A Lively New Period Musical and Some Stunning Documentaries

At the movies

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Cyrano
“Cyrano de Bergerac,”  a 1897 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 (the film, which opened on January 28 in local theaters, is rated “PG-13” and runs 124 minutes).

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 wit and courtliness, Cyrano is convinced that his dwarf stature means that Roxanne could never love him, so he 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.  At her request, Cyrano intervenes for Christian—no poet—to woo Roxanne, but must stand in (unseen) for his friend by using his 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.

Handsomely mounted in Sicily, this play offers a major change from the original plot in that Cyrano’s physical defect is not his massive nose, but his stunted stature. 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,“ “Anna Karenina”), and this time he has the gorgeous backdrop of Sicily. Two prime locations stand in for 17th C. France: the southern Sicilian town of Noto, a picturesque Baroque gem, 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.

“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, a soft lament, tries hard but has to fight against Dinklage’s raspy murmur. Bennett, a professional singer, fares better. These are not tunes that are going to accompany you back home.

Some Splendid Documentaries

Over the last 30 years, American documentarians have regularly produced quality feature-length documentaries, and 2021 was no exception.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has already short-listed 15 such films, which will be trimmed to five to contend for the Oscar, given out in late March 2022.

I wanted to highlight a few of those films, giving filmgoers a chance to see them in advance. While most of those 15 have already been screened in DC, the practice at some local cinemas has been to show the nominees in advance of Oscar night. Herewith I offer capsule previews of a few of them, likely to be replayed at indie film outlets, like the Landmark Cinema venues.

The First Wave —  This  opening glimpse of the US pandemic focuses on its manifestation in New York City between March and June 2020, when over 30,000 people were infected and some 2,000 died.  Director Matthew Heineman shows this calamity using great taste and restraint.  For example, he treats the grisly reality of dead COVID-19 victims being housed in refrigerated trucks matter-of-factly and at a distance, not dwelling on the lurid reality of death. Also, because this outbreak happened early on, it avoids the political issues raised later in coronavirus coverage.

“The First Wave” is an origin story, with a focus on the victims and the health care workers struggling to do something for their patients.  At a time when there were no vaccines to ease the suffering, Heineman concentrates on interviews with frustrated care givers and families of victims, not those who were sick. Highlighting family members’ concerns, such as lacking access to their loved ones, is heart-rending, and the inability of caregivers to mitigate this ravaging illness is crushing.

B.B. King performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary SUMMER OF SOUL. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Summer of Soul  —  An utterly different vision of New York City comes in “Summer of Soul,” the video resuscitation of long-forgotten music performances at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival held at a city park. Featuring iconic Black performers from B.B. King to Sly and the Family Stone, the festival lasted for six weeks in mid-summer 1969 watched by an audience of 300,000. Now it can be joyfully witnessed 50 years after the film was discovered stored in a basement.

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 attendees at the event, one of whom remembers the crowd as if he “was seeing royalty.” The crowd shots are vivid reminders of a high point in Black life, a whole people grooving to the rhythms of its diverse music.

The Rescue  —  A heart-pounding story of a rescue that gripped the world in 2018 after a group of 12 young Thai boys (ages 11 to 16) and their football coach were isolated by a flood in an underground cave in Northern Thailand.  All were found alive clinging to an exposed rock formation, but retrieving them was daunting.  The Thai government (esp., Thai Navy Seals) undertook their rescue, but it was the efforts of two Englishmen (Rick Stanton and Richard Harris) and one Australian doctor—all amateur cave-divers–that did most to organize the extraction.

“The Rescue” tells its story in real footage and interviews with the rescuers and reveals the distinctive mentality of the dedicated cave divers. It also provides an expert 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 cultures, and languages, a dogged cadre of non-professional cave divers succeeded in this unbelievable rescue.