We Are Two People in One Body. Nanas of the Old and the Force of the New.

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Being the first feature film directed by an African-American woman that was theatrically distributed in the United States – a release as regrettably recent as 1991 – should be the kind of milestone that ensures a director’s subsequent commercial success and a mainstay in cinema history and yet here we are and I didn’t even know the name of UCLA graduate Julie Dash until literally a year ago, despite a familiarity with the L.A. Rebellion cinema movement for several years and having actually seen and vividly remembered one of her movies from a high school viewing – the underrated television movie The Rosa Parks Story with Angela Bassett. And while there are plenty of great filmmakers I’m unfamiliar with and personal anecdotes is no real method to measure the popularity of an artist, the fact that Dash has been almost entirely relegated to television work since Daughters of the Dust‘s premiered at Sundance 17 years ago and won a very much deserved Best Cinematography award at that same festival for Arthur Jafa is frustrating.

Maybe Dash likes working in TV, maybe she can’t find the actual funding for the cinematic projects she wants to do. It’s a goddamn shame either way that she doesn’t return very much to the big screen or that her works are generally hard to find, because Daughters of the Dust is one of the most arresting cinematic experiences in all my life of movie-watching. Every syllable of its language – in terms of mood, in dialogue, in terms of structure – there’s very little I’ve seen like it. The movie’s closest sibling to me is Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé in how they both seem to exude these intoxicating atmospheres from lush settings to a manner where it makes the film feel so organic and yet they’re both still worlds AND cultures apart.

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The culture at the center of Daughters of the Dust is the Lowcountry-based Gullah community, isolated descendants of African slaves developing their own creole language and dialect while mixing in Western dress and housing with the traditions and religion of their West African backgrounds, deep in the forests of lonely islands. I don’t know how much of the mainland formal dress of the characters in Daughters of the Dust is specific only to our subjects, the Peazant family off the coast of Georgia in Ibo Landing, but it is undeniably part of what gives the film such a heightened fantastical atmosphere that we have such a small functioning community cut off from the rest of the world in its rusticity and how fluidly it could mix in with the Caribbean spiritualism that is highly in practice from the primary matriarch of the film Nana (Cora Lee Day).

You see why the dresses and suits and the technological modern elements brought by photographer Mr. Snead (Tommy Hicks) would possibly be seeping into the lifestyle of the Peazants and the rest of the Gullah people in this film is because of how most of them intend to leave Ibo and move into mainland America and adopt modern lifestyles, leaving behind the Gullah way. There are those, such as the traditional Nana or the young smitten Iona (Bahni Turpin), who object to the concept of leaving behind the site or ways. And in many a manner, alongside the florid elegant costumes – given wonderful aged tactility by Arline Burks Gant – and Mr. Snead’s enthusiastic explanation of the science behind his work, there are signs that Western culture has already intruded into Ibo Landing’s Gullah community, such as the return of the Christian Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) and the liberal Yellow Mary (Barbara-O), both of them having already made a life outside of Ibo Landing within the cities and both of them clearly at odds with each other. Mary herself brings along her outsider lover Trula (Trula Hoosier), disrupting the isolationism status of the island. And there is also the recent rape of Eula (Alva Rogers) by a white man, which evidently resulted in a pregnancy that distresses her marriage to Eli (Adisa Anderson). There’s already been intrusions in this community that urges their leaving behind their cultural identity for a world that doesn’t care about them or to remember them, responded to by an all-too-impeccable cast. There’s already a fear that their history with slavery has injected homogeneity and disenfranchisement, even when they’re far away from the white man’s clutches.

In fact, Dash and editors Amy Carey & Joseph Burton do something really radical with the structure of all this sprawling internal family drama, which is to first establish these tales told in patches with no specific point of view from which we observe this family’s final gathering before the migration up north splits them apart except Eula’s future daughter (Kay-Lynn Warren), playing a much more direct reflection of these events than something like Linda Manz in Days of Heaven and at some points having her present in these settings impossibly. The effect is simple yet powerful: we’re essentially resurrecting a memory, maybe an oral history being passed down by the daughter to generations. It feels present, it feels absolutely vivid thanks to Jafa’s beautiful awareness of how to dry the tones in the slowly dying community yet ramp up the inky blues and reds and oranges of the coastline as in to look forward to what’s beyond the horizon rather than the cracked graveyards and humble abodes of the characters (there is also some brilliant character-based color design in some of the rooms, painterly and revealing).

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It’s a story being told in a manner that is aware of the future for its characters to the point that it’s already sort of living in that future. And it doubles up on that temporal bending with Dash inputting the actual history of the Gullah people’s development and escape from slavery, especially the historical mass suicide of 1803 and what kind of sacrifices were made for the land that the Peazants are decidedly leaving behind. This contextualization, despite the history of Ibo Landing, isn’t entirely melancholic. It’s resigned but it’s also relaxed, essentially a movie you don’t really watch for the plot but sink into this world knowing that it’s going to leave soon and wanting to savor every last image and moment you can remain inside of it. Dash clearly has an overwhelming amount of love for the Gullah culture, it being a part of her father’s background and thus informing her existence and it shows in the detail with which she evokes so many different histories into this free-wheeling experiment attempting to translate the oral storytelling language of Gullah into cinema.

It’s not a perfect film, wearing both the modest budget and dating of the production in the 90s on its sleeve involuntarily. Jafa in particular, for all his experimenting with the imagery gives it so much character (and it’s never not a gorgeous movie), also has some false notes with slow-motion and deliberately fuzzy distortion. But these are minor quibbles compared to the way that Daughters of the Dust challenges the viewer with storytelling that Dash’s future career ensures we’re probably never going to witness again and rewards that viewer with the dreamiest island environments and humanly messy conflicts one could be privy to before bidding the Peazants farewell from their home and us from the film’s living and breathing remembrances.

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Send Me a Sign

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Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (and oooh baby do I love that title) has an unfortunate sin within it that I wish it didn’t have. Something certain people would argue is present in last year’s big Best Picture frontrunner* La La Land, but in a more direct and frankly unpleasant manner. Before I can get into what that is, I gotta lay out what it’s about.

The premise of writer/director Martin McDonagh’s screenplay begins eight months after the investigation (ten months after the crime itself) of the rape and murder of teenage Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) and setting the film that far ahead of the crime establishes it within the film as a long cold case that McDonagh is not concerned with solving. This is not a mystery. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is instead about the aftermath of a town’s lack of closure from it and the woman at the center of it all is Angela’s misanthropic hard-headed mother Mildred (Frances McDormand), who in her frustration tries to light a fire under Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) by renting three billboards close to her home with a message on each one: “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, and “How come, Chief Willoughby?”.

Obviously, that’s going to inflame a lot of outrage in such a small town as Ebbing (where most of the action takes place in only three locations). It stresses the hell out of Mildred’s depressed son and Angela’s sister Robbie (Lucas Hedges) to continue to be reminded of her awful death, it infuriates Mildred’s ex-husband and Angela’s father Charlie (John Hawkes) with his history of violence and stone animosity to his ex-wife, and it especially puts Mildred on the wrong side of the largely corrupt police force. It certainly upsets Chief Willoughby despite his understanding of Mildred’s pain and wish to solve the case and in the context of a personal development that feels too much like a spoiler to let on, but it’s the alcoholic and unruly Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) who takes it the hardest and tries to abuse his power unrestrainedly to make the life of anybody even slightly involved with Mildred a living hell. This is not particularly new to Dixon, considering how quickly Mildred throws his history of racially charged police brutality at him and that’s where it becomes a little less kosher for me.

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Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri does not want to be about racism. In a town full of bigots in every corner (McDonagh’s dialogue is chock full of some very unfortunate phrasing about race, sexuality, physical deficiencies, mental deficiencies, and so on), it just so happens to have to deal with a local police station in a town where it reflects all of the flaws and problems with the people inhabiting it themselves. And unfortunately there is no possible way to make a film revolving around police officers in such a toxic environment that doesn’t identify brutality and racism without being painfully naive. That those things play as window dressing to the subsequent interiority of characters who partake in them is untimely given this day and age of BlackLivesMatter (especially since the only three black characters in the film have little to no characterization, which is just awful) and that’s enough to hold it against Three Billboards, but I don’t see that as the sum of its parts.

Me, I just happen to think it’s a really well-sketched story of three people who have to deal with grief and failure in their own ways and all three of those people are portrayed in tragic and bitter shades by McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell (preferred in that order), spitting out McDonagh’s venom like a second language. McDormand especially makes the profanities that come out of her feel effortless with a clear amount of hurt and self-preservation behind them to inform us enough of the character within her first few scenes. Harrelson and Rockwell approach their own characters from an opposing spectrum of sensitivity and vulnerability that softens the edges of their characters in a way that helps the subsequent third act feel natural and less objectionable (Harrelson’s Willoughby is absolute soft edges and diplomacy, Rockwell’s Dixon an unfortunate shit of a person).

McDonagh’s script is obviously not perfect. In fact, I would call it the weakest element of the whole film. It’s thematically clumsy on those elements and there’s missteps on its structure – such as the decision to include a flashback that doesn’t really tell us anything about Angela we wouldn’t already learn later and imbue some eye-rollingly contrived dark irony – but it’s much closer to McDonagh’s brilliant feature debut In Bruges to his merely fine sophomore effort Seven Psychopaths, full of a mechanical domino effect in incidents and character motivations that ends up slowly billowing to a fire before it just exhausts itself with energy (in a very good way) in the final act and mostly keeping this up with a muted but present sense of bitter black humor for palatability and unexpected sympathy for characters that one might argue doesn’t deserve it.

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And that still leaves enough praise for how McDonagh as a director works so well to keep the small scale of the town established (with the help of an ensemble that honestly has little to work with but make the best of it – Samara Weaving, Jon Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, and Caleb Landry Jones all feeling lived-in) by containing most of the primary action to three major spots, one of which must have been a miracle of location scouting in having the police station and the publicity office where Mildred rents the billboards, setting the stage for one very wild and violent long-shot sequence as well as a little experiment in paced cutting by Jon Gregory as we witness Mildred take out her fiery wrath in the middle of the night unknowing of her shocking victim. Ben Davis’ photography and Carter Burwell’s score provide a sarcastic rural Americana feel to the proceedings (including the bluest nights one can dream of with a brilliant wide shot of Mildred rushing in between two blazing fires in the middle of an otherwise vacant field) all of which give the full package to diving deep into these characters’ sense of their lives being broken by a rape-murder and their inability to find closure from it all.

In the end, it’s all the McDormand/Rockwell show and McDonagh seems to want to arrange all the best elements of his film to compliment their presence. And in Rockwell’s case especially, this depends on how your mileage may vary because it’s impossible to pretend Three Billboards does not put itself right in the crosshairs of those who would rightfully call it out as giving interiority to racists and homophobes and general bullies and we live in an age where some people might not want to see that. But there’s something pretty comforting about its willingness to see the clumsy sloppiness in anger and hate and how people just don’t know how to square with their problems. Some use it to attack and blame, some use it to abuse and beat down and Three Billboards doesn’t pretend to have an answer to that, just a very sad lens to the people who think they found it.

*While it’s probably not THE frontrunner this year – I don’t think there is a “THE frontrunner” yet – Three Billboards is certainly A frontrunner.

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This Very Minute

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I haven’t seen his debut As Tears Go By, but everything about Wong Kar-Wai’s sophomore feature film Days of Being Wild feels like the beginning of the famous Hong Kong filmmaker’s style being coalesced* and this doesn’t make it feel amateur in the slightest. In fact, it’s really impressive how this quickly Wong was able to develop his cinematic personality based on a sedate patience, lilting airy romanticism so ephemeral that it mirrors the characters’ inability to consummate their love, and an ability to visually distinguish colors while making them feel as muted as the characters that are surrounded by them (another reason that Days of Being Wild feeling like the beginning of true Wong is that it was his first work with one of his most famous collaborators, cinematographer Christopher Doyle). What’s especially impressive on Wong’s part is his confidence in establishing for the majority of the brisk hour and a half film, that he’s able to provide a violent third act development that is shocking enough to really make the whole thing feel like such a deliberate break from his modus operandi. Obviously, I have almost all of his filmography behind me to contextualize the scene in question, but I feel even if I had only seen Days of Being Wild as my first Wong Kar-wai, that moment might have pulled the rug out from under me. Wong has a talent for that.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself by talking of the ending first. There’s a story preceding it – kind of two, but it’s hard not to claim it’s not just one story with different perspectives. The one that’s truly “guiding” the film is the aimless flirtings of bad boy casanova Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) or ‘York’ as his English name as he roams through Macau in 1960 preying on the heart of the young worker at the local stadium Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung) and the relationship – which is presented with Su’s voiceover to establish as the point of view for the first 20 minutes – is cut through so quickly that it already feels so long past and like a scattered memory by the time we get to Yuddy’s new girlfriend, a taxi dancer who goes by many names like Leung Fung-ying, Lulu (which she gives Yuddy), or Mimi [which she gives to Yuddy’s best friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung**)]. Yuddy clearly doesn’t have any care for the devastation she clearly left Su in when she confronts him one night for her things or to the disposability he makes Lulu feel and this apathy doesn’t feel like a performance but instead something that stems from his lack of knowledge of who or where his true mother is and thus his inability to come up with any real identity or life for himself. This also fuels his own antagonistic nature in his crime dealings with his closest mother figure, prostitute Rebecca (Rebecca Pan).

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Leslie Cheung, whose suicide in 2003 left the feeling that his life was no less conflicted than Yuddy’s, embodies the self-destructive nature using only body language while having a stonewalled expression on his boyish face for every grievance his victims give him and it ends up being layered and telling in spite of Yuddy’s in-text intentions. And Wong graciously gives Leslie room to have that uncertainty redefine Yuddy as a character, including moments where he looks himself in the mirror and dances to Wong’s usual preference for Spanish tunes. Obviously, even the several names of Carina’s character reflects Yuddy’s struggle for identity.

Meanwhile, there is Su Lizhen’s side of her story after the break-up and the pacing is more generous to her returns to Yuddy’s place and the police man Tide (Andy Lau**) who tries to console with ambiguity over his intentions with her romantically than it was with in the rushed opening sequence of her time spent as Yuddy’s girlfriend. And Maggie is wonderfully empathetic drenched in rain in such a sorrowful manner surrounded by the beautiful black and blue of the streets of Hong Kong, a very modern touch to a semi-period piece. That modernness is one of my favorite things about Days of Being Wild, the ability of Wong and Doyle to use its sense of place and time to give it a very now feeling – most particularly evident in the moments between Su and Tide where the repetition of their encounters and the circular walk they take as Andy plays a frustrated stoic audience to Su’s fears of solitude is the closest thing such a fluid film has to being a structure. Su’s clearly such an open character that Wong would later return to her throughout his career the way Richard Linklater takes Jesse and Celine around life, which makes her sudden departure from the film forgivable if still disappointing.

Then when the film moves over – through clear narrative logic on both Yuddy and Tide’s part – to the Philippines for its final act, it teases a serenity in the characters’ eventual encounter (especially in the colors being less severe there) only for it to be viscerally explosive and the opposite of fulfilling for everyone involved. And that’s a very bold thing for Wong to do early in his career, interrupting the otherwise patient manner of his storytelling to pull in fist fights and gunshots that are exciting but only solidify Yuddy’s complete lack of control for his life. But it’s also something I’m thankful for, as the deliberate nature of it very clearly established Wong as a figure who could easily flip back and forth between eroticism, melancholy, and tragedy without broad tonal shifts. That sort of versatile elegance can only be praised when it comes to a contemporary filmmaker.

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*And this is not just because of the fact that it’s the first part in an informal trilogy – though not that informal since Maggie Cheung plays the same character in all three – by Wong including In the Mood for Love in 2000 and 2046 in 2004.
**Despite having the same birth surnames, Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, and Jacky Cheung are not related at all. Guess it’s just the Chinese version of Smith. Likewise for Carina and Andy Lau.

Turn Off the Dark

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There’s a brand spanking new cut of the infamous third and final incarnation of Spider-Man with Tobey Maguire in the suit and Sam Raimi behind the camera entirely authored by Raimi’s regular editor Bob Murawski that’s been making rounds in a new Blu-Ray collection release and I’m kind of upset that I haven’t found time to buy and watch it before writing this review (maybe I might add an addendum to this once I find free time for it). By all accounts, it is a significantly better and tighter version of a film that clearly had a lot of behind the scenes drama that strangled and tattered the final result to the point of the strong hate the film receives ten years later.

I can’t say I don’t see where the hate for Spider-Man 3 comes from. It’s a broken movie, full of flaws and imperfections and absolutely demolishing the portrayal of one of the most canonical and beloved villains in the entire Marvel catalogue. But I’d also be lying if I said that I end up disliking the film, let alone despising it the way the rest of moviegoers seem to. Anyway, let me divert those angry “you’re stupid for liking this movie” comments just for a second to target on the problems I’m sure anybody would acknowledge about it.

The first and most glaring one is Tobey Maguire was miscast for this movie. I’m sorry, he’s still my favorite screen Peter Parker/Spider-Man (now that I’ve seen Homecoming) and you can’t help the fact that he’s been cast two movies ago (and supplied great performances in them), but this is not his material. I mentioned before that he’s an extremely limited actor and one of those limitations is his inability to sell any kind of darkness in a manner that isn’t comical and overwrought even for Raimi’s stylings. And Spider-Man 3 is unfortunately a film that feels like it desperately wants to be dark, incorporating the Symbiote and Venom storyline – where Spidey finds a new suit in the amorphous alien liquid that attaches to his body but affects his attitude so negatively as to turn him antagonistic to everyone around him, before he forces it off of him and the symbiote finds a new host in obnoxious and pathetic rival photographer Eddie Brock (the spectacularly miscast Topher Grace), transforming him into the dark version of Spider-Man known as Venom – demands that kind of darkness. But, Maguire is holding it back in the most severest manner, for reasons not his fault (his face is way too boyish for him to play off the kind of despicable cool Raimi and co-writers Ivan Raimi [who almost certainly added more of the campy elements] and Alvin Sargent want) and reasons entirely his fault (he cannot sell the violence of certain moments).

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Now, that’s Maguire. The other big problem that hinders Spider-Man 3 is no secret: Sam Raimi did not want to make this movie. At least, he didn’t want to make the Venom movie and it gets in the way of his intended storyline where The Sandman Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) fights for his family and Harry Osborn (James Franco beginning his wack descent into actor I despise), now aware of both his late father and Parker’s secret identities, takes up the Green Goblin mantle to avenge the latter figure in his life. As a Spider-Man fan, I can’t say I disagree with this attitude – Venom does not interest me as a villain, totally the type of work as character and design that the dated Todd MacFarlane could come up with in a transparent manner.

As a result, the parts that Raimi truly feel inspired with – such as the beautiful effects work witnessing The Sandman slowly building himself up again after having been changed into his superself in an experiment gone wrong – have that epic pulp quality that Raimi supplied to every single second of Spider-Man 1 and every possible second of 2. But the parts where he’s clearly disinterested in… well, it shows. In some places, it turns terrible such as every moment Grace is on-screen (and I feel like the casting was one place where Raimi was flipping Sony of) and in others… when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Raimi took the most dismissable facets of Spider-Man’s dark development and turned them into one-part comedy, one-part musical cinema and I would be lying if I said I was not entertained by the infamous dance scenes showcasing how the symbiote has developed Parker into an insufferable prick. He’s never as outright dislikable as Andrew Garfield’s Spidey until the very moment the characters realize something is wrong with him, but he never becomes unwatchable either.

At least, not to me, though I am aware this is a point of hatred for many viewers of Spider-Man 3. Maybe if I didn’t love Raimi’s sense of humor or jazz or musical numbers, this act of clear defiance would make me just as well demand Spider-Man 3‘s execution by firing squad, but I instead admire the idea of keeping the bold color and lighting of Spidey, applying it in a new context, and taking ownership of a movie despite how much the studios wanted to shove in. Some people don’t like lemonade, I guess. I love it.

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Still, there are many areas of neglect. The acting is so much more anonymous here whether Kirsten Dunst as Spidey’s girlfriend Mary Jane Watson or Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy in another love triangle plotline within this overstuffed film, but where a superhero movie counts, Spider-Man 3 holds its own more than we give it credit for. Its spectacle – with an echoing subway battle, an narrow sky chase, and a very coherent three-pronged climax – doesn’t slouch, its themes are clear and delivered (responsibility, moving on, and restraint), and most of all… it feels like a proper close to a story.

Obviously, that ended up the case when Raimi unsurprisingly walked from Spider-Man 4 and Maguire right after him, but there’s a sense of finality in all of the chickens coming home to roost, the consequences of actions all over the trilogy making Spider-Man decide on how he was going to develop for the rest of his and Mary Jane’s lives together. And Raimi sells that more than anything, looking back on how Parker, Mary Jane, and Harry’s relationship have been shifted over three different movies, tying the Sandman to Spider’s origin (albeit in a very unforgivable manner that is my biggest problem with the movie), and the final scene’s decision to sit within Peter and MJ silently deciding to face any other problems together (easily the best acting both actors get to do in the whole movie).

Spider-Man 3 is a troubled film, no less so than Suicide Squad or Fantastic Four, but that didn’t turn into on-screen misery for me. It’s still in love with its characters and wants to carry all of them to the finish line, even Venom gets more dignity than he deserves (as much as you can with Grace). It’s a step down from two all-timer superhero classics but the result is interesting and the tying knot of the last few scenes shot in solemn sunrises and spotlight blacks makes me feel it works as a curtain call to some of my favorite comic book character incarnations on the screen. Raimi’s heart is battered and bruised but still beating. I can’t help being more forgiving to that sort of thing.

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Spider vs. Octopus

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Let’s go back, boys and girls, to a time before 2008 when The Dark Knight nuked the whole cinematic world into a frenzy and remember the last time a comic book movie was close (but not that close) to being as widely acclaimed as the Nolan Batman films. Just four years prior, right on the first rise of the superhero waves, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 came out and had honest-to-God film critics proclaiming it as the second coming of popcorn movie Jesus, most notably when Roger Ebert (who had given the first Spider-Man an unenthusiastic “ok”*) titled it to be the Best Superhero Movie since Superman.

When I saw Spider-Man 2 a little later than the rest of the civilized world in July 2004, I was in Algeria and isolated from all of that noisy celebration. And my response to it was… I didn’t like it. This has changed significantly over the years to which I hold it close if slightly below its predecessor in my esteem, but when I remember the reasons I wasn’t fond of it, I’m not sure I’m entirely ready to dismiss 12-year-old me’s thoughts. The biggest one, as he’d ineloquently put it, is that it “doesn’t have much action”.

As I am now, I’d deviate a bit and say that Spider-Man 2 just doesn’t have that much energy. It still feels like Raimi is happy to return to the web-slinging superhero and help him grow like he’s Richard Linklater and the films are his personal Before trilogy. Spider-Man 2’s script (now by Alvin Sargent) is a lot more grounded in the human drama, expanding beyond the points in which its characters had been left off – namely Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) totally alone of his own volition and his regret for taking up this responsibility so overwhelming that he’s apparently losing his web-slinging and wall-crawling powers alongside his will, struggling actress Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) tired of waiting for Peter’s call and making decisions on her own terms, and boiling “friend” Harry Osborn (James Franco) who obsesses over revenge against Spider-Man for killing his father Norman (Willem Dafoe) just as their strained relationship was beginning to heal, unaware that Norman was Spider-Man’s foe, the Green Goblin. And while that grounding means the excitement is gone, the drama has more stakes and this allows the cast in on giving fuller performances than they already gave in the original.

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This lack of pizzaz is also reflected in the new cinematographer Bill Pope and his attempt to reel back from the original’s comic book color into providing New York City as a working town backdrop to Peter and Mary Jane trying to figure out where they stand in their relationship.

Spidey’s new foe this time around is also anguishing over the death of a loved one, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), seeing red for his wife’s sudden death during an accident gone wrong that left him under influence of his four metal A.I. tentacles** that earn him the nomiker Doctor Octopus. Octavius begins rampaging his way through Manhattan in movie monster sequences (including his awakening after the accident) of big sound and effortlessly breakable sets. Molina doesn’t have half the dizzying frenzy Dafoe had in his round (and that seems a casualty of giving him that tragic background, which prevents Molina from playing Ock as a total mad scientist monster like he clearly wants to), but he compliments the movie’s balance between soap opera drama and gigantic creature feature nicely, working so well with his co-star tentacle effects (puppets provided by Edge FX) to feel physically one with them.

He’s also the best thing about the movie’s sudden adoption to anamorphic aspect ratio, filling out the screen real nicely with the width and length of his evil robotic claws. Raimi and Pope aren’t 100% sure what to do with that screen space when Doc Ock isn’t eating it up, but every once in a while we get some really inspired moments like the unstoppable train being rescued by Spidey’s might with his exhaustion visually portrayed by his stance (though the idea of all these people knowing Spider-Man’s face REALLY put me off as a kid and I still think the Christ imagery is pushing it more than any scene of New Yorkers throwing trash at the Goblin). Or of course the comic book image of Parker walking away from an alley with his Spider-Man costume in the foreground and in the trash.

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The concept of Raimi and Pope’s visuals being able to compliment both the action and themes of the film is an aesthetic bilingualism that polishes Spider-Man 2 as possibly the most mature work in Raimi’s whole output, which again turns back to all of the dialed down Raimi-esque silliness (it’s there in teaspoons: Hal Sparks and Joel McHale both have comic cameos – Sparks’ is more farcical in the slightly extended and slightly inferior Spider-Man 2.5 cut, as well as the addition of J.K. Simmons hopping around his office in Spidey’s discarded outfit, and my single favorite bit of acting in Maguire’s turn as the character giving a passenger on the doomed train who’s criticizing his efforts a great big “are you fucking kidding me?” look). But the tonal groundings give more breathing space for Dunst, Franco, and Rosemary Harris as Aunt May to get to tease out their characters’ internal conflicts and have their little subplots as visible as the superheroics. Maguire himself meets up with most of the emotional arcs and stakes of the film, but seems to put up more of an effort than he should have to in this film, which only makes me turn once again to preferring Spider-Man.

At the end of it all, though, Raimi’s still having a ball of a time. The horror movie awakening of Doctor Octopus, the grandiose battle between Ock and Spidey on the Clock Tower followed by the train battle and rescue, these are all inarguably more interesting setpieces than any of the fights in the first movie, full of velocity and impact and opening many opportunities for the CGI Spidey to strike comic book poses like the final shot of the original film. The melodrama feels genuine and sincere, somehow having a few layers too many but propped up by a cast willing to justify all of them. And the saga of Spider-Man himself growing from outsider to big time hero continues to evolve thanks to Raimi’s sense of pace and utter love for the material he gets to hash out.

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*Indeed, this “meh” attitude to Spider-Man was literally my first encounter with a review by Ebert and given I was a child who loved that movie, it got us started on the wrong foot.
**Shout out to D.M., whose criticism of the film comes down to “1. How the fuck are people more impressed by this failing sun project than the invention of functioning, personality-full Artificial Intelligence? and 2. Why the fuck are they automatically evil robots who want to rob banks?” If anybody would ever come close to murdering my enjoyment of this movie, it’d definitely be you.

Does Whatever a Spider Can

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I think I already went over in the X-Men review about Spider-Man’s placement in movie history blew the doors wide open for comic book movies to saturate the market, so let me open instead with my personal anecdote to break open some nostalgia.

The night of 11 May 2002, I recall clearly. My mom had brought my 9-year-old self and my siblings to the only-2-year-old shopping mall next to my elementary school and when our paths crossed the box office of the then spanking-new AMC multiplex and I saw a very very late 11 pm showtime for the already week-old release of Sam Raimi’s superhero adaptation Spider-Man, based on one of my favorite superheroes of all time*. It had already been a hard week because despite my excitement for the film, I haven’t been able to watch it yet. All the showtimes were sold out, but all my peers in school were able to watch it.

On the spot, I convince my annoyed mom to take that late showtime opportunity and I finally watch the movie I was hardcore anticipating.

Shortly after I left the theater, Spider-Man was the first experience I’ve had where I consciously had a favorite movie of all time. And while, some of the 15-year-age has knocked the dust off of it from being my idea of a perfect movie, it’s one of the few favorites of my childhood where I don’t look back and think “what the hell was I on?” On maybe a better day, I could imagine it having made the lower end of my favorite movies post.

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So, if you’re expecting me to have a problem with Tobey Maguire’s portrayal as Spider-Man like the rest of the world inexplicably does, no, I’m sorry. He may not be much of an actor in his doughey pushover look and his soft-spoken two-steps-away from crying demeanor, but it’s perfect for a role like Peter Parker, a tired kid on a learning curve in the real world who has too much piling on top of him and can only hold on to his morality. Maguire doesn’t even have to try to act – this is Keanu-Reeves-in-JohnWick kind of casting for a limited actor***. When he smiles, you still feel there’s something wrong in the back of his mind (or Spider Sense), when he tries to win something that’s not a supervillain battle, you get the vibe he’s going to lose because he looks like he knows he’ll lose. It’s miraculously undepressing (Maguire sells both his casual underplayed scientific brilliance and his ability to inspire Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson no matter how low they both find themselves), but clear this kid is overwhelmed by the stuff life is throwing at him.

It would be such growing pains that writer David Koepp throws as the Queens-based hero, who finds himself quickly graduated from high school within the first hour (as would have to be, Maguire was 26 at the time of filming) and living with his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco), son of scientist Norman (Willem Dafoe). Peter is still helping his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) deal with the murder of his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), the man who inspired Peter to don his costume as Spider-Man with the immortal words “With great power comes great responsibility” after being bitten by a radioactive spider in Columbia University’s lab causing him to sling organic webbing, climb up walls, and become physically enhanced in strength, speed, and all of the above except still looking like Tobey Maguire. Meanwhile, Norman himself has his own secret performance enhancers causing him to go so crazy he dresses up as a Power Rangers villain and enacts a bloodthirsty vendetta against his corporate competitors under the name of Green Goblin.

A lot of tangled web strands for the story and it’s kind of impressive that Koepp and director Raimi are able to streamline this into one great big arc of Parker’s growth as a responsible young adult while finding time to insert super battles in the skies of Manhattan, all of them with that in-your-face comic punch that Raimi supplied in spades with his Evil Dead trilogy. He, cinematographer Don Burgess, and composer Danny Elfman supply weightless enthusiasm to all of Spidey’s web-slinging (most notably in the final shot – some of the effects aged poorly, but that scene alone still dazzles and entertains me even up to the Matrix in-joke) and jazz up the energy to match with Dafoe’s expected mania at being able to embody such a cackling monster, even under the gaudy design of his robotic suit. Raimi’s the kind of filmmaker that clearly makes them for the love of being silly and young again and having the context of a comic book property to let his fan-status translate to pulp popcorn cinema is the best thing. He even gets a chance to play up his horror roots with Dafoe’s self-confrontations in the mirror, two jump scares, and a climax in dark and damp ruins (of an abandoned mental institute, Peter David’s novelization informed me because of course I was so excited I bought the book) where the action gets really violent and colors get dusty and dark against the earlier tones of episodic thwarting in bold colors and mirrors.

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Now, the other big complaint I hear is that the movie is too corny or sappy because of Raimi’s eager beaver tones. Just recently, I heard somebody claim that Spider-Man had “too much heart”. Now, what a surprise from somebody like me who swears by Spielberg, but I think “too much heart” is precisely the best kind of problem to have for any work of art. If Spider-Man wants to include post-9/11 portrayals of unity and solidarity of New York helping out Spidey, why should I complain about the positive energy of these moments? Or the human honesty in having the first lines Harris and Robertson deliver give the coziest possible ways to say “Don’t fall on your ass” and “I’m already on my ass”?

Raimi’s Spider-Man may be sloppy in a sense from a lot of tangeants – I barely got through J.K. Simmons ripping Spider-Man’s newspaper boss J. Jonah Jameson right out of the comic panels or the love triangle between Peter, Mary Jane, and Harry – but it’s sincere in all of that sloppiness and that’s always the easiest way to make me fall in love with your movie. Raimi’s just as bold about his human melodrama as he is about his superhero splashes and he has a very incredible cast to help him out, including two actors I normally despise (Robertson and Franco; I had this attitude about Dunst but she’s been impressing me more and more) turning in understated and casual enough performances that when they actually have to work their big moments like Uncle Ben’s death** (including one of my favorite silence cues in all of film music) and Harry’s feeling of betrayal towards Peter and Mary Jane’s closeness, finding out I’ve actually been fond of these people and hate seeing them go is like having the rug pulled out from under me.

That’s to say nothing of Dunst as Mary Jane, pretty enough to understand exactly why Peter’s affections are fixated on her, weathered enough to understand she has her own life and problems beyond Peter’s perspective (and Koepp’s script is VERY generous to her on this front), and charged enough as a presence to sell that iconic upside-down kiss that immediately became a part of film canon like nobody’s business. Her and Maguire make terrific foils and watching their relationship grow (and especially to the script’s credit, not meeting our expectations) is a warm and comforting thing you wouldn’t expect from the same movie where Willem Dafoe has a great big green plastic suit wobbling his head wildly saying “Hello, my dear”.

The main point is Spider-Man is one of the best examples in my mind of letting people make movies because they really want to make this particular movie. There’s not a single frame of this where it feels Raimi isn’t over the moon with what he gets to do with all that Sony money and in an industry right now where comic book films almost uniformly feel more like obligations rather than any real sense of personality, Spider-Man‘s exhuberance at presenting the character kicking and swinging over the city never ceases to endear me.

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*In fact, around 2002, Ultimate Spider-Man began its run – those first few stories still hold up – and rejuvenated my love for Spidey.
**And flat out fuck people who make fun of Maguire’s crying. I’m sorry, is it supposed to be photogenic? These folks ain’t worth talking to.
***And we will definitely discuss Maguire’s limitations when it comes to Spider-Man 3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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25 for 25 – Asa Nisi Masa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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25 for 25 – 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.

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 – 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 the natural corners of walls 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 that performance or 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 was 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 (ok, 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 (Eugène Silvain) who condemned her to death, a prosecutor (André 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 Beaugé 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’ intensity carries 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, solemnly tragic 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 through the simplicity of 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 that titular passion 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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