Wednesday, July 24, 2024

‘Janet Planet’ (2023)

The first shot of “Janet Planet,” the debut film from Pulitzer-winning playwright Annie Baker, is nostalgically picturesque: A girl runs through a grassy field at twilight to a warmly lit house, crickets and birds chirping in the background. Once inside, the girl, 11-year-old Lacy (Zoe Ziegler), gets on the phone and tells her mother in a tone that is almost unnervingly matter-of-fact: “I’m going to kill myself. I’m going to kill myself if you don’t come pick me up.” She wants to come leave camp because she doesn’t have friends, though she doesn’t know why that is. (As she rather astutely puts it later, “It’s a complete mystery to me.”) This sets the stage for what’s to come: cutting truths delivered against quietly beautiful shots. The film follows the rest of her 1991 summer at home in Western Massachusetts with her mother Janet (Julianne Nicholson). Nothing much happens – we often spend minutes at a time watching Lacy practice piano or mold clay in scenes that have no hurry – but that pacing works fantastically to capture the plodding way time can pass for a child. The narrative is split into three parts for the three characters who come into and out of Janet and Lacy’s orbit over the course of the months. There’s Wayne (Will Patton), Janet’s sort of live-in boyfriend who doesn’t do much more than grunt until he starts to yell, which is when Janet kicks him out; Regina (Sophie Okonedo), Janet’s old friend who moves in after breaking up with her sort-of cult leader boyfriend Avi (Elias Koteas); and finally Avi himself, with whom Janet strikes up a relationship after Regina leaves. The performances are solid, especially Nicholson, recently excellent in “Dream Scenario” and even better here. But Ziegler is the real star, capturing a character who is somehow both hilariously precocious and deeply childlike. She’s lovably quirky, a kind of mini adult when she wants to be, evidently the result of spending most of her life around her mother and her friends. It’s the kind of film that risks being boring without actually being boring; though the plot trudges at times, there’s something about Lacy’s little life that is impossible to look away from. The film sees her through the season and into sixth grade with no real conclusion other than the fact that the summer has ended. It needs nothing more. (Madeleine Aitken) At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge; Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square; and AMC Assembly Row 12, 395 Artisan Way, Assembly Square, Somerville.

whitespace

‘Ghostlight’ (2024)

They say life imitates art, but in “Ghostlight,” art imitates life. The film, written by Kelly O’Sullivan and directed by her and her partner Alex Thompson, centers on a grieving family. In the first act of the film, that’s all you know: Something is off between Dan (Keith Kupferer), who works in construction, his teacher wife Sharon (Tara Mallen) and their teenage daughter Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer, their real-life daughter), but it’s unclear what has taken place. Daisy acts out at school and, under the stress of Daisy’s ensuing suspension, Dan acts out at work. His snap is seen by Rita (Dolly De Leon, so commanding in “Triangle of Sadness”) who is playing Juliet in a community theater production of “Romeo and Juliet” and calls him in to read for Lord Capulet. Dan grumbles his way through the table read, but he keeps coming back to rehearsal, without telling Sharon or Daisy. Eventually, the unnamed tragedy is revealed and Dan and Sharon embark into a wrongful death suit with a young woman named  Christine (Lia Cubilete). When Dan confides in his cast mates (a lovably quirky ensemble that injects humor and empathy into the film) that Lord Capulet’s experience mirrors his own, the film takes a turn from being about brokenness. Daisy and Sharon find out about the play and rally around Dan with a depth of emotion that reminds you of their true connection. At times, the film feels a bit contrived – the events of the play match the real circumstances a little too closely – and hard to believe, including that Dan has seemingly never heard of “Romeo and Juliet” and has no idea what the play’s about or how it ends. Overall, it’s a heartwarming watch that portrays the power of family and theater in equal measure. (Madeleine Aitken). At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge.whitespace

‘Thelma’ (2024)

Silly, funny and rewarding, this feature debut from comedy writer Josh Margolin saddles up on an unlikely hero, the senior citizen of the film’s title played by a brilliant and game 94-year-old Jane Squibb. Over her career Squibb, who’s voice is currently onscreen in “Inside Out 2,” has worked with the likes of Scorsese and Woody Allen and in 2013 was Oscar nominated for her screen-dominating performance opposite Bruce Dern (also nominated) in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.” Hard to believe this is Squibb’s first leading role, and even harder to believe the project got off the ground; one could never see a bean counter in Hollywood backing such a film, and that’s kind of a running inside joke, as Squibb’s Thelma loves the Tom Cruise “Mission: Impossible” flicks and the age-defying Tommy to boot. Things begin with a sad, common page from life as Squibb’s senior gets caught in a phishing scam, duped into believing her grandson (Fred Hechinger) has been kidnapped to pony up $10,000. It’s a pretty convincing scam, but not enough that daughter Gail (Parker Posey) and son-in-law Alan (Clark Gregg) take true pity; they use it to park Thelma in an elderly care facility. Thelma’s response is to not go quietly into the night, and to get even with the scammers. Inspired by Cruise’s “M:I” can-do, she teams up with a senior named Ben (Richard Roundtree, in his last appearance, layering in subtly compassionate nuance instead of going all “Shaft” in the role) who lends her his scooter so she can rocket after the bad guys. A gun also works its way into the plot, as does the agelessly crystal-eyed Malcolm McDowell, bringing some of his nasty from Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) to the AARP realm. It’s an empowering go for seniors the way that “80 for Brady” (2023) wasn’t – it missed wide left. Think “Harry and Tonto” (1974) with raucous, wry humor. The ensemble is all-in but know this is Squibb’s show, and it’s quite a show that may just see her back in the golden glow of Oscar. It’ll be another first for Squibb, and the reason “Thelma” is a must-see. (Tom Meek) At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge.

whitespace

‘Flipside’ (2023)

What begins as a twee, shaggy-dog personal essay builds and morphs over the course of its 92-minute running time and saves the best for last, an enormously impactful changeup that reframes the entire film. We embed with Chris Wilcha, who’s commissioned by a rich investor (“Deadwood” creator David Milch) to film a documentary about 80-something photographer Herman Leonard, who’s shot the canon of jazz greats such as Nat “King” Cole and Chet Baker but is dying of cancer. We spend barely any time with Leonard when we get a mini-profile of Wilcha, who came to fame for his in-your-face Michael Moore-esque 2000 doc “The Target Shoots First” about his time shilling records and the like at Columbia House, then his stint with Ira Glass when “This American Life” had a TV show; a doc commissioned by Judd Apatow that barely made it into the world; and the many commercials he’s shot to pay the bills. The film settles in at the Flipside record shop in New Jersey, where Wilcha worked earlier in life. It’s an out-of-time capsule akin to our beloved Stereo Jack’s and embraced by Wilcha’s lens for its defiant quirkiness and hub of niche community – alternative old-school, if you will. Among all these fragmented threads you wonder where Wilcha, an affably punchy blend of Moore and Glass, is taking us. Turns out he’s not so sure either. “Flipside” is a film that requires patience, but you don’t have to work for it, as the subjects (including Milch, Apatow, Glass, Herman, Wilcha’s son and the crew at the Flipside) rivet with their candor. The film washes over you. You feel anchored and adrift at the same time. And, in the end, magic happens. (Tom Meek) At The Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St., Harvard Square, Cambridge.

whitespace

‘Daddio’ (2023)

In this single-set, dialogue-driven piece directed by Christy Hall in her directorial debut, a young woman and a cab driver sail through a neon-slicked New York night and discuss matters of life in both roundabout and more pointed exchanges. The young woman, whose name we never get (the credits list her as “Girlie,” and she’s played by Dakota Johnson) has just returned from a weekend with her half-sister halfway across the country. It’s late at night, and her cabbie Will Clark (Sean Penn) is an inquisitive sort who thinks he’s lived life and can size up anyone. He’s amiable enough and his ride seems game, so probing questions about the nature of her trip and her love life that otherwise might be seen as creepy or inappropriate fly, because they are received thoughtfully and indulged. On a different night or in another scenario, one could see the ride saying, “Please, that’s too personal, and I just want to ride in silence.” There’s an added air of edginess to the exchange because Penn has that pit bull trigger on the deep down; you never know if he is going to nuzzle up or snap. Will guesses wrong on his fare’s occupation (she’s a computer programmer, not a marketing assistant, thank you) but homes in on the fact she’s having an affair with an older married man she texts constantly as they roll along and who, at one point, initiates some sexting and calls, a complication that increases the stakes of the sojourn almost as much as the accident that has the two holed up and going nowhere for nearly a third of the film. The cab-constrained setting and talk-driven tension works much like the riveting Tom Hardy Bluetooth drama “Locke” (2014) did, and the cinematography by Phedon Papamichael brings the nightscape of New York City to alluring vibrancy the way Michael Chapman did for Martin Scorsese in “Taxi Driver” (1976). One has to wonder if in the hands of a male director such material could make its way to the screen with such thoughtfulness. Hall, the creator of the series “I’m Not Okay with This,” knows her way around boundary-pushing issues, and the casting of Penn and Johnson – showing she’s better than last year’s slack “Madame Web” – is genius; their chemistry is palpable and natural from the moment the the meter rolls. (Tom Meek) At Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St., Cambridge.