Archive | July, 2020

A Most Beautiful Thing

29 Jul

Pulling together: Boston filmmaker tells story of first Black rowing team

Boston filmmaker Mary Mazzio’s documentary “A Most Beautiful Thing,” which recounts the travails of the first Black high school crew team in the country, was supposed to open in theaters back in March but the COVID-19 swell altered that and still holds a lingering effect on the film’s release. AMC, the theater chain that Mazzio has an arrangement with, has yet to get back up and running and so Mazzio, with her finger on the pulse of social issues and more topographically, in light of the George Floyd slaying and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, is pushing ahead with the film’s release on Xfinity Friday, July 31, and releasing on other major streaming platforms at staggered future dates — Sept. 1 on Peacock and Oct. 14 on Amazon Prime.

Mazzio, a former Olympic rower, notched her unique arrangement with AMC when the theater was exploring means to address complaints that most films exhibited carried unflattering stereotypes of people of color and underrepresented communities, and as a result was actively seeking more positive and aspirational material. “Positively diverse,” is how Mazzio said (then) CEO Gerry Lopez described it. It was a natural fit as AMC snapped up several of Mazzio projects like “Ten9Eight: Shoot for the Moon” (2009) that detailed a business plan competition with teen entrants from high-crime, inner city communities like Harlem, Compton, Chicago and Baltimore, and “Underwater Dreams” (2014), which chronicled teens of undocumented parents who come together and go head-to-head against MIT in an underwater robotics competition.

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The Rental

28 Jul

‘The Rental’: You know party’s going to go bad, but this horror thriller does it in the best way

By Tom Meek

The house in the woods or remote enclave has long been a ripe setting for horror and home invasion fare. Wes Craven’s brilliant and brutal “The Last House on the Left” (1972) and Polanski’s unheralded “Cul-de-sac” (1966) defined and seeded the genre; those that came after have checked in with mixed results, with most failing to live up – but that’s understandable, right? Dave Franco (brother of James) makes his directorial debut with “The Rental,” a polished yet pat psychodrama that turns full horror thriller by the end and even dips its toe into more culty genre.

The setup’s familiar: Four toothsome young adults on the threshold of a more settled life (marriage and kids) brew up something of a last fling getaway in a modernistic spread abutting the sea-splashed cliffs of Northern California. Charlie (Dan Stevens, “Downton Abbey” and “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”), a tech entrepreneur who is rocking and raking it in, is newly married to Michelle (Alison Brie, “Mad Men”). Along for the fun is Charlie’s fun-loving but bad luck brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand), who’s a close collaborator (perhaps too close?) of Charlie’s at the tech firm. The unique and relevant twist (the script is by Franco and mumblecore/mumblegore stalwart Joe Swanberg) is that Mina, who’s Middle Eastern, is denied the rental that “white guy” Charlie scores 20 minutes later. Charges of racism fill the drive up and the caretaker of the estate Taylor (Toby Huss) appears to something of a rube you’d peg for a Trumpster. It doesn’t help that he admits to partaking of the bottle liberally. To veiled charges thrown by Mina, he seems genuinely clueless, and we do get early peeks at the house from the point of view of someone outside spying in. Is it Taylor, Jason, Freddy or some other malcontent with malicious intent?

That brooding unhappiness gets swept aside with a few hits of ecstasy and a lot of “babe” this and that. The lot’s a fairly generic bunch, and you can’t wait for whatever it is lurking in the woods to emerge and chop of few of them up. It doesn’t happen right away; the initial ill deeds spew from within the four. The dog (a cute French bulldog), who according to the rules of the house should not be there, goes missing, and then they discover video cams in the bathrooms – an Airbnb nightmare, but they can’t go to the cops because of their own transgression. And yes, a body turns up and the four must decide how to play it out. They don’t choose wisely.

How it all wraps up is orchestrated smartly by Franco and Swanberg with a lot of help from the misty, lush cinematography by Christian Sprenger and a mood-setting score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. The running length of just under 90 minutes is a win, too, and Franco and Swanberg hit the final bend deciding not to revel in gore so much as provocation, leaving enough teasingly unanswered that you want the film to go on. I can’t imagine there’s a world without “The Rental 2” and maybe more. There’s nothing too deep here, just parts of other works stitched together for lean, mean effect.

The Old Guard

17 Jul

The Old Guard’: Superheroes, after a fashion, who don’t quite pull off a mission to franchise

By Tom Meek

A fairly one-note pseudo-superhero flick, “The Old Guard” gets much of its occasional heartbeat from its irrepressible star, Charlize Theron, and some of the cast surrounding her. There’s no Lycra, X-ray eyes or bulging muscles here, just a quartet of immortals who form something of a special ops force that’s been doing missions together across the centuries. Two of the four (Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli) fought against each other during the Crusades, though they’re an item in contemporary times.

When asked, “Are you good guys or bad guys?” Theron’s Andy (Andromache of Scythia, in days of yore) responds, “It depends on the century.” In this century, what’s to know? The team’s looking for new blood, while the mad big pharma head (Harry Melling, who played Dudley Dursley in the “Harry Potter” films) wants to bottle the immortals and sell their essence on the market. Andy tracks down the newbie Nile (KiKi Layne, “If Beale Street Could Talk”) who’s just out of the military, giving her the heads up about her gifts and attempting to recruit her – which essentially comes down to a battle aboard a bouncy cargo plane. The real call to arms comes when Melling’s Merrick kidnaps those Crusade rivals turned lovers, Joe (Kenzari) and Nicky (Marinelli) and Andy turns to Nile and old ally Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts, his face etched with melancholy) to help free the lads.

Caught up in the emotionally inert mix is Chiwetel Ejiofor as CIA handler and X-factor. He was nominated for an Academy Award (“12 Years a Slave”) and Theron won one, but with the exception of them and Schoenaerts everyone in the film feels stiff, like they’re just waiting for the next smackdown to take place. Theron’s so good in all she’s done (“Long Shot,” and “Monster,” for which she won that gold statue) and looks lithe and purposeful sporting a short dark bob that accentuates her angular jaw and twinkling eyes; the fight scenes too are choreographed brilliantly – but if you want a real drink of Theron kicking ass, go with “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) or “Atomic Blonde” (2017). The film’s also a letdown because director Gina Prince-Bythewood showed such promise with a soulful debut “Love and Basketball” (2000) that plumbed the romantic relationship between two ballers over the years. Here it’s a by-the-numbers execution with few surprises. Sure it’s great to watch Theron thrown down or see one of the immortals fall out a 10-story window and, like Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, slowly pull their broken pieces together and painfully regenerate. What hurts here is that this aims to be a cornerstone of a franchise. I think I can wait another century for the next installment.

The Truth

8 Jul

 

truth

Who knew that for his follow-up to “Shoplifters” (2018), a darkly riveting curio about a family of petty criminals, Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda would make an emotionally tumultuous French melodrama that feels like a revisit of Olivier Assayas’ “Summer Hours” (2008) while being wholly original. Besides the setting, both films are driven by the doe-eyed intensity of Juliette Binoche and wrestle with family reckonings. In “The Truth,” the one prominently in the catbird seat is Fabienne Dangeville, a legendary, César-winning French actress in her 70s played by Catherine Deneuve, a legendary French actress in her 70s – it’s priceless to witness Fabienne bristle at the mere mention of Brigitte Bardot. Binoche plays her daughter, Lumir, a screenwriter who has come home for a visit with her American husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), a struggling TV actor, and their precocious 8-year-old daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier).

It takes a little while for mother-daughter barbs to abrade the reunion serenity, and for Hank and Lumir’s marriage to show its frayed edges (“You said you had stopped drinking!”) from behind boho photo-op posturing. Filling the fore until then is a giant tortoise named Pierre who patrols the garden and the sci-fi film Fabienne is working on, playing the daughter of a mother (Manon Clavel) who never ages and looks like a young French film starlet from the ’60s next to Fabienne’s septuagenarian.“The Truth” is sly in its meta, tongue-in-cheek deconstructive approach. The main rubs come through Fabienne’s newly released memoir, with details that lead Lumir to declare on a few occasions “that never happened,” and Fabienne’s aloof, blasé diva complex, which conceals loneliness and lack of real human connection. In one scene where she has an emotional epiphany with Lumir, as the tears have barely dried she proclaims she wished she had saved it for the screen. Is she about her art, her family or her legacy?

The amazing thing here in is Koreeda’s comfort sliding into a très French film. Don’t get me wrong, the plumb of inner desire and personal agonies is not far off from “Shoplifters” or Koreeda’s brilliant 2004 kids-living-alone drama “Nobody Knows,” but this feels like hitting the ice for the first time and never having even the semblance of a wobble. The film, which Koreeda co-wrote, is primarily in French; Hank can barely speak a lick of it but is trying constantly to be at the center of conversations he has little inkling about, which could be seen as some kind of comment about the arrogance Americans drag to the party no matter where they go. The end of “The Truth,” however, is not about big statements, but reaching understanding. It’s quiet, wistful and from the heart.