Sunday, June 16, 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

Just as the Independent Film Festival Boston wraps up its fantastic Fall Focus at The Brattle Theatre, The Boston Globe sets up shop for the ninth annual GlobeDocs Film Festival, running three days through Sunday. Highlights include “The Stones and Brian Jones” by doc provocateur Nick Broomfield (“Kurt & Courtney,” “Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer”) dialing back to examine the life and death of original Stone Jones and his controversial life and death; “Sorry/Not Sorry,” an unraveling of how the Louis C.K. scandal broke, with former Globe critic Wesley Morris and comedian Jen Kirkman among the talking heads; the plight of black astronauts in “The Space Race”; a peek behind the Iron Curtain of North Korea with Madeleine Gavin’s “Beyond Utopia”; “Inundation District” from Globe environmental reporter David Abel that tackles climate change-triggered flooding and Boston’s uncertain, watery future; and, tagged as a special presentation, it’s “The Pigeon Tunnel” from legendary local documentarian Errol Morris (“The Thin Blue Line,” “The Fog of War”) delving into the life of former British spy David Cornwell – better known as John le Carré, author of such classic espionage novels as “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “The Constant Gardener.” Most of the filmmakers (Broomfield and Morris included) will attend to talk about their works and subject matter.

Then things get spooky at The Brattle for Halloween, with Bruce Campbell yukking it up with the undead in Sam Raimi’s horror-comedy series’ second entry “Evil Dead II” (1987) and Richard Kelly’s emotionally eerie and evocative “Donnie Darko” (2001), which dives into teen loneliness and isolation, fate and happenstance, and the notion of alternative universes. The film features the eye-popping ensemble of Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role, Jena Malone, Katharine Ross (from the original “Stepford Wives”), Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell (“Dances with Wolves”), Noah Wyle, Drew Barrymore and, sadly departed, Patrick Swayze, as well as an amazing ’80s playlist – Echo & the Bunnymen, INXS and Tears for Fears – and Gary Jules’ haunting redo of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” recorded for the film. “Darko” was slightly regarded when released, but earned a cult following and a second release years later. The Raimi plays Halloween eve and Halloween night; “Darko” is Halloween only.

Other horror offerings are an Elements of Film series screening of Joe Dante’s “The Howling” (1981) on Monday that’s free and open to the public; and Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s “Hausu” (1977), inspired by “Jaws” (1975) and with themes of the World War II bomb drops on Japan, which follows a group of teenage Japanese schoolgirls who venture into a haunted house. The latter plays on a double bill Wednesday with the 1961 Czech film “The Cassandra Cat” to commemorate National Cat Day. 

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For the final ’80s horror Retro Replay play Tuesday at the Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, it’s “Halloween II” (1981) with Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence back in their quest to stay the murderous trail of beyond-human, slasher Michael Myers in a William Shatner mask – why he does it is anyone’s guess, but it’s good damn devilish fun no matter. (The day before, on Halloween eve, Kendall plays John Carpenter’s genre-making 1978 original to get you all in the holiday mood.)

And for the films that inspired Alexander Payne, the Kendall Filmmaker Focus on Wednesday screens Robert Altman’s great revisionist Western “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971) with ’70s sex icons Warren Beatty and Julie Christie as a businessman-gambler who opens a brothel in the Pacific Northwest and the skilled madam he hires to run it. The lines between right and wrong and business and love blur, backed by a scene-building, emotive score by the great Leonard Cohen – who initially wasn’t enamored with the film, but listened to Altman’s entreaty after seeing his previous film “Brewster McCloud” (1970). The result is one of the best Westerns ever made.

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The folks over at the Somerville Theatre go all in on the spooky with Halloween Hullabaloo 3, curated by local gore film fanatic Julia Marchese. She breaks the 10-film slate into subcategories of chills. On the top there’s Hardcore Horror, beginning with occult novelist Clive Barker adapting one of his Books of Blood for a directorial debut in “Hellraiser” (1987), with Pinhead and the rest of the S&M Cenobites (extra-dimensional demons) raising hell in the material world. Barker, who also penned the source material for the “Candyman” films, would go on to direct only two more films: “Nightbreed” (1990), starring body-horror maestro David Cronenberg, and “Lord of Illusion” (1995) – both adaptations of his novels. Paired on the Friday double bill is William Friedkin’s genre-defining possession classic, “The Exorcist” (1973), celebrating its 50th anniversary and still chilling in this day of green screen computer magic – nothing beats split pea soup, imaginative makeup and crafty levitation sleight-of-hand.

Like lycanthropes? On Monday (Halloween eve) it’s John Landis (“Animal House”) going fang-to-fang with Joe Dante (“Gremlins”) back in 1981 with a double bill of “An American Werewolf in London” and “The Howling” (which you can catch at The Brattle too). For Marchese’s demonic-possession sensibilities, it’s a devious trio from the ghoulishly funny original “The Evil Dead” (1981), helmed by a young Raimi; the devil-made-me-do-it of “Oculus” (2013); and “they’re here” in “Poltergeist” (1982), which taught us not to build housing developments on graveyards in an unlikely collaboration between Tobe Hooper (“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”) and Steven Spielberg. For All Hallow’s Eve, there are mommy issues about, with Alfred Hitchcock’s indelible “Psycho” (1960) with that shower scene and brilliant Bernard Herrmann score, and Brooke Shields’ screen debut, “Alice, Sweet Alice” (1976). Sunday brings two tales of succubi (Lesbian Vampire Delights, as Marchese tags ’em): “Daughters of Darkness” (1971) and “Blood and Roses” (1960) from soft-core edgy director Roger Vadim (“… And God Created Woman” and “Barbarella”).

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At the Harvard Film Archive this week there’s more from the “Filmmaker, Guest Worker: Želimir Žilnik’s Expatriates” program with the Serbian’s immigrant doc-fiction weave, “The Most Beautiful Country in the World” (2018) playing Friday. On Saturday, it’s an encore screening of Laura Citarella’s missing protagonist mystery series “Trenque Lauquen, Parts I & II.” And for the ongoing eye on civil rights icon James Baldwin, there’s an encore screening of Dick Fontaine’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (1982) as well as two long shorts (59 minutes each) focusing on Baldwin in the early ’60s: Fred Barzyk’s look at Baldwin examining the plight of Black people in San Francisco in “The Negro and the American Promise” (1963), and Richard O. Moore’s director’s cut of “Take this Hammer” (1964) on Baldwin, Malcom X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They all play Sunday. On Monday there’s a screening of Masao Adachi’s “Revolution+1,” a semifictionalized account of Tetsuya Yamagami, the man behind the assassination of conservative Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe last year. Masao will be on hand for a video Q&A. (Tom Meek)

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In theaters and streaming

‘Nyad’ (2023)

Tired of playing it safe on the sidelines as a TV sports broadcaster and refusing to act her age, 60-year-old marathon swimmer Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) dives into the deep end. Starting in 2011, Nyad strives to achieve what she could not as a 28-year-old: swim the 110 miles of shark-infested waters from Cuba to Key West, Florida. Nyad – whose name coincidently sounds like the word for “water nymph” – a bloviating motivational speaker who never lets anyone forget her accomplishments, enlists her bestie, former athlete and flash-in-the-pan former flame, Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster), to be her coach. The pair assembles the ultimate dream swim team, including expert navigator John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans), though nature’s challenges prove more challenging than Nyad at her age bargained for. Documentarian directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (the married couple who did “Free Solo” and “The Rescue”) and TV screenwriter Julia Cox make a smooth transition to an epic feature debut with this adaption of Nyad’s autobiography “Find a Way.” The result is an inspirational, riveting buddy biopic. Bening and Foster have considerable chemistry and deliver flawless performances as a weather-beaten yet determined odd couple, with Nyad as the driving, focused bulldozer and affable Bonnie following close behind to smooth out whatever mess Nyad leaves. The film’s flaws are few, though some of the colorful depictions of Nyad’s swim-time hallucinations feel awkward and amateurish. The source material has come under fire over allegations that the real-life Nyad is a fabulist who needlessly inflated her achievements and place in history; none of that, pro or con, makes its way into the film. (Sarah G. Vincent) At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge, and on Netflix on Nov. 3.

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‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’ (2023)

Ghosts of children kidnapped and killed in the 1980s possess the animatronic toys at Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza, a defunct, decaying family entertainment pizzeria reminiscent of Chuck E. Cheese. Desperate to keep custody of his little sister, Abby (Piper Rubio), unemployed Mike (Josh Hutcherson, Peeta from “The Hunger Games” franchise) takes a job as a night-shift security guard. When he finds out that mascots Freddy Fazbear, Bonnie, Chica and Foxy have a homicidal agenda, and with the help of a patrolling cop, Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail), he tries to find a way to stop them before they turn Abby into one of them – young souls being what those robo-bears yearn for. By fleshing out a high-stakes backstory involving dreamscapes, director and co-writer Emma Tammi, co-writer Scott Cawthorn, the developer of the video game the film’s based on and a few other contributing writers prove you can make a solid film from a gaming series. Without losing its sense of humor or employing prose dumps disguised as dialogue, this crowd-pleaser plugs three-dimensional characters into a dynamic narrative. Newcomers will appreciate that a PG-13 rated film isn’t afraid to kill kids and shred unwitting trespassers. Genre and game fans will howl with appreciation at the Easter eggs embedded throughout. And all will enjoy the across-the-board spot-on performances, especially from the child actors. As rendered, the animatronic teddies evoke the sounds and glowing eyes of the killer machines from “The Terminator” franchise; the threatening ghost children may remind some of Scott Derrickson’s “The Black Phone” (2021), except these ghosts are less helpful and definitely more sinister. (Sarah G. Vincent) At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge; Apple Cinemas Cambridge, 168 Alewife Brook Parkway, Cambridge Highlands near Alewife and Fresh Pond; AMC Assembly Row 12, 395 Artisan Way, Assembly Square, Somerville; and on Peacock .

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‘The Killer’ (2023)

David Fincher, the veteran hand that trailed after killers in “Se7en” (1995) and “Zodiac” (2007), this time gets close and personal with an agent of death, played with taciturn intensity by Michael Fassbender (think of his cold, aloof David in the recent “Alien” series, “Prometheus” and “Alien Covenant,” and you’ll have a good idea). The film begins in Paris with an unnamed assassin who changes identities faster and easier than one might select their outfit for the day in an abandoned WeWorks office, waiting days for his target to arrive across the way. Through monotone voiceovers we hear his mantras: “Trust no one,” “Empathy is vulnerability,” “Only fight the fight you came to fight” and so on. He’s also appreciative of Ted Williams’ batting average (.344) and lets us know he’s 100 percent – that is, until he misses his Paris mark and there’s backlash that has Fassbender’s detail-oriented operative bouncing from the Dominican Republic to New York and New Orleans to get answers and revenge. It’s a fairly straightforward payback scenario that Fincher elevates with quirk (all his aliases are ’70s TV sitcom characters: George Jefferson, Archie Bunker, Mike Brady and so on) and carefully meted details – it’s as if you’re in Fassbender’s killer’s shoes as he listens to The Smiths and extracts the next piece of the puzzle in cold-blooded fashion. There’s also a flawlessly orchestrated fight sequence with no shortage of twists and turns that goes on so long even the viewer is gasping for air. In the mix is Tilda Swinton, but this is Fassbender’s show, and he and Fincher are in sync in every frame. There nothing wasted in “The Killer,” except the wicked and maybe a few innocents who get in the way; every small detail and phrase has profound impact. It’s an escapist thriller that does something rare for the genre – it makes you think. (Tom Meek) At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge, and streaming starting Nov. 10 on Netflix.

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Saturn Bowling’ (2022)

Daddy issues do not die with the daddy, a bowling alley owner and big game hunting aficionado (Jean-Michel Blondel). Fierce sibling rivalry carries on despite the older, sole heir Guillaume (Arieh Worthalter), too busy with his cop duties, offering the job of managing the titular bowling alley and rent-free lodging – his dad’s old flat, adorned with big game trophies – to half-brother Armand (Achille Reggiani). Seething with suppressed rage against his favored older brother, Armand initially refuses, but after assessing his slim prospects relents, later finding a modicum of relief posing as the property owner and ingratiating himself to easily beguiled customers. Meanwhile, Guillaume pursues a serial killer targeting women in the area and becomes trapped in a loathing of his father’s illicit legacy of animal cruelty carried on by dad’s hunting buddies, whom Guillaume must confront. There are many moving pieces, but the result by French filmmaker Patricia Mazuy and co-writer Yves Thomas is empty and lacking in thrills. It’s been compared to the far more engrossing, brutal and unrelenting “Irreversible” (2002) because both have extended imagery of unblinking femicide, but the depiction here of men using women’s bodies as a battleground for their repressed emotions feels redundant and cliched.  While the framing and atmosphere are pitch perfect and the performers seamlessly on mark, the character development is thin. Despite being aware of Guillaume’s associations and well-intentioned corruption (dad’s buddies again), animal-rights activist and Guillaume’s potential lover Xuan (Y-Lan Lucas) functions as a hackneyed plot contrivance for the audience to navigate the brothers’ fraught relationship. (Sarah G. Vincent) On 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.