The 300 Week 36: Let Us Now Praise Famous Batmen in 70mm IMAX While Searching for Our Daughter

The Dark Knight fetishizes architecture in IMAX and my hometown features prominently in a thriller

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Hello, caped crusaders, and welcome back to The 300, my so serious attempt to watch 300 movies in theaters in the year 2018. I’ll be seeing new releases, classics, hidden gems, and festival films to experience the wide world of cinema in all its glory. With that much variety, I hope you see something here you’ll want to 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.

This week and next week’s installments of The 300 will be a little lighter than usual because of life happening outside the theater. Lots of other work to finish and projects to finally put in order. It feels good having just an extra day or two away from the movies. I know I’ll be going to the movies a fair amount in 2019, but it won’t be anywhere near this much. I want my afternoons and evenings free again. I am like a child now sick at an ice cream buffet.

Things will pick up again in a big way soon, however, as I start to cover the 2018 New York Film Festival (NYFF). The festival runs from September 28 to October 14, with a slate that includes Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, Alfonso Cuarón’s ROMA, Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, and the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Expect a festival preview and the first reviews for NYFF in two weeks, followed by complaints of burnout.

And so, onward.

233 of 300: The Dark Knight in 70mm IMAX (2008)

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman
Country: USA
Seen at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 (New York, NY)
Wednesday, September 5th

Up until last week, I hadn’t watched The Dark Knight all the way through since maybe 2011 or 2012. It holds up magnificently, a movie that’s part gritty superhero film and part organized crime epic, threaded together by an interpersonal drama about idealism and disillusionment. Everyone is so fully committed to what they’re doing. And yet all the performances live in the shadow of Heath Ledger. The Joker is like Tom Waits on bathsalts by way of a metafictional trickster god. He exists to push, provoke, and force people to a breaking point. All his plans require foreknowledge, precise timing, and total dumb luck to work. But that is part of the charm.

The Dark Knight is not a grounded, real-world movie as some may contend. The Dark Knight gives a pseudo-realistic field for its people-as-symbols to clash. Maybe this confusion of pseudo-realism with realism is why many have noted the dodgy politics of surveillance in relation to our own world. The Dark Knight is a battle of ideological abstractions rather than a discourse on realpolitik, however. The villain even proclaims himself an agent of chaos rather than an analogue for anything actual. But as a symbol, we cannot help but succumb to human tendencies of pareidolia.

The Dark Knight is still my favorite Batman movie, and I had a greater admiration for its tight construction staged at a breakneck pace. The film sprints from beginning to end, each scene setting up and paying off something that came before. I feel like Christopher Nolan’s crosscutting of relative time took a big jump forward during the montages of The Dark Knight, further refined in the nested action scenes of Inception. Without these two movies, the structural conceit of Dunkirk wouldn’t be possible. I also noticed that The Dark Knight was the point that Nolan’s personal concerns began to overtake the trilogy. Batman Begins was such a dutiful origin story, but The Dark Knight felt like it began to eschew the essential Batman-ness of Batman to become more of a Nolan film. The Dark Knight Rises was Nolan just playing with Batman action figures to do his own thing, the character and the canon be damned. That may explain why The Dark Knight Rises is an awful Batman movie but an okay-yet-awfully-dumb Christopher Nolan movie.

It was my first time seeing The Dark Knight in IMAX, and the larger screen size was inessential. Most of the IMAX material was establishing shots, which I guess is great if you love looking at tall buildings. The action sequences and some key Joker shots are also in IMAX, but they work just fine in their original aspect ratio.

234 of 300: The Hows of Us (2018)

Director: Cathy Garcia-Molina
Starring: Kathryn Bernardo, Daniel Padilla
Country: Philippines
Seen at AMC Empire 25 (New York, NY)
Saturday, September 8th

The Hows of Us is only the second Filipino movie I’ve seen all year. The first was Lino Brocka’s Insiang way back in the first week of this series. (Notice how short I used to keep my thoughts on these films at the beginning.) This speaks to my own lack of familiarity with my own culture, a common issue with first-generation Americans. I think these autobiographical concerns helped me connect with The Hows of Us. It’s a pretty routine romantic comedy, but there’s a charm about it that has a lot to do with co-stars Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla. I wonder how this real-life couple is viewed in the Philippines. Are they the young equivalent of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy? They’re called KathNiel overseas a la Brangelina and Kimye. Is there a formula to their work? A history, no matter how brief, that would deepen what’s on screen?

The clunky yet endearing title is a pun. George (Bernardo) and Primo (Padilla) break up after college but reconnect two years later to figure out what to do with the house they lived in together. Hows/house, get it? There’s a charming pun-heavy scene late in the film that is very Filipino-dad-joke. And yet something so familiar, hokey as it was, made me smile. There are rom-com and screwball comedy elements in this melodrama, including reliable cliches like “the gay best friend” and a nod to It Happened One Night. Director/co-writer Cathy Garcia-Molina uses the latter to cleverly play with space on the screen and where her two leads appear relative to one another. The Hows of Us is earnest and all over the place by the end, with an end credits coda that is too neat and says too much, and yet I enjoyed it because of that all-over-the-place quality.

While not fair to make this comparison, I connected more to The Hows of Us than I did to Crazy Rich Asians (The 300 Week 33). But even that is purely autobiographical. Something about seeing poor and working class people struggle with their dreams and expectations is more compelling to me than movies full of comfortable lives of limitless opulence. It’s the way small houses have more character to them than large mansions.

235 of 300: Searching (2018)

Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Starring: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La
Country: USA
Seen at AMC Loews 34th Street 14 (New York, NY)
Sunday, September 9th

Searching was much better than I expected it to be, both embracing and transcending its gimmick. I don’t think it will make my 2018 top 30 list, but it’s a movie I’ll remember because of how well it plays with its formal constraints. John Cho plays a single dad whose teenage daughter goes missing. Through laptops, desktops, Skype chats, message programs, and online videos, we watch a gripping mystery-thriller unfold. It’s a story of public and private personas we have online as well as between one another. It’s fitting that a movie set in the Silicon Valley plays out almost entirely on screens.

Director Aneesh Chaganty and his cinematrographer Juan Sebastian Baron adapt traditional cinematic language to blocks of information. The position of windows on a screen offer a sense of foreground and background action, and the film trains the eye to register important information as our protagonist is noticing that information. We’re also given access into our hero’s thoughts as he types messages and amends them. Words in a dialogue box function as a type of monologue, and the act of altering the text creates a sense of interior monologue. Detective-like interrogations play out via phone calls and spreadsheets, and painful memories are triggered by stumbling onto subfolders and saved files. One memorable shot with a bewildered Cho on FaceTime gazing at a cluttered desktop plays out like a person looking at a giant conspiracy board.

These novel modes of presentation are what Searching does best, and why I’ll remember it for a while regardless of how I rank it. I want to watch Searching again, but on my laptop to see how that affects the experience.

236 of 300: I Am Not a Witch (2017)

Director: Rungano Nyoni
Starring: Maggie Mulubwa, Henry B.J. Phiri, Nancy Mulilo
Country: UK/France/Germany/Zambia
Seen at BAM Rose Cinemas (Brooklyn, NY)
Tuesday, September 11th

Set in contemporary Zambia, Rungano Nyoni’s directorial debut is a wonderment about witches enslaved by the government and forced to work. These witches, who are almost all old women, perform manual labor while tied to large spools of ribbon. We’re told the rules early in the film: the white ribbon prevents witches from flying away. A new young witch named Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) tries to find her place among them. This is an absurdly funny/melancholy feminist fairy tale, as well as a satire on colonialism and government corruption. The movie’s larger critique of the patriarchy seems to explore the way traditions are used to maintain structures of power, especially along lines of gender and sex.

I Am Not a Witch is shot with such lyrical beauty. The long takes allow viewers to observe the mystery and strangeness of the rituals in this society. Nyoni has found such a memorable visual metaphor in the white ribbon spool that binds the witches to the ground. Seeing the witches together is like watching a chain gang of kind grandmothers looking after their promising granddaughter. An extended take very late in the movie might be one of my favorite shots of the year, especially with a subtle background noise that hints at what happened off-camera and is happening just out of frame. Mulubwa’s wounded performance enhances the imagery around her. She speaks so little, and yet says so much simply through longing stares and her body language. Countless times I wondered what she was thinking only to understand without her having to say a word.

I Am Not a Witch reminded me a lot of writers like Karen Russell and Carmen Maria Machado, whose acclaimed fabulist fiction uncannily blends elements of fantasy with social reality. This movie has a spot somewhere in my top 15 of the year right now, and probably a guaranteed spot in my top 20. I am still enraptured by how beguiling and wondrous it is. I’ve noticed that my favorite movies of 2018 all have a similar idiosyncratic quality. They feel like stories told in their own unexpected way; movies that feel like the books I enjoy most. With so many stories out there, it is always the novel things and weird things that I gravitate toward most.

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