It’s Not the Years, Honey. It’s the Mileage…

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By the 1980s, Steven Spielberg had a reputation but not necessarily the one that you all are probably familiar with. Certainly, he had that one in a marginal way: he was already the golden boy young success story off of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, utilizing his New Hollywood background to perfect the populist blockbuster he essentially created with his big-time shark movie. But within the industry itself, he had another reputation as somebody who couldn’t really keep a budget or schedule. While Jaws and Close Encounters had made enough money to put in the mouths of any producers who might have taken issue with their notoriously overinflated production expenses and on-set issues, 1979 saw the release of 1941 – Spielberg’s first commercial and critical flop. So when he and the other New Hollywood Populist Traitor George Lucas were on vacation conjuring up a character they’d like to bring to the screen as a response to that globe-trotting action hero James Bond, Spielberg set in mind an idea that he was going to get this film made as a producer’s dream: under budget, ahead of schedule, period. This is of course humorous to think back on in the modern era where Spielberg now constantly has several projects on pre-production and is often able to quickly prepare a movie well in-advance of its slated release*, but I digress.

The film that resulted is, by most accounts, Lucas’ baby as producer and co-writer facilitating Spielberg’s entry into the director’s seat. But to my mind, Spielberg’s dead-set deliberate efficiency is – to my mind –  the core of what makes Raiders of the Lost Ark, that very project that Spielberg and Lucas conceived of and released in the early summer of 1981, one of if not the best action movie of all time (or at the very least, my favorite). It is what informs Michael Kahn’s sharp cutting in between moments to get out of a scene exactly when the point is made and to keep any setpieces with a forward momentum that matches the sort of urgent running or riding that Raiders’ famous protagonist must go through. It is what informs Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay frontloading the majority of its exposition in an early college meeting so that we have pretty much all the information we need to get going, it is what informs that scene being preceded by a continuous setpiece seamlessly moving from the jungle to a temple back to the jungle without making us realize we were watching entirely separate sequences (again, credit to Kahn’s work). Hell, that very resolution was at the root of the famous scene where an epic swordfight is teased and shot down in a hilariously sardonic manner.

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If I may betray that momentum for a moment to backtrack regarding that exposition: Raiders of the Lost Ark was of course the movie that introduced us to that favorite of everyman action heroes Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones (Harrison Ford) but I’ll get back to him shortly as well. No, what I completely skipped over is the setting of the pieces of this story: As the FBI approaches Indy after a semi-failed expedition, he is recruited for his knowledge to retrieve the Biblical Ark of the Covenant – in which Moses carried the tablets containing the Ten Commandments – before the Nazis could do so and utilize whatever power lives inside the artifact to rule the world. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Indy’s former lover and daughter of his late mentor Abner Ravenwood, recruits herself from Nepal into Indy’s journey to Egypt as she proves to be invaluable in the absence of her dad. And in the meantime, Indy’s inscrutable rival René Belloq (Paul Freeman) is guiding the Nazis to finding the location of the Ark, though guided by his own personal obsession with witnessing a means to possibly contact God. All of this information given in fewer scenes than can count on your hand and 98% of it before the 30 minute mark.

That leaves more than enough space for Spielberg to indulge instead in the inherent sweep of an adventure yarn, inspired by the 1930s serials where some plucky hero roams to exotic lands from the leafy hills of Peru to the snowy exile of Nepal to the hot cooking sands of Cairo and beyond. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe enhances the scope of these already exciting and distinct foreign lands with a smart usage of the immortal anamorphic frame as well as giving a horizontal read to all the action. Imagine that infamous swordfight joke working without the frame letting us read from Indy shooting the swordsman at the left and the swordsman falling to the right accentuating that the vast space is in the middle of them rather than above them. Or the car chase having nearly as much drive without such an aggressively directional frame. Not to ignore the sort of propulsion these setpieces get simply from the sounds: the characteristic comic book impact Ben Burtt gives to punches and whipcracks (for real, whipCRACKS!) and the famous peppy march to adventure that John Williams notches into his belt of iconic scores.

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On top of those tropes, we also have the beautiful ingénue in tow (although one also has to regret how Marion goes from an impressive heroine with a tough and funny introduction to a damsel in distress in a white dress before the halfway mark, despite the best efforts of Allen’s performance) and the artifact all the players seek dripping with mystique, taking full advantage of the advent of color and light to give the golden Ark all that shine and shimmer. But in any case, the seeking of that Ark is just as animated by that “need to get to the point” efficiency that drove Spielberg and spilled out into Kasdan and Kahn and Williams’ results: a movie that is constantly on the move. The same smooth segue that glides us from cutting through the jungle to cautiously traipsing past traps to escaping from a tumbling rock is what brings Raiders of the Lost Ark barrelling through its runtime from a dig to a trap to a brawl, occasionally allowing Spielberg and Kahn to wink at how ludicrously speedy we’ve gone out of the fire and into the frying pan.

And yet, the core of all of Raiders‘ charms beyond being an impeccably-crafted piece of nostalgic cinema is Ford, whose modern rough attitude feels like more clownish than downer. From the way he whines about having to go through “snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?” to the exhausted way he shoots down swordsmen to the way his body crumbles to the ground like bricks as Pat Roach hits him, Jones is just as important an ingredient to having somebody fun to go on an adventure with as Raiders focuses on being an adventure fun to go on. Surrounded by lively stock types embodied by character actors, Ford’s bitter sarcasm and complaining (particularly the complaining – Indy’s indulgence in remarking about every goddamn thing that’s happening to him as a severe inconvenience) grounds the adventure as exhausting in its sweep before he wows us with leaping to his survival or bursting on a white horse. It was highly impressionable to me as a child and probably impelled a desire for real adventure, a disappointment at how hard that is, and a hatred for Nazis (informing me that “Nazi” equals “punching bag” more than that viral video of Richard Spencer getting socked).

It’s funny how a movie inspired by nostalgia for an classical way of storytelling ended up embodying a new idea of “classical” storytelling despite its DNA being seen in much of modern popcorn cinema. Like how no shark movie post-Jaws can avoid being seen as a “Jaws rip-off”, I can’t think of a single post-Raiders adventure film that doesn’t owe every element of its existence to Raiders. Perfection just bears imitators and it is a fruitless task to capture lightning in a bottle more than once (including this film’s sequels, though I have no small love for the entire franchise). Maybe they’re just digging in the wrong place.

*I’m thinking specifically of the minute amount of time in which The Post went from script to Oscar campaign smack in between filming and post-production of Ready Player One these past few years. This also mirrors the production cycle of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s Listas well as The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad, as well as War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin. And I’m probably forgetting other movies.

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September 21, 1945… That Was the Night I Died.

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R.I.P. Takahata Isao
29 October 1935 – 5 April 2018

1988 – 30 years ago from this very day, Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli was not yet the worldwide phenomenon it has formerly grown to be but it was in the middle of significant success on the wings of co-founder Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (pre-emptively a Ghibli production before Ghibli even existed) and Castle in the Sky. 3 years after its inception in 1985, they were in the midst of releasing what the future would see as their flagship film – Miyazaki’s cuddly and fuzzy My Neighbor Totoro. And yet doubts were made unto the box office potential of the affable children’s film so the second of the co-founders Suzuki Toshio made the decision to attach it as a double feature to the adaptation being produced around the same time for publishing house Shinchosha on one of their novels by Nosaka Akiyuki.

That adaptation was written and directed by Ghibli’s third co-founder, veteran animation director Takahata Isao, and it was called Grave of the Fireflies. And side by side with My Neighbor Totoro, the two stand as not only the greatest films of a studio that seldom produced anything but great films, but among the greatest animated works of all time.

And despite this superlative, Suzuki’s tenure as in-house producer of Ghibli had a lot of brilliant ideas, but this was unfortunately not one of them. While the films did not end up box office failures outright, Fireflies received a chilly reception towards family audiences because it meant following up on the movie that stars a giant furry benign forest God with two young children suffering horrifying severe afflictions from the aftermath of World War II. Or not, depending on which order the uninstructed theaters played them, though I can’t imagine being in the mood for something as jovial and harmless as Totoro so soon after witnessing Fireflies either. And so while it remained praised by critics and made enough money that combined with Totoro’s exploding merchandising sales continued the sail of Ghibli, the uninhibited starkness of Grave of the Fireflies‘ material alongside the fact that it was one of the movies which Disney did not purchase North American rights en masse from Ghibli’s parent company Tokuma Shoten (who did not own the rights) left Grave of the Fireflies to fall not into obscurity but a state of being underseen nevertheless.

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Those who did see it would begin faced with the image of a teenage boy in monochromatic reds and a baggy oversized military uniform facing the audience as his voice hovers over announcing his date of death before we watch him have to witness and relive that moment that his gaunt, broken body in rags collapsed in the middle of an apathetic and dismissive crowd in Sannomiya Station. His last words before his life leaving a corpse practically swept away by janitors is a name “Setsuko”.

Setsuko (Shiraishi Ayano), we will later learn, is the name of the young girl we meet quickly after in the same reddish sepia tone surrounded by the warming light of fireflies practically dancing to the first cue of Mamiya Michio’s delicate lullaby score, watching the boy’s death before being met by his spirit in an exuberant manner that implies long awaited reunion as we also learn that boy is her older brother Seita (Tatsumi Tsutomu).

This opening death of Seita is the most notable major liberty one can know taken by the novel’s author Nosaka in what was a semi-autobiography and self-condemnation of his inability to save his sister Keiko from dying of malnutrition in the wake of the Americans’ devastation of World War II and we watch Setsuko and Seita live out his story from the waning months of the war, starting out by their ill mother’s side* with their father absent fighting in the Imperial Navy afar. Having not read Nosaka’s novel, I cannot know the extent to which informs the writing of Seita as a well-meaning but irresponsible and unfairly unqualified guardian (there is a moment very early on where Seita attempts to cheer his sister through playing on playground bars foregrounded by Setsuko’s unbated tears that illustrates just what Seita is not prepared for), but it feels as though the literal directness of Seita’s failures are Nosaka’s blunt lack of forgiveness for himself while Takahata brings in a humane sympathy to Seita for trying to desperately make it out a situation he should never have been thrown into by a war he’s not very much involved in (though his father being in the war does give him investment and we do witness later in the film his response to the war’s results).

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That’s part of the ghostly element of Grave of the Fireflies: while we soon after witness the effects of war laid on undeserving lives, the fighting’s always at a distance and it makes the unnecessary element of the casualties we and the children witness wound us deeper. Even the early firebombing of their home in Kobe that opens the story proper violently (in more than a few ways, the film’s serene opening credits of the peaceful spirits on the train is interrupted by a smash to the loud American B-29s on their trail) is too oppressively one-sided with not a single Japanese shot fired on-screen back, just people running and hiding for their lives (there is one particular Japanese soldier who stands defiant shouting “Long Live the Emperor” that Takahata frames at a distance from heads keeping down from incineration and it only screws in Takahata’s vehement anti-war attitude in the film, portraying an action intended as defiant nobility to futile imbecility. That irony towards Japan’s doomed patriotism continues in a later Navy procession scene interrupting the children’s sleep.).

Amongst those casualties being their mother rendered in upsetting deep reds soaking over bandages dark enough to look dirty from the soot and smoke still suffered in an atmosphere of harsh browns and ash grays, a palette Grave of the Fireflies will visually maintain except in moments of peace like a major beach respite or a glowing yellow speckled image of fireflies comforting Setsuko in their . This death forces the two children into a hopeless situation of drifting over to an aunt that passive-aggressively points out the hardship of life after wartime being multiplied by mouths to feed, leading to the children’s departure into homelessness from their only possible shelter and their slow demise by malnutrition.

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For the most part, this doesn’t sound like material that necessitates an animated production perhaps but Takahata is not just using animation because he happens to work in that field. Seita and Setsuko are generally defined cartoon children (with unmistakably young voices), barely enough to recognize them from a crowd of suffering and to facilitate any emotions of joy and sorrow the film needs to weave through (especially Setsuko’s design, whose tears are the glassiest out of fairly big baby eyes), moving through photorealistic landscapes, either ruinous or wild or industrial in dark tones that make it look like a Totoro nightmare. Those contradictory elements only make the danger to these characters who are easy to look at much more real and at least me as a viewer more anxious**. And it’s outright dreadful to witness them slowly develop coarse lines showing the toll the situation is taking on their bodies, in last cases accentuating their emaciation and only populating more and more of their designs until their basically the very shell we watched die at the beginning of the film.

No, it is very much because Grave of the Fireflies is animated that it feels so very devastating and heartbreaking as a picture, animation used to remind you of the fragility of its characters in the immediate knowledge of their fate. With all that deliberation in the visuals, it just makes moments like a group of girls in bright dresses laughing oblivious to a child mourning a heavy loss or a delirious moment of solid rocks being mistaken as rice cakes feel somewhat like redundancy to the anguish and sorrow the film puts us through, except in its final images and moments Takahata’s humanism takes a restorative turn to suggest a form of release from the suffering Seita, Setsuko, and their companion ghost fireflies faced and a sense of completion that while not optimistic maintains a peaceful sense of absolution to a story told by a man who could not find himself to get it from his confession.

So Takahata generously gave it to him by re-telling it.

*That is perhaps the most prevalent similarity between Fireflies and Totoro: Both of them focus to some degree on siblings dealing with the distressing state of health of their mothers, though I think one can easily guess that Totoro has a significantly happier ending about it.
**If I may lose some credibility with readers, I feel Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (Pixar’s CCO John Lasseter is notably a Ghibli fan and possibly the biggest credit to their stateside exposure, though his creative input on the movie was probably not that much) attempts this as well and actually accomplishes it for the most part and I am as a result an inveterate apologist for it.

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Blood’s Thicker Than Mud

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I have only one criticism of Mudbound, Dee Rees’ sophomore feature adapting Hillary Jordan’s novel, so I’m gonna open with it and then be flatout done talking shit about Mudbound. Especially because it isn’t really an entirely fair criticism and it isn’t even close to justifying the amount of sleeping done on the film. But here I go anyway stating my obvious feeling about Mudbound: It is not as interesting looking a film as I’d like it to be. Much as I am happy to see Rachel Morrison’s name show up on the Oscar nominees for Best Cinematography (the very first woman to receive the honor), it is way too clean for the grubby tale of generational hardships in the South that Mudbound is, threatening to be the one element that gets in the way of allowing us to sink into the many points of view Mudbound provides because of how aesthetically picturesque the imagery is. It’s not as though Morrison doesn’t know how to settle the tone of the story, especially in the darker moments where she’s so mindful of shadows and rural color tones in a dusty olden manner, but it’s way too sharp in a modern way to not hold the viewer at a divide in the time setting.

But of course, “you’re too good at your job” is the best kind of criticism to have for some. And I like to think that my expectations were way too high on account of Dee Rees’ debut feature Pariah being handily one of the best-looking movies of the decade, possibly the century if I’m wildin’ a bit. And considering the quality of literally everything else in Mudbound, it’s still no excuse for the lack of marketing and campaigning on the part of Netflix, the lack of attention given to it by viewers, and the lack of love given it to it by an awards season that was DEFINITELY aware of its existence but still acted like better movies were around this year.

Yeah, I think at this point it should be obvious this is less a review than a rant, but I’ll try to reign it back after one more unqualified superlative: Mudbound is not only better than Pariah in otherwise every way, making the sort of evolutionary step in direction one dreams of out of the talented Rees, it’s also better than possibly all of Best Picture nominees this year*.

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OK, wait one more superlative and this one I will be able to qualify: In spite of Bright and Mute‘s… *giggle* “world-building” and the production value of a Jolie film and all those super pigs, I handily believe Mudbound is the most ambitious film Netflix has released. Narrative and thematic ambition, mind you. There’s no super-pigs here. What Rees and co-writer Virgil Williams have managed to thread out of Jordan’s novel is a sprawling view of 1940s Mississippi and when I say sprawling, I mean sprawling. The screenplay casts its net wide on what it whats to observe about the state of existence in the years of and after World War II, what that means for a black woman to feel obligated out of survival to have to neglect her own children for the well-being of another, what that means for a black man to be in a position where he can build or earn his own property and yet the state of American society steels leaves him to be trampled underfoot, what it means to be a white woman resigned to domesticity too quickly to stifle her own romantic dreams and sinking into misery, what it means to be an entitled white man on the road to being the gargoyle of his monstrous father but desperate to establish a decent household in financially hard times.

The black woman is Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige), the black man is her husband Hap (Rob Morgan). The white woman is Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan), the white man is her husband Henry (Jason Clarke), son of the odious racist Pappy (Jonathan Banks). In the middle of all of this is still the perspectives of Florence and Hap’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Henry’s younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), both of whom are drafted overseas to Europe in the thick of the war and discover a vastly more different environment than America – especially Ronsel, treated less objectionably for his skin color (this watering down of Europe’s own racism would possibly be more objectionable to me if it weren’t co-written by a black woman) – then return to the same old miserable South they came from.

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It’s a film of many themes and many perspective (pretty much all the characters I named except Pappy have their points of view adopted by the movie): masculine camaraderie, surrounding violence, both sides of abandonment (as we later learn more about Ronsel’s life in Europe), the trauma of war, the resilience of enlightened youth versus the resignment of tired old. Race, gender, class. It’s all explored in this tapestry of the toughness of life and all the angles they have to come from: man or nature or cruelty or desperation. None of these elements are approached with less than the amount of intimacy that Rees afforded her lead character in Pariah. It’s the kind of storytelling that makes me think that Rees could make any movie in the world from this point on and do a decent job with it.

But as Ebert said, it’s not what you’re about, it’s how you’re about it. All the Great American Novel approaches in the world could not get me over the moon about this movie if it weren’t an incredible piece of craftsmanship, such as how Mako Kamitsuna deftly cuts into moments to give ownership of the moment to a particular character so we can understand their inner commentary, sometimes to more than one character at a time just by mere patience and condensing all of the things Mudbound wants to say into a powerful 2-hour package.

And there’s an even bigger gambit in between all of the sound design making us feel the infertile soil beneath the characters’ feet reflecting off of their inability to grow out of their situation with the decision to use multiple narrative voiceovers for our six characters, which is just an insanely bad idea most times. Mudbound is not one of those times, Rees and the soundtrack fully able to space out those voiceovers to work for interiority of character and them lift off of them for sweeping grandiosity, a providing of several pieces of a larger picture of a time and place that is far in the past without having the same sort of divide the cinematography gives us. This isn’t necessarily something that would be easy without the help of one of the year’s best ensembles, who prove to be just as adept at soulful recitations of thoughts as they are at weary postures showcasing how hard life has stepped on them** and their struggle to still retain humanity and dignity in all of that, but the fact that Rees could make such an outrageous move in only her second feature and pull it off without a false note ringing in any of the voiceover work should be enough of a indication of what a miracle Netflix’s most worthy Oscar contender yet has been.

*The only real nominee that gives it a run for its money rhymes with Thantom Phread.
**And mind you after everything the characters go through, the ending feels so emotionally right. I felt like crying.

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Hey guys, it’s me, videogameDunkirk

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This late after its initial release (though there is indeed the possibility of an Oscar season rerun given its certainty in the Best Picture slate at this point in a weak year), it doesn’t really matter to housekeep what format exactly I saw Christopher Nolan’s World War II picture Dunkirk or what I’d recommend it in. But just for formality’s sake, I may as well state I was lucky enough to catch it in both regular 70mm projection and in IMAX digital format*. And celluloid purists be damned, after watching it in IMAX, I cannot imagine living without bigger format accommodating the full breadth of most of the imagery (one of the storylines most obviously was not shot on IMAX due to the clear logistics of the scene and so it’s in a 2.20:1 format opposed to the rest of the IMAX 1.90:1. The switch may be jarring to some, but what isn’t kind of jarring about Nolan and editor Lee Smith’s choice of editing style, anyway? I’ll get to that in a bit, but I just want to point out that while most of the imagery cut by the popular 70mm 2.20:1 version of the film is essentially empty space of sea and sky, that goes a long way in implying the length and distance our characters have from safety. Which ratchets up the tension in an anxious way.

That tension coming from portraying the real-life 1940 evacuation of British soldiers from the French shore of Dunkirk as the unseen German forces surround them during their invasion of France in World War II. And being a Christopher Nolan film, one of the mainstream filmmakers most fascinated with playing around narrative structure, the story of Dunkirk’s desperate waiting game and evacuation is told through three different strands and timespans: The Mole, following a week of the novel-named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to find a way out of the mass of sitting ducks that is British soldiers trapped on the beach with on-edge private Alex (Harry Styles) and the uncommunicative Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). The Sea, following a day of the civilian ships commissioned from Weymouth to help the evacuation effort, amongst them Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan), who end up finding a shell-shocked soldier stranded in the ocean (Cillian Murphy) who tries to force them to turn away from Dunkirk. And the Air, following three spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, and an uncredited Michael Caine in order of importance) as they fly for an hour to give air support to the departing ships and protect them from the hawking German stukas.

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The intention is clear – Nolan wants a comprehensive look at the experience of the fearful lives in one of the most fearful moments in European history – made all the more clearer in the fact that none of these characters have much to inner life within them except the desire not to die, leading more to audience proxies for experiential intensity than any deep entities. Such was the source of much criticism towards Dunkirk and while they’re entitled to their opinion, I don’t really have a problem with it. I’m sure most audiences can relate to not wanting to die.

I’d be lying if I said I found the exercise a complete success, though To begin with, I can’t really read a logic to Lee Smith’s cross-cutting between the timelines. There’s not enough incident to the Mole storyline to believe the whole thing spans a week without narratively jumping a few days while the Air storyline is just an extended flight sequence with occasional interruption by Stuka fire. Neil Fulwood at Agitation of the Mind made mention of peripheral moments in the Mole storyline such as the bodies returning with the changing tide that could have been given more room to allow a tapestry of experiences, rather than just keeping it entirely restrained to two points of view – Tommy or the frustratingly patient commanding officer Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). Smith doesn’t lose all that much momentum, but the temporal parameters just aren’t well-suited by his cutting.

That said, there is payoff. Significant payoff, one of the highlight sequences in 2017 summer cinema where the film is aware of the exact timepoint where the three storylines will be colliding and not only is the moment heightened and intense, but the movie’s anticipation of this begins to double down on pacing into the moment like a quickening perception of time, the sort of “holy shit!” fright you get entering a car crash. And boy oh boy does somebody have to give Smith all the credit for that.

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Credit as well given to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema in providing the sober reality of the entrapped situation with sandy greys and browns and blues without ever losing the sharpness of the imagery with the delicacy of a war photograph. The blues only inhabit the empty distance when Bolton declares how easily he can see home from the port. And aiding that photography in filling in the atmosphere is a sound mix of distant booms and explosions to jolt the viewer’s heart for every time the Germans thwart the desperate British troops’ runs for safety for punctuation or promise an endless chaos even beyond our characters’ occasional apparent safety. Or the stuka sirens alone signifying the dread growing in the coming gunfire to rain on our helpless subjects, doing a better job of that than the atonal paste of noise that Hans Zimmer’s score attempts to provide and then tries to pile on the hamfisted nature by establishing a progressive beat click. Beyond Zimmer’s work, Nolan and company have provided a comprehensive observation of the terrors of Dunkirk that pulls every clear technique short of gore to interject anxiety and stress into the film.

Dunkirk is truly not a waiting game of a movie, it’s full of motion and energy in a despairing and dire premise. And that energy forces the sort of violent shakes that an audience must respond to. It’s the sort of detached presentation that you forget the whole context until its second-to-last note of a bored reading of Churchill’s speech, but it’s not devoid of sentiment when it opens with a character who we are meant to assume will wipe his ass with Nazi propaganda or a character who we sadly witness die is venerated by his local paper. And it’s not as though the actors don’t do what they can to allow their sense of self shade the characters’ response as human (best performed by Rylance, Styles, Branagh, and Keough in that order). But it is a schematic adaptation of a historical event transformed into a vehicle for audience fright without any nationalism or patriotism (probably ideal in the context of Brexit). Some may find that a bit exploitative, but for me, at least on my first two viewings, I found it thrilling enough to bring me to empathize with every single face in the crowd of soldiers on that beach.

*I was indeed frustrated that the sole South Florida IMAX at the Ft. Lauderdale Museum of Science and Discovery didn’t have it in IMAX 70mm, but there’s a very embarrassing rumor that explains why.

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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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31 NIGHTS OF HALLOWEEN – 20 – Welcome Home

Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.

For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of select horror films in all of the spectrum, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…

This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. And here I am late again. If nothing else, it is because the next installment is to come out later this afternoon and will be another video. Until then, I was recalling movies that I think would be a fun little watch as I continue work further on the double feature style film. And the one that particularly popped in my mind is something I find very terrifying to think about putting into words, but here I go…

So, a lot of movies really try too hard to be this way. There is a significant percentage of films in the world that will swear by Odin Allfather that they are so wacky and weird and immune of any form of rational analysis that they dare you to accurately and reasonably critique them and to be honest, only a handful of them are worthy of that swagger and attitude. Bong Joon-ho’s films, Love Exposure, Phantom of the Paradise, maybe the works of Don Coscarelli, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento…

So I decided to take a deep plunge and finally directly address one of those films. Possibly the most outlandish and unchained of all of these films.

House. Which, before I should dig deeper into this flick, I should note that I love unabashedly. It is a gloriously fun movie that I expect one to either leave it shrieking their heads off or laughing themselves silly. Which is kind of fine by the film either way, which you find the more you get into it. Not because it seems to willingly allow itself to mix in its horror and comedy elements, but House seems to be the type of anomaly where each and every bit of it serves as an avant-garde Rorschach blot to the audience and filmmaking playground for director Obayashi Nobuhiko. I’ve witnessed both reaction to the film many times as well as other reactions. There’s just no sensible approach to it, ideally.

So how the fuck did the science of moviemaking bring us to such an astonishing celluloid creature?

Well, through JawsJaws came out in 1975 as a huge international hit and Japan, which had just snugly placed itself in worldwide consideration as a cultural source of cinema, decided they wanted to get in on that blockbuster feel. So, they looked to the best place to grab fresh and upcoming directors for a film – television advertisements. No, seriously, stop laughing, I’m not trying to make this subtly comic. At the time in Japan, television ads were a good source for directos honing their craft and establishing a certain style to themselves. So, Obayashi was the name out of the tv ad wizard hat that Japanese film empire Toho picked to create a film that would be able to rival Jaws as a blockbuster for all the local hooligans and whippersnappers to race into theaters to see.

Ok, I know this is getting more and more ridiculous, especially in consideration of the fact that a movie like House could possibly be considered even slightly similar to Jaws, but I haven’t even started talking about the premise of the movie. Please hold on a little longer.

Anyway, Obayashi had a habit with his then pre-teen daughter Chigumi and decided “well, why not play that game with her where I ask her to shoot me ideas and I use them in a film script?” Which is what he did. The majority of House is direct from the mind of the 13-year-old girl who was playing an imagination game with her moviemaking dad. So what kind of child’s mind fable did we get out of it?

Well, we got a film that follows Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) and her six friends Prof, Kung Fu, Sweet, Mac, Melody, and Fantasy to visit her aunt’s home in the distance of Japan. The reason for this trip comes from Gorgeous’ own spite for the woman her father proposed to, Ryoko (Haruko Wanibuchi). Gorgeous finds this an outright insult to the memory of her late mother and refuses to spend her summer with Ryoko, so off she goes to meet and stay with her distant aunt (Yoko Minamida). And from there weird stuff starts happening to the girls that gets really threatening really quickly.

Although, to be honest, from the very first seconds of the films, the weird things have already begun. It’s only within the titular house where the characters actively become aware of the absurdity that wraps itself around this film.

A good portion of this surreal essence of the film comes directly from how the entirety of the film declares artificiality. It’s a movie that thrives off showing off the techniques of the camera and playing around with it, similar to how Bram Stoker’s Dracula works except without really letting the techniques dissolve into the storytelling. Indeed instead the techniques accent the elements of the story, the attitude, the tone, but it still stands out in itself like the strings to a puppet being visible – a Man with the Movie Camera with a plot, if I may say so. From the very saturated lens and colors on the picture, switching back and forth however the mood suits, to the beautifully painted backdrops, these are all things we are meant to notice and consider just a part of experiencing the movie.

Admittedly, this approach to material could go either way in the end and nobody could really hate anybody for finding the movie stupid or just plain wrong. It wouldn’t matter.

To me, though, it’s an outstanding triumph that the movie is able to get away with the randomness and the frank display of its content within itself as a film and still not only retain its horror sensibilities, but to also strengthen it. I know a lot of people like to talk about how immensely fun and joyous it is as the creation of a 13-year-old mind (and it is undoubtedly), but I’m also very moved by how stunningly dark it is.

The movie holds onto a number of themes within it that are not exactly connected by themselves and wouldn’t ideally be placed in such a whimsical context, but still carry emotional weight when the stock characters do not – hate, fear, bullying, missing a deceased loved one, the inability to move on with change, responsibility, and so on… In particular, I’m really stunned by how maturely the film at least deals with the devastation of war – since it’s Japan in 1977, the war in question will undoubtedly be World War II, but tragedy does not get old. Before we even meet the aunt, there is some anchor of emotion in the form of the girls telling the story of her lost love during the events of World War II and it’s quite the poignant moment in the middle of a film that doesn’t really bother poignancy too much.

In all honestly, though, the film’s entire sensibility is based solely on its audience’s attitude to it. If there is ever a movie to be considered subjective at any approach, it is simply going to be House. But it does plant its feet firmly on the ground of a horror film – featuring blood sprays and focusing on the massacre of trapped young girls in a dark house for evil intentions – as well as a comedy film – providing visual jokes and physical comedy at any turn.

The result is a fable, a fairy tale mixed with nightmare. Some people will giggle at it, some people will stay awake at night thinking of what the story says, some people will just consider themselves outgrown for the tale and just turn away. But it’s not something that the film can reject, nor does it prefer to.

It’s a complex film, but in the end, its complexities and all its drive comes from the mind of that one young little girl who decided to dream up a haunted house story and its approach by a director whose filmmaking style is based entirely on using the filmmaking practice as his own toy box that brings about one of the most unique experiences ever provided to the world (the US didn’t get a release for the film until 2009, believe it or not) and how well those two approaches from two related people mesh makes the Obayashis the best father-daughter team in cinema. Suck it, Hustons, Argentos, and O’Neals!