Thursday, July 18, 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 “(Some of) the Best of 2023” program carries on this week at The Brattle Theatre with the area premiere of that “other” movie Lily Gladstone starred in: “The Unknown Country.” The rising star, hot off her Golden Globe win for her performance as a target member of the Osage in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” plays a young Indigenous person who embarks on a cross-country trip to Texas in the wake of her grandmother’s death. It screens Friday. Quirky German sorts hole up on Sunday in a beach house in “Afire” from director Christian Petzold, with a protagonist whose personality blackens as wildfires grow closer.

Kitty Green’s “The Royal Hotel,” a follow-up to “The Assistant” (2020) that again stars Julia Garner (“Ozark”), and the sewer-sanctioned animated reboot “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” play Saturday and Sunday.

Other best-of-2023 hits reviewed by the Day on the week’s slate include Black-female-gaze entries “Earth Mama” and “A Thousand and One” on a double bill Wednesday; Kelly Reichardt’s portrait of artist life in the Pacific Northwest, “Showing Up,” Sunday on a double bill with “Afire”; the horror hit from down under “Talk to Me” (Friday); the very pink “Barbie” on a Saturday double bill with “Bottoms,” Emma Seligman’s audacious female fight club comedy; Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore going head to head in Todd Haynes’ “May December” (Tuesday); and Ari Aster’s weird and wormy “Beau is Afraid,” starring Joaquin Phoenix as an adult man with a serious mommy complex (Monday).

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For the 50th Year Celebration at Landmark Theatres, this week the Kendall Square Cinema Retro Replay shows Terrence Malick’s true-crime, lovers-on-the-run, stab into the heart of Americana, “Badlands” (1973). The film, the directorial debut of Malick, who attended Harvard, is based on Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, who killed 10 people in Nebraska and Wyoming during a murder spree in the 1950s – beginning with Fugate’s family. For this loose, haunting contemplation, Malick cast a young Martin Sheen as the detached, morally aloof Starkweather stand-in called Kit – evocative of James Dean’s rattlesnake allure and paired perfectly with Sissy Spacek’s wide-eyed ingenue. The Starkweather/Fugate spree is also the loose inspiration for “Natural Born Killers,” which roiled minds and morality when it came out in 1994 as directed by Oliver Stone and scripted by Quentin Tarantino.

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The Harvard Film Archive comes back online this week with “Ousmane Sembène, Cinematic Revolutionary,” showcasing the works of the Senegalese novelist and filmmaker who died in 2007. Many of Sembène’s politically and socially illuminating films are adaptations of his novels, including “Xala” (1975, on Friday and Sunday) and “Black Girl” (1966, on Monday). “Xala” homes in on the plight of a Senegalese businessman cursed with impotence on the day of his marriage to his third wife. The satire explores themes of insidious corruption under both white and black dictators, as well as the hypocrisy of polygamy endorsed by local Islamic customs. “Black Girl,” Sembène’s directorial debut, tells the story of a young Senegalese nursery maid who moves to France to work for a white family; it delves into the cultural and racial differences between employer and employee, as well as the loneliness of being an outsider in a foreign land. Also this week are “Camp de Thiaroye” (1988), Sembène’s semi-autobiographical film depicting a World War II mutiny by black soldiers in Dakar – making it a good potential double bill with Claire Denis’ sublime, dreamy but dark “Beau Travail” (1999) – and “Mandabi” (1968), which also grapples with issues of Senegalese-French cultural differences and corruption. The films play Saturday and Sunday, respectively. (Tom Meek)

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In theaters and streaming

‘Origin’ (2023)

This is not so much an adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s nonfiction “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” as it is a dramatization of Wilkerson’s experiences leading to her transformative book’s publication; director and writer Ava DuVernay unfurls it like a pointed culmination of her early works such as “I Will Follow” (2010) and “Selma” (2014). The reenvisioning depicts the younger Isabel (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) as she turns down an opportunity to write about the murder of Trayvon Martin, not because she’s not interested, but so she can care for her elderly mother. Her dutiful husband Brett (Jon Bernthal) and supportive cousin Marion (Niecy Nash-Betts) urge her to prioritize herself because her writing and vision hold the potential to affect the world. After several tragic blows, to overcome grief and reacclimatize herself, Isabel immerses in a deep research project that would ultimately yield her groundbreaking work – the linking of racism in the United States, the Holocaust in Nazi Germany and the caste system in India. The film goes on to become a hauntingly lyrical, Terrence Malick-esque contemplation on hate. Without diluting Isabel’s personal arc, DuVernay uses moments when Isabel is reading or interviewing people as a jumping-off point to re-create historical events, delving into centuries of stories with global reach. (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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‘The Teachers’ Lounge’ (2023)

Teaching, an occupation society takes too much for granted, is anything but child’s play in this tense thriller that follows Carla (Leonie Benesch), an inexperienced sixth-grade teacher in Germany. When a series of thefts at her school go unsolved, Carla conducts her own investigation to shield her students from suspicion and finds evidence pointing to Friederike Kuhn (Eva Löbau), a co-worker and parent of one of Carla’s students. Feeling a tinge of closure and triumph, Carla fails to anticipate Kuhn’s very public, emotional reaction, which has a ripple effect throughout the school, including to Kuhn’s son, Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch), who lashes out in his mother’s defense, further straining the teacher-student relationship. Co-writer and director Ilker Çatak and co-writer Johannes Duncker elevate the hyperlocal matter to Watergate proportions as each character reacts to the impact at a near-cataclysmic level. Like Sandra Hüller from “Anatomy of a Fall” and “The Zone of Interest” last year, Benesch is noteworthy in delivering a seamless performance. In lesser hands, Carla could be misinterpreted as a Iago figure trying to sow chaos; Çatak and Benesch show Carla contemplating and recalibrating with the best intentions – the result of which backfires, triggering more conflict and landing her in the hot seat. Unlike some of her colleagues, Carla is concerned about her students and with living up to the idealistic principles of pedagogy, but by expanding beyond her job description, she ends up flubbing that duty. No child is learning in the turbulent environment, and the conflict becomes a microcosm of macro-societal issues including xenophobia, freedom of speech, right to privacy and security concerns. As in real life, the ending is ambiguous. (Sarah G. Vincent) At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge.

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‘I.S.S.’ (2023)

An intriguing something new from veteran documentary filmmaker Gabriella Cowperthwaite, the lens behind the grim yet compelling doc “Blackfish” (2009), who has transitioned into feature films such as “Our Friend,” the underappreciated 2019 domestic drama starring Casey Affleck, and this bigger-budget thriller that takes place aboard the International Space Station. The other pop is that it stars recent Oscar winner Ariana DeBose, from “West Side Story” (2021). We all wanted to know what her next big screen act was going to be, and now we do. The setup’s pretty straightforward: Three American astronauts (DeBose, John Gallagher Jr. and Chris Messina, a standout in “Air” as an obnoxious sports agent) join three Russians (Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin and Pilou Asbaek) aboard the space station – the joint venture between the two countries to foster peacetime collaboration at the end of the Cold War. But as we know from headlines today, the friendly sentiments of yesterday aren’t so strong. It’s a festive reunion initially, and the squads gulp scotch globules floating in the zero gravity environment in good, goofy camaraderie; one cosmonaut and an American are also involved romantically. It feels like one big happy orbit party until a big orange flash on the blue orb below catches their eye and shakes things up. Comms go out and life-support systems fail from an electromagnetic aftershock. Was it a nuke, putting the two nations at war? The answer’s unclear, but the last missive each group leader gets is to take command of the station. Mistrust ensues. One poor sojourner gets the HAL treatment when he embarks outside for a repair. Each group subversively plots their next move as cross-nation allegiances form, but not all are sincere. The single-locale flick does eventually yield to formula as it hits reentry, but the fine performances by the cast and Cowperthwaite’s ability to keep tensions high makes for a better-than-above-orbit space thriller. (Tom MeekAt Apple Cinemas Cambridge, 168 Alewife Brook Parkway, Cambridge Highlands near Alewife and Fresh Pond.


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.