Friday, July 19, 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

After celebrating 100 years of Warner Brothers, The Brattle Theater dials in on The Fifties at Warners, beginning Friday with Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man” (1956), in which Henry Fonda plays an innocent musician accused of murder. The true-crime-based thriller co-stars Vera Miles, whom you can see in The Brattle’s presentation of “The Searchers” at the Somerville Theatre (see below). Other classics on the slate include the original “Ocean’s 11” (1960) with its Rat Pack of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Sammy Davis Jr. with pals Angie Dickinson and Cesar Romero, which Steven Soderbergh later morphed into a haute, hip series with Brad Pitt and George Clooney. It plays Thursday. Then there’s Brando at his peak in Elia Kazan’s 1951 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Saturday and Sunday. For a sampling of the offbeat, there’s “I Was a Communist for the FBI” (1951) on Saturday, the Western musical “Calamity Jane” (1953) with Doris Day on Sunday, and “Auntie Mame” (1958) on Tuesday. For the macabre, creepy and B-tier, it’s ginormous ants invading in “Them!” (1954) on a double bill Saturday with “Communist” and solo on Monday. On Sunday too there’s a murderous 8-year-old on the roam in “The Bad Seed” (1956) and on Monday, Vincent Price in “House of Wax” (1953). The collection will also run a Looney Tunes program Saturday. Many of the screenings include an introduction from film historian Foster Hirsch, author of the new “Hollywood and the Movies of the Fifties.”

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For a Month of Giving Hanks at the Landmark Kendall Square Cinema comes an emblematic 1980s rom-com (okay, it was 1990, but still) with our man Tom as the titular Joe in “Joe Versus the Volcano.” What’s to know for this Tuesday Retro Replay? Joe gets bad news about his health, doesn’t have long to live and decides to go out with a bang by jumping into a gurgling magma maw on a remote island. Along the way he meets Meg Ryan, hot out of daytime soaps and making her big-screen splash, and sparks fly. The film exists as a time capsule love letter to the comedy-romances of a not-quite big-hair bridge era.

In our recent review of the new-to-streaming sci-fi, rom-drama “Fingernails” we cited similarities in concept, but not texture, to filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” (2015), a far more nuanced and enveloping spin on love in an alter-tomorrow. (The director of “Fingernails” worked on Lanthimos’ career-launching film, “Dogtooth.”) A screening of “The Lobster,” starring a well-cast Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, is next up as part of the Wednesday Filmmaker Focus series in anticipation of Lanthimos’ upcoming “Poor Things.” Not sure about claw or tail meat? The absurdist satire takes place in a future in which a person of a certain age must, by mandate, take a mate within 45 days or be turned into an animal of their choosing. From the title I’m sure you can guess the choice of Farrell’s hapless bachelor. On the bigger scale regarding forced future societal rules around age and sex, maybe being a crustacean isn’t so bad when you compare it with getting zapped in Carousel, a population- and resource-control ritual for those over 30 in “Logan’s Run” (1976). But that had a grand orgy before the big buzz.

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Speaking of freaky future-scapes, the Somerville Theatre brings in Eddie Alcazar’s Sundance premiere “Divinity” for Saturday midnight screenings this week and next. The film, shot in arty black and white and produced by Soderbergh (“Traffic” and those “Ocean’s Eleven” films), tells the story of two brothers who kidnap a tycoon on a quest for immortality. It stars Scott Bakula and Stephen Dorff. For Veterans Day the Somerville presents the silent-era blockbuster “The Big Parade” (1925), directed by King Vidor (“War and Peace,” “The Fountainhead”) and starring John Gilbert as a young American soldier who experiences the horrors of World War I. The screening gets a live, impromptu accompaniment by renowned local musician Jeff Rapsis.

The Fifties at Warners program travels from The Brattle Theatre to Somerville on Sunday for a big-screen presentation of John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956), with John Wayne as a soldier just back to Texas after the Civil War to learn that his niece (Natalie Wood) has been kidnapped by a Comanche tribe. The film, a classic in its time, has become controversial because of its dehumanized and stereotypical depiction of indigenous people.

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The Harvard Film Archive doubles back to its “Filmmaker, Guest Worker: Želimir Žilnik’s Expatriates” series with the West German Short Films Program, showcasing Žilnik’s 1970s works. The director will be in attendance Friday. Žilnik, whose films are shaped by his birth in a Nazi concentration camp in Yugoslavia, will also be on hand for the Saturday showing of “Logbook Serbistan” (2015), a docu-fiction tale of North African and Middle Eastern refugees stranded by bureaucracy in Serbia.

Adding to the ongoing “Out of the Ashes – The US-ROK Security Alliance and the Emergence of South Korean Cinema” program Saturday is Lee Man-hee’s “The Marines Who Never Returned” (1965), about Americans in the Korean war who end up fighting Chinese communist forces, and “The Widow” (1955), directed by Park Nam-ok, the first noted Korean female filmmaker, following a single mother struggling to provide for her daughter postwar. During the war, Park worked as a member of the Korean Ministry of National Defense and, paralleling her heroine, struggled to find funding and resources to make this, her only film. Sticking with the female lens, on Monday the HFA exhibits early 1920s silent work by boundary-pushing Italian filmmaker Elvira Notari, whose films focus on complex female personas and all things Naples, with live accompaniment by Robert Humphreville. (Tom Meek)

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‘Priscilla’ (2023)

On the heels of Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic “Elvis” (2022), Sofia Coppola’s latest and greatest (yes, you heard right) adapts executive producer Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir, “Elvis and Me,” chronicling the 13-year relationship between a military brat and King of Rock ’n’ Roll Elvis Presley from Priscilla’s perspective. It begins with extreme closeups of Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) getting ready – the nails, the eyelashes, the hair – then transitions to capturing Graceland, Elvis’ ostentatious Memphis, Tennessee, estate. This coming-of-age arc contextualizes Priscilla as one of Elvis’ beautiful possessions, then backtracks to 1959 with 14-year-old Priscilla (still Spaeny) sitting alone in a West German American-style diner despondent over moving to another base but brightening when a man in uniform invites her to Elvis’ house. After a couple of tries, her parents permit her to venture over, and she sits, wallflower-esque, on a couch observing the festivities until the tall and charismatic Elvis (Jacob Elordi) summons her to rise. Coppola establishes the relationship dynamic by showing, not preaching. Elvis commands and she obeys, because she is thrilled. Even though he refrains from having sexual intercourse with a minor, the whole affair is an inappropriate horror show as her parents allow Elvis, seen as a drug-taking, carousing grown man, to become her guardian in the United States until they marry. Spaeny is convincing in conveying Priscilla’s transformation from a smitten teenager to an adult woman who ultimately decides that she wants to leave the circus that she ran away to. (Sarah G. Vincent) At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge, and AMC Assembly Row 12, 395 Artisan Way, Assembly Square, Somerville.

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‘All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt’ (2023)

Raven Jackson’s rich, opulent debut carries the hypnotic allure of a Terrence Malick film in its unapologetic and stubborn, take-its-own-sweet-time perceptiveness. “The New World” (2005) comes to mind, most specifically because of its quiet yet spirit-filling immersion into the woods, waterways and small creatures that occupy them. The setting for “All Dirt Roads” is the Mississippi bayou in the the 1960s and 1970s, or so that’s the best way to describe the time frame if one must. What Jackson has put forth is a nonlinear dreamscape about Black womanhood in which the place, remote, hazy and dank with the constant strum of crickets and frogs, is as essential to the plot as its players. Scenes move back and forth in time, yet the lush cypress banks never change. The film’s focal point is Mackenzie (played primarily by Kaylee Nicole Johnson and Zainab Jah, and several other actresses as the decades shift), whom we meet as a young girl catching catfish with her father (Chris Chalk) and later filleting them with her mother (Sheila Atim). The shuffle of memories is languorous, dreamy and provocative. There’s a death, a first kiss, a birth and the expansion and contraction of sisterhood between Mack and her sister Josie (Jayah Henry). It’s a taciturn, somber narrative that doesn’t have many dialogue-driven scenes and instead embeds with people in the moment of grieving, giving birth or trying to understand the esoteric structures that bind them. There’s a lot of close-framed imagery of hands throughout, be they held, bathing a child, roiling the mud of the bayou or stroking a protuberant, expecting belly. Folk will liken “All Dirt Roads” to Kasi Lemmon’s “Eve’s Bayou” (1997), and they wouldn’t be wrong, but in poetic texture and context Jackson’s announcement feels hauntingly like the separated-at-birth, soul-sister sojourn to Julie Dash’s stirring, 1991 groundbreaker “Daughters of the Dust.” Both are driven by setting and the powerfully internalized gaze of Black sisterhood.  (Tom Meek) At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge.\

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The Marvels (2023)

Has the Disney-ification of the Marvel Universe finally run dry? The juice has long been bleeding out, an endless flow of origin stories, solo shots, redresses and so on. You could see it in “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) and more acutely in the recent dim, uninspired fanboy panderings of “The Eternals” (2021) and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (2022), driven by formulaic save-the-universe plots. That Disney box-office cha-ching that you hear is the dumbing down of all things Stan Lee. Here, director Nia DaCosta (who did much better with the 2021 “Candyman” reboot) and crew deliver something that feels right out of ’70s Saturday morning TV, with cheesy ersatz sets, “let’s do this” dialogue and woefully unimpressive FX – when “The Marvels” is out in deep space, I keep getting “Battlestar Galactica” hot flashes. The concept’s a bridge between the “Captain Marvel” (2019) re-spin and the streaming series “Ms. Marvel,” about the adventures of teen fangirl from New Jersey (Iman Vellani). Due to a disruption in the time continuum and a network of space portals run by an aggrieved civilization known as the Kree, Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), her kind-of niece Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris, so good in “If Beale Street Could Talk” and DaCosta’s “Candyman”) and Ms. Marvel swap places around the universe when they use their superpowers. Go to zap a Kree, and Captain Marvel lands in Ms. Marvel’s poster-adorned bedroom in New Jersey. It’s a dash of multiverse madness that has something to do with a pair of magic bangles and a green glowing hammer that ain’t Thor’s. Wearing one of those Infinity Stones, er, bangles, and wielding that hammer of hate is a Kree warrior, Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton, making the most of the super-generic role), who uses the portal network to steal natural resources such as water and air from other civilizations and wants to boot Captain Marvel’s ass along the way because the good Cap’n shredded the Kree’s sustaining AI bot, or something like that. Don’t think too hard about it; you’ll be better off. I did, and I started to drift into thoughts of resource theft and the evils of colonialism: Kree feels pretty close to Cree, Captain Marvel laid waste to their supreme being, and now that the Kree are angry and seeking reparations they’re portrayed as barbaric marauders. Hmm, sounds strangely akin to the controversy that has come to plague John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956) in revisionist revisits. Okay, Tom, time’s up, put your pen down. (Tom Meek)  At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge; 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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‘The Loch Ness Horror’ (2023)

The Loch Ness monster better not be real, or it may sue and win for defamation after seeing this flick (not a remake of the 1982 adventure horror film with the same name). When a two-person submarine goes missing, a London-based group deploys to search for survivors or recover remains – a probable exploitation of the OceanGate submersible implosion on June 18. A faction within the group knows that the famous cryptid escaped the freshwater loch and is roaming the North Sea terrorizing cryptozoological paparazzi. Not satisfied to sticking with Nessie, writer and director Tyler-James relies on cliché group dynamics and rips off huge swaths of plot from “Alien” (1979), even when it doesn’t make sense in the broader context of Scottish folklore. Even genre buffs happy to settle for thrills despite an incoherent story should look elsewhere, because there are none, only amateurish CGI, poor lighting and decorous, money-saving cutaways just when the monster strikes. From the same British budget horror house that made “Mary Had a Little Lamb” (2023), which would have benefited from more resources, this Uncorked’s swing at sci-fi has no redeeming qualities to improve upon. Of the meh performances, Matthew Baunsgard is at least memorable as Travis, who with a touch of Ahab terrorizes his coworkers to get the mission cooking but has a change of heart as the body count rises. (Sarah G. Vincent) 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.