Free Solo


Why ask why?

(2018) Documentary (National Geographic) Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin, Sanni McCandless, Peter Croft, Deidre Wolownick. Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

 

It is in man’s nature to push the boundaries; if there’s a goal to be achieved, it is human nature to want to top it. This goes through all endeavors of life – physical, artistic and financial. Being the best at something gives us a sort of patina of immortality. Still, there are some goals so dangerous, so daunting that there can be no topping it. In fact, there are goals that some would call insane.

Alex Honnold has one of those and it involves Yosemite’s infamous El Capitan. El Cap, as climbers call it, is the Mecca of rock climbing. 3,000 feet of nearly sheer granite, it is one of the most difficult climbs in the world. Rock climbers from all over creation flock to Yosemite Valley to try their hand at it and a good many do succeed. However, all of those who have done so have used ropes and safety equipment to make their way up the rock. Honnold wants to be the first to free solo El Cap – that is, climb without any safety equipment or ropes altogether, relying only on his body and a bag of chalk dust to keep his grip from getting slippery.

Climbing El Capitan in the best of circumstances requires rigid focus; one mistake can result in a fall. Even with safety equipment, people die climbing El Capitan. It is seriously no laughing matter and to do so without harnesses and pitons and ropes makes most sensible climbers’ blood run cold. Hell, I know nothing about rock climbing and the thought of it makes my genitalia shrivel. One mistake for a free soloist on El Capitan and the unfortunate will end up a puddle of gore on the valley floor. Pro climber Tommy Caldwell, who made his own history in conquering the previously thought unclimbable Dawn Wall, recalls that most of the people he knew who made Free Soloing an essential part of their lives are dead.

The film mainly focuses on the preparation for the historic climb. The husband and wife directing team of Chin (a climber in his own right and a friend of Honnold) and documentary filmmaker Vasarhelyi painstakingly set up their camera positions, wanting to keep close enough to get great shots of Alex but also far enough away so that their presence doesn’t interfere with the climb. Chin muses at one point about how ethical his participation is, when at any moment he could see his friend plummeting through the frame to his death.

The question is why do it and that’s never really satisfactorily answered. Honnold has a girlfriend (McCandless) who is steadfast and ends up moving in with him; previous to that Honnold was living out of his van. Not because he didn’t have money – his books and sponsorship deals have been lucrative – but because he preferred not to have any commitments. McCandless is well aware that when it comes to scaling mountains, she will finish second every single time. When it’s time for Honnold to make his ascent, she is sent away and the worry is absolutely heartbreaking.

There is an extreme amount of selfishness that has to do with any sort of obsession and we see it here. The worry of those who love him may register somewhat with Honnold but at the end of the day their excruciating emotional turmoil doesn’t matter enough for him to call off his climb. To be fair this tends to be the truth for those who achieve things that are extraordinarily difficult – I’m sure Neil Armstrong’s wife wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of his going to the moon – but we are left to look at Honnold and other achievers of that nature to be, well, jerks. Honnold seems nice enough and he’s certainly charismatic but the filmmakers are only looking at one aspect of him because that’s what the movie is all about. Consequently he comes off seeming pretty one-dimensional.

It also must be said that the 20 minute sequence of Alex’s historic climb are some of the most tense and nerve-wracking moments in any movie this year. The climb, which lasted just under four hours, is captured with vertigo-inducing shots of the drop below Honnold’s feet and set to the sound of his breathing. It is inspiring in some ways, but also terrifying.

This is a powerful chronicle of the power of achievement and the obsession that fuels it. My issue is that some kid somewhere is likely to be inspired to follow Honnold into free soloing and end up dying because of it. For that reason, I really hesitate giving this the kind of acclaim the film probably deserves.

REASONS TO GO: The final climbing sequence is edge-of-the-seat kind of stuff and is the best sequence in the movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers really focus in on Alex’s obsession to the exclusion of everything else pretty much, making him a very limited personality.
FAMILY VALUES: There is much peril and some profanity here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Honnold and Caldwell recently became the first climbers to scale the Nose on El Capitan in under two hours.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dawn Wall
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Randy’s Canvas

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2


Spider-Man goes electric.

Spider-Man goes electric.

(2014) Superhero (Columbia) Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Dane DeHaan, Sally Field, Jamie Foxx, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti, Chris Cooper, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Marton Csokas, B.J. Novak, Michael Massee, Louis Cancelmi, Felicity Jones, Max Charles, Sarah Gordon, Jorge Vega, Bill Heck, Helen Stern, Kari Coleman. Directed by Marc Webb

It is inevitable that when a superhero shows up, eventually a super-villain will as well. With great power comes great responsibility but also comes great angst and great greed as well.

Despite Peter Parker’s (Garfield) a.k.a. Spider-Man promise to stay away from Gwen Stacy (Stone), daughter of the police captain (Leary) who died in the first ASM film, the feelings between the two are so strong that they can’t stay away from each other, at least until Peter starts seeing disapproving visions of her dear old dad and the guilt forces him to break up with her. Or she gets tired of all the on-again, off-again stuff and tells him to take a hike.

Peter is also haunted by the death of his parents, dad Richard (Scott) who once worked for the evil Oscorp empire, and mom (Davidtz) whom Peter remembers only fragments of. He finally confronts his Aunt May (Field) about them. May, who sometimes comes off as too saintly in both the comic and the first film trilogy, actually acts with a completely understandable anger – wasn’t she there for him? Wasn’t her love enough?

He’s also busy taking care of things in New York City, including taking down a crazed Russian mobster who will eventually come to be known as the Rhino (Giamatti). His best friend Harry Osborne (DeHaan) returns to town as his diseased and despotic father Norman (Cooper) lays dying, leaving Harry to pick up the pieces, take over Oscorp and fend off the scheming Donald Menken (Feore) who has an agenda of his own. Harry also discovers that he may soon share his father’s fate and only the blood of a certain Spider-Man might contain the clue that can cure him.

On top of that there’s a new super-villain in town. Mild mannered Max Dillon (Foxx) who develops a man-crush on Spidey after he saves him from being hit by a bus has a terrifying accident as he is shocked by high power lines and falls into a tank full of genetically altered electric eels which leave him badly burned but with the ability to shoot electric charges from his hands and eventually turn into living electric current.

Max, now going by the name Electro, has felt ignored and marginalized all his life. He is tired of being invisible (which ironically becomes one of his superpowers) and now that he can cause so much carnage feels vindicated that people can “see” him now and his freakish appearance is a small price to pay. He also feels betrayed by Spider-Man, his buddy who forgot his name.

All this leads to a pair of climactic battles as betrayals lead to rage which leads to a tragic confrontation that will alter Spider-Man’s life forever. Which is essentially how the second installment in any superhero franchise tends to go.

The second film in the Sam Raimi Spider-trilogy turned out to be one of the best superhero movies ever. This one, sadly, falls more into the category of the third Raimi movie which was sunk by too many supervillains and not enough memorable characters mainly because the film doesn’t get to develop them too much other than Foxx’s Electro and even he doesn’t get a whole lot of background.

What does get some background is the romance between Gwen and Peter which is a double-edged sword. Some of the most natural sequences in the movie involve those two and the banter between the two of them reflects the real-life romance that has developed between Stone and Garfield, eerily reflecting the real-life romance between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst that developed in the first Spider-trilogy. However, spending as much time on the romance as Webb does tends to mess with the momentum of the film, creating awkward breaks between action sequences and a sense that Webb is trying to make a movie that is all things to all audiences. Columbia execs have a history of becoming too involved in the Spider-Man films and I get a sense that studio interference may have occurred here as well.

Webb shows some deft touch with the action sequences and his vision of Electro is nothing short of amazing, worthy of a high-profile superhero franchise such as this one. One sequence in which Electro disappears into an ordinary electric outlet to go and wreak havoc is so well done that it looks as if it could have actually happened. That’s excellent effects in my book.

The character of Gwen Stacy doesn’t work as well for me. Stone described her as the “brains” of the operation which is a bit of a departure from the comic book in which the nerdy Peter, one of the first true science geeks, was capable of being the strategist but it is Gwen who comes to his rescue time after time by figuring out solutions to problems Spider-Man is having and incredibly, as an intern at Oscorp in biochemistry for whatever reason has learned how to work the electric grid of New York City which Oscorp runs. That part doesn’t ring true at all and took me right out of the film. I don’t mind smart women in movies but make her realistically clever please.

Garfield however continues to impress as both Parker and Spider-Man. In the latter role he has the fluid movements that make him look just non-human enough to be different. In the former role, he isn’t quite as brooding as he was in the first film (until near the end) but he certainly shows the inner conflicts that come from wanting to do the right thing but knowing that doing so could potentially put those he loves in danger. Some critics have groused about the smartaleck wisecracking that Spider-Man does, but that is part of the comic book personality of the character and is Parker’s way of coping with his own self-doubt.

This isn’t the sequel I was hoping for. I’m a big fan of Webb and I like the way Garfield plays both Peter and Spider-Man. I was hoping after the unnecessary second origin movie in ten years for the character that they might take Garfield’s strong performance in the title role and build on it. To some extent they do but their ambitions exceed the realistic here and they wind up making a movie that is a bit of a mess. It’s still plenty entertaining and has all the thrills, action and emotions that you need to make a great summer blockbuster, but they also failed to learn from Raimi’s mistakes. It’s worth seeing for the action, for Garfield and for some of the emotional sequences but the movie is nonetheless very flawed.

REASONS TO GO: The Electro sequences are amazing. Some emotional high points.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters and subplots. The flow of the film doesn’t quite work. Logical issues.

FAMILY VALUES:  A good deal of superhero violence and peril, plus a brief scene that may be disturbing for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first Spider-Man movie to film in New York City where the series is set – it is also the largest production to date to film in the state of New York.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 3

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Words and Pictures

I Remember


I Remember

Griff Blane and Rick Baker prepare to roast some S'mores.

(2008) Drama (Self-Distributed) Griff Blane, Rick Baker, Cassie Raye, Daniel McKinney, Randy G. Scott, Buddy Metz, Craig Hanley, Whittaker Garick, Charlie Wiggins. Directed by Ray Gaillard

When we see the homeless, we tend to view them as failures at life. They are scary in a way, as despair and desperation can drive people to do terrible things – and we sure don’t want to be around when they do.

Buck (Blane) is an eight-year-old boy who’s been through much more than any eight-year-old boy should have to. Both his parents were killed in a car accident and he and his little sister Molly (Raye) have been separated and sent to different foster homes. Whereas Molly is in a loving middle-class home, Buck has been left in the tender care of George (Wiggins), a brutish man who never tires of telling Buck that he’ll never amount to anything, or pointing out he’s been kicked out of every foster home he’s been sent to.

Driven past the breaking point, he escapes George’s clutches, leaving him with a present he’ll remember for a good long time. He decides to go out looking for his sister, but hasn’t a clue how to find her. Living on the streets and eating out of garbage bins, he finally attracts the notice of Joe (Baker), a kindly man who is also homeless.

Joe takes Buck to a camp outside of town where other homeless people are living as best they can. Joe teaches Buck the ropes and imparts the wisdom of how to survive on his own. Still, Buck is focused on finding his little sister and despite Joe’s warnings to the contrary, goes out after her. The attempt will lead Buck into a life and death situation, one in which he must make a decision that will color the direction his life takes from then on.

First-time filmmaker Gaillard filmed the movie in and around Columbia, South Carolina using friends and family as actors and crew members. Taking into account the nature of the production, it has to be said that this is definitely unpolished; the acting is uneven, as such productions usually are. However, this doesn’t feel like an amateur film. The cinematography is gorgeous, utilizing its locations nicely, and the script rarely descends into cliché.

Blane is a credible young actor; he takes the less-is-more route, rarely overplaying his hand. The result is that he comes off as a boy who is in a bit of a shell, but capable of violence when cornered. Simply put, Buck is not a kid to mess with. Blane gets that across, but manages to retain the inner core of a child. Many better known child actors wouldn’t have been able to pull that off. If he chooses to pursue acting as a career, he has a bright future in it.

Baker (not the special effects make-up guy) is the wise old Yoda to Blane’s Luke Skywalker. He plays a very complex character that is homeless by choice, rejecting the money-centric society that America has evolved into. Baker even resembles a Jedi with his snow-white hair and ponytail. In any case, he is the film’s heart in many ways and carries that aspect off solidly.

Quite frankly, I was pleasantly surprised with the movie that depicts how the homeless are perceived by society in a very realistic manner. There are a couple of rednecks in the movie (Hanley and Garick) who precipitate a good deal of violence. Some of the violence is sudden and brutal in the manner that violence often is. Sensitive souls should note that while the movie isn’t gore-drenched, it doesn’t shy away from it either and the violence that exists in that stratum of society is dealt with in a matter-of-fact manner.

The movie is a slice of life of lives that are often marginalized; that it depicts these people as human and worthwhile is a unique feature all of its own and should be applauded. It is a bit of an eye-opener as a matter of fact, and these are the kinds of movies that should be appreciated and savored. While it is exceedingly difficult to find the movie in local theaters, I would highly recommend ordering the movie from the website below. Talent such as Gaillard’s and his cast and crew should be nurtured and encouraged; I suspect that Gaillard has plenty of additional stories to tell and I for one look forward to seeing them.

REASONS TO GO: While very raw, the movie depicts the life of the homeless and how they are regarded by society in a very realistic manner. The movie is well-filmed, utilizing its locations very nicely.

REASONS TO STAY: The violence can be off-putting to those who are sensitive to such things.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a smattering of foul language. While the lead character is a young boy, it would be advisable to watch the movie with your children to answer questions about the situations and the ensuing violence, some of which is directed at the boy, others committed by him.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Before making this movie, Gaillard had no movie-making experience and knew very little about the process. He read several books on the subject at his local library and checked out information on the Internet before purchasing a camera and putting together the funds to film the movie, mostly with friends and family.

HOME OR THEATER: This film is on the festival circuit and your best bet is to see it at one; if you can’t find it, the movie is available on DVD at its website www.iremembermovie.com.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Princess and the Frog