Mia Wasikowska plays a puppeteer named Judy in “Judy & Punch.” (Courtesy Vice Studios)

Puppeteers, writers, filmmakers, dreamers

New movies offer distractions from pandemic, and even hope

The world is severely damaged. Some of us are trying to help in big or small ways; others are just trying to process everything. It can be overwhelming and exhausting. Perhaps these four new VOD/digital movies can offer a break.

“Judy & Punch” follows a familiar plot arc, but also contains an appealing performance by Mia Wasikowska, interesting puppetry and gratuitous gore.

Historically, Punch and Judy are hand puppets, but in this movie, they are human. Married puppeteers Punch (Damon Herriman) and Judy (Wasikowska)’s marionette shows have brought them to the verge of success.

The volatile, selfish Punch, who drinks too much, is responsible for an accident that kills the couple’s baby, and in the aftermath, Judy is left for dead in the woods.

Punch immediately hooks up with a prostitute, Polly (Lucy Velik), and tries to figure out ways to keep his show going, even going so far as dressing up Polly’s two children as puppets.

Meanwhile, a band of exiled, accused “witches” finds Judy and nurses her back to health, while she dreams of revenge.

What follows is not unexpected. A big drawback is that Punch is a one-dimensional bad guy, either angry or boasting, and practically straining from the effort of it all.

Herriman, who played Charles Manson in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” does what he can with the role, but can’t find a center. And when the movie cuts to Judy, she’s stuck waiting, though at least the “witch” colony offers interesting visuals, including bonfires.

As a costume movie, “Judy & Punch” might have been bawdier, perhaps something more like “The Favourite.” Certainly it could have come closer to horror or dark comedy. (It has comic attempts, but they rarely inspire laughter.)

The movie skirts along the middle, occasionally veering into welcome weirdness. But too often it remains ordinary. It has too many strings attached.

REVIEW

Judy & Punch

★★½

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Damon Herriman, Benedict Hardie, Lucy Velik

Written and directed by: Mirrah Foulkes

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss appear in the appealingly creepy “Shirley.” (Courtesy Neon)

Speaking of horror, the new “Shirley” offers a story about Shirley Jackson, best known for her incendiary short story “The Lottery” as well the great novels “The Haunting of Hill House” and “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.”

In reality, “Shirley” is really only about 25% about Jackson. It’s mostly the story of four characters whose relationships with each other begin to decay like a forgotten corpse.

Rose (Odessa Young) and her husband, young teaching assistant Fred (Logan Lerman), are on their way to Vermont, where Fred will work with professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg).

They are also invited to temporarily stay in Stanley’s home. Stanley happens to be married to Shirley Jackson (an amazing Elisabeth Moss, perfectly cast).

On the train, Rose reads “The Lottery” and is inspired to drag her husband to the restroom for a quick shag. She’s more sensuous and adventurous than her unremarkable husband. He, however, doesn’t know that she’s pregnant, which Shirley sniffs out as soon as the two women meet.

Shirley is, apparently, prone to “spells.” She never leaves the house, wickedly insults everyone at the dinner table and wrestles with other neuroses. Yet at the same time, there’s a genius, and a twinkle, to her.

It’s not long before Stanley awkwardly asks Rose if she’d like to be their maid, in exchange for further free room and board. Rose is quietly insulted, but she finds herself increasingly drawn to Shirley.

Philandering, flirting, drinking, hysterics, parties, arguing, verbal attacks and more follow. Meanwhile, Shirley clacks away at what will become her 1951 novel “Hangsaman.”

Screenwriter Sarah Gubbins — who adapted a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell — and director Josephine Decker (“Madeline’s Madeline”) cite “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” as an influence, but thankfully Decker’s woozy, bleached-out direction brings down the shrill pitch of that movie; it’s more carnal and less heady.

The characters play at intelligence and Stuhlbarg has fun plucking at his 10-dollar dialogue, but the real point is what Jackson regularly wrote about: the squirmy things in humans that go beyond reason.

REVIEW

Shirley

★★★

Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman, Michael Stuhlbarg

Written by: Sarah Gubbins

Directed by: Josephine Decker

Rated: R

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

Willem Dafoe is excellent in Abel Ferrara’s edgy “Tommaso.” (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

Veteran maverick filmmaker Abel Ferrara, who broke onto the scene with the gnarly 1979 “The Driller Killer,” is back with “Tommaso,” an astonishingly personal, mature work.

It’s available through Kino Marquee (https://kinomarquee.com/tommaso), where a rental will benefit the Roxie. (Ferrara’s personal appearances at the beloved San Francisco theater always have been worth the price of a ticket.)

“Tommaso” stars Willem Dafoe, who’s worked with Ferrara often, most recently in the fine “Pasolini,” and the new movie is drawn from bits and pieces of both men’s lives.

Tommaso — the movie never says if it’s his first or last name — is a filmmaker living in Rome with his younger, Russian wife Nikki (Ferrara’s real-life wife Cristina Chiriac) and their daughter Deedee (Ferrara and Chiriac’s real-life daughter Anna).

Scenes of Tommaso teaching acting and doing yoga are likely drawn from Dafoe’s private experiences, and Dafoe subsequently gives one of his finest performances.

While trying to get funding together for another movie, Tommaso teaches, goes to AA meetings, shops for vegetables, and takes Italian language lessons, while trying to mend his old, wicked ways and be a good family man.

Unfortunately, Nikki has been growing more and more distant and disconnected, and Tommaso must wrestle with that.

“Tommaso” doesn’t have the most dynamic story, but its honesty and simmering emotional struggles manage to develop a kind of suspenseful pull.

Additionally, Ferrara inserts into the movie his signature, edgy, shocking weirdness, such a scene in which a naked woman serves Tommaso a drink, and an imagined scene of violence.

“Tommaso” won’t be for casual viewers, but for fans of Dafoe or Ferrara or both, it’s an essential deep-dive into the soul.

REVIEW

Tommaso

★★★½

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Cristina Chiriac, Anna Ferrara

Written and directed by: Abel Ferrara

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

The uplifting documentary “2040” describes how today’s social and technological efforts can make for a better world in the near future. (Courtesy Together Films)

Finally, there’s movie about hope and looking forward. The documentary “2040,” by Australian actor and director Damon Gameau (“That Sugar Film”), has a simple premise: How can today’s ideas and technologies be implemented now to make a better world in 2040?

The answers are amazing. One involves an interconnected micro-grid in which a small group of houses can trade, buy or sell solar power. It’s clean, self-sustained and independent of huge power companies.

The movie also likens car ownership to DVD and CD ownership. The future will be more “on-demand.”

Other sections discuss efficient farming that will stop soil erosion, which is more destructive to the atmosphere than carbon emissions, and uses for seaweed!

While most documentaries on climate change are undeniably dreary, this one is poppy and delightful. It has top-of-the-line, playful visual effects; for example, Gameau and environmentalist Paul Hawken are seated casually, hundreds of feet up, on top of a wind turbine.

“2040” also offers glimpses into the future, wherein Gameau’s young daughter (played by Eva Lazzaro) grows up and gets to live in an awesome new world that looks like a sci-fi movie.

“What were you guys thinking?” she sneers when she learns about the wasteful system we use to catch and clean fish.

While what happens next in our real lives is unclear, the movie offers activist Helena Norberg-Hodge, who says, “You will see, everywhere you look, incredible reasons for hope.”

On June 5, the movie will be available as a digital rental, accompanied by various live Q&As over the following week. See https://whatsyour2040.com/ for details.

REVIEW

2040

★★★½

Starring: Damon Gameau, Eva Lazzaro, Zoë Gameau

Written and directed by: Damon Gameau

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Movies and TV

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