Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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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Women’s History Month on film

With the recent Sight & Sound magazine critics poll listing “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” as the best film of all time, there’s the sense that, slowly, the perspective on what constitutes entry into the canon of film excellence is shifting. For Women’s History Month, with an eye on the 1990s indie era, here are six suggested films directed by women that apply the female gaze to stories that are decidedly personal and timeless in subject. The narratives range from intimate love stories and journeys of mothers and daughters to coming-of-age stories in which girls grow up too fast. Race and gender lines are regular themes (Black female filmmakers were a major focus of the Day’s Black History Month recommendations), but this is not an exhaustive list of the era – for that, names such as Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons, Sophia Coppola, Amy Heckerling and Penelope Spheeris, among others, would need to be in the conversation.

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‘Bound’ (1996)

The Wachowskis, best known for their game-changing work on “The Matrix” trilogy and other sci-fi/fantasy films such as “Jupiter Ascending” (2015) and “Cloud Atlas” (2012), arrived as a filmmaking force back in 1996 with their far more intimate but no less formative debut, “Bound.” The erotic neo-noir hasn’t always gotten the credit it deserves. Here Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly star as lovers Corky and Violet, looking to frame Violet’s violent ex-boyfriend to make it look like he stole millions of stashed mob money. The chemistry between Gershon and Tilly is electric. Despite being shot on a shoestring budget, the film – as is the case with most of the Wachowskis’ work – is edgy and engaging and made all the more impressive when realizing it was the sibling filmmakers’ first feature-length film. Pulpy and punchy and wearing its noir influences on its sleeve, it proves even their quietest film remains declarative of their touch. On Amazon Prime Video, the Roku Channel and Youtube TV.

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‘Gas Food Lodging’ (1992)

This Alison Anders-directed indie staple is scrappy and rough around the edges, which is part of its engaging charm. Nineties “it” girl Fairuza Balk and Ione Skye play aimless and restless sisters in a desolate New Mexico border town that offers little entertainment or escape. Balk’s Shade works to find a boyfriend for her hard-working mother, played by Brooke Adams (who recently visited the Harvard Film Archive). Anders is patient with story, and the characters are deep and contemplative. It’s the bonds between the women that make “Gas Food Lodging” grip tight around your heart. On Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV+.

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‘Dogfight’ (1991)

Few actors have ever possessed or will ever possess the quiet, haunted grace that hung from each of River Phoenix’s performances. This persistent melancholy and whisper of tragedy are evident in such well-known films as “Stand By Me” (1986) and “My Own Private Idaho” (1991) but are perhaps best captured in Nancy Savoca’s “Dogfight.” In this hidden indie treasure, Savoca manages the hard-to-do feat of finding gentleness buried in cruelty, as the concept for the film is a nasty game played by a group of military friends before being deployed to Vietnam in 1963: The recruits all must bring unattractive dates to a bar where they will be judged by their “ugliness.” Frame by frame, Savoca never allows us to forget the inherent brutish intent behind Eddie (Phoenix) meeting Rose (Lili Taylor), and still the film makes us care for him (and her) as he begins to fall for her with the crushing reality of the game and the horror of war looming. On HBO Max and Amazon Prime Video.

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‘Party Girl’ (1995)

Daisy von Scherler Mayer’s directorial debut stars indie icon Parker Posey as Mary, a broke, motherless, 20-something club kid. Her librarian godmother, Judy (the director’s mom, Sasha von Scherler), hires Mary to clerk at the New York Public Library. With no real skill set except maybe a sense of fashion, Mary is shocked to discover her calling as a librarian. But before that can happen, the opportunity is revoked when Judy judges Mary’s appearance and dismisses her as nothing more than a hedonist like her mom. Mary’s next go until she can change Judy’s mind is as an underground promoter running afoul of the police. “Party Girl” vividly encapsulates Manhattan before it got commercialized, sanitized and gentrified and its 1990s youth culture, with an array of drag queens, immigrants and colorful, outlandish club personalities. Liev Schreiber (“Ray Donovan”) makes an early appearance as Mary’s ex-boyfriend/bouncer. Guillermo Diaz, who is best known as hacker/torturer Huck on “Scandal,” plays her DJ roommate. Almost three decades later, the humor, designer fashion and music hold up, and the film tackles quarter-life challenges such as high rent and a lack of living-wage job opportunities without feeling pedantic or like an after-school special. Despite its (era) flaws – from homophobia to cultural appropriation by characters – it remains a touchstone of ’90s indie cinema. On the Criterion Channel, Amazon Prime Video, Tubi, Pluto TV and the Roku Channel.

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‘The Watermelon Woman’ (1996)

Cheryl Dune was ahead of her time in terms of DIY filmmaking and pushing the envelope. “The Watermelon Woman” tells the story of a queer Black woman working in a video store who is an aspiring filmmaker trying to unearth the story behind a 1930s Black actress billed only as the Watermelon Woman and known largely for playing stereotypical roles of that period. Much of the themes in “The Watermelon Woman” are tied to the notion that the stories of Black women and other marginalized groups never get told. And, if they are, the subject matter is nameless. What makes Dune’s vision so powerful are its timeliness and relevance – even now, when films directed by women of color are ignored, used as diversity checkboxes or held to greater standards than their counterparts. Available on Paramount+, Hulu, Showtime

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‘Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.’ (1992)

Something of a cautionary tale, “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” is a charged coming-of-age story with one eye on the American Dream and one foot caught in the realities of systemically limited opportunity. The film, directed by Leslie Harris, follows Chantel (Ariyan A. Johnson), a Brooklyn teenager dreaming of a life in which she goes to college and becomes a doctor. It’s an explosive and sometimes hard-to-watch performance as a young woman testing the boundaries set for her and reveling in pockets of freedom – until she becomes pregnant and must alter her aspirations.The tightly wound film clicks with fast-paced dialogue and refreshing frankness in terms of race, the trials of motherhood and, in particular, childbirth. It’s scenes such as Chantel going into labor that show why a woman’s insight is especially beneficial in bringing that experience to the screen. On Paramount+, Hulu and Showtime.

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Local focus

Echoing the Day’s Black History Month praise for Gina Prince-Bythewood and “The Woman King,” The Brattle Theatre cues up “Dear Academy … The Films of Gina Prince-Bythewood,” a retrospective of the filmmaker’s impressive CV that starts with “Beyond the Lights” (2014), chronicling the travails of sudden stardom with Danny Glover, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Minnie Driver (“Good Will Hunting”) and Nate Parker (“Birth of a Nation”). “Lights” plays Monday on a double bill with the gem about young love and hoop stardom aspirations “Love & Basketball” (2000). The film, starring Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan as the aspiring ballers, wowed at Sundance and put Prince-Bythewood on the can-do filmmaker board. Tuesday brings the Oscar-snubbed latest, “The Woman King,” with Oscar winner Viola Davis as the titled female warrior and leader, and a 2008 adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s civil rights era novel “The Secret Life of Bees” starring an eclectic ensemble that includes singer Alicia Keys, Dakota Fanning (“Neon Demon”), Egot achiever Jennifer Hudson, Paul Bettany and “Equalizer” Queen Latifah.

The Brattle begins an extended run Friday of the gorgeously shot, Oscar-nominated documentary “All That Breathes” with Mohammad Saud, Nadeem Shehzad and Salik Rehman, about two brothers who rehabilitate black kite raptors in New Delhi. It’s as much of a cultural and social plumb as it is about the fragility and symbolism of the majestic birds.

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The Tuesday Retro Replay at the Landmark Kendall Square Theatre this month switches to two from two maestros: “Seeing Double: Welles & Lean.” The classic lineup starts with arguably the greatest U.S. film, “Citizen Kane” (1941), which Welles made when he was 24. Just how much of a role Welles had writing the story of the newspaper mogul based on William Randolph Hearst (will Rupert Murdoch get such a cinematic embrace?) and a sled is up for debate, as reflected in David Fincher’s 2020 Hollywood rewind “Mank.” Later in the month, offsetting “Kane” is Welles’ dark B-noir “A Touch of Evil” (1958); the two from Lean are “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), one of the most beautifully shot films, and “Doctor Zhivago” (1965). Sadly, no “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957).

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Saturday at the Somerville Theatre, it’s immortality gone amok with the 1992 dark comedy “Death Becomes Her” starring Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn as rivals who fight for the affections of the same balding nebbish (Bruce Willis, playing against type). The ever-alluring Isabella Rossellini is the siren of enteral life in this work from Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump,” “The Frighteners”).

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In Theaters and Streaming

‘Return to Seoul’ (2022)

Besides a deep emotional journey, the revelation of Davy Chou’s “Return to Seoul” is the phenomenal debut performance by Ji-Min Park as Freddie, a 25-year-old adoptee who travels from her home in France to Seoul, South Korea, in reluctant search of her biological parents. Energized and hypnotic, with scenes of Freddie letting loose and dancing alone center stage at a bar (a best-dance-scene-ever candidate) or a tense family meal broken by translations and clear misunderstandings, it’s the palpable undercurrent of rage communicated by Park that links it all together. Adrift in a world where she is of two (and many more) parts and struggling to assimilate as a Korean-born transplant who speaks fluent French, some English and a modicum of Korean – but by norms is expected to behave within Korean custom and genuflection when there – her story is a familiar one for many, but set apart. An aching open wound, “Return to Seoul” begs the question of where we find our identity, how much of it is shaped by where we grow up and with whom, and the power of the perception of others. A top 10 of 2022 selection by Cambridge Day. (Ally Johnson) At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St.

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‘The Strays’ (2023)

A suburban horror film with a big steaming cup of social commentary on the side, or more like a big cup of social posturing that for the most never gets filled, though it provokes at turns. Aspirations of “Get Out” (2017) are evident in Nathaniel Martello-White’s psychological thriller, which unfolds in a quaint British burb where Neve (Ashley Madekwe), a light-skinned Black woman married to a white man (Justin Salinger) raises her biracial children in an overwhelmingly white setting, including the upper-crust prep school they attend and where she is the assistant headmistress. One day (taking a page from “Us”), Abigail and Marvin (Bukky Bakray and Jorden Myrie) show up and befriend Neve’s children with clear insidious intent that only Neve can grasp. Matters of race and code-switching as well as resentment and abandonment come to the fore as Neve’s conflicted past is made more clear. Madekwe carries the film, and the ensemble as a whole works seamlessly as the film shifts from piquant contemplation and enigmatic teaser and jumps off into home invasion territory. That said, given an open-ended flourish at the end, it’s hard to tell just what first-timer Martello-White is angling for: family responsibility, class division, fear of foreigners? There’s shades of all that in “Strays,” but no recoil. (Tom Meek) On Netflix.


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. Allyson Johnson is editor-in-chief at The Young Folks.