The 300 Week 34: The Marx Brothers Go to the Opera and The Happytime Murders Can Just Go Away


Why hello there, wealthy dowagers, and welcome back to The 300, a recurring feature on my zany 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. By having an open mind as a filmgoer, I hope you see 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.

We’re closing out August pretty strong, and I’m on pace to be 70 movies from the goal by the end of the week. Though premature, I am thinking about maybe doing something special for the 300th film. I guess it depends on what time of year I get there. I’ll leave that on the back burner for now. I need to finish up this piece before heading into a morning press screening. (I miss when MoviePass was functional and my schedule more flexible.)

While I’m talking about the future (this humidity is making me loopy), things will slow down for a week in mid-September because of personal plans but will pick up again as I start covering the 2018 New York Film Festival. Expect a NYFF 56 preview in about a month.

And so, onward.

222 of 300: Bisbee ’17 (2018)

Director: Robert Greene
Country: USA
Seen at Film Forum (New York, NY)
Thursday, August 23rd

There’s a haunted intelligence about Bisbee ‘17 and what it’s trying to say about history. There is the mythic history of gunfighters in Tombstone, but then there is the ugly history of workers in Bisbee. One is remembered even if it is mostly legend; the other is a specter or a shadow little known. The ghosts of history are everywhere, whether we realize it or not. Bisbee ‘17 is a compelling documentary structured like a text, building slowly toward a powerful, emotional climax. This is a movie that reveals the empathetic potential of historical recreation, all the while alluding to contemporary political conflicts without having to state them outright.

Bisbee is an Arizona mining town near the Mexico border. Just over a century ago, more than 1,000 striking miners were rounded up at gunpoint, loaded onto train cars, and deported to New Mexico. The workers, mostly immigrants, were transported 16 hours without food or water, and forbidden from ever returning to Bisbee under penalty of death. All they wanted to do was unionize. While Robert Greene isn’t able to get hundreds of people to recreate this atrocity, he still gathers enough individuals in Cochise County to capture some fraction of the pain and ugliness of that historical moment. It’s fascinating and often moving to see how the various people interpret the history they’re recreating and what it means to them. For some, the is the first time they have grappled with what the tragedy really means.

As I mentioned while reviewing No Vietnamese Ever Called Me N****r (The 300 Week 33), perhaps the past isn’t just prologue. Here, past and present are a palimpsest, a text written over itself with additional text. There are events happening in the present that either acknowledge or ignore the past, or make the past seem more present. Greene plays with the idea of ghosts to great effect in this regard. Though mining operations have apparently resumed, Bisbee is technically a ghost town given the long closure of its initial mining operations. Using silhouettes and people dressed in period clothing, Greene insinuates ghosts throughout the film and throughout the town, serving as a reminder of the past and perhaps also a warning about the future if the past is forgotten.

223 of 300: Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Director: Abel Ferrara
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Zoë Lund, Frankie Thorn
Country: USA
Seen at The Roxy Cinema Tribeca (New York, NY)
Thursday, August 23rd

Bad Lieutenant is an enduring work of artsleaze. It’s one of Abel Ferrara’s best films, and one of the grimiest, dingiest things to crawl whimpering and sniffing out of the 1990s. Harvey Keitel is our title character—the dirtiest cop who every dirtied—giving a performance that is as ugly as it is inspired. We’re introduced to him driving his sons to school and doing a bunch of coke once the kids are out of the car. He abuses power, he dopes himself up, he wanders the city like some terrifying misogynistic, racist wrecking ball. And yet there are a few moments of unexpected vulnerability shown in an otherwise vulgar and brutal character. One scene so surreal and desperate borders on the ecstatic; it is the sacred and the profane in a series of images.

This is the sort of movie that leaves you wincing and wanting to take a shower afterward. Watching it in a crowd, it was alarming to hear laughs during some of the skeeviest moments. The infamous traffic stop scene is especially revolting. The appeal of Bad Lieutenant has everything to do with the vanished New York City captured on film and the dirtbag indie ethos present in every shot.

224 of 300: A Night at the Opera (1935)

Director: Sam Wood
Starring: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Kitty Carlisle
Country: USA
Seen at Josie Robertson Plaza in front of The Metropolitan Opera House (New York, NY)
2018 Summer HD Festival
Friday, August 24th

One day I’ll watch Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera as a double-feature so I can finally figure out which is my favorite Marx Brothers movie. Since I tend to favor the one I see more recently, even a back-to-back viewing can pose a problem. There’s so much to love in A Night at the Opera. Fittingly, this free outdoor screening of the Marx Brothers classic was in from of The Metropolitan Opera on a pleasant summer night. There’s the ship cabin scene that is so beautifully absurd, and works as a feat of compact physical comedy and verbal insanity. Buster Keaton apparently helped write this gag. There’s the hotel room chase scene with the disappearing beds, which makes no sense at all, but the point is the sheer nonsense of it all. The final opera sequence is remarkable, full of vaudevillian lunacy and some incredible Tarzan-esque stuntwork.

Each of the Marxes get to do their schtick. Groucho’s got lots of great one-liners that come right after each other. Chico gets to work his accent and play the piano in his idiosyncratic way. Harpo steals the show in this film more than others. Something seems extra-compelling as this lovable goofball terrorizes normies and plays the harp angelically. As with every rewatch of a Marx Brothers movie, I come to admire Margaret Dumont more. She is an essential ingredient in these films and such an underrated comic player. Her dignified wealthy dowager is the perfect foil for Groucho’s merciless smarm. Remove her and you lose one-fifth of the laughs.

225 of 300: The Happytime Murders (2018)

Director: Brian Henson
Starring: Bill Barretta, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Leslie David Baker
Country: USA
Seen at AMC Loews Kips Bay 15 (New York, NY)
Saturday, August 25th

Everything about The Happytime Murders is lazy, dispassionate, and devoid of personality. It may be my least favorite movie of the year not because of sheer awfulness but basic blandness. So much is lifted from Meet the Feebles and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? In fact, there are at least three scenes that seem like direct nods to Feebles. The difference is that young Peter Jackson was a much more creative and inventive director than Brian Henson. Jackson shot his subversive 1989 puppet film in an anarchic, gritty way that embraced its low budget and added to its sleaziness. Rather than leaning into its noir-ish vibe, Henson divests The Happytime Murders from any sort of visual style. The film is lit flatly like a studio sitcom, and shot without a hint of flair.

The most frustrating thing about The Happytime Murders is that there’s evidence of a much better movie here. The idea of puppets as second-class citizens could have been fascinating; the same goes for puppets trying to look more human. The puppeteering is solid overall, though the puppet designs themselves are not memorable. But even with those glimmers of something better, the interesting ideas are ditched for obvious jokes that a 14-year-old edgelord would make. Puppet ejaculation is a poor substitute for imagination. What a waste of felt.

226 of 300: 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm IMAX (1968)

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, Douglas Rain, William Sylvester
Country: UK/USA
Seen at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 (New York, NY)
Monday, August 27th

This was my first time seeing 2001 on the big screen, and I saw it as big as possible in IMAX on a 70mm film print. What a difference the presentation makes. Sure, seeing 2001 on a large television is a moving experience; and you can even get a transcendent chill watching something on a laptop. Yet to be dwarfed by such a large image on the screen is something that can’t be recreated at home. It is overwhelming. Sitting there beneath the towering black obelisk is such an uncanny experience, and drifting in space to a waltz as bodies rotate in orbit is lyrical and spellbinding. Even the zero gravity toilet instructions seemed funnier when projected at such a massive size. And of course there is that final chapter of the film whose psychedelic journey through space and time is still unlike any cinematic experience.

Seeing 2001 in 70mm on film instead of the 4K digital restoration was interesting. This is apparently the unrestored print that Christopher Nolan supervised earlier in the year. There were a few image imperfections on the print that added to the charm, like speckles and blotches. Occasionally there would be a hair or some lint in the film. Projected and magnified, a single hair was roughly the size of my leg. It would crawl down the image like a dark worm. A moth was in the theater, and two or three times I saw it sitting on the screen casting a conspicuous shadow in a bit of white space. A minute later, I’d forgotten the moth was there because I was so entranced by Stanley Kubrick’s images.

I have seen more than 200 movies in theaters this year, and movies like 2001 remind me of the beauty of just being in a good cinema and seeing something on the big screen. It’s prohibitively expensive (tickets to the 70mm IMAX presentation were about $25), but since I have AMC A-List, I didn’t have to worry too much. Hopefully there’s a movie theater subscription model that’s sustainable for big theaters and indies that will allow more people to enjoy seeing films presented lovingly. It is not always essential to see something on the big screen, but it is often wonderful if you can do it.

227 of 300: McQueen (2018)

Directors: Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui
Country: UK
Seen at The Landmark at 57 West (New York, NY)
Tuesday, August 28th

Since I know nothing about fashion, I was fascinated by how moved McQueen left me. This documentary on the controversial and subversive fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen plays out like a tribute to a troubled artist. Rather than working in oils on canvas, he worked with fabrics on runways. Co-directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui use footage of McQueen and interviews with loved ones to map the designer’s life and concerns. The film returns to images of skulls ornately embossed and embellished in a McQueen-like manner, a sort of haute couture memento mori.

McQueens’s fashion shows and aesthetic reminded me of shock rock and abstract expressionism stitched together. In one show, two robot arms spray paint a woman’s white dress while she rotates helplessly on a Lazy Susan. In another show, models in states of madness sashay through an enclosed padded room. It’s a horror show and a fashion show. Like any good art, there’s something going on beyond the surface, as if McQueen is finding a shape and a texture for his own troubled psyche. I admire these sorts of admirations for people’s obsessions since they speak to the life of any artist in any medium. The Michael Nyman score is also an elegant and moody touch.

Recently I saw a short poem by Sean Thomas Dougherty circulating online about why poets even bother. “Because right now, there is / someone / out there with / a wound / in the exact shape / of your words.” I bring this up since the function of any worthwhile art is to make people feel less alone; and maybe clothing as art is there, like poetry, to dress our wounds.

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