Echo in the Canyon


This concert is for the Byrds.

(2018) Music Documentary (GreenwichJakob Dylan, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Beck, Michelle Phillips, Lou Adler, Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, John Sebastian, Graham Nash, Fernando Pedromo, Regina Spektor, Cat Power, Matt Tecu, Norah Jones, Fiona Apple, Justine Bennett, Jade Castrinos. Directed by Andrew Slater

One of the mysteries of music is how often it coalesces in a single location – Liverpool and Greenwich village in the early 60s, Minneapolis in the 80s, Seattle and Manchester in the 90s – where all the right conditions of talent and opportunity create a marvelously creative Petri dish that gives birth to a new sound, reinvigorating the now 60 year old hoary beast that is rock music.

For an astonishingly narrow era – 1965 to 1967 – one such place was in Southern California and specifically, Laurel Canyon. Today the Canyon is a tony mixture of trendy hipsters and wealthy consumers that frequent coffee houses and boutiques at the base of the Canyon. Back then, however, it was a musician’s colony and bands like the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield and even the Beach Boys (who were already big stars dating back to the surf era) were headquartered there. They would hang out at each other’s houses, share meals and drugs as well as play stuff they were working on for each other. The cross-pollination of the music that started with the Byrds’ foray into electric folk – which came to influence Folkie Number One Bob Dylan himself – and changed pop music forever, paving the way for seminal albums like Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Dylan’s progeny Jakob, himself a rock star with the Wallflowers, undertook the documentation of that scene after watching a French film called The Model Shop that starred Canadian actor Gary Lockwood as a Vietnam draftee wandering around L.A. and taking up with a French model who was trying to get back home to Paris. He started out interviewing the movers and shakers of the scene – David Crosby and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. He also spoke with some of those who were heavily influenced by the so-called California Sound – Eric Clapton (then of Cream), Ringo Starr of the Beatles, John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, Jackson Browne and Tom Petty in one of his final interviews before his untimely death in 2017.

This is a movie that had to be made now as most of those musicians from back then are in their 70s and 80s and so many of those who shaped that scene are no longer with us. Director Andrew Slater – a former music journalist and CEO of Capitol Records – peppers the soundtrack with some of the most amazing music of any era, showing off close harmonies, and the simple yet unforgettable sound of a well-played 12-string Rickenbacker.

Dylan would organize a tribute concert in 2015 at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theater in which contemporary stars like Beck, Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor played the hit songs of that era. Rehearsal footage and concert footage of the upstarts playing the iconic music of their predecessors illustrates how timeless that music remains.

My only real problem with the movie is that you begin to wonder if this is a labor of ego more than a labor of love. Dylan conducts all the interviews and is often nodding sagely at the remarks of his subjects. He is front and center at the tribute concert and much of the time the camera is focused on him. Dylan’s career has hit a plateau of sorts and one wonders if this isn’t a means for him to re-energize it. A little less Jakob Dylan and a lot more anecdotes from the original musicians would have been much more appreciated. Also, the film focuses on the more successful bands of the era. There were plenty of other bands in the Laurel Canyon scene whose music could have also been shared. Strangely, the Doors – who also lived in the Canyon – are not mentioned at all. I suppose their music wasn’t folk enough to mix with the ethos Slater and Dylan are creating here.

The movie’s demarcation point is Neil Young’s decision to leave Buffalo Springfield in 1967 which would see Crosby follow suit. Just two years later the innocence of the era would be cruelly shattered when a group of cultists went to the home of actress Sharon Tate in neighboring Benedict Canyon and brought the Sixties crashing to a halt. Still, the music that came before those grisly events remains and continue to influence artists to this day. The contributions of those who made it deserve to be properly acclaimed and recognized for what it was – the beginning of real innovation in rock and roll.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is, of course, fantastic. The stories that the musicians tell are mainly more compelling than the rehearsal and concert footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times feels more like a labor of ego than a labor of love.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references, sexual references and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Clips from the 1969 movie Model Shop were used to add a sense of what it was like in Laurel Canyon and Los Angeles in the late Sixties.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Concert for George
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Little Woods

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Charlie Says (2018)


Charlie says “kill the rich.”

(2018) True Life Drama (IFC) Hannah Murray, Suki Waterhouse, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendón, Matt Smith, Grace Van Dien, Merritt Wever, Annabeth Gish, Chace Crawford, Bridger Zadina, Lindsay Farris, Kimmy Shields, Kayli Carter, India Ennenga, Matt Riedy, Tracy Perez, Sol Rodriguez, Dayle McLeod, Julia Schlaepfer, Bryan Adrian, Cameron Gellman, James Trevena-Brown, Jackie Joyner. Directed by Mary Harron

 

Perhaps one of the most notorious crimes in American history is the Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the Manson family cult in August, 1969. It was all the more horrifying because several of the perpetrators were young women who by all accounts sweet-natured, good-hearted girls before they met Manson. How they journeyed from that background to become vicious mass murderers has always been a subject of speculation.

Director Mary Harron (American Psycho) takes on the task of looking at three of the most notorious women – Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten (Murray), Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkle (Bacon) and Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Rendón) – three years after the crimes were committed and after they’d been sentenced to death, a sentence which was commuted to life imprisonment after California abolished the death penalty in 1972.

Mostly we see this through Van Houten’s eyes; how she was brought over to the cult by her friends Krenwinkle and Bobby Beausoleil (Gellman) and how she eventually fell under the spell of the charismatic wannabe rock star Charlie Manson (Smith). Charlie gave them purpose and in the era of free love, all the love they wanted. In return, he told them what to think, how to act and who to have sex with. He often exhorted them to “kill their egos,” erasing their sense of self. Under his tutelage, they became blank slates willing to love him, screw him, die for him and kill for him.

While in prison graduate student Karlene Faith (Wever) is assigned to teach the girls while they are being held separate from the rest of the general population at the California Correctional Institute for Women. Karlene is disturbed by the extent the women have been brainwashed (they still believe that Manson was an absolute God three years into their prison sentence) and hopes to bring them out of his control by using feminist theory. Of course, once that is accomplished the ladies will have to deal with the horror of what they have done.

The film doesn’t really cover any ground we haven’t been over before – anyone who saw the landmark television miniseries Helter Skelter will be more than familiar with the story. However, this is the first time we’ve seen the story through the eyes of the Manson women. Van Houten of the three makes a memorable impression but then that was the primary subject of Faith’s book on which the movie is partially based (several other sources were also used). It helps that Murray captures the innocence, longing and naivete of Van Houten; she becomes a sympathetic character, a victim of Manson before the murders even occurred.

Matt Smith, the former Doctor Who, is magnificent as Manson. In what I believe to be the best portrayal of the late cult leader since Steve Railsback in the Helter Skelter miniseries in 1971. Smith shows a man becoming more paranoid and vicious as his delusions become more pronounced. The hippie movement was meant to be one of peace and love; Manson was the dark distorted reflection of that ethic. It served to terrify middle America and cast a pall on what the young people of the time were trying to accomplish. I lived in the San Fernando Valley in 1969 not all that far from Spahn Ranch where the Manson Family was headquartered; I remember the era well.

While the murders aren’t the centerpiece of the film, they are shown in some graphic detail. This may be off-putting for those who are sensitive or squeamish. The movie is creepy from the beginning but the longer it goes, the creepier it gets. It does show how even decent, ordinary human beings can be changed into homicidal monsters. It is not comforting to know that it could happen to any one of us given the wrong circumstances.

There are some great period songs on the soundtrack and a nice recreation of Spahn Ranch (the real one burned to the ground in 1975 and is part of a state park now with nary a sign the Family was ever there). I don’t know that the world needed another movie about the Manson family – and apparently the murders play an important role in Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – but certainly it is interesting to see things from the viewpoint of the women who were in on crimes that were so mindblowingly awful that most of us couldn’t possibly conceive of them, let alone carry them out. This is truly a chilling film.

REASONS TO SEE: The longer it goes, the creepier it gets. Smith makes the best Manson since Steve Railsback. The soundtrack is terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might be a little too lurid for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, drug use, violence, sex and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The songs performed by Smith as Charles Manson in the film were actually written by Manson himself.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Helter Skelter
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
All is True

Marching Forward


The Jones High Marching Tigers at the 1964 World’s Fair.

(2019) Documentary (University of Central Florida) James “Chief” Wilson, Del Kieffner, Carl Maultsby, Kay Kieffner Kimbrough, Jamaal Nicholas, Richard Fogelsong, Jamia Wilson, Joy Dickinson, Barbara Young, Nina Wilson Jones, Ben Brolemarkle, Virginia Wilson, Noel Wooley Weller, Karen Jones, Anthony Foster, Lyman Brodie, Barbara Kaye Burns, Lynn Kieffner Lockhart. Directed by Oswmer Louis, Lisa Mills and Robert Cassanello

High school is the time when the people we are as adults is influenced perhaps more than at any other time of our lives. The people who guide us (teachers, counselors, parents) are slowly displaced by our peers. The friendships we form in high school can be indelible, lasting the length of our lives even if we no longer have physical proximity.

Here in Orlando back in 1964, schools were segregated. Jones High School was one of the only high schools African-American students could attend. While race relations in Orlando were relatively mild, there was still plenty of things that needed to change – for example, members of the band recall demanding a nearby hamburger stand allow them to pay at the front window to get their burgers. Those demands resulted in a police action at band practice later that day.

Edgewater High School, by contrast, was lily white and fairly upper class. The students there were expected to become leaders of the community as well as of the state of Florida eventually. They had the best facilities available, the most modern amenities. Jones was lucky if they had enough books for everybody. The high school experience for students at these two Orlando high schools was night and day.

But both had one thing in common; marching bands that were among the best in the state. James “Chief” Wilson was the band leader at the time (and would continue to do so until he retired in the 1980s) at Jones and one of his closest friends was Del Kieffner, band leader at Edgewater. Both men took their jobs seriously of molding young people into a cohesive unit. Both men influenced their students who these days are of retirement age themselves, even now more than 50 years later. Both men are regarded fondly not only by the students who played in their bands but are revered by the institutions they served for so long and so well.

In 1964 the big news was the massive World’s Fair coming to New York City’s Flushing Meadow for a two-year run. On display would be the latest in manufacturing, tourism and amusements; the world was coming to New York and at the Florida pavilion it was determined that marching bands from high schools from around the state would be invited to play at the pavilion. The two best bands in the city were Edgewater and Jones; there was no doubt that Edgewater was going to go.

However, Jones didn’t have the kind of budget to send their kids to New York. Everything would have to be done through donations and through fund raisers. Many thought Jones was the best marching band in the State – they’d won several competitions to back their case. Many felt that Jones had to go. Among those was Del Kieffner. This set the stage for history.

According to his daughters, Kieffner was never really concerned about the history-making aspect of the Edgewater-Jones relationship; he only knew it was the right thing to do. Wilson however, also according to his daughters, was savvier about what it meant. It would illustrate that Orlando was a much more tolerant place than other like places in the South. It is not beyond the realm of chance that this attracted the attention of Walt Disney, who was even then scouting locations for an East Coast Disneyland at the time. Disney had a huge presence at the Fair with many what would become iconic attractions being tested there, including It’s a Small World, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress. While there isn’t any documentation to corroborate this, it had to register that African-American tourists would be more welcome in Orlando than they would be in other cities.

The documentary is clearly a labor of love. It clearly shows the lifelong bonds of affection generated by being in band, as well as the influence the band leaders had on those kids – many of whom went on to become educators themselves. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of footage that exists of the band from that period other than some 16mm home movie footage so much of the film is made up of interviews with the people who were there and their descendants. Even though the film is a compact 61 minutes, the non-stop interviews can make it seem like a segment of 60 Minutes.

This is also a student project so many student hands can be felt during the making of this film, but surprisingly, it doesn’t feel like a student film at all. Many student documentaries tend to feel like the viewer is being led by the nose to a specific conclusion; this one allows the viewer to feel the sweep of history without feeling manipulated. Kudos have to go to the faculty members who guided the project and allowed the students to do their thing, but also keep the movie entertaining and informative.

There are some brief animated segments with fairly basic techniques but the animations do make a nice break from the interviews which the movie really needs. I do have to stress that in reading this review, you should be aware I saw it at a Florida Film Festival screening that was packed to the gills mainly with Jones and Edgewater students who were involved in the World’s Fair trip, or who had played in bands led by Wilson and Kieffner. It was a fairly enthusiastic environment and no doubt enhanced my enjoyment of the film. Most readers will be unlikely to be able to recreate that experience.

Still, this is a well-made documentary about a moment that has been largely overlooked by history. In a turbulent era, it showed that there could be mutual respect and even friendship between black and white. A lot of myths were punctured. The film makes it easy to take a look back and feel part of that era without becoming strident. That’s a massive plus in and of itself.

Currently the filmmakers are looking to place the movie in film festivals and hosted screenings. If you are interested in hosting a screening or are a programmer in a film festival interested in booking the film, go to the film’s webpage by clicking on the photo above and contact the filmmakers directly.

REASONS TO SEE: The bond formed within marching bands is clearly illustrated. Chief Wilson is an unsung hero. The animation, while basic, is effective.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit heavy on the talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes regarding racism and segregation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film began as a class project at the University of Central Florida; after class ended, the two faculty members (Mills and Cassanello) as well as several students worked to complete the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marching Orders
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Satan and Adam

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (Ye wen wai zhuan: Zhang tian zhi)


Jin Zhang and Michelle Yeoh have a tete a tete.

(2018) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Jin Zhang, Dave Bautista, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Jaa, Patrick Tam, Xing Yu, Naason, Chrissie Chau, Yan Liu, Henry Zhang, Brian Thomas Burrell, Kevin Chang, Adam Pak, Yuen Wah, Adel Ali Mohamed, Mathieu Jaquet. Directed by Woo-Ping Yuen

 

The Ip Man series of films (currently at seven and counting – another one is set for American distribution in July) have yielded big box office success in China and Hong Kong over the years. The series revolves around Ip Man, the revered and legendary martial arts master whose claim to fame in the West is that he mentored Bruce Lee. Most of the Ip Man movies revolve around the master defending the citizens of Hong Kong from the excesses of the corrupt British colonialists and deadly local criminal gangs. Although highly fictionalized accounts of the master’s life, the popularity of the series in Asia is undeniable.  It was inevitable that a spin-off would be created. Does it deliver on the action goods as the original series did?

Wing chun master and formerly the head of a prestigious school Cheung Tin-chi (J. Zhang) lost a closed-door match to Ip Man (the only connection to Ip Man and an outrageously tenuous one at that) and has been reduced to beating up people for a low-life criminal (Wah). Disillusioned by the way his life has turned out, Cheung elects to walk away from fighting. He opens up a tiny grocery store and sets about raising his rambunctious yet precocious young son Fung (H. Zhang) himself.

Nana (Chau) is hooked on drugs and is deeply in debt to local crimelord Kit (Chang). He is the hot-headed younger brother of Cheung Lok matriarch Kwan (Yeoh) who yearns to take her criminal enterprise legitimate, much to the consternation of Kit and her underlings who in the words of one, only know crime. Nana’s soon-to-be sister-in-law Julia (Liu) pays off Nana’s debt. She is the sister of Fu (Naason), one of the leaders on Hong Kong’s notorious garish Bar Street. He owns the successful Gold Bar, where Nana – his fiancée – works as a waitress and Julia sings. Kit though is not satisfied with the principle being paid off; he ants the interest too and refuses to release Nana. The feisty Julia manages to yank Nana away and the two women flee don an alleyway trailed by a pack of Kit’s goons here they run into Cheung making a delivery.

The goons are no match for Cheung, who now finds himself having acquired the enmity of Kit who firebombs Cheung’s store in retaliation. Cheung and his son, who lived above the store, have no place to go so the compassionate Julia puts them up and Cheung gets a job as a waiter at the Gold Bar. Still, Kit isn’t finished with them and when he goes too far leading to tragedy, Cheung knows he won’t get justice through the corrupt police ho are in the pockets of Kwan and Kit. Justice must be acquired the old-fashioned way.

The thing about most martial arts films is that the plot is pretty generic, the acting over-the-top and the characters barely developed at all and this is true of Master Z. However, Jin Zhang (also known as Max Zhang) is a charismatic lead who could appeal to audiences in much the same way as Ip Man’s Donnie Yen does. It doesn’t hurt to have Yeoh, easily one of the most accomplished actresses in the globe and a terrific martial artist in her own right, on the marquee. Tony Jaa, the spectacular fighter from the Thai series Ong Bak cameos as a mysterious assassin employed by various factions in the Hong Kong criminal underground, as well as former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista as a vicious racist restaurateur who is the drug supplier for Kit. Bautista’s British accent is a mite unconvincing though.

The real stars here are the production design and the fight scenes. Bar Street which in its day was a garish cross of Times Square and the Vegas strip. Recreated on a sound stage, it is a fantasy land of light and motion and a perfect place to stage spectacular fight scenes. The film is set in the early 60s judging from the costumes and the hair style of the women (lots of beehives and bouffants). While the era is inexact in some ways, the look is undeniable eye candy.

Despite having one of the greatest martial arts fight choreographers in history in the director’s chair, the fights are curiously uneven. The first in which Cheung encounters Kit’s goons in the alleyway is surprisingly tame; the next one, among the neon signs of Bar Street, is spectacular. Yeoh and Zhang have some nifty fights including one with a whiskey glass which they endeavor to pass from one to the other without spilling a drop. However, the climactic fight between Bautista and Zhang is once again not as thrilling as it might have been. When the fight scenes are at their best, though, they are stupendous.

There is certainly potential for sequels to Master Z and it did quite well at the box office when it was released in China earlier this year. In all fairness despite the star power in the cast (and behind the camera) the movie doesn’t really add much to the genre but it is entertaining in its own right and that’s enough for the martial arts enthusiast like me.

REASONS TO SEE: The production design is dazzling. Michelle Yeoh is always worth the price of admission.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the fight sequences (like the first one) don’t measure up to the show stoppers. The plot is pretty generic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of martial arts violence, some mild profanity as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the character of Ip Man (played in the series by Donnie Yen) doesn’t appear in the film, Yen remains on as a producer for it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ip Man 2
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Ramen Shop

Point Man


Two soldiers who don’t see eye to eye.

(2018) War (Vision) Christopher Long, Jacob Keohane, Chase Gutzmore, Marcus Bailey, Matthew Ewald, William Shannon Williams, Jeff Williams, Paul de Havilland, Joe W. Nowland, Acorye’ White, Jimmy Ace Lewis, Bryan Bachman, Cody Howard, Triston Dye, Jason Alan Cook, John Charles Harnett, James Roseman, Jason Damico, Marianne del Gallego. Directed by Phil Blattenberger

 

Once upon a time, war movies depicted American soldiers as brave, heroic and honorable and why not? The wars we were involved in were for the most part clearly defined from a moral standpoint. Then came Vietnam and everything changed.

Andre “Casper” Allen (Long) is “in country” and he’s not thrilled about it. Martin Luther King has just been assassinated back home and the civil rights movement is reaching a crescendo. Meanwhile he’s risking his life for a country where his people are hated, discriminated against, lynched and in general treated like second hand citizens. Even in Vietnam he’s called “Soul Man” by the locals who while they seem to be more accepting of him than his fellow Americans, are too busy trying to kill him for him to make friends.

He’s outspoken and opinionated which doesn’t endear him to his commanding officer, Lt. Sutton (Ewald) and he has to endure the racist taunts of Mississippi redneck Pvt. Meeks (Keohane) in the barracks. His platoon is being sent out into a largely hostile territory where unit 29 Bravo has disappeared and with whom all communication has been lost. They are being sent to sweep the area of Viet Cong and find the missing company, or their remains.

When his platoon gets into a firefight, four of the soldiers are pinned down – Casper, Meeks, and African-Americans Joe (Gutzmore) and Felix (Bailey) when Sutton bugs out to save his own neck, leaving the other four there to die. They fight their way out and go looking for Sutton – and it’s not to buy him an ice cream as Casper puts it. In the meantime, the four cut-off soldiers find the missing 29 Bravo and discover that their mission has devolved into killing every Vietnamese civilian possible whether they have any ties to the Viet Cong or not. Casper, who has become the quartet’s de facto leader, decides to take matters into his own hands which leads the group further and further down the rabbit hole.

=The morality of the Vietnam war is something America has been trying to come to grips with ever since we pulled out of Saigon, an act that is still hotly debated today. The soldiers who fought there are often caught in the middle; they were spat upon and despised by the left for even going to war and they were looked down upon and despised by the right for not winning it. Even today there’s a stigma associated with those who fought in the war, despite our rush to “support our troops” in the present day. The soldiers who served in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos don’t get the respect today that their peers who fought in other wars received and continue to receive.

We have to remember that a very large percentage of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam were basically teenage boys from poorer environments. This is a fact of the war that the movie fails to capture – most of the soldiers here seem to be older. The movie does capture the chaos of having leadership that was often self-contradictory and often did senseless things without explanation.

This is a very low budget indie. Do not expect to see battle sequences loaded with explosions and DolbyTM bullets whizzing through the air. Most of this is done with practical effects and it appears that the budget for fake blood was pretty low as well. Some war film buffs might find that disconcerting. The actors here are largely unknown and while they mostly acquit themselves well, some of the dialogue that they’re required to speak doesn’t sound much like how soldiers actually talk.

This isn’t a home run but it isn’t bad. There are a lot of good things going on here, not the least of which that we get a chance to examine our moral evaluations of the war – everyone above a certain age has one. I’m not going to say this is the war as soldiers experienced it but I think that it gets some of the confusion, the moral dilemmas and the chaos of the war. High kudos to the filmmakers for at least trying something different and succeeding enough of the time to make this a recommended rental.

REASONS TO SEE: The film gives a sense of the conflict that African-American soldiers went through.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the dialogue is a bit on the clunky side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of salty language, racial epithets and war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this was the first American narrative production to shoot in Vietnam for a movie about the Vietnam War, some of the combat scenes were shot at Lee Ranch here in Orlando.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Platoon
FINAL RATINGS: 6/10
NEXT:
Arctic

The Mercy


There is no loneliness greater than being alone at sea.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Screen Media) Colin Firth, Rachel Weisz, David Thewlis, Mark Gatiss, Simon McBurney, Adrian Schiller, Andrew Buchan, Jonathan Bailey, Anna Madeley, Ken Stott, Tim Downie, Genevieve Gaunt, Sebastian Armesto, Martin Marquez, Finn Elliot, Kerry Godliman, Kit Connor, Eleanor Stagg, Simon Chandler, Greg Hicks, Zara Prassiinot. Directed by James Marsh

 

The sea is an unforgiving mistress. She tolerates no mistakes, no miscalculations, no regret. When you are alone at sea, there is no one more alone in the world, to paraphrase Sir Francis Chichester, the first man to circumnavigate the globe by himself with only one stop (in Australia).

Now, at a large boating show in England, Chichester (McBurney) is on hand to announce a competition sponsored by the Sunday Times; a race around the world by boat with no stops. In 1968, it was a grueling, nearly impossible feat. There was no resupplying your ship – you had to make due with what you brought with you. There was no stopping to make repairs; if anything broke down, it was up to you to fix it. There was no support system other than the voices you heard on the radio. You were well and truly alone.

To nautical inventor and weekend sailor Donald Crowhurst (Firth) this sounded like just the challenge he needed. The creator of a pre-GPS electronic locator device known as the Navicat, he is at the boat show where Chichester makes his announcement and the adventure takes hold of his imagination. While among friends, he blithely announces that he has registered for the race which is news to his wife Clare (Weisz). She’s more than a little surprised; the family has a comfortable middle class existence in the coastal town of Teignmouth. They have three children who absolutely worship Daddy. Why on earth would he want to risk his life to be away from his loving family for months?

But Donald is determined to see this through. He is designing a trimaran, a catamaran with an extra float to give it more buoyancy and speed. Donald is certain with the safety devices of his own invention that he can win the race. However, delays in building the boat (many of them due to adding the new technology) create frustration for Crowhurst and his main investor, Stanley Best (Stott), an RV salesman (called caravans in England) and Crowhurst’s publicist Rodney Hallworth (Thewlis).

Hallworth has been busy creating an image of Crowhurst as a plucky English hero, a weekend sailor braving the dangerous waters of the Southern Oceans which frightened even Chichester. He has become a media darling but the deadline for setting sail is fast approaching and despite Crowhurst’s notoriety and plethora of sponsorships, he can’t speed up the process of building the boat.

So he launches on the very last day possible and it becomes very clear that the boat, named the Teignmouth Electron after his marine electronics business, is not nearly ready – it’s barely even seaworthy – and his gumption to make repairs at sea prove to be woefully optimistic. As he approaches the tip of South America where Cape Horn awaits to deliver him into the South Pacific, he realizes that he’ll never survive the journey. If he returns however he will forfeit his business, his home and nearly everything he has, plunging his family into destitution. He is left with an impossible choice…until he comes up with a creative solution.

This is based on a true story, one which is fairly well-known in sailing circles as well as in Great Britain where Crowhurst remains fairly well-known. To most Americans however, the details of the story will be unfamiliar so there is a good deal I’m leaving out. What I don’t have to avoid talking about is the performances of three of the best actors of their generation in England. Firth and Weisz, both Oscar winners, and Thewlis who has been nominated for a Golden Globe, all deliver outstanding performances. Thewlis, as the brash ex-crime reporter who is bound and determined to make Crowhurst a household name (and succeeds all too well) is perhaps the most noticeable of the three.

Both Weisz and Firth understate their performances quite a bit, especially Weisz who is mainly forced to keep a stiff upper lip in public but privately is terrified that she’ll never see her husband alive again. She shows some backbone, addressing the media horde camped at her front door near the end of the film and it’s an incandescent scene and shows just how powerful an actress Weisz truly is.

But for me, the star is Firth. He plays a good man, a fine husband and devoted father who talks himself into a situation that leaves him clearly over his head. We watch as he makes decisions that seem logical at the time but that lead him deeper down a path of no return, then watch as alone at sea those decisions not only come back to haunt him but prey upon his mind like voracious tigers. It’s a chilling performance, one of Firth’s best which is saying something.

Another thing; the sound effects are absolutely amazing, from the creaking of the boat, the groaning of the metal, the waves smashing into the hull…all amplified and all making the experience so much more realistic. You get a sense of why Crowhurst’s ordeal having to listen to that non-stop for months. That alone makes this worth seeing in a theater, if it plays anywhere near you.

Marsh stumbles a little when it comes to building the dramatic tension. Although you get a sense of the wheels turning and forcing Crowhurst down a path that will lead him to face impossible choices, when it finally comes to the denouement it almost feels anti-climactic.

This is a movie that if it had been picked up by a major we would be hearing about for the performances of the three leads, possibly with Oscar ramifications. Even though it is unlikely to get distribution in most places, this is a truly fine film that deserves to be seen. Keep an eye out for it at your local art house or on your favorite streaming service. You won’t be sorry.

REASONS TO GO: The sound effects really enhance the story nicely. It’s a compelling story, compellingly acted by a terrific cast.
REASONS TO STAY: The dramatic tension isn’t as great as it could have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some mature themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The man playing the mayor of Teignmouth is the son of the man who was actually mayor at the time of Crowhurst’s voyage; the son has himself been elected mayor of Teignmouth twice.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: All is Lost
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Luciferina

The Shape of Water (2017)


Sally Hawkins contemplates a potential Oscar nomination.

(2017) Romantic Fantasy (Fox Searchlight) Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, Allegra Fulton, John Kapelos, Morgan Kelly, Marvin Kaye, Dru Viergever, Wendy Lyon. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

 

A bird may love a fish, the saying goes, but where would they live? Some romances, it is true, face greater obstacles than others.

Eliza Esposito (Hawkins) is a mute woman who lives in a ratty apartment above a movie theater along with gay commercial artist Giles (Jenkins) who is as lonely as Eliza is. She works as a janitor at a top-secret government lab on the outskirts of Baltimore along with her friend Zelda (Spencer) who nags her about being habitually late to work.

Into the lab comes “the most valuable asset” that they’ve ever hosted; an amphibious humanoid creature (Jones) who was discovered in the jungles of the Amazon, worshiped as a god by the natives. Security director Richard Strickland (Shannon) sees the creature as a potential means of putting the U.S. ahead of the Soviets in the space race which to this point in 1963 have been kicking America’s butt.

Strickland is under all kinds of pressure to deliver useful information but his scientists, particularly Dr. Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg) are a bit hesitant to do the kind of research that Strickland is urging them to do – the kinds of things Dr. Mengele had no problem doing. Strickland becomes further enraged when, during a session when he is using an electric cattle prod on the creature, two of his fingers are cut off. Strickland, always what you might call tightly wound, suddenly finds himself wrapped even closer to absolutely losing it.

But Eliza is drawn to the creature; she finds it to be gentle and non-judgmental and like herself, unable to communicate verbally. The creature is drawn to her kindness – she feeds it hard-boiled eggs and plays jazz on a portable phonograph she smuggles in. However, it has come to the attention of Gen. Hoyt (Searcy) who is in charge of the project that the Russkies are aware of the creature and have designs on it themselves. Eliza overhears the plan – to vivisect the creature and learn as much as they can before the Russians either kidnap the creature or destroy it in such a way that the Americans can learn nothing.

Eliza decides that’s not going to happen and enlists the help of Giles in getting her help. Zelda is reluctantly drawn in and when Dr. Hoffstetler discovers what she’s up to, gives her tacit assistance. Eliza takes the creature home to live in her bathtub, waiting for the right time to release it into a canal that leads to the ocean and can lead the creature back home but the two have begun…umm, mating and saying goodbye is not going to be easy for either of them, particularly since neither one can speak.

This is one of the most beautiful and well-told stories of the year. There is a fairy tale aspect to the film, combined with a kind of classic Hollywood feel (there is a fantasy sequence in which Eliza finds voice and sings and dances with the creature which sounds hokey but when you see it you’ll understand how brilliant and how heartbreaking the sequence is). Add to that bits of horror and cold war-era spy thrillers and you have a movie that could have easily been a mess but in the hands of a great director – and make no mistake, that is exactly what Del Toro is – becomes a tour de force, a masterpiece in shades of green and blue.

Hawkins is one of the frontrunners for an Oscar nod for Best Actress this year and with good reason. She has to perform almost entirely with body language and facial expressions. She wears her emotions plain to see throughout, engaging in an impromptu tap dance when she’s feeling playful, or resting her head against a bus window when she is contemplative. She hunches over as a person who doesn’t want to be noticed does, as someone who has been ridiculed and disregarded her entire life does. I don’t pretend to understand the Academy’s mindset but if it were me, I’d just hand Hawkins the statuette right now and save everyone the bother but that’s just me.

The fantastic supporting cast doesn’t let Hawkins down either. Jones gets a complicated and believable costume to create his character; Jenkins shows his most compassionate and frazzled sides as Eliza’s quirky and often incompetent friend. Spencer gets a role on par with her Oscar-winning performance in The Help and Stuhlbarg who has an Oscar nomination under his belt already takes a giant leap forward in proving that wasn’t a fluke.

The production design is near perfect. The lighting and color scheme emphasizes shimmering greens and blues, giving the entire film a kind of underwater look even when the action takes place above the surface. The industrial look of the lab has almost an art deco look to it; the space age sheen of futuristic buildings recalling the 1965 World’s Fair are absent here. This lab is a dreary place where people go to do repetitive, dehumanizing tasks and lose just a little bit more of their souls every time they clock in. I think we’ve all had jobs like that.

There is an awful lot of sexuality and nudity in the film as the romantic relationship between Eliza and the amphibian becomes physical. While it is handled in my opinion with dignity and restraint, some might find even the hinting of interspecies sex to be completely beyond the pale. I can understand that, truly, but it would be a shame to cheat yourself out of one of the year’s best movies – if not THE best – because of a little fantasy sex.

Some might find the ending hokey but I took a different tack with it. Jenkins delivers bookending voiceover narration at the beginning and end of the movie; my take is that we are seeing events as Giles imagined they occurred; what really happened once the amphibian exits from view is up to conjecture and Giles admits as much. I kind of hope that’s what “really” happened to although life rarely has that kind of grace. Thank goodness that filmmakers like Del Toro do.

REASONS TO GO: Hawkins has a very good shot at an Oscar nomination. The story is touching and beautifully told. This is a godsend for the discerning moviegoer. Great supporting performances all around and wonderful set design enhance the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The sexuality may be more than some can handle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic sexuality and nudity as well as some profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Del Toro turned down Pacific Rim: Uprising to direct this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lady in the Water
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
The Dark Tower