Tuesday, July 23, 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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Celebrating Black History Month on film

To commence the commemoration of Negro History Week in 1926, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and historian Carter G. Woodson chose a week in February because Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays fell during those days. In 1970, on the campus of Kent State University, Black educators and Black United Students, a student-based political organization, celebrated the first Black History Month. Just as the week expanded to a month, a campus celebration spread to the nation and has reached countries such as Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Celebrating the history and contribution of the global African diaspora’s descendants includes acknowledging the accomplishments of historical, real-life superheroes without powers surviving repeated traumas over centuries. That said, Black history celebrations should encompass more understated achievements: the ability for Black people to exist as ordinary people, a life free from trauma, Black joy!

It is difficult to find films that focus on Black joy. The long-term negative effects of the diaspora even puncture the Afrofuturism utopia embodied in “Black Panther” (2018). Black joy is on full display in the quotidian world, centered in sites where Black people are present in great numbers. Harlem is one such place and becomes a paradise in the Oscar-winning documentary “Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (2021) about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, aka the Black Woodstock, featuring such acts as Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips and B.B. King. It’s more than the average concert film: Questlove’s feature is a resplendent response to the turmoil of 1968, which included the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and shows Harlem’s transformation into a real-life Wakanda – where Black people are the majority in an inclusive, peaceful festival atmosphere without the pressures of sociopolitical tumult or the chaos of the rest of Manhattan.

Taking the embodiment of that Black love to Chicago is Richard Tanne’s “Southside with You” (2016), which adroitly avoids the tropes of over-the-top rom-coms as it creates a familiar and more attainable image of belonging and loving by focusing on a couple going on their first date. That couple just happens to be Michelle Robinson (the luminous Tika Sumpter) and Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) as they stand perched on the threshold of a bigger worldwide frame. Anyone can appreciate the moment of two people getting to know each other before moving forward in unimaginable, historic ways. It is a radical film because it’s also a love letter to a city that gets maligned every political season as rife with gun violence as if it was under siege, not the mecca of Middle America that it is with a deep history and rich culture.

Representation matters because there is validation in seeing oneself on the big screen – but merely surviving is not living. The big screen is where the world can be reimagined as a better place. The above are just two examples.  What’s your take? What’s your favorite film that embraces the theme of Black joy? Put them in the comments and let us know how you’re going to celebrate Black History Month on film. (Sarah G. Vincent) 

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Local Focus

Love is in the air for Valentine’s Day at The Brattle Theatre with screenings of “Casablanca” (1942) and “The Princess Bride” (1987) Tuesday through Thursday. Before that The Brattle pays tribute to the actor Ryan O’Neal, who died recently, with a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s period piece, “Barry Lyndon” (1975), in which O’Neal plays a raffish rogue long before sometime-Cantabrigian John Malkovich did in “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988). It plays Saturday and Sunday. More O’Neal comes Friday and Saturday in Walter Hill’s hard-charging, neon-washed crime thriller “The Driver” (1978), which set the bar for Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” (2011) and Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” (2017). The film is impossible to find in the streaming-verse, so mark your calendars. Then on Monday it’s a double-bill double shot of O’Neal and film critic-turned-filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich with the screwball rom-com “What’s Up, Doc?” (1972), co-starring Barbra Streisand, and the Depression Era “Paper Moon” (1973), for which O’Neal’s daughter Tatum would become the youngest winner of an Oscar at 10.

On the slate Friday through Sunday is the rediscovered print of David Schickele‘s “Bushman” (1971), detailing a young Nigerian intellectual’s entry into America at a tumultuous time. On Sunday, the Revolutions Per Minute Film Festival folks set up for “From Hymn to Her,” an evening to honor the short, socially astute, avant-garde works of Stan Brakhage and Barbara Hammer. For “Superb Owl Sunday” it’s David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” (1992), in which the Owl Cave ring and the Red Room and a lot of other surreal accoutrements and locales are encountered in deepening the Lynch TV series that was canceled in 1989, which held audiences rapt with the question of who killed Laura Palmer.

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Good news: The New Hollywood Retro Replay Tuesday at the Landmark Kendall Square Theatre will go deep, with programming of 1970s all-time-greats continuing into March and April and perhaps beyond to bring some of the most iconic American films to those who drank them in on celluloid back in the day, as well as to new generations of cinema lovers looking to add to their knowledge base. This week it’s “The Graduate” (1967), directed by Mike Nichols (“Silkwood,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”) and starring Dustin Hoffman, Katharine Ross (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”) and Anne Bancroft in a dark comic web of boyfriend, girlfriend and girlfriend’s mom who becomes boyfriend’s secret paramour (though Bancroft was only six years older than Hoffman). Not your typical Valentine’s Day go-to, but the soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel (“Mrs. Robinson” and “Scarborough Fair” among the many hits) is one of the best soundtracks ever. 

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The Somerville Theatre kicks back into repertory mode with the silent and sci-fi. On Sunday it’s “Silents Please” with local accompanist Jeff Rapsis layering in an improvisational score for the 1924 cinematic version of James M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” For Valentines Day, the Boston Science Fiction Film Festival preps its 49th installment with a Cyberpunk Sweetheart’s Ball at the theater’s Crystal Ballroom before Thursday’s full-on fest, with a screening of “Coherence” (2013), in which strange things happen at an intimate dinner party after a comet passes overhead. The BSFF spills into the following weekend with a screenings of the “Life After” documentary series, looking at such films as “The Flight of the Navigator” (1986) and “The NeverEnding Story” (1984), and the 24-hour Sci-Fi Marathon (“the ’Thon”) brings such genre staples as “Mad Max” (1979), “Blast from the Past” (1999), “One Million Years B.C.” (1966), “Attack of the Crab Monsters” (1957), Steven Spielberg’s dystopian gameboy thriller “Ready Player One” (2018) and “Saw” co-creator Leigh Whannell’s cyborg revenge drama “Upgrade” (2018). Plus there are tin hat and paper plane contests. 

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Queuing up at the Harvard Film Archive is “This is the Us. Two Films by Hong Sangsoo,” showcasing early release peeks at meta works by the maverick Korean director. Both made in 2023 and revolving around the filmmaking process are “in water” (Friday), about three friends making a film on an island, and “In Our Day,” following the lives of an actor and a poet and the crossover and convergences in their days (Friday and Sunday). For the ongoing nod to a 1970s film mag as part of “Archive presents Afterimage … For a New, Radical Cinema,” the HFA screens Pedro Almodovar’s career-defining black comedy “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988) and Octavio Getino and Fernando E. Solanas’ four-hour, 20-minute 1968 film “The Hour of the Furnaces,” documenting class in Latin America, on Saturday; the recently restored “Emitaï” (1971) by filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, whose works were honored recently as part of the HFA’s “Ousmane Sembène, Cinematic Revolutionary” program, is Sunday; and Yvonne Rainer‘s revolutionary “Film About a Woman Who …” (1974), which played with cliches and tropes about women’s dissatisfaction with sex, is Monday. (Tom Meek)

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In theaters and streaming

‘The Taste of Things’ (2023)

This visually scrumptious feast from Tran Anh Hung (“The Scent of Green Papaya,” “Cyclo”), a keen observer of human longing, subtle sensualities and social restraints, tells of a cook, Eugénie (the ever sublime Juliette Binoche), 20 years in the service of taciturn gourmand Dodin (Benoît Magimel, on the mark here and strong in “Pacification,” out this year too). Based on the popular French novel “The Passionate Epicure” by Marcel Rouff, the culinary doings take place at a French chateau in the late 19th century as Eugénie and her small staff, with close oversight from Dodin, prepare lavish and complex meals for Dodin’s coterie of friends. The long takes of food preparation are so stunning and in-the-moment that you can almost taste what you are seeing. It’s also impressive that the two-decade relationship between Eugenie and Dodin is conveyed in full through furtive glances and short exchanges as one peers through billows of steam rising from a pot or they carefully dress a bird. Food hasn’t been this sensual or used as a narrative vehicle so completely since “Babette’s Feast” (1987). The Valentine’s Day release date suggests a perfect dinner and movie. (Tom Meek) At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge.

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‘Lisa Frankenstein’ (2024)

Preferring to hang out in an untended cemetery than party with her popular stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano, a famous Filipino actor in her U.S. debut), misfit high schooler Lisa (Kathryn Newton, “Booksmart”) makes a flip, emotional wish at a grave one tempestuous night in 1989. Missing a few parts and in dire need of a deep clean, the grave’s resident, The Creature (Cole Sprouse), rises from the dead and arrives at Lisa’s home, where the two bond and he hides in her room during waking hours. Mutual makeovers ensue. The Creature eliminates Lisa’s enemies and Lisa transplants the victims’ parts to his body by applying her after-school seamstress hustle skills and shocking The Creature in a defective tanning bed. Growing in confidence, Lisa decides to achieve her wildest dream, losing her virginity, before they get caught. Best known for hits such as “Juno” (2007), “Jennifer’s Body” (2009) and “Young Adult” (2011), writer Diablo Cody flubs the landing as several storylines are just left threadbare and hanging and other aren’t fleshed out, though feature debut director Zelda Williams – Robin Williams’ daughter – and the cast do their best to make sure no one notices. It’s a stylish, color-rich movie that pays homage to silent films, ’50s monster movies and ’80s nostalgia. Newton’s melodramatic goth, expansive and expressive, is evocative of Helena Bonham Carter if she appeared in “Desperately Seeking Susan” (1985). Sprouse, meanwhile is a taciturn, expressive presence with an air of dignity as he performs through a mound of mud, lack of limbs and scatological situations. (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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Out of Darkness (2022)

Andrew Cumming’s Stone Age thriller has the moodiness of a “Predator” film as a band of prehistoric people travel from one unfriendly, unforgiving niche to another in search of better hunting-and-gathering grounds. The landscape cinematography of Northern Scotland is beguiling, the plot not so much. Night after night there are beastly noises in the dark as the clan huddles around their fire – far too reminiscent of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Quest for Fire” (1981) – and in chilling moments members of the group get picked off. Once they score tree cover, things just get worse. What’s going on? Hard to ever tell, though there’s a theory among the group that one woman is possessed by a demon. What looks like a nod toward 2022’s “Prey,” a much more substantial take on early humans dealing with the supernatural or extraterrestrial, actually rolls into the territory of William Golding’s 1955 novel “The Inheritors.” It could provide for provocative fertile ground if the film were not rote in plot and given to overly manipulated moodiness. It’s a great concept rendered dull and pointless. (Tom Meek) At AMC Assembly Row 12, 395 Artisan Way, Assembly Square, Somerville.


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.