The real treasure was the insane Nicolas Cage performance we saw along the way
Welcome back to The 300, a weekly feature recounting my attempt to see 300 movies in theaters in the year 2018. Each week I’ll be watching new releases, classics, and hidden gems, trying to explore the many joys of cinema.
As always, there are three rules in 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.
As we hit week three, so far no signs of burnout, and I’ve gotten a little bit more ahead of schedule. It was unplanned, but I wound up watching three animated movies this week, including Mary and the Witch’s Flower, the first film from Studio Ponoc, a new Japanese animation studio founded by Studio Ghibli alums.
And so, onward.
18 of 300: Coco (2017)
Director: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach
Seen at Williamsburg Cinemas (Brooklyn, NY)
Wednesday, January 17th
While watching Coco, I knew what was going to happen and where the story was headed at least 10-15 minutes before the fact. But that didn’t matter. Predictability isn’t always a problem. What matters in stories is less about the sense of surprise but rather the depth of sincerity. I ugly-cried a couple times in the movie; two incidents involved a certain song and the ways it’s sung. Coco is so colorful and lush from beginning to end, and its fantastical world is such a captivating day-glow dream. I also appreciated the work the animators did when it came to playing guitar.
19 of 300: WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971)
(aka W.R. – Misterije organizma)
Director: Dušan Makavejev
Starring: Milena Dravić, Ivica Vidović, Jagoda Kaloper
Country: Yugoslavia/West Germany
Seen at Metrograph (New York, NY)
Thursday, January 18th
I feel like I would have liked WR: Mysteries of the Organism more if I knew more about communism and political activism in Eastern Europe. The film is a cinematic collage about sex, politics, violence, and different forms of oppression and repression. All of it is pieced together as part-documentary and part narrative film. It’s still darkly, surreally funny even if I was not fully aware of the political context. WR felt like a big political dick joke. Director Dušan Makavejev even cuts from a plaster cast of a penis with Joseph Stalin’s smiling mug. I giggled as an image of Lenin rose into frame.
20 of 300: Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Director: Julie Dash
Starring: Cora Lee Day, Barbara O, Alva Rogers, Trula Hoosier
Seen at Quad Cinema (New York, NY)
Friday, January 19th
Brought back into the public consciousness thanks to Beyonce’s Lemonade, Daughters of the Dust is a gorgeous cinematic poem about the African American experience. I wasn’t always able to follow the family history and individual stories, yet I was captivated by writer/director Julie Dash’s sense of tone and her evocative storytelling. There’s a nod to Shakespeare, lots of theatricality, the magic of the oral tradition, all of it mixed together like a gumbo. I felt like I was wandering through a family’s collective dream, or stepping into a living painting of St. Simons Island.
21 of 300: Hiroshima (1953)
Director: Hideo Sekigawa
Starring: Eiji Okada, Yumeji Tsukioka, Yoshi Katô, Takashi Kanda
Seen at Japan Society (New York, NY)
Friday, January 19th
Hiroshima is a nightmare about the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan. “This is hell,” says a trembling old man. Around him, children wail in pain while parents expire by their side. No wonder the bookending melodrama is preachy. The bombing’s aftermath is the stuff of Bosch paintings. Tens of thousands of extras (many of whom were real-life survivors of the bomb) shamble through the rubble like zombies until they are consumed by fire or smoke or water and are silenced—pillow images as memento moris. After the film, I was heartsick and haunted, afraid of what the world might face again.
22 of 300: Robin Hood (1973)
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Starring: Brian Bedford, Monica Evans, Phil Harris
Seen at Metrograph (New York, NY)
Saturday, January 20th
Robin Hood is joyously small in scope compared to the Disney Renaissance films that would come two decades later. That’s one of its strengths. The movie is a frolic rather than an epic, a little tale perfect for children and groovy enough for adults. (Dig that wah pedal in part of the score.) I was surprised and heartened by its cheerful populism, the open disdain for oligarchs, and unabashed anti-authoritarianism. It’s a Robin Hood story, so that’s a given, but I forgot that at one point of the film a bunny child screams “Death to tyrants!” while playing in the courtyard of the castle. Atta boy!
23 of 300: The Road Movie (2016)
Director: Dmitrii Kalashniko
Seen at Alamo Drafthouse Downtown Brooklyn (Brooklyn, NY)
Sunday, January 21st
The Road Movie plays like a curated YouTube playlist. Director Dmitrii Kalashnikov compiled Russian dashcam footage to make his 67-minute documentary. It’s so slight a film and just okay, but there’s still something compelling about it. The fixed camera records the sheer menace, vulgarity, and absurdity of the world without budging. Think Jacques Tati on crack. Some of the footage made me think about David Lynch’s recurring shots of roads at night, and how suspense can be generated simply from thinking about the mystery beyond the reach of the headlights.
24 of 300: Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017)
(aka メアリと魔女の花; Meari to Majo no Hana)
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Starring (English dub cast): Ruby Barnhill, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent
Seen at The IFC Center (New York, NY)
Monday, January 22nd
The debut film from Studio Ponoc, Mary and the Witch’s Flower isn’t bad, but it’s so derivative of classic Hayao Miyazaki films that it barely comes into its own, existing as a patchwork of familiar imagery and themes. The animation often feels flat, like a collection of fantasy drawings rather than a full fantastical world. The stop-and-go storytelling continually gums up narrative momentum. Yet there are good bits in Mary that make me wonder what Ponoc can do once they get away from Ghibli tropes and invent their own original visual language and grammar of the imagination.
25 of 300: Mom and Dad (2017)
Director: Brian Taylor
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur
Seen at Cinema Village (New York, NY)
Tuesday, January 23rd
Mom and Dad is like a suburban The Happening. Writer/director Brian Taylor partially realizes the story’s potential (frustrated parents suddenly want to murder their own children) but can’t bring everything together. The beginning’s a little clunky, the finale frustratingly clipped, and some of the action is shaky-cam’d to death. Yet mom and dad make Mom and Dad watchable. Selma Blair is fittingly tragicomic before she goes rabid. Nicolas Cage (a national treasure) is at his transcendently manic best, screaming, leering, and hamming as if the galaxy depended on it.