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Sunday, May 28, 2023

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Big hearts and summer lovin'

Screen Grabs: Big hearts and summer lovin’

'Angelfish' and 'I Will Make You Mine' deal with very different romances, 'A Towering Task' tells the Peace Corps story, more

Summer romance is the foundation on which many a movie used to be built, before summer moviegoing became primarily about comic-book heroes and other forms of juvenile spectacle. (Admittedly, we’re not getting much of that latter stuff in 2020, because theater shutdowns are delaying release of those popcorn features too expensive to just be released digitally.)

While not all were released in the balmy months, frothy films from A Summer Place and Where the Boys Are through Summer of ’42 and Grease, as well as such relatively recent exercises as The Notebook and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants all traded on notions of amorous fun in the sun. Even the vintage drive-in cheese of umpteen Beach Party and Elvis movies were largely designed to provide an audiovisual excuse for heavy petting.

Most of these films take place in vacation-y settings, but there’s also been a subgenre of movies in which sweltering mid-calendar city life prompts protagonists to shed inhibitions as well as clothing layers. These often have a “grittier” feel, and not infrequently have been bound up in the conventions of tragic melodrama, with West Side Story’s barrio Romeo & Juliet one obvious example.

Spielberg’s remake of that legendary musical is slated for year’s end, but in the meantime you can get a more modest indie echo of the same basic themes—minus the balletics and knife fights—in Angelfish. This very appealing first feature by director/co-writer Peter Lee is set in the Bronx of 1993, after the 70s peak of blight (and arson), but before subsequent major gentrification waves.

Living in adjacent neighborhoods but very different cultures, Brendan (Jimi Stanton) and Eva (rapper Princess Nokia) are alike in that they’re both recent high school graduates whose futures are on hold due to different kinds of fatherless-family obligations. He’s working a deli counter to support his drifting-into-trouble younger brother (Stanley Simons) and appallingly selfish aging-party-chick mother (Erin Davie), neither of whom can be counted on to fend for themselves. Eva would like to explore acting, but in that as in most things bows she to the somewhat heavy-handed wishes of her own mother (Rosie Berrido), which include more “sensible” career plans and a “nice” Puerto Rican prospective husband.

Once they meet, however, Brendan and Eva forget about everyone else, or at least can do so briefly; their connection is no less palpably fervent for being presented in physical rather chaste terms. Despite the similar ethnic/gender dynamic, this is no West Side Story redux, ending in a pool of blood and tears.

But the expectations these two young people are yoked by similarly makes their union furtive, then endangered. Angelfish has more dramatic heft to it than you initially anticipate, particularly as Brendan must shoulder the brunt of domestic problems that acquire an aching, urgent poignancy. With its adorable leads, strong performances overall, and likably low-key Big Apple atmospherics, this is a small movie with a very big heart.

Other new arrivals this week—all, like Angelfish, available on most streaming platforms on or before Wed/27:

It would be hard to think of a widely popular public mission more antithetical to our current times than that of the Peace Corps, a high-water mark in prosperous mid-century America’s desire to share its expertise and wealth with struggling other nations. These days, of course, a more common ‘murrican attitude towards the very existence of our countries is “Who cares what they do/think? Their woes aren’t our problem! And keep those needy freeloaders away from our borders!”

Not that there wasn’t considerable resistance even sixty years ago, when incoming President Kennedy pushed the Corps concept—itself partly a pushback to the notion forwarded by then-recent bestseller The Ugly American that we were losing the Cold War by doing little to integrate ourselves, learn local languages or culture in diplomatic and business posts abroad.

Still, the Corps were envisioned as not a direct political tool but something more idealistic, an offer to raise up poorer nations with free expertise. Realizing that few applicants had relevant skill sets, rigorous training was instituted for volunteers, who’d then be assigned to a two-year stint overseas. In its first year, the Peace Corps had personnel in eight countries; just three years later, that had become nearly fifty.

Narrated by Annette Bening, Alana DeJoseph’s documentary draws on a mix of archival footage and alumnus interviews to chronicle the organization’s complicated history, which suffered under some hostile Presidential administrations (notably Nixon’s), but was supported by others, some of them surprising (Reagan was an unlikely fan). At times there was pressure to use the Corps for political reasons. At others, Corps volunteers found themselves opposing interfering U.S. governmental policies, particularly in Central America.

This largely valedictory overview makes room for some criticisms, such as the failure to have any institutional means for dealing with sexual assault issues until quite recently. Yet it’s a primarily inspiring portrait. “It was in the Peace Corps that I really learned empathy,” one veteran says. As the film ends with our current POTUS spewing xenophobic rhetoric, it’s clear that lesson is one rarer and more valuable today than ever. Among other outlets, A Towering Task can be rented through Roxie Virtual Cinema. More info here.

In recent years, war movies from Saving Private Ryan to 1917 have tended to be quite serious, emphasizing the deadly perils and sacrifice of battle. With the major exception of Tarantino’s willfully incongruous Inglourious Basterds [sic], we’ve had little of what used to be the norm in vintage hits like The Great Escape or The Dirty Dozen—those very matey “rollicking adventures” in which gallows humor and comradeship make war almost seem like a manly lark. More than a bit of a throwback to such things is this new Belgian feature, which starts with an outrageously improbable trick played on some dastardly Nazis, and continues apace in “nonstop thrill-ride” fashion.

The idea is that a unit of Belgian resistance fighters, having generated a little too much heat on occupied home turf, are drafted to take a purloined German U-boat from the coast of Africa to New England. They’ll cross the Atlantic smuggling uranium to assist the Allies’ race to create a mega-bomb first—no matter that none of them has any nautical experience whatsoever. This premise is exactly as plausible as the oil-rig crew sent into space to save Earth from an asteroid in trash-action “classic” Armageddon. At least Sven Huybrechts’ film doesn’t take itself with quite the degree of blowhard this-wide-stance-is-needed-for-my-massive-balls machismo Michael Bay specializes in.

When an Axis attack forces hasty departure, the crew ends up encompassing unintended members including a lone spunky female, a towering African laborer, and a captured Nazi. Perils aplenty occur en route, making this a Das Boot with a whole lot more hokum—particularly as amplified by the English-dubbed version I watched. Still, it’s an entertaining, well-crafted movie that will scratch that itch for people who prefer their war-flick excitement more giddy than grueling.

White on Rice writer-director Dave Boyle created a couple favorites on the festival circuit and beyond with 2011’s Surrogate Valentine and the next year’s Daylight Savings, two droll slackerish comedies in B&W starring indie-rock singer/songwriter Goh Nakamura as a fictionalized version of himself. After that duo, Boyle felt he’d taken the concept as far as he wanted, but frequent past collaborator Lynn Chen felt otherwise. Her own writing-directing debut provides a kind of autumnal followup to the prior films that shades their lighter content with a dose of mid-life crisis.

Nakamura is back, albeit now ostensibly no longer doing music, working at a nondescript day job in order to support a five-year-old daughter he’s raising with Erika (Ayako Fujitani). Their relationship otherwise appears to be on the rocks, but he still accompanies her to LA for her father’s funeral. There, he reunites with two other women with whom he’s had enduring if ambiguous attachments: Yea-Ming (Yea-Ming Chen, also kinda-sorta playing herself), a fellow musician who’s stayed the creative course, even if that means still living like a college student; and his long-ago high school prom date Rachel (Chen), whose dissatisfaction with her own too-settled life as a yuppie wife kindles hitherto subterranean yearnings towards Goh. For each of these fortyish women, he represents something unfulfilled—though as ever, he may be too amiably passive a personality to fulfill it.

Sticking to the earlier films’ B&W aesthetic, but with a more melancholy tenor this time, I Will Make You Mine belies its title with an emphasis on uncertainty. These characters are all old enough now to have learned from youthful mistakes (even when they keep making them), but they keep discovering that supposedly “mature” adulthood doesn’t necessarily make decisions going forward any easier. It’s a charming seriocomedy that doesn’t necessarily require familiarity with the movies that preceded it to be enjoyed.

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