A definite step up from Knight of Cups, and it’s the first Malick I’ve been able to see in theaters since Tree of Life, so I was thrillingly overwhelmed with all the big-screen majesty. It’s also less distracted from story and character than usual – the camera sticks with our four leads instead of wandering into the woods looking for sunlight behind leaves.

Carrying on in the shoes of world-weary architect Sean Penn, brooding broken-family-man Ben Affleck, and tortured screenwriter Christian Bale, we’ve got up-and-coming musicians Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara. They’d make a cute couple, but get caught up with wickedly charismatic, morally corrosive industry man Michael Fassbender, end up going on their own journeys around the edges of music festivals, while Fassbender latches onto innocent waitress Natalie Portman, spoils and destroys her.

It’s another universal soul-searching story, not about the music business any more than Knight of Cups was about filmmaking or To The Wonder was about environmental inspection, much to the disappointment of music bloggers who watched it at SXSW hoping for the ultimate music-festival film but getting only brief scenes of Iggy Pop and John Lydon, glimpses of Rooney Mara onstage with a guitar, and a recurring, philosophizing Patti Smith.

Sicinski didn’t love it:

Here we see Malick’s cultural conservatism once again in play, where music is a mere conduit for parsing out Manichean divisions of Good (Ryan Gosling, “creation”) and Evil (Fassbender, “the business”). Mara is presented as the Lost One, who has to go through various stages of Pensive Narration (and some awfully random lesbianism) to find her way to the Good. Her initial desire, to “live from song to song,” must be replaced by broader, more complex (narrative) thinking, a love that moves toward a telos. This is incredibly condescending; we know that Malick has a Woman Problem, and Song to Song pretty much rolls it out for all to see.

Negar and Ashkan (just out of jail) are young musicians in Iran who just wanna play some chill keyboardy indie rock. They can’t perform in their own country without government permission (impossible), but could perform outside the country with passports and visas (unlikely, but slightly more achievable). There’s a story here, as they travel Tehran gathering money and bandmates and checking on the status of their illegal passports (culminating in injury and arrest and disappointment), but the movie seems like an excuse to show off the different types of music being made in Iran, and the difficulty involved in making music (and, in the intro scene, the difficulty involved in making this film itself).

Noel Murray:

The movie comes to life whenever Hamed Behdad appears, playing a fast-talking hustler who slings bootleg DVDs and lives with his pet birds Rhett Butler, Scarlett O’Hara, and Monica Bellucci … It’s only when Behdad is onscreen that Ghobadi effectively dramatizes Persian Cats’ thorny questions: Whether it’s better to fight or flee, whether a repressive regime forces artists to consort with criminals, and whether some laxly enforced laws are only on the books to give the government an excuse to crack down on non-conformists.

This is more a collection of music videos broken up by vignettes (words by Somali poet Warsan Shire) than a feature film or any sort of documentary. After the Nick Cave movie I thought perhaps I’d watch this and Frank Ocean’s Endless, the three 2016 albums which were released as movies, but the Ocean is still a store-exclusive (for future study: Let England Shake, Centipede Hz and Beyoncé’s previous album).

Pray You Catch Me:

Hold Up:

Sorry:


But oh, what music videos – some of the best photography and movement and costume/makeup design of the year, illustrating the greatest concept album of the year.

Daddy Lessons:

Love Drought:

Forward (Michael Brown and his mother):


Cinematographers include Malik Sayeed (He Got Game, Clockers), Reed Morano (Vinyl, Kill Your Darlings) and Khalik Allah (Field Niggas), and codirectors include Kahlil Joeseph (The Reflektor Tapes) and Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go).

Formation:

Rock goddess Tilda Swinton is relaxing at a Mediterranean island paradise with boyfriend photographer Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) when her ex, music producer Ralph Fiennes (an overpowering, charismatic performance) shows up with his newly-discovered daughter Dakota Johnson (Black Mass). Sexual and other tensions get extremely high, and the movie, which has an otherwise excellent soundtrack, tries in vain to get me to appreciate the Rolling Stones song “Emotional Rescue.”

I was disappointed when the story twists into murder-investigation territory after Matthias drowns a belligerent drunk Ralph in the pool, but this ends up justified. After initial interviews the chief investigator reveals himself to be a trembling Tilda superfan, gets her autograph and lets them all go. Tilda had previously, not at all convincingly, suggested to him that one of the immigrants flooding onto the island (many dying at sea) could have snuck onto the property, drowned Ralph, stolen nothing and run off. We didn’t realize that Tilda or her friends, in their wealthy bubble, even noticed the immigration crisis in the background noise around them – until it becomes useful to get themselves out of trouble.

Based on a story previously filmed by Jacques Deray with Alain Delon, and by Francois Ozon with Charlotte Rampling. Played in Venice with Anomalisa, Francofonia, Blood of My Blood and 11 Minutes. I finally warmed up to “Emotional Rescue” during the St. Vincent cover over the closing credits.

D. Ehrlich:

There are few better metaphors for the myopia of hedonism than a swimming pool on an island paradise surrounded by the sea … In lesser hands, this could’ve been a Woody Allen movie, but Guadagnino — always with his chef’s hat on — takes the ingredients for a sunbaked creampuff and slowly stirs them into a three-course meal. Working with regular cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, Guadagnino shoots in a sensual register where every shot feels just a hair too perfect to exist anywhere outside the movies. Snap zooms playfully focus on emotions that burst like firecrackers, rhythmic cuts throw you back on style whenever things risk becoming too realistic, and Marianne’s aviator shades reflect every character against their true intentions. Best of all, the soundtrack is wild and true, running the gamut from Harry Nilsson to Popol Vuh.

Stories don’t just lead into each other like in The Saragossa Manuscript – they melt and morph into each other, thanks to codirector Evan Johnson’s digital manipulations, which don’t replace Maddin’s usual bag of tricks, but join the choppy editing and texture fetish and everything else. Some of his early movies had somnambulist rhythms, but this one is ecstatic from start to finish.

Had to watch this a couple times before I could report in.

Second time through, I noted the order of stories:

How to Take a Bath, with Louis Negin

Submarine: Blasting Jelly and Flapjacks

Starring Negin again with Ukranian Greg Hlady, panicky Alex Bisping, Andre the Giant-reminiscent Kent McQuaid, and mysteriously-appearing woodsman Cesare (Roy Dupuis of Mesrine and Screamers).

M. Sicinski:

Like the men in the submarine, The Forbidden Room has an overall mood of anxiety and despair, in the sense that we are asked to grapple with its heady delirium of character trajectories and stunted arcs, all the while searching in vain for some absent center, the organizing “captain” who is supposed to pull it all together. In its endless ruptures and disconnections, The Forbidden Room brings us up short, placing us back in that capsule where the image is a form of confinement, a shortness of breath.

Cowardly Saplingjacks

Cesare sets out to rescue the kidnapped Margo (Clara Furey)

Cave of the Red Wolves

with lead wolf Noel Burton, bladder slapping and boggling puzzlements!

Amnesiac Singing Flowergirl

Margo again, with mysterious necklace woman Marie Brassard (sinister Jackie from Vic + Flo Saw a Bear) and patient Pancho (Victor Andres Trelles Turgeon)

The Final Derriere

with Sparks, Udo Kier (returning from Keyhole) as a man plagued by bottoms, Master Passion Geraldine Chaplin, and the Lust Specialist (Le Havre star Andre Wilms)

Red Wolves / Woodsmen / Submarine / Bath / Submarine

Quick return.

Squid Theft / Volcano Sacrifice

With Margo, squid thief Romano Orzari and Lost Generation attorney Céline Bonnier (The Far Side of the Moon)

D. Ehrlich:

The Forbidden Room may (or may not) be inventing narratives from thin air, but whatever history these abandoned projects might have had is completely supplanted by the present Maddin (and co-director Evan Johnson) invents for them. These stories belong to him now. The Forbidden Room may forego the hypnotically autobiographical thrust of recent efforts like My Winnipeg and Brand Upon the Brain!, but it feels no less personal for it.

Mill Seeks Gardener

With shed-sleeper Slimane Dazi and unpredictable runaway Jacques Nolot

Injured Motorcyclist at Bone Hospital

Caroline Dhavernas and Paul Ahmarani

Doctor kidnapped by skeleton insurance defrauders

Lewis Furey (Margo’s father IRL) as The Skull-Faced Man, and Eric Robidoux as the bone doctor’s long-lost brother who is also a bone doctor.

Psychiatrist and madman aboard train

Gregory Hlady again, Romano Orzari again, and Karine Vanasse (Polytechnique) as Florence LaBadie

Florence’s Inner Child

Sienna Mazzone as young Florence with crazy mother Kathia Rock

Parental Neglect / Madness / Murder / Amnesia

Bone Hospital / Insurance Defrauders
Mill / Criminal / Doctor
Volcanic Island / Squid Theft / Submarine / Bath

“I haven’t finished telling you: the forest… the snow… the convict… the birthday”

Woodsman Gathers New Allies

Kyle Gatehouse as Man With Upturned Face, Neil Napier as Man With Stones On His Feet and Victor Turgeon again as Listening Man – these are the same actors who played the Saplingjacks earlier, and again they don’t enter the cave with Cesare.

Margo and Aswang The Vampire

M. D’Angelo:

The Forbidden Room was shot mostly at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, piecemeal, in front of a live audience, following which Maddin and Johnson artfully distressed the digital footage and added priceless intertitles. The project took advantage of whichever actors were available to it on a given day.

Elevator Man Unprepared For Wife’s Birthday Kills His Butler

All-star segment with Mathieu Amalric, Udo Kier and Amira Casar (Anatomy of Hell, Piano Tuner of Earthquakes).

D. Ehrlich:

[Amalric] gleefully indulges in Maddin’s pure and peerlessly florid sense of melodrama, which here becomes a mechanism for foolhardy and paranoid men to ruin their lives as they attempt to rescue, love, or murder the beautiful women who didn’t ask for their help.

Dead Butler Oedipal Mustache Flashback

Maybe my favorite segment, with Maria de Medeiros (Saddest Music in the World) as the Blind Mother and more mentions of flapjacks.

Ukranian Radio War Drama

With Stranger by the Lake star Christophe Paou as the prisoner

Mustache / Return of the Dead Father

Diplomat Memoirs of Cursed Janus-Head

M. Peranson:

Together, Maddin and Johnson have crafted a formal masterwork jolted by digital after effects, recreating the look of decaying nitrate stock, shape-shifting the image with multiple superimpositions and variegated colour fields (the general look resembling decayed two-strip Technicolor), and compositing swirling transitions that connect (or bury) one film within the other (and the other, and the other). To try and describe “what happens” in The Forbidden Room is both forbidding and beside the point, for the 130-minute film stands more as an interminable, (in)completed object on its own, like the work of one of its main influences, the French poet, novelist and playwright Raymond Roussel (from whom Maddin and Johnson borrow their technique of parenthetical asides); one comes to understand this object, and what it’s trying to accomplish, only while watching it.

Peranson’s writeup is from the Toronto Film Festival, after which nine minutes got removed from the movie. Since nobody at the festivals was able to exhaustively account for all the stories within stories, it’s impossible to track down what got lost. It seems, though, that any lost footage (and more) can be seen in the Seances.

Andreas Apergis and his fiancee Sophia Desmarais (Curling)

Night Auction Doppelganger

featuring LUG-LUG, hideous impulse incarnate!

Stealing Mother’s Laudanum

Charlotte Rampling as Amalric’s Mother, Ariane Labed (Attenberg, Alps) as his girlfriend.

Maddin (in an essential Cinema Scope interview) on the film’s 2+ hour length:

We could have easily had a 75-minute version … but viewers that like it, we wanted to feel like we’d broken their brains, really left a physical impression on them, left them exhausted. Hopefully exhilarated and exhausted, in a good way. We wanted “too much” to still be insufficient … it would be nice if it came out in one endless ribbon, that, like John Ashbery’s poetry, you just snip off for a beginning and an end, and just ask the audience how much they want.

Dead Father / Elevator Birthday Murder Plot / Margo and Aswang / Woodsmen
Red Wolves are Dead, Rescue is Cancelled
Submarine / The Forbidden Room / Book of Climaxes

Bath.

Junun (2015, P.T. Anderson)

Cool music documentary with emphasis on the music – no narration or explanation, only a few titles and stories. The best story isn’t even related to the album, but a guy who feeds birds from the roof of the fort where they’re recording, and whose family has done so for countless generations.

Shot with a camcorder and a drone. Shye Ben Tzur is a singer, composer and organizer, then there are bunches of great musicians playing great instruments, then there’s Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead sitting engrossed in his guitar/laptop world. Engineer Nigel Godrich comes out regularly to knock noisy pigeons off the sound baffles.

Baffled pigeon:

Drone’s-eye view of bird feeding:


Oddsac (2010, Danny Perez)

Psychedelic imagery with a paint-splatter wash of colors and great music by Animal Collective.

Does it turn into a horror movie at the end, or was it one all along?

Coincidentally the day after I watched this, Perez’s first narrative feature was announced (premiering at Sundance this January). Sign me up.

Romance between a cop and a singer. Pop star Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw of Belle) is following the pop-star routine prescribed by her manager/mother (Minnie Driver), her label, her producers and her mandated rapper boyfriend, then is saved from a suicide attempt by local hero cop Kaz (Nate Parker of Red Hook Summer), who’s got his own problems, what with political aspirations and people shooting at him, but nobody at work seems to mind when he and Noni disappear on a beach getaway where she rediscovers what she liked about singing (via Nina Simone songs).

Mostly it’s a decent-enough positive-message romance flick, but low-budget flicks with mostly black casts don’t play Nebraska often, so it seemed worth rooting for. Four stars from The Dissolve, too: “beneath the shiny surface of music-video imagery and true-loveisms lie some provocative ideas and deep truths about how people relate on a private level vs. a public one.” Writer/director also made Love & Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees. Probably nothing to this, but I just realized Minnie Driver’s character is named Macy Jean, and there are singers named Macy Gray and Jean Grae.

Fred (of early Bunuels – also good roles in major Renoir movies, but I suppose I’ll always think of him as the enraged looney from L’Age d’Or) is would-be rapist who steals pretty Pola’s key to surprise her at home – a foolish plan, since without the key she spends the night with Al instead. He’s Albert Prejean of The Crazy Ray, the French version of Threepenny Opera, S.S. Tenacity and something called The Buttock. Also in the mix: pickpocket Emile and criminal Louis (Edmond Greville, who’d later helm a Hands of Orlac remake).

Will the pretty girl with the cheek curls choose the thief, the lout, the rapist or the cheater? She is Pola Illery, who’d appear in an unknown 1930’s version of The Indian Tomb / The Tiger of Eschnapur as well as a poetic realist Pierre Chenal film from the same year as L’Atalante. Anyway, she ends up with Louis but only because Albert is arrested for a crime Emile committed. We would’ve preferred she end up with nobody, or at least leave town and find some better guys. Anyway it’s quite a pretty movie and more importantly for 1930, uses the title song expressively.

Luc Sante for Criterion:

In that era, the start of the worldwide financial crash, important movies tended to be set in fantasy realms of impossible wealth. Clair’s Paris was, in a way, no less fantastic—every street and square, every tenement, garret, dancehall, and café was designed by the great Lazare Meerson and built in the studio. But its characters, who live on the border between ill-paid labor and petty crime, were both instantly recognizable the world around and imbued with romance by the magic of Paris. In the decade that followed, that setting and those kinds of characters were to constitute the fundament of the French cinematic style called “poetic realism,” a principal architect of which was Marcel Carné, an assistant director on Under the Roofs of Paris.


His Royal Slyness (1920, Hal Roach)

Katy went flipping through the endless scroll of Criterion movies on Hulu, settling on this. Of course we didn’t know it was a short, so 20 minutes later we started Under the Roofs of Paris. This one’s a Harold Lloyd short, where Lloyd and the King of Whatever trade places then he ends up joining the revolution against the monarchy. There’s a princess, and I dunno it was lightly amusing and now I don’t remember it all that well.

Oops, you all forgot to tell me that this is one of the best rock & roll movies ever made. I guess Rosenbaum put it on a couple lists, but the rest of you let me down. Thrilling to see this in theaters, even 17 years late, to see why people at my high school used to mention Ricki Lake so much (she’s very lovable here), to see Divine in a double role right after watching Polyester, to hear all the classic songs and see goofball appearances by new-wave heroes (Deborah Harry as the villain, Ric Ocasek as a cartoonish beatnik painter) and witness the movie’s idealized version of desegregation in Baltimore the same week there were actually riots there.