Weekend Watch, Dog Days Edition

Lions and satire and noir, oh my.

Weekend Watch, Dog Days Edition

Apologies for a week of gloomy posting – two appreciations for the recently departed, one famous, one personal – and while I have had my hands full with family matters, this is still technically a movie recommendation newsletter, and I need to keep up my end of the bargain. That said, late August is perhaps the slowest release period of the year: The only major big-screen offering this weekend is “Beast,” which is more or less “Jaws” with a lion and which stars Idris Elba in the first of his two movies this month. (The second one is “3,000 Years of Longing,” out next week, and I’ll just say it’s a lulu from George “Mad Max” Miller.) I had to miss the “Beast” screening, but you can read other reviews at Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes.

Opening in limited theatrical release today before coming to the National Geographic channel this fall, “The Territory” is a documentary about indigenous Brazilians fighting back against the destruction of the Amazon rainforest that won Jury and Audience awards at Sundance 2022. I’ll be weighing in on it next week, but until then here’s a trailer:

The most notable in a small glut of streaming premieres is “Spin Me Round” (** stars out of ****, in theaters, streaming on AMC+, and for rent on Amazon), an intriguingly/frustratingly hard-to-pin down movie that’s either a parody of Euro-tourist romantic comedies or an updated “If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium.” Or both. In any event, it stars Alison Brie (above) of TV’s “Mad Men” and “GLOW,” an actress who’s generally smarter than the characters she plays, as is the case here. She’s Amber, a straitlaced manager at a Bakersfield Olive Garden-style franchise called Tuscan Grove who wins a corporate-retreat vacation to Italy, where presumably she will find romance, pasta, wine, and her true ecstatic self. That’s the genre blueprint, anyway, but Brie and director Jeff Baena, who wrote the script together, throw sand in the gears almost from the start, with Amber’s fellow retreaters a gallery of obnoxious cartoons, and a romantic lead – the CEO of Tuscan Grove, played by a wily Alessandro Nivola – who’s a handsome smoothie with more than a few kinks. As they did in their last collaboration, the spooky Netflix drama “Horse Girl,” Baena and Brie keep the tone ambiguous, which is fine in theory and eventually unsatisfying in practice, as “Spin Me Round” keeps hinting at various moods (romance, comedy, suspense) without ever settling on one. Another problem: The main character’s fairly dull, reacting to all the craziness with a polite passive-aggressiveness that takes too long to get aggressive-aggressive. We do get Aubrey Plaza (who’s married to Baena) in a small but lethal role as the CEO’s put-upon assistant – she alone locates a tone that’s ambiguous but somehow defined, a jagged shard of glass in a bowl full of marbles.

Otherwise, I can think of no better recommendation than the ongoing Noir in Color series unspooling on the Criterion Channel: 15 brooding crime dramas, thrillers, mysteries, and melodramas from 1945 to 1958, all in beautiful, bleeding Technicolor or other color processes. Some can be rented on Amazon and elsewhere (“Niagara,” with Marilyn Monroe; “Bad Day at Black Rock,” with Spencer Tracy), others (Sam Fuller’s “House of Bamboo,” Alan Dwan’s “The River’s Edge”) are exclusive to the Criterion Channel, and the one to pounce on is the hard-to-find “Leave Her To Heaven” (1945, **** stars out of ****), with Gene Tierney (above) truly unsettling as a newlywed whose gentle, loving exterior hides a psychotic aversion to sharing her husband (Cornel Wilde) with anyone. I mean, anyone. Most people remember the chilling sequence where Tierney’s Ellen takes her disabled teenage brother-in-law (Darryl Hickman) out for a little swim, but “Leave Her To Heaven” also has a substantial following as Grade-A real estate porn, with sets and locations that include a Southwestern ranch house, a lavish lakeside cabin, and a gorgeous home in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Butterfly Effect trivia: When I worked at Entertainment Weekly in the 1990s, we included “Leave Her To Heaven” in a roundup of great movie sleepers. I’m not sure if that’s when the then editorial assistant for the magazine’s video section first saw the movie or whether she’d come across it earlier, but I remember how blown away she was by the film and by the idea of a killer hiding behind the face of a placid good girl. It all went into her creative hopper when the assistant – her name was Gillian Flynn – started writing her own crime thrillers a decade or so later. So, yes, Ellen Harland of “Leave Her To Heaven” is a grandmother to Amy Dunne of “Gone Girl.” The more you know.

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