And a look at four films from the inaugural Kit Noir Film Festival in NYC
Hey there, you mugs, welcome back to The 300, a recurring feature on my foolish attempt to watch 300 movies in theaters in the year 2018. I’ll be watching new releases, classics, hidden gems, and festival films to experience the wide world of cinema in all its forms. Hopefully there’s something here for you that you can discuss or 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.
The first Kit Noir Film Festival wrapped up over the weekend, and I managed to see four of the films. Despite a few technical difficulties during one screening, the maiden voyage went well. Next year’s Kit Noir Film Festival will focus on adaptations of Cornell Woolrich, one of the great pulp writers and a damn enjoyable hardboiled prose stylist. The best-known Woolrich adaptation is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which seems like a good candidate for the festival’s anchor film. While not film noir in a classic sense, Rear Window is at the very least noir-adjacent, and one of Hitchcock’s best.
It’s back to the grind for the next few weeks as the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival approaches. Tickets are on sale now. Both Jesse Lab and I will be there. I’ve worked out my schedule for the festival, and assuming I don’t burn out, I should be able to pack a month’s worth of movies into just 10 days.
I will probably burn out.
And so, onward.
72 of 300: The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Director: John HustonStarring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney GreenstreetCountry: USASeen at Lenfest Center for the Arts (New York, NY)The Inaugural Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir FestivalThursday, March 22nd
I’d seen The Maltese Falcon as a teenager late at night on VHS, and was too young and too sleepy for anything to stick. Seeing it again was seeing it for the first time. It’s a quippy, cruel masterpiece, and such an assured directorial debut from Huston. The movie is packed with motormouthed dialogue, acidic ripostes, mordant black humor, and perhaps the most famous MacGuffin in film. Bogart saunters through the plot with a veneer of cynical cool while the lying, cheating, double-crossing world churns around him. Astor’s the Platonic form of the femme fatale, and Greenstreet’s condescending menace is a good counterpoint to Lorre’s rat fink heel. I’m interested in seeing the two previous adaptations of the Dashiell Hammett story and how they stack up to this classic.
73 of 300: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
Director: Stephan ElliottStarring: Hugo Weaving, Terence Stamp, Guy PearceCountry: AustraliaSeen at Metrograph (New York, NY)Friday, March 23rd
It’s remarkable to watch The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert today now that gay marriage is legal, drag is basic cable mainstream, and ABBA is less of an overt punchline. A road movie with glittery musical numbers, and it’s ahead of its time in some ways, or at least finds the upper ceiling of LGBT politics in the mid-’90s. Stamp is so austere as the older trans performer along for the ride, and Weaving tethers the high camp to his character’s secret and the anxieties the secret entails. Pearce is so over-the-top in a good way, and he seems to relish the role as he vamps with abandon. And yeah, I still giggle like a child at the bawdy ping pong gag.
74 of 300: The Lodger (1944)
Director: John BrahmStarring: Merle Oberon, George Sanders, Laird CregarCountry: USASeen at Lenfest Center for the Arts (New York, NY)The Inaugural Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir FestivalSaturday, March 24th
The Lodger is an alternate history of Jack the Ripper that’s both comical and terrifying. I say comical because the audience knows that Cregar is the killer, yet everyone in the film is hilariously oblivious to his sinister mien, shrugging off his creepiness as mere eccentricity. Yet the film is also terrifying in that Cregar’s character is a proto-MRA. It makes sense that Jack the Ripper could embody the ugly core of misogyny, yet it was surprising to see this explored in a film from the 1940s. Brahmn makes great use of contrast and fog to heighten the dread. I wonder if the film’s finale somehow inspired Carol Reed’s The Third Man.
75 of 300: Isle of Dogs (2018)
Director: Wes AndersonStarring: Koyu Rankin, Bryan Cranston, Liev Schreiber, Greta GerwigCountry: USASeen at BAM Rose Cinemas (Brooklyn, NY)Saturday, March 24th
On the one hand, Isle of Dogs is another enjoyable cinematic diorama from Anderson. Making ample nods to the films of Akira Kurosawa, the film uses the idea of Japan from an American lens to explore notions of loyalty and friendship. The stop-motion is composed with excellent balance and symmetry, often making use of divided foreground/background action. There are some fun lateral tracking shots here as well (another Anderson signature), which might be easier to pull off with these cute little puppets in a semi-post-apocalyptic trash heap. I will also never tire of seeing a fight depicted as limbs emerging from a kicked-up cloud of dust.
But on the other hand, a few of the choices Anderson made in telling this story lead to warranted accusations of cultural appropriation as well as the unintentional faux pas of cultural insensitivity. For instance, having Japanese characters speak Japanese voiced by Japanese actors is great, but not subtitling the Japanese voices leads these characters to seem like aliens in their own culture. Additionally, while Atari and the band of dogs are the heroes on Trash Island, it’s Tracy, an American foreign exchange student, who becomes the face of political change and student revolt back in Japan. English is the primary language rather than equal with Japanese; there’s a white savior who rallies Japanese dog lovers.
“Problematic” may be an overused word, but these are problematic issues, and they were made more prominent to me as the film wound down. Anderson clearly has reverence for Japanese culture and film, but it is worth asking how much of Japan is merely a quirky accessory (culture as a pocket square, suspenders, or ostentatious socks) rather than a narrative necessity rooted in cultural exchange/appreciation. In a way, it’s 21st century cinematic Orientalism; a precocious 16-year-old American film nerd’s view of Japan, which makes sense since Anderson’s films seem to have the worldview of a well-watched teenage boy. Isle of Dogsis the sort of movie about Japan that Max Fisher from Rushmore would make.
I’ll add that the doggos are adorable, though it’s a bit of a sausage fest where the Trash Island canines are concerned—the female dogs are just side characters rather than embroiled in the main adventure. So even though I liked Isle of Dogs for what it was, I also have issues with what it is. The movie reminded of this sardonic observation from Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying”:
I know that you are fond of Japanese things. Now, do you really imagine that the Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art, have any existence? If you do, you have never understood Japanese art at all. The Japanese people are the deliberate, self-conscious creation of certain individual artists. If you set a picture by Hokusai, or Hokkei, or any of the great native painters, beside a real Japanese gentleman or lady, you will see that there is not the slightest resemblance between them. The actual people who live in Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them. In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.
76 of 300: Phantom Lady (1944)
Director: Robert SiodmakStarring: Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan CurtisCountry: USASeen at Lenfest Center for the Arts (New York, NY)The Inaugural Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir FestivalSunday, March 25th
Phantom Lady makes two remarkable turns in the plot that help elevate the material. First, the film starts with Tone as the innocent man framed for a crime but then shifts focus to Raines as the woman who must become a detective to clear his name. Though Tone is top-billed, the film is Raines’, and her performance is full of moxie. The second turn is a clever game of suspense, where the audience is given information that no one else knows. It’s a solid picture, and features a memorable sequence of underground jazz. This was the second movie I saw during the Kit Noir Festival that featured a musical number named after foreign onomatopoeia (The Lodger was the other).
77 of 300: Scarlet Street (1945)
Director: Fritz LangStarring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan DuryeaCountry: USASeen at Lenfest Center for the Arts (New York, NY)The Inaugural Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir FestivalSunday, March 25th
I feel like two of the most quintessential American characters are the con artist and the rube. Scarlet Street features fine examples of both, each sad in their own way. Bennett is a grifter in love with an abusive mook, Robinson is an aging sap who falls hard for the wrong woman. She’s cruel, he’s pathetic, and they both have silly illusions about each other—ain’t we got fun. I wonder about the film’s views on the art world. The paintings in the movie might have seemed amateur back then, but there’s an expressive, outsider-art edge to many of the canvases.
78 of 300: Unsane (2018)
Director: Steven SoderberghStarring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay PharoahCountry: USASeen at Regal Union Square (New York, NY)Monday, March 26th
As a B-grade horror-thriller, Unsane is well-executed schlock. It starts out promising as a troubled woman is incarcerated in a corporatized mental institution (think The Prisoner by way of Titicut Follies), but then devolves into something less Kafkaesque and more grounded (and yet, paradoxically, more farfetched). Still, Foy and Pharaoh are both excellent. What’s not so great is the image quality. Unsane is an ugly movie. Soderbergh shot entirely with iPhones, and I’m not sure why other than as a proof-of-concept. Outdoor scenes with natural light are crisp and uber-digital, while the indoor image quality is so low-grade. The cinematography fits for the last half of the film, but it made me wonder: why not shoot in Super 16, or maybe use a better digital camera with settings and filters that approximate the 16mm look?
79 of 300: I Kill Giants (2017)
Director: Anders WalterStarring: Madison Wolfe, Zoe Saldana, Imogen Poots, Sydney WadeCountry: Belgium/UK/USASeen at Village East Cinema (New York, NY)Tuesday, March 27th
I loved the comic book I Kill Giants, but it’s been a few years since I’ve read it. That distance allowed me to go into this adaptation with an open mind. The film isn’t as good as the comic, but it’s an all right adaptation anchored by four emotionally raw performances. I Kill Giants captures the necessity of play when processing a premature end to childhood. The set piece moments don’t hit as hard as they could, however, a symptom of a limited budget as well as the difficulty of translating fantasy illustration into live action. These moments don’t have the same dynamism of Ken Nimura’s art, or the gap between panels for readers to co-create—there is more space for the reader’s imagination on the page than there is for an audience’s imagination on the screen.