New releases from last month and a triple shot of BAM as I close in on 300 movies
Hey there, fellow travelers, and welcome back to The 300, a long, dumb feature on my 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. With so much moviegoing variety, I hope there’s something here 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.
Closing in on the big 300 as I catch up with a few new releases from October, including a new movie getting released this week. I also became an adult Brooklynite and got a membership to BAM. Their film and theater programming is great all year round, and I have been meaning to do this for a while. I won’t be seeing as many movies in theaters next year, but this experience has renewed my love for seeing things on the big screen.
Oddly, this renewed love for the moviegoing experience comes after another projection error, and this time at BAM. I tried to catch a 35mm screening of Claudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow (La teta asustada). Unfortunately, BAM was sent a German-subtitled print of the film, which is in Spanish and Quechua. It’s odd that I’ve had more projection and print issues in the last month than I have had pretty much all year. If anything, I have a BAM voucher in my wallet that’s going to get used very soon.
I have 14 movies left to go. Looks like I will be on Mars for two weeks.
And so, onward.
280 of 300: Kuroneko (1968)(aka 藪の中の黒猫; Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko)
Director: Kaneto Shindo Starring: Nobuko Otowa, Kiwako Taichi, Kichiemon Nakamura Country: Japan Seen at BAM Rose Cinemas (Brooklyn, NY) Wednesday, October 31st
Kuroneko is a beautifully shot ghost story that’s full of imagination and tragedy. On the one hand, this is a rape and revenge movie about women returning as ghosts to suck the blood of samurai. This is braided with the tale of a doomed samurai who returns home a hero but learns that his home destroyed; it turns out his wife and mother are the ghosts who prey on his class. The samurai’s lord tasks him with destroying these spirits once and for all.
Kuroneko is often eerie and surreal, each lush black and white tableau crafted with incredible care. The film is so otherworldly, with Kaneto Shindo’s use of split screens, wind, fog, and shadows complementing the actress’ uncanny body language. Notice the gliding movement as they walk, as if on mist rather than feet. These women have otherworldly power, even in their step. Certain sequences on large sets feel like theater pieces framed cinematically, particularly the dance rites of the mother as her daughter-in-law seduces and preys on samurai.
There’s a pervasive melancholy throughout Kuroneko. This may be too western a read on the story, but I felt as if Shindo’s was critiquing the absurd rigidity of duty. The women return as ghosts and must follow the dictates of the demon they serve (i.e., kill all samurai); the samurai serves his lord and feels obligated to carry out all of his orders. Farmers, conscripted from fields against their will, serve in a war and die in battles at the whims of generals. The family unit is restored and lovers are reunited, but this tragic reconciliation is doomed because of outside forces and the social pressures of duty; think of a heartfelt “I love you” followed with a heart-rending “But I cannot love you.”
281 of 300: Mothra (1961)(aka モスラ; Mosura)
Director: Ishiro Honda Starring: Frankie Sakai, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kyoko Kagawa, The Peanuts Country: Japan Seen at BAM Rose Cinemas (Brooklyn, NY) Thursday, November 1st
I haven’t seen Mothra since I was a child, and seeing it again makes me want to do a deep dive on Toho’s iconic kaiju films as well as the full filmography of Ishiro Honda (including his collaborations with Akira Kurosawa). It’s one heck of a hoot, with a rompish, playful vibe. I feel like Mothra could play alongside the live-action Disney fantasy films of the 1960s that I loved so much growing up. Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects, while quaintly dated, are extremely ambitious. Model cities break apart as vehicles race along to attack a very angry caterpillar, and then a very driven moth. Not so quaint: the Japanese actors in black face and brown face to portray South Pacific island natives. Oof.
While Godzilla was a movie rife with the explicit anxieties of the atomic bomb, Mothra seems to offer a critique of colonialism and imperialistic exploitation. Our villain unleashes the wrath of the moth god when he kidnaps two magical, miniature twins and forces them to work in what amounts to a musical freakshow. There’s still the specter of atomic war amid this anti-imperialistic critique. The fictional country of Rolisica is an amalgam of the United States and the Soviet Union, the Cold War superpowers whose real-world whims could result in the end of the world. The terror of mutually assured destruction or another world war take the form of larval demon and a psychedelic angel of death.
282 of 300: Venom (2018)
Director: Ruben Fleischer Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed Country: USA Seen at AMC Empire 25 (New York, NY) Friday, November 2nd
Venom is not good, but it’s a lot o’ f**king fun. It feels like a ’90s superhero movie rather than a modern template comic book film. Picture The Mask crossed with Spawn, with just a little bit of The Nutty Professor, and that is basically Venom. (That may be an oversell.) The film drags early as it establishes our Elon Musk-esque villain and our incompetent loser hero, but once the plot machinery is in place, the film becomes an anachronistic-narrative spectacle and goofball comedy riot.
Tom Hardy’s performance saves Venom because it’s just so odd. He’s known for weird voices and idiosyncratic performances, so whatever is going on inVenom is totally his jam. What is that accent? What’s up with that voice? Is he trying to do a Tobey Maguire impersonation? Maybe Doug from The State? What other movie does he think he’s in?
Who knows. I can’t wait to watch the sequel on Netflix.
283 of 300: Safe (1995)
Director: Todd Haynes Starring: Julianne Moore, Xander Berkeley, Peter Friedman Country: UK/USA Seen at BAM Rose Cinemas (Brooklyn, NY) Saturday, November 3rd
Are you allergic to the 20th century? In Todd Haynes’ Safe, the answer is a resounding yes, but the interest comes from identifying all of the allergens in the film’s environment. Carol (Julianne Moore) is an affluent homemaker living in the San Fernando Valley. She suddenly becomes afflicted with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), causing her to become progressively more ill. This malaise is the result of the pollutants in the world around her, which is basically everything. The trappings of domestic life, the cliches of the leisure class, the wifely duties of marriage, the limitations of gender, the quotidian routines, the need for matching home decor—those are all allergens. So maybe divesting oneself of these markings of a good bourgeois life can cure someone with this 20th century disease.
Yet Haynes suggests that the sickness may be inescapable. The television is always on, maybe a nod to Don DeLillo’s classic novel White Noise; Carol is a fish who’s just realized she’s allergic to water. The curative New Age commune presented in the final act of Safe is another kind of 20th century allergen. In this remote California locale, we see the maladies of cultish self-help groups, nonsensical pseudo-spiritualism, pseudo-scientific alternative healing, and blind guru worship, which all feels so en vogue for the end of the 20th century. This place is meant to be pure and natural, but it’s bordered by a train and the highway. How pure can you get?
I’m haunted by Safe’s pervasive sense of doom and general ambiguity. It’s impossible to escape one’s time and place. What then? Is self-affirmation the only thing approaching an existential Benadryl, or is that another symptom of the 20th century? Go fish.
284 of 300: Mid90s (2018)
Director: Jonah Hill Starring: Sunny Suljic, Na-kel Smith, Lucas Hedges, Katherine Waterston Country: USA Seen at AMC Loews Kips Bay 15 (New York, NY) Sunday, November 4th
Mid90s is fine. It’s just fine. Its script is severely undercooked, but it’s fine so long as you’ve got a good tolerance for stories about boys being s**tty boys. When Mid90s works, this film is celebration of the misfit families we create when our own families fall short, and how friendships can help enlarge your world and sense of self. As Dom Toretto might say, “I don’t have a skate crew, I’ve got family.” But I have to wonder what’s up with the Lucas Hedges and Katherine Waterston characters. They seem like plot devices or ideas instead of actual characters. The Hedges character exists to beat the crap out of our protagonist for no good reason, and the Waterson character exists because she is the mom. It goes no deeper than that, sadly.
If you liked Mid90s or are interested in it at all, I’d recommend checking out Crystal Moselle’s superior skateboarding film Skate Kitchen (The 300: Week 32). It’s another coming-of-age skate crew movie about the misfit families we create, but it feels more realized. Like Mid90s, I think there are issues with the dramatic turn in the third act of Skate Kitchen, but it’s a much more satisfying hangout movie, and I think it’s better directed as well. Plus, Skate Kitchen doesn’t rely on a nostalgia gimmick to make its points or sell its premise.
285 of 300: The Long Dumb Road (2018)
Director: Hannah Fidell Starring: Tony Revolori, Jason Mantzoukas Country: USA Seen at Quad Cinema (New York, NY) Monday, November 5th
In comedy, the quintessential duo is the straight man/woman and the comic foil. Think Abbott and Costello, Martin & Lewis, Margaret Dumont and Groucho Marx, The Brain and Pinky. Such conflict, such laughs. In buddy movies, the comic foil usually doubles as a kind of chaos agent whose characterization (and function in the plot) can go in different archetypal directions: the free spirit, the loose cannon, the slob, the all-around f**k-up. But in buddy comedies, the imperative of this comic foil is to help the straight-laced protagonist loosen up a little, break routines, and enjoy life. Think Sideways or Box of Moonlight. They are the messy present that counteracts the future perfect and the past imperfect.
That’s a roundabout way to think of the dynamic between Tony Revolori and Jason Mantzoukas in Hannah Fidell’s cringe comedy Long Dumb Road. Revolori is sheltered suburban kid on his way to art school, and Mantzoukas is a resentful, bungling oddball who can’t help but botch his hitchhike through life. Things go from bad to worse for the duo as they meet misadventures on the road. Hilarity ensues. I often wondered why Revolori’s would put up with such a weirdo making so many fine messes of his plans. But I think of some of my friendships in the past and realize I’ve had similar people in my life. They were much less chaotic, toxic, and dangerous, sure, but they were a chore to be around sometimes. And yet I got a story out of just knowing them.
Your enjoyment of The Long Dumb Road is going to hinge on your feelings about Mantzoukas, who is the life of the movie (comic foil chaos agents usually are). As a fan of How Did This Get Made, I was totally into Mantzoukas’ antics, which is basically his podcast persona dialed up to 11, with some added desperation and clinginess for mortifying measure. There are even nice wistful touches here and there in The Long Dumb Road, the tonal straight man to the wacky, cringey, awkward slapstick moments.
286 of 300: Mauvais Sang (1986)(aka The Night Is Young; Bad Blood)
Director: Leos Carax Starring: Denis Lavant, Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy, Michel Piccoli Country: France Seen at Metrograph (New York, NY) Tuesday, November 6th
Mauvais Sang is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen this year given the way it embraces its cinematic artifice. It’s a post-punk French New Wave movie, always aware it’s a film and what can be done with the medium. A story of a young romantic hero embroiled in a film noir caper, he’s a sleight of hand artist torn between an innocent lover he will not love back (Julie Delpy) and an unattainable femme-fatale who refuses his love (Juliette Binoche). As Leos Carax immerses his film deeper into pulpy crime thrillers by way of Godard, the film’s aesthetic goes mostly monochromatic, with shadows, lights, and shades of gray offering lush textures. Yet there are such lovely touches of color—particularly reds, blues, and yellows—that are carefully placed, recalling the paintings of Piet Mondrian. This aesthetic lushness culminates in an expressionistic masterpiece of a scene as Denis Levant’s character, overcome with the pangs of love, sprints down the street to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.”
And yet I think the “Modern Love” sequence of Mauvais Sang is a highpoint from which the movie never recovers. These exhilarating touches of transcendent filmmaking are undermined by languorous ruminations on romantic love. The same goes for the film’s desire to delay the caper plot until the very end, instead lingering on two people in a sweltering room where nothing happens. The plot is also a mire of confusions. I like the blend of hard-boiled crime stories, a critique (maybe?) of hard-boiled male heroes afraid of intimacy, and an oblique examination of the AIDS crisis, but I cannot tell what the movie is trying to say beyond the splendor of its shots. I wonder if the movie is intended to be statements without a conclusion, and I just have an inherent bias for plots as syllogisms. It’s a frustrating but gorgeous movie, and one I’ll watch again just to figure out where I stand on it.