The 300 Week 21: Han Solo Is My Co-Pilot to 150 (Plus a Rant on Bad Film Projection at Movie Theaters)


♫ Oh, we’re half way there / Woah-oh, livin’ on a prayer ♫

Hey there, nerf herders, and welcome back to The 300, a recurring feature on my scruffy-looking attempt to watch 300 movies in theaters in the year 2018. I’ll be watching new releases, classics, cult movies, and hidden gems to experience the wide world of cinema in all its forms. There should be something here each week that you can also enjoy (or not).

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.

Folks, we’re over 150 films this week! The halfway mark has been reached and surpassed, and there’s still seven months left in 2018. Seven months is also probably the life expectancy of MoviePass at this rate.

We’ve got a lot to get through at this halfway mark, so I won’t dally much longer in the intro. Besides, I want close this week discussing an issue that ruins the moviegoing experience for everyone: dim projectors and low-quality projection.

And so, onward.

146 of 300: Five Deadly Venoms (1978)(aka 五毒; Wŭ Dú)

Director: Chang ChehStarring: Chiang Sheng, Philip Kwok, Lo Mang, Lu FengCountry: China (Hong Kong)Seen at Quad Cinema (New York, NY)Wednesday, May 23rd

Even though I saw Five Deadly Venoms in high school, I wouldn’t appreciate Chang Cheh’s films until after college. They’re works about heroism, sacrifice, and old-time chivalrous masculinity. Growing up, the martial arts movies I preferred were defined by the rhythm and choreography of director Lau Kar-leung, which would set the stage for the works of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. Seeing Five Deadly Venoms on the big screen, I could give the movie its proper due. It’s full of intrigue and solid fights, and even includes a clever nod to the fable of the scorpion and the frog. It’s fascinating to see the key good guys of the Venom Mob established throughout the course of the film: Kwok, Mang, and Sheng. Sheng is just okay here, but he would become a total acrobatic scene-stealer in later Venom films, notably Crippled Avengers (aka The Return of the Five Deadly Venoms) and Kid with the Golden Arm.

147 of 300: Shaolin Temple (1976)(aka 少林寺; Shao Lin si; Death Chamber)

Director: Chang Cheh Starring: Sheng Fu, Ti Lung, Kuan-Chun Chi, Philip Kwok Country: China (Hong Kong) Seen at Quad Cinema (New York, NY) Friday, May 25th

Shaolin Temple magnifies the heroism and sacrifice in Chang Cheh’s work. This ensemble martial arts epic features major ’70s Hong Kong stars as heroes in the Shaolin monastery. Much of the film is a slow burn of training sequences, with muscle memory drilled into our heroes through mundane tasks such as gathering firewood and stirring congee. As good martial artists learn, everything you do is an extension or manifestation of your art. When the finale arrives, every death and escape is heightened because of how long we’ve spent with the characters. We have watched them grow, and now we might watch them die. The audience sighed and gasped when one of their favorite characters gave their lives for Shaolin. After some applause at the end, I heard someone say “What a f**king blast!” Others laughed in agreement.

148 of 300: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Director: Steven Spielberg Starring: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore Country: USASeen at Metrograph (New York, NY) Saturday, May 26th

On the note of not liking something at an earlier time in life, I watched E.T. as a child and it didn’t do much for me. I preferred Explorers and The Goonies, which had more going on for my young and unsettled mind to latch on to. Seeing E.T. again for the first time in more than 30 years left me a sobbing mess, however. What a lovely film, and what unbridled ugly crying. Spielberg’s craft is in full effect, from subtle one-takes to those unsubtle tugs at the heart. It’s an earnest film, and much stranger than I recall, and while the final scene is so treacly and bow-tied, it is so well done.

I loved this adult recreation of a child’s point of view, processing the changes that come after a divorce. Adult authority figures are mostly faceless, either shot from the neck down or obscured in menacing shadow. And then there’s mom, whose laugh when her son yells “penis breath” is so endearing. On the one hand, you can’t use that language at the dinner table, but on the other hand, that’s hilarious. Also, drunk E.T. is a hoot.

I finished Jim Shepard’s The Tunnel at the End of the Light recently, which is a collection of his political film criticism during the George W. Bush administration. In his examinations of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, Shepard notes Spielberg’s tendency to give audiences precisely what they want, which is to say an easy answer, a convenient escape, or, as Pauline Kael put it, a bliss out. The limitations of this technique are apparent in his black-and-white sanitization of morally ambiguous history. Yet in E.T.—a movie about childhood’s end and the desire to remain in the simpler past—giving us what we want may speak to film’s deepest and most unsatisfiable desire. There’s a reason Peter Pan is a key into the film, and why the movie necessarily stays at Elliott and E.T.’s level. Everything is going to be okay, kids. For now. But just sit with this brief perfect moment before re-entering the imperfect world.

149 of 300: Bastard Swordsman (1983)(aka 天蠶變; Tiān cán biàn; Reincarnate Swordsman)

Director: Lu Chun-ku Starring: Norman Chu, Leanne Lau, Tony Liu, Jung Wang Country: China (Hong Kong) Seen at Quad Cinema (New York, NY) Sunday, May 27th

Bastard Swordsman is not just a late-period and wonderfully strange Shaw Brothers film, it’s also a low-budget wuxia oddity that might play well in a double-feature with Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain. A tale of revenge and double crosses, two schools fight for flying martial arts supremacy, and then there’s magic and silkworms and it gets goofier after that. The wirework and imagination on display is pretty good overall, particularly in its depiction of the mystical arts. It’s no Infra-Man (my favorite Shaw Brothers departure) or Boxer’s Omen (my favorite Hong Kong magic movie), but what is?

150 of 300: Witchfinder General (1968)(aka The Conqueror Worm)

Director: Michael Reeves Starring: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Hilary Dwyer, Robert Russell Country: UK Seen at Metrograph (New York, NY) Monday, May 28th

Witchfinder General is often mentioned alongside the original Wicker Man as a classic of the folk horror subgenre. It’s not as good as The Wicker Man, but it is a nasty, vile horror classic in its own right. Price is chilling as a roving psychotic who tortures people under the guise of piety and authority. He is murder and misogyny cloaked in religion. The world of Witchfinder General is so topsy turvy—a priest can be accused of consorting with the devil, evil people are trusted with holy justice. It’s as if the rules of the social contract have been destroyed amid the chaos of war, returning people to their basest natures, and forcing the good people into compromise, defeat, and darkness.

For a movie that’s almost 50 years old, the sadism and nihilism of Witchfinder General remains unnerving. A political read adds an additional disturbing layer: normal people may be complicit in the torture and suffering of the innocent, even pleased by it, condoning and participating in abuses of power while held in a cult-like thrall. Reeves’ film is grim and almost totally joyless despite the bucolic backdrop, all bookended with a woman’s terrified scream. There is no order, or justice, or hope, which is why the final lines still send a shiver through me.

151 of 300: Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Director: Ron Howard Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover Country: USA Seen at Cobble Hill Cinemas (Brooklyn, NY) Tuesday, May 29th

I didn’t think Solo was bad (more like Han So-So, amiright?), but it feels like a crash landing. There are so missed opportunities to do something more fun with a low-stakes western caper, and there are also too many moments of unnecessary fan service. A lot of this is probably the result of a rushed production schedule after the Lord and Miller shakeup. While Howard’s journeyman direction is competent, I couldn’t help but feel there was something missing. Had Howard been involved from the outset, Solo might have gelled; or had Lord and Miller remained on schedule, Solo would have had its own feel.

When the middle section of the movie settles in, Solo is mostly a rollicking good time that isn’t beholden to origin-story continuity or excessive explication. I was even okay with an unexpected cameo near the end of the film since it was silly enough a conceit for me to go with. Honestly, I think the teased Solo sequel would have made a much better film than this one. If the Disney Star Wars movies are meditations on how people played Star Wars growing up, Solo may be like the listless rainy day version of playing Star Wars before going to dinner with your family: it’s fun enough but feels truncated, hemmed in, a set up for the next playtime, and not quite as good as the last time you threw your action figures around.

And this brings me to an issue with film projection…

Rant: We Need to Talk About Film Projection

Bradford Young’s cinematography in Solo is too dark for most movie theaters that do not cater to cinephiles.

While Young’s work on Arrival, Pariah, Selma, and Mother of George (The 300 Week 7) is excellent, in Solo, the cinematography looks muddy, washed out, and murky. Actor’s faces are underexposed and the backlighting of every scene makes the subtleties of foreground action almost impossible to read. It’s the danger of muted color palettes and low-contrast cinematography. Performances get lost in the dark, eyestrain settles in, and the film consequently feels unengaging. I was consistently taken out of the movie because I could not even see it.

Yet I noticed this tweet from Village Voice film critic Bilge Ebiri, who caught Solo at Cannes:

Other people on Twitter have noted similar issues with the dimness of the cinematography. Apparently the only place to see Solo is Cannes or a boutique cinema for film nerds that cares about presentation. Now I honestly wonder how different Solo would look if they played it at Metrograph or BAM.

Let’s face it: most movie theaters don’t care about well-lit, properly calibrated projection. They will show you a dim movie even in 2D with a bad projector that hasn’t been maintained, and they expect you to pay full price for this diminished experience. They may use the wrong bulb, or they may just let the bulbs dim until they die. This isn’t just an issue with Regal or AMC. Even when I saw F. W. Murnau’s Faust (The 300 Week 9), the digital copy they showed at a small regional theater upstate was awful. While I was intrigued by the film, I would have had a much better experience watching Faust on my laptop on YouTube for free in 1080p.

I have now seen 151 movies in 2018, and most of the time the projection has been fine. That’s only because I don’t spend much time at multiplexes and major chains. I don’t understand why anyone in their right mind would want to pay full price for a film when most theaters can’t present a movie properly. There’s a reason sane people wait for streaming or Blu-ray, and I can’t wait to watch Solo at home in the future so I can figure out what was going on.