Coronavirus edition, XXIII: Films for sheltering, visiting Austin of Linklater, Whitman, football
Film Ahead is a weekly column designed to highlight special events and repertory programming for the discerning Camberville filmgoer.
With the Covid-19 outbreak, social distancing mandates and shutdown restrictions in place, movie theaters have been shuttered. As a result “Film Ahead” is focusing on films you can find streaming or on demand on platforms such as Xfinity, Netflix or Amazon Video. You can help cherished cultural institutions and organizations such as The Brattle Theatre and Independent Film Festival Boston in this crisis with small things such as renewing memberships early and adding a few dollars as a donation, buying a gift certificate or merch, or looking for them as a beneficiary of the Amazon Smile program, in which a part of your Amazon purchases go to help the nonprofit of your choice. The Harvard Film Archive and Brattle Theatre are also offering various virtual offerings, primarily in the form of curated film lists. Please visit their websites for information.
Theater rentals for you and your bubble pod to watch a favorite film are now available at the Brattle, and you can contact the theater for details. I can’t endorse or condone it; you need to practice personal safety during these challenging times.
‘Ashes to Ashes’ (2020)
A heartfelt portrait of Winfred Rembert, an avid “Star Wars” fan and master leatherwork artist (amazing work) who survived an attempted lynching in 1967. His tale of being incarcerated as a civil rights activist at age 14 and later abducted makes for a harrowing and illuminating look at a deep-seated hate that still resonates today. Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker, who established an interactive art exhibit to memorialize the forgotten 4,000 African Americans lynched during the Jim Crow era, provides historical context in this short doc by Taylor Rees. Watch “Ashes to Ashes” here.
Egor Abramenko’s debut feature is something of a throwback, both in time and genre. The high-production-value IFC import named after the famed Russian space program is a horror weave about cosmonauts who crash back to earth with something else aboard. What ails the surviving commander Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuk) is an “Alien”-like entity inside of him that – in a nice twist – doesn’t need to burst out but slides in and out of its host while he sleeps. The little beastie from within looks like a lost cousin from the “Gremlins” batch hopped up on a cocktail of steroids and angel dust; don’t get your fingers too close to this Yoda-eyed cutie. Much of the action takes place on a remote, quarantined military base where a tough-as-nails psychologist (Oksana Akinshina) is brought in to help Semiradov deal with his unique condition. As you can guess, duplicitous humans and hidden agendas prove the most lethal.
‘Akashinga: The Brave Ones’ (2020)
A National Geographic documentary about Zimbabwean women who train to become elite rangers in the war on poaching. The initiative, started by former Australian special forces soldier and anti-poaching leader Damien Mander, seeks to stop the illegal killing of wildlife and provide an opportunity for women who are marginalized or in abusive situations. The sense of sisterhood and grueling nature of the program are clear. What’s not, in this well-produced doc (James Cameron, executive producer), are all the whats and whys, and in a lost focus on conservation. It feels like a boot camp promo with some elephants sprinkled in. Still, you can’t argue with the aim or grit. Watch “Akashinga: The Brave Ones” here.
‘Everybody Wants Some!!’ (2016)
Star Blake Jenner from “Glee” looks like one of the squared-jawed Army academy hopefuls in the recent doc “Boys State.” And both films are based in Austin, Texas, where director Richard Linklater (“Boyhood” and “Before Sunrise”) grew up. Inspired by the Van Halen tune – because it takes place in the 1980s – the film revolves around a day in the life of Jake (Jenner) and his college baseball/frat brothers. Much chest beating, barhopping and collegiate shenanigans ensues, with a small side of life lessons. An apt addition to Linklater’s canon of Austin films (“Slacker,” “Waking Life” and “Dazed and Confused”). (Read the full review from April 1, 2016.)
‘Dazed and Confused’ (1993)
The magnum opus of Linklater’s Austin films, but in this slice of life it’s high schoolers moving up and moving on. Witty, insightful and sharply droll, the film would make Matthew McConaughey a star (playing a delusional, 20-something stoner who hangs out with high schoolers to bolster his self-esteem). The alluring Milla Jovovich (“Resident Evil”), Ben Affleck, Parker Posey and Jason London all have parts in this brilliantly biting portrait of teen angst.
Film critic turned director Peter Bogdanovich’s dark fictional take on the misdeeds of seminal mass murderer Charles Whitman, who as a former military marksman went on a killing spree in Austin. Tim O’Kelly brings depth to the troubled young man triggered by failed relationships. The ingenious twist is the inclusion of Boris Karloff as an incarnation of himself – a horror movie star – who out of costume can be pretty scary in his own right.
Keith Maitland’s animated documentary about Whitman’s 1966 shooting spree in Austin is a meticulous reconstruction of one of the first mass shootings in America, narrated by survivors. The film also delves into the psychological snap that led to him killing his loved ones before setting up in the University of Texas tower and sniping off those passing by. Whitman was a military-trained marksman, which makes the heroics of a few police and security guards that much more daring. The event would trigger the advent of SWAT units.
‘The Other Side of the Wind’ (2019)
Sexy, raw and gonzo, this posthumous film from Orson Welles is a film within a film and a wildly deconstructive undertaking. The title is both the name of the (mockumentary) film about a legendary filmmaker making his last film on the last day of his life, and the film being shot, which is best described as a surreal road flick fueled by lust and desire. The cast includes the alluring Oja Kodar (Welles’ paramour) and Robert Random as the pair on the road, with legendary director John Huston as the cantankerous filmmaker (Welles’ alter ego). The rest of the cast includes Mercedes McCambridge, Edmond O’Brien and a young Bogdanovich. The filmmaking began in the 1970s (financing through the family of the shah of Iran) and was completed in 2018. The companion doc about the making of “Wind,” “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” by “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” director Morgan Neville, is a must-see afterward.
‘Varsity Blues’ (1999)
Not a great football movie (“Remember the Titans,” “All the Right Moves” and “Friday Night Lights” are better), but a solid look into the importance of football to Texas youth (filmed in Austin) who see it as the only way up and out. “Dawson’s Creek” star James Van Der Beek plays the backup QB who gets a shot at the big time and big pressure with Jon Voight as the tough, cagey coach.
‘Jazz on a Summer’s Day’ (1959)
Covid-19 sidelined the Newport Jazz Festival, but you can catch this gorgeously shot documentary filmed by renowned photographer Bert Stern. The legendary lineup includes Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Anita O’Day (love the hat!), Chuck Berry and Dinah Washington. Considering it was pre-civil-rights, it’s encouraging to see diverse crowds and performers there just for the music. The film’s more than nostalgic – it feels like you wandered into Eden – and Stern adroitly captures the time, the place and the contrast in culture and privilege. This would be Stern’s one film (he was a photographer, and took stills for Kubrick’s 1962 “Lolita”), a timeless one-off classic. Part of The Brattle Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.