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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The Final Level

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There’s some kind of consensus going around that producer Berry Gordy’s 1985 Motown martial arts vehicle The Last Dragon is a movie that’s only possibly enjoyable in an ironic sense. Its status as a cult classic is uncontested, yet it maintains a low critical score on Rotten Tomatoes at 44% (audience score is significantly higher at 86%) and is considered by critics as respected as Leonard Maltin as “strictly kid-stuff”.

And I’m just here to say that’s straight up fucking bullshit.

There are to be fair more than a few flaws and faults of The Last Dragon as a motion picture, but I think it’s massively outweighed by just how much entertainment value it has overall and the different ways it functions as such – as cheesy martial arts inspirational movie, as relentless and genuine 80s time capsule (especially pre-Giuliani New York City), as African-American representation. And it doesn’t function as those things individually in a perfect way, but altogether it’s a singular object of grin-forcing fun.

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And it gets that way because Gordy and director Michael Schultz approached the film’s production and style no differently than that of a music video. Apparently they did not wanting a single frame to be empty of something to show off and resulting in a film always energized with lights and motion, arguably at the cost of consistent narrative or thematic depth but that’s not rare in 1980s cinema to begin with and it don’t bother me none. The very beginning of the film is shot like an Olympic commercial, focusing on the shape and power of young martial artist Taimak. It’s all slow-motion backlit swift and controlled karate moves, the kind you want to linger on when you intend for the subject to be a remembered star — punctuated by Taimak’s real-life chopping of an arrow in mid-flight. An action force to be reckoned with is introduced to us and then we see how he is housed in the body of the boyish naive Leroy Green under the guidance of a master (Thomas Ikeda) who insists that Leroy is finally ready to move on beyond his training in achievement of the Final Level, at which point Leroy will receive The Glow. That last part is kind of hard to parse out to be honest, but it seems to be an achievement akin to Super Saiyan status.

In any case, he sends Leroy on his way to explore the concrete jungle of New York City in which they reside on his own and the first thing the now lost Leroy decides to do is his favorite pastime of catching Bruce Lee movies at the local 42nd street theater. Which is one of the ways The Last Dragon incorporates reflexivity unknowingly, the way that Leroy looks up to Lee and watches the O’Hara fight in Enter the Dragon with rapt attention and wonder at Lee’s abilities without the slightest distraction from the characteristically New York-ian raucous crowd surrounding him – it’s the most effective way to tell us how much the character wants to be Lee in a film where we hear him referred to directly as “Bruce Leroy” and respected because of his adherence to the discipline of the martial arts, enough to operate his own dojo in Harlem. That The Last Dragon also has some Orientalist bent in the third act including twists that are extremely ungenerous and feel mean-spirited, given how much that culture inspires and animates its very hero. Not to mention, it’s always a kindred joy to have a movie hero that loves movies just as passionately as the viewer.

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There’s another sort of style that animates the film and that’s simply the music. Almost given as much screentime as Leroy’s Chinese inspirations is the apparent MTV-esque video music show 7th Heaven hosted by gorgeous VJ Laura Charles (Vanity) and Gordy and Schultz use that as the perfect opportunity to shove in a few music videos from the Motown label including Debarge’s “Rhythm of the Night”, which is the biggest nostalgia kick for me. 7th Heaven as a set alone is glimmering and flashy and shiny in such a loud 80s nightclub type of way, filled with dizzying mirrors sets and lasers, that it feels just at home for the impromptu pop setpieces that Vanity performs as an interlude to all the combat. And of course that’s to say nothing of the hilarious “Dirty Books”, a deliberately awful attempt at the vapidest New Wave knock-off you could find, performed by the lovable Faith Prince and with a gaudy bedroom set and even gaudier costumes for Prince to wear, basically literal trash attempting very transparently to pass off as fashion but completely betraying that it’s a traffic sign sewn over her butt and hazard lights over her breasts.

Between all of this, it’s no surprise that Def Jam Recordings later recruited Schultz for their own classic Hip Hop Artists musical vehicle Krush Groove (released later in the same year). Schultz also happened to direct Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is the closest predecessor in his career to a movie this music-based and so I’m mortified by the possibility that that atrocity could have inspired Gordy to hire Schultz for this movie but hey… we got The Last Dragon out of it and hot damn does it pay off in extravagance, musical number-wise and action setpiece-wise (I’m not really surprising when I say the Glow does make an appearance and it’s literally exactly what it sounds like and it is chintzy and awesome to see in action).

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“Dirty Books” is more or less the element that ignites the closest thing The Last Dragon could call a plot as Eddie Arkadian (Chris Murney), the gangster girlfriend to Prince’s character Angela, attempts continuously to blackmail and threaten Laura into playing the video on 7th Heaven only to be thwarted again and again by Leroy’s happening at the right place at the right time (and each time Laura’s infatuation with him grows to the anxiety of the clearly inexperienced Leroy). Eventually, it gets to a point where Arkadian decides to escalate his battle with Leroy to using the big gun and… well, by that point, we’ve already met the big gun but I held off until the very end to give one of my favorite characters of all time a proper introduction.

Arkadian, despite being more rooted in the plot, is not the main antagonist. No, our main antagonist is introduced in that same 42nd street theater we see Leroy watch Enter the Dragon in and immediately starts ripping the scenery apart with his angry jaws. He’s loud and bombastic, maintaining a tall stance and a twisted snarl on his face that telegraphs how clearly antagonistic the character is without making him any less fun to watch. He spits an exhaustive amount of quotable lines like “Kiss my converse!” and “You just get that sucker to the designated place at the designated time, and I will gladly designate his ass for dismemberment!” with dedicated oversold menace barely hiding how much joy he gets quipping like that. And every moment he’s on-screen is a highlight of The Last Dragon. For all it banks on personalities – especially given how easily Vanity plays celebrity seductress in a surprisingly clean way, I think she kind of needs more credit for that performance – the late, great Julius Carry gifts us with a personality that adopts the aggressive belligerence of 80s New York City to the unapologetic hamminess of movie villany from his wild hair to his loose black-and-red (the colors of EVIL!) gi. If there’s any one reason you need to watch The Last Dragon right this second (and there are many), it is this character.

Is he the meanest? Is he the prettiest? Is he the baddest mofo low down around this town? Well who is he? Who is he? He can’t hear you…

SHO’NUFF.

The Shogun of Harlem.

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The Future Is Now

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I highly think we haven’t been fair to 2010’s Terrence Malick in some ways. Since his Palme d’Or winning masterpiece The Tree of Life, he’s wasted no time suddenly changing his method of filmmaking and focusing more on essayistic than narratively-driven pictures. Given how Malick’s films have been famously “made in the editing room” (infamously in some facets such as Adrien Brody’s involvement with The Thin Red Line), it’s less a surprise that he got to this point in his filmmaking than it is that it took him this long in a nearly 50-year career to reach that point. And it must be stated that the subject matter of this moment in this particular span of his career is nowhere near as interesting as the material he worked with back in the first half of his career. He’s gone from philosophically dense landscape explorations about man’s relation with nature, inner or environmental, to naval-gazing self-reflections about his status in life where he casts Ben Affleck or Christian Bale as himself (I’m not sure who qualifies for his surrogate in the subject of this review). He’s also made Voyage of Time in the middle of this phase, which is essentially just an outtake out of The Tree of Life so I’m not sure I’d call it as invested as the rest of his feature works.

BUT. He’s challenging cinematic norms in positively every other way. Aesthetical decisions helped out by having his usual suspects of brilliant veterans in the visual department: Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki aka the best cinematographer alive, production designer Jack Fisk (one would argue that there isn’t much to “design” in this film and that’s not untrue, but there’s still a necessity to spy the sort of environments – urban and natural – based on the demands of the scene and Fisk’s awareness of how they will be presented with Malick and Chivo’s lens), and as usual a revolving door of editors all of which have worked with Malick and have some idea of what he wants them to focus on. Those editors being Rehman Nizar Ali, Hank Corwin, and Keith Fraase. Altogether, these films are formalist catnip.

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And to be honest, as much as I enjoyed it, Song to Song – our subject here – is not as visually or structurally interesting as its predecessor Knight of CupsKnight of Cups had a clear step-by-step focus and its decisions on sweeping through concrete terrains in GoPro cameras feels much more revelatory than the still-impressively gorgeous but all too familiar concert footage and leisure tour that is in Song to Song. But Song to Song also a clearer throughway in plot – it’s still abstract but so much less abstract than Knight of Cups (if anything, I’d probably show StS to friends before I showed KoC) – where the chronology doesn’t take effort to parse out and we can recognize an emotional and philosophical arc within our main four subjects.

Those subjects being musicians BV (Ryan Gosling) and Faye (Rooney Mara), record producer Cook (Michael Fassbender), and waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman), all based in the city of Austin, Texas. Song to Song dances around these characters and how their relationships between each other tangle: The artistically driven BV is dating the more underground Faye and working for the sociopathic hedonistic Cook, but Faye is also having a secret affair with Cook in the middle of her internal identity crisis, and sometime into that Cook gets involved with the smitten Rhonda to the point of marriage and traps her into the shallow domesticity while not showing any signs of slowing down his debauchery in spite of her awareness. These strands begin to snap and expand in a naturalistic way probably based on something Malick does here that I can’t recall him ever doing elsewhere: he lets his actors sort of write the movie.

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I mean, he’s still the credited writer and obviously shaped more of the narrative in post than in filming – loose as the editing might feel – and actors were obviously cut (including, to my disappointment, Trevante Rhodes) but the real soul of Song to Song is in how the actors are allowed to inhabit these characters, fill them up with their own internal developments, and Malick and the camera just observe. Not just observe, but Malick seems to augment the idea through his editing that this is a character-inspired emotional journey rather than try to reframe it as a visually driven tale until the final few minutes. I’d honestly say Mara’s performance as Faye, possibly my favorite of her whole career, is strengthened by the decisions the editors take in sharply navigating through her emotional states than otherwise. And while it might sound like an insult, I absolutely do not mean for it to be so when the main cast could feel like they’ve been playing the same personality they’re providing their whole career: Gosling’s quiet fear of loneliness, Fassbender’s second-nature shitheel, Cate Blanchett’s bored entrapment in an unfulfilling relationship, and so on. And in turn, Malick gets to take those and arrange them into distanced looks into disconnection from society and how these characters deal with it, without losing sight of the fact that they’re humans inhabiting this film. Malick’s just not handling that, he knows his cast has got it.

And of course this praise isn’t precisely restricted to just the lead actors, but the revolving door of musicians who make appearances and simply espouse their philosophy on life without the slightest amount of restraint: Johnny Rotten acting like an overgrown teenager talking about doing whatever the fuck he wants to, Big Freedia’s (who this movie introduced me to) bouncy hangout manner, or most heartbreakingly Patti Smith reciting to Faye her short-lived time with the love of her life, the late Fred Smith (unnamed but very obviously the subject of her monologue if you know Patti or the MC5s well). There’s still plenty of voiceover work by several of the leads, but none of them reach the sort of pained potency as Patti’s.

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Malick is close to cinema verité in his encouragement of these performers to just exist in the Austin neighborhoods and cityscape. Something that in turn leads to easing the audience, if you’re willing to meet it halfway, into sinking into the experience of swimming around these relationships and how they collide, separate, and collide again. But then it’s still a stylized Malick film. I didn’t say it wasn’t, y’all, I said it was just a bit measured about it. Malick still wants to give Austin the same treatment he gave L.A. in Knight of Cups, with Chivo framing the interiors of Cook’s glass and chrome house like an inhuman prison, the clubs Cook brings BV to as a lurid Hades, or the sort of house he buys Rhonda’s mother as an empty shell. And the concert scenes are full of excitement and wild frenzy that frontloading them seems a smart choice to prime me enough for the length of the movie to follow (it is not a movie that outstays its welcome by me, but it gets pretty close).

Anyway, Song to Song is another of Malick’s interesting experiments – potentially the last one – but this time the experiment is more focused on how can one cohere a story with the sort of free reign to actors, rather than how can one cohere a philosophical treatise like with Knight of Cups. And I don’t think it’s entirely a success for in the end Song to Song seems entirely like its title suggests – a series of isolated moments moving into moments that happen to map well enough to give drive to the film, but not a story. It’s been almost a year since I first saw it and still I have much to chew on within the film, but it is nevertheless the sort of challenge I love diving in and that makes cinema more and more full of surprises everyday.

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Shut Up and Drive

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I’m in exactly the perfect age bracket to be surrounded by the hype and frenzy for Edgar Wright’s latest Ant-Manrebound passion project, the 2017 crime caper comedy Baby Driver. And I can’t say a lot of that acclaim it’s received is entirely undeserved, as a stylistic montage of car chase and foot chase setpieces soundtracked by some of the most body-jiving music you could ask a kid to listen to music older than him for, it is an absolute joy. It’s nothing exactly revelatory from either Wright (given his early Mint Royale’s “Blue Song” video feeling entirely recreated by the opening five minutes) or the car chase subgenre (‘cause y’know Mad Max: Fury Road, John Wick: Chapter Two, The Raid 2, and Nightcrawler literally just came out, y’all), it’s a candy-colored rhythmic distraction that is both fun and exciting as the demands of each scene go, from square on all the way to… well, all the way to close to the end, but well, let’s square with this before this and get the ugly stuff out of the way before I can return to what’s really good about Baby Driver.

I’m surrounded by dozens of calls by peers for it being a masterpiece or one of the best films of the year and I so very much wish I could side with that because I barely like Baby Driver as it is, when it spends most of that nearly two-hour runtime focusing less on the caper side of things and more on our protagonist getaway driver Baby’s (Ansel Elgort) quick courtings with waitress Deborah (Lily James). This is the first film that Wright has written on his own and without any actual source material to go on (I’ve heard the comparisons to The Driver and Drive, but Baby Driver feels so absolutely different than those) and the last two movies without the co-writing partnership Wright had with his previous muse Simon Pegg have been very informative. Wright finds a lot more free reign to play along with visuals and music in those than he kind of got to do with The Cornetto trilogy, but there’s also less believable humanity in those movies (I don’t wanna say heart, because come on, Wright clearly loves making movies) than when Pegg himself was dedicated to crafting and fully-fleshing out these characters, where we could see these characters however weird they are – Nicholas Angel the closest to caricature – living in the real world.

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We get some of that in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World but not as much, we absolutely do not get that in Baby Driver, which is fine since that’s not the point. But it means James has so little material to work with – a brief backstory dump in a Laundromat attached to no real character beyond “likes baby and music” – and try as she might, she’s clearly struggling with having all these reactions coalesce into a compelling romantic lead rather than just in-the-moment acting.

Elgort, on the other hand, holy shit. He’s bad, people. The Divergent series, he was barely noticeable in a sea of vanilla performances. The Fault in Our Stars, he turned an on-paper joke of a character into a smug self-satisfied twerp. And Baby Driver just demands things out of him that he’s absolutely incapable of doing. When he’s first meeting Deborah, the lines coming out of Baby’s mouth are so delicately obtuse (in that self-protected way) that they need somebody who can provide them with sincere uncertainty and instead Elgort recites them with the smirking shallow satisfaction of a serial killer. When the movie gets much darker in its second half and the stakes escalate, Elgort’s idea of toughness is to pout his face as hard as he can and maintain that monotonously like a kid’s impression of Ryan Gosling in Drive. When he shares scenes with Baby’s foster father, he… Well, actually that’s one of the few moments Elgort actually is great, providing a personality that actually seems genuine and fun. I’m gonna be nice and not imply that’s only because he has a stellar scene partner in the one-man-show deaf actor CJ Jones.

Indeed, the supporting cast to those two lovebirds – namely the ones who inhabit Baby’s life of crime that threatens to interrupt his romance – are much better but not by much. Jon Bernthal plays “Douchebag” reliably again but is gone after one scene. Kevin Spacey likewise is inhabiting the kind of sardonic wise guy personality he can do in his sleep, but when the movie demands a fatherly warmth out of his character at the last minute, he has no clue what he’s doing and it’s a tonal whiplash from his preceding coldness. Jamie Foxx is certainly dangerous presence but he’s also replaying the same beats as Motherfucker Jones in Horrible Bosses, so that leaves Eiza Gonzalez and Jon Hamm as the last folks standing as a scene-stealing cocaine Bonnie and Clyde-esque couple and between the two of them, Hamm is the only one that gets enough screentime for us to see a whole person with his own tragic story going on.

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Basically when the movie tries to get a story going on, it’s between weak (the crime side) to DOA (the romance), it doesn’t have the script or cast to support it. But when it gets to being just dances of camera, cuts, and drum beats, Wright has an enviable grip on tone and form that leaves on catching their breath after every chase and resembles a bunch of impromptu music videos with all the joy of that Mint Royale music video. The very opening credits is grooving one-shot stroll that feels light as a Nora Ephron comedy and the “Brighton Rock” finale is just a bone-shaking barrage of impacts that imperils the viewer alongside our hero, central to the film is a bicathlon of foot chases and car chases and gunfights from the busy streets of Atlanta and through a shopping mall and it is the most sophisticated and joyous action work of Wright’s career since Shaun of the Dead’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and a clear sign that Wright belongs in this atmosphere of popcorn movie homages, mixing its musical cues so wonderfully with the roar and squeals of the pursuits that the marriage feels natural and just sinks into the whole experience.

These are aesthetics that demands to be seen in a big screen with a big sound system in all the biggest senses and if it gets interrupted by a watery plot that’s hard to feel emotionally attached with, I can’t help shrugging that off. I’m very clearly in the minority on that script matter anyway so if you’re like the rest of the world, you won’t even need to shrug it off. You can very well leave Baby Driver with a bigger smile on your face than I did.

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25 for 25 – We Accept the Challenge to Fight and Never Lose.

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This movie is going to be a conglomeration of things I had earlier explored and now bring full circle. I already came down on some of the best of Canadian cinema – as provided by the National Film Board itself. Even earlier, I took a look at some slasher culture. And even earlier than that came the look at movies that I deemed part of my fascinating trinity of inadequately produced ego trips, with our particular subject today flat-out mentioned as the last end of that. There was Miami Connection which was essentially Y.K. Kim’s attempt to leave a wise self-gravitas-granting message of peace and love sincere yet completely contradictory to its violent content. There was The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s warped and twisted life fantasy that allegedly provides him with a blanket of company he couldn’t find or reasonably match in his film that gave him lifetime adoration that may not be what he’s looking for. And now, we close that trinity off with Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare (although it is credited within the film as The Edge of Hella title much less descriptive and absolutely not applicable at all to the film it is attached to). Now, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare is much shallower than the previous films in its intentions. Produced and written by its star Jon Mikl Thor (the director John Fasano mainly had his career as a script doctor) – a Canadian bodybuilding Mr. USA and Mr. Canada champion who later took a dip into heavy metal music under the his last name as the mononymous Thor – The Legendary Rock Warrior! – all Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare really wants or tries to do is make Thor look really awesome and cool and badass.

It does not make him look cool or badass. It frankly makes him look silly.

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That is obviously bound to happen when your film starts with the bloodless death of a family by an unseen evil monster from the kitchen oven in their apparent farm home in the middle of Nowhere, Ontario. Following such an underwhelming overlit, broad daylight “massacre” of footage with the title card The Edge of Hell is very confident of them. And then once the credits are done, inexplicably, a band and their girlfriends somehow deciding this farm was a good place to record their new album and develop material for themselves despite the very obvious Horrible Over Monster Event That Happened Ten Years Prior to the Movie Proper (which just makes me think of how Trent Reznor made The Downward Spiral in the house where Helter Skelter happened and the sensationalism behind it kind of spills over to this) and Thor (the character is actually named Triton, but it’s so much easier for me to square with Thor as a character himself)’s trying to tell us Toronto is a culturally nourishing place to be making arts at. They’re not in Toronto. They’re on a farm that ain’t Toronto. Might be close to it geographically, but…

Anyway, the band also brings their girlfriends because this is essentially trying to be a slasher film and so we need gratuitous scenes of attempted shower sex while the actors waltz right into that shower in an insanely cartoonish amount of make-up making them look like extras from a Whitesnake video only randomly pulled together for the most softcore porn video you could ever imagine. Hell, most of the things this band does are pretty clean for 80s metal stars, they put in a good name for hair metal after Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization portrays all the sexual promiscuity and drugs in the culture, but heck away these guys just wanna make music and be with their own girls.

And my word… the music is catnip to a bad hair metal deviant like I. Hair metal is emblematic of nearly everything I think is silly and stupid about the 1980s and why I’m so lucky to have missed out on it. Big and loud and monotonous, but running like the train that could in high voices screeching voices and obviously Scorpions and Ratt inspired guitar riffs. And they’re earwormy in the worst ways, like hook worms, bruh. Every once in a while, “We Accept the Challenge” and “Energy” keep popping over and over in my head and I need the tunes from Miami Connection to save me.

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By the way, I’m not bothering elaborating on the characters or cast names beyond Thor because much as I ironically love Rock n Roll Nightmare, it’s a movie so bad I’d rather retain my dignity by only affording it cursory research because got damn, but from what I understand an unusual amount of it is made up of Assistant Directors. In any case, the only really distinguishable person is the drummer who starts off with the fakest most-Spinal-Tap-sounding Australian accent and somehow it gets dropped halfway through thus making him wholly anonymous amongst the other band members.

Anyway, this being a slasher film, they all get picked off in complete darkness with their deaths usually witnessed by a monsters that looks like color-coded versions of Beaker the muppet, except with an eye removed. There’s never any tension or horror because Fasano is simply not a good filmmaker with this roaming around and Thor clearly didn’t shell out too much for his glamor flick, but even if this were a well-shot and edited film… how on Earth can you see these creatures and not laugh? Are these the motherfuckers that were in the oven? What were they doing there?

Well, I’ll tell you what they are and this is unfortunately going to be SPOILER ALERT for a film that you’re probably better off EXPERIENCING THIS FIRST HAND so if you can hunt a copy of Rock n Roll Nightmare (which frankly tough for me but doable), GET ON IT.

But for those who stay….

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The events of this movie didn’t happen. It is a punch-drunk version of Six Characters In Search of an Author. Nobody who died (apparently not even the ten years ago family) ever really existed except as creations of Triton, an archangel, in order to lure and entrap the killer The Devil (or maybe the exhaustive laundry list of names Triton elaborates on when they finally come face to face) so that Triton can grab his 30 dollar Halloween decoration looking ass (which he seriously does look like the most expensive prop in the whole movie. Definitely less expensive than the metal makeup. And yet cheaper than my work shoes.) and bring him back to hell. And obviously this does not happen without a heavy metal battle, so while the music by the band never existed blasts as Thor suddenly Super Saiyans himself and wrassles with those Beaker muppets attaching themselves to his swollen pecs as he struggles.

It gets at its most pathetic Triton explains he was inspired by slasher movies as though he knew only the Devil could possibly be a fan of them. It’s an attempt to be self-reflexive that ends up having the movie trip and fall all over its face. And the moralistic (?) Christianity probably explains why the hair metal band is all into clean monogamous drug-free fun rather than actually acting like Poison or Warrant. Anyway, it’s ambitious of Thor, that’s for sure and the fact that he wanted himself to be at the center of this is hella braver than punching the Devil right in the face.

This is why I love the movie so much as trash and am willing to show it to as many people as possible. It’s insane, it’s bizarre, and it’s all in some shallow way that’s much less demanding than the psychoanalysis that seems imperative with movies like The Room and Plan 9 from Outer Space. And now that I wrote it out, maybe it does make Thor look cool now that I think of it. I wish I could look that constipated wrassling muppets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Memory of Jonathan Demme
1944-2017


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25 for 25 – TAE! KWON! DO!

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Miami Connection has everything I could absolutely adore about a movie, it’s a dream come true for me. Martial Arts Action, a pleasant cast of diverse characters, a happening scene full of lively extras, musical numbers by a rock band heavily indebted to the 80s (for that is where it takes place and was filmed), irrefutable evidence that the 80s were a ridiculous era for anything, contrary to its title it does not take place in Miami (a city I have little love for), ninjas, samurai swords, fighting gangs, anti-drug message, beach scenes, nightclubs, optimistic inspiration on all fronts…

… and not an iota of this movie is good. It’s actually pretty terrible. An incompetent film on all fronts, especially notable in the acting, rightfully lambasted by critics and audiences for its whiplash unintentional tonal shifts, its inability to carry even a milligram of gravity in its drama, oh and so many other massive faults but I am indeed getting ahead of myself. My point in the first paragraph is that as a child, I would not possibly have been the best judge of entertainment – having loved Van Helsing and Freddy vs. Jason – and so I probably would have had Miami Connection being one of my favorite movies if I were growing up.

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The plot is definitely the sort of concept that would have to excite me as a child: Dragon Sound is one of the hottest bands in S. Florida, made up of a group of orphan Taekwondo experts who go to the University of Central Florida. Still their popularity has been getting in the way of a rival band (that’s never named by still a central figure) and guitarist John (Vincent Hirsch)’s  relationship with backup singer Jane (Kathie Collier) has earned the ire of her brother Jeff (William Ergle), the leader of a gang that deals cocaine supplied by the Miami Ninja – a gang made up of Ninjas. It doesn’t just sound like a Cannon film, it sounds like a parody of a Cannon film and I ate those the hell up as a kid.

But I didn’t have a chance to see it growing up. Indeed, nobody had quite seen it en masse until earlier this decade, save for the film’s screening at the Cannes Film Market in 1987 in a fruitless search for a distributor before a very small eight-theater screening only in the Greater Orlando area a year later spreading into Melbourne, Daytona Beach, and (most curiously) West Germany. It fell into obscurity quickly until a programmer at Alamo Drafthouse famously screened the film randomly after winning a 35mm print on an eBay bid and after the screening received a positive response from the viewers, the recently created distributive chain from the theater Drafthouse Films fought tooth and nail to convince the film’s producer and co-director Y.K. Kim (who also starred as the leader of Dragon Sound and co-guitarist Mark), apprehensive after being burned from the production and release of the film, to allow them to re-release it to a reception loud enough to give the film a loving cult following. And thus, I’ve only been able to see it as an adult and yet nevertheless… it remains a favorite of mine despite full knowledge of its wanting quality.

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It’s crazy that a movie would not ask me to meet it halfway for unintentional comedy (something I often found to be somewhat laboring) with an attempt at an acting showpiece with the keyboardist Jim (Maurice Smith) tearfully delivering an overwrought and painfully expository (especially in specifying his half-Korean descent) monologue on searching for his lost father and the very tightly-wound Ergle delivering my favorite line delivery in the film, astounded by the concept that his sister could have a social life that he barks in confusion “A FRIEND?!” at Jane’s introduction of John. And yet Miami Connection is that, hamfisting its eagerness for a positive message to the audience with songs about being good to friends (“Friends”) or fighting against violence… however that works (“Against the Ninja”, let alone the infamous line about “stupid cocaine”). And given that the direct mouthpiece of this message is Kim himself as the author (alongside co-director Randall Park who also conceived of the film with him), suddenly it takes on a similar vein than the likes of Rock n’ Roll Nightmare or The Room, which both seemed to share a sort of vanity project ego trip for their own respective author-stars (Jon Mikl Thor and Tommy Wiseau respectively). Which… holy shit, maybe those two should be on this 25 for 25 series as well*.

But whereas The Room seems to come from a place of Wiseau desperately wanting to validate his self-esteem and Lord knows what the fuck Rock n’ Roll Nightmare comes from (maybe to have Thor fight muppets in Super Saiyan form like he’s always wanted to), Y.K. Kim – a local celebrity in Orlando for his martial arts teachings, being a Korean immigrant success story, and other deeds – seems to come from a place of true passion and want to give to the community and his students (many of whom make up the cast) a document of optimism and wholesome values, incorporating education, sobriety, and sincerity into the drama. And Miami Connection defies us to laugh at the ridiculous presentation of these issues, but it does not take them with levity and that means knowing what it means to Kim and the characters. And after all who COULD in the end disagree with such themes deep inside unless they were wholly miserable (hence why I don’t trust people who talk shit about the movie)?

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Miami Connection is a fascinating dance between outrageously poor craftsmanship in its overlit shots, discontinuous unrhythmed editing (both provided by the late Maximo Munzi, who apparently had a long and full career of over 100 films, after kicking off with L.A. Streetfighters and Miami Connection which is a miracle to me, though nothing else of note stands out from his list), and awkward leadfooted acting from every actor, all providing an energy that lifts up the positivity, even in spite of such insanely hypocritical bloodshed and violence in the finale. When the action comes, it only ramps up the insane energy rather than bring it down with eyes popping in the characters’ expressions of rage and the outrageous bloodletting for the final battle, by all the good people forgiving all the other good people for fighting because they had to and ending on a final title card “Only through the elimination of violence can we achieve world peace”. Oh, what absolute fun.

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Fun. That’s what the film brought to me. It told me that cinema’s not always about looking for what’s a masterpiece or a mouthpiece for your views or even to introduce you to something new, but something that brings such a visceral basic response from your body above all else and Miami Connection brings out the most pleasant feeling out of me: I have a lot of fun watching the movie. And I’m not even certain the fun is entirely ironic, that I actually can connect with Y.K. Kim’s level and see how he might thought this would be awesome. Or think back to action and music-hungry young me and think how he might proclaim this is the best movie ever made. You shouldn’t watch it over and over, nor should you watch it by yourself if you can help it. But if you do watch it, it has to be interesting, honest (I mean, how many 80s parodies and homages do we have today with nary the true soul Miami Connection has?), and stimulating on some level for you.

The manner in which I happened to last watch this was another SCS 35mm screening at an early low and anxious point in my life last year, bringing Josh – that Josh again – who had no idea what the movie was about and attending with others who hadn’t seen it before and it was a marvelous moment of good vibrations all around, lifting my spirits as we laughed at the good-natured banality of the whole thing, cheering to see Coral Gables make an appearance as a location, remarking that John looked like a member of the theater audience, and chanting “TAE! KWON! DO!” at the refrain of the song “Against the Ninja”. At the end of the show, Josh couldn’t help remarking that it was awesome and most of the audience loved the experience.

I personally consider it the best experience I’ve had in a movie theater to date. And even if it wasn’t my first viewing of the movie, that’s how Miami Connection will always will stay to me, a movie I watched at the right place and made me happier than I could expect, eager to go fight ninjas and play 80s rock music and not do cocaine.

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*Yes, I have an idea of the trend I want to go, but I haven’t finished (or even started) all 25 reviews so I’m seriously considering The Room and Rock n’ Roll Nightmare for this.


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!