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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New Releases for the Week of October 12, 2018


FIRST MAN

(Universal) Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbott, Ethan Embry, Ciarán Hinds, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll. Directed by Damien Chazelle

Neil Armstrong remains an iconic name when it comes to human achievement. This is his story in the days leading up to one small step for a man – one giant leap for mankind.

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

Release Formats: Standard, D-BOX, Dolby, IMAX, XD, RPX
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language)

Bad Times at the El Royale

(20th Century Fox) Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth. One dark night a group of seven strangers with checkered pasts intersect at the rundown El Royale Hotel on the state line in Lake Tahoe. What they don’t know is that this might be their last chance at redemption before everything goes to hell.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity)

Collette

(Bleecker Street) Keira Knightley, Eleanor Tomlinson, Fiona Shaw, Dominic West. Born in rural France, Collette marries a charming literary impresario 14 years her senior who urges her to write. He ends up taking credit for her work, sparking the fiery author to take control of her life and her works. She would become an inspiration to writers, feminists and France in her own right.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC Lake Square, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Cobb Daytona Luxury, Old Mill Playhouse

Rating: R (for some sexuality/nudity)

Free Solo

(National Geographic) Alex Honnold, Jimmy Chin, Tommy Caldwell, Sanni McCandless. Alex Honnold became the first man to scale Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes or safety equipment. This documentary shows you what a big deal that really is.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: NR

Goosebumps: Haunted Halloween

(Columbia) Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ken Jeong, Jack Black, Madison Iseman. Two young boys enter a deserted house where they find a hidden book that brings the monsters of R.L. Stine to life. Does this at all sound familiar?

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

Release Formats: Standard, D-BOX
Genre: Family Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG (for scary creature action and images, some thematic elements, rude humor and language)

Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer

(GVN) Dean Cain, Sarah Jane Morris, Nick Searcy, Earl Billings. The conservative viewpoiint on the actions of a Philadelphia abortion physician.

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 Ormond Beach, Regal Oviedo Mall, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs
Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content including disturbing images and descriptions)

The Hate U Give

(20th Century Fox) Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Anthony Mackie. An African-American girl with her feet in two worlds witnesses the shooting of her childhood best friend by a white police officer. Pressured on all sides, she must find her own voice and stand up for what is right.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC West Oaks, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic elements, some violent content, drug material and language)

Kinky

(Patriot) Vivica A. Fox, Robert Ri’chard, Obba Babatundé, Jazsmin Lewis. A shy Atlanta surgeon gets set up for a date with a billionaire who urges her to explore her sexuality. Soon she finds herself trying to balance work, faith, desire and submission.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Erotic Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Disney Springs, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Springs, Cinemark Universal Citywalk, Regal Oviedo Mall

Rating: R (for strong sexual content and some language)

Summer ‘03

(Blue Fox) Joey King, Andrea Savage, June Squibb, Paul Scheer. The world of a 16-year-old girl and her extended family is turned topsy turvy when her grandmother on her deathbed reveals some long hidden secrets about the family.

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

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Dramedy
Now Playing: Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: NR

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

22 Chaser
Aravinda Sametha Veera Raghava
Black 47
Helicopter Eela
The Samuel Project

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

22 July
All About Nina
Aravinda Sametha Veera Raghava
Bigger
Helicopter Eela
Look Away
Lost, Found
The Old Man and the Gun
The Samuel Project
School of Life
Theevandi
Trouble
Veera Raghava

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

All About Nina
All Square
Aravinda Sametha Veera Raghava
Better Start Running
Bigger
Black 47
Laws of the Universe, Vol. 1
Look Away

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

All About Nina
Aravinda Sametha Veera Raghava
Lamboo Rastoo
The Samuel Project

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

22 July
All About Nina
Bad Times at the El Royale
Collette
First Man
Free Solo
The Hate U Give
The Samuel Project

Meru


On the shark's fin.

On the shark’s fin.

(2015) Documentary (Music Box) Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk, Jon Krakauer, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, Grace Chin, Aimee Hinkley, Jeremy Jones. Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

The limits of human endurance are hard to pin down. We can survive nearly anything, endure any environment and still triumph. While it is easy to get caught up in despair at our own pettiness, greed and selfishness, once in awhile we get to bask in the glow of our own resilience – the things that make us such an extraordinary species.

Meru is a mountain in Northern India near the headwaters of the sacred Ganges river. At 21,000 feet, it is nearly seven thousand feet less than Everest, but while the more famous mountain attracts thousands of climbers every year, the pinnacle of Meru had never been reached by human beings.

Meru, considered unimpeachable by many, requires two different disciplines to ascend; the first more typical of Himalayan mountaineering, but the second requires a different style. That’s because the final 1,500 feet is up a near vertical glass-smooth rock wall called the shark’s fin because of its distinctive appearance. However that distinctive feature has broken the hearts of climbers for generations.

Conrad Anker is, in the climbing community, a legend. He’s ascended nearly every peak of note that there is to climb. Meru became something of an obsession with him. He put together a crack climbing team – Jimmy Chin, one of the most respected climbers in America and athletic up-and-comer Renan Ozturk. In 2008, he and his cohorts made a daring attempt to scale Meru, but like all the other attempts before it met with defeat. Low on food and with Ozturk suffering from injuries, they had to go back down after making it within 100 meters of the summit.

That kind of near miss gnaws at a man. While Anker sat and stewed, Chin and Ozturk met with some harrowing incidents of their own before the Anker re-convened the men for another attempt a few years later, an assault which had to wait while Ozturk recovered. And the daunting task of climbing the unclimbable mountain loomed in front of them; all three knew that there was a good chance that not only could they fail again, they might not come back at all.

The three climbers brought GoPro cameras with them, among the nearly 200 pounds of gear they had to haul up the mountain themselves (on Everest, Sherpas do the heavy lifting; they won’t climb Meru however). The results are some spectacular scenery; we see the men bivouacking on the sheer rock face in tents lashed to the side of the rock with 19,000 feet of air below them – I couldn’t possibly sleep soundly in a tent like that, could you? Try adding being forced to wait out a storm for four days in such a tent. I can’t imagine it, but thanks to this film you don’t have to.

This isn’t like a Hollywood production; there is no dramatic moments where climbers dangle over crevices or a piton gives way. There is in fact little sound at all. The men are business-like in addressing the climb. In off hours, sure they are bro-tastic – in fact, a lot of climbing terminology creeps into their conversation which is irritating since some of the terms aren’t explained really at all.

The climbers in fact are a lot like surfers in a lot of ways. There’s a camaraderie among them that makes them brothers (and sisters) of the mountain, much like surfers are bros and sisters of the ocean. They have a kind of bravado about them, and a definite appetite for adrenaline although Chin’s mother extracted a promise from him that he wouldn’t die before she did. When she did finally pass, he found himself willing to take more chances than he had previously.

The interviews with the climbers are thoughtfully done for the most part and interspersed with spectacular climbing footage. Meru itself looms as a legitimate presence, brooding and menacing with a stark alien beauty that is both sleek and forbidding. The climbers themselves are fairly flippant about the danger and the will it takes to climb a mountain like Meru; more elegant still is their exhausted eyes and faces as they near the top.

This won the documentary feature audience award at this year’s Sundance and it’s easy to see why. The New Yorker‘s David Edelstein is pushing this film for Oscar consideration and it might well merit it. It’s truly hard to argue with him when you watch this movie, particularly on the big screen with the sound of the wind on a sound system. If ever a film was made for a VR system, this is the one.

This is not one of those movies where you watch someone do something extraordinary and find yourself exclaiming “I want to do that!” Believe me, you won’t want to do this when you watch what these men go through, but they are a singular breed and heaven knows they are certain that all of this is worth it. In all fairness I thought they were unhinged until the very end, when you finally understand why they do what they do. This is absolutely captivating and should be one you seek out first and foremost in a theater where it should be seen, or on VOD or streaming if it doesn’t manage to find a screen near you.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Cathartic.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much climbing lingo, bro.
FAMILY VALUES: Quite a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anker is best known to non-climbers as the man who discovered the preserved corpse of the legendary English mountain climber George Mallory on Mt. Everest.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into Thin Air
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Message From Hiroshima