Jazz on a Summer’s Day


C’mon, Satchmo, blow that horn!

(1959) Music Documentary (Kino LorberLouis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Anita O’Day, Thelonious Monk, Chuck Berry, Dinah Washington, George Shearing, Gerry Mulligan, Chico Hamilton, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Giuffre, Big Maybelle, Art Farmer, Jo Jones, Eric Dolphy, Buck Clayton, Willis Conover, Max Roach, Danny Barcelona, Patricia Bosworth. Directed by Bert Stern

 

In 1958, jazz had reached a turning point. Men like Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were starting to get into middle age and beyond. They had dominated the jazz scene for 20 and 30 years, but there were some New Turks on the horizon, guys that were taking jazz into exciting new directions – guys like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

The Newport Jazz Festival, the nation’s oldest and some would say, most prestigious, didn’t seem to have gotten the word, judging from this beloved Bert Stern documentary. Stern, a New York fashion photographer, was motivated to take snapshots at the Festival which after what is euphemistically termed a “turn of events,” decided to make a film about the experience of a day at the Jazz Festival.

It was a bold idea – many believe that this was the first concert film in history, but it was evident that Stern was in over his head. His taste tended towards the more traditional jazz (and to be fair, so did the programmers of the Festival) and despite the presence of such luminaries as Davis, Sonny Rollins and Ray Charles, only a brief snippet of Monk’s Sunday morning performance of Monk’s blues – about a minute’s worth – made the final cut.

Still, it’s hard to argue with the performances here. We watch in awe as Mahalia Jackson, quite likely the greatest gospel singer ever and certainly the best of her time, belt out the Lord’s Prayer with such conviction that its hard not to be moved even if you aren’t a believer. We see vocalist Dinah Washington giving an impassioned performance on “All of Me,” but taking the time to step away from the microphone and help out Terry Gibbs on the vibes.

We are surprised to find Chuck Berry, literally the architect of rock and roll, prowl the stage nervously on “Sweet Little Sixteen,” gradually warming to the crowd enough to do his duckwalk. We are mesmerized by pianist George Shearing, whose excellence was never acknowledged properly, as he takes charge of “Rondo” like he owns it. We are delighted by vocalist Anita O’Day, resplendent in a little black cocktail dress, heels so high she can barely climb to the stage, elegant gloves and a preposterous sunhat scat her way through “Tea for Two,” and deliver a rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” that the Harlem Globetrotters never envisioned.

For most, though, the main attraction is Armstrong. He is not even at the top of his game here; by 1958 his best days were behind him and although he was still the consummate entertainer, he had long since settled for being an entertainer rather than an innovator. Still, when he takes to his trumpet there were no equals back then or now, and his charm and distinctive vocals bring a smile to even the most COVID-weary face.

The music is spectacular and the vibe is carefree. It is a joyful celebration of summer, as we see beachgoers and other revelers, with periodic shots of sailboats (the timed trials for the America’s Cup U.S. try-outs were ongoing that July 4th weekend as well). There are even a college jazz band driving through town in a beat-up old jalopy playing Dixieland. It was a different time, and there is certainly an air that the world was our oyster then.

Stern, as a fashion photographer, had an eye for faces and he concentrates very much on those in the audience; some rapt, some bored, some dancing (particularly during the Berry sequence) and some getting pleasantly smashed on Rheingold beer. And nearly every hand has a cigarette in it.

This is very definitely a time capsule piece, and it is fitting that the Library of Congress selected it for preservation nearly 20 years ago. What you’re seeing now, should you choose to find this on Virtual Cinema (see link below), is a 4K restoration that retains the vibrant colors and great sound of the original.

Older readers may wax nostalgic over the depiction of the time of their youth; younger readers may titter at the fashion, hairstyles and the essence of suburban smugness wrapped up in the civility of privilege. One thing that isn’t dated, though and that’s the music. It is timeless and amazing, the kind of music that demands respect no matter the age of the listener. One can lament the absence of the jazz greats I mentioned; also absent were Benny Goodman and his Orchestra, Joe Turner and Ray Charles. You can’t please everybody, but there is much here that make this movie absolutely precious. Stern would never direct a movie again, but he made his only film a good one.

REASONS TO SEE: Some absolutely breathtaking musical performances. A snapshot of an era when jazz was just beginning to evolve.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit dated at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  Other than depicting a lot of people smoking (how that generation didn’t completely die off from lung cancer I’ll never know), this is perfectly suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stern donated his raw footage and outtakes to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library in exchange for them paying $50,000 in outstanding storage fees and shipping costs from the archive in Spain where the film had been languishing.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 1959: The Year That Changed Jazz
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Star Light

Adrift in Soho


Soho is a world of light, and fog and shadow.

(2019) Drama (RandomOwen Drake, Caitlin Harris, Chris Wellington, Emily Seale-Jones, Angus Howard, Lauren Harris, Olly Warrington, William Chubb, William Jessop, Martin Calcroft, Warwick Evans, Anthony Burrows, Hayley Considine, Adei Bundy, Lara Graham, Luke Hicks, Tori Hope, Stella Lock, Mama Manneh, Mogs Morgan, Santiago Mosquera, Sandrea Simons.. Directed by Pablo Behrens

 

Neighborhoods have their own soul, their own character. Often they aren’t easily defined in a sentence or two, but some neighborhoods are remarkably easy to characterize.

Soho in the late 1950s was a place where drunks, dreams and would-be Bohemians hung out. While America was in the throes of the Beat Generation, Soho was London’s own heartbeat. Harry Preston (Drake) has arrived there from the provinces, wet behind the ears, hoping to write the book he knows will Change Everything. Maybe along the way, he might get laid.

He meets all sorts of characters, including the womanizing James Compton-Street (Wellington), the pretty American exchange student Doreen (Harris), radical New Cinema documentarians Jo (Seale-Jones) and Marcus (Howard), and The Count (Chubb), a literary patron. Jo and Marcus are making a documentary about Soho, but whereas Marcus is practical (he finances their efforts by shooting blue movies at local strip clubs), Jo is much more of a purist and leaves him to team up with fellow filmmaker Marty (Warrington).

The novel this is based on is something of a cult novel in the UK from original Angry Young Man Colin Wilson, who lived in Soho during the period depicted in the films. He eventually moved to the country but wrote this novel in 1961 as a kind of farewell to arms. I haven’t read the book myself, but I get the sense that it is not an easy read. So, too, is the movie based on it not an easy watch.

The movie could have used a little more of a budget to give it some scope and a better sense of place and time, but that’s not really something within the control of the filmmakers. The cast does a pretty decent job, particularly Wellington who displays a bonhomie and flair that is missing from the other characters; most of them are kind of flat and uninteresting, although the actors do the best they can. It doesn’t help that the characters spend an inordinate amount of time philosophizing about a fictional illness called “Soho-itis,” which is never fully explained in the film which is amazing, considering how much time they spend talking about it.

However, this is a gorgeous movie to look at – cinematographer Martin Kobylarz makes wonderful use of light, shadows and fog to give the viewer some compelling images. The mood is augmented by a jazzy score replete with hits from the era that are a bit on the obscure side, but fit the film perfectly.

The movie is actually a rather intelligent one; the problem is that too many of the characters are little more than stick drawings. I would have appreciated less rumination and more character development. Incidentally, viewers who prefer a more linear narrative may have some issues here; the movie is told essentially as a series of vignettes that sometimes don’t connect together well or form a really cohesive story. Still, I found that the movie held my interest for it’s nearly two hour length, which is more than I can say for other movies with higher aspirations than this one.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is exceptional.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a bit aimless at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author Colin Wilson based all of the characters on people he met while he lived in Soho in the 1950s, although their names were all changed with the exception of Ironfoot Jack. The story itself is said to be based on something the author experienced or knew of first-hand.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Postcards from London
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
2040

Stan & Ollie


A classic pairing.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Sony Classics) Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Nina Arianda, Rufus Jones, Danny Huston, Joseph Balderrama, John Henshaw, Tapiwa Mugweni, Keith MacPherson, Stewart Alexander, Kevin Millington, Toby Sedgwick, Rebecca Yeo, Stephanie Hyam, Kate Okello, Sanjeev Kohli, Richard Cant, Ashley Robinson, Susy Kane. Directed by Jon S. Baird

The comic duo of Laurel and Hardy have transcended their medium and become iconic. Most people know who they are, even if they’ve never seen them in action. Their bits, born in the traditions of the music hall and vaudeville, still are as enthralling today as they were 80 years ago.

However, this biopic depicts the legendary team in the twilight of their career. Stan Laurel (Coogan) and Oliver “Babe” Hardy (Reilly) have long since passed the zenith of their careers and have been rendered by television and teams like Abbott and Costello as artifacts of a bygone age. Needing cash and hoping to mount a comeback in a Robin Hood-like picture that Laurel is writing, the two mount a tour of England at the behest of promoter Bernard Delfont (Jones) in 1953.

At first, they are playing in dodgy venues to sparse crowds. There is a tension between the two, largely due to a feeling of betrayal that Stan has that Oliver worked with silent comedian Harry Langdon (Cant) on a picture called Zenobia which Laurel dismisses as “that elephant picture” following a contract dispute for Laurel while Hardy was still under contract to Hal Roach. Hardy who had ballooned to well over 300 pounds by that point, had health constraints that affected his ability to perform. Also, their wives Lucille Hardy (Henderson) and Ida Kitaeva Laurel (Ananda) didn’t get on particularly well.

Like most Hollywood biographies, the film does fudge a little bit on the facts but it does get the essence of the relationship between the two right, not to mention the personalities of the two men. Laurel was a thinker, a compulsive sort who did the lion’s share of the writing while Hardy was a more easygoing fellow, a bit of a hedonist and not one for thinking about the future. Even though for much of the film the relationship between the two was frosty, there was still a great deal of affection between them as you would find for any two people who were in close quarters for more than 30 years.

Coogan’s performance won him a BAFTA nomination, but for my money the performance to see here is Reilly’s, which the Hollywood Foreign Press apparently agreed with me on as he was the one who got the Golden Globe nomination. In all honesty, though, both performances are distinctive with Reilly’s being just a little bit more so.

Where the movie kind of fails is that we don’t see what really made them such a wonderful team; sure, we see a few bits here and there, and we get a sense of the chemistry between the two, but you would be hard pressed to explain why the two were so popular in their heyday by watching this film.

Still, that may not have been what Baird and writers Jeff Pope and AJ Marriott were after. This doesn’t give us the sweep of their careers, only a snapshot of a particular time in their career when they were admittedly past their prime. Still, it’s a sweet tribute to a pair of comedians who made an incalculable contribution to motion picture comedy.

REASONS TO SEE: Coogan and Reilly do a fine job of bringing the two beloved comedians to life.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t re ally explore the essence of their humor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film got it’s nationwide American release on Oliver Hardy’s 117th birthday.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic:  75/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chaplin
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Trip to Greece

Fairytale (Favola)


An All-American housewife.

(2017) Comedy (Breaking GlassFilippo Timi, Lucia Mascino, Piera Degli Esposti, Luca Santagostino, Sergio Albelli. Directed by Sebastiano Mauri

 

The Fifties were a decade here in the United States that in many ways symbolizes a kinder, gentler era; everyone liked Ike, prosperity after the war was undeniable and so long as you were white and straight, you had a pretty decent life just about guaranteed. America was indeed, the beautiful back then.

Mrs. Fairytale (Timi) lives in a bright, modern home that is packed to the gills with kitsch and alcohol. Her husband (Santasostino) leaves for work every morning, leaving her to clean house, cook dinner, commiserate with fellow housewife Mrs. Emerald (Mascino) and adore her poodle Lady (pronounced “Lye-dee” in this Italian-language film) who happens to be stuffed. She also spends time fending off the Stuart triplets (Albelli), all of whom want to get into her panties by hook or by crook – the movie doesn’t hesitate to get into the darker side of the decade, including spousal abuse and alcoholism.

That’s not the only thing that’s off-kilter in this comedy, in which the view out of one set of windows is a New York-like skyline and out another set, a Southwestern desert. Mrs. Fairytale is played in drag by Timi, who also co-wrote the adaptation of his original play; the director is his husband, Mauri who is making his feature directing debut.

Many critics are hailing that the lead role in drag is played by a gay man, which makes for a better understanding of the drag queen culture. I will be honest; I’m not so sure the role is meant to be a drag queen; the oddball story involves invading UFOs who may or may not have changed Mrs. Fairytale’s sex from feminine to masculine. The role is not meant to be an object of fun, like so many drag roles in mainstream movies tend to be, but is meant to be a matter-of-fact depiction of a male actor in a female role. Of late we’ve seen some female actresses playing male characters; I don’t see why the favor shouldn’t be returned.

The movie keeps you off-balance from beginning to end in the most delightful way, all the while remaining true to its aesthetic, and what an aesthetic it is – the production design by Dmitri Capuani is absolutely pitch-perfect, setting the tone for the movie’s eccentric plot, while the set décor by Alessia Anfuso is to die for – I know a lot of devotees of Fifties kitsch culture will be jealous. The costumes by Fabio Zambernardi are positively sumptuous and will have those who love hunting for vintage dressing in thrift stores positively green with envy.

Not everybody is going to love this. It is admittedly willfully weird, but then again, who doesn’t need a little weirdness every now and again, particularly now when confusion is the new normal. If there’s an objection to be had about this delightful film, it’s that it is awfully stagey, even though I think that it intentional on the filmmakers’ part. Still, it feels sometimes like you’re waiting for the rest of the audience to react and that’s not a good thing when you’re watching this while cloistered at home. Fans of LGBTQ cinema should definitely seek this out, but anyone out for a good laugh in a bizarre kitschy atmosphere should love this too.

REASONS TO SEE: Willfully strange and imaginative. Wonderful production design.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not everyone will get this.
FAMILY VALUES: There are sexual situations and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is an adaptation of a play originally written by Timi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Serial Mom
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Mule

Streetlight Harmonies


A walk down Memory Lane.

(2020) Music Documentaries (Gravitas) Lamont Dozier, Lance Bass, Jon “Bowzer” Bauman, Ron Dante, Brian Wilson, Freda Payne, Al Jardine, Brian McKnight, Cindy Herron, Terry Ellis, Anthony Gourdine, Sammy Strain, Vito Picone, Jimmy Merchant, Scherrie Payne, Diz Russell, Charlie Horner, Jeff Barry, Tony Butala, Leon Hughes, Janis Siegel, Florence LaRue, Lala Brooks. Directed by Brent Wilson

 

It was a different time. Kids used to gather on the street corners of Brooklyn, Harlem and Philadelphia, singing under the lights in the summer evening twilight, using close harmonies. And why not? Teenage girls loved it and there is nothing a teenage boy likes better than being the center of a teenage girl’s attention. Well, the straight ones anyway.

The style was called Doo-Wop and it would eventually come to be one of the most influential forms of music ever. You can draw a straight line from the Doo-Wop groups of the 40s and 50s through the girl groups of the 60s to the boy bands of the 90s. As Lance Bass of N’Sync notes, other genres will come and go but there will always be pop bands that utilize harmonies.

Some of these performers have been singing these songs for 60 years and more, and there are plenty of great bands here, like Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers, the Coasters, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Chantels, Jay and the Americans, the Orioles and so on, playing songs like “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Sh-Boom.”  There are some stories that are heartwarming but a lot are anything but. Racial prejudice was common for these predominantly African-American groups who were often discriminated against by the very audiences dancing to their records. Many of those who were responsible for some of the most iconic songs of the 20th century were never paid royalties, or amounts that were almost insulting.

This isn’t really a definitive documentary – they’d need a mini-series for that – and it glosses over the history to a large degree. Wilson does a pretty good job using a clever motif of a 45 record to delineate various chapters of the documentary, and further graphics give a sense of what year various songs came out. Still, if you’re looking for more information, the film barely scratches the surface.

The good thing, though, is that you get to hear some of the music and it is essential music. Sure, it’s from a much more “innocent” time (even though Doo-Wop did play an essential role in the Civil Rights movement) and may sound a bit dated to modern ears, but the harmonies are timeless and so are most of the songs themselves. For some, this might make for a lovely walk down Memory Lane while for others this might serve as an introduction to a style of music that has influenced the pop music of every era since – including the current one.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is absolutely essential. Nice use of graphics.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not as informative as other docs of this type have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The school depicted in the film carries the Portuguese name for John Carpenter, who is an idol of both directors.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life Could Be a Dream
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Hunter Killer

The House With a Clock In Its Walls


Welcome to the dark ages.

(2018) Young Adult Fantasy (UniversalJack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Colleen Camp, Sunny Suljic, Lorenza Izzo, Braxton Bjerken, Vanessa Anne Williams, Ricky Lynn Muse, Charles Green, DJ Watts, Aaron Beelner, Joshua Phillips, Christian Calloway, Caleb Lawrence, Dylan Gage Moore, Eli Roth, Alli Paige Beckham. Directed by Eli Roth

 

I don’t know why Hollywood has such a problem with adapting young adult fantasy franchises from their original book form. Other than the Harry Potter series, every attempt has led to movies that ranged from dreadful to dull and were more often than not, both. This first book in a series from author John Bellairs fares no differently.

Young Lewis (Vaccaro) has been orphaned. It’s 1955, so he has been sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black) in Michigan. Jonathan lives in a mansion that you just know is haunted – all it lacks is hitchhiking ghosts – that is stocked with odd magical creatures, like a chair that is too eager to please and a garden topiary shaped like a griffin that – I kid you not – craps mulch.

Then again, Lewis is a bit of an oddball himself so he fits right in. Along with their prim and proper neighbor Florence (Blanchett) who carries on a platonic friendship with Jonathan, they are investigating the mystery of a ticking clock in the walls of the house that could well signal an apocalyptic cataclysm enacted by the fully evil previous owner (MacLachlan) who is definitely dead but certainly not gone. Jonathan is a warlock and Florence a witch but are they powerful enough to stop the evil machinations of a much more powerful magician?

Eli Roth, who helped popularize torture porn with films like Hostel back in the 90s, might at first seem like an odd choice for this kind of movie until you realize that before he started his run of blood-soaked horror features he was directing animated shorts for children, so he isn’t without understanding of the kid mentality. That’s why it’s sad that the film falls victim to the same trap most of the other failed young adult franchise adaptations fell into – talking down to their audience. Kids are definitely not dumber versions of adults; they’re just less experienced. Sure, you can make ‘em laugh with vomiting jack o’lanterns as Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke (who helmed the superior Supernatural series on the CW) do but that is disrespecting your audience. If you wonder why the Potter series succeeded where so many others failed, look at the way they developed their characters and respected their story as well as their target audience. Studios don’t seem inclined to do that these days, I’m afraid.

Blanchett is a ray of sunshine as Florence and she gets many of the best moments in the film. Black does his best, but he’s a much more effective performer when there’s a bit of an edge to his game. Vaccaro is likely a nice kid, but he’s playing a boy who is supposed to be grieving and the scenes in which he’s called upon to cry for them are just appalling. I don’t blame him; I blame the casting director who put him in a terrible position.

The effects are passable and the movie is loaded – perhaps overloaded – with them. It lacks character development, substituting quirks for characters, and humor that will appeal to parents as well as kids. Toilet humor is the refuge of the faithless, and it is clear that the filmmakers had no faith that their audience could handle humor that’s above the level of a three-year-old.

REASONS TO SEE: Cate Blanchett is absolutely terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Simplistic plot and passable effects.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some scary content, fantasy violence, rude humor and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film directed by Roth not to receive an R rating in the U.S.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fios, Fubo, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Showtime, Sling TV,  Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Goosebumps
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Collette

Cold War (Zimna wojna)


Love and war are often indistinguishable.

(2018) Romance (Amazon) Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cėdric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar, Adam Woronowicz, Adam Ferency, Drazen Slivak, Slavko Sobin, Aloise Sauvage, Adam Szyszkowski, Anna Zagórska, Tomasz Markowicz, Izabela Andrzejak, Kamila Borowska, Katarzyna Clemniejewska, Joanna Depczynska. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

 

We like to think of love as a redemptive, enhancing feeling that makes us better people. Love can also be toxic, blinding us to that which can destroy us and leave us bitter and broken. Love is two sides of the same coin and when you throw a repressive regime that discourages individuality into the mix, love can be all but impossible.

In 1949, Poland like all of Europe is digging itself out of the rubble of World War II. Now under communist control, the government has sent Wiktor (Kot), a pianist/composer/arranger out into the countryside along with dance instructor Irena (Kulesza) and driver Kaczmarek (Szyc) to seek out the songs and singers of traditional Polish folk music, something like the Folkways project that the Smithsonian undertook during the Depression. A school/troupe of singers and dancers of traditional Polish folk songs and dances is being put together and Wiktor and Irena are tasked with selecting the songs and dances as well as the artists who will perform them.

One woman in particular catches the eye of Wiktor; Zula (Kulig), a brassy, effervescent sort who has a criminal record and all sorts of stories to explain it. She’s beautiful in a kind of Pia Zadora/Bridget Bardot kind of way and certainly sensual; it isn’t long before she and Wiktor are having a torrid affair, one that threatens to consume them both.

As the 1940s ease into the 1950s, there is a subtle change in the mission of the troupe. No longer content to save and extol Poland’s musical and artistic past, naked propaganda has begun to work its way into the program, songs praising Stalin and communism in general. Wiktor wants none of it. He was content to save music that might have been lost but he is not one who follows any party line and he is determined to pack up his toys and depart that particular sandbox.

But Zula has been passing on information about Wiktor to Kaczmarek who has become a minor commissar who is rising up in the ranks of the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, Wiktor convinces Zula to flee the communist bloc with him when they are performing a concert in Berlin shortly before the Wall was erected. However, she doesn’t show at their planned rendezvous and bitterly disappointed, he steps into the West, never for one moment forgetting what he left behind in the East.

The film follows them through their tempestuous romance over the next 15 years, the height of the cold war. Pawlikowski based the couple on his own parents who had a stormy relationship of their own, although I’m pretty certain it didn’t go down quite the same path as Wiktor and Zula go. Both of them are scarred by the times but mostly by each other. Wiktor becomes weak, directionless and obsessed with the love he lost; he ends up in Paris, playing with a jazz combo and scoring films. Zula, volatile and occasionally cruel, gets married but still loves Wiktor even though she knows any sort of relationship with him is doomed to fail. Love, sometimes, isn’t enough and this movie certainly makes that point. Wiktor and Zula clearly love each other deeply but they are fighting an uphill battle from the very beginning. The Iron Curtain will end up crushing them both.

The performances here are strong, particularly Kulig who is one of Poland’s most popular actresses and a dynamite singer in her own right. There’s a scene late in the movie where Zula is performing in a nightclub revue in the mid-60s that is absolutely horrible by our standards today. She knows what she has been reduced to. Onstage she’s all smiles and even the presence of her lover doesn’t overcome her own revulsion of what she’s become; she runs offstage past her husband, son and yes Wiktor too and vomits. It’s powerful and resonant all at once.

Pawlikowski is best-known for his Oscar-nominated Ida and what was excellent about that film is present in his latest one. The cinematography from Lukasz Zal who did that film (as well as the brilliant Loving Vincent) is in gorgeous black and white, often accompanied by a smoky jazz score. Speaking of the score, the folk music both of the troupe and that which Wiktor and Irena find in the sticks is absolutely gorgeous and while I’m less impressed with the more modern jazzy takes of the music, this is regardless a soundtrack worth seeking out.

Powerful and tragic, this is a movie that spends a lot of time getting started – the early scenes at the Palace which is the headquarters for the troupe become overbearing as we watch the girls practice dancing and singing endlessly and as Wiktor and Zula’s love begins to blossom, we sense that this is a relationship that is not built for longevity but that’s not because of the depth of their love or lack thereof but sadly, about the times they are in. It’s still playing at a few scattered theaters across the country (including right here in Orlando at the Enzian) but will be making its home video debut shortly, although if it should do well at the Oscars that might change. I suggest seeing it on the big screen if you can – you’ll want to enjoy the cinematography the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is breathtaking. The folk music is hauntingly beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The first third drags a little too much – all the training sequences could easily have been excised.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, brief nudity, profanity and some mild violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cold War has been nominated for three Oscars this year; Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The English Patient
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Golem

The Nun (2018)


When staying in a haunted abbey it is advisable to frequently check and see what’s behind you.

(2018) Horror (New Line) Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Bonnie Aarons, Ingrid Bisu, Charlotte Hope, Sandra Teles, August Maturo, Jack Falk, Lynnette Gaza, Ani Sava, Michael Smiley, Gabrielle Downey, David Horovitch, Tudor Munteanu, Lili Bordán, Scarlett Hicks, Izzie Coffey, Jared Morgan, Laur Dragan, Eugeniu Cozma, Manuela Clucur, Beatrice Peter, Ana Udrolu. Directed by Corin Hardy

This is the fifth film in the Conjuring universe to date. In it we explore the origins of the demonic nun first seen in The Conjuring 2. Is her story worth exploring further?

At a remote Romanian abbey a young nun is found hanging from the front facade by local villager and supplier Frenchie (Bloquet). Word gets back to the Vatican where Father Burke (Bichir) is assigned to investigate with novitiate Sister Irene (Farmiga) sent to accompany him. Father Burke has a bit of a past; during an exorcism that he performed a child (Maturo/Falk) died and he has been haunted by the memory ever since.

When they get to the village near the Abbey where Frenchie lives, they discover that the villagers have a healthy fear of the Abbey which is rumored to contain a terrible evil. Frenchie takes the to the abbey where the Mother Superior (Gaza) informs them that the nuns are in the midst of their vow of silence for the night and they can’t be interviewed until the following day. The two clerics will have to stay the night.

Of course during the night both of them are beset by nightmarish visions and Frenchie has issues of his own getting back home. The next day Sister Irene talks to some cooperative nuns but discovers that they have been tasked to hold back the evil entity dwelling below the abbey with the power of constant prayer and Father Burke has a close encounter with Daniel and being buried alive. There is most definitely an evil presence at the Abbey – and it will be up to Father Burke, Sister Irene and Frenchie to vanquish it before it escapes to cause all sorts of havoc in the rest of the world.

Hardy uses his Romanian locations to their full potential. Rarely have I seen a horror movie that exudes such palpable menace. You’re on edge from the moment that we arrive in Romania which is what you want from a horror movie. Unfortunately, you want a bit more as well and the promise of the genuinely creepy castle where this was filmed isn’t taken advantage of.

Hardy relies far too much on jump scares which, to be fair, is a trademark of the franchise overall but the effectiveness of those scares is diluted the more that they are used. While the make-up for the demonic nun is genuinely impressive, for the most part she just leaps out of the shadows with an accompanying WHOOM! on the soundtrack. In that sense what could have been a great character is reduced to a Halloween novelty device that you find in neighborhood homes that like to decorate for the holiday.

Thankfully, Farmiga, Bloquet and particularly Bichir didn’t get the memo that the movie wasn’t up to par with the other films. They all turn in solid performances with Bichir once again proving that he is perhaps the most underutilized actor in Hollywood. It makes me wonder if he wasn’t Hispanic he would be getting more high-profile roles. As it is he makes the most out of the roles he does get and he is nearly as memorable as the background here.

This ends up being a bit of a disappointment. Demonic nuns are always an extremely scary creature and there has yet to be a movie that I’ve seen that really makes full use of them, although I’m sure there are some out there that must. The franchise has been to this point pretty impressive in terms of the quality of the individual films but it has been slipping as of late. There are at least three new movies in the Conjuring universe in the pipeline and hopefully they will turn the quality factor around but if they continue to be as mediocre as this perhaps it just might be time to give the franchise a rest.

REASONS TO GO: The Romanian locations are truly creepy. Bichir is outstanding while Bloquet and Farmiga both give strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many jump scares. The horror intensity is lacking from the other films in the franchise.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of terror and disturbing images, violence and some gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taissa Farmiga who plays Sister Irene is the younger sister of Vera, who plays Lorraine Warren in the original The Conjuring. It is not known whether the two characters are related.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/31/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Church
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Weed the People

Suburbicon


Matt Damon is having a really bad night.

(2017) Black Comedy (Paramount) Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac, Richard Kind, Gary Basaraba, Leith Burke, Karimah Westbrook, Tony Espinosa, Glenn Fleshler, Alex Hassell, Don Baldaramos, Ellen Crawford, Megan Ferguson, Corey Allen Kotler, Steven Shaw, Steve Monroe, Allen Wasserman, Rupert Pierce, Pamela Dunlap, Biff Yeager, Lauren Burns. Directed by George Clooney

 

Suburbicon is a black comedy. Suburbicon is a treatise on social injustice. Suburbicon is a crime drama. Suburbicon is a period piece. Suburbicon is all of those things and none of those things. It’s a pastiche of different things that flutter through the proscenium and then wither on the screen. It’s one of the most disappointing movies of 2017.

Based on an unproduced script by the Coen Brothers, Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov have added a bit of contemporary social commentary – white racists in a suburban planned community in the Northeast talk endlessly about erecting a giant wall around the home of the first African-American residents of the community but this is no mere Trump-bashing exercise although it is that too.

The arrival of the Meyers family into  lily-white planned suburban community in the Eisenhower 50s only shows the insidious racism lurking just beneath the surface of America’s golden age – and by implication, continues at present. However, that’s not the only story going on here. During a home invasion, Rose Lodge (Moore) dies of a chloroform overdose, leaving her grieving husband Gardner (Damon), son Nicky (Jupe) and twin sister Margaret (Moore again) to pick up the pieces.

Much of the comedy centers around the blatant consumerism of the suburban 50s and as well there are certain Coen moments (like an oily insurance investigator (Isaac) who figures out what’s going on or a chase scene between a thug (Fleshler) and Gardner in a VW and child’s bike, respectively) that will delight their diehard fans. Still, there aren’t enough of them to overcome the curiously flat energy and the wildly all-over-the-place script that derails the project despite the presence of high-wattage stars. There are enough moments to make it worth checking out, but not enough to go out of your way to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Matt Damon plays way against type. There are some occasional moments of offbeat humor.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy is scattershot and the energy is flat. The soundtrack is annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence (some of it graphic), profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first time Clooney directed a film in which he did not also appear as an actor.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Paramount Movies, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Downsizing
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Finding Your Feet

The Death of Stalin


Stalin has the literal last laugh.

(2017) Comedy/Satire (IFC) Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Olga Kurylenko, Jason Isaacs, Paddy Considine, Paul Chahidi, Adrian McLoughlin, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Richard Brake, Dermot Crowley, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Paul Whitehouse, Cara Horgan, Karl Johnson, Diana Quick, Jonathan Aris, Dave Wong, Eva Sayer. Directed by Armando Iannucci

 

While history is often written by the victorious and comes from that point of view, there are some things that transcend opinion. For one, tyrants like Hitler and in this particular case, Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union, were homicidal monsters who are to be reviled rather than revered. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good for a laugh or two

Stalin (McLoughlin) barely makes an appearance in the film; he has his life-ending cerebral hemorrhage about 20 minutes into the film, but his presence hangs over the entire proceeding as a power struggle develops between secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (Beale) and the politically canny Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi). The rest of the central committee, including the spine-challenged Georgy Malenkov (Tambor) and the flip-flopping Vyacheslav Molotov (Palin) are busy scrambling to make sure they don’t get caught in the fallout that is sure to come once one of their number assumes control of the Soviet Union.

While the movie compresses a period of about three years into a few days (the final denouement which is shown here to take place shortly after the funeral actually occurred three years after Stalin was laid to rest), the historical facts as we can come by them seem to be pretty accurate. That the movie is based on a French graphic novel makes that a bit astounding but in this era of fake news and bald-faced lies that come from our own politicians, not surprising.

Buscemi has always been something of an underrated comic performer but this might be his best role yet. He plays Khrushchev as paranoid and somewhat high-strung, relating funny stories from the siege of Stalingrad including one of sticking a private’s finger in warm water in order to cause him to wet himself which turns out to be somewhat ironic since Stalin himself would shortly do exactly that (which is historically accurate; the hemorrhage caused him to lose control of his bladder).

Iannucci has created such spot-on satires as the HBO series Veep and the seminal British show The Thick of It but while those tend to be somewhat harder edged than Stalin he manages to concoct a story that is both timely and of a specific time simultaneously. We here in the West understand that being near the top of the political heap in the old Soviet Union was inherently dangerous to life and limb and we pat ourselves on the back to say “it was never like that here” but then we look at the current White House and its revolving door and wonder if it wasn’t a lot more similar than we think.

There are some moments of wonderful nonsense, such as when Beria and Khrushchev (neither one of whom are particularly athletic) racing through the woods of Stalin’ s dacha in order to be the first to greet his daughter Svetlana (Riseborough), or when war hero Grand Marshall Zhukov (Isaacs), then in charge of the Red Army, arrives at the Kremlin dripping with medals and roaring “What does it take for a soldier to get lubricated around here?”

Not everyone will find this funny. The Russians have banned this movie, claiming that it was insulting to Russian history which I suppose it is – if the Russians did a satire on the death of President Kennedy I suppose we wouldn’t be laughing much either. But then again, Putin has a lot more in common with Stalin than Trump has with JFK and I don’t doubt that those who are Trump supporters may find this to be a thinly veiled dig at their hero. I don’t think it is in particular, but parallels can certainly be glimpsed.

Da Queen found the film to be a bit long-winded and she has a point. I also have to point out that I was laughing out loud hysterically the first time I saw it but the second time I saw it with Da Queen it wasn’t quite as funny. That may mean that it won’t lend itself to repeated viewings although comedies rarely do. However, the first viewing really got me into the somewhat anarchic and zany world that Iannucci created and while it may not have been too laugh-inspiring at the time, at least today we can look back on it and see the humor – not so much in the situation but in how we react to it.

REASONS TO GO: Much of it is hysterically funny. Buscemi is at the top of his game. The dialogue is wickedly funny. Those who love Monty Python are going to enjoy this.
REASONS TO STAY: The subject matter may make laughter a somewhat uncomfortable reaction. It’s a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is consistent profanity, adult themes, violence (some of it graphic), sexual references and intimations of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was banned in Russia, two days before it was due to be released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monty Python’s Life of Brian
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
La Familia