What to Watch: "Don't Ask Me" Edition

"The Royal Hotel," "Cat Person," and other new releases the critic saw before he went on vacation.

What to Watch: "Don't Ask Me" Edition

Apologies for the two weeks of radio silence; the overseas vacation I was scheduled to take with my wife in 2020 finally, happily happened in 2023, and without getting too personal about it, let’s just say I have a renewed appreciation for the films of Yorgos Lanthimos and Michael Cacoyannis. In truth, I haven’t watched a blessed thing for the past two weeks – film critics are allowed a break, too, you know – although I did scroll through the movie offerings on Delta’s in-flight menu with surprise, expecting the usual studio guff and shocked to find a large and refreshingly varied slate of films, old and new, big and little. Did I stand up and loudly announce to the assembled passengers that they should all watch “Past Lives”? No, I did not (although I thought about it), but I did tell the gentleman in front of me, who was watching the trailer, that it was a really, really good movie. Coming soon on the Watch List: A deep dive into the whole gestalt of experiencing films on a tiny screen in a tin tube flying at 600 miles an hour five miles above the earth, with breakdowns of each major airline’s movie roster and special attention paid to What To Avoid. Because anyone deciding to watch “Avatar: The Way of Water” on an airplane is just asking for trouble. (For the time being, if your plane ride in the coming months includes “Past Lives,” “Blackberry,” or the documentary “Being Mary Tyler Moore,” I can recommend all three.)

I got back Tuesday night and have been attending to personal matters, so the Watch Listing is still taking a back seat for a few more days. Of the new movies arriving in theaters, “Exorcist: Believer” is getting roundly drubbed by critics despite the participation of the original film’s Ellen Burstyn, and I will weigh in on “The Burial,” with Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones, when it appears on Amazon Prime next week, along with the four Wes Anderson shorts that went up on Netflix while I was away. Also arriving on that service: “Fair Play,” a juicily nasty love-hate story among young corporate climbers that divided Sundance ’23 audiences into the impressed and the appalled.

Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun in “Cat Person”

Two of this week’s other theatrical releases I’m already familiar with from the festival circuit, and both, interestingly, revolve around ambiguous male toxicity and a woman’s lot in separating danger signals from the static of standard guy idiocy. One film is a queasy black comedy and one’s a suspense thriller, the former a depressing misfire and the latter tricker than it seems. To expand on my Sundance review: “Cat Person” (⭐ ⭐) takes Kristen Roupenian’s celebrated/controversial New Yorker short story and does a decent job of adapting it for the first two-thirds, with Emilia Jones (“CODA”) wryly worried as a college student in a sketchy relationship with an older guy (a woebegone Nicholas Braun, Cousin Greg of “Succession”). The film is often brutally, uncomfortably funny, and it illustrates the perils and paranoia of romance in the social-media age with enough finesse that you may find yourself juggling your sympathies between the two main characters, at least until a sex scene that is every woman’s most-awkward-case-scenario about the gray areas of consent and men who watch too much porn. The problem: The short story was effectively a two-act proposition, and in coming up with the third act that all movies supposedly need, screenwriter Michelle Ashford and director Susanna Fogel have made the worst possible choices – a climactic turn to violence and fiery disaster that literalizes all the movie’s themes in the name of a Big Finish. I’ve rarely seen a film scuttle itself and sink to the bottom with such determined rapidity – “Cat Person” is a textbook reminder that literature “tells” and movies “show” and that translating one format to the other is too often a proposition for the foolish or the foolhardy. (If you really want to stand your hair on end, read Alexis Nowicki’s Slate article about how Roupenian strip-mined Nowicki’s life for the New Yorker story. It’s a debate in a bottle about the ethics of authorial license.)

Quite a bit more successful is “The Royal Hotel” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐), Kitty Green’s ambitious follow-up to “The Assistant” (2019) and the first of her movies to be filmed in the director’s native Australia. Julia Garner (above), unleashed from her cowed title role in “The Assistant,” and Jessica Henwick (“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”) play two American backpackers in the Outback; strapped for cash they sign on as bartenders in an isolated mining town. The men run the gamut from alcoholic wrecks (the great Hugo Weaving as the bar owner) to deceptively charming (Toby Wallace) to shyly protective (James Frecheville) to creepily threatening (a frightening Daniel Henshall), and Green keeps her lead characters and the audience on a taut high-wire of tension. If you’re expecting a “Straw Dogs”-style bloodbath, you’re out of luck, since the director is more interested in subverting revenge-drama cliches and dramatizing the uncertainties of response: As she told Indiewire’s Anne Thompson in a just-published interview, “It’s about alcohol-fueled aggression, that behavior that when left unchecked, can spiral into something quite terrible. And the film is about what we tolerate, what we permit, what we put up with as women in those situations. And when do we stand up for ourselves, when do we say ‘no,’ and when do we bring out the ax?” “The Royal Hotel” is very well-acted – by the male actors as well as Garner and Henwick – and extremely suspenseful, but it never quite builds to the boiling point it seems headed toward. In its defense, I’m not sure it wants to. Discuss.

Good VOD bets: Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation is screening a beautifully restored version of 1964’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (above), one of the best of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle and a highlight of Vincent Price’s career. You can sign up to watch the film in a 72-hour window starting Saturday night or watch a live online screening with commentary Monday October 9 at 7 p.m. EST.

Speaking of Scorsese, his performance as “Dad” in daughter Francesca Scorsese’s latest TikTok video is without question the cinematic highlight of the week. You’re welcome.

@francescascorseseHe lowkey slayed. #fyp #martinscorsese #dadsoftiktok #dadguesses

Tiktok failed to load.

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