Naomi Yang’s ‘Never Be a Punching Bag’ doc screens at IFFB; ‘Navalny’ is free at The Brattle
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.
The Independent Film Festival Boston
Happy 20th anniversary to the Independent Film Festival Boston. It kicks off Wednesday with a screening of “Love to Love You, Donna Summer,” a documentary about disco diva and Boston native Donna Summer by Brooklyn Sudano and Roger Ross Williams. The opening-night film plays at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, the IFFB main stage along with The Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. Broad-ranging documentaries hold a lot of the muscle on this year’s lineup, with highlights that include “Stephen Curry: Underrated,” about the sharpshooting Celtics vanquisher (Thursday, with director Peter Nicks expected to attend); a current look at Michael J. Fox from Davis Guggenheim (“It Might Get Loud”) in “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” (Friday, with Guggenheim expected to attend); “Plan C” (Saturday) about the distribution of abortion pills in the current political climate; the latest from “Hoop Dreams” (1994) filmmaker Steve James, “A Compassionate Spy” (April 30); “Dadiwonisi (We Will Speak)” (Saturday) about the Cherokee experience in Oklahoma; “Beautiful was the Fight” (April 30) about the female and trans rocker scene in Boston and the struggle to get a fair share of the stage; “Confessions of a Good Samaritan” from filmmaker Penny Lane (“Hail Satan,” “Nuts”), about her decision to donate a kidney to a stranger (Friday, with the director/subject expected to attend); “Being Mary Tyler Moore” (May 1); “Stonebreakers” (Saturday), about controversial Confederate statues marked for removal; and the centerpiece doc, “Never Be a Punching Bag for Nobody” (April 30 and May 1) about a boxing gym next to Logan Airport that Cambridge filmmaker and Galaxie 500 band member Naomi Yang boxes at; Yang is expected to attend and perform the film’s theme song.
On the narrative side of things there’s the latest from Paul Schrader (“Cat People,” “First Reformed”), “Master Gardener,” (Thursday) starring Sigourney Weaver as an entitled estate owner and Joel Edgerton as her indentured horticulturalist; “Monica” (Friday) with Patricia Clarkson as the mother of a wounded soul who returns home after a long absence; Anthony Shim’s tale of immigration trauma “Riceboy Sleeps” (May 2); an obsession with reanimation of the dead in “Birth/Rebirth” (Saturday); and the centerpiece film, “Blackberry” (May 2) about the invention of that post-pager device that for 10 years ruled our lives before it faded to an eight-track-like memory. There are also shorts packages (which I highly encourage, because they never fail to surprise, and you just don’t get a chance to see such packages otherwise), panels and parties.
Before the IFFB arrives midweek, The Brattle Theatre wraps up its excellent program “The Emperor & The Wolf: The Films of Akira Kurosawa & Toshiro Mifune” with 13 of the 16 amazing collaborations between the legendary director and actor, who split semi-acrimoniously after their last collaboration, “Red Beard,” in 1965. The round-outs are “I Live in Fear” (1955, Tuesday) about a family man fearful of nuclear annihilation – topical at the time, given it was post-World War II Japan – and the duo’s nameless avenging samurai films, “Yojimbo” (1961) and “Sanjuro” (1962), which gave birth to the Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone “Man With No Name” trilogy. The two films play Wednesday. It was “Yojimbo” that made me fall helplessly in love with film while in college.
Kicking off the week is a screening of “Navalny” – last year’s Best Documentary Oscar winner – about Alexei Navalny, who’s led Russian political opposition to Putin and became the subject of an assassination attempt. The screening from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy is free, though tickets are required. The Monday screening will be followed by a Q&A with Christo Grozev, a subject in the film, and producer Shane Boris. Robb Moss (“Sherman’s March”), Harvard professor of art, film and visual studies, moderates.
This week’s Tuesday “Perfect Pairs” Retro Replay at the Landmark Kendall Square Theatre has Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy going at each other as a free-spirited journalist and traditionalist sports writer at the same rag in “Woman of the Year” (1942). The film, directed by George Stevens (“Giant,” “Shane”), closes out this program; next up is “May’d Men: Scorsese & De Niro.”
The “Still Life With Hong Sangsoo” retrospective, many shot in lush black and white, continues at the Harvard Film Archive this week with “The Novelist’s Film” (2022), about a novelist who meets a filmmaker in a bookstore and “Grass” (2018), revolving around a writer (Kim Min-hee) aloofly observing the other patrons at a cafe. Both play Friday.There’s an encore screening May 7 of “In Front of Your Face” (2021) and “The Woman Who Ran” (2022), about a woman who goes out in Seoul with three friends after her husband departs for a business trip.
The HFA shows more of Med Hondo’s works Monday with a screening of “Fatima, the Algerian Woman of Dakar” (2004), a dark story set against the backdrop of the Algerian war. A woman is raped by a Senegalese man, and a strange fate follows for her and the son she birthed as a result of the atrocity. (Tom Meek)
In theaters and streaming
‘The Pope’s Exorcist’ (2023)
Set in the summer of 1987, an American widow and her two kids inherit a decrepit, isolated Spanish abbey. Once her son starts talking in a deep, demonic voice and hurting himself, the inexperienced and on-edge Father Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto) alerts Rome. The Pope (Franco Nero, the original “Django”) orders seasoned, unconventional Father Gabriele Amorth (Russell Crowe) to investigate. Amorth scoots to Spain on his Lambretta to team up with Esquibel and exorcise a demon more powerful than any have faced before. Borrowing a page from James Wan’s “The Conjuring” franchise, writers Michael Petroni (“The Rite,” “Miracles”), Evan Spiliotopoulos (“The Unholy”) and newcomer R. Dean McCreary use a real-life figure to authenticate a fictional story and take a regressive, dangerous step while creating an alternate history. The narrative blames all post-Inquisition atrocities committed in the Roman Catholic Church’s name on the demon, who infiltrated the Vatican as if it was Hydra in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, exculpating the church of a history it still struggles to atone for, including the global sexual abuse of children that has affected many in Massachusetts. IRL the church never used the devil-made-me-do-it defense. As a horror movie, the possession flick feels like a step back when movies such as “Hereditary” (2018) and found-footage films such as the “Paranormal Activity” franchise breathed fresh life into the genre. Australian director Julius Avery (“Overlord”) gives flashes of evocative images – a disembodied male arm embracing a sleeping woman, a naked, blood-covered woman taunting the young priest – but not enough to carry a story that defies logic. (Sarah Vincent) 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.
‘Evil Dead Rise’ (2023)
Lee Cronin (“Ghost Train”) reboots the “Evil Dead” franchise begun in the early 1980s when Sam Raimi, working with lo-fi resources, fired up the cheeky cult hit featuring the swashbuckling, shit-talking Bruce Campbell as Ash taking on ghouls form the grave. In a nod to Raimi’s 1981 cornerstone, “Rise” begins at a cabin in the woods, then rewinds to the day before at a Los Angeles tenement destined to be razed. Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland) is a newly single mom (dad pretty much got bored and walked) loosely overseeing three fairly self-sufficient kids, teens Danny (Morgan Davies) and Bridget (Gabrielle Echols) and the youngest, Kassie (Nell Fisher), reminiscent of Newt in “Aliens” (1986) and a bit of a demonic soul herself, cutting the head off a doll, placing it on a spear shaft and calling it Staffanie. Showing up unannounced is Elle’s estranged sister Beth (Lily Sullivan), a rock band roadie just back from Thailand. But before family mending can take, there’s an earthquake, causing a fissure in the parking garage below that exposes a book of dark sacraments. The power goes out, phones don’t work and the stairwell has collapsed. Taking the last elevator up, Ellie unwittingly meets with the evil force unleashed accidentally by one of her progeny and, through a grim binding-torture crucifixion ritual, becomes possessed by the blood-lusting demonic force from the series’ other iterations. The genre effects, choreography and staging here are all top shelf; genre fans will rejoice and the squeamish will look through their fingers as eyeballs pop, joints contort the wrong way and Elle scatters about like Samara in “Ringu” (1998) – though clear homages to “The Shining” (1980) and “The Thing” (1982) come off as overblown and over the top. The series’ staple chainsaw and shotgun come out and Beth transforms into the Ripley version of Ash’s demon exterminator, so “Rise” checks most of the “Evil Dead” boxes; not quite there is the sardonic wit Raimi wove into his “Dead” trilogy, and nor does Sullivan’s Beth get any of the glorious gore gusto that Campbell’s Ash made such a key signature element. (Tom Meek) At Apple Cinemas Cambridge, 168 Alewife Brook Parkway, Cambridge Highlands near Alewife and AMC Assembly Row 12, 395 Artisan Way, Assembly Square, Somerville.
During the mid-18th century, a Guadalupe plantation-owning Frenchman drops his biracial, music prodigy son, Joseph Bologne (indie chameleon character actor Kelvin Harrison Jr.), at a Paris boarding school. As a composer and deft violinist who’s also quite the swordsman, Bologne earns the title of chevalier (knight, in French) de Saint-Georges. Based on the life of a little-known historical figure, this period-piece biopic takes liberties with Bologne’s story and whets viewers’ appetite for a fact-checking feast later. Bologne sets his sights on becoming Paris Opera director and falls in love with married singer, Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving, in her best performance to date) but, in the most accurate part of the story, discovers that even his talent cannot trump racist obstacles. Jamaican-Canadian director Stephen Williams uses dynamic camerawork, seamlessly edited transitions and time-lapse scenes to navigate high-life socializing (opulent costume and set designs galore) and explore gray, squalid streets. While writer Stefani Robinson’s screenplay spends a disproportionate time on Bologne’s public persona, the film becomes more engaging and effective once the narrative shifts to his private life, despite some conventional plot twists later to force a feel-good ending. The strongest, overarching storyline is the reunion between Bologne and his African and formerly enslaved mother, Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo), who helps him recover from heartbreak. Bologne stops assimilating, embraces his African roots and blends his classical training with his newfound identity. The power of his music stirs the unified multiracial masses to chant “egalite” and resist the monarchy. (Sarah Vincent) At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St.
‘Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant’ (2023)
Despite the title’s pretentious implications, this is something new from the man behind such kinetic crime capers as “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998) and “The Gentlemen” (2019), to name a few. For a Guy Ritchie flick, this Afghanistan war drama is remarkably restrained and told with a depth of character that surpasses many of his previous efforts. It centers on Army Master Sgt. John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal), a platoon leader whose crew is tasked with ferreting out and destroying IED factories. They lose an interpreter to one and recruit a replacement named Ahmed (Dar Salim) who normally works as an auto mechanic. There’s an inherent mistrust of interpreters because they sometimes turn out to be Taliban plants, but “Covenant” is boosted by the bond between Kinley and Ahmed and the extremes they go through for the other when, out in the field, the team finds the mother of all bomb factories. They set to work taking it apart and rigging it for demolition, but nearby Taliban catch wind and release seemingly limitless forces against them. The riveting gunfight is a 100-to-1 struggle, and soon it’s just Ahmed and Kinley left without a vehicle, on the run and miles from base without support. While inspired by relationships and the peril that interpreters and their family’s face from Taliban retaliation, “Covenant” is not based on a single true occurrence. The Taliban hunt for the pair, well staged and well told, becomes the centerpiece of the film, but – I’m trying not to give too much away – is not the only gripping, hanging-on-the-edge sequence. “Covenant” is amazingly only two hours long, though it feels longer because of high-octane action scenes told with the same degree of military realism that “The Hurt Locker” (2008) and “Lone Survivor” (2013) took to heart. (Tom Meek) At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., and AMC Assembly Row 12, 395 Artisan Way, Assembly Square, Somerville.
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.