An Unknown Compelling Force


This camera holds the last images of a doomed expedition.

(2021) Documentary (1091) Liam Le Guillou, Svetlana Oss, Yuri Kuntsevich, Ken Holmes, Mick Fennerty, Oleg Demyanenko, Natalia Sakharova, Vladimir Askinadzi, Vladislav Karelin, Alexey Slepuhin, Aleksie Kutsevalov, Evgeniy Zinovyev, Tarzin Arkadevich, Andrey Picuzo, Valery Anyamov, Kharbina Aleksandrovna, Boris Bychkov, Alexander Fedotov, Anna Andreeva. Directed by Liam Le Guillou

 

On the night of February 1, 1959, a group of experienced hikers from Ural Polytechnic Institute had camped out in a pass near what locals call “Death Mountain” in the Ural mountain range. Sometime before the following the morning, the nine hikers fled their tent wearing only their sleeping clothes and no boots and ran into the subzero temperatures of the pass. After they didn’t report back when they were supposed to, a search party was organized. Their bodies were found in the snow, dead from exposure but with mysterious and grotesque injuries on their body. Their tent was found shredded, most likely by the panicked hikers who cut their way out of the tent and fled, according to the official report, “an unknown compelling force.”

Even back then, few bought it. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the investigative report was made public which led to further questions. A camera had been found near one of the bodies; the film had been developed and while most were pictures of smiling campers interacting with local villagers or trekking through the snow, one showed a mysterious figure standing on two legs. The very last picture on the roll, taken on the night the campers died, showed what appeared to be mysterious lights in the sky.

All sorts of theories have sprung up surrounding the incident, from a government cover-up after the hikers witnessed a weapon test they weren’t supposed to see, an attack by a Russian yeti (based on the photo of the bipedal figure), and even an attack by aliens (inspired by the last photo). As a result of the rampant speculation, the Russian government reopened the investigation, but closed it once again, citing an avalanche which led to the panic of the hikers.

To former photojournalist and current documentary filmmaker Liam Le Guillou, this seemed implausible. The British citizen found the story of the Dyatlov Pass incident (the pass now named after the leader of the ill-fated expedition) incredibly compelling and he came to be, he admits, obsessed by it. He contacted the head of a group dedicated to further investigation into the incident and was told to come to Russia if he wanted to find out the real story, so he did.

Along with an intrepid cameraman, Le Guillou proposed to investigate the incident himself using Russian sources, interviewing surviving members of the rescue team, criminologists and journalists along with American forensic and crime experts, reviewing the post-mortem photos (which are shown here, somewhat censored but still gruesome) and forensic evidence which still survives. He also decided to retrace the same journey taken by the Dyatlov party, using guide Kunitsevich, to see for himself where the tragedy took place.

The footage in the Urals is nothing short of majestic, albeit desolate. Snow-covered peaks and wintry vistas of bare trees and frozen rivers show the forbidding, unforgiving nature of the area, and gives viewers at least an inkling of what drew the young college students (although one of their number was actually much older than the rest of the group) to such a lonely spot.

Le Guillou also uses the diaries of the students to give them personalities as well as photos. It is eerie; they are so young and carefree, completely without any foreknowledge that they would never return from this trip and that their young lives would be cut short in a brutal manner.

And brutal it was indeed. One of the students had his skull nearly caved in; two others had serious chest wound, one of which was so severe that it bent part of the ribcage to puncture the victim’s heart; one hiker was missing her tongue and her eyes. Nearly all of them had some sort of defensive wounds All of the forensic investigators agreed that these were not wounds consistent with the avalanche story, but made by a brutal attack by humans.

Le Guillou also delves into the culture of the local tribes, who came under fire from some quarters as being complicit in the crime, or maybe even responsible for it. The argument goes that the hikers inadvertently stumbled into a sacred place or took a sacred object and were set upon by the tribespeople in retaliation. Le Guillou takes nearly all of the theories that have been advanced and dissected them; advancing some, disproving most.

The big problem here is Le Guillou himself. Not that he isn’t a thorough investigative reporter – he is – but he inserts himself a bit too much into the film, commenting over and over again how perilous the trek he is taking is, or how mindful he is that if something should happen there would be no help forthcoming. A good documentary concentrates on the subject because it is their story that is being told, not the filmmaker’s. Their story is far more compelling than that of Le Guillou.

REASONS TO SEE: The story is compelling and largely unknown in the West. The feeling throughout is eerie.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly dramatic narration that inserts Le Guillou into the story far too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some postmortem images of the bodies of the hikers.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally, ten hikers set out but Yuri Yudin was forced to turn back several days before his friends died by a bad back. He spent the rest of his days mourning their loss and after his own death in 2013, was added to the hiker’s memorial in the Urals.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Staircase
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Woman in the Window

Tove


Art and literature collide.

(2020) Biographical Drama (Juno) Alma Pöysti, Krista Kosonen, Shanti Roney, Joanna Haartti, Kajsa Ernst, Robert Enckell, Jakob Öhrman, Eeva Putro, Wilhelm Ehckell, Liisi Tandefelt, Emma Klingenberg, Juhana Ryynänen, Henrik Wolff, Dick Idman, Simon Häger, Kira-Emmi Pohokari, Sanna Langinkoski, Saga Sarkola, Jon Henriksen, Lydia Taavitsainen. Directed by Zaida Bergroth

 

European readers are more likely to recognize the Moomins,( hippopotamus-like characters who live in a strange and magical world called Moominland and were something like the Smurfs) than American readers, although some might. Fewer Americans still would be acquainted with their author, Tove Jansson, a Swede living in Finland.

Tove was born to a Bohemian family whose patriarch, Victor (Enckell) was a well-known sculptor, his wife Signe (Ernst) a graphic artist. Tove is trained to be a painter, but she seems more comfortable following in her mother’s footsteps, despite her father’s insistence that anything other than painting would be beneath her talents. Already somewhat well-known for drawing cartoons lampooning Hitler during the era of Quisling, she has a sprightly personality that really recognizes no boundaries other than those she imposes on herself.

She initiates an affair with socialist politician Atos Wirtanen (Roney) who happens to be married. She attends parties, often taking shots at the bourgeoisie of Finnish society. She pays her rent with paintings that she promises will increase in value once she becomes famous (although her fame came in a different media than she thought she was going to be).

Then she meets Vivica Bander (Kosonen), a theatrical director who is the daughter of Helsinki’s mayor – and also married herself – who challenges her “Have you ever kissed a girl?” As it turns out, Tove hasn’t but she’s never one to turn down a challenge and before you can say “Teemu Selanne” the two are having a torrid affair. And along the way, we get to see the birth of Toe’s most famous creations, and the elements of their personalities that came straight out of Tove’s life (well, we sorta do anyway). But Vivica isn’t ready to commit to being with Tove; will she accept being a second banana in her romantic relationships forever?

This is a sumptuously filmed biopic by veteran Finnish director Bergroth, with gorgeous production design by Catharina Nyqvist Ehrnrooth. Tove’s studio is a near-perfect reproduction of her actual studio, which can be seen online in photographs. The soundtrack largely utilizes jazz, big band and mambo/tango tunes from European bands and is absolutely delightful.

Pöysti does a credible job capturing Tove’s pixie-esque personality. As an added grace note, we see the real Tove dancing joyously on the island retreat taken in super-8 footage by her real-life partner Tuulikki Pietilä (who makes only a brief appearance near the end of the film, played by Joanna Haartti) who, although scarcely mentioned in this film, spent most of her life with the Moomin creator which I thought was a bit odd, but then, Tove did nothing conventionally. Why should her biopic?

REASONS TO SEE: Superb production design. Nifty soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kinda slow through the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexual content, nudity and a whole lot of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The official submission of Finland for Best International Film for the 2021 Oscars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miss Potter
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Saint Judy

State Funeral


Pomp and circumstance for a despot.

(2019) Documentary (MUBI) Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Lavrenti Beria, Vyacheslav Molotov, Gregori Malenkov, Enlai Zhou, Valko Chervenov, Yumyaagiin Tsedenbal, Dolores Ibárruri. Directed by Sergey Loznitsa

 

In the pantheon of 20th century monsters it is clear that Josef Stalin stands right up there with Adolph Hitler and Chairman Mao. These three men were responsible for the death of hundreds of millions of people through genocide, war, starvation, and political assassination. These men had an agenda which was mainly about holding on to absolute power. All three were authoritarians. They remain, to this day, cautionary tales.

When Stalin died in 1953, it created something of a crisis in the old Soviet Union. He was the glue that held together the USSR after Lenin died; the glue was brutality and fear, but it was glue nonetheless. The pressing thought when he died was What will become of us? which was a legitimate question although one that couldn’t be expressed openly. Papa Joe, which he was somewhat ironically nicknamed, had projected an image of paternal caring and love, even though people were dreadfully afraid of the NKVD (which became he KGB) and of Lavrenti Beria’s network of informants who ferreted out any dissent and brought dissenters to horrifying ends.

So for the occasion of Stalin’s funeral, the remaining central committee members wanted a show of epic pageantry that would on the one hand allow the country to mourn and to also reassure the people that the business of government would continue as it had been. A lavish spectacle was planned, with the dictator lying in state in the Hall of the Unions in Moscow before a massive funeral in Red Square. All of it would be captured for posterity by hundreds of cameras documenting not only the main festivities in Moscow but also local and regional memorials from all over the vast Soviet Union.

Belarus-born documentary filmmaker Sergey Loznitsa (who is currently based in Germany) went through more than forty hours of footage and narrowed it down to two and a half hours. The footage has been digitally enhanced, looking as clean and crisp as the day it was shot. As a historical document, it is priceless; as a cultural document, it is fascinating, giving a rare glimpse inside the USSR which we largely didn’t see much of in the West other than propaganda. Well, of course, this is largely meant to be propaganda (I’ll get into that in a moment) but it has been skillfully edited to present much more of an objective picture.

Loznitsa eschews conventional narration, utilizing instead what was broadcast over the ubiquitous loudspeakers throughout the Soviet Union – glorifications of the Communist movement, glorifications of the Soviet Union and of course glorifications the dear departed, reinforcing his public image as a paternal figure. The soundtrack is enhanced with sounds of shuffling feet, wails of lamentation, and other ambient sounds. It is the images of the people filing past the coffin that will stay with me though; the working class, ordinary folk whose faces look numb. Is it grief? Or is it relief that perhaps things will get better with Stalin gone? If it was the latter, there’s no way to ever know – even were interviews to be conducted back then, nobody would admit to it for fear of ending up in one of Beria’s prisons, or with a gun pressed to their temples.

We have the benefit of viewing this film, like any other historical document, with hindsight. Even though most American audiences will not recognize most of the people in the film, they were the most powerful Soviets of their day, as well as high-ranking communists from all over the globe. I suspect a good many of them won’t be recognized even in Russia, nor would the irony of a massive funeral celebrating a man who murdered tens of millions of his countrymen be recognized in a land presided over by Putin, who has borrowed some of Stalin’s tactics.

It might be hard on some to sit through endless shots of people filing past a coffin – and that takes up an awful lot of the film, but trust me, this isn’t a boring or repetitive film in the least. As a country that is battling some tendencies towards authoritarianism ourselves, this is a cautionary tale to say the least. A cult of personality can thrive here. We’ve seen it done. If we want to see the aftermath of one, we can do worse than to look at this film…and remember it.

REASONS TO SEE: The Soviet propaganda machine in full flower. The images are surprisingly crisp and clean and often breathtaking in scope. The numb expressions of the common people is very telling. Makes terrific use of sound.
REASONS TO AVOID: A very long time to watch a funeral.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of Stalin’s corpse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stalin died on March 5, 1953 from complications arising from a massive stroke suffered two days earlier.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: MUBI
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Death of Stalin
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Welcome Matt

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