The 300 Week 32: BlacKkKlansman is Vital, The Meg is Dumb, and MoviePass is a Kafkaesque Dumpster Fire


Sup, sharkticons, and welcome back to The 300, a recurring feature on my deep blue attempt to watch 300 movies in theaters in the year 2018. I’ll be seeing new releases, repertory screenings, hidden gems, and festival films to experience the wide world of cinema in all its glory. I hope there’s something here you’ll want to check out.

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.

There were going to be more movies on this week’s installment of The 300, but MoviePass decided to get restrictive again. Maybe they saw me quoted in this Buzzfeed article on MoviePass super-users and sought revenge. (At the time, that was 161 movies with just MoviePass. I think the number is closer to 165 movies this year with MoviePass, but would have to double check.) MoviePass limited its users to just a handful of choices at select theaters again. Ultimately, I could watch Slender Man (which I didn’t and won’t) using MoviePass, but I could not see a 35-year-old French film starring Isabelle Huppert (Entre Nous) or a 53-year-old French film about the French-Indochinese War (The 317th Platoon).

MoviePass a Few Weeks Ago: We will not support blockbusters on opening weekend. Go support more independent films.

Me: Great! I love indies, foreign films, and arthouse movi—

MoviePass Over the Weekend: F**k you, Hubert! Go watch Slender Man or the dumbf**k shark movie!

I watched the dumbf**k shark movie, but used AMC A-List so I could watch it in the afternoon without a surge charge. On top of this, MoviePass posted a $126 million quarterly loss, is getting flak for un-cancelling user cancellations in a sneaky way, and may be sued by investors for being terrible at math. Seems like it is now just a matter of time before they completely capsize.

I believe the three-movie-a-month policy goes in effect starting today. Next week, maybe something different. No matter what happens to MoviePass, I’m resolved to hit the big 300 by year’s end if not sooner.

And so, onward.

208 of 300: The Wonders (2014)
(aka Le meraviglie)

Director: Alice Rohrwacher
Starring: Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyck, Alba Rohrwacher, Monica Bellucci
Country: Italy/Switzerland/Germany
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
The Female Gaze
Wednesday, August 8th

From the beginning of The Wonders to its lyrical and elliptical closing images, we get to witness a teenage girl’s coming-of-age as well as a disappearing way of life. A family of beekeepers in rural Italy struggle to get by, and their unit seems to be straining more and more over the course of the film. Wolfgang, the patriarch of the family, is set in his ways about work and the world, and emasculated by never having a son. As capable as his eldest daughter Gelsomina is, he never seems to trust her to carry on this dying tradition. There’s a fitting metaphor in failed hives and bees trying to get away from their confines. The film’s quiet, intimate sadness is heightened by the condescension whenever city folks interact with the local farmers. The Wonders may not leave a lasting impression on me, but I was glad to have watched it all play out and fade away.

209 of 300: Summer Wars (2009)
(aka サマーウォーズ; Samā Wōzu)

Director: Mamoru Hosoda
Starring: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Nanami Sakuraba, Mitsuki Tanimura, Sumiko Fuji
Country: Japan
Seen at Pier I, Riverside Park South (New York, NY)
Summer on the Hudson: Pier I Picture Show
Wednesday, August 8th

Summer Wars feels like a mix between a Yasujiro Ozu family drama and The Matrix if it was made a decade later. We witness a family’s joys and turmoils over the course of a few days as well as a battle for the fate of world against an evil artificial intelligence program. It’s such an extreme clash of tones and styles that it shouldn’t work, and yet somehow Mamoru Hosoda balances them wonderfully, allowing the film to explore loneliness/isolation and community/togetherness at different scales.

I need to watch Summer Wars again, however, and this has everything to do with the nature of the outdoor screening. The organizers decided to play the English subtitled version of the film rather than the English dub. That’s fine in theory, but the sightlines were poor, and people’s heads kept obscuring the subtitles at the bottom of the screen. I noticed a lot of people shifting in their seats just to read the text. It would have been a nightmare if Prospect Park showed the subtitled version of Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (The 300 Week 30). The projection was also a little dim, which made the subtitles even harder to read even if someone’s head wasn’t in the way. It’s a testament to Summer Wars that I still enjoyed it a lot even though it was a struggle to keep up with what was going on.

210 of 300: Notes on an Appearance (2018)

Director: Ricky D’ambrose
Starring: Keith Poulson, Tallie Medel, Bingham Bryant
Country: USA
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
Thursday, August 9th

I decided to watch Notes on an Appearance because a fake book in the trailer recreated the cover design for the old edition of Martin Heidegger’s basic writings. So much about Notes on an Appearance is about the signifiers of urbane intellectual culture, like the recognition of a book cover, or the recreation of the typeface in a New York Review of Books article. There’s an art show opening with pretentious placards describing work we never see; a public discussion on translation is omitted, though we do get the awkward audience questions during the Q&A and the lengthy guest intros full of publications grad school hipsters would know.

A character goes missing yet no one seems to care that much, which has shades of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura. As we’re given a glimpse into the lives of Brooklyn intellectuals pursuing their nebulous hobbyhorses, I found myself feeling more and more disengaged. So much of the movie is mannered in the extreme, with actors delivering their lines flatly and blankly. The 4:3 aspect ratio is filled with static and often uninteresting shots of walls and tables. People try to read in coffee shops but become distracted by conversations at nearby tables; the camera is fixed on the table’s diagonal wood grain and the ritual of pouring milk into an americano.

I like long takes and slow storytelling as seen in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (The 300 Week 31), Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (The 300 Week 25), and Ana Urushadze’s Scary Mother (The 300 Week 13), yet with Notes on an Appearance I wondered what I should make of the movie. If it’s a deadpan satire of the emptiness of the urbane Brooklynite, that point feels too obvious to me to be worthwhile; if it’s an exploration of absence and emptiness through absence and emptiness, it feels more tautological to me than transcendental. It’s not a bad movie since it is so committed to its minimalism, but it’s not something that speaks to me at all—a movie like a conversation at a grad school cocktail party that I excuse myself from politely.

211 of 300: Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

Director: Josephine Decker
Starring: Helena Howard, Miranda July, Molly Parker
Country: USA
Seen at Quad Cinema (New York, NY)
Friday, August 10th

Madeline’s Madeline is not for everyone, and I almost rejected the movie in its opening minutes. The film is so unanchored and discomfiting in its style, and it took a while to get into its rhythm. I am so glad that I stuck with it. We watch a teenage girl do immersive improv pretending to be a cat, and then suddenly she’s in a dance class, and then she dreams of hurting her mother with a clothes iron. We go back and forth in time, hop between memory and the present, moods swing wildly, often. Images are shaky and blurry, at times verging on vertiginous. The sound design is a disorienting miasma of clipped conversations, waning interest, and full attention.

But after 10 or 15 minutes, something clicked. I finally settled into this story about a girl with mental health issues trying to understand her narrative and attempt to take control of it through her art. Maybe that first 15 minutes of disorientation is necessary. It gives the audience an idea of how Madeline sees and interacts with the world, and becomes a kind of meta-commentary on this character’s artistic process. If Madeline’s power is her ability to empathize and to tap into her emotions, the film’s first minutes feel like they train the audience to be Madeline, to do as Madeline does. We get to see how this girl views her relationships with her biological mother (July) and her surrogate mother (Parker), and how nurturing and harmful these maternal relationships can be when they misstep and overstep.

While I’ve praised Josephine Decker’s remarkable, uncompromising direction, Madeline’s Madeline also worked for me because of how committed Helena Howard is to this performance. She is phenomenal in the big moments and small ones. A slight shift in body language means the difference between comfort and unease; we can even detect levels of sadness in just a slight upturn or downturn of her expression. I think Madeline’s Madeline will wind up somewhere in my top 10 of 2018 because of how singular a cinematic experience it is.

212 of 300: BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Director: Spike Lee
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace
Country: USA
Seen at AMC Loews 34th Street 14 (New York, NY)
Friday, August 10th

BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee’s best movie since The 25th Hour, and a vital political polemic about racism in America today. The past is prologue throughout the film, and we see many KKK members espousing Donald Trump talking points. While using the past as a vessel for present political commentary can seem suspect, it should be noted that slogans like “America First” have been around since the 1940s. BlacKkKlansman critiques Trump as an outgrowth of American bigotry and racism in the 20th century. Even if our heroes somehow win the battle in the film, there’s still the larger war against racist motherf**kers to consider.

There’s a messiness about BlacKkKlansman as Lee jumps back and forth in tones. The second half of the movie feels less focused than the first, albeit maintaining the same sense of political urgency. The Ron Stallworth (Washington) and Flip Zimmerman (Driver) infiltration of the Klan sometimes feels like a Bugs Bunny cartoon; one klansman even seems like the dumb, fat Elmer Fudd of old. Yet there are different faces of racism explored, there’s the sanitized political racism of David Duke (a very good Grace), there’s the unsubtle power trip racism of the cops, there’s the unhinged violent racism of some klansmen, and there’s even racist domesticity in the klan wives. This is a movie with both caricatures and characters.

Lee doesn’t get too far into an exploration of institutional racism in law enforcement, but I sensed some attempt to acknowledge that in some discussions of double consciousness that Ron has with Patrice Dumas (Harrier), head of the black student union. If anything, there are two sequences in BlacKkKlansman that are unassailably brilliant. One is a loving, inspiring moment of affirmation and beauty, and the other intercuts two completely different meetings with a common cinematic connection. I’m still reeling from film’s disturbing coda, which brings the message home. The fight against racism is far from over, and there are more villains out there than Fudd.

213 of 300: The Meg (2018)

Director: Jon Turteltaub
Starring: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose
Country: China/USA
Seen at AMC Loews Kips Bay 15 (New York, NY)
Sunday, August 12th

The Meg is dumb—so dumb—there’s no disputing that, but it’s comfortably, enjoyably dumb. It’s an old dumb sweater you wear at your dumb family home on a dumb winter morning while drinking dumb coffee. That’s a positive in my book. There’s something so old-fashioned about the movie that’s mostly free from the mushy romantic subplot (it’s there, though) and generally packed with an international cast engaged in shark-fighting action. We even get Jason Statham fighting a giant prehistoric shark in hand-to-fin combat for a bit. It may even be the same shark that was in the prologue. Or not. Really, who gives a f**k? The Meg is the perfect movie to have half-watched on cable in the 90s while doing something else.

214 of 300: Skate Kitchen (2018)

Director: Crystal Moselle
Starring: Rachelle Vinberg, Dede Lovelace, Nina Moran, Jaden Smith
Country: USA
Seen at IFC Center (New York, NY)
Tuesday, August 14th

Crystal Moselle’s followup to the documentary The Wolfpack tells a fictionalized story of the real-life skateboarding crew known as the Skate Kitchen. They’re all women, and they roll how they want, posting pics and clips on Instagram as they ride around New York City. The memorable opening of the movie features Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) having an accidental rite of passage with her skateboard. This sets the tone for her arc in the film. She’s an adult—so, now what? The best moments of Skate Kitchen are when the girls are just hanging out, getting stoned, and being girls. They have such an incredible rapport, and everything they do has an effortless ease. Moselle captures these women being themselves, and they are such fascinating characters. I even forgot Jaden Smith was Jaden Smith because of the movie’s naturalism.

Skate Kitchen falters when it comes to conflict, though. Camille feels like too much of a shut-in at age 18, and the inter-crew drama that arises feels so artificial in a movie that’s otherwise organic. The movie could have worked just fine as a low-drama hangout movie about NYC skaters. It may have even worked fine as a documentary since the Skate Kitchen are so watchable whenever they’re on screen. If anything, I wonder what Moselle will make next, and if she will continue to examine families and surrogate families.

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