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The 300 Week 45: Almost There... Almost There...

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It's going to happen, guys, it's actually going to happen!

Hey there, howlers, and welcome back to The 300, my big-eyed, big-eared, sharp-toothed attempt to see 300 movies in theaters in 2018. I’ll be watching new releases, classics, hidden gems, and festival films to experience the wide world of cinema in all its forms. With so much moviegoing variety, I hope there’s something in this picnic basket for you to 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 busy week as I try to bring The 300 on home. I’ve only got five movies left, and I know what they are. Oddly, this is another week with projection issues, with a 35mm print (of Gleaming the Cube, if you can believe it) requiring a few minutes to fix, and a 16mm print (of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) getting warped and warbly in the final minutes of the movie. That means more projection and print problems in the last five weeks than I have experienced the entire rest of the year. It’s odd how that happens. Maybe this is a sign from the movie gods that this was a mistake. On that point, I wish to remain agnostic.

It was an interesting week of moviegoing as I caught up with a few more October releases I missed, and I got to fill some big holes in movie nerd knowledge. I’ve got nine movies to write up this week, and since I’m a little low on time, my thoughts may be relatively brief. Seeing 295 movies takes up a lot of hours. I will give you a minutes count next week.

Count them down on your fingers, folks. We’re almost there.

And so, onward.

287 of 300: Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Director: Marielle Heller
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells
Country: USA
Seen at The Landmark at 57 West (New York, NY)
Wednesday, November 7th

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is Melissa McCarthy’s best movie, and a great display of her potential as a thoughtful dramatic actress. Her talents usually get squandered by subpar material—as was the case with The Happytime Murders (The 300 Week 34)—relegated to a one-note bumbler/shouter. There are so many layers in her Can You Ever Forgive Me? performance, which is based on a memoir by Lee Israel. McCarthy plays a sad sack writer who resorts to forging literary letters to pay the bills. Like many writers, she finds that crime pays better than a literary career.  Lee’s only friends in the city are her cat and another failed writer (played by an excellent Richard E. Grant) who hustles and screws his way through New York City.

Something about the movie felt like a cross between Wonder Boys and Withnail & I; the former because it’s a story about writers acting badly, and the latter because of Grant’s presence and the sheer squalor of it all. While tidying up Lee’s home, we discover a vast collection of stray cat turds under her bed. That’s Withnail as hell. But there’s such humanity to these lonely characters struggling through their lives. There are laughs in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but they’re muted ones. The contours of Lee’s depression (which likely includes social anxiety disorder and some degree of agoraphobia) are so well-rendered and sympathetic. I’m looking forward to more unexpected roles like this in McCarthy’s career.

288 of 300: Wildlife (2018)

Director: Paul Dano
Starring: Ed Oxenbould, Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal
Country: USA
Seen at AMC Empire 25 (New York, NY)
Thursday, November 8th

Wildlife is such a handsomely made, well-observed literary adaptation. Based on the Richard Ford novel of the same name, the film follows the dissolution of a post-war marriage as seen through the eyes of an adolescent boy. The family lives in Great Falls, Montana (the name says it all concerning the American Dream), and a wildfire burns out of control just outside town. Its imagery is often quietly beautiful, and serves to showcase the performances. Carey Mulligan’s especially good as a housewife who’s grown fed up with her husband’s nonsense. She shifts quite abruptly by the end of the first act: at first a modest homemaker content to suffer through domesticity, and then a woman in her thirties who longs for freedom, possibility, just more. Jake Gyllenhaal, by contrast, seems to remain an archetype of outmoded American masculinity, who takes every slight as a sign of emasculation.

Yet this handsome, proficient, well-considered craft is oddly part of what keeps me from fully loving Wildlife. The story is pretty familiar for anyone who’s read an American novel about the decline of the post-war period. I did, however, find myself entranced by a lot of the imagery given a chance to breathe on screen, like the way literary writers give space for sentences to unfold; some of the images feel simultaneously watched and read. If anything, this is a solid directorial debut from Paul Dano, and it makes me wonder what he may tackle next.

289 of 300: Gleaming the Cube (1989)

Director: Graeme Clifford
Starring: Christian Slater, Steven Bauer, Richard Herd
Country: USA
Seen at Roxy Cinema Tribeca (New York, NY)
Thursday, November 8th

Gleaming the Cube is such glorious 80s kitsch. Christian Slater plays a bodacious skater boy whose adopted brother is murdered by Vietnamese gun runners. The cops don’t take our hero seriously, so he has to take matters into his own hands. Skateboard-larity ensues, bro. I’ve seen three skateboarding movies this year, the other two being Jonah Hill’s okay Mid90s (The 300 Week 44) and Crystal Moselle’s much better Skate Kitchen (The 300 Week 32). Gleaming the Cube is the second best of the bunch, but I know I’ll watch this schlock again before the others. What a goofy blast.

I’m reminded of how so many 80s movies about teens inexplicably involved organized crime and violent action. This would probably pair well with the oddball James Spader/Robert Downey Jr. vehicle Tuff Turf. (Look that one up if you ever wanted to hear Spader sing a romantic ballad.) Consider the following moment from Gleaming the Cube: Tony Hawk triumphantly drives a Pizza Hut delivery truck over the crest of a hill, harkening the arrival of a skate crew cavalry. Totally gnarly, right?

290 of 300: Good Manners (2017)
(aka As Boas Maneiras)

Directors: Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas
Starring: Isabél Zuaa, Marjorie Estiano, Miguel Lobo
Country: Brazil/France/Germany
Seen at BAM Rose Cinemas (Brooklyn, NY)
Friday, November 9th

Good Manners is a such an engrossing mishmash of genres. It’s a werewolf movie about a pregnant woman mysteriously afflicted with some kind of lyncathropy. She hires a poor black woman from an outlying part of the city as a nanny, which makes the movie also about class as race. And it gets stranger still, vacillating from horror to fable to dark comedy, and even throwing in a few musical numbers for good measure. Somehow directors Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas are able to control the tonal shifts of the film. While they’re unexpected, they feel part of a cohesive whole. The movie feels like a strange story that could have been penned by Carmen Maria Machado, Karen Russell, or Kelly Link. Good Manners might even play well alongside Agnieszka Smoczynska’s mermaid musical horror film The Lure.

Watching Good Manners, I never sure what was going to happen next, and enjoyed the surprises as they arose. That’s the wonderment of taking familiar elements and rearranging them in an unfamiliar way. It’s a movie that feels like you’re being told a bedtime story but in a dream. Because of that, I was never bothered by Good Manners’ 135-minute runtime. I don’t want to say anything more. As I mentioned above, the surprises in Good Manners are part of the joy of this postmodern fairy tale.

291 of 300: The Hate U Give (2018)

Director: George Tillman Jr.
Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby
Country: USA
Seen at AMC Empire 25 (New York, NY)
Saturday, November 10th

The Hate U Give is a timely portrait of the Black Lives Matter movement that also offers a primer on privilege, code switching, and what constitutes good allyship. It’s such a well-distilled series of observations, and part of the reason the movie is as moving as it is. The story concerns the death of an unarmed black teen at the hands of a white police officer. Starr (Amandla Stenberg) is the only witness to the killing and a long-time friend of the victim, but fears speaking out. It would impact her life at her elite private school, where she’s the only person of color; it would impact her life at home given her family’s place in the community and her friend’s ties to a local gang.

Stenberg’s incredibly good in the film. As an emotional anchor, she seems perpetually between different worlds and different aspects of herself. Like many coming-of-age stories, there’s a struggle for self-discovery, and Starr has to find who she is both personally and politically. The supporting cast is similarly strong, particularly Regina Hall (who is always good) as Starr’s grounded mother, and Russell Hornsby as Starr’s dad working the long-game at redemption/reformation. The Hate U Give is one of the most earnest films of the year, and a reminder of the potential in good YA writing. Given the state of police violence against unarmed black men, the book and the film will hopefully offer some sense of hope and courage moving forward.

292 of 300: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1959)
(aka Sen noci svatojánské)

Director: Jirí Trnka
Country: Czechoslovakia
Seen at The Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
Saturday, November 10th

Jirí Trnka’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is pure magic. Watching the movie made me feel like a child. This stop-motion animated adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy is such a dazzling, charming display of imagination. The articulated dolls in Trnka’s animated films feel more like puppets that have been lovingly assembled and brought to life. While there is some narration, there’s no dialogue, which means the puppets themselves mutely emote and convey the text accompanied by music. It helps if you’re familiar with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I think just admiring the movie magic, the color, the detail, and the spectacle of this animated puppet show may be enough to sustain enchantment.

I saw the English-dubbed 16mm Academy ratio version of the movie, though there are at least two other versions that I need to seek out. The film was simultaneously shot in ultra-wide CinemaScope, which makes the animated film seem more like a cinematic stage play. There’s also an English-language version of the film with a full voice cast, including Richard Burton as the narrator. I wonder what this full voice-cast version is like. In the version I saw, the narration turned the Shakespearean text into nursery rhyme ground beef, but the poetic imagery made it palatable.

293 of 300: Overlord (2018)

Director: Julius Avery
Starring: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier
Country: USA
Seen at AMC Village 7 (New York, NY)
Monday, November 12th

Overlord is okay, but an hour or so after leaving the theater, I found myself wishing it was better. Borrowing elements from Wolfenstein, Frankenstein’s Army, and Shock Waves (The 300 Week 33), the movie is about a small group of American soldiers on a mission to take out a Nazi base but uncover a plot to create Nazi super soldiers. The scope of the story is kept small, which is to the film’s advantage, and there’s some solid gore. And yet I think part of my issue was how the script undermines the competence of our protagonist, Boyce (Jovan Adepo). Throughout the film, he winds up doing a lot of dumb and questionable things in service of the plot. At times he seems less like a soldier in WWII and more like Scooby-Doo. I know, people do dumb things in horror movies because that is a common trope, but I find that a lazy defense of poor writing. Genre per se is not a sufficient shield from shoddy character motivations.

I also wonder about Boyce’s shifting/inconsistent ethics during the mission. So many movie heroes balk at the tidiness of utilitarianism, hoping to save all of the good guys without losing any friends or allies. That’s great, but at a certain point, Boyce wants to protect a Nazi captain from getting roughed up even though he deserves it. Just a few scenes before, Boyce was ready to kill the same Nazi captain for attempted rape; the film even alludes to this Nazi scum being a serial rapist. Why the sudden mercy for an unrepentant Nazi? Because the Nazi needs to survive because the plot dictates it because horror movie. Overlord is a pretty good rental, but the seams are obvious because horror movie.

294 of 300: Detour (1945)

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Starring: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake
Country: USA
Seen at Film Forum (New York, NY)
Tuesday, November 13th

Detour is an unsung, film noir classic that’s finally received a 4K digital restoration. The little-seen film is lean at just a nice 69 minutes, and it was shot cheap and quick. Detour is wonderfully atmospheric, leaning into the shadows and fog of German Expressionism as well as the snappy disillusionment of pulp writers of the time. (At one point money is described as a bunch of folded paper covered in germs. Boss.) It is quintessentially noir from beginning to end. Told mostly in flashback with hard-boiled narration, we learn how Tom Neal’s hard-luck drifter wound up in his sorry state. Turns out his cross country hitchhike didn’t go as planned, with fate dealing him a series of bad hands. Even though it’s such a low-budget film, Edgar G. Ulmer gives the movie an inventive visual panache, which heightens the narration and character point of view. It’s a reminder that budgetary limitations can often prompt rich visual inventiveness.

In addition to Ulmer’s stylish shoestring direction, Detour is notable for an incredible performance by Ann Savage. She’s a demon queen femme fatale who knows how to grift her way around. Her introduction into the picture is remarkable. Notice her on the road, then watching her in profile as she sits in the passenger seat, and the look on her eyes when she turns to the camera. She may be riding shotgun, but we know who’s really in the driver’s seat.

The restored version of Detour is getting a limited theatrical run thanks to Janus Films, which means a Criterion Collection release is probably around the corner. Unless it gets into trouble on the road, of course.

295 of 300: Hollywood Shuffle (1987)

Director: Robert Townsend
Starring: Robert Townsend, Helen Martin, Keenen Ivory Wayans
Country: USA
Seen at BAM Rose Cinemas (Brooklyn, NY)
Tuesday, November 13th

If you were to cross the “Weird Al” movie UHF with In Living Color, the result might be Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle. Townsend plays Bobby Taylor, an aspiring actor looking for his big break, but the only roles available for black men are pimps, gangsters, slaves, and butlers. Does he sell out or show some self-respect? With so few options for actors of color, Bobby escapes into his own imagination, where pop culture parodies and comedy sketches unfold as satirical commentary. While the movie falls prey to the casual homophobia of the 1980s, it’s still a funny and by the end extremely sincere examination of the importance of representation in media. The movie is about imagining other roles for people of color—new dreams, new aspirations, a better world—and dismantling the stereotypes perpetuated by the current media landscape.

Watching Hollywood Shuffle this year seems particularly relevant. At one point of the movie there’s discussion of a black Superman as an aspirational model. By contrast, in a surprisingly heartbreaking scene, we get to see how Bobby’s little brother reacts to the insulting way black men are depicted in the media. In my head I sense some continuity between Hollywood Shuffle, the Sun Ra Afrofuturism film Space Is the Place (The 300 Week 5), and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (The 300 Week 7). These are all films about black people creating a better future through imagination and art. Even Zoot Suit (The 300 Week 11) and Crazy Rich Asians (The 300 Week 33) might be brought into this larger scope of representation and why it matters. It’s the stuff dreams, and the future, are made of.


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Hubert Vigilla
Hubert VigillaEditor-at-Large   gamer profile

Vigilla is a writer living in Brooklyn, which makes him completely more + disclosures


 



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