Hey there, rogue cops, and welcome back to The 300, my gritty, destructive attempt to see more than 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 form. With so much moviegoing variety, there’s probably something you’d be interested in as well. If not, Nicole Kidman will destroy you.
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.
Another relatively light week during this victory lap. Most of the movies seen this week were thanks to AMC A-List, which has been a major help to me following the demise of MoviePass. I have seen more than $3,600 worth of movies on MoviePass for just $110 this year, and will likely cancel the service in January. I have A-List, my BAM membership, and I won’t be going to the movies as much in 2019, so I’ll just let MoviePass die. Thanks for the memories, guys. And also for your unsustainable business model.
I had planned to see a few more movies this week, but I had other things to do instead, like work, personal projects, and having a social life. If there’s one thing I noticed about seeing so many movies this year, it’s how much I crave being around others. I realized how much I’d rather meet someone for lunch than see a movie, or volunteer rather than going to a theater, or simply hang out with people I care about and talk with them rather than gawking at a screen. I love movies, yes, but moderation is key. In other words, I feel like a kid who finished an entire package of candy corn and now just wants water and vegetables. (This is the second straight week I have used a food metaphor to describe The 300. I wonder why. I will need to think about this.)
It’ll be a light week next week because of travel plans, but there will be another breakdown of my viewing habits as there has been every 10 weeks. My viewing may go up around Christmas, however, with some big releases coming up at the end of the year.
And so, onward.
308 of 300: Bitter Melon (2018)
Director: H.P. Mendoza
Starring: Jon Norman Schneider, Patrick Epino, Brian Rivera, Theresa Navarro
Seen at AMC Empire 25 (New York, NY)
Saturday, December 8th
Roughly half of Bitter Melon reminds me of being Filipino and growing up in the Bay Area. The details in this melodrama/dark comedy are so right. I could smell and taste the food on the table, and even remember the odor of a relative’s hair oil permeating through this trucker cap. The decor in the house and the presence of a karaoke machine were such nice, authentic touches. Parts of Bitter Melon function as the San Francisco cousin to the two notable Oakland movies this year, Sorry to Bother You (The 300 Week 27) and Blindspotting (The 300 Week 31). What these Bay Area films share is a concern over the changing face of the Bay Area given the speed of gentrification and the increased cost of living.
Where Bitter Melon faltered for me was where the plot eventually goes. Nested within this Christmas movie about a dysfunctional and emotionally distant Filipino family is a disturbing tale of ongoing domestic abuse. Troy (Patrick Epino) has been beating his wife for years while living at home, and nothing has been done about it. His brothers Declan (Jon Norman Schneider) and Moe (Brian Rivera) only learn just now. (The cultural discontinuities in the names Troy, Declan, and Moe are so Filipino.) The violence escalates, the brotherly conflicts boil over, and the movie eventually goes to an extreme that I didn’t quite believe. The events happen because the script demands it, which leads to a messy resolution.
I was more on board with the hangout aspects of Bitter Melon than the dark comedy or the sordid family history. I was also occasionally thrown by the lo-fi indieness of the production (i.e., harsh natural light, audio issues, post-production cheats to get around a lack of coverage). Yet the performances and the better parts of Bitter Melon will probably stick with me. They feel like an honest spoonful of home even though my own family was far more loving and stable.
309 of 300: Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Director: A terrible person
Starring: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Allen Leech
Seen at AMC Village 7 (New York, NY)
Monday, December 10th
I enjoyed the last 15 minutes of Bohemian Rhapsody. What a shame about the first 120 minutes.
Bohemian Rhapsody is a reminder of how bad biopics can be. It looks made-for-TV cheap, it alters the facts of the subject’s life to an insane degree, and it takes the laziest possible route to exploring events and lives of the major players involved. When writing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” they listen to an opera record first; when writing “We Will Rock You,” they talk tritely about the stomp/clap rhythm; when writing “Another One Bites the Dust,” they argue about disco and then spontaneously create the bass riff. What contrived nonsense.
Sure, Rami Malek’s performance is solid, but it stands out only because the rest of the production is so uniformly terrible. It’s the morsel of edible meat surrounded by so much flavorless gristle. The script is a hodgepodge of cliches, with characters speaking in corny, expedient declarations. The clunkers are taped together with egregious factual liberties. In the film, the band breaks up and then triumphantly reunites at the 1985 Live Aid concert, with Freddie Mercury confessing to his bandmates prior to the show that he has AIDS. In real life, Queen never broke up leading into Live Aid, and Freddie Mercury didn’t learn he had AIDS until 1987.
Mike Meyers shows up in bad makeup playing a fictional record executive who hates the song “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Get it? He revived the song in the 90s thanks to the movie Wayne’s World. This painfully on-the-nose Queen in-joke is not the worst scene in the film. The worst scene in the movie has an added tinge of vileness given the sexual molestation and assault allegations against the film’s credited director Bryan Singer. (Singer had to be replaced because he stopped showing up to the set.) In the worst scene in Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddie Mercury (addled by sex, drugs, and drink) gropes a servant named Jim Hutton, who tells him to stop. This leads to a romantic meet cute and a lovingly pure relationship. Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie that wants to excuse a man in power for sexually assaulting someone in a subordinate position because it all worked out in the end. It’s a sick fantasy given Singer’s own alleged abuses of power, and is part of the film’s ugly depiction of Mercury’s queerness.
In real life, Jim Hutton was not a servant and he met Freddie Mercury in a gay nightclub. The power dynamics were more equal, and their real-life relationship was much more human and complicated. Bohemian Rhapsody is free from human complication and lacks a human heart; it is easily one of my least favorite movies of 2018.
310 of 300: Vox Lux (2018)
Director: Brady Corbet
Starring: Raffey Cassidy, Natalie Portman, Stacy Martin, Jude Law
Seen at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 (New York, NY)
Tuesday, December 11th
Vox Lux is a movie with some provocative ideas but nothing to say about them. It brings up notions of how art and violence may be interconnected, how tragedy is commodified, how stardom is a corrupting influence, and how popular culture is a distraction. And then it proceeds to not explore any of these ideas meaningfully. Vox Lux tells you everything you already know without presenting anything new, and it does so in the most boring, superficial way imaginable. Even the music isn’t that memorable, which is a sad waste of Sia.
Celeste is the victim of a school shooting who goes on to become a pop music sensation. She’s played as a teen by Raffey Cassidy, and then as an adult by Natalie Portman, the latter of the two doing a silly caricature of a Staten Island accent. When did that develop in the intervening years? (Who cares? The film certainly doesn’t.) In 2017, after a terrorist attack possibly inspired by her music, Celeste does a press junket to promote her sixth album and then she plays a show. That’s it. There’s no deeper exploration of pop stardom or the interconnections of violence and art. It’s all surface, a series of ideas presented without any deeper desire to expand. For some reason Willem Dafoe narrates the movie, providing details with the kind of literary elocution that might fit in a Wes Anderson movie but does not add anything here. Who is Dafoe meant to be? An omniscient narrator? A journalist? A friend? (Who cares? The film certainly doesn’t.)
Vox Lux made me think about a major pet peeve: when art feels its superficial provocation is sufficient in itself. To put that another way, I often felt the movie was saying to me stuff like “This terror attack features imagery inspired by pop music. Isn’t that interesting?” or “The film is structured around analogs to real-life violence, namely the Columbine shooting and the Bataclan attack. Isn’t that interesting?” For me, the answer is no. Simply drawing a connection and doing nothing with it does not interest me. That is a mere line between two points; tell me how you got there and highlight the invisible points between and you will have my attention. I want a thesis to be explored a bit, not just an idea picked up and dangling. The film’s unwillingness to engage with its own ideas was so frustrating, and it made Vox Lux ring hollow at the end.
I want art to tell me something more than what I see or hear. That subtext, that emotional resonance, that underlying layer of obsession is usually where I engage with the most fundamental concerns of the creator of a piece. I’m not sure what writer/director Brady Corbet is trying to say in Vox Lux, though maybe he wasn’t quite sure either. That could be why the film feels so shrugworthy.
311 of 300: Destroyer (2018)
Director: Karyn Kusama
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebbell, Jade Pettyjohn
Seen at Soho House Screening Room (New York, NY)
Tuesday, December 11th
I’ll have a full review of Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer next week to coincide with its release on Christmas Day. I’ll probably need that much time to process my thoughts on the film. As of right now, I think it’s mostly a gangbusters work of pulpy, artful crime filmmaking, though its past-and-present structure leaves the whole movie feeling a little wobbly by the end. I say that because I liked so much of what is here, and yet the narrative shape has made me question what I liked so much. The head says “Wait, does this still make sense?” while the heart and the gut says “Who cares, man? It was badass. Let’s get a drink.”
Erin (Nicole Kidman) is a detective trying to settle a shady score from her past. Rogue cop-arity ensues. Destroyer might make an interesting double-feature with Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (The 300 Week 14). Both offer different takes on familiar cinematic material. If You Were Never Really Here was a riff on Taxi Driver, Destroyer is like a riff on Point Break (Erin’s past) by way of Dirty Harry (Erin’s present). Kidman’s transformation into this gritty, wraithlike character is tremendous. She doesn’t look like she’s been to hell and back; she looks like she’s been to hell and never left. Beyond her desiccated appearance, Kidman carries herself like a wounded, guilty soul. Erin embodies the state of her conscience. As the film progresses and she confronts her past, the audience learns how she wound up in her current sorry state.
I keep turning the script over in my head because Kidman’s performance and Kusama’s direction are both so great. It’s heightened by Theodore Shapiro’s music, which nods to some Han Zimmer motifs without resorting to overt pastiche. Hopefully Destroyer brings more attention to Kusama’s filmmaking, which is suspenseful and heartrending in equal measure.
Current runtime of The 300: 32,690 minutes (22 days, 16 hours, 50 minutes)