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

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 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 misnomered “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 doesn’t even square 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 to identify 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 that 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 in an unspoken way:

What it tells us is the story of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an ex-Blade Runner – police hired to kill synthetically created humans known as “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), naïve 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 assistant 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 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 two lead performances from Ford and Hauer – Ford was very famously antagonistic to Scott and the material, 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 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 intangible 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 construction and Blade Runner based on its aesthetic. What a split 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 – 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 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, one of the most perfect narrative works 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 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) 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 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. But 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 embodies a 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 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 continued presence that OF COURSE pay off 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 overtly uplifts and tugs at the heartstrings 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 sincerity and genuine emotion on the film and the most invested usage of extras I can imagine in any film. If THAT’s 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. 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 we’re pulled out of during the sophisticated Parisian flashbacks in the end of the first act) that 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 direct inspiration 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 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 times.

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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 – 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!

25 for 25 – A Bedtime Story for the Damned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And yet it’s all just in service of establishing the stakes of the sea adventure Jaws becomes in the second half where Spielberg, Fields, and cinematographer Bill Butler’s skill must truly come to the test: staying on one location – Quint’s Boat – the whole time and filling it with just as much momentum despite the limited setting and narrative beats. That also means the second half is where we spend the majority of our time with Shaw’s Quint and discover just how colorful and dangerous of a character he is, all crusty masculinity and insane Ahab-esque unpredictability. Quint is obviously the most memorable presence on-screen, but his being stuck in a boat with the practical Brody and hothead Hooper proves to be just as compelling an anti-buddy character study as anything in Amity Island (even a source of class conflicts with wealthy educated Hooper and rugged working-class Quint).

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

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

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25 for 25 – What a Story, Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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!