What to Watch, Last-Ditch July Edition

"Vengeance," A Love Song," "Not Okay," and a quick trip around the horn of your streaming services.

What to Watch, Last-Ditch July Edition

What can you say when the most intensely moving film of the week is the viral video of Joni Mitchell performing at the Newport Folk Festival?

It’s a quiet midsummer weekend for new releases, with the only new studio film, “DC League of Super Pets,” a bold attempt to stretch a superhero franchise beyond all recognition. A few choice indie movies debut in New York/L.A. or roll out to the rest of the country: “Vengeance” (*** stars out of ****) whose writer-director-star, B.J. Novak, I interviewed in a post that went up yesterday and whose first feature is, well, a first feature, solid and smart and funny, with a few blind spots and an ending that feels wrong even if Novak wanted it to feel wrong.

I’ll also point out that one of my favorite films from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “A Love Song” (***1/2 stars out of ****), is out in theaters. It’s a lovely wisp of a thing about a woman camping out in the Colorado backcountry while awaiting a reunion with her first love. She’s played by Dale Dickey, a character actress with a weathered, lived-in face, and Wes Studi, of “The Last of the Mohicans” and many other films, is the long-ago, long-awaited boyfriend. The movies rarely tell us stories about older people, what they hold close and what they’ve learned to let go, and first-time writer-director Max Walker-Silverman handcrafts “A Love Song” both for Dickey and for us. A quiet movie, very in tune with the outdoors, but one that slowly fills the heart.

Other than that, how about a quick trip round the streaming channels for recommended films arriving, leaving, or just worth your while?

Hulu: “Not Okay” (2022, **1/2 stars out of ****) — An opening content-warning card includes the words “unlikeable female protagonist,” which, honestly, should just be the name of the movie. The new release stars Zoey Deutch (“The Outfit”) as Danni Sanders, a cringe-y New York media wannabe so desperate for Instagram approval that she fakes a trip to Paris for a non-existent writer’s workshop, a minor hoax that becomes major after a terrorist attack hits the City of Lights while she’s supposedly there and she decides to run with her new brand as a Survivor™. Loathsome? You bet. But at least writer-director Quinn Shephard doesn’t ask us to sympathize with the woman, just to watch as she merrily digs her own grave and to notice how social media culture and 24-hour cable news profit by turning victims into celebrities. The movie’s grounded by Mia Isaac, excellent as a teenager who has survived a school shooting and become a reluctant activist, her still-rippling trauma in contrast to Danni’s chirpy platitudes. It’s worth a look: You watch a movie like “Not Okay” to see the anti-heroine get hoisted by her own delusional petard, and this one rather satisfyingly grants Danni full awareness of her own moral bankruptcy while, in the words of one chapter heading, denying her a redemption arc. The best sociopathic-influencer movie remains “Ingrid Goes West” (2017), with Aubrey Plaza taking her character all the way into the dark; Deutsch gives a fine performance, but somewhere in the corner of her soul, she wants us to like Danni Sanders, and that’s just not happening.

Netflix: “The Nightingale” (2018, ***1/2 stars out of ****) – Writer-director Jennifer Kent made her name with “The Babadook” (2014), a brilliant neo-horror film about maternal paranoia. Her follow-up is just as good, but hardly anyone saw it, because it is unrelenting. Set in 19th-century Tasmania, it’s a revenger’s tragedy about a female convict (Aisling Franciosi) swearing vengeance against a predatory British lieutenant (Sam Claflin). The relationship between the heroine and a cynical Aboriginal tracker (Baykali Ganambarr) gives the movie a context and a heart even as Kent balances her characters’ actions on an epic moral and historical scale.

Amazon Prime: “Skate Kitchen” (2018, *** stars out of ****) – Perched felicitously between documentary and storytelling, Crystal Moselle’s movie follows a group of teen-girl skateboarders as they coast across the bridges and along the urban skate parks of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. The bespectacled newbie Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) is our guide, but the film is best for its portrait of a diverse, wised-up solidarity of skater grrls claiming their turf in blithe defiance of the guys. If you like the movie, you’ll probably like “Betty,” the HBO series that spun off of “Skate Kitchen” for two seasons with most of the same cast.

MUBI: “By the Grace of God” (2019, *** stars out of ****) – From director François Ozon (“8 Women,” “Swimming Pool”), France’s version of “Spotlight.” It’s the true story of middle-aged male victims banding together for legal remedy and existential support as they reckon with the scars of sexual abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest and a cover-up by the archdiocese of Lyon. Steady and moving, with immense sympathy for the emotional struggles of men. (Also streaming on Amazon Prime.)

Criterion Channel: “Hold Back the Dawn” (1941, ***1/2 stars out of ****) – Mayday, Mayday: This wonderful, too little-known romantic comedy leaves The Criterion Channel on July 31 and disappears into the ether for who knows how long. Mitchell Leisen is one of my very favorite studio-era directors, because he infused the cliches of Hollywood boy-meets-girl with genuine eros and agape – his movies can stun you with unexpected heat. This one casts Olivia De Havilland as a spinster visiting Mexico and Charles Boyer as an avaricious Romanian dandy angling for a green-card wedding; the steps by which they discover and truly see each other are sublime. Co-written by a young Billy Wilder, who never forgave the director for cutting a scene in which Boyer delivers a monologue to a cockroach; Wilder trash-talked Leisen for the rest of his life and unfairly put him in the doghouse. Watch this movie and bring him back out. The Criterion link is here.

HBO Max: “Bringing Out the Dead” (1999, *** stars out of ****) – A largely forgotten but worthy ledger entry in the work of Martin Scorsese. Nicolas Cage plays a burnt-out EMT worker in Hell’s Kitchen and it’s very much a “Taxi Driver” as told from the side of the angels, damaged as they might be. Possibly the greatest use of a Van Morrison song (“T.B. Sheets”) in the history of cinema. Scorsese’s longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, has said “It's the only one of his films, I think, that hasn't gotten its due.”

Bonus recommendation: “Everything Everywhere All at Once” – The manic Zen-overload comedy-sci-fi-action-drama is being re-released to theaters with eight minutes of outtakes and a new intro from directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, a.k.a. Daniels. You haven’t seen it yet? It’s bidding fair to be one of the best of 2022, as well as a deserved genuflection in the direction of Michelle Yeoh, as well as a long-overdue exhumation of Ke Huy Quan, the kid from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and now an adult actor of uncommon wit, speed, and grace.

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