To Kid or Not to Kid


Maxine Trump and Megan Turner share a moment.

(2018) Documentary (Helpman) Maxine Trump, Megan Turner, Josh Granger, Karen Malone Wright, Marcia Drut-Davis, Jane Kevers, Douglas Stein, Mandy Harvey, Tim Belcher, Victoria Elder, Juniper Melnicoff, Andy Williams, Lesley Melnicoff, Leon Wojciechowski, Dutch Yardley, Cynthia Yardley, Dawn Bowker, Bryan Caplan, Dina Ibarra. Directed by Maxine Trump

Motherhood is a central facet of a woman’s life. Biological imperatives aside, women have been socially assigned a nurturing role, one traditionally associated with child-rearing. For most women, having children is a central part of their existence. It was what they were born to do.

But that isn’t the case for all women. Recent studies have shown that one out of five women over the age of forty are childless. Some of that percentage has to do with infertility, but for many women, children just aren’t a part of the picture. Having babies may not fit in with career and life goals.

As filmmaker Maxine Trump (no relation to the President) discovered, there is a stigma attached to being childless when you’re a woman, particularly once you get married. There’s always family pressure: “When are you going to have a baby,” “When are you going to make me a grandma,” when when when. For Maxine, she wasn’t sure what the answer to that question was. That answer might truly turn out to be “never.”

Being a filmmaker, Maxine decided to turn the camera on herself as she went in search of an answer to that very important question – whether or not she wanted to have kids. In Maxine’s case, there were some compelling arguments against; surgeries when she had been younger had left doctors warning her that it was likely that she wouldn’t be able to bring a baby to term initially and that she would have to suffer through several miscarriages before successfully giving birth, which alone would be enough to give anybody pause.

Maxine also values her freedom to pursue her career, and being a filmmaker doesn’t mix terribly well with raising children as she is often called upon to shoot in all sorts of places around the world, some which you wouldn’t want to take a child to. Pursuing that dream was more a part of her identity as traditional female roles were.

It’s not that Maxine hates kids – she has plenty of nieces, nephews and other children around her and she’s more than happy to be around them. It’s just the drastic change in lifestyle wasn’t one that she wanted to make…but at the same time, there was that biological urge nagging at her, telling her that her clock was ticking ever onward and that her window of opportunity to be a mother was shrinking fast. What would her final decision be?

Well, the answer will be much more obvious to viewers I think than it was to Maxine herself. She dithers for much of the movie, often breaking down into tears which she claims at one point that she doesn’t do but by that time she had already done so several times. The question is clearly one that is eating her alive, not the least of which is that if she should choose to be childless she felt it would cost her friendships and relationships. It had already cost her a close friend who had gotten into an argument with her over whether it was selfish or not to have kids (or not to have them) and the two hadn’t spoken in years because of it.

On the selfishness question, incidentally, I need to weigh in since the question is brought up several times during the movie. It is selfish to have children, of course it is. It is also selfish not to have them. So what? What does it matter? It is selfish to eat because in taking in sustenance we are killing a living thing, be it plant or animal. It is selfish to breathe because we expel carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and in our own small way contribute to global warming. In some things, it is okay to be selfish. We have got to stop apologizing for existing as a culture. It’s okay to be a part of the human race and to want to have kids – or not. It truly isn’t anybody’s business.

This is clearly Maxine’s movie and this is a chronicle of her journey. There are times when her conflict felt a little bit managed in order to give the film some dramatic conflict, but in the end I don’t think that it actually was. There were some points that got pounded away a bit which felt a bit like nagging but perhaps I’m just sensitive to such things.

The movie also follows the quest of 20-something Brit Megan Turner who is attempting to get surgically sterilized. She has no desire to have kids and is concerned that if she continues to be sexually active that she will accidentally get pregnant. There is some resistance from the National Health Service to perform such a surgery without a medical reason; she is continually counseled by doctors to think over her decision since it isn’t reversible once the surgery is performed. At the end of the movie, Megan still awaits the surgery she has been seeking for more than three years.

It’s apparent that the goal for Maxine was to inform other women undergoing the same anguish she herself felt that it is okay to have these needs and to not want to have kids. It doesn’t make her – or they – any less of a woman despite the social backlash. It may be a bit of a primer in places but she does raise valid questions and tries to give valid answers. Not everyone will be able to get past their own ingrained preconceptions about women who choose to be childless and this movie simply won’t work for them. However, for those women out there who are questioning whether or not to have children, this is a good place to start looking for arguments on the side of “not to kid.”

REASONS TO GO: Some valid questions are raised here.
REASONS TO STAY: At times, it felt a bit like it was rehashing territory already covered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Two years after attending her first Childless by Choice conference in Cleveland, Trump would become a featured speaker at the annual event
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Good Life
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Jonathan

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Under the Wire (2018)


Riding a motorcycle through a drainage tunnel is not recommended – unless you’re running for your life.

(2018) Documentary (Abramorama) Paul Conroy, Sean Ryan, Lindsey Pilsum, Marie Colvin, Wa’el, Edith Bouvier, Dr. Mohamed Mohamed, Remi Ochlik, William Daniels, Anderson Cooper, Janine Birkett, Julian Lewis Jones, Ziad Abaza, Nathan Dean Williams, Karine Myriam Lapouble, Anne Wittman. Directed by Christopher Martin

In this dangerous era when even the gathering of news has become politicized and reporters identified by national figures as “enemies of the people,” we need more than ever to remember the heroic nature of some journalists who risk their lives to report the news – and occasionally, give them.

American Marie Colvin remains today regarded as the finest war correspondent of her generation. She often went into places no sane person would willingly go to tell the stories of those who cannot leave – victims of genocide, civil war or governmental terrorism. She is credited with saving the lives of 1,500 people (mostly women and children) in East Timor in 1999, refusing to leave when other journalists fled, shining the light on what might have been an unspeakable act of violence by the Indonesian government who, faced with Colvin’s bulldog-like reporting, eventually backed down.

She lost her eye in 2001 covering the Sri Lankan civil war by a governmental soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade launcher – despite crying out “Journalist, journalist!” which normally stops soldiers in their tracks. She would later claim that this one knew exactly what he was doing. Thereafter she wore an eyepatch which became something of a trademark for her.

Her frequent collaborator, British photographer Paul Conroy (Colvin by this time was employed by the Sunday Times of London) snuck into Homs, a city in Syria that had borne the brunt of dictator Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal fury as a stronghold for those wishing a democratically elected government in Syria. They were smuggled in via a drainage tunnel by anti-government activists including Wa’el, a translator for the team. The Syrian government to that time was refusing to allow reporters in Homs ostensibly for safety reason, but more likely because they didn’t want anyone to know that they were raining down a terrifying barrage of mortars onto civilian targets.

On the evening of February 22, 2012, the improvised media center was bombarded by explosive shells even as those who remained were planning to leave. Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in the explosion; Conroy and French journalist Edith Bouvier were both gravely wounded. With little in the way of medical supplies, the two journalists desperately needed to get out but things looked pretty hopeless for them.

Martin uses footage shot by Conroy, recreations and other sources to show the last days of Colvin and Conroy’s miraculous escape, as well as interviews with Conroy, Wa’el, Bouvier and journalist William Daniels who was also there, as well as interviews with Colvin’s editor Sean Ryan and colleague and friend Lindsey Pilsum. He also uses some of her television appearances, including her final broadcast from Homs being interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CNN the night before she died. It is likely that the Syrian government forces utilized her satellite phone signal to target the building, although Syria has to this day denied any involvement with Colvin’s death, asserting that it was a homemade terrorist bomb filled with nails that was the cause of the journalists’ death – a claim hotly disputed by Conroy.

We see the sometimes hard to watch footage of broken bodies and explosions bringing rubble onto the heads of those inside; we watch a nurse assisting Dr. Mohamed Mohamed (who remains in Homs today, treating those wounded in government attacks) realize that the baby she is treating is her granddaughter – and then the agony of having to watch the baby die because they don’t have the medical supplies needed to save her. It is these types of story that are Colvin’s legacy.

The movie is raw and sometimes unbearable. This won’t win any prizes for subtlety. At times it may seem a bit hagiographic but at the same time it also reminds us just how dangerous and non-glamorous war correspondence is, Hollywood’s best efforts to the contrary. The film also makes one wonder why the world hasn’t done something about Assad, a cockroach of a human being – well, that’s being perhaps a bit overly nasty to cockroaches – who should have been tried years ago for war crimes against his own people. It also makes anew the President’s claims against the media not credible.

The fact is that we need the media to keep us informed. How otherwise would we know about the genocide in Rwanda, the continuing crisis in Syria, the atrocities around the world that continue to go on year after bloody year. We justifiably salute first responders and the men and women of the military who put their lives on the line to protect our freedom and to save lives. Are reporters like Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik, William Daniels, Edith Bouvier and Paul Conroy doing any less? Don’t they deserve that kind of respect? This film shows that they do.

REASONS TO GO: This is a true portrait in courage. It is almost like a Hollywood action film in places. Conroy’s account of his escape is absolutely incredible. The images are horrifying and certain to stir some fury at the Syrian regime.
REASONS TO STAY: The depiction of Colvin’s ultimate end is a bit clinical.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some disturbing images as well as depictions of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 2016 Colvin’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Syrian government, claiming that they had proof that the attack was ordered by the Syrian military.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews: Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Private War
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
To Kid or Not to Kid

3100: Run and Become


One of the beautiful images from the film.

(2018) Documentary (Illumine) Ashprihanal Aalto, Shamita Achenbach-König, Yuri Trostenyuk, Shaun Martin, Gaolo, Rupantar LaRusso, Dohai König, Nirbhasa Magee, Ray “The K” Krolevicz, Jumanda Gakelbone, Sahishnu Szczesiul, Supan Tsekob, Ilgyasu Tervo, Ajari Misunaga, Isomura-san, Tess Thakara, Petra Aalto.  Directed by Sanjay Rawal

 

It is well known that physical exertion can lead to a feeling of well-being. It’s not just the feeling of accomplishment that comes from completing a particularly difficult goal, but also the physical rush of endorphins one gets from such exercises as yoga, weight lifting and running.

Some even say that running can be used as a means of spiritual enlightenment. A particular proponent of that line of thought was Sri Chinmoy, an Indian sprinter, philosopher and running guru. He helped spread the philosophy throughout the world. One of those who picked up on it and ran with it (literally) is Finnish newspaper delivery man Ashprihanal Aalto. Aalto is what is known as an ultra long distance runner – someone who runs races of extraordinary lengths. He has been a dominant force in Chinmoy’s 3100 Mile Self-Transcendence race, running it 13 times and winning it five times, setting the course record in his most recent attempt.

He is 45 now and really has no mountains left to climb when it comes to the race. However his spiritual adviser Ilgyasu Tervo counsels him to give it one last shot – soon he will not have the physical stamina to run the race in the style he is used to. He elects to go to New York for one last run around the block.

That’s literally what the race is; it’s a grueling run taking over the course of 51 days. Runners go as fast and as far as they can each day, finishing only when they reach the magic 3100 mile mark. The course is one city block in the Bronx, one half mile in length. Runners circle the block over and over again, trying to make 120 laps each day. It’s not a particularly photogenic block but the repetition supposedly helps runners reach a trance-like state where they can focus in on their spiritual side.

Many of the runners are middle-aged; most are men and all are white – at least in the 2016 race. While they come from around the world and many have converted to the faith Chinmoy espoused, there is a homogeneity about the runners in the race that doesn’t particularly make for compelling filmmaking. It’s no surprise therefore that Rawal elects to add other stories that make the connection between running and spiritualism.

For example, Native American Shaun Martin of the Navajo tribe re-creates his father’s escape from a government-mandated boarding school back to his home (both buildings no longer exist) in order to plug in to his cultural and personal heritage. Buddhist monk Ajari Misunaga mentors Isomura-san on the rite of kaihgyo which involves running around Mount Hiei in Japan for one thousand consecutive days – just under three years. The distance is just over 60 miles and is done in robes with stops to pay devotion at various places. Misunaga also casually mentions that those that fail are required to commit suicide. Self-flagellation suddenly seems a whole lot less barbaric.

We also see the plight of a tribe in the Kalahari desert who for thousands of years have fed themselves by running down their prey during the hunt. When the government of Malawi (where the tribe is located) enacts a law forbidding the process, the tribe begins to fail, unable to subsist on the meager rations they are provided but also losing tribal identity. Tribesman Gaolo elects to defy the ban with serious consequences to him if he is caught.

The three additional stories are actually in many ways more compelling than the story of the Race which is grueling as New York City suffers through a murderous heat wave and triple digit temperatures, but seems to be more of an “inner self” kind of thing that doesn’t have much connection to a larger culture, at least not the way it is presented here.

The cinematography, particularly outside of New York – i.e. the Arizona and Kalahari deserts, the cold winter landscapes of Finland and the beautiful mountain landscapes of Japan – are often breathtaking. However, there feels like there is more than a little proselytizing here which made me feel uncomfortable. And after seeing some recent NYC DOC films that are about making the world a better place, watching white people try to find spiritual harmony doesn’t feel quite like it has the same urgency or importance.

Running is inherently a selfish sport. It is done solo and even if you are on a running team at the end of the day it is always the individual versus the course. The race finale, although extraordinarily close is ultimately anti-climactic – winning is almost beside the point when the reason the race exists is right there in the title of it: self-transcendence. Improving oneself is not a bad thing by any means but this feels like it falls in line with a self-absorbed generation that is making the world an increasingly harsh place to live in.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the cinematography is beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The stories of the two ultra-marathoners, the tribesman and the Native American don’t really mesh well together.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a brief picture of blisters that may be a bit disturbing for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The race was founded in 1997 by Sri Chinmoy and is currently the longest certified road race in the world..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hare Krishna!
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Up and Away

Every Act of Life


The play’s the thing.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard) Terrance McNally, Don Roos, Nathan Lane, Peter McNally, Christine Baranski, Chita Rivera, Richard Thomas, Angela Lansbury, F. Murray Abraham, John Slattery, Tyne Daly, Rita Moreno, John Kander, Anthony Heald, Lynn Ahrens, Jon Robin Baitz, Audra McDonald, John Benjamin Hickey, John Glover, Edie Falco. Directed by Jeff Kaufman

 

Terrance McNally is without question one of the most important playwrights of the late 20th century and on into the 21st century. Even now, pushing 80, he remains a vital creative force. He was one of the first Broadway writers to put openly gay characters in his plays; he was also among the first to come out himself.

This documentary is an attempt to capture the life of McNally, from his beginnings in Corpus Christi, Texas where he was hopelessly bullied, to Columbia University where he essentially majored in Broadway, Eventually he took an interest in writing stage plays instead of novels (which under his beloved English teacher in Corpus Christi Mrs. Maurine McElroy who encouraged him when both his alcoholic parents did not). He took up clandestine boyfriend Edward Albee whose career was just starting to take off at the time; McNally, on the other hand, was struggling especially when his first work was roundly panned by the critics.

Since then, McNally has written such gems as Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune, The Ritz, Master Class, Lips Together Teeth Apart, and the musical version of Kiss of the Spider Woman. He has won four Tony Awards and countless other honors. Jeff Kaufman rounds up a battalion of his friends to talk about the various facets of his personality and the highlights of his career. Broadway greats like Lan, Abraham, Lansbury, Roberts and Glover have all had their careers positively impacted by McNally and they are generous in their praise of the writer.

The film is a little bit over-fawning, rarely admitting to any warts or disfigurements, although they mention his bout with alcoholism which Lansbury apparently talked him down from. He has had a fairly large and diverse group of boyfriends, ending up with current husband Tom Kirdahy with whom he has a stable relationship so far as can be seen. Still, while some of the relationships get some coverage, others are almost mentioned in passing.

We hear about how generous he is, how insecure he is about his own work but we don’t really dive deep into the work itself. It feels at times we’re just getting a greatest hits version of his plays and the meaning of them and what they mean to others gets little interest from the filmmakers. I would have liked to see more analysis and less anecdotes but in the whole, this feels more like a group of friends gossiping rather than a truly academic study of McNally’s work. Frankly, this really will only appeal to those who live and breathe Broadway and kind of ignores everyone else.

REASONS TO GO: A very informative film for those unfamiliar with McNally. McNally’s gayness is emphasized, something a lot of films are afraid to do even now.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads. There’s also a little bit too much hero-worship going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wrestling With Angels
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Life Feels Good

The Long Shadow


It’s a long road we’ve been walking and a long road yet to walk.

(2017) Documentary (Passion River) Frances Causey, John Powell, Leon F. Litwack, La Tonya Lawson-Jones, Ian Harvey Lopez, Sally Holst, Jody Allen, Gerald Horne, Paul Kivel, Anne Conkling, Mike Church, Tim Duckenfield, John Adams, Nadine Stark Sims, Karen Alexander, Lorne Hammond, Richard Rothstein, Erica Tanks, Bill Blair, Maureen Gosling, Laura Willis, Judy Sims, Yolanda Wells.  Directed by Frances Causey and Maureen Gosling

 

Race relations remain a defining issue in the United States. From slavery down to Jim Crow and into the Black Lives Matter movement today, America has been formed going all the way back to its founding by white supremacy.

Filmmaker and journalist Frances Causey grew up in a privileged neighborhood in Wilmington, North Carolina to prosperous parents. She had little contact with African-Americans beyond those that worked for the family, but she had eyes that could see and she was fully aware that her black neighbors weren’t treated the same way; they lived in terrible poverty, were prevented from drinking at the same water fountains as she, and were looked down upon as inferior to the white privileged class. It bothered her then and continues to bother her now

She is directly descended from Virginia lawyer and founding father Edmund Pendleton, who essentially wrote the verbiage into the Constitution that institutionalized slavery in the South. Because there were far more slaves in the South and far fewer whites, Pendleton came up with the 3/5 of a person compromise that gave the South disproportionate power in the Federal government for nearly a century.

Causey goes on to discuss the economic benefits of slavery that powered the engine of the slave trade; how Wall Street was essentially created to facilitate it and how the legacy of slavery informs our policies and politics now 150 years after the end of th Civil War. African Americans may have been emancipated but they continue to be victims of inequality.

Throughout Causey interjects commentary about various aspects, such as what happened to those runaway slaves who fled to Canada, an enlightened plantation owner who gradually freed his slaves and the difference it made to their descendants today. We see her horrified reaction to the massacre in the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston by a white supremacist and we see her genuine affection for her former nanny and the grown up children of her caregiver.

Causey utilizes a goodly number of academics to give some context to history and some of them, particularly John Powell (an expert on the effects of slavery on American society), historian Jody Allen (somewhat incongruously interviewed on the serene campus of the College of William and Mary considering the subject) and historian Leon Litwack who won a Pulitzer Prize on the subject. However some of the other talking heads can be a bit dry. Again, those with a personal story to tell are far more effective than those coming from a strictly academic standpoint.

The film is at its best when Causey is looking through her highly personal connection to white privilege and racism. There is no doubt she is aiming her film for white audiences in an effort to make them understand a history most of them don’t know or don’t want to know. Most of the final two thirds is really a more broad view of the reverberations of racism and violence through American history. I thought the first third was much more successful; the story of her ancestry and her experience growing up in the deep south are far more personal and relatable than the academic exercise that followed. However, that doesn’t man that interesting questions aren’t raised. For example, slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1772. Could the southern founding fathers have chosen to leave British rule in order to continue slavery here and keep the economic engine of the South running?

The movie was filmed before the 2016 presidential election which makes it in many ways all the more timely but in dire need of a new chapter that brings it all together with the current expressions of white nationalism that has reared its ugly head since then. Even in the days when the film was about to be released there were instances of hate crimes (a white racist opening fire on African-Americans in a Louisville Kroger). The movie does make for a good history lesson but quite frankly much of this material is covered elsewhere, particularly in Ava DuVernay’s compelling Netflix documentary 13th.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that slavery warped the soul of this nation and continues to. Just the extent of the damage that continues to be done is something even the most progressive of white liberals (myself included) fail to understand. It’s information that African-Americans know only all too well and if there ever is going to be real change and moving forward in this country, white people will have to not only understand it but own it as well.

REASONS TO GO: The archival photos and drawings are extremely effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The film begins by connecting Causey to the slavery issue on a personal level and then veers away from that into a standard PBS-like documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing and occasionally graphic photos of brutalized slaves and lynchings.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Causey worked as a journalist at CNN for 14 years; it was the events in Ferguson following the murder of Michael Brown that galvanized her to make this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13th
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Outlawed

Weed the People


A father teaches his son to “grow your own”.

(2018) Documentary (Mangurama) Mara Gordon, Bonni Goldstein, Tracey Ryan, AJ Kephart, Amanda Reiman, Sunil Agarwal, Shirley Kephart, Josh Ryan, Sharon Lane, Angela Peterson, Yohai Gulan Gild, Jeffrey Rabe, Donald Abrams, Adrian Peterson, Chris Kephart, Angela Smith, Ethan Nadelmann, Stewart Smith, Angela Harris, Alice O’Leary-Randall. Directed by Abby Epstein

 

Marijuana has been demonized for decades in this country. The FDA has placed marijuana on an equal footing with heroin in terms of enforcement. The overwhelming majority of the country wants it legalized, particularly for its medicinal benefits but our government refuses to even consider it, largely because Big Pharma wants it to remain criminalized.

This film argues the case for legalization rather effectively, following five families with children who are afflicted with cancer. Desperate for relief from pain and suffering both from the disease and the chemo treatments, the parents turn from traditional medicine to alternative cures. California, where medical marijuana has been legalized for years, is the setting here and a family from Chicago, which sets up residency in California in order to get the cannabis oil that might be keeping their son alive, is also followed here.

Physician and advocate Bonni Goldstein counsels family through the sometimes confusing process of qualifying for the medical marijuana program is profiled as well as Mara Gordon, a former process engineer who has become a cannabis oil cooker, helping patients determine the dosage needed for their children. “We are lab rats,” she states grimly and indeed it’s true; there has been very little research done into the use of cannabis to treat cancer and much of what Gordon does is through trial and error. Sometimes the results are spectacular, bordering on the miraculous as tumors shrink and cancers flees. In one case here, the usage of the cannabis cannot stop the child’s death from his disease.

There are a lot of talking heads and a lot of scientists and doctors giving mainly anecdotal evidence – as I said there is little in the way of formal studies – about the effectiveness of cannabis in treating cancer, improving appetite and reducing pain. The science and logic are well supported even though some of the science (particularly when they talk about cannibinoids and chemistry) went sailing over my sadly non-scientific head but the filmmakers do make a very good case.

However, one can’t help but feel manipulated. Any good will that the movie generates for its cause disappears in light that the filmmakers use children exclusively to make their point. Adults need cannabis oil just as desperately as children do but sick kids make more of an emotional impact. It reeks of dirty pool and while I suppose that the Marquis of Queensbury rules go out the window when a family member is in a life or death fight, it still rubbed me the wrong way and felt a little exploitative to boot.

I also felt that the filmmakers were presenting cannabis as a cure that can’t fail, like penicillin was once. The fact is that cannabis is ineffective for some people (one of the children, as I stated, didn’t survive) and that may well be due to the lack of clinical studies – and I totally agree that such studies should be undertaken forthwith. Still, it seems a bit cruel to build up the hope for parents of sick kids or families of sick adults. Even Gordon, who approaches the subject with level-headed perspective born of an engineering background, cautions “I can’t promise anything,” as she sits down with those who are desperate for anything. The treatment is prohibitively expensive and isn’t covered by most insurance policies.

One physician early on cautions “The plural of anecdote is not ‘evidence’,” and the filmmakers seems to lose sight of that here. The stories are indeed compelling, the subject is indeed worth exploring, the advocates interviewed are indeed passionate and the children quietly courageous. All that is to the good. If Epstein had handled the subject with a little bit more of an even hand, I think her documentary would have been far more persuasive. I support the conclusions more in spite of the film than because of it – not what I’m sure any filmmaker wants to hear about their documentary

REASONS TO GO: It’s an important topic that needs to be addressed. The advocates are engaging and truly passionate. The children with cancer are resilient, courageous and inspiring.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads and the science sometimes goes over mine. The filmmakers are a little too biased.
FAMILY VALUES: There are drug references although mostly in medical terms.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although cannabis has been used medicinally for centuries, it has only been illegal in this country for about 75 years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super High Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Bodied

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