Rocky (1976)

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“It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head, either. ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”

I wonder about how history will treat today’s big movies. You can’t find a college in America without a Rocky or Star Wars poster somewhere in its dorm rooms. The first I ever heard of Rocky was from a giant poster in my local pizza place when I was a kid. Rocky was standing at the top of the steps, his arms in the air, and it seemed like one of the truest indicators of a cultural phenomenon: having your poster in a pizza place. In forty years, could the same be said about The Avengers? Jurassic World? At risk of sounding like an old man complaining about how things have changed, I’d like to revisit the energy that was racing through the New Hollywood movement and why it found its way into pizza place posters nationwide.

Nobody knew what Rocky would become when it rose from uncertain beginnings to a triumphant box office reign in 1976, grossing $225 million on a budget of just a million. You could also look at the gamble of Taxi Driver, or Carrie, or Chinatown, or countless other disjointed works of acclaim, all bred from the idea that Hollywood was changing. What if we put an unknown lead actor at the center of a rags-to-riches boxing movie? What if he doesn’t win the fight, but it doesn’t matter because he proved to himself that he’s not just another bum? What if he had pet turtles? It’s not that cinema isn’t being challenged today, but when it is, I don’t think it reaches very deeply into our movie culture. I enjoy the MCU, for example, but I don’t admire it. And I think Rocky has a lot to admire.

Immediately, it’s a joy to see Sylvester Stallone play such a warm, clumsy figure who is thrust into a random chance for greatness. His courting of Adrian (Talia Shire) is silly and genuine, though it would warrant some tweaking for a wide appeal in 2019. Adrian’s shy nature and her hot-tempered brother, with Rocky playing the dopey romantic at the center, makes for an often uncomfortable but always engaging dynamic that the movie spends a lot of time tapping into. Rocky is of course famous for being a movie about a man trying to rise above who he fears he’s become. It’s more than a boxing match.

The film is whimsical, with sharp writing from Stallone including details about Rocky’s love for animals, his motivation for being a boxer (“I can’t sing or dance.”), and his skepticism of Apollo Creed and the media for trying to make a patsy out of him. He’s the tough-guy debt collector you would expect to be an asshole by all accounts but isn’t. It’s a careful character study that Stallone crafts beautifully both on the page and in the acting. The training montage holds up as a “smile on your face” moment, with the comically loud, triumphant soundtrack and the brutal depiction of exhaustion and pain in Stallone’s portrayal culminating in true movie joy when he makes it to the top of the steps.

Movies like Rocky are why I adore 70s Hollywood. I still enjoy the touchstone franchises of 2019, but they aren’t surprising or personal. The studios are in a place of stasis, one that will surely last a while given the box office success of tent pole franchises (perhaps Rocky now included as one of them). But there’s something deliberate about Rocky. It’s a movie dreamed by a man, not one planned by committee. With the goal of making movies that appeal to everyone, I fear that Jurassic World and its cohorts are touching the hearts of no one. It might not be fair to compare the two, but I wonder whether we see more of Rocky or Star Wars: The Force Awakens in pizza places forty years from now.


Films Left to Watch: 816

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sex, lies, and videotape (1989)

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“I remember reading somewhere that men learn to love the person that they’re attracted to, and that women become more and more attracted to the person that they love.”

Some movies aren’t just for watching but also for inspiring. Steven Soderbergh’s debut sex, lies, and videotape seems to reach through the screen, beckoning the artist that lives inside everyone. It points the camera to the camera, and with the maturity and humanity it packs into such a simple production, it asks you to follow in its footsteps. I adored the movie, and I was inspired that independent cinema is more than just a buzzword.

The film works as a simple character study with four main players. Ann is a kind woman with a disinterest in sex, having never experienced an orgasm. Her husband, John, is a successful lawyer maintaining an affair with Ann’s sister, the spunky bartender Cynthia. When John’s old friend Graham comes to town, the lives of all four are impacted. Cue the sex, lies, and videotape(s).

Soderbergh puts great faith in his script, which he wrote in the span of a week on yellow legal pad. The characters are genuine and rarely archetypal, with maybe the exception of John, and the camera is used simply as a tool to tell their story. There’s nothing flashy about the movie, but it’s not slow or muted either. The script is juicy and scandalous, which helps explain the movie’s broad appeal, but it feels rooted in truth. Marriage is plagued by lies and confusion, and good people are forced to break down what they believe. We see Ann turn from a polite, courteous woman, uncomfortable speaking about sex, to a powerful force, using sex to find happiness and reclaim her life. She is the strongest character (and actor, Andie MacDowell) in the film, and she proves to be wiser than our expectations would grant her by the end of the movie.

The dialogue also carries deep resonance. It seemed like the movie was packed with insightful quotes and moments of insight, but looking back, it was just ordinary dialogue that was heightened through great scene construction. You find yourself hanging on to every word. Every character is a mystery, and you find yourself yearning to understand these people. Some movies want you to understand everyone from the first scene, but sex, lies, and videotape grips you with the notion that you may never understand any of its characters. Every scene is also played with intense realism, as if the film itself is some lurid tape you’ve uncovered and are enjoying voyeuristically.

It’s just beautiful to watch an independent movie, regardless of quality (although this movie is quality). Cinema should be in the hands of everyone, telling stories big and small  through all sorts of lenses. Soderbergh is such an interesting double agent, making movies in a wide range of narrative scopes and production values. I really respect how he keeps coming back to the independent film, even when he doesn’t have to. While I love his big budget work, I’ve always been most fascinated by movies like this one, The Limey, and even weaker strides like Unsane. I deeply admire his love for the independent film, and I can only hope there is more to come.


Films Left to Watch: 817

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Paranormal Activity (2007)

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“I’ve been doing my research. I’m taking care of this. Nobody comes in my house, fucks with my girlfriend, and gets away with it.”

I remember when Paranormal Activity first dropped on DVD about a decade ago. I was eleven years old. I watched it with my sister, shrouded in darkness in the living room. We came home from Blockbuster, burnt some popcorn, and I stood on a chair from the kitchen table to reach the DVD player and insert the disc. It was a time in my childhood when all I knew about movies came from word of mouth and maybe a trailer on TV. People older than me would talk about Paranormal Activity like it was something legendary: the scariest movie of all time. It was a magical time when I could believe talk like that. With Rotten Tomatoes, smartphones, and movie trailer culture, we don’t learn about movies in the same way. Movies don’t seem like legends anymore. I miss that feeling a lot, watching Paranormal Activity with the feeling that an okay horror movie was some gift from the gods of culture.

I remember the trailer for Paranormal Activity seemed to tap into this mythology. The trailers would show audiences watching the movie instead of any footage from the film itself. People in the dark were screaming and throwing popcorn like nothing I’d ever seen at a theater. (After seeing the movie, which has one massive jump scare at the end, I later deduced that these commercials only had tons of reaction shots of the same single moment in the film: the only moment I thought was scary.) The movie also started a cascade of horror trailers copying this strategy, leaving the movie’s content “too scary” for trailers. And it worked, especially for found footage, where the bulk of the movie is B-list actors mumbling and joking around while walking around their house without many movie shots to tease in a trailer.

When I actually saw the movie, I hated it. I remember going around complaining about the movie to everyone I knew. “It’s just a lot of talking and then a jump scare.” I guess I was on my way to becoming a bitter film critic, because I do the same rambling and nitpicking today. It was a letdown to watch the movie for the first time, and watching it eleven years later, it wasn’t much better. It’s a decent low-budget movie: a found-footage slow burn about a young couple documenting weird phenomena in their house surrounding the demonic possession of the main character Katie. But the movie had built a legend around itself, similar to The Blair Witch ProjectThe main actors used their real first names in the film, and the film opens and closes with text that suggests the movie contains real footage. It was probably the last movie to terrify people into thinking found-footage horror can be real, book-ending the era of faux-nonfiction success that Blair Witch began. But to a child in 2007 with nothing but tall tales and mysterious trailers, watching the movie seemed like a cultural milestone.

We’re in a golden age of trailers. They’re more enticing and thoughtful and fan-driven than ever before. But I miss it sometimes. I miss feeling like the movies had a hold on us. You could put your guard down and go into something blind with the highest of hopes. I try to keep off Rotten Tomatoes and limit my trailer intake for movies I’m hoping to see, but something will never quite be the same as how things used to be. And Paranormal Activity reminds me of those times. I’m less afraid of the movies themselves and more terrified by how things have changed. But watching the movie today, after all these years, it made me smile to remember the anticipation I had for this movie as a kid. And that made me smile.


Films Left to Watch: 818

 

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Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

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“I knew it in my heart. You can buck the system but you can’t buck the dark forces that lie hidden beneath the surface. The ones some people call superstitions.”

I drove up to Louisville back in November to see The House That Jack Built, the newest Lars von Trier movie. Matt Dillon plays a serial killer in the 70s and 80s, and the film depicts his most brutal murders, depositing his victims in a pizza freezer. By the end of the film, Dillon’s character seeks no forgiveness, and he is granted no redemption. He is a remorseless monster, evading capture and looking for the easy way out until his final breath. In Drugstore Cowboy, which also stars Matt Dillon, it’s more complicated.

Dillon plays a heroin addict named Bob who leads a posse of thieves including his wife Diane (Kelly Lynch), his friend Rick (James LeGros), and a young man with a clean record named Nadine (Heather Graham). Early in the film, Bob seems to be a charismatic leader, but his grasp on both reality and his circle of friends begins to crumble as his addiction worsens. He becomes arrogant, paranoid, and fixated on superstition and hexes, putting him at odds with his crew until a tragic episode claims one of their lives, forcing Bob to re-evaluate his position in life.

The movie is charming in a playful way, especially in the first half. As Bob makes his way into the first robbery of the film, he turns to a nearby stranger and tells them, “I like your hat.” The film highlights his addiction with fun music and scenes of ethereal delusions. Bob also narrates the film, lending favor to his character. It can be hard to root for Bob, but his redemption in the second half is genuine and tragic. I found myself wondering how far the tragedy would stretch, whether Bob would be given a second chance or just a bullet to the head. I was, in fact, pleased with the direction the ending took. The latter half of the movie also features a surprise visit from William S. Burroughs in a fun turn as a drugged out priest, expanding on the film’s themes of addiction and morality.

I think The House that Jack Built and Drugstore Cowboy would make a neat double feature. Matt Dillon does some of his best work in both films. He’s arrogant and manipulative, chasing satisfaction with a blatant disregard for the laws of society. (Spoilers for both ahead.) One movie finds release in the literal deepest pits of hell, eternal punishment for the crime in the case of Jack. But the titular Drugstore Cowboy faces an almost sadder fate. He tries desperately to clean up his act and find comfort in a “boring life.” But his final words suggest that the drug life can never be escaped. It’s a bottomless pit, not unlike the pits of hell, and Bob can only seem to fall deeper.

The film is an impressive product of Gus Vant Sant’s career. It was only his second film, and he would go on to make an ecclectic collection of films that I hope to explore further in the future. (I’ve only seen Elephant.) The crime genre is best when it shows us the consequences, and Drugstore Cowboy doesn’t hold back.


Films Left to Watch: 819

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Tampopo (1985)

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“So you’re at the movies too, huh? Whatcha eating?”

That quote comes from the first scene of the film, as a stern man in a white suit threatens to kill someone at the movie theatre for making too much noise with their snack wrapper. “And…” he says, “I also don’t like watch alarms going off.” Then he turns to you, amused, and asks it. “So you’re at the movies too, huh? Whatcha eating?” And thus, Tampopo shows its hand. A film that doesn’t play by the rules. A film that leans into play, not work. A film where the highest of stakes are given to the smallest of delights. A film not just about how we make our food, but how our food makes us.

A couple of culinary ronin arrive in town. They are masters of ramen, and the enjoyment of noodles seems to them like a religious experience. When they stumble upon Tampopo, a charming restauranteur with subpar ramen, they answer the call of duty to transform Tampopo’s ramen shop into a five-star experience. Interspersed through the film are subplots concerning food’s relationship to business, sex, and murder.

Tampopo bends the samurai genre until it folds in on itself, becoming something new. It’s been called a “food fantasia” and a “ramen Western”. I find it more samurai than western. It’s akin to Seven Samurai, where a range of master swordsmen must come together to defend a town under attack by bandits. Only in Tampopo, the swordsmen are culinary experts with a mastery of food service. It’s a fun, fast, and even heart-warming spin on the “samurai savior” narrative that swaps swords for chopsticks.

Movies are fun, but it’s rare to find a movie that feels like it’s having fun itself. Tampopo asks you to throw caution to the wind and live in each of its moments. Some of it is cultural, like the business restaurant scene in which a young man embarrasses himself and his coworkers for ordering different dishes at a restaurant, but most of it is universal. You’re encouraged to laugh along as Tampopo unpacks our strange, personal rituals surrounding food. We also get to admire the craft of ramen with the strongest food details I’ve ever seen in a film. If you’re going to watch the movie, be sure to have snacks handy.

Tampopo must be enjoyed like a special meal: chewed on slowly with every moment savored. It’s a delightful two hours that is as sweet and crunchy as it is cinematic, leaving a delightful, lingering taste.


Films Left to Watch: 820

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District 9 (2009)

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“When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.”

There’s a lot to love about District 9. I remember when it was released 10 years ago, it was one of those “make sure you go in blind” kind of movies. I’d have to agree, given the way the movie toys with your biases. So if you haven’t seen the film, I’d recommend not reading further until you have.

The film sets itself up like a documentary. Aliens have landed on Earth, but instead of being celebrated and admired, they are impoverished and relocated to slums. Humanity turns against the aliens, whom they nickname “prawns” due to their shrimp-like features, and the extraterrestrials become outcasts of society. An unimpressive bureaucrat, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), is tasked with evicting the aliens from their homes by orders of the government. In doing so, he faces an encounter which changes his life forever.

Wikus is an unlikely protagonist, incapable and unlikeable from the outset. Still though, I found myself relating with him in a sick way as a Westerner. We’re conditioned to root against otherness. We are ultimately led to humanize with the prawns, following Wikus in his journey, but it takes some time. The cruel relocation practices and bureaucratic trickery of the humans seems so familiar that we almost understand it as humane. It’s only as the film really progresses, through an awesome transformation along the vein of great body horror, do we come to understand “otherness” in its full capacity.

On the subject of body horror, District 9 pulls it off really well. The progression of the Wikus from man to prawn is unsettling and ripe with pathos. The detail-work is what pulls off similar concepts, and I was reminded of Videodrome and American Werewolf in London. There’s both a physical and mental progression as the hero learns how to function but also how to cope as a hideous creature, and District 9 cements itself in the genre for how it manages these elements.

I do think the first 30 minutes were more entertaining than the 90 that followed, but such is often the case when you play with form. For the time the film manages to keep you guessing, it’s a refreshing genre-bender that eventually settles into a worthwhile sci-fi horror piece.

District 9 is a memorable movie that toys with you in a lot of fun ways. It earned a lot of rightful buzz, although it seems to be discussed far less these days. Still, though, it’s a movie I’m glad to have on my shelf.


Films Left to Watch: 821

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The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)


“I’ve run through it over and over again. I can’t get it out of my head, but I can’t manage to pin it down either.”

I love horror because it casts a wide net. I think it would be a mistake to put such narrow labels on what terrifies people, and thus my definition of horror is fairly inclusive, and I see it as a wide umbrella. Giallo, the Italian thriller-horror films of the 20th century, fits snugly into this umbrella, and I was anxious to indulge on some of it. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage was my first giallo film, a fitting choice given that it was one of the first great films of its kind, paving the way for a number of imitators.

Giallo is a blend of slasher exploitation, detective mystery, and psychological thriller. Argento hits all three of these checkmarks in perfect symmetry with the film. It follows American writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) on vacation in Rome when he spots a bloody attempted murder through the glass windows of a museum. Dalmas becomes obsessed with the crime, prolonging his stay in Rome as he helps police track down the killer through his own investigative work. Tensions escalate as the body count rises, and the cries of one rare bird may be the key to solving the case.

Like Argento’s more popular Suspiria, the film oozes of bold color choices. Nearly every shot in the movie contains the color red, often in small but calculated subtleties. The colors pop off the screen like nothing you’ve seen in a movie from 1970, a testament to Argento’s command of mise-en-scène. The film boasts a motif of art and horrifying beauty through its characters and scenarios, and every frame complements this theme. Argento constructs a chilling world of gorgeous women, taunting us as to what secrets they hold and which will be the next to bleed.

The movie is also a thriller, and for that, Argento owes a great deal to Hitchcock. Several shots from Vertigo are staged nearly identically in this movie. The iconic dangling and falling from the rooftop and the spiral staircase are both present in the film, although Argento puts a clever twist on the shape of the staircase, which isn’t square as in Vertigo but rather arrow-shaped.

There’s a buffet of influences that stitch together the movie. It works so well that the film ended up becoming a major influence itself. Giallo is an engaging connection between bloody exploitation and a more calculated detective thriller, and this movie is a wonderful proof of concept. I look forward to engaging with more Argento and more giallo very soon.


Films Left to Watch: 822

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