Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

Current Reviews


“Cyrano de Bergerac,” a 1897 French drama by Edmund Rostand, has had dozens of iterations with its evergreen tale of unrequited love. Its latest movie version stems from a recent (2018) stage work by Erica Schmidt (wife of Peter Dinklage) that was, in turn, crafted into a musical, with music and lyrics by Aaron and Brian Dessner. The result is a touching romance with good roles for the leads. For this reviewer, its musical overlay is less convincing

Haley Bennett (hidden at left) is Roxanne and Peter Dinklage is Cyrano in the new musical drama “Cyrano.” Photo Credit: Peter Mountain, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Inc. All rights reserved

The film, set in mid-17th C. France, has a can’t miss allure. The multi-talented Cyrano de Bergerac (Dinklage) is a poet and Gascon cadet who dazzles in both elaborate wordplay and brilliant swordplay. Cyrano adores from afar the beautiful Roxanne (Haley Bennett) a cousin with whom he has grown up. Even with his matchless wit and courtliness, Cyrano is convinced that his dwarf stature means that Roxanne could never love him, so he adamantly refuses to declare his feelings for her.

Roxanne, in turn, has fallen in love at first sight with the handsome soldier Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a member of Cyrano’s regiment who she has never met. At her request, Cyrano intervenes for Christian—no poet—to woo Roxanne, but he must stand in (unseen) for his friend in a balcony scene by using his own words to charm her.

This subterfuge continues when both Cyrano and Christian are sent off to fight against Spain, with the former sending a stream of glowing letters as if they came from Christian. When Christian dies in battle, Cyrano keeps up the pretense for years while Roxanne retires from life to a Paris convent until the peerless soldier, near death after an accident, comes to see her in a poignant finale.

Handsomely mounted in Sicily, this play/film version offers a major change from the original plot in that Cyrano’s physical defect is not his massive nose, but his stunted stature, making for some filmgoers a cringe-worthy situation. Dinklage, however, carries off the role with a touching yet forceful performance, exuding the piquant and thoughtful intelligence that the character is known for. His orotund voice and his bushy brows over an expressive face make his creation the more effective.

Haley Bennett makes for a fine co-star, she of innocent bearing yet real verve, along with credible intelligence. Handsome Harrison. Jr. does his job as a physical paragon who lacks the spark of wit. He is no dummy, though, just a fellow who lacks the literate touch (for example, he is quick to realize whom Roxanne truly favors).

English director Joe Wright has crafted lush period-pieces before (e.g. “Pride and Prejudice“ and “Anna Karenina”), and this time he has the gorgeous backdrop of Sicily to display. Two prime locations stand in for 17th C. France: the southern Sicilian town of Noto, a picturesque Baroque gem, destroyed by an earthquake, but handsomely restored, and the volcanic landscape around Mount Etna to convey the battlefield scenes. The whole film resonates with exquisite settings seconded by rich costuming bathed in glowing light, all achieved by production designer Sarah Greenwood.

This “Cyrano,” it should be remembered, is a musical comedy, but, for this viewer, the score by the Dessners, though sweet and lyrical, is not that memorable. Cyrano’s big solo number, an aching, soft lament, tries hard but has to fight against Dinklage’s raspy murmur. Bennett, a professional singer, fares better. The infrequent tunes are not ones that are going to accompany you on the way back home.

(The film, which opened on January 28 in local theaters, is rated “PG-13” and runs 124 minutes).

(January 2022)

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)