The 300 Week 22: Won’t You Be My Moviegoing Neighbor?


Hello, neighbor, welcome back to The 300, a recurring feature on my special attempt to watch 300 movies in theaters in the year 2018. I’ll be watching new releases, classics, and hidden gems to experience the wide world of cinema in all its forms. With so much being watched, there should be something each week that you can also enjoy.

As always, there are three rules for The 300:

  • The movie must be at least 40 minutes long, meeting the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ definition of a feature film.
  • I must watch the movie at a movie theater, screening room, or outdoor screening venue.
  • While I can watch movies I’ve seen before 2018, I cannot count repeated viewings of the same film in 2018 multiple times.

Apart from the first two films—Won’t You Be My Neighbor and First Reformed—this week is mostly comprised of repertory programming, giving me a chance to catch up with classics. Metrograph has programmed an excellent series on Jane Fonda films from the 1970s, and Quad Cinema is currently doing a retrospective on Hammer Studios, that venerable house of British gothic horror. Next week will be focused on more new releases, as I play catch up with two movies that slipped by and catch two big new releases coming out this weekend: Hereditary and Ocean’s 8.

Enough dallying. Let’s trolley into some reviews and thoughts.

And so, onward.

152 of 300: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

Director: Morgan Neville
Country: USA
Seen at Magno Screening Room (New York, NY)
Wednesday, May 30th

I wonder what it’s like to watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor? without a nostalgic connection to Mister Rogers. He was a TV staple when I was growing up, and one of my favorite childhood personalities on PBS alongside Reading Rainbow’s LeVar Burton. What a kind, patient, caring person, so intense in his benevolence and capacity to love. Neville’s fond portrait of Fred Rogers thankfully avoids complete hagiography, revealing a sincere yet complicated man who used his show to work out real world issues as well as his own self-doubts. Like a bright child, playtime was an opportunity to work with and work through the raw materials of one’s emotional life. What a great reminder that a silly little song can capture all the joy and heartache of being alive, and that we are surrounded by so many other people who have and will experience the same thing.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? successfully humanizes Rogers, who too often seems more like an idea of a person’s best qualities. Turns out Rogers could be too stubborn in his beliefs in what children’s programming should be, and also on how the world ought to work. While it’s a well-meaning fundamentalism, it’s still so unshakeably stodgy. Why should a love of Daffy Duck and Mister Rogers be mutually exclusive? What a quaint zeal, and what a lovely unreasonable man; a man who embodies his inner child. They mention Rogers modeling a different kind of masculinity, one that is less macho and more empathetic and emotionally secure. He was so much a product of his time and also, though palatably veiled, ahead of his time.

I teared up and wept quietly through most of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and also ugly cried twice. If I wasn’t in a room with so many other people, I might have let out a whimper before breaking down and sobbing. It’s rare that a movie can feel like therapy, and I think we’ve hit a breakthrough this session.

153 of 300: First Reformed (2017)

Director: Paul Schrader
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill
Country: USA
Seen at BAM Rose Cinemas (Brooklyn, NY)
Thursday, May 31st

Immediately coming out of First Reformed, I liked it quite a bit. An upstate pastor finding succor in environment causes during a crisis of faith is rich material. While I wasn’t moved emotionally, I found the film at least interesting, sort of like Taxi Driver by way of Diary of a Country Priest. I’ve cooled on the movie over the last few days, though. While I admire it, I get more detached as I turn the film over in my head. I can understand the beats in the plot like letters in a series of conditional statements (if A then B, if B then C, if C then D), but I don’t feel that the movie gets from A to Z in the most satisfying way.

Part of it may have to do with the journal in the film, which is where Hawke’s narration helps illuminate his character’s inner life. We don’t get enough of the journal, which makes the pastor’s turn from flagging faith to ecoterrorist radicalization seem both convenient and inexplicable. I wanted to get into his head and suss out the process of radicalization and the religious ecstasy it inspires, or to see an even more apocalyptic vision of the world through his eyes or in his words. Instead, if A then B, if B then C, if C then D. Greater philosophical, emotional, and ideological gradations rather than bullet points could have enhanced what’s here, which is mostly just all right.

154 of 300: The Changeling (1980)

Director: Peter Medak
Starring: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas
Country: Canada
Seen at Metrograph (New York, NY)
Friday, June 1st

The box cover of The Changeling haunted my childhood—that creepy wheelchair, that spectral shadow on a dark wall—and I never got around to seeing the movie until last week. It’s such a solidly made ghost story, in which the scares are staged and executed with remarkable simplicity. It’s what makes many of the scenes so chilling and memorable. The same might be said of Scott’s stoic bemusement as the house unsettles around him, as if his unshaken demeanor provides an outlet for the audience to experience the fear he’s not showing.

I like the first half of The Changeling better than the second half, though that’s true for me with most ghost stories. In the first half of many ghost stories, the fear is a product of chaos and the absurd. People are haunted for inexplicable reasons, and they feel helpless to do anything about it—the complete lack of control is part of the terror. By the second half of the film, the mechanisms of haunting are revealed, allowing the ghost to be appeased, which usually means righting a past wrong. Logic, order, and agency are restored, and the horror can finally be resolved. I prefer moments with an illogical lack of resolution, which may be my greatest fear.

155 of 300: The China Syndrome (1980)

Director: James Bridges
Starring: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas
Country: USA
Seen at Metrograph (New York, NY)
Saturday, June 2nd

The China Syndrome is so earnest in its concerns about nuclear power, and so late 70s in its presentation. There’s even an pop song that plays over the opening credits and probably would not fit anywhere else (and it barely fits there). It’s such a surprisingly compelling thriller, with Fonda as a TV reporter who witnesses a minor nuclear mishap that could mean a disaster in the making. Lemmon is the scene stealer, as he is in most films. (Fonda’s pet tortoise is a close second.) Just keep a watchful eye on Lemmon in any movie he’s in. There’s something so good about the little moves of his head, or the slight twitch of an eye, or a quaver in the voice. What a master performer working big and small simultaneously for the camera.

156 of 300: Coming Home (1978)

Director: Hal Ashby
Starring: Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, Penelope Milford
Country: USA
Seen at Metrograph (New York, NY)
Sunday, June 3rd

Coming Home reminded me again how much Wes Anderson owes to the work of Hal Ashby, from the use of needle drops to an overall vibe. A romance by way of a Vietnam message movie, Fonda plays a woman given a chance to be herself for the first time after her husband (Dern) ships off to war. She falls for a paraplegic Vietnam veteran (Voight), who may be the first man to show her genuine tenderness. I wonder if the contrasting love scenes between Fonda/Dern and Fonda/Voight seemed like dynamite at the time, emphasizing the difference between being a dutiful spouse and being a lover with needs. Seeing this the day after The China Syndrome makes me want to explore more of Fonda’s output around this time. She seems to be taking meaty roles in films that delineate the frontlines of feminism and progressive politics during the era.

157 of 300: One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977)
(aka L’une chante, l’autre pas)

Director: Agnès Varda
Starring: Thérèse Liotard, Valérie Mairesse, Ali Raffi
Country: France
Seen at BAM Rose Cinemas (Brooklyn, NY)
Monday, June 4th

Agnès Varda’s late career renaissance following the release of Faces Places is one of the most delightful things to happen in the movies. (A belated happy 90th birthday to her.) Varda’s films are getting critically reevaluated, they’re playing more often on the big screen, and it looks like some of her works less known to American audiences are getting restorations and re-releases. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t feels like a nice complement to the previous two days of Jane Fonda movies. The film follows the friendship of two women over the course of a decade, and how they try to lead fulfilling lives of dignity, self-expression, independence, and hope.

The one who sings (Mairesse) is a bohemian making art on the road; the one who doesn’t (Liotard) is a single mother who starts a family planning clinic in southern France. The film drifts and wanders as it ponders abortion and the pill and what these women really want out of life, culminating beautifully and in such a way that justifies the loose structure. This is a story about two feminists doing their own thing, both part of a greater family of women whose struggles continue today.

158 of 300: The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

Director: Terence Fisher
Starring: Peter Cushing, Francis Matthews, Eunice Gayson, Michael Gwynn
Country: UK
Seen at Quad Cinema (New York, NY)
Tuesday, June 5th

This direct sequel to The Curse of Frankenstein follows the mad scientist (Cushing) now in hiding in Germany using the lazy fake name “Stein”. When not playing god, Frankenstein pretends to work with the poor and homeless for altruistic purposes. Once the plot gets underway, there’s lurid fun in the second half of the film, particularly when it comes to the evil doctor’s hapless hunchbacked assistant. Maybe “fun” isn’t the right word—I felt really bad for him. Cushing’s great as always, and his take on Frankenstein seems to be a high-functioning sociopath who views other people as Legos and luncheon meat.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.