Tuesday, July 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

This week at The Brattle Theatre the good folks from the Wicked Queer Film Festival set up their documentary series. (Screenings also take place at the Museum of Fine Arts.) Kicking off the four-day fest on Friday is Daniel Peddle’s “The Aggressives” (2005), chronicling the lives of New Your City “AGs” (masculine-presenting and/or identifying queer people of color assigned female gender at birth). What’s that? You find it odd that a film from 2005 is on the 2023 slate? Breathe deep, it’s purposeful prep work for Peddle’s follow-up “Beyond the Aggressives: 25 Years Later,” which screens right after. Others on the docket include “Donna,” about trans-rights activists and artist Donna Personna; “Truth Be Told,” a look at the experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals in the Black church; “A Big Gay Hairy Hit! Where the Bears Are: The Documentary,” Eduardo Aquino’s doc about a viral YouTube hit from 2011 by three middle-aged gay men – trust me, Goldilocks is not in danger, and Margaret Cho is on the mix; and another quirky eye grabber in “Raw! Uncut! Video!” about Jack Fritscher and Mark Hemry, who met at Harvey Milk’s birthday party in 1979 and went on to found a gay porn studio. The fest’s centerpiece film Monday will be Paul B. Preciado’s “Orlando, My Political Biography,” in conversation with author Virginia Woolf’s gender-melding 1928 classic by examining the “Orlando-ness” of its subjects. Many of the filmmakers will be on hand to engage and partake in a Q&A.

The Brattle also pays tribute to hip-hop (November is Hip-Hop History Month, marking the art’s 50th-year anniversary), including icon Tupac Shakur’s screen career. A “Giving Thanks for Tupac” three-fer program showcase the rapper’s brief acting CV, cut short when he was murdered in 1996 – a case that now looks to get some closure with new developments. The slate includes some astounding collaborations, with Tupac opposite Tim Roth (“Pulp Fiction”) and Thandiwe Newton (“Crash”) in “Gridlock’d,” released after his death in 1997; and with Omar Epps, Queen Latifah and Samuel L. Jackson in “Juice,” Ernest Dickerson’s gritty take on teen struggles and crime in Harlem. The latter marked Shakur’s big-screen debut in 1992, and the two crime dramas play as part of a double bill on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Tupac shares the screen with Janet Jackson, Maya Angelou and Regina King (director, “One Night in Miami”) in the romantic drama “Poetic Justice” (1993), John Singleton’s follow-up to “Boyz n the Hood” (1991).

Changing gears on Thursday, it’s a cool double bill of “Blade Runner” (1982) and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville” (1965). The program’s theme is “Lost in Alphaville: Noir & Technology,” and despite how weird is it to describe a film as a “New Wave sci-fi neo-noir,” that’s what “Alphaville” is. If you’re a fan of Godard’s (“Breathless,” “Weekend”), it’s a must-see, though not top tier. “Blade Runner,” on the other hand – Ridley Scott’s visionary adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” – is the very definition of sci-fi neo-noir and maybe the greatest dystopian futurescape committed to celluloid. It’s also one of the most rewatchable films you’ll ever have in your desert-island queue. Also on Wednesday, for the 60th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, it’s a restored-print screening of “Rush to Judgment,” Emile de Antonio’s extensive 1967 refutation of the Warren Report.

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This Tuesday’s Month of Giving Hanks Retro Replay at the Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, “A League of Their Own” (1992), probably would have been better served had it played last month during the Fall Classic (aka World Series). That said, our man Tom stars as the manager of the Rockford Peaches, part of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) that ran from the early 1940s to the mid-1950s, in part because many male major leaguers – such as Ted Williams of the BoSox – were serving in World War II. The amiable, fictional account directed by Penny Marshall stars Geena Davis, Madonna, Lori Petty and the now notorious Rosie O’Donnell as lady ballers.

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At the Somerville Theatre, repertory programming celebrates the 30-year anniversary restoration of Chen Kaige’s beguiling and beautiful-to-behold “Farewell My Concubine” (1992) on Friday. It stars the indomitable Gong Li (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “Miami Vice”) with Leslie Cheung and Fengyi Zhang as a courtesan and a pair of male actors (one who plays female roles) caught in a love triangle – Cheung’s performer has a thing for Fengyi, who falls for Li’s commanding sensuality – across the decades encircling the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Also queuing up this week for an “Attack of the B-Movies” program Sunday and Tuesday is “Cat-Women of the Moon” (1953), in which a space mission finds a population of women in sleek, feline attire. Meow. It plays with “Missile to the Moon” (1958), which by comparison is more of straight shot. 

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The Harvard Film Archive puts focus on the program “Out of the Ashes – The US-ROK Security Alliance and the Emergence of South Korean Cinema,” with particular attention to the works of Han Hyung-mo, one of the most defining filmmakers of the era, with two screenings of his popular film “Madame Freedom,” telling the story of a wife who works at a cosmetics store to supplement her husband’s small income as a professor. The film, which details postwar Western influences, plays Friday and Sunday. Han’s espionage thriller “The Hand of Destiny” (1954) plays Sunday, and on Monday it’s Yu Hyun-mok’s tragedy “Aimless Bullet” (1961), about two brothers straying to survive in the slums of Seoul. 

Launching Saturday at the HFA is “Under the Underground – the Visionary Cinema of Kanai Katsu,” a program showcasing the experimental, avant-garde Japanese film director’s works that begins with “The Deserted Archipelago” (1969). It’s about an adolescent who escapes the nunnery where he survived a tortured upbringing and his immersion into the world.

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‘Dream Scenario’ (2023)

Imagine you lived your entire life in total irrelevance. No one notices you and hardly anyone listens to you. More insidiously, imagine you’re a professor who can’t get published and as a result starts begging distant colleagues for junior-contributor scraps. “Don’t you remember we talked about my ant colony research,” Nicolas Cage’s Paul Matthews snivels over a glass of wine to an academic he hasn’t seen in 10 years who has a book coming out. It’s that bad. Even in his daughter’s dreams that she recounts over breakfast, in scenarios when she’s imperiled and screaming for help, he just walks on by, oblivious and unengaged, as if nothing abnormal is going on. This unsettles Paul, but then random people – a store clerk, a person on the street – tell Paul they have seen him in their dreams, also benignly walking through, doing nothing. The occurrences becomes an unexplainable phenom that a PR firm (run by a wormy Michael Cera) wants to latch on to for the viral ride and ostensible money grab. Paul just wants to publish his book on ant colonies, but things take a dark turn as Paul’s students start having dreams of him assaulting and molesting them. Even Paul’s wife (Julianne Nicholson, great) and his department head (Tim Meadows) start to steer clear of him, and servers at eateries ask him to finish up and leave because people are uncomfortable. It’s “The Truman Show” (1998) gone off the rails, which is of little surprise; “Dream Scenario” is cooked up by Kristoffer Borgli, who brought the equally dark, lo-fi “Sick of Myself” to last year’s Boston Underground Film Festival. This is a nice step up in terms of budget and access to talent. Cage, with his quirky, everyperson intensity, feels minted for the part, with his balding pate and muffled outrage as his Paul is banned from campus and other locales because of the fear he triggers. At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge.

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‘Next Goal Wins’ (2023)

After suffering a 31-0 defeat to Australia in a qualifying match for the 2002 Federation Internationale de Football Association World Cup on April 11, 2001, the American Samoan men’s national football team became notorious for being the worst soccer team on the planet. To prepare for a 2011 match against Tonga to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, the lovable and optimistic American Samoa Football head (Oscar Kightley), hires America-based soccer coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), who packs McEnroe-esque intensity. New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s latest injects his trademark quirk and humor (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “Thor: Ragnarok”) into a formulaic sports movie that picks up steam as it goes. The transcendent island paradise setting is another bonus. While some story elements may appear unreal to the uninformed, such as the team having a transgender player, Jaiya Saelua (Kaimana, in their magnetic onscreen acting debut), or an eleventh-hour tragic, dramatic reveal about Rongen’s tragic backstory, it’s likely Waititi didn’t stretch too much; the film’s an adaptation of a 2014 documentary with the same title. Playing the team leader who butts heads and keeps Rongen in line, Kaimana manages to hold their own and steal a few scenes from the reliably excellent Fassbender. There’s nothing heavy-handed in Waititi’s approach, and it’s fun to see him challenge Western views as many judge the team’s gentle, wholesome values as a weakness – that is, until game day, when the team unleashes a fierce Samoan haka (traditional dance ritual) implying all is not what it appear and that the tables may turn. (Sarah G. Vincent) At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge; Somerville Theatre’s Crystal Ballroom, 55 Davis Square; and AMC Assembly Row 12, 395 Artisan Way, Assembly Square, Somerville.

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‘May December’ (2023)

Todd Haynes’ loose adaptation of the real-life Mary Kay Letourneau case, about the Washington school teacher who had an affair with a 13-year old student in the 1990s and marries him after she’s out of prison, is a smorgasbord of deep character plumbs and rich performances. The film slowly and effectively backs into the premise as the fictional Mary Kay, Gracie (Julianne Moore), and her much younger husband, Joe (Charles Melton), host a barbecue by the Georgia bay. Arriving to the house and picking up a package from the front stoop is a striking young woman by the name of Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), who, when she finds no answer at the front door, skirts around to the festivities in the back. At first she seems a reporter looking to take notes on Joe and Gracie. Did they save people from a burning building, raise millions for cancer or win the $300 million Powerball? The opening of the package reveals dog feces and Elizabeth, it turns out, is a midlist actor renowned for a graphic nude scene or two who is down to do research for an upcoming telling of Gracie and Joe’s sordid union in a small, indie production. The film goes to interesting places as Elizabeth has coffee with Gracie’s ex-husband (D.W. Moffett) and later a music hall encounter with Gracie’s son Georgie (a sassy and beguiling Cory Michael Smith) from her first marriage. Elizabeth’s presence stirs something in Gracie and Joe, and for the most it’s their simmering inner turmoil, further fueled by the reliving of their ignominy and the upcoming graduation of their children, who will be going to college and leaving the two alone – “to what future?” seems to be the lingering question. The performances by the three leads have raw reveals nailed with aplomb. Most intriguing is Portman’s actor: inviting at first, then unnerving as she begins to work the equation from both sides. It’s her most perverse and sensual performance since “Black Swan” (2010). It’s also nice to see Haynes (“Velvet Goldmine,” “I’m Not There”) back in the realm of dark quirk (after the conventional “Dark Waters”) and reuniting with his longtime muse, Moore, from “Safe” (1995), “Far From Heaven” (2002) and “Carol” (2015). (Tom Meek) At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge.

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‘Thanksgiving’ (2023)

Many have been anticipating Eli Roth’s stab at holiday horror since the preview appeared in the 1970s B-flick homage “Grindhouse” (2007), which included five mock trailers between the double feature of Robert Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof.” “Thanksgiving” is the third trailer to be expanded into a full film – “Machete” (2010) and “Hobo with a Shotgun” (2011) are the prior two. Roth decided to abandon the grainy 1970s celluloid aesthetic and treat the feature like a contemporary reboot without anything being lost in translation. A year after a Black Friday riot at a Plymouth, Massachusetts, department store ended in accidental deaths and injuries, a vengeful madman appears – dressed as a pilgrim and wearing a mask representing Plymouth Colony’s first governor, John Carver – to slaughter anyone involved in the riot (and, through Instagram, taunt a group of high schoolers). Before the credits roll, jugular veins are shredded; people are trampled; the fallen are scalped; and bones are broken. This flick is not for the faint-hearted. Roth demonstrates the meta-awareness of the “Scream” franchise without having dialogue belabor the point. It is also a hilarious movie featuring memorable supporting characters such as a local metalhead, a gun nut who sells alcohol to underaged kids or a random teen boy wiping his tears with the hem of his shirt so he can show off his six-pack abs as hot girls console him, but the humor never falls into tedious lampoon territory. Locals will howl at the digs against Methuen and Hanover (though much of the film was shot in Canada). (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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‘The Pigeon Tunnel’ (2023)

Local filmmaker Errol Morris has gone from true crime (“The Thin Blue Line”) and quirky curiosity (“Fast, Cheap & Out of Control”) to profiles of very complex and controversial personas: Vietnam-era U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in “The Fog of War” (2003) and Trump campaign planner Steve Bannon in “American Dharma” (2018), for which Morris and crew burned down a Quonset hut near Boston for dramatic effect. Here, Morris’ subject, the writer David Cornwall – better known as bestselling spy novelist John le Carré – strikes a far less polarizing posture, and whose life growing up with a conman father surprises as much as it rivets. Cornwall, whose book include “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and “Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy,” receives Morris’ salvo of inquiries with grave, solemn contemplation. Cornwall dabbled in the spy game and has great insight regarding mole games and the glorification of James Bond on film. He implies those best suited for the game might otherwise be deemed sociopaths, which his father, a master grifter, clearly was. The tales of cons and spins to keep his son in line astound, and you can see where the writer mines such deep, dark material. The title of the film has to do with a seaside cavern in the Mediterranean where Cornwall’s father and his ilk waited to shoot game birds as they flew out. (Tom Meek) On Apple TV+.

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‘Screwdriver’ (2023)

Married California couple Robert (Charlie Farrell) and Melissa (Milly Sanders) host Robert’s high school friend, Emily (AnnaClare Hicks), who has come for refuge after her husband, Sean (Matt Munroe), dumps her. To help cure Emily’s ensuing insomnia, Robert counsels Emily regularly and at long turns. Meanwhile the controlling Melissa insists on restricting Emily’s diet, movements and activities, letting her corporate, perfectionist work ethic bleed through her gracious homemaking and hostess facade. Disregarding Melissa’s incursions and her own reservations, Emily confuses red flags as festive decorations, especially after learning the affluent couple have offered their eccentric version of hospitality to prior distressed guests. Emily changes over the course of her four-day visit, but not for the better, as the couple’s ulterior motives become clear. Director and writer Cairo Smith works well with a four-member cast and intentionally confines the action to the home so viewers will relate to Emily’s situation, which feels like an unofficial prequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” While Emily as a character remains sympathetic, the fast-happening brainwashing and the pacing of the couple converting Emily is a bit too precipitous from the outset. After Emily shows a bit of implausible gumption at the eleventh hour when she is at her lowest, it requires Herculean levels of suspension of disbelief not to wonder why Emily did not mettle up earlier. Once the couple’s inexcusable actions are clear midway through, the film loses its end and becomes monotonous. (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.

This post was updated Nov. 18, 2023, to delete a part that referred to events taking place in December.