Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.


No matter what the pose is, hip hop star M.I.A. is a controversial figure.

(2018) Music Documentary (CineReach/Abramorama) Maya Arulpragasam, Diplo, Ben Bronfman, Kala Arulpragasam, Spike Jonze, Arular Arulpragasam, Sugu Arulpragasam, Kali Arulpragasam, Justine Frischmann, Nick Huggett, Lynn Hirschberg. Directed by Steve Loveridge

 

In this age where everything is divisive, there are few more polarizing figures than hip-hop superstar M.I.A. To some, she is a terrorist supporter (her father was one of the founders of the Tamil Tigers who fought against oppression of her ethnic group in Sri Lanka). To others, she is a hero standing up for the victims of genocide in her native Sri Lanka. For others, she’s a brilliant musician, combining elements of world music and hip-hop. To some, she’s a dilettante who lives in luxury while railing against poverty.

The truth is that M.I.A., born Matangi Arulpragasam but nicknamed Maya early on in her life, is all of those things. She has always been her own person, refusing to be put in a box. As a child her mother and remaining children (she talks early on how two of her six brothers were killed in Sri Lanka) immigrated to England where she encountered racism and abuse for her refugee status. She spent much of her early life, like most teens, trying to figure out what her place in the world was and early on determined not to be pigeonholed.

Music has always been a refuge for her and although she went to art school with the intention of being a filmmaker and indeed started out making music videos for Elastica and other bands of the era (she and Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann became close friends) it was her mash-ups of various beats and ethnic sounds that caught the attention of XL Recordings and with an in-yo-face performance style and unforgettable songs became one of the biggest stars in the world.

She has never been shy about expressing herself; invited by the NFL to perform at halftime of the Super Bowl, she expressed her disillusionment at America by flipping the bird to the cameras for which she was sued by the NFL which was eventually settled. A crude gesture, sure but that’s M.I.A. all over.

Loveridge utilized old home movies and videos (as a teen she was a compulsive recorder of life events) as well as behind the scenes access to create a portrait of a very complex and often difficult woman. She has a voice and a platform and something to say and her activism is on display in an often hagiographic documentary but at the same time she really doesn’t give a rat’s behind what the world thinks about her – yet she seems driven to having as much exposure as humanly possible. Is it so she can get her message across? Maybe…it’s hard to know sometimes what’s hype and what’s real.

My big issue with the documentary is that it jumps all over the place, both in a chronological sense and a thematic sense. At one point we see her with one fiancée, then in a scene or two later she has a different fiancée and is pregnant without any transition. It’s jarring and while I don’t think we necessarily have to delve that much into her personal romantic life, there should be some flow there and that’s what this documentary lacks.

The movie will be making an appearance locally on October 1st at the Enzian Theater for their South Asian Film Festival and while the movie is British in origin, certainly the ongoing crisis in Sri Lanka is a big part of this film as is the music of the Tamil culture. What you end up thinking about M.I.A. – disingenuous huckster using her message as publicity for her musical career, or committed and passionate activist desperately trying to bring the plight of the Tamil people to the mainstream Western media – is up to you. I’m not here to review her life, only her documentary and I find the film massively flawed, although the story of her life is compelling enough. Unlike documentaries however, real life doesn’t get the opportunity to be fixed in the editing bay, something this film desperately needed. M.I.A. seems to have done better in that regard than the film about her did.

REASONS TO GO: The activism of M.I.A. is very much to be admired.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary isn’t very well-organized; at times it feels like it’s jumping back and forth all over the map.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some disturbing images and a good deal of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loveridge met M.I.A. at film school; this is his first documentary feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
American Dresser

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Bad Reputation (2018)


Joan Jett is a rock and roll icon.

(2018) Music Documentary (Magnolia) Joan Jett, Kenny Laguna, Iggy Pop, Billy Joe Armstrong, Michael J. Fox, Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, Kathleen Hanna, Miley Cyrus, Ian MacKaye, Pete Townshend, Bill Curbishley, Mike Ness, Kristen Stewart, Dougie Needles, Alison Mosshart, Dana White, Sally Hershberger, Rodney Bingenheimer, Thommy Price, Carianne Brinkman, Cherie Currie. Directed by Kevin Kerslake

 

One of the problems we film critics have is that often with documentaries we have a tendency to review the subject as much as the film. I’m certainly guilty of that and the temptation to do that with an icon like Joan Jett is damn near irresistible.

You can’t help but admire Jett as a musician. In an age when most women were relegated to playing soft rock or folk music, Jett wanted to rock hard. She wanted to be like the boys onstage; like Pete Townshend, like Jimmy Page, like Clapton. People in the industry would look at her like she was from Mars. Girls don’t rock; they strum. They sing sweetly and they certainly don’t shriek

As a teen, Joan Larkin made her way from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles to chase her rock and roll dreams. She hung out in the English Disco, an all-ages nightclub where glam rock was worshiped by men and women wearing way too much make-up. Joan stood out in that crowd and met Sandy West, a kindred spirit who wanted to be John Bonham. They added guitarist Lita Ford, singer Cherie Currie and bassist Jackie Fox and were christened The Runaways. Joan took her mother’s maiden name as her stage name and under the aegis of promoter Kim Fowley (whom Iggy Pop described as “like Frankenstein’s monster, if Frankenstein’s monster was on Quaaludes”) they would go on to record four studio albums and one live album before breaking up acrimoniously.

The band was met by critical scorn and by outright hostility by male rockers who didn’t want to see their clubhouse invaded by girls yet performance footage (of which there is sadly far too little) show that the Runaways were as hard rocking as any male band of their time. When the band broke up, Jett was devastated. She self-medicated with booze and drugs, hanging out with people like Sid Vicious, Nancy Spungeon and Stiv Bators, most of whom as Jett puts it “are dead now.” She even thought of joining the military to get herself straightened out but it was rock and roll that saved her.

She was introduced to Kenny Laguna, a noted bubblegum pop producer who heard something in Jett. Putting together a backing band who became known as the Blackhearts, Laguna melded his pop sensibilities with Joan’s hard rock instincts to create a kind of hard pop. When no label would even consider them, Jett and Laguna founded heir own label, becoming a precursor to the DIY punk labels that started in the 80s. When pop mogul Neil Bogart heard their demo, he arranged to distribute their first album and it looked like a wise move when the first album did extremely well but Bogart died before they could follow up on that success and his label died with him. Undaunted, the band found another label to distribute their music and they hit the big time powered by constant airplay on MTV. While most of the band’s hits were covers (“I Love Rock and Roll,” “Crimson and Clover”) there were several that Jett and Laguna penned as well (“Bad Reputation”). Through the 80s, Jett became the Queen of Rock, a darker haired version of Ann and Nancy Wilson.

The rock business has always been notoriously cyclical and as label relationships soured, the Blackhearts were bounced from label to label but while Jett and her band would never recapture the popularity they had in the 80s they continued to have hits here and there through the 90s and into the 21st century.

Now so far I’ve reviewed the subject and certainly Jett is worthy of a documentary but the problem with this documentary is a lack of depth. It’s a bit more of a puff piece and Kerslake doesn’t seem inclined to examine some of the darker subjects, like the allegations  in Cherie Currie’s book that Fowley had sexually assaulted members of the Runaways – Jett is certainly aware of those allegations and you’d think in this MeToo era she would be at least wanting to comment on them, even if only to say “I wasn’t aware of that kind of thing going on so I can’t validate Cherie’s story.”

There is also astonishingly little detail in how the high school aged Joan got from Pennsylvania to the West Coast, whether she was able to reconnect with her former bandmates in the Runaways or even who her personal influences are as a musician. Watching this movie is very much like staring at a picture that has been put through a shredder and tossed in a trash can and then later reassembled at the city dump; there are lots of pieces missing and the ones that are there are incomplete.

Still, Jett is candid and engaging. She doesn’t address her sexuality – I don’t think she should have to – which has been a subject of gossip for decades. If anything, I think Jett is married to rock and roll and that’s the source of her sexuality and her creativity. It is her center and her savior, and often her curse. It is the greatest love in her life. And like all of our own relationships it has had its ups and downs but she is still loyal to it nevertheless. That’s pretty damn admirable if you ask me.

You likely won’t respect Jett as a musician any more after seeing this than you already do – or do not, if you are of that mindset. You may find yourself respecting her more as a person as I did. Overall I’d have to say that while Jett is indeed a rock icon who deserves every accolade she gets thrown her way, I might have wished for a better biography of her than this. She’s earned better.

REASONS TO GO: Jett is a marvelous subject; she’s candid and engaging.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit Music Documentary 101.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brief nudity, sexual references and gestures, profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jett celebrated her 60th birthday just four days before the film was released.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Runaways
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.

New Releases for the Week of September 28, 2018


NIGHT SCHOOL

(Universal) Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Keith David, Rob Riggle, Romany Malco, Al Madrigal, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Ben Schwartz, Anne Winters. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee

Hart stars as one of several misfits taking night classes in an attempt to pass their GED exams. Haddish is the no-nonsense teacher assigned to help them get there.

See the trailer, clips and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard, DBOX, Dolby, IMAX, RPX, XD
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for crude and sexual content throughout, language, some drug references and violence)

Cruise

(Vertical) Emily Ratajkowski, Noah Robbins, Kathrine Narducci, Spencer Boldman. An Italian-American boy from the mean streets of Brooklyn falls for a beautiful Jewish girl from Long Island. It’s 1987 and anything is possible.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs

Rating: NR

Hell Fest

(CBS) Bex Taylor-Klaus, Tony Todd, Reign Edwards, Amy Forsyth. A masked serial killer finds a happy hunting ground in a horror-themed amusement park where the guests think that his gruesome murders are all part of the show.

See the trailer, interviews and B-roll video here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard, DBOX
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for horror violence, and language including some sexual references)

Little Women

(Pure Flix) Lea Thompson, Ian Bohen, Lucas Grabeel, Melanie Stone. A modern update of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel follows the March sisters as they traverse the often treacherous path from girlhood to womanhood.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square

Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements and teen drinking)

Science Fair

(National Geographic) Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster. For high school science nerds, their super bowl is the International Science and Engineering Fair. This documentary follows nine students from around the world as they compete for the “Best in Fair,” an award that only one of them can win.

See the trailer and a video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG (for some thematic elements and brief language)

Smallfoot

(Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya, Common. A bright young yeti discovers the existence of what was thought to be a mythological beast – a human. The news of his discovery turns the world upside down for his people who wonder what else might be out there.

See the trailer and a video featurette here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, DBOX, DBOX 3D
Genre: Animated Feature
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for some action, rude humor, and thematic elements)

Sui Dhaaga: Made in India

(Yash Raj) Anushka Sharma, Varan Dhawan, Raghuvir Yadav, Govind Pandey. A husband and wife in India discover the need of entrepreneurship while trying to revive the artisan traditions of their homeland.

See the trailer and an interview here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: NR

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

At First Light
The Bookshop
Chekka Chivantha Vaanam
Devadas
The Healer
My Hero Academia: Two Heroes
Nawab
Trico Tri Happy Halloween

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

The Apparition
Chekka Chivantha Vaanam
Devadas
Museo
My Hero Academia: Two Heroes
Nawab
Pataakha
Trico Tri Happy Halloween

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Blaze
Chekka Chivantha Vaanam
Devadas
My Hero Academia: Two Heroes
Natakam
Nawab
The Padre
Pick of the Litter
Trico Tri Happy Halloween

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Chekka Chivantha Vaanam
Devadas
My Hero Academia: Two Heroes
Nawab

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Hell Fest
Night School

FILM FESTIVALS TAKING PLACE IN FLORIDA:

South Asia Film Festival (Maitland, FL)

Painless (2017)


There’s a difference between painless and pain-free.

(2017) Thriller (Indican) Joey Klein, Evalena Marie, Kip Gilman, Pascal Yen-Pfister, Tommie Sox, Nick Latrenta, Joshua Koopman, Eileen Paulino, David Weindel, Lino Tanaka, Valeria Sistrunk, Robert Sloch, Orion Spinelli, Katherine van Hengel, Becki Dennis, Anthony Ambrosino, David Michael Carpenter, Angel Connell, Jack Dimich, Ayana Adams. Directed by Jordan Horowitz

 

Nobody likes pain. We’ve created a billion dollar industry that is geared to keeping pain out of our lives. We will go so far as to take powerful and addictive opiates in order to avoid pain. Pain sucks and anyone who has felt intense pain can tell you that in detail

But pain has a purpose as much as we would like to live without it. Pain tells us when there’s something wrong. Pain tells us when we need medical attention. Without pain, we could fall down and never realize that we are bleeding internally. We could scald ourselves with hot coffee and not realize our skin is blistering. We could cut ourselves severely and not realize that gangrene was setting in.

Henry (Klein) has to live reality. Since birth he has not been able to experience pain and brigades of doctors can’t really explain why. He has dedicated himself to research the problem since essentially nobody will do it for him – the condition is rare enough that no medical facility will put the money, time and commitment into solving the problem.

His specialist, Dr. Raymond Parks (Gilman) supports his research but as Henry gets more desperate he begins demanding more things from his doctor. Henry’s condition has kind of insulated him from humanity; he barges into his doctor’s office while he’s seeing other patients. He rebuffs those who want to get to know him better – for example the pretty Shani (Marie) who spills hot coffee on him on the subway and is intrigued by his demeanor – with the muttered declaration “I don’t have time for distractions right now.”

He gets involved with a less-than-ethical researcher, Dr. Andrews (Yen-Pfister) who is willing to provide him with chemicals and stem cells which Dr. Parks won’t provide for him (he could lose his license for doing so) in exchange for samples of DNA for Henry. For Henry, expedience is the name of the game. Although he abhors being poked and prodded by doctors, he agrees to undergo the tests that Dr. Andrews has set up for him if it will get him the things Henry needs to get closer to a cure for his condition. Henry also begins to come out of his shell as Shani becomes more and more of a distraction. However, just as Henry is beginning to live, will he risk his life to cure his condition?

The concept is truly interesting but the execution of the film is what is really surprising. I have to admit I hadn’t heard anything about the film before the publicist brought it to my attention. This is a very well-developed, well-written movie. Horowitz takes a scientific tact to approach the high concept and while I’m not expert enough to say whether the science is sound or not, it certainly seems to be from a layman’s perspective. On top of that, the world that Horowitz creates of Red Bank apartments converted into labs, lowlife drug dealers looking to Henry for product and an encounter between Shani and an ex-boyfriend that leaves Henry humiliated. This is a world most of us are familiar with.

Horowitz also doesn’t take many shortcuts with the plot. He allows it to unfold at its own pace and doesn’t rush the denouement. Yeah, I could have done without the voiceover narration (we critics tend to see more movies using that device than most human beings should be allowed to) or the very cliché developing romance montage midway through the film. Otherwise there are no missteps.

Klein does a solid job as Henry. Henry isn’t always likable – obsession isn’t pretty, remember – and his little eccentricities might get overbearing after awhile but the character is never uninteresting or unbelievable and Klein has a lot to do with that. Horowitz also resisted the impulse to make Shani a manic pixie dream girl clone, making her authentic and their relationship believable. Marie likewise gives the character three dimensions.

This is a surprisingly entertaining and interesting little gem.  It will be available on VOD on October 2nd; in the meantime it is playing at the Music Hall theater in Los Angeles for those in the City of Angels who want to get a gander at this on the big screen. While I was surprised that the movie, clearly filmed in New York didn’t get a run in the Big Apple, the biggest surprise is that I had never heard of this film before. It’s really quite good and you will not waste your time giving it a whirl. Once it’s on VOD, this is definitely a contender for those looking for something different.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is fascinating and is attacked from a scientific perspective. There is some profundity in the script.
REASONS TO STAY: Henry’s quirkiness gets overbearing at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug references and some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first full-length feature for Horowitz who also wrote the screenplay.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flatliners
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bad Reputation

Love, Gilda


Gilda and Gene as a couple were amazingly cute.

(2018) Documentary (Magnolia) Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, Chevy Chase, Laraine Newman, Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lorne Michaels, Michael F. Radner, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, Paul Shaffer, Stephen Schwartz, Alan Zweibel, Robin Zweibel, Rosie Shuster, Cecily Strong, Andrew Alexander, Janis Hirsch, Anne Beatts. Directed by Lisa DaPolito

 

It’s not taking a controversial stance by declaring that Gilda Radner was one of the greatest comedians of her era and one of the greatest ever. Although she passed away at a too-young 43 in 1989, her best work on Saturday Night Live still holds up even now, 40 years later.

It’s hard to believe but for most people under 30 she’s been gone their entire lifetime. Fortunately there’s a documentary that will not only play on the nostalgic chords of baby boomers and others who are middle aged, it may introduce her to a whole new generation that didn’t get to be captivated by her amazing smile, who didn’t get to enjoy her compelling characters or laugh at her gentle humor.

The documentary is mostly told in Radner’s own words as we hear excerpts of her audio recordings that she used while writing her autobiography It’s Always Something which would be published two weeks after her death. She was also an insatiable diarist and we get to hear some of her most intimate thoughts read by modern comedians (and SNL alumni themselves) like Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy and Amy Poehler.

We also get to see plenty of home movies of her youth, backstage footage from her debut performance in Godspell in Toronto as well as from her one-woman Broadway show after her stint on SNL came to an end (but strangely, very little backstage or rehearsal footage from SNL itself). There are also some home movies from her brief but fulfilling marriage to Gene Wilder, some of it taken during cancer treatments during the last years of her life. Even though she remained optimistic despite the advanced stages of her ovarian cancer when it was detected, there came a point when she knew she wasn’t going to survive and she confessed as much to some of her closest friends. She faced the end with grace and humor as you might expect.

Radner was never a radical feminist but she did a lot of trailblazing for women particularly in the field of comedy which was then definitely a boys club (and is still so to a lesser but still profound effect today). Female comics revere her and rightfully so for that reason. She made inroads not by demonstrating but by doing; she wasn’t the sort to get in anyone’s face and scream. She knew there was discrimination against women but in her own non-confrontational way she fought against it. It didn’t hurt that nobody could deny she wasn’t as hysterically funny as her male counterparts, maybe more so in a lot of cases.

Given the amount of personal information and observations that the filmmakers were privy to, some aspects of her life seem to have little flesh on them when displayed here. We get that she spent most of her life looking for true love and being devastated when her latest boyfriend or husband (Wilder was her third marriage) didn’t work out. She wanted to be adored, but was intrinsically shy and preferred privacy even as she loved being in front of people, perhaps less than being with people. At least, that’s what I can glean from what is shown here; I may be way off-base. That’s the problem with documentary movies; the filmmaker has an hour and a half to dig into a life so often we are just left with the highlights and not so much with the blanks being filled in. I really wanted DaPolito to spend more time on her relationship with Wilder but we really didn’t get much more than we could glean from reading contemporary accounts in People magazine.

Radner’s fans will likely love the stroll down memory lane but be disappointed by the insight of which there could have been a lot more. I also found it surprising that the only members of the original cast to appear in the documentary were Newman and Chase; Aykroyd, Curtin and Morris are not to be seen nor is Bill Murray and his brother Brian (both of whom dated Radner at separate times back in the day) from the second season. That’s a shame to me and I don’t know why the missing members declined to appear (if indeed they did) or why DaPolito failed to ask them (if she didn’t).

Still, it is a worthy tribute to one of the most iconic performers of her era, one whose influence still resonates in the comedy business today. Even if it isn’t entirely satisfying from one hoping to gain more insight into what made her tick, I think for most people this is another – or maybe a first – opportunity to love Gilda.

REASONS TO GO: The excerpts from classic SNL sketches still hold up well. The journal entries are both poignant and illuminating.
REASONS TO STAY: The section on her relationship with Gene Wilder could have used some fleshing out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Radner based her Emily Litella character on her nanny whom she considered her second mom.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Painless

The Dawn Wall


You can’t beat the view at dawn on the Dawn Wall.

(2017) Documentary (Red Bull/The Orchard) Tommy Caldwell, Kevin Jorgeson, John Long, Mike Caldwell, Beth Rodden, Kelly Cordes, Terry Caldwell, John Dickey, Jason Smith, Matt Jones, Gail Jorgeson, John Branch, Matt Jones, Tom Evans, Becca Pietsch. Directed by Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer

 

There is a fine line between endeavor and obsession. Sometimes a concept can completely take over our lives to the point of souring relationships, alienating family and forcing us to forsake all other things in service to that one thing, that accomplishment that would make our lives complete. It is hard for outsiders to understand.

Tommy Caldwell is one of the world’s most accomplished free climbers – climbers who eschew devices for anything other than safety reasons. Ascent is accomplished only by using limbs; fingers, toes, heels and sometimes other body parts. It requires insane athleticism, even more insane pain tolerance and the kind of focus that requires rigid discipline and unrivaled preparedness.

For rock climbers like Caldwell, El Capitan in Yosemite National Park is Mecca. The granite monolith towers 3,000 feet above the valley floor. The back of El Cap, as climbers affectionately call it, has trails that lead to the top for those who are less Type A. Most reputable climbers have done several different ascents of the mountain which are some of the most challenging on earth. Of particular note is the Dawn Wall, so called because when dawn breaks in Yosemite the Dawn Wall is the first surface to be lit by the rays of the sun. Nearly completely smooth, there are few places for hands to grip, for feet to gain purchase. Even the most legendary climbers, like John Long (who provides much of the technical commentary here) were certain that the Dawn Wall couldn’t be climbed.

Caldwell is the type of man who if you tell him he can’t do something, he goes right out and does it anyway but this was different and it wasn’t like he hadn’t had his share of challenges. While on a climbing expedition in Kyrgyzstan, he and then-girlfriend Beth Rodden as well as two other climbers were captured by rebel terrorists. After a remarkable escape, they all returned home safely although Tommy was seriously affected by the incident. Shortly after marrying Rodden, he accidentally sliced off half of his left index finger. Any climber will tell you that free climbers rely heavily on the index fingers. For most free climbers that would be a career killer.

However Tommy Caldwell is not most free climbers. He trained his other fingers to pick up the slack and also to utilize  the remainder of that index finger and emerged a better climber. By this time the idea of climbing the Dawn Wall – which no human had ever accomplished – had taken hold. He spent more and more time researching routes of the wall, climbing parts of it, looking for  route that gave him a chance to accomplish the impossible. His obsession and depression proved to be too much for his marriage. Tommy needed a climbing partner to help him ascend the Dawn Wall; he found one in Kevin Jorgeson, a cheerful California boy who was looking for a new challenge after he had become one of the top boulder climbers in the world. Tommy convinced him to dive right into the deep end – the most challenging free climb on Earth. Together, the two men planned and researched and argued and trained until at last they were ready to make history.

The expedition made headlines all over the world when it happened although to be honest I don’t remember much about it. We see network coverage of the time however, reporters calling on Tommy’s cell phone which apparently got service while hanging on the side of a rock. Documenting the attempt were an army of cameramen and riggers, some hanging from the top of El Cap and giving viewers a unique you-are-there experience. We see the bloody hands of the climbers after a day of hanging by their fingers on razor-sharp cracks in the rock.

The views are breathtaking and Caldwell’s story is amazing. Jorgeson gets less coverage by the team but his moment is in facing the most difficult section of the climb – Pitch 15 (the climb was divided into 32 different sections, called pitches) – which Tommy conquered early on but Kevin made attempt after attempt, always losing his grip and falling (safety lines are worn to prevent them from falling to their deaths). As both men grow more frustrated, Tommy decides to continue on further with Kevin acting as support. Kevin is disappointed but when Tommy conquers the last difficult pitch and stands atop Wino Tower, he knows he doesn’t want to hit the summit alone. He makes an extraordinary decision that puzzles veteran climbers but not those who know him best.

As a character study, we get to know bits and pieces of Tommy Caldwell but he is a fairly shy individual so some things are difficult for him to articulate. That’s okay though: this isn’t really about the story of Tommy Caldwell precisely but at the end of the day it’s about the resilience of the human spirit, the need to conquer the unconquerable, to expand our horizons and to make the impossible possible. In this divisive age where the American spirit seems stunted by political tribalism, self-absorption and malaise, we need men like Tommy Caldwell more than ever. The triumph of mountains conquered – whatever shape those mountains take – is within the grasp of all of us who are willing to make the sacrifice to achieve.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is absolutely mind-blowing, particularly the footage on the wall. Caldwell’s story is the kind that is too bizarre to be anything but real.
REASONS TO STAY: Caldwell’s obsessive behavior might be too much for some viewers to understand.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some disturbing images and dialogue.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Dawn Wall originally made its American premiere at Sundance this year and has also been shown in selected theaters as part of Fathom Events special programming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Meru
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Love, Gilda

Bel Canto


The diva, at rest before the storm, enjoys the company of an admirer.

(2018) Drama (Screen Media) Julianne Moore, Ken Watanabe, Sebastian Koch, Maria Mercedes Coroy, Christopher Lambert, Ryô Kase, Tenoch Huerta, Elsa Zylbestein, Olek Krupa, Thornbjørn Harr, Emmie Nagata, Elliud Kaufman, Ethan Simpson, Melissa Navia, Bobby Daniel Rodriguez, Gisela Chipe, Nico Bustamante, Gabo Augustine, Eddie Martinez, Phil Nee, Marisa Brau, Minerva Paz. Directed by Paul Weitz

 

Stressful situations can make us do things we wouldn’t normally do. Our perceptions can change and our emotions can guide us into decisions that upon hindsight are mind-blowing yet at the time seemed reasonable. That’s why hostages can sometimes fall in love with their captors.

In a Latin American country (unnamed in the film but based on actual events that took place in Peru in 1996) a Japanese industrialist named Katsumi Hosokawa (Watanabe) is being pressured by the government to finance a factory there. He is loathe to do it but allows them to throw a party for him in the home of the Vice-President (Kaufman) so long as they invite American soprano Roxanne Coss (Moore) to perform.

Hosokawa is a lifetime opera buff and his favorite opera star is Coss so he is essentially going to the party just to hear her (he later admits he has no intention of building a factory there). For her part, she’s only there for the money and icily instructs her agent over the phone to keep her gigs to Europe and the United States, as it turns out, with good reason.

No sooner has she sung her first aria when rebel commandos break into the house and take everyone hostage at gunpoint. Their aim was to take the President (Nee) hostage but he had stayed home in order to watch his favorite telenovela instead. The rebels aren’t about to go home empty-handed so a standoff ensues with their demand for the release of all political prisoners falling on deaf ears. Despite the best efforts of a Swiss negotiator (Koch) the negotiations go nowhere.

As the hostages bond with each other, eventually they begin to bond with their captors as well, notably Gen (Kase), the translator Hosokawa brought with him, with Carmen (Coroy), an illiterate guerrilla. In the meantime the esteem of Hosokawa for Coss has turned into something more romantic.

The performances here range from dazzling (Coroy as the conflicted rebel) to strong (Watanabe who seems incapable of giving anything else). Also outstanding is Huerta, Lambert (giving some brief comic relief) and Koch. This might be the most international cast in a movie this year. Moore plays against type but does a fine job. My one beef is that when she is lip-sinking her opera singing, her breathing isn’t the same way as a trained opera star breathes. It took me out of the movie a little bit but not so much that it was more than a minor annoyance.

The problem with the film is that it drags a bit during the last half  and starts turning into a soap opera – like a telenovela that the rebels are fond of; they even comment on it themselves which I suppose can be interpreted as fourth wall irony. However, the movie’s final denouement makes up for it. There is some inevitability to it but there is also a good deal of grace to it as well. Weitz has a pretty strong filmography going  and while this probably won’t be seen by nearly as many people who have seen his hits, this should be one he should be proud of. It’s a slam dunk to recommend this one.

REASONS TO GO: The acting top to bottom is extremely strong. The ending while inevitable is nonetheless powerful.
REASONS TO STAY: Towards the end the film gets a little soap opera-y.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of sex, violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Watanabe and Kase previously worked together on Letters from Iwo Jima.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The 39 Steps
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
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The Dawn Wall