Skip to content

An Open Letter to Coco (2017); and How it Connects with My Own Journey to Finding and Honoring My Ancestors.

January 17, 2018

Dear Coco,

       I really enjoyed watching watching your story unfold the other night. You stirred something deep inside of me that made me ugly cry hard in a theater full of people; a cry so guttural and visceral that I had to excuse myself to the bathroom to get my shit together. I was speechless after seeing you and it took effort to process all of the emotions coursing through me afterwards. I deeply appreciate how you worked against my expectations while still confining yourself to the typical arc of an animated story of your type. Who knew that an animated movie about a boy grappling with his love for music in a family that despises it (because a great, great, great grandfather walked away from the family for a musician’s career) would actually be a reminder to honor our ancestors, respect our heritage, and appreciate our culture. Coco you managed to be simple on the surface in order to outline more complex themes that are all too relevant in our society. You set your sights on reminding us of the harsh reality that families are broken up every day because of a lack of I.D. or policies made by isolated politicians who don’t see your story as plainly as you laid it out. You reminded us of border walls, of DACA, of parentless children who grow up with a warped sense of their heritage because an important piece of there life is missing or left behind. And yet, you still somehow spoke to me on an individual level.

       I’ll let you in on some personal insight, Coco: I just recently traced my DNA back to the mother land. Before Christmas I took the Ancestry.com DNA test and since receiving my results, I’ve called multiple family members to ask them about our family tree and any great, great grandparents that they may know. My father, mother, and great aunt provided me what they could but the tree does branch out beyond slavery just yet. Since childhood, when I first started asking where my family derives from more than two generations back, I’ve been met with uncertainty at the answer and admittance that my family just never thought to ask about those things before—no doubt the result of growing up in country ruled by white supremacy that often broke up the Black family and didn’t bother to keep records of early African American family history.

       But that hasn’t stopped the excitement that rises from each family member when they hear what I’ve learned during this process. Everyone seems giddy, anxious even, to discover members of the family we never knew about. There’s an innate desire to find the ancestors we didn’t know existed, or remember those we haven’t thought about in years. And Coco, you came at the right time to serve as a nice bookend to the pages I’m attempting to fill in about my heritage. I’m not going to lie to you Coco, I had some some issues with your storytelling methods and there’s a gaping plot hole that you practically fall through by the third act. There are also some existential, religious qualms I had, but this isn’t the time or place to discuss that because I recognize you are an animated film that just wanted to put your people and Mexican culture on your back. And you did a fantastic job of doing so. You were insightful, introspective, and beautiful to watch, and for that Coco I thank you.

Sincerely,

The Cinehpiliac

636461783516051023-coco

Advertisements

Processing My Feelings About Phantom Thread (2018)

January 15, 2018

I just finished watching Phantom Thread… and hmm. I’m still trying to pinpoint how and what I’m supposed to feel walking away from it. This review serves more as a personal workshop for me to formulate those ideas for a final consensus. I don’t have strong emotions towards the film either way, but I’m not necessarily indifferent to it. This listless confusion is either the result of watching a physically beautiful yet strongly underdeveloped story unfold or just a typical reaction to Paul Thomas Anderson being Paul Thomas Anderson. I can’t decide. Phantom Thread is a simple tale of a woman (Vicky Krieps) who falls in love with a complicated man: Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), London’s premiere fashion designer. Their romance moves along swiftly without notions of time after their meet cute takes place while the woman, Alma, is waitressing. Seemingly drawn together by fate, Alma serves as a muse of sorts for Reynolds while he in turns grants her a life of luxury and elegance. Alma becomes enthralled with being Reynolds’ partner but soon vies for all of his attention; a complicated want of a narcissistic man with obsessive tendencies. But Alma soon proves she’ll do anything to keep Reynolds’ attention no matter how messy things may get.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s patient camera movements paired with Johnny Greenwood’s decadently classical score makes for a hypnotic story that flutters along; and while Alma and Reynolds’s relationship is the film’s centerpiece, audiences are treated to gorgeous sequences interspersed throughout of cutting, sewing, designing, and presenting the lovely gowns that Reynolds and his older sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), oversee. Day-Lewis, in his final performance as we know it, is wonderfully subdued more than usual here. He plays his character with considerable delicacy that adds an extra layer to an already rigid man with crystallized thoughts about the world outside of his own head. Day-Lewis’ on screen presence pairs sensationally with Manville, whose character’s own sanctimoniousness is worn on her sleeve. Manville is without a doubt the film’s MVP. She commands attention whenever she’s on screen and humorously delivers some of the most stinging blows from the script.

But there’s something missing from Phantom Thread that doesn’t make the events of the story add up or make the characters stable enough for me to feel one way or the other by the end. There seems to be a thread missing if you will that ties this story together. Characters are motivated by their own greed, their own egotism, their own delusions of grandeur and even fate but there’s still a surface level motivation missing from the text to truly understand why these characters accept their fate. Alma serves as the film’s narrator as she relays the saga of her relationship with Reynolds to another character. Yet it still feels like we don’t know anything about her. In perhaps the only bit of insight into Alma’s motivations that we get, she admits to feeling that if Reynolds were to die he’d be waiting for her in another life and the life after that. She says this line with a somber delight which further confuses her true intentions as the film progresses.

Alma and Reynolds’ relationship is one built on toxic co-dependency. Though the glow of soft lighting follows Alma and Greenwood’s score screams romance, Phantom Thread isn’t a romantic story. Their relationship doesn’t conjure up feelings of hope or good will. It feels sullied. It’s two lonely people who aren’t good for each other putting up with the other’s shortcomings for reasons that aren’t fully detailed. So maybe Paul Thomas Anderson delivered a cynical romance that I wasn’t prepared for– perhaps that’s where my confusion stems from. Or maybe the story just isn’t fleshed out well enough for this film to work. It’s not on the level of Magnolia in its convoluted pretentiousness but it’s also not as profound as The MasterPhantom Thread follows the same motifs of Anderson’s work but it feels less accessible to a larger audience. That’s not a good or bad thing, it just makes it hard for me to convincingly recommend it to more people.

SEE IT. If you’re a fan of PTA’s most recent films and are used to him creating interesting stories that don’t really make sense.

Call Me By Your Name (2017); And How a Fabulous Cinematographer Can Make A Mediocre Film Award Bait

January 2, 2018

Call me by Your Name is the type of film that feels like a sentimentalist’s wet dream in cinematic form. One that’s complete with tantalizing images coated in warm natural light that radiates a feeling of contentment back to its viewers. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeproom is largely responsible for this effect and any sense of tenderness that audiences may feel. Shot on 35mm and possessing a keen eye for atmospheric detail, Mukdeeproom’s work allows the images on screen to gush in rich, deep-tones that holds on to fragments of lint and dust floating around. Mukdeeproom is a magician of his craft, transforming the  artificial light used throughout the production of Call Me by Your Name into a soft and sensual lighting source that feels natural to the environment. This feeling of authenticity affects how viewers relate to these characters. Unfortunately, Luca Guadangio’s weak direction prevented me from heralding this as an impressive piece of art or moving in any sense of the word.

Don’t get me wrong, Guadangio is a competent visual storyteller able to conjure realistic performances from his subjects on screen. Together with James Ivory’s script, Guadangio captures tender moments and hanging glances during emotionally charged scenes of dialogue. For instance, a beautifully captured scene in which Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) proves he’s dad of the year by meeting his heartbroken son with love and understanding encouraging him to revel in the passion and pain that love brings. It’s scenes like this that tug at your heartstrings and pulls you into the film. Too bad Guadangio can’t grasp how to capture moments when nothing is being said.

Audiences follow Elio (Timotheé Chalamet), a teenage Jewish American in 1983 spending his summer in the Italian countryside with his family. The son of wealthy intellectuals, Elio spends his leisure time reading books and composing music. His summer gets shaken up when an American graduate student, Oliver (Armie Hammer), joins his family as a personal research assistant to his archaeologist father. What begins as a contrarian relationship between Elio and Oliver soon develops into a sexual attraction, despite Elio’s blossoming relationship with a friend Marzia (Ester Garrel). The two men embark on a seemingly secret fling that grows more passionate as Oliver’s days with the family wanes creating complications in matters of the heart.

But Call Me by Your Name is too inconsistent in its filmmaking style and character development—which were largely responsible for snatching me out of the film— to prompt any pure emotional connection from developing. I’ll even go out on a limb to say that any feeling of romanticism felt toward this film is due to Mukdeeprom’s wash of nostalgia and love over these dry, underdevelopment moments. By the time the film comes to its meditative and extremely personal ending, I felt confused by the sounds of sniffles around me in the theater as I couldn’t understand how anyone made a connection to these characters.

Guadangio makes thematic decisions that serve little to no purpose or make sense (the insertion of vocal tracks halfway into the film for one). He has a penchant for focusing on objects and moments when these objects and moments don’t possess a clear purpose to the story. In one scene, a deadline is given to Elio, a deadline so important that all day he continually checks his watch and asks for the time (the bright sunlight during these scenes already answers his inquiries). As the deadline approaches he is shown entertaining guests while the camera focuses on his watch, which is off. This happens multiple times throughout the sequence leading to a heighten sense of tension as we anticipate the likelihood that Elio will miss his deadline. But that’s not the case and time becomes absolutely irrelevant to the scene. Multiple times this happens throughout the film with Guandangio zooming in here and focusing for longer than usual there adding a false sense of tension to scenes only to reveal continuous monotony as the story drudges on.

Which leads to my biggest gripe with Call Me by Your Name. Nothing happens. The little tension that does exist comes from the relationship that develops between Elio and Oliver in a very Sam and Diane—will they won’t they— trope. The film’s sole focus is the sexual awakening of Elio and his blossoming love affair with Oliver. But it takes time for the story to get there which leaves much of the first act and a chunk of the 2nd hanging on quick glimpses into this family’s laid-back summer. On one hand, it’s an aesthetic Xanax that makes you warm and fuzzy over the feeling of serenity that is ever present in the beautiful landscape of the Italian countryside. On the other, it’s a snail-paced build up to a relationship that feels forced and shallow. Oliver’s aloof arrogance throughout the first half of the film doesn’t explain his sudden passion for Elio by the middle, while Elio’s passion for Oliver feels more like a confused admiration rather than love or even lust.

Call Me by Your Name tends to feel too art-house and elitist at times. We are surrounded by these intellectuals who all feel the need to one up each other in the realm of sputtering out facts for no reason other than to show their superiority. The family realize that Olivier will fit in when he matches wit with the father correcting a statement on the origins of the word “apricot” (it derives from German instead of Arabic as the father assumed). When Oliver requests that Elio repeat the beautiful tune he’s strumming on a guitar, Elio responds oddly by showboating his talents as a musician. He takes Oliver to the piano room and proceeds to play various versions of the tune as if *insert classic pianist here* were to play Bach. These moments ramble on for too long from a stable distance and never adds anything to either character except their own sense of self-importance.

I contend that this prevents Call Me by Your Name from being inviting or accessible to a larger audience. It’s a film that inflates the ego of the creators and pats those intellectuals, who unironically enjoyed those moments on the back, since naturally intellectuals and artists will ultimately serve as this film’s core base. Because of this it misses the opportunity to be a sensual coming of age story that’s relatable to anyone who’s fallen in love. Call Me by Your Name lacks the proper tools to be an effective coming of age tale as Elio doesn’t learn anything except heartache. He uses a friend for his own pleasure ignoring her wishes to not get hurt by him. He in turn hurts her without a second thought and there is no atonement for his deed or for any of his truly selfish moments in the film. Neither Elio or Oliver comes of age, they just fall into a sexual relationship filled with passion but no heart. I’d rather this have been a film that leaned into its sexuality instead of playing it in the back and pretending this is a love story when it’s clearly not. But thanks to Mukdeeprom’s tasteful cinematography, I understand why many will think it is.

SEE IT. With reservations and if for nothing else but it’s beauty.

Race, Gender, and Cinematic History: Ramblings on Aida Overton Walker and Clara Bow

November 15, 2017

I don’t intend for this essay to degrade all men or shame them. That’s not my job nor do I care to do so. Anyway, I think our current climate is doing fine taking care of that. This is just a means to further extrapolate on the struggles that women, Black and non-Black, endure strictly because of our genetic makeup. Beyond that however, this is just an excuse to write about two amazing women that I feel aren’t heavily touted in history the way they deserve. I’ll start with an anecdote:

Over the weekend I went to a bar and began making small talk with a male stranger. Somehow, per usual with my conversations, the small talk turned into a deep political conversation teeming with complicated topics like race, crime rate, confirmation bias, and the current deluge of sexual assault allegations coming out of Hollywood and within the political sphere. In response to this part of the discussion in which myself and another woman sitting with him explained just how common aggressive sexual advances can be, the man responded to our explanation by saying that he knew of men that were raped and sexually assaulted too. “So women,” he said with his hands up in earnest sincerity, “I get it.”

While his assessment that sexual assault knows no discrimination is correct, what this guy could not comprehend in his drunken arrogance and privileged views on the world was one simple truth: no, you don’t get it and you never will unless you’ve personally endured it. The recent window of allegations that has opened may give us all a deeper look into the imbalance of power in the world—despite women comprising of half the global population—but it certainly doesn’t allow any of us to truly understand what women who come forward to reveal abuse, and those who don’t, are grappling with. I think it’s important that we all remember to not confuse sympathy with empathy because to do so is a fallacy that makes us believe we are able to handle the weight of someone else’s tragedies.

Our individual struggles are too nuanced and loaded to be written off as a simple “I’ve never encountered your pain, but I get it.” Similarly, women will never understand the weight of sexual assault endured by a man; nor will white people understand being Black and navigating through America; nor will able-bodied citizens grasp what it’s like to be a lifelong disabled body citizen. Even financial destitution can never be truly understood by someone who hasn’t endured it. Hypothetical mental gymnastics don’t solve these issues. However, I believe it is our duty as human beings to validate one another’s experiences and commit to making this difficult existence we are all born into easier for each other. If for nothing else but for the simple fact that we have all consciously agreed to take part in a society that places you at a disadvantage based on non-controllable forces and occurrences.

This realization seized me the next night after that bar talk when I fell into a rabbit hole of history. These days an internet spiral is more of a chore than a pleasure, but the other night I possessed a laser like focus when revisiting the lives of two women in the early 20th century: Aida Overton Walker and Clara Both. Both are idols of mine that have appeared in my life years ago through synchronicity. Bow during a silent movie obsession I possessed in my youth despite having never watched a silent film at that time, and Aida appeared during my research on Black women in cinematic history, although she’s never appeared in a film. On this night, while spending the better part of 3 hours deep diving into each woman’s life, my heart broke repeatedly at how their careers were eclipsed and their histories almost erased because of the times the lived in.

Aida possessed an arresting glow that went beyond physical beauty. She currently decorates my cubicle at work as a constant reminder of the glamour and resiliency held by Black women during the turn of the century, an era of unbridled determination and self-awareness that many aren’t aware existed then. Growing up, I was privileged enough to have countless Black women to admire. During my childhood, there was a boom of Afrocentrism that swept over the Black community and bleed into the mainstream culture. I had television, movies, and music to remind me of the beauty of my people, of our creativity, of our place in American society and our culture. We were fierce then, unrelenting. Most importantly we were multifaceted. We were nerds, thugs, models, cool kids, smart, intelligent and we knew our history. The exposure was short-lived. It seemed by the time I grew into my adolescence all of this disappeared. Our representation got squandered once again forcing us into one-dimensional caricatures: video girls, rappers, strippers; mammies, toms, and coons.

That knowledge of history was no longer present in my life within pop culture. I had to search for it and there was little encouragement to do so. That is until I watched Spike Lee’s Bamboozled in high school. Lee’s biting commentary about a television producer finding unwanted success when he reverts to coonery shook me to the core. I was struck with an unshakable need to truly know the history of my people and not just our capture, enslavement, and civil rights achievements. Blacks have made profound contributions to American culture but most of us grow up only learning about 5% of it. Little white boys that I knew in middle school used to regurgitate the poisonous beliefs that Blacks hadn’t contributed anything to America. They thought we only made rare achievements now and then. This thought process was so prevalent that it began to leech into my subconsciousness. Though I luckily shook free of that belief, it taunts thoughts of Americans all across the country. Bamboozled helped teach me the importance of not only knowing my culture’s history but communicating that education so that it’s not rewritten by the wrong hands.

Aida Overtone Walker was aware of this over a century ago when she lit up the stage and captivated both American and British audiences with her talents. Considered the “Queen of the Cake Walk” (the electric slide of its day), Aida was a vaudeville triple threat. She didn’t seek to become merely successful on the stage, but she worked to change the hearts and minds of those who witnessed her. She wanted to uplift the Black race and refused to partake in the status quo of performing demeaning roles and donning black face even though her stage partners, husband George Walker and stage actor Bert Williams, did so. Aida’s fight for proper representation seeped into her performances and dance numbers which guided her overseas to London where she taught elite, high-class society members these lessons as well.

by Cavendish Morton, sepia glossy print on printing-out paper, 1903

At the height of Aida’s fame, a popular, often salacious dance was trending in the theatre world. The “dance of the seven veils” or “Salomé’s” dance, was a sexually charged number that Aida wanted to reexamine. Oscar Hammerstein, I invited her to perform her version of Salomé on his famed Rooftop Theatre. Instead of given audiences what they expected, she performed the dance with emotion, modesty, and creativity. From records of the performance, Aida delivered a truly feminist inspired performance that pissed off some because they wanted eroticism and impressed others. Aida was sick of seeing Black women be the object of sexual desire while being stereotyped as deviants. She showed that this dance, salacious in nature and usually written by men, could possess emotion and intention.

Aida became one of the only Black performers to showcase her talents in exclusively white New York theaters and is known for evolving her career into an artistic, highly influential one. Nevertheless, Aida’s career was short-lived and she died from kidney related illness in 1914 at 34 years old. It hurts me to my core that her beauty and talent managed to just miss the mark of getting crystallized on film. The same year that William D. Foster, one of the first African American filmmakers, completed The Railroad Porter in 1912, Aida and her longtime partner Williams cut ties over creative differences. A year later, Williams would star in Lime Kiln Field Day, the oldest surviving all-Black film. Although the film was abandoned during its post-production, the Museum of Modern Art recently restored and premiered it in 2014.

Two years after Aida’s death, Noble and George Johnson founded The Lincoln Motion Picture Company and produced socially conscious Black films setting the stage for Oscar Micheaux to follow in their footsteps making history as the most recognizable Black filmmaker of the early 1900s. Lack of funding and plain old racism prevented these companies and directors from continuing on, but imagine— just for a few seconds— how great it could have been had all these pieces fallen into enlightenment. Perhaps Aida would be arm in arm with Williams in the publicity stills for Lime Kiln Field Day. Perhaps her success and clout could have helped float the Black film companies of the time. Maybe America could have seen proper representation of Black women earlier than Hollywood allowed. It’s a silly fantasy, but as a classic film lover it’s one I’ll revisit for years to come.

————————————————————————————————————————————-

Now let’s talk about Clara, shall we? An actress that blessed the screen during the 1920s and 30s, Clara Bow possesses perhaps the most tragic tale of an attempt to break into the business as well the most inspirational story of how hope and determination can grant anyone the power to change their own destiny. Clara wasn’t supposed to be a star. She knew that and everyone around her knew it. She was a mealy little tomboy from Brooklyn who felt more comfortable hopping trains and playing baseball in the streets with the boys in her neighborhood. By her own accord, she never fit in and the girls at her school reminded her of this on a consistent basis. Clara grew up in a household with a mentally unstable mother, a father who worked relentlessly with bad luck on his side, and a house filled with painful memories and death. Clara found solace in the moving pictures which rustled a deep awakening in her soul that made her feel destined to be on the screen.

Doors tend to open when you’re determined and desire something. It’s up to you to walk through them when they do. Clara walked through, only to have subsequent doors repeatedly slammed in her face but she clung to the dream of being on the big screen to provide the hope for someone else that way the movies did for her. At 16, she heard of a contest for a bit part in a movie. She jumped at the opportunity although everyone made sure she knew what little faith they had in her attempts. By this point she was virtual outcast. Puberty had made her a young woman and to her despair all the boys she once called friends now treated her differently seeing her as a sexual object. She was regularly made to feel like the punchline of a perfect job by peers. Even when her own father attempted to defend her decision to go into acting to Clara’s mother, he told shat she may not be pretty but she was different.

Still, Clara tried. She won the contest and landed a role in a film. But life didn’t make anything for easy for Ms. Bow. Her part was cut when the film made its way to theaters. She dropped out of school having already missed multiple days commuting for the film. She spent the next 3 or so years hanging around studios and taking scrap parts. In that time, her mother attempted to murder her, had a nervous breakdown, then eventually died which sent Clara into depression. But just when her lips met the grainy refuge of rock-bottom she was offered a lead part. Her ambition and hard work was paying off and she continued receiving bigger roles but worked for hours on ends while her selfish agent manipulated her into thinking her career would fold at any moment.

The insiders of Hollywood kept the talented actress at arm’s length finding her tomboyish nature and honest candor off putting. Although she had become a huge star and a box office success by the late 1920s, she was struggling to stay sane as rumors about her private life clouded her reputation. She was made more of an outcast after baring her soul to the public through a short autobiography printed in Photoplay Magazine. The Hollywood elite recoiled at her brazen honesty. They steered clear of the tomboy from Brooklyn who was their equal. They excluded her from their inner circle as the press continued to hound her and fabricate atrocious stories about her life.

Bow was successful well into the Talkie Age and her talent continued to stay prevalent but her renegade personality left her on the fringes of what has been deemed worthy to be written about the same way the Hollywood elite scoffed at her in her heyday. With every inch of success that Clara achieved, scandal and hard times rocked her world. Before long the silver screen beauty with the expressive eyes and girlish charms retired from the business at 33 then spiraled into mental instability. After spending time in a sanitorium where she was given electric shock therapy on a regular basis, she left her husband and two children opting to live with a nurse until she died at 60. History attempted to erase Clara and many “authorities” on classic cinema history left her out of serious conversations on the silent era.

Bow’s initial treatment and Aida’s erasure from the conversation of important Black figures in history are examples and symptoms of a society that doesn’t value women or people of color. Thankfully, our cultural fabric is currently ripping at the seams and going through a massive shift. Thought most Americans aren’t aware how to respond to it, our status quo is changing and it’s for the best. Maybe now we can see prolonged peace and prosperity for those who’ve been given the short end of the stick for centuries thanks to racial inequality, gender bias, ableism, socio-economic discrimination, and ageism among the few. The unbalanced scales that have barely held us together as country are finally being recognized. To equalize the playing field and ensure we end the age of gender discrimination and white supremacy, we must first recognize the humanity in one another and respect each other’s history. We must stop treating the achievements of minorities as if they are one off, rare exceptions and instead properly give credit where it is due.

Perhaps it’s because the internet has made us impervious to ignoring our history. Perhaps we’ve just hit that inevitable point in the spiral where progressive tendencies are reaching out before conservatism makes its return. Either way the tides are changing and the struggles endured by minorities who fought to make a difference deserve their time in the spotlight so that we can all begin to empathize. If Aida and Clara’s own struggles taught me nothing else, it’s resilience in the face of resistance. It’s self-assuredness in spaces where others are unsure of you. It’s listening to that crackling fire within that drives you to believe in something more than yourself. I didn’t have to walk these women’s paths to understand their struggle. All I had to do was listen to their stories, validate their experiences, and promise myself that I will do what needs to be done to correct the problems they endured rather than contribute to it.

Perfect Blue (1997); And Our Complicated Relationship with Celebritism

October 9, 2017

Watching Perfect Blue was intense, gripping even—so much so that I’m still processing my way through it. As a story, it does many things right in the realm of being an effective psychological thriller, and yet I still feel slightly unsatisfied and partially gypped. Perfect Blue is an anime that I suggest every cinephile that’s ever said or thought the phrase, “I’m just not into anime” watch, especially if films among the same vein as Jacob’s Ladder and Fatal Attraction piques interest. It’s a beaming example of how animation can stand toe to toe with live action film and even heighten a story’s tension in ways that live action can’t. Satoshi Kon’s cerebral thriller follows Mima, a pop star that’s grown tired of her suffocating lifestyle as a singer and yearns for a change in trajectory. Having received praise for a previous acting gig, she sets her sights on becoming a thespian hoping to shed her good girl image with a role in a television drama akin to Law & Order.

However, not everyone is happy with Mima’s decision and she becomes just one of the many attempting to adjust to her career change. Unbeknownst to her, an adoring fan is vexed with Mima’s pop idol persona and angered by the shedding of her status as a singer. That disdain begins to be expressed in sinister ways. Meanwhile a website known as “Mima’s Room” appears online documenting the day to day feelings and actions of “Mima” the pop star to the complete shock of the real Mima. The resulting events cause the former idol to fall into a world of hallucination and depression as she begins to question if she’s even the real Mima or a fraud.

Don’t let the cartoon nature of this film turn you off if you aren’t savvy to the world of anime. Perfect Blue is a chilling thriller that foretold the dark side of internet impersonation at a time when computers were still a novelty. In one scene, we watch as Mima is taught how to open a browser and search the web when she first hears about Mima’s Room. She adorably hunts and pecks at the keyboard upon initial use and finds delight in reading the silly diary entries that seems to have her persona down to a T. It’s only when she begins to recognize private thoughts and unconscious patterns sprawled out in this online diary that she grows uneasy. We then take a hard turn into the uncanny and unreal sending viewers and Mima down a rabbit hole of delusions as we experience her nervous breakdown unfold in dreamlike ways.

And perhaps this is why I felt largely frustrated when watching Perfect Blue and completely unnerved by the ending. Not simply because of the reality that people can become truly unhinged by the status of a celebrity. It seems like human nature to fawn over someone that has been deemed “famous.” Humans tend to develop a physiological reaction to another human being that is socially adorned, or one that we admire: we excrete sweat, the heart starts to race, the senses heighten, outbursts of crying can happen, fainting, and simply losing any sense of “chill” one may possess. Some fans take this reaction a step further by wanting to become their idol or inflict harm on their idol or others because of this obsession. These are all things I’m aware of. My own reactions to celebrities and the movie/show Catfish alone have been a reminder of that. What struck me most was the all to real social responses to Mima’s decisions as well as having to watch her struggle in dealing with the pressures of the spotlight alone.

What Mima experiences is an unfortunate scenario that many talents thrust into the spotlight have dealt with and many more will suffer from. This coupled with the blatant disregard for her mental health shook me to the core. I found myself angry throughout the film. I victim-blamed Mima throughout by barking at the screen how she should stand up for herself against doing things she didn’t want to do. It took a humanizing scene in which we watch Mima fall to her bed sobbing in frustration for me to remember why this young woman—or any woman in a business that is willing to throw you away for the next hot commodity— refused to put up a fight.

It’s the same reason that movie producer Harvey Weinstein and countless others like him have been able to abuse their power and sexually harass women for so long. Mima fakes smiles when her agent tells her to because she doesn’t want to appear unhappy or ungrateful. She takes on a challenging, unpleasant role in the drama series because she doesn’t want to disappoint the people who worked hard to give her extra lines. She continues to work on set because she feels pressured to, even after two co-workers are murdered and she feels responsible for it. She carries a mountain of guilt and uncertainty on her back that is only made heavier by a string of harassments thrown her way.

And not once does anyone in her team offer her a shoulder to cry on or suggests that she take a break. As Sadayuki Murai’s script reveals, society as a whole refuses to sympathize with celebrities. We instead treat them like work horses who are supposed to grit and bear whatever tragedy or hurdle is thrown their way because they’re making lots of money: You’re in the spotlight, so smile; Don’t whine about politics, you’re a millionaire; Don’t complain about how hard it is to be a woman or a minority, be happy you made it; Get over your “bad day”, you’re rich; Get your shit together because I’m paying you and you should be grateful; Never mind that you’re a human doing a job.

Mima begins to suffer memory loss, depression, fainting spells, delusions and all the other telltale signs of a nervous breakdown and though everyone around her sees it, no one responds. No one is there for her and instead they further gaslight her about the very real fear that she’s experiencing forcing her to suffer alone. This element of Perfect Blue is all too real and more chilling than the creepy villain and the heart-pounding venture that ensues. Perfect Blue reflects on where we were in 1997, far worse but virtually the same as we are now. When I think of the people whose lives succumbed to the fact that those around them didn’t reach out because they had something to gain, I’m infuriated all over again that the we as a society have trained ourselves to let people suffer alone instead of being empathetic and caring.

Murai’s adaptation of Yoshikazu Takeuchi’s novel traps viewers into a web of scenarios that feel out of place only to act as a thread that connects us to a scene before or after. The colors are wonderful, the animation is tight and clean, and the ability to capture fear and tension within the story is tastefully done by Kon. It possesses all the best elements of a slasher film while being smart enough to present a social critique on how we turn a human being into an image, an avatar if you will, that we then project our own thoughts and beliefs onto. The most enlightening and tragic realization after watching Perfect Blue is that the true villain in Mima’s life is show business.

SEE IT. Then think of your favorite celebrity or persona. How would you react if they went against everything you thought you knew about them?

Ramblings on Noir City, Dragon Con and Representation in Media

September 6, 2017

Let’s talk about the past two weeks, shall we? I am finally coming down from a daily marathon of activities, events and general busyness. I have a new-found understanding of the Tasmanian Devil as I am now dizzy from spinning through life and consuming everything in my path. That grin and bewildered look on his face when he’d stop spinning is plastered on my own from being shell-shocked in some ways and ravaged by a drunken desire to begin spinning again. This daily marathon began last weekend when I joined Turner Classic Movies in Chicago for Noir City in partnership with TCM’s own Noir Alley. There I watched back-to-back noir films curated by the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller, while knocking back enough Rye whiskey to swear me off the sauce for a while.

On Noir City’s opening night, I found myself waiting with my co-worker for our ride to the Music Box Theatre. There she chatted with an older man, seemingly mild-mannered at first until we made acquaintance and began conversing. This older man turned out to be James Elroy, author of some of the most iconic true crime fiction novels of our generation. He was attending the festival to commemorate the 20th anniversary film adaptation of his novel L.A. Confidential and had the brilliant idea that we all ride together to the theater. Thank God for brilliant ideas! My ride with Elroy kicked off a deep dive into all the seedy, salacious drama and rumors of classic Hollywood… everything I live for! Elroy stunned my co-worker and I by dishing the dirt on who was well-endowed and who wasn’t; which actors were cruel assholes; which ones are currently involved in illegal, unsavory activities; and who are truly great people to work with: Joel Schumacher, Willem Defoe and Guy Pearce for instance. It was all unforgettable: off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush.

The ride was an absolute hoot that ended at the theater where we got our drinks and seats before revisiting the ‘90s classic L.A. Confidential. But Elroy’s information dump wasn’t over. He took the stage alongside Muller to introduce the film, where he proceeded to let the crowd know how shitty L.A. Confidential is compared to his book… naturally. While Elroy crassly tore the film apart, he instinctively promoted his own work making me anxious to dive into his original story to see the discrepancies for myself. Though Elroy laid out why he doesn’t like the film adaptation (although he admits it is his favorite adaptation of his work, the worst being Black Dahlia of course), Curtis Hanson’s ode to the classic Hollywood era in all of its glamour and seediness speaks for itself.

L.A. Confidential is still a gorgeous film seeped in shock, drama and surprise. Hanson drew out stunning performances from his actors that felt natural to their individual personas while capturing a coolness that seemed effervescent only in the 1940-1960s. L.A. Confidential manages to be a great popcorn muncher while also proving itself as a much deeper musing on America during the 1950s; a time of moral hypocrisy, racism, stanch capitalism and the beginning of the L.A.P.D.’s reputation as a hard-nosed, sadistic task force shouldering militarization and questionable practices as opposed to protecting the community they served. This deliberate investigation is largely Elroy’s doing, but Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s screenplay does wonders capturing it.

As the days went on, I watched nine more films at the Music Box including Dragnet, a colorful precursor to police procedural dramas. Jack Webb’s film version of Dragnet premiered three years after the television series had already taken off and become a hit. The film version encapsulates everything about the series that made it so iconic and influential from its tight close-ups, voice-over narration and ear-catching theme. The rest of the festival included a slew noir films focused on heists and robbery mostly unknown by the general public.

Kansas City Confidential, High Sierra, Drive a Crooked Road and The Aura were all gems that I watched for the first time featuring familiar faces and intriguing plotlines. However, Plunder Road was the one that took my breath away. This leisurely paced drama follows a group of men during and after a gold heist as they deal with pending consequences for their actions and attempt to evade police while heading for the border. We know nothing about these men. We know nothing of their history together, their home life nor how they found themselves in a life of crime. Like all noir films, their conscious decision to commit a crime seals their fate, and yet I was utterly invested in their journey holding my breath as the film came to its close. Hubert Cornfield’s tasteful direction adds color and character to the thin tale of a heist gone wrong.

After watching three days of noir, I decided to cleanse my pallet with a midnight exploitation film. Sleep deprived and loopy, I forced myself to stay awake for Last House on Dead End Street, a horribly made film with a legend that loomed large. Roger Watkins, the film’s star and director, concocted a truly disturbing film that conjures up interesting musings on America during the time of its production in 1972. But for more than 20 years after it was made, no one knew anything about who created and starred in this low-budget trash fest as the credits listed pseudonyms. When Watkins, a former porn director of the 1970s, admitted it was his project he also admitted that most of the budget at the time was spent on amphetamines to curb his habit.

This film possessed some strange magic that kept me wide awake the whole way through and restless with energy afterwards. Last House on Dead End Street follows Terry, a newly released convict who enlists the help of a few twisted friends to take out his frustrations on a group of smut filmmakers. They do so in gruesome, diabolical ways while filming the entire process. As a post-war society disillusioned by the hippie movement and strung out on the high that the 1960s left, America was in truly dark times during production which reflects itself all over the screen. Terry and his minions resemble Charles Manson and his family, whose lifestyle and murders marked the swan song of the Free Love movement. By 1972, America endured a social crisis struggling to find itself as the government went on as if it were business and usual. Last House on Dead End Street exudes this crisis through its grungy, sexually charged story of torture and nihilism.

Now, I likely gave this film more credit than it deserves. Don’t go rushing out to find this because frankly it sucks. It’s a poorly made, thinly veiled slasher film that was made so cheaply that it required voice overs for the dialogue. Supposedly there’s a three-hour version of this film. God bless the fool that finds themselves watching it. The version screened at the Music Box was already filled with an excruciating amount of padded shots and a snail-paced narrative. The actors often repeat themselves and shots are repeated because there’s nothing to this story that requires more than half an hour to tell it. Frankly, Last House on Dead End Street was garbage, but as a fan of exploitation, underground cinema this whet my appetite along with the perfectly curated experience that paired a series of trailers (The Toolbox Murders, Exposed, Jacob’s Ladder) and a short film on dicks beforehand.

Chicago was a blast and as cute as it always is when I visit its touristy side. I followed up that weekend with Dragon Con, filling my time with informative panels and saw enough cosplay to make me almost dread Halloween. This annual celebration of all things geeky and culty brought folks from all walks of life out in celebration of their favorite fandoms both new and old. My love of horror as a genre became marked by an insatiable need to ingest more thanks to the twisted minds of the speakers on the horror panels. We celebrated the 30th anniversary of 1987: “the greatest year for horror”. We fawned over the 40th anniversary of Dario Argento’s masterpiece Suspiria, while the Chiodo Brothers gave marvelous insight into the uncanny creepiness and social history of clowns (and I got to thank them for scaring the shit out of me as a child). I sat in a room full of Nightmare on Elm Street fans as we lauded The Dreams Warriors as the best in the series and I chatted ad nauseam about American Horror Story. I also learned the genius of mashing genres from TCM’s brilliant panel Noir… in Space! that focused on noir films that crossed over into sci-fi.

My entire experience at Dragon Con taught me what I want and no longer desire from my media ingestion as it ignited a desire that had sparked after completing the series The Last Kingdom. While watching the final episode about a Dane named Uhtred of Bebbanburg, who aided in uniting England as a continent and world power, I became incensed. Not only was the last episode just a frustrating watch, but I realized that once again here I was watching a show about white men doing white men things in a white centric world as if no one else existed during the Middle Ages. What were Africans doing at this time? How was Japan developing? What about India? How were other dynasties operating? What drama were they dealing with? Who were they having sex with or killing? Why are we still only focusing on Eurocentric stories that have been told in some way or another over and over again?

Dragon Con drove this point home as I saw everyone represented there. I saw a member of almost every race dressed as their favorite character. I saw a sliding scale of genders: men, women and everything in between. I saw people in wheelchairs, with walkers, with bodily braces and all having the time of their lives and looking stunning in their cosplay. The amount of diversity in gender, race and ableism was inspiring. It was refreshing. It was a reminder that humans come in all shapes and sizes and we need to stop swallowing bullshit stories that show the same type of people, the same types of bodies and the same expressions of love. There is no one shoe size fits all for humanity so why aren’t we as a whole demanding all these different sizes on film and television.

Although Dragon Con has work to do in their representation on the panels, the shows and films that are highlighted present viewers ways to see themselves. This is why I’m making it part of my personal crusade to only write about films and television shows that showcase underrepresented people. I learned so much from the panels at Dragon Con: a panel on Spiritualism and the Occult taught me that a woman ran for president in 1872 with a Black man as her running mate—Virginia Woodhull and Frederick Douglas (although he never accepted the nomination); during an Asian Exploitation and Horror panel I learned of the countless gems that Japan, Thailand, the Koreas, China and India have been making for decades; Movie Physics and Other Stupid Things taught me of the multiplicity within the science community and how collaboration is key to solving situations, despite most films regurgitating the false narrative of a single scientist saving the day.

All of this information placated my curious mind and retrained it to think outside of the confines that I usually do. In order to keep this focus, I must be weary of the type of media I take in. There is a reason America is undergoing another identity crisis. The racial makeup of this country is changing and many of us want to see that reflected in our government and media. The demand for proper representation and validation of our life experiences should not scare white people, and yet for no logical reason it does. A continuing perpetuating of that fear are the myths and false narratives created through the media they see.  When the same images of one group is repeatedly shown in negative ways, those who watch it begin to think it’s reality instead of questioning the products they indulge in. For this reason, our own president irrationality justified ending DACA, thereby putting children and Americans of color in jeopardy of their safety and livelihood. From now on, I plan to primarily highlight the films that get representation right and tear apart the ones that don’t. But until then, to anyone reading this please take heed: Do NOT dress up as Rick Sanchez of Rick & Morty for Halloween. It’s been overdone to the point that you won’t impress anyone.

Sincerely your friend,

The Cinephiliac.

Dunkirk (2017); And an Ode to the Mastery of Filmmaking

August 15, 2017

It’s fascinating that we keep engaging in war despite nearly a century of war movies being made. You’d think seeing the horrors of battle—oozing blood, dismembered limbs, psychological torture— repeatedly mapped out on screens would be enough to make us all nauseous by the very notion of war. But after watching Dunkirk, I was reminded that not all war films are created equal. There are various languages in which they speak and in a multitude of ways in which we interpret them. Some are bold, psychological experiments of how war affects people (Full Metal Jacket, Johnny Got His Gun). Others tend to be virtual forms of propaganda pushing subjective, often xenophobic viewpoints (Black Hawk Down, Top Gun, basically any war film from the 1940s and 1980s). Then there are the cinematically intense films cloaked in artistry that usually highlight the absurdity and folly of war (Wings, All Quiet on the Western Front, Platoon).

In my personal venn diagram of exceptional war films, an outstanding one would blend anti-war sentiment with cinematic artistry. I never thought Christopher Nolan would be capable of entering either of these realms because his movies relay his technically-minded filmmaking style, but with Dunkirk he manages to partially slip through. Dunkirk isn’t the perfect war film nor is it the prototype of an anti-war film but it succeeds at being a clever, historical account of what was while illuminating the ridiculousness of what is in war. Whatever your opinion of Nolan may be now that he is over-saturated in the sphere of pop culture, you can’t deny that he’s responsible for some of the most renowned cinematic marvels since the turn of the century. I’ve always considered his storytelling abilities rough around the edges as some of his scripts allow for clumsy and dull moments in his films, especially under the scrutiny of multiple viewings.

A little of that redundant clunkiness is present in Dunkirk, but these moments are salvaged by Nolan’s immersive attention to detail and exceptional skill in creating a mood. Dunkirk unfolds in choppy sequence weaving separate time frames and spaces together to depict how a group of Allied soldiers struggle to evacuate the town of Dunkirk once they are surrounded by Nazi Germans. Pride gets some men through the carnage, while others rely on their will to live. All are trapped in unthinkable situations where death seems certain.

Dunkirk is another one of those “based on real events” type of film which gives it freedom to create realistic characters that get stuck in the actual events that took place. The script’s invented characters allows Nolan to coerce audiences into reckoning with the fragility of human life. We watch young men die in tragic, awful ways. Many die fearful and alone. By highlighting the will to live and what some people would argue is “cowardice” behavior from characters, along with a near immaculate technical focus on sound and editing, Dunkirk pars with the greatest war films in the realm of storytelling.

Watching Dunkirk was a visceral experience—partly because I was nursing a hangover and the resulting nausea in the warm, plush seats of the Cinerama Dome in Seattle. Although, mostly because Dunkirk was such an intense theatrical experience that seized my guts and kept me short of breath, anxious and uneasy. Never deny the power of a large screen and fantastic sound design. Watching Dunkirk unfold on an entire wall of a theater only immersed me deeper into the story. Dunkirk drops you directly in the midst of the dank, bitter war being fought while its nonlinear narrative whips you around and through timelines rarely ever given audiences a moment to catch their breath for too long.

This incessant action has its crests and troughs. On one hand, it makes for a gripping film that forces you to feel anxiety for the people we are following. Nevertheless, we hit moments that feel like a movie. Which invites proper criticism of Nolan as a storyteller. Dunkirk reads like a movie. It’s the type of film that feels unbelievable considering how many twist and turns get thrown at audiences. While that fault is Nolan’s to bear it doesn’t detract from how engrossing this film is. Despite its opulent tall tale of an already incredible real life story, Dunkirk manages to implant itself onto your psyche begging you to feel the tension of these men trapped and vying for an escape.

Nolan has a way of physically telling a story that offsets his subpar writing skills. While he may not be the best with crafting dialogue or situations, he possesses an innate ability to translate emotion and tension through mis-en-scene reminding audiences of his prowess as a filmmaker. Dunkirk is a powerful film, one that should be watched on the largest screen possible to fully immerse yourself in the gruesome reality of war.  I’m guilty of simply thinking humans can stop engaging in war and “give peace a chance.” but I’m constantly reminded, especially these days, that the difficulty lies in ideologies. Are you willing to die for your beliefs? Kill for them? If you thought someone else’s ideas threatened your life and your family, what are you supposed to do? These thoughts are complicated to explore and as films like Dunkirk show, the results are even more complicated.

SEE IT. On the biggest screen possible with the best sound available. 

Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of The Lost Boys (1987); And How it Saved Me from Humdrum Films Like The Beguiled (2017) and Baby Driver (2017)

July 7, 2017

When you’re uninspired by the films that have currently been in circuit at theaters, you start to wonder if you’ve lost your taste for a good film or if everyone else is just smacking up stale mush due to starvation. When the last batch of movies you see in the theaters leave you cold with a lack of desire to even write about them, you start to worry if the major transitions happening in your life is killing your inspiration. Is writer’s block now just a periodic part of life? These are the existential thoughts I’ve undergone after watching Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver and Trey Edward Schultz’s It Comes at Night; films that have all been critically lauded. I began to doubt myself as a critic and writer. But then, a ray of sunshine in the gloom happened. A burst of inspiration and excitement from monotony: I re-watched Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys.

Last week I went out with much gusto to see the long-awaited Baby Driver. That night I came and wrote a pretty shitty review of it just to get my thoughts out. I honestly didn’t even want to revisit the review to edit it because I was completely underwhelmed with the product I had watched. Forcing 700 or so words about it just felt grueling. The same thing happened last night after seeing The Beguiled. I was close to panicking at my lack of desire to put forth the effort to write about these films, although I’ve talked about them at length with family, friends and coworkers. And the only reason I wrote about It Comes at Night was because in the moment I was furious at what I had watched. It was during The Beguiled that I legitimately questioned the lull I was enduring, and wondered what was the last great film I had seen in theaters. I realized it was Get Out nearly 4 months ago further disappointing me that everything I had been throwing money at since had either been forgettable tripe or subpar popcorn munchers. But then the spark retuned to me when I thought about the last great movie I saw outside of the theater and yes it was The Lost Boys!

Currently my movie watching has consisted of a series of exceptional films from the 1930s and 40s but it took one extraordinarily silly film rooted in nostalgia to bring my creativity back to life. I could have written a half-assed uninspired piece on why Baby Driver’s stylish, chik tale of a heist gone wrong left me bored and underwhelmed due to the lack of umph that’s usually present in Wright’s quirky style and humor; or how the story seemed to drag on and the action sequences, though cool, just felt like cuts from an extended trailer. And I could’ve labored over a piece about how disappointing Coppola continues to be as a screenwriter by creating a faux feminist story set in the antebellum with no hint of feminism, diversity or fully formed perspective. But nah, I’d rather not. I’d rather talk about how The Lost Boys holds up as one of the greatest films of its time and one of the best vampire films of all time.

It’s a silly argument to make but I stand by it. It’s sleek, sexy, funny and it’s a perfect time capsule to everything hip and trendy of its time. It’s easy to laugh at the greased-up abs of that sax player during the carnival scene, or even roll your eyes at the overly theatrical framing of scenes especially in the vampire’s den. And you should laugh as well as roll your eyes because they are cheesy. It is a product of Schumacher and director of photography Michael Chapman’s visual eye. But just because we can admit that not all of these elements hold up anymore doesn’t mean that it’s not a fantastically chilling film. If you really watch The Lost Boys within the context of its time, it proves to be an engaging, creepy thriller about teenage angst and rebellion.

The Lost Boys is literally my life. It’s one of the few films that I have grown up with. It came out just a few months before I was born and for as long as I can remember I’ve watched more times that probably any other film thanks to the constant cable reruns throughout my early years. I hadn’t seen it in over a decade until a friend of mine texted me that she was watching it for the first time a few weeks ago. That’s when all the memories came rushing back to my brain and I developed the insatiable need to see it again. Was I misremembering its greatness? Would it be like revisiting  D2: The Mighty Ducks, a film that I adored in childhood but found godawful when I saw it again a few years ago? But then the stars aligned. I was reunited with a friend who immediately asked did I want to watch it when I brought it up.

If you’ve never seen The Lost Boys before and decide to watch it now, I can’t speak to what your experience will be, especially if the culture of the 1980s escapes you. For all of you who have ties to this film, who appreciate the 1980s for what they were, those of you who enjoy a great horror/comedy, it behooves you to rewatch this gem about a group of teens from broken homes who wreck havoc in a small town. What makes these “lost boys” and girl different from the likes of James Dean’s Jim Stark and his crew in Rebel Without a Cause is that these juvenile delinquents are blood thirsty vampires forced into the outskirts of society because someone has made them that way.

Michael (Jason Patric) and his younger brother Sam (Cory Haim) are pratically predisposed to fall into this world of delinquency when their mother moves them to the “murder capital of the world” Santa Clara, California after her divorce. Although they are staying with her father, Lucy (Dianne Wiest) is forced to work leaving her children alone for most of the day and night after a prospective suitor shows an interest in her. Her children become latchkey kids like many children prior to 1995. This puts them–Michael primarily– in direct contact with the local bad boys who draw him into their underworld of debauchery and recklessness, leading to a rift between him and his family and his own loss of identity. It’s up to Sam and his vampire hunting friends Edgar (Corey Feldman) and Allan to save Michael from himself and the pull of the vampire world.

The Lost Boys is a much more mature film that I remembered and Joel Schumacher, who I’ve associated with trash for years, proves that he was a more than capable director and storyteller once upon a time. Along with Chapman in tow, the two create a colorful world of temptation and seduction made even more satiating thanks to the talented crew involved with making the film. The script is witty and intelligent, the set and art design are tastefully zany, the costumes are sooooo 80s without being fully gross and embarrassing, the soundtrack is killer and everyone pulls their weight in developing their characters and carrying them into their arcs.

I was in a state of pure bliss watching The Lost Boys and was reminded that sometimes a good movie doesn’t have to do anything else but be what it is, and a great movie is one that can be even more than it thinks it is. Maybe I needed The Lost Boys because of this topsy-turvy alternative future we are living in, one where the hippies who gave birth to Star and Michael gave up during the 70s and 80s and let capitalism win. Maybe I needed to revisit a film that for an hour and a half took me away from the fight against tyranny and ignorance. Regardless, The Lost Boys revealed all the missing elements of the movies that I’ve been watching in theaters and why they’ve left me uninspired and detached. Sometimes it takes a silly vampire film from the 80s to do that. Thank you The Lost Boys and happy 30th anniversary!

%d bloggers like this: