Quarantine cinema: Latest capsule reviews

One of the side effects of COVID-19 for many has been lots and lots of time at home. That means an opportunity to watch lots and lots of films. While cinemas worldwide are closed, streaming, video-on-demand, and “virtual cinema” selections have gone into overdrive. Here’s a roundup of some recent films I watched from home. 

Bacurau: A-

I recall hearing much discussion at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival about Bacurau, a Brazilian film from directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles. The hype was more than justified. Part midnight movie, part timely exploration of haves-and-have-nots, Bacurau is fierce, darkly funny, and unforgettable. A pleasurably evil Udo Kier plays the leader of a group of mercenaries intent on wiping out the denizens of a small Brazilian village. Let’s just say they get more than they bargained for. There’s no question that Bacurau is one of 2020’s finest films. 

(Now available as “virtual cinema” through the North Park Theatre)

And Then We Danced: A-

Levan Akin’s Georgia-set tale of art and yearning is both beautiful and moving. Levan Gelbakhiani stars as Merab, a closeted young dancer training for a spot in the National Georgian Ensemble. When a new dancer joins the group, Merab falls in love. But what follows tests his physical and emotional limits. And Then We Danced is a superb drama, and a big-hearted exploration of one young man’s desire for escape and liberation.

(Now available as “virtual cinema” through the North Park Theatre)

Swallow: A-

Haley Bennett gives one of the most compelling performances in recent cinema in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ disturbing, often-hilarious, wildly idiosyncratic Swallow. Bennett plays Hunter, a wealthy, pregnant housewife living a life of quiet suffering. She soon develops a disorder that causes her to swallow inedible objects — think thumbtacks (gulp). The act provides freedom and a strange solace, while also upturning her life. Swallow is often difficult to watch, but always emotionally affecting.  

Resistance: C

While an admirable effort from all concerned, the wartime story of iconic mime Marcel Marceau falls flat. Part of the problem is the way the story is told — one example is an odd framing device featuring Ed Harris as General Patton — but the greatest issue is casting. Jesse Eisenberg deserves some credit for taking a role far outside his comfort zone, but his essential … well, Eisenberg-ness is distracting. Never, for one second, does this character onscreen seem to be Marcel Marceau. That’s a problem, and it makes Resistance a worthy attempt that misses the mark.

(Released on March 27)

Vivarium: B

When will Imogen Poots become a star? That’s a question I’ve pondered for years while watching her give strong performance after strong performance. Vivarium won’t change Poots’ fortunes, but certainly serves as more evidence of her talents. In this mysterious, quasi-sci-fi thriller, Poots and the aforementioned Jesse Eisenberg play a young couple trapped in a neighborhood of look-alike houses. Their world grows even stranger when a fast-growing child arrives. While Lorcan Finnegan’s film is not altogether satisfying, it’s mostly a smart, memorable descent into suburban madness.

(Now on digital, available on Blu-ray on May 12)

True History of the Kelly Gang: B-

Does the world need another Ned Kelly story? Perhaps not, and that over-familiarity with the Australian outlaw is an issue while watching True History of the Kelly Gang — if, that is, you’ve seen the character portrayed by Heath Ledger or Mick Jagger, among others. Still, while overlong and a tad overstuffed, Justin Kurzel’s film is full of grit and verve. It also features another strong performance from 1917’s George MacKay and gives Russell Crowe one of his juiciest roles in years. 

Sea Fever: B+

BAFTA-winning director/writer Neasa Hardiman makes her feature debut with this claustrophobic sci-fi/horror film. Sea Fever was an under-the-radar hit at TIFF19, and deservedly so. The standout in a strong cast (including Dougray Scott and Connie Nielsen) is certainly Hermione Corfield, who plays a young marine biology student spending a week on a fishing trawler. When an infection takes over the boat, she and the others must fight for survival. While it never entirely breaks free of genre tropes, Sea Fever counts as pleasant surprise — intimate, intense, and genuinely harrowing.

Endings, Beginnings: B-

Full disclosure: I was fully prepared to despise Drake Doremus’ Endings, Beginnings. On paper, it sounds like yet another weak-kneed indie drama: A single woman in her thirties becomes romantically involved with two friends. But the plot proves mostly engaging thanks to star Shailene Woodley. Her Daphne is believably flawed, and her relationship with friends Jack (Jamie Dornan and Frank (Sebastian Stan) is surprisingly involving. Endings is not a great film, but it’s a solid romantic drama featuring standout work from Woodley.

Coming soon: Thoughts on Never Rarely Sometimes Always, The Whistlers, How to Build a Girl, The Trip to Greece, and more. 

Catch these ‘Cats’: A sweet film from Japan (review)

The North Park Theatre in Buffalo recently screened a small-scale, sweet film from Japan called “Island of Cats.” Here are some thoughts, originally for BuffaloSpree.com.

Full disclosure: I’ve never been much of a cat person. (I know, I know — I’m a jerk.) But a lovely 2019 film from Japan titled Island of Cats might have swung me. It’s a sweet, simple story of an aging widower, his beloved cat, and the various folks who inhabit a small island. 

And in wonderful news for both cat fanciers and Buffalo film fans, it screens twice — at 7 p.m. on Feb. 29 and Mar. 1 — at the North Park Theatre (1428 Hertel Ave.). Island does not have an American distributor yet, meaning this is an exclusive booking for the North Park. 

Actor Shinosuke Tatekawa plays Daikichi, a contented man who spends most of his time accompanied by his cat, Tama. He moves slowly these days; his son would like his father to move in with him in Tokyo. 

Director Mitsuaki Iwagô’s camera moves at a leisurely pace, appropriate for a film whose characters are in no hurry. The many cats inhabiting the island hop about, while Daikichi and his similarly aged friends putter about. Excitement arrives when a beautiful newcomer opens a trendy cafe. 

Stories are told, friends fall ill (and worse), and Tama and his four-legged friends watch, wide-eyed. Island of Cats is not a film of action, but it’s never dull, either. It’s a knowing, warm-hearted drama unlike anything else currently playing in American cinemas. 

Screening before Island is Cat Video Fest 2020, making this a weekend sure to please fans of all things feline. 

Visit https://www.northparktheatre.org/ for tickets or more info on both films. Remember, it might be impossible to see Island of Cats again any time soon. Don’t miss this chance to see it at the North Park.