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The 300 Week 27: Ant-Man, The Wasp, and My White Person Voice

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Three new releases, three from the New York Asian Film Festival, and one that's punk as f**k

Hidely ho, neighborinos, and welcome back to The 300, a recurring feature on my dumb-diddley attempt to watch 300 movies in theaters in the year 2018. I’ll be catching new releases, classics, hidden gems, and festival films to experience the wide world of cinema in all its forms. By casting a wide net, I hope there’s something that you can also enjoy and share.

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 New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) is finishing up this weekend, and I was able to catch a few more films over the last week. Wish I had time to see more. For instance, I missed out on 1987: When the Day Comes, the new movie by Save the Green Planet director Jang Joon-hwan. I also regret missing The Brink, the leading role debut of martial arts actor Zhang Jin, best known for his work in The Grandmaster, Ip Man 3, and SPL 2.

The Japan Cuts Film Festival, however, will be kicking off next week, and I will be catching a couple of the movies each weekend, including the East Coast premiere of Night Is Short, Walk on Girl from anime director Masaaki Yuasa. Keep an eye out for those reviews coming soon.

And so, onward.

179 of 300: Fireworks (2017)
(aka 打ち上げ花火、下から見るか? 横から見るか?; Uchiage Hanabi, Shita kara Miru ka? Yoko kara Miru ka?)

Directors: Akiyuki Shinbo and Nobuyuki Takeuchi
Starring (English dub cast): Ryan Shanahan, Brooklyn Nelson, Aaron Daila Villa, Michael Sinterniklaas
Country: Japan
Seen at IFC Center (New York, NY)
Wednesday, July 4th

Fireworks is a disappointing and tepid attempt to cash in on the success of Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name. A remake of a 50-minute Japanese television play from 1993, the film centers on a girl who wants to run away from home, a boy who has a crush on her, and an object that allows second chances when plans go awry. There’s a potential here for an adolescent version of Groundhog Day, but the characters only take a few mulligans on this single-afternoon adventure. Their story feels so inconsequential, which is a waste of a good fantasy conceit. There’s a chintzy song in there too, the animation is mostly just serviceable (the CG usually doesn’t integrate well with the 2D animation), and some of the jokes are pretty pervy even for a film full of 13-year-old boys.

If anything, Fireworks gave me a greater appreciation for Your Name. I remembered how we got to know Mitsuha and Taki, the charming rapport that builds between them, and how the film’s twist reveals just what’s at stake. In Your Name, actual lives hang in the balance; in Fireworks, it’s a passing crush that cannot be saved.

180 of 300: Tears of the Black Tiger (2000)
(aka ฟ้าทะลายโจร; Fa Thalai Chon)

Director: Wisit Sasanatieng
Starring: Chartchai Ngamsan, Stella Malucchi, Supakorn Kitsuwon
Country: Thailand
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Asian Film Festival
Thursday, July 5th

Tears of the Black Tiger may be the quintessential movie that captures the '90s pulp aesthetic. So many genres, moods, and styles are jammed together into a work that’s just like so many others yet simultaneously unlike anything else. One minute it’s a colorful Douglas Sirk melodrama about class and lost love. The next minute it’s a mannered homage to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. And then it becomes a violently stylized Hong Kong movie in the John Woo mold, with energetic flourishes a la vintage Sam Raimi. There are even moments of gorgeous artifice bordering on psychedelia. Somehow it mostly hangs together, maybe because the juxtapositions are so jarring yet of a piece. I hope this gets a 4K restoration so its Technicolor-tinted images can glow with renewed brightness and beauty.

181 of 300: Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Director: Boots Riley
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick
Country: USA
Seen at BAM Rose Cinemas (Brooklyn, NY)
Friday, July 6th

Sorry to Bother You is a dystopian satire on race and late capitalism that bludgeons, upends, and ultimately delights even when it seems to go off the rails. I write “seems” because while the third act goes somewhere absurd and unexpected, it plays into the larger narrative about the dehumanization of black people (and perhaps people of color in general) in the United States; for those in power, black lives don’t matter as long as someone is turning a profit. Picture a cross between Putney Swope, Idiocracy, and Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout, with a dash of Get Out and H.G. Wells. That is Sorry to Bother You, which is currently my favorite comedy of the year.

A black telemarketer named Cassius Green (Stanfield) succeeds when he uses his white voice (David Cross). People call Cassius “Cash” for short. Cash Green: the name given to him that he didn’t choose, and an economic system he was thrown into and cannot escape. “Stick to the script,” they tell him constantly at his job. He has Muhammad Ali’s “slave name,” and I wondered if Cash would divest himself from it and try to choose his own name and his own future, breaking the script. But then again, the white voice pay is great. Funny enough, Cash’ girlfriend Detroit (Thompson) is a radical artist who also has a white voice. It’s Thompson’s own voice, but she speaks at a deeper register and with a British/Transatlantic accent. We hear it briefly in a subtle moment of code-switching as she glad-hands potential buyers in the Bay Area art world. It is so hard to extricate oneself from the culture of profit and consumption we live in when artists often rely on rich patrons to fund more work. Or, to put it another way, it’s hard to not stick to the script.

Oakland is a perfect setting for Sorry to Bother You because of the collisions and contradictions of race and of capitalism at play in the film. The city is the birthplace of The Black Panthers, and also a place that's been overrun by tech employees over the last decade or so because San Francisco is too expensive. As a consequence, Oakland is becoming unaffordable for long-time residents, many of whom are people of color; a KCET report in September 2017 found that a family of four in Oakland making $80,400 is effectively considered low-income. To that end, techbros and venture capitalists are roundly skewered in the film, with Armie Hammer as a racist, villainously coked-out CEO. He is sort of like a living, breathing, snorting version of Elon Musk’s Twitter account (aka Elon Musk’s id).

I could say a lot more, but I don’t want to spoil the the surprises of Riley’s filmmaking debut. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

182 of 300: Smithereens (1982)

Director: Susan Seidelman
Starring: Susan Berman, Brad Rijn, Richard Hell
Country: USA
Seen at Quad Cinema (New York, NY)
Saturday, July 7th

Smithereens is a great portrait of lowlife living in the gritty, sleazy New York City of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. It’s also a fine reminder that I don’t need to like characters in stories to find them compelling or sympathetic. Wren (Berman) is a manipulative grifter who mistreats everyone in her life. She’s an awful person oblivious to the needs of others, and yet I could empathize with her listlessness, aimlessness, and self-destructive urges. When the facade gives way just enough, there’s a genuine hurt that she keeps private. Seidelman is smart to not go into Wren’s psychology or history too far, which adds an air of melancholy mystery to her character. Wren’s two love interests are a broke rock star (punk icon Richard Hell, swaggering like a dirtbag Belmondo) and a lost soul from Montana living in a van in a vacant lot (Brad Rijn, moping like a sadsack Belmondo). This is “The Blank Generation” incarnate. There but for the grace of the punk gods go I.

183 of 300: On Happiness Road (2017)
(aka 幸福路上; Xing Fu Lu Shang)

Director: Hsin Yin Sung
Starring: Lun-Mei Kwei, Hui-Jen Liao, Bor Jeng Chen
Country: Taiwan
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Asian Film Festival
Sunday, July 8th

On Happiness Road hits close to home. This exploration of family and cultural identity follows a young woman who feels pulled in different directions by her ties to family in Taiwan as well as her ideas of success in America. The film draws heavily from Sung’s own childhood, which might explain the richness in all the lovingly rendered details. I’m an assimilated first-gen Filipino-American rather than Taiwanese, but many parts of this felt familiar: that uncomfortable yet beautiful handmade wooden bench at grandma and grandpa’s house, eating a pet chicken without realizing it, being nagged about money and starting a family by older relatives. Sung merges history, memory, and imagination so deftly. While the handful of English-language scenes felt stilted, the emotional core underlying the whole film is so strong that this was just a minor issue in an otherwise authentically heartfelt film.

184 of 300: Wrath of Silence (2017)
(aka 暴裂无声; Bao lie wu sheng)

Director: Yukun Xin
Starring: Yang Song, Wu Jiang, Wenkang Yuan
Country: China
Seen at Film Society of Lincoln Center (New York, NY)
2018 New York Asian Film Festival
Monday, July 9th

Wrath of Silence is a seething Chinese drama that draws on the iconography of American westerns. Baomin (Yang) is a mute coal miner in search of his lost son. He dons a variant costume of the cowboy hero: blue shirt over a red undershirt, an earth-toned sweater like a poncho, muddy denim. Yet this is a downbeat western about injustice, a class-based memento mori about the helplessness of lower class people when they fight powerful interests. Our hero has no voice, remember, and neither does anyone else working in the mines or living desperately in the dusty hillsides on the outskirts of the city. While the action scenes could have been shot and edited with greater clarity, I was on board with Wrath of Silence because of the righteous emotional content underlying the rest of its imagery.

I was reminded of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s bleak Russian drama Leviathan (The 300 Week 5) in some ways. Both films include memorable closing images that emphasize the overwhelming despair of the powerless.

185 of 300: Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

Director: Peyton Reed
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Hannah John-Kamen, Michael Peña
Country: USA
Seen at Cobble Hill Cinemas (Brooklyn, NY)
Tuesday, July 10th

Ant-Man and the Wasp is exceedingly pretty good, which is all I really wanted from an Ant-Man sequel. The two movies are the sitcom-y side stories of the MCU, whereas the other films feel like top-tier comics and event comics. For all the handwringing about an MCU movie not mattering after Avengers: Infinity War (The 300 Week 17), there’s nothing wrong with existing on the periphery of universe-altering cataclysms. I like having light alternatives to the end of the world. The threats are smaller, the stakes generally more personal, and the mood is lighter. Little things make a fictional world seem bigger and more whole.

In the sequel, we get more fallout from Hank Pym’s hubris, and a chance to bring back the original Wasp. Caper-larity ensues, at least after a bit of clunky setup. The big-small-big action sequences are nicely done, with a car chase that’s a bit like The Rock by way of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The film even manages to do something special with the often-disposable mid-credits sequence. The end-of-credits sequence, though, is really disposable in the mighty Marvel movie mold.

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Hubert Vigilla
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Hubert Vigilla is a writer living in Brooklyn, which makes him completely indistinguishable from 4/5 of people living in Brooklyn. more + disclosures


 


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