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Episode 107 - Black Orpheus vs. City of God (w/ Justin Chang)


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Poll: Black Orpheus vs. City of God (44 member(s) have cast votes)

Which film should enter The Canon?

  1. Black Orpheus (23 votes [52.27%] - View)

    Percentage of vote: 52.27%

  2. City of God (21 votes [47.73%] - View)

    Percentage of vote: 47.73%

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#1 Dalton Maltz

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Posted 18 June 2017 - 10:52 PM

Film critic Justin Chang (LA Times) joins Amy this week for a Brazilian film head-to-head! They pit the 1959 Greek myth adaptation “Black Orpheus” against the 2002 crime picture “City of God.” They debate and discuss the respective films’ impact, touching on everything from the significance of the all-black cast of “Black Orpheus” to the unexpectedly hilarious aspects of “City of God” character Knockout Ned.

#2 Trianth

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Posted 19 June 2017 - 06:23 AM

Long time listener here, long time lurker. I felt like I should step out of the shadows for this one since, well, I'm actually from Brazil. And those are probably two of my top five favorite local movies. Neither quite reaches the heights of Terra em Transe or Abril Despedaçado, in my opinion.

That said, I loved the episode. I do feel that there's a bit of denial in how accurate City of God is in portraying what happens in favelas here. There's a particular comment about Amy on the death rate drop in the favela (I think she said it dropped from 30 per year to 5 per year) which illustrates this. Rio de Janeiro had 5,000 homicides last year. You can find news of single events in Cidade de Deus where 7 to 10 bodies are found covered with blankets with "no visible cause of death". I actually had a discussion with a friend from Chicago where we concluded you had more murders in a neighborhood in Rio every month than Chicago in a year. Brazil's murder rate is on part with countries going through civil wars. It's not a reality that is easy to grasp if you don't live here. And I'm pretty privileged. It's a distant reality for me most days.

City of God was probably the first major movie to denounce this in a country that romanticizes the favelas. When you watch local soap operas, there's always a "favela core" of well intentioned, nice and peace loving people. They're never victims of violence close to their homes. They live in somewhat nice places. They don't starve. They're not impacted by the drug cartels. City of God gets a lot of points in my book for being brave enough to offer this somewhat nihilistic point of view straight to the viewer. Pointless deaths, lack of hope and criminality being one of the key career options for people who grow up in the favela.

Black Orpheus is a beautiful movie. It's a masterpiece, really. The hosts' review make it clear. But it's not a Brazilian movie. It's a French director landing in Brazil and portraying what he sees there. Fernando Meirelles is far from an expert on leading a hard life -- he is the epitome of privilege in Brazil. Rich, white, from Sao Paulo. But the brushes he had with a hard reality gave him a better understanding than Camus could ever have.

I guess my point is that if you're inducting a Brazilian movie and you want to portray Brazilian cinema and Brazilian reality somewhat fairly, City of God is it. At least, from those two choices. To paraphrase something Amy often says in the show -- City of God is more representative of Brazilian cinema than Black Orpheus could ever hope to be, even though, objectively, Black Orpheus is a better movie.

#3 JordantheG1ng3r

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Posted 19 June 2017 - 11:15 AM

I absolutely agree with Amy and Justin on this. I loved City of God when I first saw it but Black Orpheus sticks with me. As Amy and Justin said, it is simply a part of my soul. Black Orpheus all the way!

#4 HoldenMartinson

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Posted 19 June 2017 - 02:05 PM

These are both really special films to me, and I remember exactly how I saw both. I remember my ex-stepdad owned a used-DVD/video game/book/Lego store, and he let me pick out a few things for my birthday one year--I think when I was fourteen--and that's how I got City of God. I remember watching it, and being absolutely blown away. It's a high that has never really worn off, either. Black Orpheus is one I saw while I had a long layover in Dallas-Fort Worth over a year ago, and I remember being totally absorbed to the point that I was afraid I missed my flight when the film was over--this was also the trip I saw The Night of the Hunter, which also rules.

Part of me really wants to go with City of God. I think David is crazy when he says there's a lack of emotion here. I think the vignettes we see of these characters are each far more engrossing and honest than, say... LA LA LAND. Also, the discussion of craft makes it sound like the film is tricking people into liking it, or thinking it's good. The craft here is incredible, because it serves the story in a huge way. There's a sense of danger here, and a sense of urgency that the editing does particularly well. It's what keys you into the way this city never changes, and that it only exists to eat its inhabitants. Really though, I feel like there were some missed opportunities to discuss the rampant toxic masculinity within the film. There aren't many women characters, but they're almost all oppressed by fragile-ego'd men, which see with Ze, especially, in the club scene. I like the idea of the woman journalist living in such a safer world that she has as much sexual agency as any of the men in the poorer parts of the city. The craft is flashy, but there are a lot of layers here that absolutely work.

That said, how can I vote against Black Orpheus? It's so perfect and immersive, another story about the eternal, inescapable fatalism that binds people to Rio. The whole point of Black Orpheus is its timelessness, and the timelessness of its characters. These types of films don't even really exist.

Eh. I guess I'll have to flip a coin.

#5 Dale Cooper-Black

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Posted 19 June 2017 - 05:07 PM

Thanks for this episode! It's certain to spark an interesting debate, and it calls attention to two movies that truly deserve it. My head is still spinning from Justin Chang's misguided and misplaced critcism of City of God, though, so it's hard to know where to begin my own dissection.

I'll start by saying that I'm grateful for the opportunity to reassess my opinion of Black Orpheus. I first saw it in my early 20s, on VHS. (Those were the days when you really had to work hard to imagine a film's panoramic beauty.) I spoke highly of the film and recommended it to others at the time, probably because I thought I was supposed to. Watching it again all these years later, however, I'm struck most by its similarity to the bland, condescending travel documentaries of its era.

Black Orpheus was made at a time when bored American suburbanites were taking their first tentative steps outside of their white bread world, thanks in part to such esteemed cultural ambassadors as Harry Belafonte and Carl Dudley. Suddenly Americans were eating tacos and planning trips to the Bahamas, and, hopefully, falling in love with bossa nova, and this film is aimed squarely at them. (This is arguably an embryonic form of today's so-called slum tourism.)

It is true that the movie has a kind of mysterious, lyrical beauty to it, and both hosts did an admirable job of eloquently conveying the tone of the film. But Black Orpheus makes a very abrupt shift from VistaVision travelogue into something much darker, and the movie simply cannot juggle these two aspects effectively. (If Belafonte's Carnegie Hall album had ended with a rendition of the finale from La Traviata, it would be remarkably akin to the scene of Orfeu carrying Eurydice's body through the streets.)

As for City of God... did this movie kick sand in Justin's face at the beach or something? He seems to have some kind of weird, personal grudge against it, and I can't quite figure out what his problem with it is. His case against it seems to echo Amy's devastating (and sorely needed) assault on Goodfellas, which left Devin sputtering in a dismal attempt at defending it. As I've said before, Goodfellas is strong enough to stand on its own, but Amy's points against it were 100% valid, and witnessing her near-fatal attack on that goliath was truly a thing of beauty. One of my favorite moments of film criticism, ever.

But City of God is no goliath (business-wise, it's nowhere near in the same league as such ponderous and genuinely "overwrought" crime movies as Heat or American Gangster), and the arguments against Goodfellas simply don't apply to City of God. (Maybe I'm wrong, and Justin wasn't channeling Amy's critique of Goodfellas, but that's what it seemed like to me.)

City of God is a film that deserves to be championed, even if only on the flimsy premise that it's an excellent gateway film for people who resist foreign-language films with subtitles. Beyond that, of course, it's a remarkably well-told and ridiculously entertaining examination of a particular (and particularly large) sector of humanity, i.e. people who are born into a system that provides them with absolutely no alternative beyond taking whatever they can get, however they can get it. I'm really surprised that Justin could have so thoroughly missed the boat on this.

This isn't a movie that glamorizes or fetishizes violence, it's a movie about people who glamorize and fetishize violence. The gangleaders enjoy an elevated status within society (albeit as outsiders) because of the beneficial effects on so many other segments of that same society: Poverty-stricken street kids join armies that clothe and feed them, the media are provided with a controversial subject that sells papers, and the police receive kickbacks and job security. The biggest losers in this system are honest folk who want no part of the violence. (My apologies for pointing out the obvious.)

Yes, there are a lot of hard hearts in this movie (understandably so), but there are plenty of sympathetic characters, too, and watching them get raped or gunned down is not fun. The violence takes a toll on individuals and society that only grows exponentially. Whether you're witnessing a single murder (like Benny in the nightclub) or the carnage of a giant shootout, you're witnessing the devastation wreaked by poverty. Somebody needs to explain to Justin that there's a difference between a filmmaker using characters as "gunshot fodder" and a gangleader (acting within the narrative) turning his soldiers into same. Yes, the violence is inhumane, but if you're not affected by it, it says more about your own cynicism than it does about the filmmakers'.

Justin mentions that his viewpoint (with regards to the lack of humanity in the movie, specifically the portrayal of kids) is possibly colored by the fact that he is now a father; I can't even begin to wrap my head around how ass-backwards that is. This movie gives a voice to the ordeals of children whom the rest of the world (and even most of the people in their own society) do not seem to give a fuck about. Worse, he is happy to speculate about the treatment toward the child actors themselves, even comparing them at one point to animals that are mistreated in movies (at least, I think so; Justin doesn't always finish his sentences, and it's possible that I'm filling in the blanks incorrectly). But even on this point, he doesn't know what he's talking about. One of the filmmakers, Kátia Lund, turned City of God into a launching pad for an ongoing program that utilizes film workshops as away to help Brazilian kids escape poverty.

Speaking of Lund... A giant, glaring omission in this episode is the nearly-complete dismissal of the contribution of Kátia Lund. Although her parents were American, Lund is a natural-born Brazilian, and an accomplished filmmaker who was (at minimum) an equal partner in writing and directing this film. She previously directed an amazing documentary about the brutal drug war in the favelas, called News From a Personal War--a film that, like City of God, is slickly edited and packaged for maximum impact.

There are stylistic echoes of that documentary all throughout City of God--so much so that I suspect Meirelles asked Lund to collaborate precisely because he knew she'd be able to do much of the heavy lifting on the editorial side of things. I haven't seen too much of Lund's subsequent TV series City of Men, but from what I have seen, it shares the same kind of virtuosic excitement as City of God--something that Meirelles's own follow-up, the Constantly Mumbling Gardener, clearly lacks. Lund gets a brief mention as "co-director" near the end of the episode, but I am seriously scratching my head over the lack of discussion devoted to somebody who was so obviously such an integral part of City of God's success.

Most disappointing, however, were Amy's softball rebuttals to Justin's water-logged complaints. Amy brought up several potentially devastating points against Justin's barely-formed criticisms, but she cushioned them in a wimpy "well I guess I can kinda see the counter argument" tone, as if she were holding back from embarassing her hero. But this is a debate show about movies, or at least it used to be. I would have loved to have seen Amy take on Justin with both barrels, even if only in the role of devil's advocate. There's no reason Amy couldn't have voted for Black Orpheus while also blowing huge holes in Justin's vague, pretentious, condescending case against City of God.

Did I mention that I genuinely enjoyed this episode?
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#6 robert-cop

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Posted 19 June 2017 - 06:40 PM

I watched both these films for the first time last week and I gotta say neither film really grabbed me or blew the other film out of the water quality-wise. So, I'm solely voting on historical significance and I'm voting Black Orpheus. It's probably the one I'm least likely to rewatch, but I think it's a more important film for people to see at least once.

#7 sycasey 2.0

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Posted 19 June 2017 - 08:04 PM

It was interesting to read that Black Orpheus has been criticized over the years for presenting a false and fantastical version of Brazil for Western audiences. Having never seen or heard of the film before last week, it honestly never occurred to me that this was a problem. Whether or not that speaks to my own ignorance as a well-off American is up for debate, but I will say that part of the reason it didn't occur to me was the mythological framework. I mean, you literally have characters named "Orpheus" and "Eurydice" and "Hermes." It's clearly meant to be a heightened, fantastical story set in Brazil. I wouldn't consider this a realistic portrayal of Rio de Janeiro any more than I'd consider Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet a realistic portrayal of Los Angeles teen culture. Maybe the "cultural appropriation" critique was more valid in its time, when there were literally no other Brazilian films to see, but given cultural progress since the 1950s, it doesn't seem like as much of a problem today.

So taking Black Orpheus on its own terms, I thought it worked very well. It's light on its feet and lyrical throughout, remarkably assured in its filmmaking. Seems like a worthy Canon entry.

City of God I do remember seeing upon release. At the time I thought it was a pretty good crime movie, but nothing I hadn't already seen from Scorsese and the like. It did surprise me a bit that it became such a popular success. I hadn't revisited the film since seeing it in theaters.

After viewing it again last week, I can see where Chang's criticism comes from: that opening sequence is really off-putting to my mind, show-offy fast-cut editing that doesn't help tell the story. I got worried that the film would come off even worse this time around. Thankfully, the filmmaking becomes less show-offy and as the story takes hold it becomes much more engrossing. The way the narrative loops back around to the opening sequence again provides better justification for the in-your-face nature of it (you need to remember that scene when they come back to it), but I still think it's a bit overdone, a tendency that would plague Meirelles in subsequent efforts.

I'm still not sure that there is a message here more interesting or resonant than what GoodFellas already provides, and I do still think that City of God clearly owes a LOT to Scorsese's gangster movies, but it is well-made enough to stand on its own. Canon-worthy? I can see an argument for it, but the negatives probably keep it out of that realm for me. I do agree with David and Amy that the film suffers after losing Benny, who is probably the most interesting and sympathetic of the gangster characters, and that its portrayal of women characters is not very strong (trotting out the old trope of raping a woman solely for a male character's development has dated it particularly poorly).

So my vote goes to Black Orpheus, but it was a tough choice. Tougher than I thought after my original viewing of City of God.

#8 Marsellus_H

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Posted 20 June 2017 - 01:39 PM

This, my friends, is the first truly great episode since Devin's departure. I loved every minute of it.

As for the choice, it's a tough one for me. I personally really, really enjoy the visceral style and storytelling of City Of God a bit more, although the substantiallity of Black Orpheus can't be denied. After listening to you guys I nearly felt I should get my vote for Black Orpheus, but in the end I think Trianth hit the nail on the head with his text in here. Good work, everyone ;)

#9 bleary

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Posted 20 June 2017 - 02:30 PM

Great episode. This is a tough call, but I'm going with Black Orpheus. I remember when I first saw City of God, I had very high expectations from its place in rankings (it's still the 2nd highest rated non-English language film on IMDb), and although I generally enjoyed it, it did not live up to those lofty expectations, and I think Justin and Amy's criticisms hit the nail on the head as to why. None of the characters really feel as fleshed out as they could be, the gangster rise & fall story is sort of old hat and predictable, and the treatment of/lack of female characters is a real bummer.

So maybe it's partly backlash to how overrated I think City of God is that I'm not voting for it. Black Orpheus is a movie I'd never seen before this week, and I think it's a better film.

#10 sycasey 2.0

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Posted 20 June 2017 - 03:45 PM

View PostDale Cooper-Black, on 19 June 2017 - 05:07 PM, said:

As for City of God... did this movie kick sand in Justin's face at the beach or something? He seems to have some kind of weird, personal grudge against it, and I can't quite figure out what his problem with it is. His case against it seems to echo Amy's devastating (and sorely needed) assault on Goodfellas, which left Devin sputtering in a dismal attempt at defending it. As I've said before, Goodfellas is strong enough to stand on its own, but Amy's points against it were 100% valid, and witnessing her near-fatal attack on that goliath was truly a thing of beauty. One of my favorite moments of film criticism, ever.

But City of God is no goliath (business-wise, it's nowhere near in the same league as such ponderous and genuinely "overwrought" crime movies as Heat or American Gangster), and the arguments against Goodfellas simply don't apply to City of God. (Maybe I'm wrong, and Justin wasn't channeling Amy's critique of Goodfellas, but that's what it seemed like to me.)


I'm having trouble following your argument here. You think that Justin's critique of City of God echoes Amy's critique of GoodFellas, but this time you don't think it's effective while Amy's was? Why? Is it just because GoodFellas is the more popular movie and you wanted it taken down a peg?

If the argument is that City of God is narratively and stylistically different from GoodFellas in any significant way . . . I must disagree. This film clearly owes a huge debt to Scorsese.

#11 NewAgeRetroHippy

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Posted 20 June 2017 - 05:36 PM

View PostTrianth, on 19 June 2017 - 06:23 AM, said:


I guess my point is that if you're inducting a Brazilian movie and you want to portray Brazilian cinema and Brazilian reality somewhat fairly, City of God is it. At least, from those two choices. To paraphrase something Amy often says in the show -- City of God is more representative of Brazilian cinema than Black Orpheus could ever hope to be, even though, objectively, Black Orpheus is a better movie.


I have to agree with this argument. Black Orpheus is a better film, but if this is "Brazil Week," I think City of God is the better example of Brazilian cinema. Black Orpheus is definitely the loser I'd want voted in during a Redemption Week though, if we ever do one of those again. Until then, hopefully we won't have to wait too long for another opportunity to vote in another beautiful pre-1970 French color film.

(Of course, this kinda points to a problem of having a "small canon." You end up having to tokenize cinema from countries with less recognized presence in the film world. This is part of the reason I'm almost always on the "big canon" side of the "Big Canon vs Small Canon" debates.)

#12 HoldenMartinson

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Posted 20 June 2017 - 05:44 PM

I still hope this ends in a tie, and we get BOTH FILMS IN THE CANON!!!

#13 Dale Cooper-Black

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Posted 20 June 2017 - 06:11 PM

View Postsycasey 2.0, on 20 June 2017 - 03:45 PM, said:


I'm having trouble following your argument here. You think that Justin's critique of City of God echoes Amy's critique of GoodFellas, but this time you don't think it's effective while Amy's was? Why?


Uhhh... because it's a different movie, for starters.
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#14 Dale Cooper-Black

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Posted 20 June 2017 - 06:15 PM

View Postsycasey 2.0, on 20 June 2017 - 03:45 PM, said:


If the argument is that City of God is narratively and stylistically different from GoodFellas in any significant way . . . I must disagree. This film clearly owes a huge debt to Scorsese.


Stylistically similar? Yes. Narratively similar? I'd say no, but arguable. Thematically similar? A whole different ball game.
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#15 FictionIsntReal

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Posted 20 June 2017 - 10:07 PM

I like City of God FAR FAR better than Black Orpheus. I also like Beasts of the Southern Wild a bit more, and Slumdog Millionaire about the same amount. Nevertheless, Black Orpheus seems more canonical to me. I hardly remember the last time I heard anyone talk about City of God (other than this podcast). I completely forgot the same director did The Constant Gardener (which I just thought of as an example of how Le Carre doesn't work as well after the Cold War). I had no problem with the moral perspective; as you noted Scorsese has often taken a similar approach. An exploitation film is not simply one with lurid subject matter (is every film about the Holocaust "exploitation"?), this is a very well done film about some real things. I was so irked by the criticism the film is receiving here that I'm tempted to vote for it even though I don't see it as canonical (at least in the US), particularly when Goodfellas gets to take a similar spot with chronological precedence.

#16 LiminalSpaaace

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Posted 20 June 2017 - 10:28 PM

Longtime listener, first time commenter. I had some serious issues with the conversation on Black Orpheus. Amy and Justin spent what felt like a long time only talking about how beautiful the actors are and admiring their "physicality". It was weird, and reminded me more than a little bit of the party scene in Get Out. I began to sympathize with young Barack Obama, perhaps in the wrong eyes Black Orpheus is pornography of black bodies.

I disagree with almost every one of Justin's gripes about City of God. How does this movie lack emotions? Even when we see that scene with the young boy being forced to shoot another boy, we see pain and remorse on his face, which is a lot more emotion than we get in nearly the identical scene in Beasts of No Nation. As far as portraying the forced indoctrination of youth into a bloody conflict, I think City of God does this more effectively even though it doesn't have the benefit of focusing on a single character. It's one of the better vignette-style narratives that I've seen because it really is telling the story of a city, not a protagonist. Which isn't to say that this film doesn't care about its characters, I'm at a complete loss of understanding this point when every character feels distinct and make the film feel so alive. I will however agree that the portrayal of women is just awful and a total missed opportunity.

City of God is not hopeful, but I don't think that makes it nihilistic. The filmmakers' goal is simply to be honest about the brutality of life in the favelas. Hopefulness would only be pandering to its international audience. City of God feels raw and dangerous in a way that I don't think is even comparable to an exploitation film where those are common aesthetic elements, in City of God they are essential to the story being told and more importantly get across what this city is like. This movie feels dangerous not in a glamorous or exploitative way, but in a very genuine way that I don't think our critics appreciated. On the subject of legitimacy, how can we even compare a movie made by Brazilian writers and directors with one made by a European? If we're giving honors to a proper Brazilian film, there is only one right choice.

#17 jmhimara

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Posted 21 June 2017 - 04:31 AM

I love both films and I'm glad we finally got a good Canon episode( although I still wish the episodes weren't recorded 4-5 weeks in advance, it sort of makes the forum discussions pointless).

It's hard for me to vote against either film since I love them both, and also it is an odd versus since they've got nearly nothing in common. Both movies merit their own individual episodes.

If I had to make a choice though, it would be City of God.

#18 Johnny Pomatto

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Posted 22 June 2017 - 10:03 AM

As a 22 year old in 2002, I was pretty mesmerized by CITY OF GOD when it was released, but I haven't revisited it since then because I've got a sneaking suspicion that my older self will start to see the cracks and influences within it. BLACK ORPHEUS, on the other hand, I saw at too young an age and didn't understand what the big deal was, and I hadn't revisited it until it played at Metrograph last year and I was able to see it on the big screen. During that viewing I was transfixed and stunned by its use of color and sound. It's a wonderful film that should get immediate entry into The Canon, though I fear it won't. I lament that it was entered in a head to head competition, especially against a film that neither co-host seemed to like all that much. I think that CITY OF GOD was a rather important and exciting visual film at the time of its release, but I wouldn't call it a classic or Canon-worthy.

#19 killertapir

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Posted 23 June 2017 - 12:00 PM

I ultimately voted for Black Orpheus. Saw it for the first time due to the podcast. I really liked it.

However... I'd like to get in and say that I don't like the two of these films being put into a Vs. To me, they share less in common than other films in Vs episodes. They're different films made by different directors in different time periods in different genres with different things to say.

I believe both of these films could (and should) be entered into the canon, and they wouldn't cause any overlap. It would be like putting Breathless and Amelie head to head just because they're both french.

#20 Ryanmccan

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Posted 24 June 2017 - 10:56 AM

I'm new to this forum so I don't know how to delete a comment but I basically got rid of the comment I previously had here.

I think it was weird to make these two films compete and I wish that they could both make it into the Canon but I love this show and what I previously wrote here was unnecessary.