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Films I Neglected To Review: First Men
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of ''Apollo 11,'' ''Birds of Passage'' and ''The Wedding Guest.''

The story of the Apollo 11 space mission, the one that landed the first men on the moon a half-century ago, has been recounted in so many ways by so many people in the decades since it happened that one might think that it would be virtually impossible for any filmmaker to come up with even a reasonably fresh take on the subject. And yet, not only does the stunning new documentary ''Apollo 11'' do just that, it does it without utilizing any of the elements one might expect to find in such a film, such as overly familiar archival footage, dramatic narration or the usual array of talking-head interviews with surviving participants and current-day experts. Instead of relying on those tired bits, director Todd Douglas Miller and his team, working in conjunction with NASA and the National Archives, have gone through thousands of hours of original audio tracks and film footage that has been boxed up and stored away since 1969 (including stuff shot in 70MM), restored it to an incredible degree of clarity and compiled it into a feature that tells the entire story of the journey, from launch to return, without adding anything else to the proceedings other than some music and a couple of diagrams.

The results, needless to say, are absolutely stunning and even those nutballs who are convinced that the whole thing was some kind of hoax will be astonished by what has been presented here--this belongs right up there with the documentary ''For All Mankind'' and ''The Right Stuff'' as one of the great cinematic works about the space program. Of course, everyone knows how the mission turns out but one of the most amazing things about the film is that Miller so effectively manages to put viewers into the unfolding action that they will come away from it feeling absolutely breathless as they go through each stage. The footage has been restored with such clarity that the half-century of time seems to have been erased entirely. At the same time, however, that very same clarity helps to quietly reinforce just how things have changed in that time, especially in the realization that we got people on the moon utilizing equipment and technology that would be considered beyond obsolete by today’s standards. This is a great and ultimately humanizing look at one of the most stunning achievements of our time, one that not only deserves to be seen but which cries out to be seen on the biggest screen imaginable.

Over the years, I have seen any number of sprawling crime sagas but I can genuinely say that I have never seen one quite like Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego's ''Birds of Passage,'' an utterly unique and absolutely fascinating epic chronicling the Wayuu, a group of indigenous people living in northern Colombia, and how their lifetime of tradition and family unity is brought asunder by greed as they slowly become involved with the burgeoning drug trade. Set between 1968 and 1980 and told in five acts, the story opens with young Rapayet (Jose Acosta) hoping to marry Zaida (Natalia Reyes), the daughter of one of the most respected Wayuu famiies, only to be stymied by their elaborate array of rituals, not to mention the immediate disapproval of her tradition-bound mother, Ursula (Carmina Martinez), who sees him as nothing but trouble. With the aid of his uncle Anibal (Juan Batista Martinez), Rapayet is able to gather the required dowry through a big marijuana deal and while she is fully aware of how he acquired the money, Ursula nevertheless consents to the wedding. Over the next decade or so, Rapayet continues to deal and the family becomes prosperous beyond their wildest dreams but not only do they face all the usual dangers of the drug trade, they also find the traditions and loyalties that nurtured them for generations being cast aside in the hopes of acquiring more money and power for themselves. Eventually it all falls apart in a cloud of bullets and betrayals as the once-peaceful people resort to extraordinarily ruthless methods to save themselves and will sacrifice everything they once held dear in order to survive.

The basic plot parameters of ''Birds of Passage'' will no doubt seem familiar to many viewers but by placing them within the context of the Wayuu way of life and how the trappings of the former begin to infect and supplant the latter (in one qu wetly powerful visual moment later in the proceedings, the once tradition-bound Ursula is seen unwrapping a sacred family talisman while sporting an exceptionally gaudy gold Rolex watch on her wrist), Guerra and Gallego have found a way to present such material in a way that not only feels fresh but which actually has genuine dramatic impact. The crime stuff is gripping enough but the early scenes that introduce us to the Wayuu way of life are even more fascinating (the glimpse of the elaborate courtship dance performed by Zaida is especially striking) and help to indelibly illustrate what they lose along the way while never letting them off the hook for their own considerable hand in their own self-destruction brought upon by their newly awakened lust for money and power. A sweeping portrait of power and corruption at its most basic and tragic, ''Birds of Passage'' is a powerfully effective variation on a standard theme and I cannot recommend it more highly.

''The Wedding Guest,'' the latest work from the relentlessly prolific British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, best known in recent years for the hilarious ''Trip'' trilogy that he created with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, is one of those films that starts off with such enormous promise that even though it is never less than competent throughout, it still comes across as a disappointment that the later developments never quite live up to those earlier scenes. Dev Patel stars as a mysterious man of many identities--the end credits refer to him as Jay and we shall do so here as well--and when we first see him, he is packing a suitcase with items of women's clothing and multiple passports before flying off to Pakistan. Once he arrives, he acquires some more sinister items, including a couple of guns and duck tape, before turning up at a party celebrating the impending marriage of the son of a powerful local family to Muslim woman Samira (Radhika Apte). That night, Jay returns to the compound and kidnaps Samira, killing a guard along the way before tossing her in the trunk of his car and speeding away. It turns out that the wedding was an arranged one that Samira was not eager to participate in and Jay has been hired by an old boyfriend to spring her from it, if she wants to go, in exchange for a hefty fee. Once news of the dead guard gets out, however, the boyfriend begins to grow cold feet over the deal and Jay is forced to improvise a new plan to get Samira to safety even as he finds himself unexpectedly growing closer to her along the way.

Blending together elements from political thrillers, romantic dramas and road movies, even throwing in a splash of film noir for good measure, Winterbottom's screenplay is more than a bit scattershot, as if he was so fascinated with the initial hook of the story that he never quite got around to creating a completely satisfying story around it. And yet, for the first half or so, Winterbottom approaches the material in an undeniably stylish manner that keeps viewers guessing as to where the story might be heading. In this, he is aided in no small part by the contributions of his two stars--Patel is as magnetic of an on-screen personality as ever and Apte more than matches him in terms of sheer charisma. Unfortunately, while Patel and Apte are entertaining enough throughout, the second half of the film finally reveals once and for all that Winterbottom has failed to make either of their characters especially convincing or interesting and has then placed them in an increasingly hackneyed storyline with a plot development involving stolen diamonds that is trucked in seemingly out of nowhere. The end result is not exactly terrible--the byplay between the two stars is enough to make it at least sort of watchable throughout--but considering both the promise of the early scenes and the considerable talents of those involved with its making, ''The Wedding Guest'' cannot help but come across as a bit of a letdown.

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originally posted: 03/01/19 11:05:22
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