Saturday, July 20, 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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Local focus

The Brattle Theatre pays tribute Friday and Saturday to the life of actor Paul Reubens with a screening of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” (1985), the tale of a fastidious man-boy with a big persona and his wayward crimson red bike. The song “Tequila” takes on a whole new meaning from the film, which marked the debut of Tim Burton (“Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands”) and launched the Saturday morning TV show “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”

Also over the weekend, the gonzo colonialist-condemning thriller-cum-Bollywood dance party “RRR” (2022) plays. The title stands for Rise, Roar, Revolt (Indian Independence Day was Tuesday) and has some dazzling action sequences that just keep going to whole other levels, even when you think the last gear had been ground to the quick. Adding to the loaded weekend are screenings of Emma Seligman’s deft, quiet hit “Shiva Baby” (2020), about a young Jewish woman (Rachel Sennott) struggling to make ends meet in New York City who takes on a sugar daddy.

Then it’s back to the “100 Years of Warner Brothers” celebration with James Cagney in the dance-and-singalong classic directed by Michael Curtiz, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942), on Monday and a double bill of comedies with Cary Grant in “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944) and Bette Davis in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” (1942) on Tuesday. For the ongoing celebration of pioneering editor Dede Allen on Wednesday it’s another double bill: Gene Hackman as a washed-up PI in Arthur Penn’s “Night Moves” (1975) and Debra Winger in the thriller “Mike’s Murder” (1984). For Thrill Ride Horror Thursday, it’s James Wan (“Saw,” “Aquaman” and “The Conjuring” films) taking on cancer and wife beaters with “Malignant” (2021) in a double feature with Zach Cregger’s brilliantly staged, urban-blight creepshow “Barbarian” (2022) – itself a great potential double bill with “Candyman.”

For the Tuesday Hitchcock Retro Replay celebration at the Landmark Kendall Square Cinema it’s “Rope” (1948), one of my fave Hitch flicks, based on Patrick Hamilton play (adapted by Hume Cronyn, aka Mr. Jessica Tandy) about the real-life Leopold and Loeb thrill-kill murder in which two wealthy University of Chicago students kidnapped and killed a 14-year-old boy to see what it felt like. James Stewart plays the cagey professor invited to a party hosted by the killers; a tense game of psychological cat-and-mouse ensues. The film’s famous for its single-take vibe (in truth, the back of Stewart’s black jacket was a pausing point to allow for reloading the camera and continuing on) and pretty amazing from a technical standpoint.

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This week’s Saturday midnight special at the Somerville Theatre is the cute cult classic “The Princess Bride” (1987), and then the International Film Festival Boston sets up its Top Ten of Sight and Sound Summer Vacation exhibition of the best films ever with screenings of Gene Kelly splash-dancing in “Singin’ in The Rain” (1952), David Lynch’s aurally immersive “Mulholland Drive” (2001), the film school requisite “Man With a Camera” (1929) and Claire Denis’ career-catapulting film, “Beau Travail” (1999), about French Foreign Legion troops stationed in Africa. The lineup plays Monday through Thursday, with more next week.

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In Theaters and Streaming

‘Passages’ (2023)

Director Ira Sachs (“Love is Strange,” “Little Men”) delivers his best film to date with this searing, sultry character study. Franz Rogowski (“A Hidden Life”) stars as the narcissistic, viperous Tomas, an artist who seeks the thrill of salacious encounters and instant gratification. He cheats on his husband, Martin (played by the quietly stern yet emotive Ben Whishaw of “Paddington” and “Women Talking”) with a woman (“Blue is the Warmest Color” star Adèle Exarchopoulos), then tells his spouse of the conquest. How the film unfurls from there is the uncorking of tightly wound tensions best exemplified by Martin’s scrunched-up shoulders upon hearing of his husband’s not-quite confession – perhaps closer to boast. The film’s shot with a keen eye for Parisian architecture and does well to contrast the cool, flat white walls of the couple’s apartment with their opulent outfits. The real story here is Rogowski, who continues to prove he’s one of the more versatile actors working, his arrogant, narcissistic Tomas at home in floral crop tops and leopard-print pants after portraying a solemn cog in “Transit” (2018) in worker’s attire and office-conforming suits. On top of that, Sachs masterfully delivers a gripping tale of infidelity buoyed by graphic revels of uncensored sexual intimacy. The film’s driven by Tomas’ unapologetically self-indulgent behavior and the way characters bob in and out of each another’s lives, sometimes for better, but mostly for worse. (Ally Johnson) At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge.

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Wolfkin (2022)

Don’t dismiss this werewolf drama because of the B-movie title. When 10-year-old Martin (Victor Dieu) starts suddenly assailing his classmates, single mom Elaine Bailly (Louise Manteau) takes him on a road trip from their humble Brussels abode to the child’s paternal Luxembourgian estate to meet dad’s side of the family for the first time. The overjoyed Urwald grandparents do not hesitate to welcome the two. Elaine allows them to discipline Martin using unusual methods, but clashes with brutish Uncle Jeanne (Gintare Parulyte). This modern take on lycanthropes departs from the classic lone wolf model. By pairing noble blue bloods with a hereditary illness, co-writer and director Jacques Molitor and fellow writers Régine Abadia and Magali Negroni delve into the inherent, monstrous violence of maintaining privilege and generational wealth and matters of gender disparity and the privileged preying upon the have-nots. The Elaine character is underwritten, little more than the woman who will do anything for the love of her son and has no backstory other than a bucolic, daytime romp with Martin’s dad, who’s also thinly drawn. Nature, not Elaine, acts as the moral compass for Martin, who refuses to deny his animal nature – shades of Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social contract theory. “Wolfkin” is a unique spin on the lycanthrope trope that breathes in contemporary themes of identity and belonging.  (Sarah G. Vincent) On Amazon Prime Video.

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‘Heart of Stone’ (2023)

Netflix has had something of a resurgence after some rocky roads – thanks mostly to the business side of the house and the expanded programming of recent near-classics such as “Lost in Translation” (2003) and “The Jerk” (1979). Creatively, beside Scorsese’s “The Irishman” (2019), Netflix-backed productions have seen big whiffs despite the big stars attached. I’ll cite “The Gray Man” (2022) with Ryan Gosling and “Red Notice” (2021), which has Gal Gadot of “Wonder Woman” fame starring alongside Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds. “Heart of Stone” is even more of a misfire that stars Gadot as Rachel Stone, an “Atomic Blonde” (2017)-like MI6 operative with some additional (generic) global social agendas. The world-controlling device du jour is some kind of AI super engine called “The Heart.” Shocking, right? Most of the action sequences are dark, muddled and overwrought, with frenetic editing that only further obfuscates matters. Half the time I was wondering who the two shadowy figures were that seemed to be fighting in a dimly lit apartment or alleyway. Gadot’s passable, but the inert script, soulless characters and vapid MacGuffin plotline that feels like a twice-flushed Bond idea make this high-production-value tale of intrigue and continual action a joyless thrill ride. (Tom Meek) On Netflix.

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‘The Last Voyage of the Demeter’ (2023)

This loose, bloated adaptation of “Log of the Demeter,” an excerpt from a chapter in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” could’ve used more bite. The people aboard the doomed Demeter, a Russian boat traveling from Romania to England, are unaware that the cargo contains a vampire who has terrorized Romanians for centuries and has a peckish proclivity for British blood. (Strangely, there’s nary a Russian or Romanian performer among a normally talented cast that is ill-used, reduced to archetypes waiting to be killed off.) Clemens (Corey Hawkins), a flawless Black doctor, secures passage home by joining the crew. His sparkling “elephant in the room” presence is not unlike Sidney Poitier’s physician in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967). Matters shift to another level when the living start to die and the on-edge crew, suspicious of Clemens’ reasons for seafaring, blame him and a sick woman (Aisling Franciosi) for the slow-burn carnage. The flick has Dracula picking off the most racist and misogynistic men first – a nice changeup. Horror fans will delight in the brutal, taunting Dracula (Javier Botet), who’s more of a batlike gargoyle in the vein of “Nosferatu” (1922) meets “The Strain” (the 2014-2017 vampire series) and less like anything Bela Lugosi, Gary Oldman or Frank Langella brought to the screen. Aggressive mimicry is his thing. Stoker loyalists, however, will be annoyed that the dramatic image of the Demeter’s captain lashing himself to the wheel is deeply curtailed. The departures by director André Øvredal (“Troll Hunter”) and writers Zak Olkewicz (“Bullet Train”) and Bragi F. Schut don’t offer much, nor is the film really faithful in spirit; it’s a dull and monotonous reheating that ends with a cynical, naked ploy for a sequel. (Sarah G. 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.

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Red, White & Royal Blue’ (2023)

With a startling lack of charm, “Red, White & Royal Blue” is a chilly adaptation of the across-the-pond, same-sex bestseller by author Casey McQuiston that plays with world-power political structures. Taylor Zakhar Perez and Nicholas Galitzine star as Alex, son of the president of the United States, and Henry, prince of England. Neither performer sparks the necessary sizzle as their ruling scions grow from begrudging friends to lovers. Directed by Matthew Lopez, the film has the affect of many a second-rate streaming film, glitzy and glossy in aesthetic with no real visual distinctions to make the film more than a hollow barrel in which to deliver the narrative fundamentals. Mostly the film suffers from a poorly executed script that sidelines potentially engaging supporting characters to give more time to the chemistry-free central couple while still rushing through the rituals of courtship. By the time the film ends, we know very little about the true challenges these characters might face in life; all we get are wanting looks and lingering touches. It’s a story slapped together with duct tape, forgoing the patience to deliver a fully formed love story and settling on pretty faces and a built-in fan base to do the heavy lifting. Aimless, perfunctory and shallow, “’Red, White & Royal Blue” could’ve become a modern, queer, rom-com classic, and instead it’s little more than streaming clickbait fodder. Your time will be better spent reading the book it’s based on. (Ally Johnson) On Amazon Prime Video.


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 of the entertainment website InBetweenDrafts.