Films I Neglected To Review: I Sailed Into History With An All-Girl Crew
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/12/19 12:56:11
Please enjoy short reviews of "Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache," "Maiden," "Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love," "Ophelia," "Stuber," "Summer Night" and "Trespassers."
It was recently brought to my attention that I had neglected to offer up a review of ''Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache'' a documentary in which filmmaker Pamela B. Green attempts to reclaim the story of the pioneering filmmaker for a historical record that has oftentimes diminished or entirely overlooked her accomplishments. This oversight on my part was not anything against the film per se because it is indeed a fascinating and eye-opening, if decidedly uneven, exploration of a key figure from the early days of the cinema, though exactly how fascinating and eye-opening it is will depend to a large degree on your own personal knowledge of the subject at hand. Alice Guy was a secretary for financier Leon Gaumont and while working for him was able to see a private unveiling of the first films of the Lumiere Brothers. Recognizing that the technological miracle at hand could be used for more than depicting people walking out of factories, she asked Gaumont if she could direct a movie as well. This kicked off a career that spanned a couple of decades and two continents that saw her make some of the earliest known narrative films, experiment with technical innovations including color tinting and synchronized sound and even ran her own filmmaking company in America. Then, she suddenly vanished, not just from the scene but from the collective memory--so completely, in fact, that many of the famous talking heads serving as interview subjects here admit that they had never heard of her before. To discover what happened, Green launches a full investigation that finds her discovering long-unknown relatives in America that help her piece together the story of what actually happened to her.
If you come into the film knowing absolutely nothing about Guy-Blache, the film will serve as both a genuine revelation about the early days of filmmaking and a fascinating real-life mystery. The clips from Guy-Blanche’s surviving films are intriguing and Green also makes deft use of footage from a couple of filmed interviews that Guy-Blanche did in 1957 and 1964 in which she speaks clearly and concisely about her life and work. On the other hand, those who do have a working interest in film history will know that Guy-Blache has not exactly been completely erased from the annals of history in recent years--much has been written about her work and its impact--and the lack of recognition probably has more to do with the general lack of interest in silent film history in general than to sexism, which is one of Green’s central points. Green also does herself an odd disservice by including too many instances of famous people remarking about how odd it is that they have never heard of her and too few moments of experts like Kevin Brownlow who are familiar with her and could use more time to explain why her work is worthy of consideration. Nevertheless, ''Be Natural'' is still a pretty fascinating work of cinematic scholarship (especially in the early scenes in which Green begins connecting the dots through her considerable research efforts) and even if it is not quite the definitive work that it is striving to be, it certainly whets ones appetite to look further into both Alice Guy-Blache and the history of silent cinema as a whole.
In the wake of the recent triumph of the U.S. Women's World Cup soccer team, a film like ''Maiden'' could not possibly arrive in theaters at a better time. This documentary by Alex Holmes charts the accomplishments of the first all-female sailing crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race way back in that misty period of time known as 1989. The 33,000-mile journey through some of the roughest seas in the world is an especially arduous one and when Tracy Edwards, who had spent years working on yachts where she was often relegated to the kitchen, decided in the mid-‘80s to challenge the male-dominated sport by entering with a completely female crew, her ambitions were dismissed as a joke by the sailing community and sponsors were not forthcoming--few companies wanted their names linked with a crew whose results were predicted to be embarrassing and potentially tragic. Over the course of several years, however, Edwards would persevere--recruiting a crew, rehabbing an old boat and even securing funding from, of all people, King Hussein of Jordan--and when the race began, her ship, the Maiden, was part of it. Although many expected that they would not even finish the first of the race's six legs, they not only finished it, they went on to win the next two segments and by the time of the last leg, they faced the distinct possibility that they might actually win the entire thing.
Although ''Maiden'' contains the requisite amount of talking head interviews from both members of the Maiden crew and commentators who covered the original race (many of whom sheepishly cop to their own sexist attitudes regarding Edwards and her crew without ever quite apologizing for it), what makes ''Maiden'' such a fascinating film, even if you go into it with zero working knowledge is the vast amount of archival footage that Holmes has been able to employ. We see the news reports of how the race was covered in the media in all its sexist glory (while the other crews are asked about strategies, the women are treated as a novelty) but we also get a lot of footage that was shot by the women during the actual journey that helps to give an immediacy to their accomplishments that words alone simply could not properly convey. The film has some problems that make it a frustrating experience at times--we do not get any real sense of exactly how Edwards was able to evolve from a cook into a captain capable of leading such a journey and, with the exception of one who ends up getting into a power struggle with Edwards that leads to her ouster, we don’t really get a chance to know the other individual crew members before we see them eventually mesh into a single unit. Regardless of those bumps, ''Maiden'' is still a stirring and captivating recounting of a story that is, for better and worse, as fresh and timely as can be and will leave viewers thrilled and inspired, though perhaps not quite as enraptured by the idea of sailing around the world as they were going in.
Nick Broomfield's new documentary ''Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love'' is a film that takes its inspiration from the personal and creative collaboration of legendary poet/singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, a Norwegian single mother whom he met on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s and who would serve as a sort of muse for some of Cohen's greatest and most lasting works, including ''Bird on a Wire'' and, of course, ''So Long, Marianne.'' Based on the positioning of their name, one might rightly expect this film to focus more on Ihlen rather than the far better-known Cohen but that proves not to be the case. There is some fascinating old home movie footage of the two of them together in the sun-drenched paradise of Hydra but before long, Broomfield spends too much time recounting Cohen's life and career--albeit in a manner too sketchy to be of much use to those unfamiliar with him and too pedestrian for Cohen’s hardcore fans--and not nearly enough on Ihlen. Admittedly, this may be the inevitable result of there being plenty of archival footage of Cohen around and not so much of Ihlen but this leads to a film in which Ihlen too often seems to be relegated to the sidelines of her own story except when she needs to be trotted out to be seen as a muse even though it seems at first that Broomfield wanted to try to shatter that particular mythos. As is standard for Broomfield, he once again manages to insert himself into the narrative that he is putting forth and while it makes a little more sense than usual this time around--it turns out that he was another one of Ihlen's lovers and inspired him to become a filmmaker--his monotone narration grows tedious after a while. Some of ''Marianne & Leonard'' is undeniably affecting--especially the sequence at the beginning in which we hear the message that Cohen sent Ihlen just before her passing in 2016, a moment all the more touching when you realize that he would pass away just a couple of months later--and Cohen fans may find some of the older archival footage to be of interest. For others, it will prove to be a frustratingly uneven take on a potentially fascinating story that never comes close to approximating the humor, pathos and emotion of the music that their relationship inspired.
''Ophelia'' is a film that takes that most famous of stage dramas, William Shakespeare's immortal ''Hamlet,'' and rejiggers things so that it is the melancholy Dane's lady love who is now front and center of an adaptation that looks at the material through more contemporary attitudes regarding gender and class and I can already hear your eyeballs rolling up into the back of your head at just the sound of such a thing. This film, based of the popular 2006 YA novel by Lisa Klein, the film starts off with Ophelia as a young girl whose father works in the court and who catches the eye of Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), thanks to her ability to read, and is made one of her ladies-in-waiting, much to the consternation of her better-bred rivals. As Ophelia grows older (eventually played by Daisy Ridley), she takes on more responsibilities for the Queen--even venturing out to visit a strange local witch (also played by Watts) to procure certain herbs that help Gertrude get through the day. Things are thrown into upheaval when Gertrude’s husband dies under mysterious circumstances and Hamlet (George McKay) returns to assume the throne only to find that his uncle, Claudius (Clive Owen) has married his mother and taken the crown for himself. You probably think that you know the rest of the story from here but I can assure that you are going to be in for a few surprises.
As anyone who has had a friend or loved one involved with theater can attest, productions of Shakespeare's work that have either been reset in contemporary times or altered to embrace modern viewpoints are nothing new and often fairly painful to endure because they tend, more often than not, to be nowhere near as clever or insightful as the people behind clearly believe themselves to be. This particular take, adapted from the book by Semi Chellas and directed by Claire McCarthy, happily manages to avoid most of the pitfalls that usually turn up in such projects. For one thing, the story doesn’t try to load tons of contemporary thinking atop the already familiar narrative. Instead, it spends most of the time working as its own specific storyline while taking a blessedly restrained approach to the overt parallels to ''Hamlet.'' This approach is not flawless--the scenes that do track specifically to those penned by the Bard are kind of lumpy with some of the attempts to transform the iambic pentameter of the play into the more natural language of the new story coming off kind of badly (with the famous ''get thee to a nunnery'' line getting an especially bad rewrite). The film has a lot of other things going for it as well--it looks spectacular, it contains fine and spirited performances from Ridley as Ophelia and Watts in her double role (by comparison, McKay often comes off as a bit of a twerp as Hamlet but one could easily argue that this was the point in the first place) and when it does come to its radically reworked conclusion, it is a sequence so cheerfully audacious that you cannot help but admire it, if only for its sheer nerve. Granted, ''Ophelia'' is unlikely to replace any of the classic screen adaptations of ''Hamlet'' and woe unto those who try to make do by watching it for a class instead of reading the original play. That said, this is still a smart and exciting drama that casts new light on one of the more painfully misunderstood heroines in the history of western literature.
Imagine ''Taxi'' (the terrible Jimmy Fallon film, not the classic TV series) with more bullets to the head and more seamless plugs for Uber and you have ''Stuber,'' a nonsensical, hyper-violent and increasingly tiresome action comedy that wants to be a throwback to such classics of the sub-genre as ''Freebie and the Bean'' and ''48 HRS'' but cannot even work up to the level of wit, excitement and originality on display in ''Another 48 HRS.'' Dave Bautista plays Vic, a two-fisted cop obsessed with bringing down the drug dealer who killed his partner, no matter the cost to anyone who gets in his way. Alas, at the very moment that he gets a tip that his long-vanished quarry will be resurfacing that night, he is recovering from laser surgery to correct his eyesight and cannot see to drive. Logically, he calls for an Uber and gets Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), a nice guy trying to earn money to help finance a gym for the platonic friend (Betty Gilpin) whom he is secretly in love with. Over the course of one long night, Vic forces Stu to drive him around--lest he not give Stu the all-important five-star rating--and the two find themselves caught up in a number of increasingly violent and tricky situations. Do the two mismatched guys with absolutely nothing in common eventually begin to bond over time and gunfights? Put it this way--if you cannot answer that question right now, you are perhaps the perfect audience for this film.
If the above description sounds boring and formulaic to you, imagine how it feels to see it unfolding before your eyes in the dullest manner imaginable. The screenplay by Tripper Clancy is pretty atrocious--it makes no sense even by dopey action comedy standards and too often relies on people getting shot in the head for the big comedic punchlines--and is wildly outmoded in terms of its attitudes towards masculinity. (Sure, Vic learns to be slightly more sensitive to others but the big breakthrough comes when Stu learns to be a manly man by way of shooting people.) Perhaps director Michael Dowse assumed that the chemistry between his two leads would save things but that turns out to be a no-go as well--while the two have been funny in the past and have interesting screen presences, they simply do not click together particularly well here. (At least they have vague characters to play, which is more than you can say for the embarrassingly thin roles given to Gilpin, Natalie Morales and, inexplicably, Mira Sorvino.) The action scenes are not particularly impressive either--lots of things crash or explode but you won't remember any of those moments even a few minutes later. A film that never quite hits the comedic heights suggested by its title, ''Stuber'' is a dumb slog through tired cliches that annoying enough to put you off of both action comedies and ride sharing.
''Summer Night'' is a film featuring a number of rising young stars in a coming-of-age story set over the course of one long night that clearly aspires to be considered alongside such classics as ''American Graffiti'' and ''Dazed and Confused'' but could not have missed the mark further if it tried. Set in a small California town, it features multiple storylines involving a group of friends that more or less all come together at a local bar that is apparently the town’s one source of excitement. Seth (Ian Nelson) has just learned from girlfriend Mel (Analeigh Tipton) that she is pregnant and cannot understand why she is so upset that he just wants to hang out at the bar with his pals instead of being with her. His pal, Jameson (Ellar Coltrane), is embarking on a first date with friendly party girl Harmony (Victoria Justice) but even she can see that he still has feelings for his ex (Elena Kampouris). Rabbit (Bill Milner) finds himself reeling when the platonic friend he secretly loves (Lana Condor) tells him that she slept with a guy at her sister's wedding. Finally, Taylor (Callan McAuliffe), whose band is headlining at the bar that night is mugged while biking through the woods--don't ask--and has his wounds tended to by the much-younger Dana (Ella Hunt), who has always had a secret crush on him.
The main problem with ''Summer Night'' is that it is a coming-of-age story populated mostly by characters who should have come of age several years earlier. Their problems are not exactly groundbreaking and neither the screenplay by Jordan Joliff nor the direction by Joseph Cross can make them even remotely interesting. It is about a lot of things, of course, but it shows so little interest in actually delving into any of them that the whole thing has a chilly and remote feel that is at total odds with the material. (Perhaps realizing that the screenplay was pretty threadbare despite the number of storylines, the film pads things out by including a number of seemingly interminable musical sequences featuring the bar bands.) As for the performers, I have liked a number of them in their past efforts--Justice and Tipton have turned up in better films, Coltrane was the star of the great ''Boyhood,'' Condor was a delight in ''To All the Boys I Loved Before'' and Hunt stole the show in the delightful ''Anna and the Apocalypse'' but not even their collective efforts are enough to make their characters into people worth giving a damn about at any point. Neither funny nor incisive nor especially thought-provoking, ''Summer Night'' is a tedious exercise in ennui that serves no other purpose than to trap a bunch of good young actors in a project that will most likely not get very much play when it comes time for their eventual Lifetime Achievement Award highlight reels.
''Trespassers'' is a disappointingly rote riff on the home invasion thriller sub-genre that is made with just enough style, thanks mostly to the contributions of cinematographer Noah Rosenthal, to make you wish that it was better than it is. Four people--Sarah (Angela Trimbur), her doofus fiancé Joe (Zach Avery), her best friend Estelle (Janel Parrish) and Estelle's raging cokehead boyfriend Victor (Jonathan Howard)--turn up at a remote luxury desert home that they have rented for a weekend of sun and fun. Alas, there are issues involving the two couples that lead to certain tensions arising that only increase further with the arrival of a strange woman (Fairuza Balk), who claims to have broken down nearby but will not leave. Then, perhaps inevitably, arrives a group of masked home invaders with guns and machetes to wreak further havoc. The whole thing feels oddly disjoined at times, as if someone took a relationship drama and a home invasion story and just jammed them together without figuring out a way to tie them together. With the exception of the strange woman, none of the characters are especially interesting--and the woman is only so because of Balk's considerable screen presence--and as a result, it is impossible to care too much if any of our sort-of heroes live or die. To be fair, it does look good throughout and director Orson Oblowitz keeps things humming along quickly enough but ''Trespassers'' never quite manages to find a way to stand out on its own.