesn’t get enough credit for how inventively it uses zoom progressions, how it inverts shots, and frames things off-center) and it still would have been full of drama. It’s completely alien to me how people can claim The Passion of Joan of Arc‘s little amount of incident makes it boring, but there they are. It’s so ready to burst with  before halfway its brisk 82 minutes that it barely gets mentioned how the film ends on its most incendiary note, not only with the execution of Joan by fire but a riot breaks out (the biggest dramatic liberty made with a film that’s not all that historically accurate) by the inhabitants of Normandy, moved by Joan like we have been.

The only last word to give is to recognize how Dreyer and Falconetti together provided the strongest accomplishment in film craft and performance in my eyes. I can’t imagine how it could be bettered or improved. The challenge is out there, as far as I’m concerned.

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P.S. if you have a chance, I would very much recommend watching the film with the Voices of Light soundtrack on the Criterion Collection DVD (why is this not on Blu-Ray?!) composed by Richard Einhorn.


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25 for 25 – Psycho Killer, Qu’est-Ce Que C’est

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I wrote a 6000-word essay on this blog on the history of the slasher subgenre in horror films. I don’t think I need to qualify my love for that genre to any regular viewers, but yeah, I adore that trashy subgenre as a wonderful guilty pleasure. And if you read that essay (Godspeed to you), you may recall I optioned to end it on the note of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon‘s release as a small gem in the ruins of the slasher genre’s popularity.

It’s more than just a singular event in the slasher genre… I mean, not that singular, given how Scream precedes it notably as a slasher parody and the careers of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett also attempt some amount of slasher commentary, but I universally am not a fan of either of those… so I guess singular in being a much beloved slasher parody gem that I actually love and admire and find a lot of intelligence in. But it’s also the only feature film credit to director Scott Glosserman (his only other two directors credits is a documentary on Wikipedia and an MTV tv film) and writer David J. Stieve, who have spent most of the time between Behind the Mask‘s 2006 release and now in trying to will the existence of a sequel to the picture. And this is absolutely unfortunate because goddammit, it’s not just that I think Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is a great standout in 2000s horror, it’s also got a pretty loud enough cult following.

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The premise essentially functions as a 21st century version of the French serial killer mockumentary Man Bites Dog (though they’re distinctive in that BTM takes place in a movie world while MBD wants to live in the real world and thus comment more on documentaries and real-world serial killer fascinations than the horror genre itself), especially in being presented with that infamous 21st Century style of pseudo-documentary for the first 2/3: Journalism Graduates Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), Doug (Ben Pace), and Todd (Britain Spellings) invited to the New England town of Glen Echo by a man named Leslie Vernon, who intends to embody a legendary slasher for the town akin to the in-film existence of Jason Voorhees for Crystal Lake, Freddy Krueger for Springwood, and Michael Myers for Haddonfield. When they meet Vernon (Baesel), it’s surprising to find he’s a young, energetic nerd who tries to make himself as personable and approachable as possible while elaborating on both his status within the town as a living ghost and all of the good ol’ prep stuff he’s getting into for the great big ol’ slash-a-thon with his selected Final Girl Kelly (Kate Lang Johnson).

Vernon is obviously Stieve and Glosserman as one person trying to show off everything they notice and love about all those big franchises, even to the point of Vernon getting to have his own little fan moment showing off his friendship to another legend Eugene (Scott Wilson; it’s a popular fan rumor that the character is Billy from Black Christmas but nothing in the movie implies that). Meanwhile, Vernon is proud to show off all the research and work he’s been doing and involve the team in his antics.

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And that’s more or less where Behind the Mask can actually flex its superiority in my opinion above Scream: the very premise of Behind the Mask demands that the movie call attention to so many physical leaps and inconsistencies like the ability of a stalker to catch up to running prey without breaking a sweat or the contrivances of a killer’s backstory and connection to his Final Girl. I’m imposing my own attitudes towards parodies in general, but you can’t just put a couple namedrops and an attitude of smug contempt for your genre (something BTM absolutely lacks and I love it all the more for it) and pass off your film as critic-proof satire. You need to have something to say about the genre, dammit, you need to dig real deep into it.

And Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon goes deeper than it even needs to. What at first begins as an invitation to join Glosserman and Stieve in their own little fake “behind-the-scenes” dissection of heightened slasher films, suddenly becomes an indictment of the genre writing new motivations for their characters and the arbitrariness of them (leading to one of my favorite jokes in the movie when confronted about Leslie’s newly concocted fiction: “A lot of what we use is CGI.”). Then there’s the really psychoanalytical stuff it jumps headfirst into in a manner that even Taylor herself feels uncomfortable with, the gender attitudes inherent in a slasher plot and Leslie insistence that Taylor needs to respect his orthodox conventions if he will allow her to continue asking him about this.

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And then there’s STILL the unsubtle callout about the amorality of the slasher genre (given a much headier divide from the viewer because they’re watching a movie while Taylor and the crew are witnessing real life) and how he could be as interested into this, but this is kind of flawed in how the movie earlier answers that question preemptively with “Well, it’s fun, isn’t it?” (and again, the fact that Taylor has to be more involved than the audience shoots itself in the foot). But BTM also makes up for that, kind of, by becoming its own slasher movie in a conventional shooting manner. The first-person camera is abandoned and now we are witnessing it with an objective third-person eye (and something fun about this is how Leslie’s explanation of his plan early on mirrors a lot of the subsequent moments). And there’s obviously only so much meta-commentary to dissect from such a third act shift, but I honestly enjoy it on the shallowest level more than anything: Glosserman and Stieve putting their money where their mouth is at the end of it all and indulging in a smartly-craftey, unexpected slasher movie all the way through its third act.

I mean, I did say I’m a fan of slasher movies.

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Plus, Baesel’s just a very captivating presence to be around. He’s got a casual yet off-beat energy that makes him constantly watchable and a twisted sort of subject/interviewer chemistry with Goethals that gets close to “oh boy, they’re into each other, aren’t they?”. I might go so far as claiming I prefer him to Benoit Poelvoorde in Man Bites Dog, which is a tall order as I love Poelvoorde as an actor and nothing in Baesel’s acting resume implies he’d ever do much of note again (editing, on the other hand…). And there’s such a home-crafted sense to the film that’s probably thanks to the limited resources… the New England town feels full and lived in and the area Leslie’s legend revolves around so decrepit and abandoned but still an obvious part of Glen Echo. The costume he makes for himself primitive and dusty and yet so obviously a costume that it’s all thanks to Baesel’s performance that he can actually feel like a killer underneath it (indeed one of his killings involves the literal mask being removed and it’s an understated character moment). The world within Behind the Mask feels like a slasher reality – haunting, isolated, small – guided by Vernon’s confident and eager smiles and showcases.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is the sort of fan-service I enjoy indulging in when I watch. On the surface, it’s all “isn’t this kind of great?” are horror movies with its own little allowances for visual references and callbacks and throwbacks (those who just look for visual gags will have a ball in the early first act). On the back end, just a great genre piece for night time watching. And on the inside, a pop culture inquiry on that genre for anybody who wants to unpack it all. That’s a lot to juggle and I’m not sure you CAN do so perfectly (alongside the “isn’t this kind of bad? But here’s a horror movie anyway” aspect, there’s the inconsistency in having Robert Englund act in a film where Freddy Krueger is acknowledged as a real person and really was 2006 the perfect point to comment on found-footage craze pre-Paranormal Activity), Glosserman and Stieve do it with such gusto that it’s unacceptable they don’t have more films under their belt to show for it.

At least we’ll always have this movie.

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25 for 25 – Hitch’s Seven-Year-Itch

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In the last post, I mentioned Park Chan-wook being one of my teachers on what makes an effective thriller and now I’m not gonna be special in naming a bigger one: Alfred Hitchcock. For who doesn’t know Hitchcock to be the “Master of Suspense” and what cinephile doesn’t adore Hitchcock as a technical master who got it on point over and over and then went on to test the boundaries of cinema. And what (good) filmmaker doesn’t consider Alfred Hitchcock as a grand inspiration? Cinephilia shall chase him out as a mob, so I’m gonna void that fate by stating I hold Hitchcock on that same pedestal as others because I’m a boring traditionalist and like other famous polls and cinephiles, from Sight & Sound to AFI to Martin Scorsese, consider Vertigo one of the greatest movies I’ve seen.

Now, Psycho – another canonical work in my esteem – is notorious for its central narrative twist that smashed its story (and cinema to come) into pieces, but I’d daresay that while it’s apparent why Psycho would be the most impactful moment of that rug-pulling move on Hitchcock’s part, it doesn’t feel like the first part. The first moment that comes to mind is the 1935 British production (wherein Hitchcock perfected his clockwork thriller craft before David O. Selznick brought him to America) The 39 Steps where we witness our protagonist being shot and the movie intends for us to spend an extended amount of time believing our only point of view into the movie was killed and removed, aided by a game fade to black upon his “killing” (though this shock is short-lived). The second moment, and the one I felt would have really changed the game if the movie weren’t so poorly-received on its initial release, is the halfway point of Vertigo that neatly cleaves the picture into two separate halves with their own separate plots, retired San Francisco detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) at the center of them.

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The reason for Ferguson’s retirement – as we discover in the first scene of Alec Coppel & Samuel Taylor’s script based on Pierre Boleau & Thomas Narcejac’s D’Entre les Morts – is his acrophobia, unfortunately discovered at a point where it caused him to fail in saving the life of a fellow officer during a rooftop chase. Shortly after his retirement, an old family friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), approaches Ferguson with the worry that his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) is possessed by a ghost and wants Gavin to watch over and report on her before he decides whether to approach his psychiatrically or paranormally. In short order, Scottie witnesses Madeleine’s obsession with a long-dead suicidal woman named Carlotta Valdes and her portrait in the Legion of Honor museum before getting personally involved by rescuing her from an ambiguous drowning. And because this is a 1950s post-noir thriller (despite the mention of ghosts and possibly a jump scare, this is not remotely a horror film) and especially because it is one directed by Hitchcock, Scottie slowly begins to fall in love with Madeleine, Laura-style.

Now, it’s around this point that I sadly MUST go into some kind of spoiler territory (not exactly the kind that ruins a twist ending, but the kind that acknowledges an unexpected direction the story goes) and before I do that and insist that if you don’t want to be spoiled, abandon the review and go see Vertigo now, I want to acknowledge the brilliant eye-catching use of color. Even if there were no metaphorical legend by which to associate Vertigo‘s themes with its visuals, it’s a gorgeous kaleidoscope of primaries alongside the ever-alluring presence of greens (Red and Green being the most present colors in the film) that one who just looks for movies to be dazzled could find their thirst slaked by the work here of Hitchcock, legendary costume designer Edith Head, cinematographer Robert Burks, and the production designers Henry Bumstead and Hal Perreira. But there is a code to crack here by which Scottie’s obsessions with Madeleine and Hitchcock’s famous obsession with blonde actors (I mean, let’s not pretend this may be the single most personal film of Hitch’s and the one that aligns most with his psychology) is decoded by the usages of those reds and greens in how muted they become in the presence of Scottie’s ex-fiancee Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes in a very underrated performance) who he has absolutely no sexual interest in anymore and Madeleine’s surrounded by very strong and aggressive shades of those colors. Madeleine’s clearly the bigger presence in the film and Hitchcock makes the colors arrest our eyes on her while directing Midge’s presence with a visual boredom that practically dismisses her up prematurely… and then the mess of them spilled over by the film’s famous nightmare sequence where there’s only brash plashes. But what precedes that very nightmare? Well, that’s where I bid adieu to the ones who choose to see the movie…

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… for those who remain with us, what precedes it is the very failure of Scottie to save Madeleine from her death halfway through the movie followed up shortly by his own obsession with Judy Barton, a brunette who resembles Madeleine so much that she’s also portrayed by Novak. And Scottie follows this up with a shocking psychosexual fixation on her, forcing her to blonde her hair and wear a similar attire to Madeleine and we can’t not connect such a matter to the way Hitchcock selects and directs his actresses and all with the heavy hue (including a silhouetted echo of an earlier shot that makes one of Vertigo‘s most famous). And that only enters further into a slippery slope of ugly motivations by prematurely showing Judy’s own secrets (something that I had once criticized as a bad move on the film’s part, but slowly I realized this twist was not the point of the movie… the tension and fear in what could happen once it’s discovered is the TRUE point) and Vertigo takes on a whirl similar to all the visual spirals it parades in our face like the other famous shot – the belltower staircase rack zoom where the dolly and zoom lens are both utilized to mess around with space in a toy of visual subjectivity.

Hitchcock may not be indicting himself, but he’s investigating what perverts a man’s intentions and fascinations with women and using himself as the central subject of this experiment and having the audience take a look around in his mind, using all of his favorite narrative elements (even the “wrong man” comes up for a couple of minutes as Scottie is briefly investigated for his liability in Madeleine’s murder) as a complete eruption of the inspirations behind the greatest mind to craft suspense pictures. And Hitchcock the director – not Hitchcock the psychiatric subject – toys around with the audience’s point of view with the great big crack being during Madeleine’s death that I can’t think of a better example of the craftsman turning from a maestro who shot out picture-perfect thrillers like boredom to an artist who actually imbued himself and his personality into the resultant product. Obviously, it may have been too strong for audiences to buy into it at the time, and that alone keeps me from qualifying it as entertainment (some may in fact find it overlong) but now with the amount of retrospect the film’s legacy is granted, who can help but find Vertigo fascinating to look at, even if we’re frozen in shock like Scottie at the staircase.

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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 – Sympathy for Mr. Dae-Su

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Korean cinema has been a thing since the nation’s liberation from Japan at the end of World War II and while there’s almost certainly a long and rich cultural history within that time span into the new millennium, the majority of the world remains somewhat ignorant of its existence, including yours truly. The international attention on the cinema of South Korea had begun around the late 1990s and almost as an after-thought, as much of the domestic financial success of South Korean films came about from a law passed limiting the amount of foreign films from playing in South Korean cinemas. So when the crime film Shiri out-performed Star WarsTitanic, and The Matrix in South Korean cinemas, it got noticed and it only took one year further for Park Chan-wook’s war courtroom drama J.S.A. Joint Security Area to surpass Shiri‘s success. By that point, the New Wave of South Korean Cinema had the world’s eyes upon it and its biggest names – Park, Bong Joon-ho, Kim Ki-duk, Kim Ji-woon, Lee Chang-dong – and it was around this point when Oldboy made notoriety by losing the Palme d’Or at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival allegedly because Tilda Swinton strongarmed the jury and its president Quentin Tarantino into giving the prestigious prize to Fahrenheit 9/11 to protest U.S. President George W. Bush’s potential re-election. Utter scandal aside from possibly the worst year in Cannes history, Tarantino’s raving support for Oldboy may have been the biggest window to South Korean cinema’s impending popularity in Western cinephilia upon its release in the US in 2005, nearly 2 years after its original November 2003 release in South Korea.

That was me overthinking what could have brought the first non-Arabic, non-French, and non-American film that I actually pursued as a budding cinephile (after being fed Jackie Chan and watching Godzilla as a child; also unfortunately French-dubbed Life Is Beautiful in class). When you speak three languages from childhood, your first “Foreign-Language” film is a tough call, but I’d define Oldboy as the first Foreign-Language film I consciously chose to watch. And what brought me to that very selection? Well, I just read the synopsis on a video store’s guide and found it interesting.

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Short and sweet: A man got locked up for 15 years and is released before being assigned only 5 days to find out what led to his imprisonment. That’s all I knew before jumping in – Park Chan-wook had already won the Grand Prix (in consolation to the Palme loss) but he wasn’t as internationally reknowned a name as he is now, I had no idea it was based albeit loosely on a Japanese manga series, and there was absolutely no way I would have known in advance the direction the third act goes that made Oldboy such a notorious grubby pseudo-exploitation shocker. That a movie ends on the note that Oldboy does and it actually encouraged me to find more foreign-language films says something about impressionable 13-year-old me is.

Mind you, the finale is hardly THE problematic element of the script by Park, Hwang Jo-yoon, and Im Joon-hyeong when it focuses on portraying our protagonist, the released prisoner Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik, the very star of Shiri) to be a godawful chauvinistic violent drunkard who can barely control his sexual urges (it is a bold move to have our protagonist attempt a rape early on) and has barely any trouble turning into a cold calculating being of vengence. Dae-su seems aware of this himself, as during his imprisonment he begins drafting down all his transgressions and the victims of them as both penance, self-reflection, and most importantly a map on where to start looking. That doesn’t seem necessary because almost immediately upon his release, the wealthy man (Yoo Ji-tae) responsible for Dae-su’s imprisonment, subsequent framing in his wife’s murder, and the out-of-country adoption of their daughter arranges a face-to-face and is somehow unrecognizable to Dae-su. The captor pressures Dae-su into finding out the motive behind the imprisonment or he will also arrange the murder of Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), the young girl who took Dae-su into her home when he passed out at her restaurant. But hey, Dae-su gets it right, then his captor will kill himself, so there’s an upside.

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You getting a vibe that Oldboy is kind of dismissive about its female characters? Because it kind of is. Mi-do, the weakest performance of the leads, is given no real inner life whatsoever as a person (eventually the movie goes a turn that implies this might be deliberate, but feels icky and empty nevertheless) and any women are props for the men’s suffering, even when they’re being sexually assaulted or subject to depression. It’s kind of impressive that, for all of that, Park would soon after follow up with FOUR womencentric films that are pretty great representations (albeit with their own slight problems). But in the meanwhile, Oldboy is a heavily masculine film. What else would you expect from a movie whose most famous scene is a 3-minute long burly hallway brawl?

And yet, I still have no trouble calling Oldboy my favorite work from the esteemed and accomplished Park. Everything I just described (and even the things I refuse to describe in the third act) would be repulsive at face value and feel like shock content for content’s sake if Park didn’t have a tight control on the romanticism of the movie. Which only makes the film sound more amoral (and it kind of is), but there’s an atmosphere of tragedy and regret placed in every beat – transported softly by Jo Yeong-wook giving one of my all-time favorite scores, a perfect balance between Vivaldi rearrangements, sweeping violins, and modernized tracking – and the movie is… it’s very clean. We have only a few grotty sequences of an underground prison designed to look sickly by Ryu Seong-hie and captured in damp greens by Chung Chung-hoon in his very first collaboration with Park (they’re still working together to this day), but much of the film takes place in modern exteriors and metropolitan areas that Chung and Ryu provide with still a sad and cold white and blue (sometimes khaki) sheen, all traversed by Dae-su dressed in very fine threads. The only visual signifier of Dae-su’s mental instability – other than Choi’s incredible performance where muting his emotions in a manner that makes the character sad rather than scary but still having reserves for intense moments of aggressive savagery – is his loud and unkempt hair (and even that is eventually cut back).

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Park and company are basically trying to package a piece of trash storytelling as a Kafka-esque character drama and it absolutely works. Moments of torture and violence are given an operatic gravitas by the music that almost lends black humor to the situation and inner character scenes have a dark taste that make us captivated emotionally. In spite of knowing early on what kind of man Dae-su is, Oldboy succeeds in handcuffing us to his struggles with what an awful person he is and how far he has to go to get the answers he wants. That’s a gamble no American production can truly make (part of why Spike Lee’s remake is a complete boondoggle) where we’re just as eager to align ourselves with this guy and find out what happened. And that’s what really makes not talking about the third act agonizing.

It’s exactly where the movie unpacks all of the emotional anguish we’ve had to experience and provides a new context that should frankly disgust us on first watch. It’s where the movie pokes and prods and mocks the viewer for getting so involved with Dae-su. But most importantly, and something I needed multiple viewings to catch, it’s where the movie essentially ties tawdriness and tragedy together one more time and provides a devastating final note that can’t possibly leave any of the characters or even the audience satisfied. Despite one narrative element shooting the movie in the foot this late in the game, Choi and Yoo fire on all cylinders with their performance in a final confrontation playing with power dynamics that it’s like watching a Shakespeare on the screen. Choi slowly devolving from the cool calculating monster we saw him at first to a devastated being of flop sweat, Yoo slowly changing on and off between haunted self-loathing into condescendingly confident brat and all barreling to shocking actions that make complete sense in the narrative arc.

I’m going overboard with the hyperbole without description, but Oldboy is a film that I want somebody to experience first-hand. It was a revelatory moment for me to know that stories could go these unseemly places while retaining dignity. It was a piece of pop culture that could function as an intellectual delve into the deviance of man that exploits and still indicts those impulses. That made Park one of my first teachers on the constructs of thriller filmmaking, by having a complete sense of what can actually shock the viewer and what can gain their sympathies…

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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 – Why So Serious?

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I have it on relatively reliable authority (my mother) that I’ve been obsessed with superheroes since I was a child. Like go to the toy store with my mom and ask only for superhero action figures. Be taken to the comic book store by my dad and just grab whatever comic looked the coolest. Namely Batman. Especially Batman. At the risk of being basic, Batman was my favorite superhero as a child and even when I couldn’t understand the English words, I’d love witnessing him come to life from the art of Neal Adams and Kelley Jones (my very first Batman artist) growing up and how shaded and somber he’d look. I hate to say it but darkness is so much more interesting than brightness (captivating as brightness is, which is why I liked Superman a lot too).

I think child me is happy to have his love for Batman validated by the new decade (though I would be curious how he would be if he lived in 1989, when the first wave of Bat-Hype came about). For The Dark Knight is perhaps one of the biggest cinematic events that I have ever lived through and – unlike Titanic and Avatar – one that has its influence spread all over pop culture into this new decade since. For which I’m really glad I wasn’t writing about movies at the time so I could turn around in retrospect and comment on the effect.

You see, I mentioned in my X-Men review that the door was opened for superhero movies as a trend by the one-two-three success punches of Men in BlackX-Men, and Spider-Man causing everybody to run for comic book properties, but 2008 was the year comic book movies took their most important and recognizable shapes and began being recognized as legitimate arts for cinema. Iron Man supplied the universe-obsessed irreverent lively bright comic book films while The Dark Knight became the nihilistic sober-minded revisionist drama mode. Every superhero movie, even the ones that people claim to do something different like Deadpool or Logan, have the success of one or both of these movies in their DNA (like Deadpool‘s character focused, small-scale irreverence being a child of Iron Man‘s right down to the unorthodox action hero choice, while Logan‘s helpless nihilism is The Dark Knight in a Western setting).

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I think it’s very safe to say The Dark Knight may have made the bigger splash on how superhero movies can be taken seriously and its box office appeal (being the fourth movie to break the $1 billion barrier before it became a regular thing) and its subsequent critical acclaim leading to an outcry for its lack of a Best Picture nomination that led to the Oscars expanding the slate to up to 10 movies. Consensuses call it among the best movie of the 2000s, IMDb lists it as the fourth best rated movie since its release, and it’s roundly considered the best superhero film ever made.

Let’s get my opinion on it straight: it’s not my favorite superhero movie. Hell, it’s not even my favorite Batman movie. Hell, it’s not even my favorite of the Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan, of which The Dark Knight is the second part after Batman Begins (my favorite). And I wouldn’t hesitate in thinking it’s a somewhat overrated film (I am of the reducive attitude that any pop culture with that amount of popularity has to be overrated, whether Citizen Kane or The Beatles). If I’m recognizing the flaws that truly hold me back from considering it perfect, there’s infamously plodding dialogue (“NO MORE DEAD COPS!”, “Have a nice trip. See you next fall.”, etc.), the prisoner’s dilemma incorporated into the climax, and most grievously the double-edged sword of Nolan grounding the film making it feel more derivative of crime pictures (namely Michael Mann’s work) and having Wally Pfister’s cinematography downplayed after the expressionist wonder of Batman Begins‘ construction of Gotham City. Now, it’s Chicago. The Dark Knight calls it Gotham, but it’s totally Chicago. And that removes a lot of magic.

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Now that’s what I don’t like about a movie I love, so I’m gonna talk about what I do love. Grounding Batman in the real world may not be as pretty as I’d like, but it still provides a more effective narrative hook to follow – now we have legalities and public perception to worry about for our Dark Knight Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale), GCPD Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) trying to reel in the chaotic carnage of The Joker (Heath Ledger). And these factors aren’t just mentioned once and never shown up again, Batman’s arc revolves around whether or not he can retire so that Dent – the cleaner non-vigilante image for Gotham’s hero – can take over the fight that wears him down so.

There’s Nolan and Pfister’s expert usage of action setpieces. I know that’s not a popular opinion, but hell with it, I think Nolan and editor Lee Smith are the only people who have been able to follow through on Paul Greengrass’ famously kinetic physical action editing style that portrays and compels the viewer into feeling in the action while still giving a sense of confusion and incoherence without losing ourselves. I can’t imagine anybody trying to convince me the truck chase scene in the middle of the film is a poorly-edited scene and we do realize the opening bank robbery that introduces us to the Joker is kind of the favorite sequence of most viewers for a damn reason.

Aiding that editing by giving it its rhythm is one of the first scores that introduced to the idea that Hans Zimmer could not be bad in his collaboration with James Newton Howard. While much of it is just a re-packaging of leitmotifs served better in Batman Begins, it is indeed the Joker’s theme – a savage, slightly percussive undertone wonderfully described by Zimmer as “razor blades on cellos” – always able to tighten up a listener and briefly blasting horns in a consistently interrupted way as it climbs in intensity and puts our mind to the ticking timeclock Batman has to beat in order to overcome all of the Joker’s obstacles and beat his games.

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And that means addressing, finally, the elephant in the room: the much-mythologized penultimate performance of Heath Ledger as Batman’s Clown Prince of Crime arch-nemesis – the first acting performance nominated for an Oscar posthumously, the second awarded the Oscar, the subject of much speculation that the role was dangerous enough to cause Ledger’s premature death (speculation I honestly find tasteless and disrespectful to his abilities as an actor). He’s fantastic, personifying destruction and chaos in such an unexpected manner. He knows he owns each scene he appears in and drives it as far as he can, an energetic but never light or bouncy presence in the film that brings sickening darkness from his attire (provided by Lindy Hemming) to his grungy makeup to his lip smacking. He gets the closest he can to being believable in this pseudo-real world environment without losing the theatricality of a cinematic portrayal and his lack of restraint is not overzealous but measured. Sure, the other performances are fine, but people go to see The Dark Knight at this point for Ledger and it’s only serendipitous that Nolan’s movie surrounding him is also absolutely great.

I called the movie overrated, sure. But it doesn’t mean it’s not solid, intelligent popcorn cinema full of power and thunder. It’s bleak and operatic nihilism in the most accessible fashion, even moreso than No Country for Old Men. And while some of its gravitas has to have been informed by Ledger’s unfortunate death, that gravitas is still there and makes it compelling to watch without any guilt.

I mean, it’s been nearly ten years. I’m kind of gracious I gave the 16-year-old who first walked out telling his dad “I think it’s my favorite movie” time to figure out above all the overhype if The Dark Knight is still a great movie and I think the answer is loud yes. Sure, I’m not gonna call it one of the greatest comic book movies or of the 21st century and in the end I like my comic book movies bright and bouncy. But if The Dark Knight were a bad movie, it would not have survived the test of time. No, its grandioseness as a dark superhero picture in the post-9/11 world has leaked itself into so many films trying to copy some of that summer movie mojo and honestly none of them have been able to do much more than pale in imitation.

There can only be one Dark Knight.

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