Film Ahead is a weekly column highlighting special events and repertory programming for the discerning Camberville filmgoer. It also includes capsule reviews of films that are not feature reviewed. 

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Last week was a hard one, as the film industry lost two giants: film-critic-turned-director Peter Bogdanovich and Sidney Poitier, who broke race barriers as an actor and activist with indelible dignity and grace.

(Photo: The Wexner Center via Flickr)

Bogdanovich was a brilliant and flawed cineaste with a four-film run in the late 1960s and early 1970s (“Targets,” “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up Doc?” and “Paper Moon”) comparable to fellow Hollywood New Wave brats Coppola, Scorsese and Friedkin. Those early successes turned into a myriad of meh – though he also put up and aided the great Orson Welles for the recently released “The Other Side of the Wind” (2018). Bogdanovich also had a sloppy public life, including a relationship with murdered Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratton (documented in the 1983 Bob Fosse film “Star 80”).

Poitier dragged integration into the mainstream with such critically acclaimed films as “In the Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “To Sir, With Love” (all made in 1967) in which his natural charisma and blackness both challenged and mollified mainstream sensibilities. He was and still is (yes, Denzel, we see and appreciate you) untouchable in his ability to play within, across and above the race line. He won two Academy Awards: for “The Defiant Ones” (1958), starring with Tony Curtis as black and white prison escapees chained together, and for “Lilies of the Field” (1963) – the last time a black person won a Best Acting Oscar until Washington did for for “Training Day” (2001). Poitier also directed a handful of films, mostly comedies including “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974), “Stir Crazy” (1980), which paired Gene Wilder with Richard Pryor, and the unfortunate “Ghost Dad” (1990) starring the now tainted Bill Cosby.

Most of these films are available for streaming and should be sought out. Additional recommendations for Bogdanovich are “Saint Jack” (1979) and “Mask” (1985); and for Poitier, “The Bedford Incident” (1965) and “Sneakers” (1992), with a sage Poitier alongside Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd and River Phoenix as a team of hacker sleuths.  In 1996, Bogdanovich directed Poitier in the made-for-TV film “To Sir, With Love II.”

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Local focus

The Brattle’s “Refreshed, Renewed, Restored” program continues Sunday with Walon Green’s gonzo documentary “The Secret Lives of Plants.” Green, mostly know for his screenplay contributions on Sam Peckinpah’s searing Western classic “The Wild Bunch” (1969) and William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” (1977), directed a few Nat Geo films back in the day – thus the taking-on of this head-trippy curio based on the controversial book by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird that makes unfounded claims about the way plants and fungi interact with the world. The film’s renowned for its spectacular time-lapse photography (think “Microcosmos”) and funky, psychedelic score by Stevie Wonder. On the same program Wednesday, The Brattle screens Edmund Goulding’s 1947 version of “Nightmare Alley” starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell as an ambitious mentalist and social-climbing therapist. If you’ve not caught Guillermo del Toro’s recent update with Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, here’s your warmup; if you’ve already seen the film, which is likely to earn a few Oscar nods, you can now catch the original noir version of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel. Other films on the triple-R docket this week are Tsai Ming-liang’s “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” (2003) on Monday; Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure” (1997) on Tuesday; and last year’s “Candyman” update by Nia DaCosta on Wednesday.

On Friday and Saturday it’s a then-and-now from experimental filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi, whose career spans nearly 80 years; he died in 2020. On the “then” side of things it’s his seminal “Hausu” (1977), about six teenage girls trapped in a haunted house occupied by a man-eating piano, an evil cat spirit and a carload of watermelons. For the “now” is an area premiere of Obayashi’s final film, “Labyrinth of Cinema,” which revolves around a small movie theater in Onomichi, Japan – the seaside town of Obayashi’s youth, where he shot nearly a dozen films – that on its last night in existence screens a marathon of Japanese war films.

Note: The Brattle’s Covid policy requires proof of vaccination or a recent negative test result for admittance.whitespace

In theaters and streaming

‘American Siege’ (2021)

Bruce Willis sleepwalks through another lackluster thriller. Others on that long, ignominious list from last year include “Apex” and “Fortress.” Here Willis plays Ben Watts, a small-town Georgia sheriff beholden to a businessman who metes out the local justice. The rub comes when a trio of gun-toting backwoods types break into a pharmacist’s house looking for answers about a girl gone missing 10 years ago. Of the three, one’s her beau just out of jail (Rob Gough) and another’s the girl’s sister (Anna Hindman, in a demented, redneck spin on Sarah Connor). The whys and the what perplex some, and there’s a nagging question as to why the pharmacist has a industrial-sized bank vault door hidden in his library. The answers pack some surprises, but it’s a pullout every time Willis stumbles onto screen mumbling his lines as if half-astir. On Amazon Prime Video. 

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‘The 355’ (2022)

A team of female operatives from diverse countries and with different agendas throw in together to snag a “data key” from a Bond-like villain looking to use it to blow up passenger planes and deregulate global markets. Our focal point for this spy thriller by director Simon Kinberg is intrepid-but-not-that-interesting CIA agent Mace Brown, played by Jessica Chastain (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” “Zero Dark Thirty”). In her sisterhood are a reverse Felix Leiter and MI6 bud (Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar winner for “12 Years a Slave”), a German agent (Diane Kruger), the sole operator of that “data key” (Penelope Cruz) and a commanding Chinese operative (Fan Bingbing). The film’s littered with a beehive of double crosses, all orchestrated by men who are dicks through and through, natch. “The 355”  – the title refers to a female spy during the American Revolution – could have been a fun spin on the “Fox Force Five” concept from “Pulp Fiction.” But the quintette, as likable as they are, face even bigger challenges in the flat script and clunky action choreography that undercuts their collective energy. Given that this is January, when studios traditionally release fare they don’t have a great deal of confidence in, it makes you stop and wonder. “The 355” is not worthy of that dump-and-run tag, but it is a forgettable star-packed misfire in the company of last year’s “Gunpowder Milkshake” and “Kate” (you could even loop in “Black Widow”). At Apple Cinemas Cambridge, 168 Alewife Brook Parkway, Cambridge Highlands near Alewife and Fresh Pond and AMC Assembly Row 12, 395 Artisan Way, Assembly Square, Somerville.

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‘A Hero’ (2021)

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, whose films have notched Oscars – “A Separation” in 2011 and “The Salesman” in 2016 – returns with another slow, internal burn. Here soft-spoken but clearly troubled Rahim (Amir Jadidi ) is furloughed after three years in prison for a debt he owes his unrelenting ex-father-in-law (Mohsen Tanabandeh).The label of the title kicks in when Rahim finds a case of rare gold coins at a bus stop and returns them to their rightful owner. The media makes an instant sensation out of the deed, and you begin to wonder if the act and fame might free Rahim from his economic shackles and imminent return to jail. Farhadi, who’s also been Oscar nominated for his writing, then pulls back, altering the perspective as the virtuosity of the act comes into question. It’s a complex look at social norms, pride and self-interest in which few are truly heroic. Jadidi, making Rahim at once demure, calculating and mercurial, puts on a master class. “A Hero” is already on the Academy’s short list for Best International Film and could make it a hat trick for Farhadi. At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Kendall Square.


Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The 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.

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