Tale unfolds on Bergman’s old stomping grounds

Filmmaking couple Chris and Tony (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) take a working vacation in Bergman Island.

By Richard Ades

Bergman Island should appeal to devotees of the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman—at least on the surface.  

Written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love, the flick sends filmmaking couple Chris and Tony (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) to Faro, the island that often served as the auteur’s home and movie set. There they go to work on their separate writing projects while sleeping in a bed that reportedly was used in Scenes From a Marriage, Bergman’s painful account of a marriage’s disintegration.

The obvious implication is that we’re about to see a similar disintegration take place between Chris and Tony, whose relationship may not be that solid to begin with. Tony, who appears to be decades older, is so engrossed in his work that he sometimes seems distant and even ignores Chris’s romantic overtures. His career also is more established than hers, possibly creating the kind of power imbalance that played a destructive role in Scenes. This becomes obvious when a local screening of one of Tony’s films draws gushing fans while Chris disappears into the background.  

It’s no surprise, then, that when a young man offers to give Chris a private tour of the island, she takes it, in the process skipping a group excursion she was supposed to take with Tony. Is this the beginning of the unraveling of their relationship?

But then director Hansen-Love takes things in a new and unexpected direction. After Chris begins telling Tony about a screenplay she’s struggling to finish, her script comes to life as we’re introduced to Amy (Mia Wasikowska), its lonely protagonist. We watch as Amy arrives at a Swedish island to attend a friend’s wedding and runs into Joe (Anders Danielsen Lie), an old love for whom she still carries a torch.

Will Amy and Joe reconnect despite the fact that each is now involved with someone else? The question is explored at length as the movie-within-a-movie goes on and on, to the extent that it nearly eclipses the original story of Chris and Tony. On the one hand, that’s OK, because Amy and Joe’s story is a pleasant diversion. On the other hand, it’s odd that the film’s core relationship is left so undeveloped.

After hearing about the complications Hansen-Love faced in making the movie, it’s hard not to wonder whether they contributed to this lapse. Owen Wilson was supposed to play Tony but bowed out weeks before filming started, forcing the director to begin shooting without a Tony in 2018. It wasn’t until 2019, after Roth had been cast in the part, that she was able to return to the island and fill in the gaps.

A few late twists do offer some insight into Chris’s relationship with Tony while raising questions about her connections with the supposedly fictitious Amy and Joe. These add intriguing ambiguities to the film, though they don’t quite make up for its failure to delve into interpersonal issues as richly as Bergman did in Scenes From a Marriage and other classics.

That’s a high standard, admittedly, but when you make a film called Bergman Island, it’s hard to avoid the comparison.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Bergman Island (rated R) opens in select theaters Oct. 15 and will be available from VOD outlets beginning Oct. 22.

Whatever happened to that adorable tiger cub?

Tim Harrison, a former Ohio police officer, has made it his mission to end the exploitation of exotic big cats.

By Richard Ades

One of my hometown’s most beloved celebrities—former Columbus Zoo director “Jungle Jack” Hanna—fares poorly in the documentary The Conservation Game. His reputation takes such a hit that one is tempted to feel sorry for him—except for the fact that many animals that supported his rise to fame allegedly fared much worse.

Produced and directed by Michael Webber, the muckraking film follows animal activist Tim Harrison around the country as he tries to track down the tigers and other big cats that often appeared on television in their younger years. Hanna and similar wildlife experts became familiar sights on talk shows by bringing out a variety of these adorable cubs, many of which represented endangered species.

Where were these animals from? When asked, the experts might hint that they were from an accredited zoo or refuge. But the truth, Harrison finds, is far murkier. By asking questions and following leads, he learns that many of them hailed from privately owned facilities, such as the squalid farm he discovers in rural Pennsylvania.

And what happened to the animals after their five minutes of TV fame? That’s the real tragedy. All too many have disappeared from view and are presumed dead, while Harrison finds others are forced to work for their living by appearing at functions such birthday parties or, in one case, being dragged onto a football field as a prominent high school team’s mascot.

None are treated in a way that’s appropriate for wild animals, especially animals whose species are in danger of dying out.

Attorney Carney Anne Nasser is an advocate for protecting exotic wildlife.

Several allies help Harrison in his crusade to end such abuse. They include Carney Anne Nasser, an attorney who played a role in a wildlife-trafficking case against now-imprisoned TV reality star Joe Exotic. Nasser and others are involved in an attempt to pass a federal law, known as the Big Cat Public Safety Act, that’s designed to curtail the exploitation of exotic animals.

But it’s Harrison who generally takes center stage in the film. A towering ex-cop who’s trained in the martial arts, he makes a formidable figure as he fearlessly walks up to strangers’ homes or businesses and asks what happened to this or that big cat. In an inevitable climactic scene, he does just that to Jack Hanna, a boyhood hero who has not lived up to his reputation as a champion of endangered wildlife.

In a postscript added following the documentary’s premiere last April, it’s noted that Hanna has retired from public life following what his family describes as a diagnosis of dementia. It’s also noted that his former employer, the Columbus Zoo, subsequently announced it will support passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act.

Rating: 4½ stars

The Conservation Game (PG-13) can be seen at select theaters, including Columbus’s Gateway Film Center (through Sept. 22) and Marcus Cinema Crossroads (Sept. 20 and 22).

Virtual lessons lead to long-distance caring

Poster for Language Lessons

By Richard Ades

When a Costa Rican woman unexpectedly appears on Adam’s computer screen one morning, she’s there to give the Oakland resident a Spanish lesson. Before long, however, she’s called on to throw him a lifeline.

That’s the setup for Language Lessons, a warm-hearted film directed by Natalie Morales from a story she co-wrote and stars in with Mark Duplass.

As it turns out, Adam’s wealthy husband has hired Carino (Morales) to help Adam (Duplass) brush up on the Spanish he learned as a child. The two agree to meet each Monday morning via Zoom, but tragedy disrupts their plans. Logging in for the second lesson, Carino finds Adam lying in bed and barely able to communicate. It’s only after a minute or two of dazed confusion that he reveals his husband was killed in an overnight traffic accident.

Since Adam is obviously suffering from shock and a lack of sleep, Carino does what she can to calm him down. Then, because he seems to be alone with his grief, she leaves several messages over the next few days in an attempt to be supportive. Thus begins a long-distance relationship—perhaps even a friendship—that is put to the test when Carino becomes the one in need of support.

Mark Duplass as the grieving Adam in Language Lessons

Up until that point, Language Lessons sometimes verges on treacly, especially when Gaby Moreno’s soundtrack needlessly underscores the characters’ emotions. But when Carino undergoes a concerning change and Adam attempts to find out what’s wrong and offer assistance, things get more interesting. Sexual, economic and ethnic differences all play a role in complicating the situation.

Photographed entirely as a series of computer screen images, the film easily tells its story without violating any COVID protocols. Perhaps writers Morales and Duplass could have done a better job of fleshing out the characters, but as actors they make up for it with soulful performances. Morales is especially interesting as the enigmatic Carino, while Duplass plays Adam as someone who wears his heart permanently attached to his sleeve.

Like Together Together, which came out in the spring, Language Lessons shows that platonic love between a man and a woman can be just as challenging as the romantic kind. And, as a cinematic subject, just as interesting.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Language Lessons opens Sept. 10 at select theaters nationwide, including Central Ohio’s Gateway Film Center.

Eclectic shorts share quarantine protocols

A young Chinese man (Zhang Yu, right) and his son (Zhang Yanbo) struggle to cope with quarantine restrictions in “The Break Away,” part of the anthology The Year of the Everlasting Storm. (Photo courtesy of Neon)

By Richard Ades

The Year of the Everlasting Storm is a collection of seven shorts that are united not so much by theme as by process. Since the titular year is 2020, the seven directors (from five different countries) were instructed to create works without violating COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. The apparent purpose was to show it was still possible to make films during a pandemic.

The result: a group of flicks that are mostly made in cramped quarters, though a couple also branch out into the virtual world. Other than that, they have little in common, which means each one stands alone rather than contributing to a cohesive whole.

Well, with one caveat: A few of the films focus on what life was like during the early days of the pandemic, which allows us to compare them to each other and to our own real-life experiences.

Leading off the collection is a work by Jafar Panahi, the Iranian director who actually inspired the entire project by making previous films under similar restrictions—though they were imposed by his country’s censorship rather than a pandemic. “Life” features the filmmaker and members of his family, including his beloved pet iguana, Iggy. Little happens except that his mother violates a stay-at-home mandate in order to pay a visit, though only after armoring herself with a hazmat suit and a spray bottle of disinfectant. The gently comic vignette is a reminder of the fears and deprivations much of the world experienced while first coming to terms with a once-in-a-century plague.

Even more deprivations are suffered by the young Chinese couple featured in the second film, “The Break Away,” directed by Singapore-born Anthony Chen. Stuck in their apartment and worried about money because the pandemic has sapped much of their income, the frazzled wife (Zhou Dongyu) gradually loses patience with her laid-back husband (Zhang Yu). Meanwhile, their young son is irritable because he can’t understand why he isn’t allowed to go outside. Like “Life,” the mini-drama contains reminders of the early misconceptions we all had about COVID-19 and how it’s spread.

The COVID theme shows up only briefly in the next short, Malik Vitthal’s “Little Measures,” which is the first of the collection’s three U.S. offerings. It focuses on Bobby Yay Yay Jones, whose attempt to regain custody of his three children has been delayed by the pandemic. Meanwhile, he keeps in touch with them electronically, their conversations being shown via small Facetime-style images. The piece is punctuated by Jonathan Djob Nkondo’s animation, which comes off as a superfluous addition.

COVID disappears almost entirely in “Terror Contagion,” directed by American filmmaker/journalist Laura Poitras (Citizenfour). Consisting largely of computer images taken from virtual meetings, it follows Poitras as she joins the group Forensic Architecture’s investigation into the Israeli spyware manufacturer NSO. Accompanied by Brian Eno’s creepy music, it evokes a feeling of paranoia as it talks of global surveillance and its potential dangers to individual freedoms. Both an impressive addition and a distraction from the rest of the collection since it’s such a change in tone, “Terror Contagion” probably would benefit from being expanded into a stand-alone documentary.  

Next, the anthology returns to COVID concerns with Dominga Sotomayor’s “Sin Titulo,” which is about a Chilean woman (Francisca Castillo) who’s affected by the pandemic in two ways: Her vocal ensemble isn’t allowed to sing together in person, forcing her to record her part over the phone so that it can be joined with the others electronically. And, more painfully, she’s unable to see her newborn grandchild except at a distance. A difficult relationship with a rebellious daughter adds a bit more tension to this modest but beautifully filmed flick.

“Dig Up My Darling,” the show’s penultimate and spookiest piece, also deals with a pandemic—though it’s not clear just which one. David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) directs a silent Catherine Machovsky in the tale of a woman who hits the highway to take care of some long-unfinished business. It’s a mystery that’s more interested in creating an eerie atmosphere than in answering questions, several of which are deliberately left hanging at the end.

In fact, viewers may still be trying to answer those questions when new ones pop up during the final short, “Night Colonies.” Directed by Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, it focuses on three things: a mattress, fluorescent lights and lots and lots of bugs that are buzzing around said lights. Viewers might wonder whether all this is an oblique reference to the pandemic or its aftermath, especially when faded photos of people make a brief appearance. Generally, though, the film just comes off as an exercise in carefully composed sights and sounds, which will leave some mesmerized while others may wish Iggy the iguana would reappear and treat himself to a few flying treats.  

It’s a polarizing finale to a collection of inventive films that would work better as a whole if they were connected by more than just as set of production rules.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Year of the Everlasting Storm opens Sept. 3 at select theaters.

Ex-adoptive mom refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer

Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo, center) and her dancer friends in Ema (Photos courtesy of Music Box Films)
 

By Richard Ades

“Whatever Lola wants…Lola gets.” Substitute the title character’s name for “Lola,” and that could be the theme song for Ema, the dance-fueled tale of a Chilean woman who has a knack for getting her way.

Well, not always. When the film begins, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and choreographer-husband Gaston (Mozart in the Jungle’s Gael Garcia Bernal) have lost their adopted son following a shocking incident. Young Polo (Cristian Suarez) had developed the bad habit of starting fires and had launched an attack on Ema’s sister that left her partially disfigured.

Now that Polo has been given up and adopted by a new set of parents, Gaston blames Ema for their loss by saying she encouraged the boy’s destructive habits. But Ema fights back with charges and insults of her own, such as calling her husband a “human condom” due to his biological inability to father a child of his own.

The resulting marital squabbles spill over into Gaston’s reggaeton dance troupe, threatening Ema’s position as a leading performer. Meanwhile, Ema loses her job teaching dance at Polo’s former school. The upshot is that she’s left with nothing—nothing, that is, except fierce determination and her uncanny ability to bend others to her will with the help of flirtation and, frankly, sex.

In other words, watch out.

The loss of their adopted child drives a wedge between Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) and husband Gaston (Gael Garcia Bernal).

Ema is directed and co-written by Pablo Larrain, who helmed 2016’s Jackie, a psychological study of Jacqueline Kennedy that I found cold and uninvolving. Whatever else you can say about Ema, it’s anything but cold. Indeed, its most indelible image, which appears in the first scene and reappears at key moments, is of the title dancer wielding a flame thrower that sends spectacular bursts of fire and destruction far into the distance.

As for uninvolving, maybe it is, at first. The frequent dance segments, as well as our uncertainty over whom we should be rooting for in the Ema-Gaston battle, make it hard to buy into the tale. But once Ema has nothing left to lose, Di Girolamo’s measured but smoldering portrayal makes it impossible to sit this one out.

You still may not know whether you should be rooting for Ema, but don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of time for that discussion after Larrain presents us with his provocative final image.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Ema (rated R for language and sexual content) opens Aug. 20 at select theaters, including Columbus’s Gateway Film Center, and will be available through VOD outlets beginning Sept. 14.

The forgotten man who championed unforgettable flicks

By Richard Ades

For people who became film aficionados during the 1960s and ’70s, Searching for Mr. Rugoff is a revelation. Such folks doubtless were intrigued by international filmmakers such as Costa-Gavras, Francois Truffaut, Lina Wertmuller and others, and the documentary reveals that their work might never have made it across the Atlantic if it weren’t for a New York theater owner and distributor named Donald Rugoff.

Full disclosure: I’m one of the many folks who owe my love of films to Rugoff.

Without him, I might never have held my breath over Costa-Gavras’s political thriller Z or laughed at the French spy spoof The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe. I also might never have experienced the brilliant but polarizing films of Wertmuller or the head-scratching puzzle that was The Man Who Fell to Earth. Rugoff and his distribution company, Cinema 5, brought these and other notable flicks to the attention of American filmgoers, yet few people remember him.

Director and one-time Cinema 5 employee Ira Deutchman seeks to remedy that situation by talking to people who worked with Rugoff or otherwise knew him. The portrait he paints is of an eccentric man who wasn’t always easy to be around but who seemed to have an innate talent for finding and promoting important cinema.

After inheriting a theater chain following his father’s premature death, Rugoff began opening elegant Upper East Side theaters—“temples of the art,” one commentator calls them—that made going to the movies an indispensable cultural event. People looked forward to major premieres so much that they didn’t even mind standing in the inevitable line to get in. In fact, they savored it as just another part of the ritual.

Rugoff also became a distributor and began championing a host of notable filmmakers, some of whom are interviewed by Deutchman. Costa-Gavras talks about the role Rugoff played not only in bringing his masterful Z to America but in helping it to win two Academy Awards and three additional nominations, including for Best Picture. Wertmuller likewise talks about her experiences with the impresario, who may have helped her to garner the first Oscar nomination ever received by a woman director (for 1975’s Seven Beauties).

We learn that Rugoff had both box office triumphs, such as 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and flops, such as Truffaut’s The Soft Skin (1964). But whether the films were hits or misses, he always promoted them with ad campaigns that were groundbreaking and innovative. They were also sometimes controversial, as when he falsely labeled 1977’s Jabberwocky a Monty Python film because its director and star were members of the British comedy troupe.  

Rugoff’s success eventually faded, though the documentary can only suggest possible reasons. Was it health problems that impaired his judgment, or possibly a second wife who pushed her own questionable taste in films? Or maybe it was a change in the cinematic climate, along with the rise of competitors inspired by his example. Chances are it was a combination of causes.

At any rate, Rugoff ultimately was forced to exit the business. In 1986, he left New York and moved to a small town on Martha’s Vineyard, where he converted a former church into a movie theater before dying three years later. But even there, Deutchman learns, he’s been largely forgotten.

Someone who played such a crucial role in our country’s cinematic scene really deserves to be honored and remembered. With the release of Searching for Mr. Rugoff, maybe he will be.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Searching for Mr. Rugoff opened Aug. 13 at select theaters and through VOD outlets.

Nicolas Cage wants his pig back

The reclusive Rob (Nicolas Cage) is forced to return to society after his truffle-hunting pig is kidnapped.

By Richard Ades

Rob leads a quiet life in rural Oregon sharing a cabin and hunting for truffles with his foraging pig. Then, one night, someone breaks in and steals the pig. What will happen next is anybody’s guess.

That’s partly because Pig, the debut feature by Michael Sarnoski, stars Nicolas Cage as grizzled recluse Rob. Repeatedly spoofed by SNL for appearing in over-the-top flicks in which everything’s on fire and “all the dialogue is either whispered or screamed,” Cage has the reputation of being an explosion waiting to happen.

Sarnoski uses that image, along with the setup of a typical revenge film, to keep viewers in a state of anticipation. What will the hulking Rob do when faced with someone who stands between him and his beloved sow?

As it turns out, he never does quite what we expect him to do. Neither does the film as a whole, which may disappoint fans of the star’s more outrageous outings but should please those with subtler tastes.   

The beginning scenes set up Rob’s key relationships. Settling down for the night after a day of truffle hunting, he starts to play a birthday greeting tape-recorded by his deceased lover, Laurie, but finds it too painful to hear. “I’m OK,” he insists when his concerned pig tries to comfort him.

But the most important relationship, as well as the most problematic, is between Rob and Amir (Alex Wolff), the Camaro-driving entrepreneur who drops by every Thursday to deliver those valuable truffles to high-class eateries in nearby Portland. Rob spurns Amir’s attempts to show concern for his well-being, but he brusquely demands the younger man’s help after his beloved pet is kidnapped. Together, they set off for the city, where Rob reveals unexpected knowledge of the restaurant scene and Amir reveals his prickly relationship with the industry’s ruthless kingpin, Darius (Adam Arkin).

Not everything in the script (co-written by Sarnoski and Vanessa Block) is logical or even believable. Particularly jarring—like a holdover from one of Cage’s tackier flicks—is a fight club of sorts that caters to disgruntled restaurant employees. More satisfying are the satirical barbs aimed at pretentious elements of West Coast culture. An enjoyable example is Rob’s interrogation of a chef (David Knell) who concocts trendy “deconstructed” fare but would rather be running his own English-style pub.

Through it all, Cage effectively plays against what’s become his type as the quietly resolute Rob, while Wolff keeps us equally off-balance with his portrayal of the hot-tempered but stubbornly loyal Amir. Their chemistry helps to sell a psychological study that builds slowly and imparts crucial life lessons along the way.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Pig (rated R) can be viewed at select theaters and will be available from VOD outlets beginning Aug. 3.

Actor’s colorful life revealed through his own home movies

Val Kilmer as he appears today in Val (Photos courtesy of A24 Distribution, LLC)

By Richard Ades

At the beginning of the biographical documentary Val, Val Kilmer claims he’s “almost been fired” from all his movies. While that corresponds with the actor’s reputation as someone who’s hard to work with, the film ultimately portrays him as someone who may be eccentric and stubborn, but also thoughtful and dedicated to his craft.

Kilmer is also very unlucky, we learn early on, as a 2015 bout with throat cancer has stolen the now-61-year-old actor’s most valuable asset: his voice. Two tracheotomies have left him unable to speak other than croaking out a few words in between gasps of breath. As a result, son Jack Kilmer has been given the task of narrating the story of his father’s life.

Fortunately, the task of illustrating that life has largely been taken care of, as Val Kilmer was an early and eager adopter of home videography. It’s probably no coincidence that first-time directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott previously worked primarily as editors, as their main job here was to pare down what must have been miles of old footage into a coherent documentary. (Tyler Pharo joins them as the flick’s third editor.)

Narrator Jack Kilmer substitutes his voice for the one his father lost to cancer.

For Kilmer fans, or just film fans in general, the result is intriguing. We see Kilmer landing his first professional off-Broadway role after losing the play’s leads to Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn. We see him making his mark in 1980s movies such as Willow and Top Gun. We see him filming his own auditions, at one point even firing off live ammunition to show his suitability for an action role.

As Kilmer’s popularity continues to rise in the 1990s, the doc shows him going all out to capture the part he sees as his destiny: rocker Jim Morrison in The Doors. It also shows him suffering through 1995’s Batman Forever, which forced him to wear a heavy bat suit that made it difficult to act or even to move. Not surprisingly, he turned down offers to repeat the iconic role.

Val eventually approaches the perverse attraction of a highway accident scene when it shows Kilmer on the troubled set of 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. At one point, Kilmer expresses his frustration with the production’s problems by refusing to shut off his own video camera despite director John Frankenheimer’s pleas. Since Frankenheimer inherited the film, along with temperamental star Marlon Brando, from another director who left just days into the shooting, it’s hard to know who deserves our sympathy the most here.

Val Kilmer rehearses as Mark Twain, a part he once had hopes of playing on the big screen.

That’s also true at other points in the documentary, especially when Kilmer complains about his 1996 divorce from actress Joanne Whalley and subsequent separations from their children, Jack and Mercedes. But in general, the actor comes across as a sympathetic figure.

Home movies from Kilmer’s childhood reveal family problems and tragedies that helped to shape him: a distant mother; a father whose business ventures didn’t always pan out; and especially the early loss of his creative younger brother, Wesley. Even more affecting is present-day footage that shows cancer survivor Kilmer being forced to live off his past triumphs by greeting fans at a Tombstone screening and a local Comic-Con.

A couple of quibbles: At times Val could have been organized in a more logical manner, and it never really delivers on Kilmer’s early promise to impart something profound about the craft of acting. Otherwise, the flick is well worth one hour and 49 minutes’ worth of any cinephile’s time.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Val (rated R) opens July 23 at select theaters, including Central Ohio’s Drexel Theatre, Gateway Film Center and Marcus Crosswoods Cinema. It will be available through Amazon Prime beginning Aug. 6.

Living, rapping and dancing on the streets of L.A.

Yelp reviewer Tyris (Tyris Winter) celebrates a culinary find in Summertime. (Photos courtesy of Good Deed Entertainment)

By Richard Ades

I’ve been trying to find something to compare Summertime to, but it’s not easy. I thought of calling it a street-smart, spoken-word version of La La Land, but that falls hopelessly short.

Besides being set in Los Angeles, the musicals have just two things in common: energy and heart.

Rather than beginning with a massive traffic jam, Summertime starts with the simple scene of a guitarist (Olympia Miccio) singing, strumming and skating her way along a sidewalk. Then she collides with a fellow Angelino and subsequently disappears, as our attention shifts to someone else who just happens to be nearby.

That sets the pattern for the film, which director Carlos Lopez Estrada (Blindspotting) has designed as a stream-of-consciousness portrait of a day in the life of L.A., and in particular its Venice and Hollywood neighborhoods. We wander through their funky streets meeting one young and talented individual after another, all of them poetically sharing their dreams, fears, struggles and desires.

Some characters pay brief visits, while others reappear periodically. An early standout is Tyris (Tyris Winter), an Afro-coifed gay man who wanders from one restaurant to another writing Yelp reviews and searching for an elusive cheeseburger. He’s feisty and mercurial, but as the day progresses, we realize that underneath he’s nursing a pain whose cause is only suggested.

Paolina (Paolina Acuna-Gonzalez) rebels against her tradition-minded mother with the help of a bevy of spirited dancers.

Also dealing with personal challenges are Paolina (Paolina Acuna-Gonzalez), a Latina chafing under her tradition-minded mother’s rules, and Marquesha (Marquesha Baber), who’s receiving therapy for trauma related to body-image issues. Paolina faces her frustrations by imagining a rebellious dance featuring women in flowing red dresses, while Marquesha faces hers by tracking down and confronting her abusive ex.

Tying the film together is the comical tale of Rah and Anewbyss (Austin Antoine and Brice Banks), sidewalk rappers who struggle to find an audience until they catch the ear of a big-time producer. Then their careers take off at breakneck speed, especially after they ditch the rhymes about “Lambos” and start paying homage to their devoted moms.

The diverse cast includes Blacks and Whites, Latinas and Korean Americans, gays and straights. Each performer wrote his or her own story and poetic dialogue, resulting in a variety of moods and viewpoints. The miracle is that Estrada—with masterful help from cinematographer John Schmidt, editor John Melin and composer John S. Snyder—turns it all into a joyful and cohesive whole.

Summertime may have no plot, but it does leave us with a message of sorts: Live your life, face your demons, find your happiness—and respect other people’s right to do the same.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Summertime (rated R) opens July 16 at select theaters, including Columbus’s Gateway Film Center and Cleveland’s Cedar Lee.

Looking for the world’s loneliest whale

Joshua Zeman’s documentary revolves around his search for a renowned but unseen whale that can’t be understood by other whales.

By Richard Ades

As someone who cares about the environment and about those majestic creatures known as whales, I looked forward to watching The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52.

The documentary has a fascinating premise: Aided by a group of oceanographers and other scientists, filmmaker Joshua Zeman sets out to find the mysterious whale that’s been dubbed “52,” so named because he sings his song at a frequency of 52 hertz. This separates him from other whales, who sing at various frequencies depending on their species, but never at 52 hertz.   

Whales, especially the males, sing to communicate with other whales that may be many miles away. However, 52’s unique pitch means he’s unable to communicate with anyone, as a result of which he’s been called the loneliest whale in the world.

The beginning of the documentary explains that 52’s existence was discovered years ago with the help of underwater listening devices originally deployed by the U.S. Navy to keep track of potentially hostile submarines. The unseen whale quickly became a source of fascination to people the world over, maybe because he symbolized the isolation many feel in modern society.

Apparently, one of those people was Zeman. So, after spending four years looking into the possibility of finding the illusive 52, he finally gathers a team and sets out to sea to do just that.

It’s at this point that all the film’s exposition begins to pay off—to an extent. Unfortunately, Zeman dilutes the excitement of the resulting “hunt” with more exposition. That is, he intersperses footage of the search for 52 with history lessons on the ways humans have made whales’ lives difficult down through the centuries.

From hunting them to the edge of extinction to polluting the ocean with mechanical noise that frustrates their attempts to communicate, we have not been good neighbors to our fellow mammals. If all this comes as news to you, then these digressions might seem worthwhile. Otherwise, you might wish Zeman had taken a more personal approach to his subject.

For one thing, what drives him to spend years of his life searching for a beast no one has ever seen? And what drives the scientists on his team to devote their entire careers to the ocean? Such topics are left largely unexplored.

At least the documentary satisfies our curiosity about the whale itself by answering questions such as: “Why is he so different from other whales?” And, “Is he really alone?” Before the film is over, we’re even treated to a surprise that wouldn’t be possible in, say, a flick about the Loch Ness Monster.

It’s a welcome moment, even if it doesn’t quite make up for all the lectures that preceded it.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 (rated PG) opened July 9 at Columbus’s Gateway Film Center. It will be available digitally beginning July 16.