In the doc The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 director Joshua Zeman sets out to find a whale with a unique 52 Hertz call that no other kind of whales can hear. The first time the whale's call was heard was back in 1989 by the Navy, and it hasn't been heard in over 15 years. Does it even exist anymore? If it does, are there other whales or is it all alone? Zeman fundraises for the expedition and assembles a team of scientists to help search for the whale known as 52. Between well-shot footage from the expedition, you'll learn some history of whaling and the impact of the album Songs Of The Humpback Whale when it was released in 1970. The most profound theme that the doc explores, albeit not very deeply, is the bond between man and nature. The Loneliest Whale is more focused on the expedition along with the obstacles that Zeman and his crew experience along the way. Fortunately, the doc doesn't get too bogged down with statistics and talking heads. Although it doesn't broaden its scope enough to delve into darker themes like commercial whaling, it's nonetheless entertaining, thrilling and occasionally moving. It might even inspire you to step out into nature just to listen to, appreciate and pay attention to the sounds of nature for a change. After all, we're all connected in this vast and complex ecosystem. At a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes, The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 opens at Quad Cinema via Bleecker Street and also on VOD.
The Witches of the Orient, directed by Julien Faraut, is not a horror/fantasy film at all. It's a captivating, stylishly edited and ultimately rousing documentary about the Oriental Witches, the nickname given to Nichibo Kaizuka, a team of female volleyball players who rose to fame in Japan during the early 1960's until their victory in the 1964 Olympics. The surviving volleyball players gather around a table to eat lunch and reminisce about their days of youth on the team. Faraut avoids a dry, dull, pedestrian approach by combining that modern-day footage with archival footage and a lively music score which invigorates the film. The editing also adds some style, but the real hook is the story of how the underdog team of women trained hard with the help of their coach, Hirofumi Daimatsu, to excel at volleyball. They had to deal with misogyny and rose above it while sticking together. Each of the women were given their own nicknames and the doc explains how they ended up with those nicknames. The last 30 minutes or so are one of the most rousing scenes in the doc as it shows the footage from the Tokyo Olympic Games where the Oriental Witches played against the Soviet Union team. Even if you know the outcome of the game, it's still exciting to watch. It also helps that the doc spent time getting to know some of the Oriental Witches players and their backstory. At a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes, The Witches of the Orient opens at Film Forum via KimStim.
In the prologue set in 1995, Melina (Rachel Weisz) and her husband, Alexei (David Harbour) suddenly flee their quiet suburban life in Ohio for Cuba with their kids, Natasha (Ever Anderson), and Yelena (Violet McGraw). The sisters get separated from their parents and join the Black Widows, an operative team of assassins headed by Dreykov (Ray Winstone). Years later, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena (Florence Pugh), no longer a member of the Black Widows, team up to hunt down and kill the nefarious Dreykov.
Black Widow takes a while to set up its story and get to the main plot, but once it does, it still feels dramatically inert. The screenplay by Eric Pearson doesn't help because the dialogue often sounds stilted and when it tries to add comic relief, it tries too hard. You can feel the wheels of the screenplay turning every step of the way and there's very little suspense, surprises and even thrills for that matter. The film picks up a modicum of oomph once Natasha and Yelena reunite their father, but even then it's not enough to become truly gripping. Of course, there's a MacGuffin as there always is in these kinds of movies. This time around, the MacGuffin is an antidote to a serum that Dreykov uses to control the minds of his army of Black Widow operatives. Dreykov comes across as a one-dimensional villain which makes him a cartoonish, banal and forgettable villain. The same can be said about Natasha and Yelena who have a few amusing scenes together when they banter and poke fun at each other, but neither of their characters truly come to life which makes it hard to care about their mission or whether or not they'll die.
Even on an aesthetic level, Black Widow doesn't have much to offer. The action scenes fall flat, and some of the CGI looks incredibly subpar, especially during the third act. A blockbuster like Black Widow should at least be entertaining viscerally and feel exhilarating, but it never reaches those heights. Also, the chemistry between Natasha and Yelena lacks, and it's hard to truly sense that they're siblings. It doesn't help that Pugh's and Winstone's attempts at a Russian accent sound so unconvincing they become distracting and annoying as though this were an unfunny Austin Powers-like spoof of a superhero film. The pacing is uneven at times, and the running time feels bloated at 2 hours and 15 minutes which feels more like 3 hours. The only thing holding it together, albeit barely, is the charisma of its cast. Just when you think the film is over, it keeps going and going. If you make it through to the end, there's a post-credits scene which seems to be the norm these days. If only the norm were to include a smart, engaging and witty screenplay as well. Black Widow is ultimately a lethargic, clunky and overlong bore that's low on thrills, suspense and excitement.