Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

























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Outstanding Documentaries

Over the last 30 decades, American documentarians have regularly produced quality feature-length documentaries, and 2021 was no exception. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has recently short-listed 15 such films, which will be cut down to five later this month to contend for the Oscar, given out in March 27, 2021. I wanted to bring to my readers’ attention some of those films, giving filmgoers a chance to see them in advance. While most of those chosen have already had screenings in the DC area, the practice at some local cinemas has been to show them in advance of Oscar night. Herewith I offer my own capsule previews of a few of those pictures, likely to be replayed at indie film outlets, such as the Landmark Cinema venues.

The First Wave -- An early glimpse of the US pandemic, this documentary focuses on the early manifestation of the virus in New York City between March and June 2020, when over 30,000 people were infected and some 2,000 died. Director Matthew Heineman produced this fine example of that phenomenon with great taste and restraint. For example, he treats the grisly reality of COVID-19 victims being stacked in refrigerated trucks matter-of-factly and at a distance. not dwelling on the lurid elements of their passing. Also, because this outbreak happened early on, it does not deal with the political issues that developed later in the pandemic coverage.

“The First Wave” is a kind of origin story, with a focus on the victims and the health care staffers struggling to do something for their patients. At a time when there were no vaccines to ease the suffering, Heineman and his team concentrate on using interviews with frustrated care givers and families of victims, not those who were sick (some of whom do not make it). Highlighting family members’ concerns, such as lacking personal access to their loved ones, is heart-rending, and the inability of caregivers to mitigate this ravaging sickness is crushing (this film is rated “R” and runs 93 minutes).

Summer of Soul -- An utterly different vision of New York City comes in the package of “Summer of Soul,” the resuscitation of a long-forgotten music performances at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival held at a city park. The festival, featuring iconic Black performers from B.B. King through Mahalia Jackson to Sly and the Family Stone, lasted for six weeks in mid-summer 1969 and totaled an audience of 300,000 souls. Now that event can be joyfully witnessed 50 years after tapes of the shows were discovered stored in a basement. Noted bandleader Questlove and an editing team got ahold of the material and made it live again.



B.B. King performs at the 1969 Harlem Arts Festival. Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved

It is a wonderful time capsule into Black consciousness in the late 1960’s, a period of burgeoning Black Power, showing flamboyant, African-inspired dress, and the opening of new avenues for Black expression. The film brings out this awareness through over-voice narration from thrilled attendees at the event, one of whom remembers the crowd as if he “was seeing royalty.” The pervasive crowd shots are vivid reminders of a high point in Black life, a whole people grooving to the rhythms of its diverse culture (The film runs 118 minutes and is rated “PG-13”).

The Rescue -- A heart-pounding story of a rescue that gripped the world in mid-summer 2018 after a group of 12 young Thai boys (age 11 to 16) and their football coach were isolated by a flood in the Tham Luang cave in far Northern Thailand. All were found alive clinging to life on an exposed rock formation, but retrieving them was daunting.

The Thai government and military (Thai Navy Seals) undertook a rescue, but it was the efforts of thousands of others, including two Englishmen (Rick Stanton and John Volanthen) and one Australian doctor—the last three weekend amateur cave-divers--that did most to carry out the extraction. It is an ultimate feel-good movie because we know, going in, that all were saved.

"The Rescue,” directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Vasarhelyi (“Free Solo”) tells its story in both real footage and interviews with the rescuers. They reveals the peculiar mentality of the dedicated cave divers--solitary, unathletic souls who found the right usage of their particular skills. It also provides an expert, 3D-graphics-enhanced procedural recreation of the perilous extraction process, with divers having to sedate the boys (so as not to panic them) and haul them out one-by-one. It is amazing that, despite all the differences in nationalities, training culture, and languages, a dogged cadre of non-professional cave divers succeeded in this unbelievable rescue(rated “PG-13”, the film runs 107 minutes).

(January 2022)


Parallel Mothers

Pedro Almodovar, the singular Spanish writer-director, continues to amaze with his latest effort, “Parallel Mothers,” a touching and brilliantly realized film that brings him back to the world of the hospital, a context he last explored in the great “Talk to Her” (2002).



From left: Penelope Cruz and Milena Smit star in “Parallel Mothers” by Almodovar. Photo Courtesy of Sony Classic Pictures

Two women, Janis (Penelope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit), are pregnant in a hospital room with their deliveries on the same parallel track. Both are single and have become pregnant by accident. Janis, a professional photographer is middle-aged, but she does not regret her pregnancy and is rather thrilled by the prospect. That pregnancy came about as a result of a one-night stand with a rugged academic Arturo (Israel Etejade).

However, Ana, a callow teenager, struggles with the implications of this sudden change of life (we don’t know who the father is), and she longs for the support of her actor mother, Teresa (Aitana Sanchez Gijon), whose ambition to star in a new play on the road will keep her way from her vulnerable daughter.

After witnessing their ferocious, almost simultaneous births, level-headed Janis tries to encourage Ana in her new, unwanted role. Having bonded in their days chatting in hospital corridors and later after they have welcomed their babies, the two new mothers agree they will stay in touch.

The abandoned Ana begins to lean on Janis as they both discover the ways of newborns. Janis (named after Janis Joplin) adjusts without difficulty, but she has to leave her demanding high-fashion photography to take on more modest contract work. The bond with the more dependent youngster means that Janis eventually agrees to take Ana into her household so and they can raise their children in tandem. Arturo comes in and out of Janis’s life but not in any romantic way, while Ana’s attempts to involve her mother in the raising of her newborn goes nowhere.

Ana’s awareness of who her baby’s father might be is moot since she had made love with several young men at the same time, while Janis has doubts about her child’s origins and looks to DNA tests to try to confirm the identity of her baby’s father. At this point, Almodovar story takes a sharp right turn, and the relationships shift radically for the rest of the picture. What does not change is the by-now firm relationship between the two women.

Almodovar has, for years, been known for his lavish use of color, especially in interior scenes with strong primary colors that often frame his gorgeous protagonists. That practice figured in his last film “Pain and Glory” (2019), and it is shown here again, with vibrant hues, especially covering the scarlet-to-carmine spectrum, shown in the costuming, furnishings, and interior details (leaving aside a lush mint-green for the hospital scenes).

It doesn’t hurt that the director again has Penelope Cruz as his muse in this film. She is as effective as ever, playing a heartfelt, if practical, character who knows her own mind, a kind of natural, hard-headed feminist (and one who adores her child). As he often does, Almodovar veers awfully close to melodrama in “Mothers,” but Cruz helps him avert this by never being seen as other than grounded and real.

Almodovar is as comfortable with the actress as he is with her long-time male equivalent, Antonio Banderes. (last seen in his 2019 “Pain and Glory”). He handles just as well the young Smit, a lovely new discovery to include in his now vast panoply of Spanish screen actresses.

(This film, subtitled in Spanish, runs 123 minutes, and is rated “R.”)

(December 2021)


Mass

A small movie in scope but large in heart is “Mass,” a four-hander wherein two grieving couples come together to try to cope with unimaginable loss. One pair, Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton) had, six years earlier, lost their teen-aged son in a school shooting, while the other, older couple, Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) are the parents of the teen-aged shooter, who committed suicide after the act. Though they all have had testy legal encounters in the aftermath of the shooting, Gail has, through a mediator, suggested that the other couple meet with them one more time for some kind of final reconciliation.



From left to right: Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, and Ann Dowd star in “Mass.” Photo credit: Bleecker Street Pictures.

Their meeting, in an all-purpose room in an isolated Episcopal church (the film was shot in northern Idaho) begins tentatively, with church staff trying to make the guests comfortable. All arrive and agree to sit at a plain round table. Some guarded small talk ensues—there is a fussy exchange about a bouquet Linda has brought--before Jay opens up the meeting, still trying to comprehend what happened. An early flare-up occurs when Richard hints at political issues being implicated in their case, when Jay cuts him off, saying they should exclude politics from their conversation.

From there, each parent, more or less in turn, agonizes about how the shooting has left them. Gail still wants to know “why,” while the shooting has triggered her husband towards a new activism. Richard, though grudgingly regretful, is the one most ready to move on, while his wife struggles with her own inchoate guilt. All four actors express themselves within a delicate balance, with each given a chance at a modest monologue to express their own version of grief. The four pinwheel through personal attacks, poignant remembrances of their sons, speculations on their own guilt—not exactly reconciling what has happened but aiming for some kind of surcease.

All four actors are splendid, utterly natural and believable in delivering the incisive script. Plimpton stands out as a woman struggling to express herself, while her inner turmoil is agonizingly revealed in her eyes and expressions. Ann Dowd, the most emotional of the quartet, delivers an urgent late soliloquy describing her last evening with her son, a soul-destroying encounter.

Fran Kranz makes his directorial and screenwriting debut with “Mass,” and it is a stunning one for this LA-based actor. His work is the more remarkable for directing a fine quartet of older actors when he was but 39. His achievement reminds me of other young directors who have created serious dramas with mature actors such as the 27-year-old Sarah Polley with the touching “Away from Her” (2006) “ and 33-year-old German Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck with the magnificent “The Lives of Others” (2006). May Mr. Kranz have many more chances to prove himself over the years.

(The film is rated “PG-13” and runs 111 minutes.)

(November 2021)