About midway through the year it’s come to my attention that I’ve really fallen behind on this year’s documentary offerings so I thought I’d rectify it by being quick to see what it shaping up to be one of the summer’s first big populist docs Maiden. The film looks at the world of the Whitbread Round the World Race, a yaght race in which fully crewed sailing vessels attempt to circumnavigate the globe across various legs, and focuses in on the first one of these ships to be fully crewed by females during the 1989-1990 race. The story is then told through retrospective interviews from the women in the crew, news reports of the time, and large quantities of video that were shot on board during the voyage. I’m not entirely clear who was filming that footage or why, which is one omission from the film I would have liked more clarity on, and of course given the time period a lot of this video does not look great but it is dramatic just the same. Director Alex Holmes cuts together this footage (which I can only assume was rather fragmentary) in a way that very effectively tells the story at hand and the various interview subjects are lucid and frank in their recollections. There are perhaps some limits to how impressive of a sporting accomplishment this ends up being; these are certainly the first women to accomplish it but they aren’t the first people and they didn’t accomplish it with extraordinary skill, but this also isn’t exactly a sport that we’re overly accustomed to getting a front seat to so there are a decent number of interesting details to be found along the way.
*** out of Five
While I generally try to keep up with all the people and trends in the world of horror cinema I have somehow managed to go this long without seeing a film directed by Alexandre Aja. Aja emerged during the mid-2000s “torture porn” boom but he’s stuck around and seems to have branched out into different kinds of horror during this decade. His latest film is Crawl, a thriller in which a father (Barry Pepper) and college aged daughter (Kaya Scodelario) must escape from the flooded basement of an old dark house during a hurricane while contending with a bunch of killer alligators who it turns out are nesting there. This is not a movie to go into expecting greatness from, it’s an unapologetic B-movie that runs a lean 87 minutes and provides just enough character development and story to give you some reason to care if these people live or die and nothing more. The one thing you can demand of it is that it be well crafted and for the most part I’d say it is. Oddly enough I eventually found myself being just as interested if not more interested in the various ways the characters respond the hurricane than to their dealings with the alligators. Aja manages to totally flood this building with real water and there is definitely a thrill to seeing these people get whipped around as the water gets higher and higher. Not a whole lot to say about it ultimately, if you’re in the mood for this sort of creature feature it largely delivers.
*** out of Five
It’s getting to the point where most of the 2019 Sundance lineup is finally being released and we’ve been waiting for one of them to finally break out or become something particularly memorable and with The Farewell it looks like we’ve finally got one. The Farewell was written and directed by a woman named Lulu Wang and is heavily based on an actual experience from her life in which her grandmother, who lives in China, has been diagnosed with cancer but has not been told about this (a practice some cinephiles may recognize from Kurosawa’s Ikiru) and her family visits her on the pretense of attending a wedding to make their unspoken goodbyes while navigating the inherent deception of all this. This film is actually not the first time I’d heard this story as Wang had told a version of her experiences on NPR’s “This American Life” a couple of years ago, so a lot of the dynamics of the situation were familiar to me but there is something to seeing all this actually play out on screen and Wang does a very good job of introducing each family member in a short period of time and giving them all different reactions to all of this. Awkwafina (who should maybe rethink her stage name at this point) stars in what is to my knowledge her first dramatic performance and acquits herself quite well but the whole cast here is pretty strong. If there’s anything holding it back it’s just that I’m not sure there’s a whole lot left beneath the surface, it’s a movie that’s kind of just about what it’s about and additional themes are scratched here and there but sort of just left there. It technically isn’t a debut film for Lulu Wang, but it will likely function as one in the public’s eye and I’m definitely interested in seeing where she goes from here.
**** out of Five