The Shallows

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The full disclosure first: it is no-big-secret that Bradley Cooper’s 2018 directorial debut A Star Is Born happens to be the fourth version of that very same storyline told by that name, arguably the fifth version of that storyline told overall depending on how closely you think the 1932 George Cukor film What Price Hollywood?, which predates them all, hews closely to them*. I happened to see Cooper’s film after a back-to-back-to-back-to-back refresh of all four previous films and it may very well be the case that I might have been burnt out from that story by the time I reached Cooper’s telling. I highly doubt that and don’t see myself being in the mood to rewatch it and test that theory anytime soon: it might just as well be the case that I was simply unimpressed with a fairly average piece of artist’s struggle Oscarbait. Plus, when it comes to watching it shortly after enduring the godawful 1976 Barbra Streisand vanity piece, Cooper’s film has all the juxtapositional advantages it could possibly have and ends up looking rosy.

In fact, the subject matter of Cooper, Eric Roth, and Will Fetters‘ screenplay apparently tries to make right the new direction Frank Pierson‘s film tried to take: as opposed to the first three films’ focus on movie stars, the ’76 and ’18 versions of A Star Is Born focus on musicians now and both of them seem to choose country as the genre of choice. The beats are otherwise uniform all throughout and Cooper’s character, burnt-out substance abuser Jackson Maine, has regained the surname of all the previous iterations outside of the ’76 version. Maine randomly discovers the remarkable musical talent of Ally (Lady Gaga) and coaxes her into becoming a viral phenomenon after he arranges an impromptu duet performance of a song she wrote during one of his concerts. The two become very quickly enamored with each other while Ally’s star begins rising, Jackson is being shut out as a liability and it’s causing him to relapse into his vices in a manner poisonous towards himself and potentially Ally’s career.

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There’s another toxic side to Cooper‘s story that I feel might not be as intended but the film slips towards regardless: Ally’s rising fame lands her with a more pop-oriented image that Jackson transparently disapproves of, an attitude the movie doesn’t have as much objection to so much as the cruel fashion that he expresses it, particularly when he is at his drunkest. That this is absent from the previous films (in which the male lead is unconditionally supportive of what direction the female lead wishes to go) is, I think, no accident.

But enough of comparing Cooper’s film to its predecessors, for “maybe it’s time to let the old ways die”, as one of Maine’s songs (written by Jason Isbell, the soundtrack has a general revolving door of writers with Gaga being the major constant and the results being mostly mixed with “Maybe It’s Time” and the much-marketed “Shallow” being the best) go. What about A Star Is Re-re-reBorn as a film unto itself?

Well, for one thing, it looks almost exactly like the sort of film I imagine Clint Eastwood would have made (Cooper having worked with him on American Sniper and The Mule) with its classically worn look to itself whether against the blinding lights of the concert stage, the busy domesticity of Ally’s home (inhabited by characters that Woody Allen would have repeated his “standing out here with the cast of The Godfather” line towards headed by a sleepily against-type Andrew Dice Clay), the sterile white of a grocery store in the middle of the night. There’s one major exception to Cooper’s Eastwood influence: an early scene in a gay bar during a drag show, where the color red completely washes over the film but refusing to have sharply defined lines so as not to lose its faux-verite sense and one of the better scenes of the film for this fact. In general, there is very little about Cooper and his work with cinematographer Matthew Libatique that implies they don’t know their way towards giving a setting a lived-in feel but an overreliance towards the crutch of close-ups as the one major way to communicate our characters’ thoughts, though there is one moment where a close-up, on top of the one great cut by otherwise sluggish Jay Cassidy, is juxtaposed to another with a usage of focus that amplifies the spaced-out distance Maine is feeling towards Ally’s career trajectory. It sucks that such a moment is utilized in that objectionable manner, but it’s great to see the close-up used at least once in the movie to tell us something that one shot of an actor’s face couldn’t.

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And to be sure, the lead actors do a mighty fine job among them as well in conjuring a chemistry between themselves that sells a sincerity to their co-dependent relationship, even despite all the knowingly toxic and antagonistic elements. I wouldn’t call either performance great acting as individual elements (Gaga herself doesn’t have much of a path when she takes scenes emotionally from 0 to 100 and Cooper’s attempts at wounded masculine emotion is wildly overshadowed by Sam Elliot’s best work as Jackson’s older brother Bobby, making an otherwise fine performance look like cheap mimicry and having “Then why did you steal my voice?” as a line does not help). Perhaps another thing that Cooper took as a director from his previous collaborators was David O. Russell’s trust in actors to create their own rhythm and let the film be crafted around them, but it pays off enough to make A Star Is Born extremely interesting in the moments up until a boisterous early climax as Ally performs “Shallows” to a crowd with Jackson for the first time and at least maintain watchability up until the end.

Beyond that, the truth is the movie just wasn’t interesting to me. It doesn’t help that I happen to think Ally is a more interesting presence that Jackson and the movie seems to totally disagree with that (as it would when Cooper is star AND director). It maybe helps less that I’ve seen it all before done better and anything that this film tries to try anew just doesn’t compel me as melodrama. It certainly helps the least that the last half of the film is filled with bet-hedging towards its judgments with Ally’s musical style (including songs that I’d swear were deliberately written to sound bad if one of the writers didn’t deny this) and the amount of random strands that are picked up and dropped often (like Dave Chappelle’s character or Maine’s hearing issues). If it weren’t for the certainty of this movie’s presence in the awards race, I’d have no trouble forgetting about it. But it’s hard to deny that it shows promise for Cooper and Gaga in their respective newfound roles as filmmaker and movie star. This just ain’t it yet.

*It is this writer’s opinion that is very close.

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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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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 – 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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25 for 25 – Seaside Rendezvous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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25 for 25 – 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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Get the Hook

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WHY THE FUCK WOULD YOU POSITION SOMEBODY BEHIND A POLE AND THINKS IT’S GOOD FRAMING?!

Even after we’ve already squared the “First Best Picture” discrepancy, the Oustanding Picture slate for the 2nd Academy Awards is quite tricky. Movies get lost. That’s simply what happens. We can (and should) push for preservation of our art in this industry, but despite our best efforts, we might lose prints completely. And so it is a common tragedy that The Patriot, one of the nominees for Best Picture in that very ceremony, has no complete print remaining in the world and we might never see it ever again. I can’t speak to its quality, but given that it’s directed by the brilliant Ernst Lubitsch, I like to imagine it worthy of standing amongst the masterpieces in his career. At the very least, I like to hope it’s a good movie.

Its absence from the world means that we filmgoers are left with four nominees from the 2nd Oscar ceremony and bruh… they’re all fucking bad. If I were to group the nominees of the first ceremony of the Oscars to be broadcasted (on the radio) and count their collective redeeming features, I’d be able to do it on one hand and spare fingers. So, in this lost cause, I’m not sure we could do worse than the actual winner of the evening The Broadway Melody (itself having a lost Technicolor part), but I’ll tell you something… we could do much much better.

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In retrospect, it’s easy to see why The Broadway Melody was selected to take home the top prize: it’s about show business, it had the powerful Irving Thalberg of MGM producing it (Thalberg had another nominee within the slate – the variety special Hollywood Revue), but the most obvious one is a matter of historical precedence: The Broadway Melody is not only the first sound picture to have won the top Oscar prize, it is also the first all-talking musical (The Jazz Singer obviously predates it as the first sound musical, but is mostly made up of silent soundtrack-less moments).

There is one thing that is certain: it didn’t win that shit with merit. The Broadway Melody is one of only three movies to win the Best Picture Oscar without receiving ANY other Oscars at the ceremony (the others are Grand Hotel and Mutiny on the Bounty; also no film won more than 1 Oscar at this ceremony) and that says quite a lot.

The story is cookie-cutter showbiz, even as early as 1929: The Mahoney Sisters – Hank (Bessie Love) and Queenie (Anita Page) show up in New York to rendezvous with Hank’s fiancé Eddie Kearns (Charles King), who also happens to be a singer, songwriter, and their potential in on the Broadway stages. Indeed, they try to show off their nonexistent talent to producer Francis Zanfield and are barely able to get their approval to be in the play when the three of them make their appeal (Queenie having the most influence). The very number they try to show off to Zanfield is a good synecdoche for the quality – the girls’ voices of the screechiest quality and barely able to keep tempo, their dancing even clumsier and that’s even when them holding on to each other in the most boring fashion, the song (which I honestly don’t think I can identify) was hokey in the worst way, and the performance keeps getting stilted by the piano’s malfunction. “I’ve seen enough,” Zanfield eventually declares and he made it through the performance farther than I did. I hate to use a better movie to dig on something that already is poor on its own merit, but The Broadway Melody until this point basically promises the same type of backstage making-of-a-show drama that was more less perfected in 1933 with 42nd Street. While it tries to stick to the sameof structure in which dialogue scenes go long and far between poorly sung musical numbers (almost all composed by legendaries Nacio Herb Brown and lyricised by Arthur Freed, who have both obviously seen better days), things get more melodramatic but only less interesting.

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During their lucky break on the show, Queenie – whom practically nobody can pass by without commenting on how beautiful she is – gets the attention of rich playboy Jock Warriner (Kenneth Thomson), to the dismay of Hank at the potential of it breaking the duo up and Eddie as he slowly discovers that the empty air between him and Queenie must mean that the two of them truly love each other, since he has even less chemistry with Hank. In the meantime, the two girls’ Uncle Jed (Jed Prouty) keeps offering Hank a part in his 30-week traveling show and Hank considers it for longer than necessary. This all comes ahead to the most protracted and unengaging climax of shouting and manly punching with the sense that it’s more dramatic than it is (the wikipedia summary makes the ending sound more cynical than the vanilla film bothers to present it). I’m not sure if I don’t prefer the bad singing to the melodrama, since at least the terrible show performances have inadvertent humor in them. The first big revue we watch is the most laughably simplistic modeling of New York to the titular song where it’s just the flattest full frame shot director Harry Beaumont could come up with of Eddie and the girls finding their way around it (and filling it up later with a chorus line didn’t miraculously help). Its hilarious incompetence is the closest this gets to entertaining.

I’m not sure I can recommend this to even completists about film history, that it spawned a franchise to rival the Gold Diggers is a sham, and there’s much better movies that revolutionize musicals and sound within the same era (and without the poor sound quality of scratches and volume inconsistency either, but innovation means flaws with happen). It’s morbid mistake of the Academy to award such a film on their second year, but they got it right the following year, thankfully…

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Living for the City

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So, where I left off talking about Wings, I was discussing a very unfortunate discrepancy involved in the very 1st Academy Awards on May 1929. You see, there were in fact TWO equally highest honors in the ceremony and while one of them – The Academy Award for Outstanding Picture – was adopted over the years into what would eventually become The Academy Award for Best Picture, the second honor was disposed of before the following year’s ceremony. That honor was The Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture and the main source for ire and controversy comes from the fact that the former would be awarded to Wings while the latter would be awarded to F.W. Murnau’s lovely melodrama Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and practically everybody who has had the fortune of seeing both films recognizes that Sunrise is far and away the much better picture, making the abandonment and denial of its place in Academy history feel something like a heavy slight. Then again it’s kind of very easy to find such actions a slight and recognize Wings as the inferior choice when Sunrise is among several consensus picks for the very best film ever made and if you’re expecting me to break with consensus, nahhhhhhhh son. I’m basic like that too.

1927 is a year like no other in cinema. It’s right in the middle of that fantastic period in the late 1920s where the early experimentation inherent in the creation of a new artform – particularly led by European filmmakers and film industries, where each nation had its own vocabulary to visual storytelling – led to it taking the sort of narrative shapes we recognize as common in the movies we watch today, yet at the time of those films’ release, they were probably fresh enough to be mind-expanding to audiences. It’s especially great, in my eyes, when such filmmaking techniques can be seen as innovative in modern circumstances, just from the roughness of their genesis having a kind of realness to what we’re watching. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans does not just feel innovative – like we’re watching the beginnings of cinema anew – it feels heavily expressive and moving to an almost schmaltzy way.

1927 also happened to be the era in which European filmmakers were now being brought over to Hollywood on the merit of their talents, particularly Germans with their heightened shadow-based Expressionism style heralding Hollywood Studios’ interests in using that for genre tales, such as horror. F.W. Murnau was one such filmmaker – with possibly his most famous work, the vampire story Nosferatu, and the fable adaptation of Faust under his belt – but horror was not the genre for which he was recruited for. In fact, William Fox wanted Murnau to make whatever film he wanted with Fox’s production.

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Whatever film Murnau wanted to make turned out to be a picture about a tale written by Carl Mayer so simple and straightforward, it doesn’t even afford proper names to its subjects. Our primary couple is the Man (George O’Brian) and The Wife (Janet Gaynor) and they both live in the Countryside separate from the City where the vampish Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) comes from to start an affair with the Man. The Man is so corrupted by this relationship outside of his marriage that he becomes malleable to the Girl from the City’s suggestions of leaving with her to live with in the City, but this would only be possible if The Man kills his wife (they are ambiguous as to what should happen with their infant child). The particular plan goes that The Man would take The Wife across the water that separates The Countryside from the City and arrange her drowning to look like an accident, but the Man finds himself unable to go through with it. The Wife, understandably frightened by her husband, rushes away when they get to shoreline while the Man chases her and her forgiveness into the City and it takes a while but they find their love for each other renewed in the day they spend enjoying the sites and sounds of the metropolis they found themselves in.

Certainly a story with major incidents but not much depth beyond the insistence on love triumphing over doubt and fear and a balanced ability to find room for the serenity in the simplicity of life in the Countryside – captured by cinematographers Karl Struss & Charles Rosher in a dreamy light haze that makes the day scenes glow and the night scenes become smoky and inky – yet merriment in the busy attitude of the City – brought to glorious toppling life from the ground up by uncredited art director Rochus Gliese in solid angular modeling and exciting lights, aided by an ambient soundtrack from Fox’s Movietone technology that gave us crowd noises, train sounds, and car sounds to immerse us into the city of The Man and the Wife’s pursuits.

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In any case, Sunrise is not a movie that tries to hide what emotions it thinks you’re supposed to feel. Expressionism earns its name for a reason and Murnau was possibly the most well-regarded filmmaker to invoke Expressionism in the majority of his work (I at one point called him the greatest filmmaker of all time and would probably still hold him in my top ten. I certainly still swear by most of his stuff.), he was interested in using as many toys he could pull out of the box from rear projection to chiaroschuro (especially used in moments that imply the Man’s capability for violence) and even my favorite, title cards that transformed with the mood and morphed (the only other film I can recall doing this so effectively, maybe even better than Sunrise, is Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary of the same year from another German Expressionist filmmaker come to Hollywood). All of these toys are used to project those feelings as directly as possible to the audience and it feels fine for a story that intends to be nothing more than fable, devoted to traditional story tropes from the very beginning. The archness of O’Brien’s foreboding presence where it feels like every step he takes is dragged by a weight alone and Gaynor’s muted but spirited feminity (as opposed to the loudness of Livingston’s flapper stereotype) is just another tool for Murnau to use to present that.

Everything about Sunrise comes together well. It feels ambitious even in moments where it’s only character based moments like when the couple are in a church musing upon their ordeal. It has a sharp handle on tone, such as when the affair between the Man and the Woman from the City turns a bit more towards Murnau’s familiar horror in a psychological sense, or one of my favorite instances, a perfect tossaround between happiness at the couple freshening up at a barber shop, followed by uncomfortable black comedy at the Wife being hit on by an insistent patron there, followed by turning again into brief horror as the Man threatens said patron with a pocketknife, before back to comedy as he frightens him with a swipe. The abstractness of the story made it all just so easy for Murnau and editor Harold D. Schuster to form single scenes into great big emotions while indulging playfully in moments like the Couple dancing at a fair and chasing a pig.

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This is silent cinema. It needs to be bold. It has no room for subtlety. Murnau was one of the greatest because he recognized that and yet he afforded his storytelling a level of sophistication because he took pride in his craft and looking for new ways to change up the shapes of emotions on the screen. And I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t have been proud of the films he gave us nor should I be surprised that the director of The Last Laugh – my very first Murnau picture – is good at using award-winning visuals and performance (Sunrise also has the distinction of winning the very first Oscars for Best Actress and Cinematography) to manipulate our emotions and sympathies with our characters. Only that he was THAT fucking good, for Sunrise is a movie I’ve hardly ever seen improved upon in the 89 years since its release.

In the end, the arbitrary committee and decision-making that led to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans being unceremoniously snubbed feels unfair to this day, especially appalling to me given that it’s in my top ten favorite movies, and so if I had to utilize this upcoming series to rewrite history in any manner as befits my tastes, it would be to recognize Sunrise as one of the first recipients of what was one of the highest honors American cinema would receive, a good pin on what the movie would promise for the medium it took to such dizzying heights, even when Oscar had to be retroactive in its own recognition for its merits.

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