The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52


The deep blue.

(2021) Nature Documentary (Bleecker Street) Joseph George, Joshua Zeman, John Hildebrand, John Calambokidis, Christopher W. Clark, Ana Sirovic, Bill Watkins, David Rothenberg, Bruce Mate, Daniel Palacios, Robert Dziak, Vinal Virga, Kate Micucci, Cate Muret. Directed by Joshua Zeman

 

In 1989 as the Cold War came to an end, technology used to monitor Soviet submarine movement detected something unusual; whale song on the 52 Hz range, much higher than what whales normally communicate on. Marine biologist Bill Watkins tracked the sound for some fifteen years afterwards, noting that the sound came from a single whale with nary a reply.

After a 2004 New York Times article, the imagination of the public was captured. While scientists wondered if this might signal the existence of a heretofore undiscovered species of whale, the public began to see 52, as it was popularly known, as a symbol for the increasing isolation people were feeling in these tech-savvy times, and celebrating their own uniqueness. Artwork, songs, essays and even tattoos were generated by folks who were captivated by the story of a cetacean, endlessly searching the ocean, calling out and waiting for a response that never came.

Few were as captivated as documentary filmmaker Joshua Zeman (Cropsey) who wanted to find 52, which as one scientist put it, “finding a needle in a haystack would have considerably better odds.” He put together a campaign to fund an expedition, but could only raise enough for an expedition for seven days.

The film chronicles the expedition, and adds quite a bit of background material, ranging from the effect of giant container ships on whales (their passing through the shipping lanes creates a kind of noise pollution that makes it nearly impossible fo the whales, who rely on sonar, to communicate) to the ravages of the whaling industry (not for the faint of heat or weak of stomach) and the effect of 52 on popular culture. Comedian Kate Micucci contributes a song, and perhaps most compelling of all, musician David Rothenberg jams with the whales on clarinet.

Overall the movie is a bit disjointed. The story flow just isn’t there as Zeman goes off on tangents that at times feel like filler. The best parts of the movie, other than Rothenberg’s “jam sessions,” is watching the scientists go about their business, and their excitement at the prospect of finding the answer to a question that previously had none. You might want to watch the movie all the way to the end – there is a graceful coda that is uplifting and might just put a smile on your face.

We have a tendency to anthropomorphize animals, even those in the animal protection business can sometimes attribute emotions to animals that they may or may not be able to feel. There’s no way to truly know if 52 feels loneliness; what does he/she have to compare it with, after all? But be that as it may, this is a truly fascinating documentary that is well worth the visit.

The movie is currently in theaters, but will be available on most major streaming platforms beginning Friday July 16th.

REASONS TO SEE: Fascinating and uplifting. Always interesting to watch scientists in their element.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not presented in a really organized manner.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some upsetting animal cruelty images and brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Leonardo di Caprio, who contributed $50,000, was given credit as an executive producer. Much of the rest of the funding came from a Kickstarter campaign.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews; Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Lions
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Chimera Strain

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

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse


Attack a Navy SEALs family? Oh no, you didn’t…

(2021) Action (Paramount/Amazon) Michael B. Jordan, Jodie Turner-Smith, Jamie Bell, Guy Pearce, Lauren London, Jacob Scipio, Todd Lasance, Jack Kesy, Lucy Russell, Cam Gigandet, Luke Mitchell, Artjom Gilz, Brett Gelman, Merab Ninidze, Alexander Mercury, Colman Domingo, Rae Lim, Sumi Somaskanda, Zee Gunther, Jill Holwerda, Conor Boru, Bella Shaw. Directed by Stefano Sollima

 

It is a tried-and-true action cliché that you can mess with a Navy SEAL, but if you mess with a Navy SEAL’s family, you’re in deep doo-doo because not even God will help you. God knows better.

Navy SEAL John Kelly (Jordan) is part of a team led by Lt. Cmmdr. Karen Greer (Turner-Smith) that goes to Aleppo in civil war-torn Syria to rescue a CIA operative. It appears to have gone without a hitch but something about it feels wrong to Kelly and his suspicions soon prove to be true when it turns out that what they thought were Syrian soldiers were in fact Russians and boy, are they angry about the American operation. Once the SEALs go home, Russian operatives stalk the individual members of the team and kill them.

When they go after Kelly, he survives. Unfortunately, his pregnant wife Pam (London) doesn’t and if you thought the Russians were angry, Kelly is about to get medieval on some Russian tushies. He stalks a Russian diplomat and sets his car on fire, then leaps into the inferno with the diplomat and demands to know who carried out the assassinations. When he gets the name he needs, he exits the car but not before sending the Russian to join the Choir Invisible.

With the support of Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay (Pearce) and the more reluctant support of CIA agent Robert Ritter (Bell), Kelly joins a team that is headed into Mother Russia to track down the operative, Viktor Rykov (Gelman, a curious bit of casting) and exact his revenge but the plane is ambushed and shot down. It becomes clear that the Russians knew they were coming; but who told them and why?

Based on a novel by Tom Clancy in a spin-off from his hugely popular Jack Ryan series (the character of John Kelly, who will be known as John Clark for reasons explained later in the movie, appears in several of those books) has long been in gestation as a film project, but finally saw the light of day after nearly two decades of development – only to run smack dab into the pandemic. Ticketed for theatrical release in 2020, after several delays and postponements the property was finally sold to Amazon who have been having success with their own John Krasinski-led Jack Ryan series seemed to be a perfect fit.

This movie gets an enormous amount of star power from Jordan who has become one of the most charismatic stars in Hollywood. Even when he plays villainous roles, he turns in a performance that actually can be sympathetic. He has an enormous amount of screen presence and he actually elevates what is otherwise a mediocre film into something a little more.

Part of the problem here is that Clancy wrote with a Cold War-era worldview that is a bit off in the 2020s. It’s not that we don’t have an adversarial relationship with Russia these days – of course we do – but it’s a different kind of playing field altogether. Some of the geopolitical content feels a bit dated somehow.

A film like this is going to live and die on its action sequences and while most of them aren’t too bad, there are one or two that stretch believability and make you scratch your head a little bit and say “wouldn’t it be easier if he just…” and that’s never a good thing in an action movie. While action sequences should be breathtaking, there has to be an air of reality to it that viewers believe the derring-do is at least possible. It takes you right out of the movie when it feels implausible.

This isn’t a bad movie and Amazon Prime users get to watch it for no additional charge which makes it even more enticing. Could this have been a better experience in a movie theater? In all likelihood, yes, but it’s not a bad option if you want to watch something loud and that requires little thought on your part.

REASONS TO SEE: Jordan is one of the most watchable stars in Hollywood today.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks character development.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jordan is the third actor to play John Clark (John Kelly in this film); Willem Dafoe played him in A Clear and Present Danger and Liev Schreiber played him in The Sum of All Fears, both Jack Ryan films.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Clear and Present Danger
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Take Out Girl

The Courier (2020)


Benedict Cumberbatch tackles a most un-Dr. Strange-like role.

(2020) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Anton Lesser, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Kirill Pirogov, Keir Hills, Jonathan Harden, Aleksandr Kotiakovs, Olga Koch, Harry Carr, Vladimir Chuprikov, James Schofield, Fred Haig, Emma Penzina, Maria Mironova, Petr Kilmes, Alice Orr-Ewing. Directed by Dominic Cooke

 

There is a definite fascination with espionage during the Cold War era as spies from the United States and United Kingdom sparred with their opposites in the Soviet Bloc. The reality of the situation back then was less James Bond and more Robert Ludlum.

In 1960, the CIA and MI-5 were surprised to get a note from a high-ranking Soviet official and war hero named Oleg Penkovsky (Ninidze) who is also a war hero. He has become increasingly dismayed by the willingness of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (Chuprikov) to force a confrontation with the West – a confrontation that could lead to nuclear annihilation for both sides. In order to prevent that, he proposes to help by supplying information that will keep the Soviets from gaining the kind of advantage that might lead Khrushchev from pushing the button.

A summit meeting is held in London with CIA representative Emily Donovan (Brosnahan) and MI-5 administrator Bertrand (Lesser) and British trade minister Dickie Franks (Wright) discussing how to get information from Penkovsky back to NATO. An agent would be known to the KGB and to the GRU and would put Penkovsky in jeopardy. No, the go-between had to be a non-professional, someone who the Soviet intelligence agencies would never suspect. London businessman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) would be perfect.

A businessman with contacts behind the Iron Curtain who was already exploring a business relationship with Moscow, his presence could be easily explained and in fact he would have legitimate reasons for meeting with Penkovsky. Wynne, a stolid, stodgy family man with no training whatsoever, is reluctant at first but eventually relents. His country needs him, after all.

He doesn’t count on forging a personal admiration and relationship with Penkovsky. The two have much in common and their friendship become real. Then, Penkovsky discovers that Khrushchev plans on putting Russian missiles in Cuba which he realizes that the White House and JFK would see as an act of war. But getting the pictures to identify the missiles to the Americans would put him further at risk, but there is no choice, really, if he ants his children to one day have children of their own.

The plot may sound like something out of a John Le Carre novel, but in this case, it’s based on actual events. The principals involved did the things shown here and really helped vert nuclear war. Cooke, who largely has directed for the stage in his career, assembles a terrific cast starting with Cumberbatch who imbues Wynne with the kind of everyman ordinariness that makes him somewhat endearing, even though he’s a bit of a stick. Ninidze gives Penkovsky a sense of decency and a man driven to do the right thing, no matter how dangerous it was and makes the character eminently relatable. Brosnahan, better known as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, stretches her limbs into a completely dramatic role, from approximately the same period as her Amazon Prime comedy series, but is given kind of a hideous blonde wig to wear. Finally, Jessie Buckley turns in a wonderful supporting performance as Wynne’s wife, who suspects her husband’s frequent trips to Moscow are hiding an affair, something her husband had been guiltyof before in their marriage.

There are no car chases here, no gun fights, no cars with ejector seats and no cameras hidden in fountain pens. In a sense, this is more of a situational spy thriller, with the tension built on the possibility of discovery. Of course, we all know that there wasn’t a catastrophic nuclear war, but still most people don’t know the fates of the various people involved; did they get caught? Did they pay the price for their espionage? That’s where the tension comes in. Of course, there are thoe who are well-versed in Cold War minutiae that will know how the story ends.

In short this is a well-acted dramatization of an important but largely forgotten incident in the Cold War. Cooke and his production design team absolutely nail the era, so that’s to the plus. But the story drags from time to time and there isn’t a lot that most spy fans will find exciting; not a single car chase to be had. So if you’re willing to watch something that is more true to what spying is really all about, this is for you.

REASONS TO SEE: A nice throwback Cold War thriller that happens to be based on actual events. Cumberbatch is always interesting.
REASONS TO AVOID:
Somewhat stodgy in its storytelling.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, violence, brief nudity and depictions of torture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s North American release was on the real Greville Wynne’s birthday (March 19th).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bridge of Spies
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Happily

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

New Releases for the Week of January 25, 2019


THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING

(20th Century Fox) Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Rebecca Ferguson, Denise Gough, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Angus Imrie. Directed by Joe Cornish

A young British kid who has gotten beaten up for standing up to bullies discovers that he is the heir to Excalibur, King Arthur’s legendary sword. He must learn to believe in himself if he is to save Britain from a mystic menace.

See the trailer and a video featurette here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Family
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for fantasy action violence, scary images, thematic elements including some bullying, and language)

Cold War

(Amazon) Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza. In the 1950s during the height of Soviet occupation of Poland, a music director in Warsaw falls in love with a beautiful singer and tries to convince her to flee with him to Paris.

See the trailer and clips here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romance
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for some sexual content, nudity and language)

Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi

(Zee) Kangana Ranaut, Jishu Sengupta, Suresh Oberoi, Danny Denzongpa. Rani Lakshmi Bai was the Queen of Jhansi and one of the greatest heroines in Indian history. As Queen, she refused to cede her country to the British Raj and became one of the leading figures of the Rebellion of 1857.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks

Rating: NR

Qué León

(Spanglish) Raymond Pozo, Ozuna, Clarissa Molina, Miguel Céspedes. Nicole León and Miguel León may have the same last name but they are from completely different fantasies from opposite sides of the tracks. Still, that doesn’t prevent them from falling deeply in love – much to the consternation of both their families.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: NR

Serenity

(Aviron) Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Diane Lane. Baker is a fishing charter captain who has moved into a quiet life after years that he’d rather forget. When his ex-wife comes back into his life, begging him to save her and her son from her violent, abusive new husband by taking hubbie on a fishing trip and then throwing him to the sharks, he is caught in a moral dilemma but not everything is what it appears to be.

See the trailer and a clip here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for language throughout, sexual content, and some bloody images)

Shoplifters

(Magnolia) Lily Franky, Sakura Andō, Mayu Matsuoka, Kirin Kiki. A Japanese family that survives through petty crime find a little girl freezing in the snow. At first reluctant to take her in, the matriarch is at last convinced. However, the family bonds and those with the newest member are tested when unforeseen circumstances arrive. This is a finalist for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some sexual content and nudity)

Stan & Ollie

(Sony Classics) Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston. In 1953, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had fallen on hard times. Once one of the greatest comedy duos in the world, they are largely forgotten. They decide to embark on a tour of England where they got their start. However, ghosts from their pasts and failing health threaten to split the pair apart forever.

See the trailer and a clip here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Daytona Cinematique, Old Mill Playhouse, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal Pavilion Port Orange, Regal Pointe Orlando, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for some language and for smoking)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

An Acceptable Loss
The Girl in the Orange Dress
In Like Flynn
King of Thieves
Mr. Majnu
Pledge
Rust Creek

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

The Incredible Story of the Giant Pear
Mr. Majnu
Sicilian Ghost Story
Thackeray

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Antiquities
The Challenger Disaster
Heartlock
Mikhael
Mr. Majnu
Thackeray

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Mikhael
Mr. Majnu

.SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

An Acceptable Loss
Cold War
Pledge
Rust Creek
Serenity

Pick of the Litter – December 2018


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

Aquaman

(Warner Brothers) Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe. The first post-Justice League DC film will be under a microscope as we explore the origin tale of Arthur Curry, the son of a lighthouse keeper and the Queen of Atlantis who will be enlisted to unite the peoples below the sea and above it. Forces exist however who want to send the two peoples into a cataclysmic war that will determine who rules the world once and for all. December 21

INDEPENDENT PICKS

Ben is Back

(Roadside Attractions) Julia Roberts, Lucas Hedges, Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton. A mother’s most devout Christmas wish comes true when her estranged son appears unexpectedly on her doorstep Christmas Eve morning. However, the sins of his past including drug abuse and criminal activity are not far behind him and she will fight tooth and nail to keep it from dragging the rest of her family down with it.  December 7

Vox Lux

(NEON) Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Jennifer Ehle. The events that shaped the world from 1999-2017 are viewed through the eyes of a self-centered pop diva. One of the most anticipated films to come out of Toronto this year, there is already talk that this might be Portman’s next Oscar win. December 7

ROMA

(Netflix) Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta. Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron returns to his Mexican home turf to examine the life of a middle class family in a suburb of Mexico City during a single year in the tumultuous ‘70s. A big hit at various film festivals (it received the award for Best Film at Venice), Netflix is giving it the widest theatrical release in the history of the company in November in preparation for a major Oscar push. December 14

Ghostbox Cowboy

(Dark Star) David Zellner, Specialist, Robert Longstreet, Vincent Xie. A Texas entrepreneur who isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier relocates to China where he reinvents himself as something of a maverick in China’s booming tech market. However, unscrupulous and corrupt American businessmen are prepared to take him a lot further than he wants to go in this parable about the trade war mentality. December 14

 They Shall Not Grow Old

(Warner Brothers) Peter Jackson. Legendary producer/director/writer Peter Jackson is a World War I buff. Using modern technology, he has taken archival film from the Great War, restored it and added sound and color to make the scratchy, jumpy and sped up footage look more natural and realistic, allowing viewers to really become immersed in the experience. Theatrically, this is playing only at special screenings on December 17th and 27th via Fathom Events. December 17

Cold War

(Amazon) Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza. Set in the background of the height of the Cold War, two young Poles, completely mismatched but stuck with each other, try to navigate the dangerous currents of Stalinist Poland and perhaps the even more dangerous currents of the human heart. This is Poland’s official submission for the 2019 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and comes to us from the director of a previous winner, Ida. December 21

 Destroyer

(Annapurna) Nicole Kidman, Tatiana Maslany, Toby Kebbell, Sebastian Stan. The leader of a notorious gang emerges from he shadows, prompting an aging L.A. detective who was once undercover in the gang with tragic results to seek out surviving members of the gang to exorcize her own demons and to get to the bottom of what happened so long ago. And yes, that is Kidman in the photo above. December 30

Stan and Ollie

(Sony Classics) John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston. The legendary comic duo of Laurel and Hardy are well past their prime and in desperate need of a hit. Undertaking a grueling theater tour of Britain, the two must deal with the ghosts of their past, Oliver Hardy’s failing health and their own feelings for each other. December 28

Cold War (2018)


A really bad cold can just knock you out.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Stadium Media) Madeline Walter, Michael Blaiklock, Gail Rastorfer, Antoine McKay, Kenneth Yoder, Rammel Chan, Deanna Reed-Foster, Antoine Pierre, Scarlett Harper, Shirl Shang, Sara Sevigny. Directed by J. Wilder Konschak and Stirlling McLaughlin

 

Moving in with someone is a big step. Not only is it a transition from just dating to be a couple, it is the last step before getting married. It is also a big step into uncertainty – living with someone is a whole lot different than hangin out with them.

Maggie (Walter) and Jonathan (Blaiklock) are taking that step. Maggie, a nurse, works for Dr. Galoup (McKay), the husband of her patrician best friend Ollie (Rastorfer). It is at work that she contracts the Raccoon Flu, an influenza of epic proportions. Unable to function at work, she is sent home where she promptly infects Jon with it. What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours after all.

Confined with one another, their love for each other is immediately put to the acid test. It doesn’t help matters that their philosophies to handling sickness couldn’t be more different; Maggie with her medical background puts her faith in doctor visits and pharmacies. Jon prefers home remedies and herbal concoctions. She wants zero contact with people while he happily plans a themed housewarming party.

In an atmosphere like this with both parties feeling like crap, everything is magnified. Little petty disagreements become declarations of war. Innocent remarks become deadly insults. Suddenly home becomes a battlefield with an interloper your deadliest enemy; the two are inexorably drawn into conflict. Battle lines are drawn in this engagement in which no quarter can be given and no prisoners can be taken.

In many ways it’s hard to believe that this is essentially a local (Chicago) production. This is far funnier and of better quality than a lot of major studio productions. The humor begins as fairly low-key and ratchets up by the end of the movie but oddly enough, the final third of the movie loses its edge and degenerates into downright silliness. Most of the rest of the way though the movie takes affectionate pokes at real relationship issues, like bed etiquette. Anyone who has had the sheets pulled off of their bodies in the middle of the night will relate.

Walter and Blaiklock have some sitcom and webisode experience but they act more like seasoned pros. Both have a ton of screen presence, much more than I expected. Walter in particular has enormous potential as a comic actress; she seems to  be heavily influenced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus (and indeed resembles the former SNL comedienne facially) with the wry overtones of a Tina Fey. I get the sense that as an actress she is virtually fearless; she’s not afraid to appear as a cast iron bitch nor as an object of desire.

This is one of those pleasant surprises that sometimes come along in this job. This isn’t a film that redefines the genre of romantic comedies but at the same time it is solid entertainment that is worth an hour and a half of your time. Comedies are in fact the hardest kind of film to make; humor is not necessarily universal and what is funny to one person is absolutely not to another. I don’t know that every audience will take to this film like I did but for what it’s worth I most certainly did take to it and if I did, it stands to reason that others will too. Maybe you’ll find it as funny and as enjoyable as I did; there’s only one way to find out.

REASONS TO GO: Walter and Blaiklock are far more charismatic than you normally find in a movie with this kind of budget.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy descends into silliness in the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and brief nudity as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was inspired by a situation that Konschak and his then-girlfriend (and current wife) experienced when they first moved in together.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Steam, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: War of the Roses
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Love Always, Mom

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

Atomic Blonde


This is what a femme fatale looks like.

(2017) Action (Focus) Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, Toby Jones, James Faulkner, Roland Møller, Sofia Boutella, Bill Skarsgård, Sam Hargrave, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Til Schweiger, Barbara Sukowa, Attila Arpa, Martin Angerbauer, Lili Gessler, Declan Hannigan, Daniel Bernhardt, Sara Natasa Szonda. Directed by David Leitch

 

Hitchcock famously had a thing about icy blondes; along comes a film that may have the best one yet. For one thing, Charlize Theron isn’t just a master manipulator – she can kick quantum ass. Here, set to a pulsing and throbbing soundtrack and a cornucopia of mayhem she becomes the coolest and sexiest assassin of them all – drinking, smoking and seducing her way to Bond’s title.

Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI-6 agent in Berlin days before the Wall fell in November 1989 to retrieve a list of double agents that, should the Soviets get their hands on it, would mean the end of a goodly number of high-value assets, to use spy film terminology. Broughton, who also has an agenda of her own, is assisted by the none-too-trustworthy station chief who in the dry words of her MI-6 handler (Jones) “has gone native.” Basically she goes looking for the list and every step of the way she gets attacked by goons and beats the snot out of them while getting her share of lumps as well.

There are some amazing action sequences here, particularly one set in an abandoned apartment building that is as brutal and as realistic a fight as you’re ever going to see. Lorraine dishes out the pain but gets her own share of it as well and even though this is set up in many ways as a distaff Bond film, this feels more in tune with the real world. The soundtrack of mainly Euro-New Wave (heavy on the Depeche Mode, Nena and Siouxsie and the Banshees) will bring a smile to the face of anyone who was young during that era i.e. people my age.

The film, based on the graphic novel The Coldest City gets more convoluted as the film wears on but the pace is always frenetic and you’re never more than two or three minutes away from another breathtaking action scene. 2017 has been the year of the renaissance of action movies (and of horror movies as well but that’s for another review) and this one is right up there among the best of a year that brought us Baby Driver, Logan Lucky and The Hitman’s Bodyguard among others. That’s some fine company to be included in.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are stunning. The 80s soundtrack is perfectly matched to the action. Theron takes an unforgettable character and runs with it. As spy films go, this one is much more realistic.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot gets a bit convoluted and the ending is not unexpected.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and violence as well as some graphic sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Charlize Theron cracked two teeth during the course of filming the action sequences for this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Verizon, Vudu, Xfinity, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knight and Day
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Shape of Water