Greetings, dahling, and welcome back to The 300, a recurring feature on my cape-clad 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 ought to be something each week that you can 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.
A slightly lighter week than usual as I am closing in on 200 movies. Like I mentioned last week, I hope to catch a few movies at the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) and the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival, which together comprise one of the country’s biggest showcases of Asian film. The sheer amount of summer film programming may get in the way, what with all the free outdoor screenings and retrospectives.
Given how grim the world has gotten in the last two weeks, movies and books have provided a much needed escape. But even then, escape is only temporary, and it is important to do something about this hell we are living in.
And so, onward.
165 of 300: Witness (1985)
Director: Peter Weir
Starring: Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Josef Sommer, Lukas Haas
Seen at Metrograph (New York, NY)
Friday, June 15th
I haven’t seen Witness since I was 10 or 11 years old, so watching it again was like watching it for the first time. I was startled by how quirky and funny the movie is. That mood is helped by the synth score, which is like artisanal Tangerine Dream. The murder investigation plot gets pushed aside during a long stretch of the middle of the film, and the movie becomes this quaint fish-out-of-water romance between a big city detective and an Amish woman who’s recently lost her husband. Ford earned an Oscar nomination for the film (his only one), and while I think he’s just playing Harrison Ford, he plays the hell out of Harrison Ford. (Movie stars almost always play themselves, and they’re damn good at it.) McGillis’s performance is solid as well, fluctuating between desire and constraint. She embodies that all-too-familiar state: knowing something’s a bad idea and wanting someone badly.
When the dirty-cop murder plot returns to the film, it emphasizes the contrast of communities. Among the detectives of Philadelphia, you can’t trust anyone, but among the Amish in Lancaster County, everyone is there for one another. Young Viggo Mortensen appears in a few scenes—those Middle-Earth rangers don’t seem to age.
166 of 300: The Devil Rides Out (1968)
(aka The Devil’s Bride)
Director: Terence Fisher
Starring: Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Nike Arrighi, Leon Greene
Seen at Quad Cinema (New York, NY)
Saturday, June 16th
The Devil Rides Out is a fast-paced work of occultism, a horror hootenanny both shocking and exciting in equal measure. It’s such a blast, and doesn’t waste time getting from scene to scene as Lee and his companions do battle with the forces of darkness. Part of that credit goes to screenwriter Richard Matheson, the author of I Am Legend and writer of several episodes of The Twilight Zone. Lee’s expertise in occult matters (he’s like The Encyclopedia Satanica) is matched by Gray’s malevolent presence. Several of the magical rites in the film are crafted so chillingly, particularly one sequence in which Lee and his friends attempt to abjure the Angel of Death. This is easily my favorite Hammer movie of all time.
167 of 300: Ganja & Hess (1973)
Director: Bill Gunn
Starring: Marlene Clark, Duane Jones, Bill Gunn
Seen at Metrograph (New York, NY)
Sunday, June 17th
Remade by Spike Lee as Da Blood of Sweet Jesus in 2014, Ganja & Hess is an arthouse blaxploitation vampire movie that drags at times but also haunts and fascinates. What an odd, singular vision this movie is. It’s less like Blacula and more like an experimental version of George Romero’s Martin; if you can picture it, this is like Martin by way of Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song. Gunn’s storytelling style and hallucinatory imagery defies easy categorization, but so much of the film seems to be dealing with shifting black identities, and how the specters of black history and mythology remain present in contemporary black culture. Every now and then the cast has to contend with airplanes passing overhead, which adds to the low-budget/high-art charm. Just go with its oddness and let the images and music wash over you.
168 of 300: Incredibles 2 (2018)
Director: Brad Bird
Starring: Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Vowell, Samuel L. Jackson
Seen at Cobble Hill Cinemas (Brooklyn, NY)
Monday, June 18th
I don’t think Incredibles 2 is as good as The Incredibles, but it’s a great follow-up that expands on the family drama as well as the scope of the superheroics. It’s an inverted redux of the first film, with Helen (Hunter) off on an adventure while Bob (Nelson) plays homemaker. As Elastigirl engages in inventive derring-do, Mr. Incredible seethes at home, feeling helpless and emasculated before accepting that good families are built on teamwork. The Parr marriage once again mirrors the changes to traditional social and gender norms during the mid-20th century. Also, Violet (Vowell) is given more to do in this film, Edna Mode (Bird) is Pixar’s best supporting character, and a baby fights a raccoon. Fantastic.
I remember seeing an essay on the jumbled politics of Incredibles 2, but I think its conflicting messages could be intentional. Perhaps Bird wanted to avoid another reductive “this movie is about Randian objectivism” interpretation of his sequel. As a hermeneutic smoke bomb, he throws out different and sometimes conflicting political messages that are often associated with superhero films. My friend Leah Schnelbach over at Tor.com offered her own read on the politics of Incredibles 2 that I think is really sound, particularly on how we view heroism in the real world:
We have largely outsourced our morality and eloquence and sense of outrage at injustice—we express our horror at atrocity via memes, jokes, mis-attributed quotes passed along from email forwards to Facebook shares. We’ve outsourced our research to Snopes. We like and retweet other people’s reports on injustice as though we’re actually doing something.
We rely on the vague hope that eventually the information will get passed along to the right hero or conscientious government official, or, I don’t know, Buddha, and that that person will act on the tip. And please understand that when I say “we” I’m goddamn including “me” in that—I’ve done more than my share of sharing.
What the Incredibles pointed out, both in their first screen outing and their latest one, is that we can’t rely on that.
Even the most rudimentary of superhero stories help reify the core values of their culture: that we have to help those who are most vulnerable, that with great power comes great responsibility. The implicit notion is that you are also capable of heroism, even at the small interpersonal level: raising a family, being a good person, supporting causes that matter. Like Superman wrote on the moon: “Do good to others and everyone can be a Superman.” Or, like David Bowie put it: “We can be heroes.”
169 of 300: En el Séptimo Día (2017)
(aka On the Seventh Day)
Director: Jim McKay
Starring: Fernando Cardona, Gilberto Jimenez, Abel Perez, Genoel Ramírez
Seen at IFC Center (New York, NY)
Tuesday, June 19th
The stakes seem so small in En el Séptimo Día, yet they mean everything for basic human dignity: a job, a place to stay, and something to give your life joy. McKay’s film is such a remarkable neorealist slice of life, showing how undocumented workers in Brooklyn live from day to day. Each interaction in the film feels so natural, and offers a portrait of Brooklyn we rarely see on film. We observe condescension that’s really thinly veiled racism, the code-switching in the hispanic/latinx community, and even those little uplifting conversations that get people through a bad day. Sometimes life really is about the little things. En el Séptimo Día reminded me a bit of Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, two other excellent films about the way New Yorkers from underserved and underrepresented communities get by.