Greta (2018)


Besties being stalked by a very disturbed woman.

(2018) Thriller (FocusIsabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Colm Feore, Zawe Ashton, Stephen Rea, Jeff Hiller, Thaddeus Daniels, Raven Dauda, Parker Sawyers, Elisa Berkeley, Jane Perry, Brandon Lee Sears, Arthur Lee, Rosa Escoda, Jessica Preddy, Nagisa Morimoto, Graeme Thomas King, Aneta Dina Keder, Frankie Verroca, Angela Dál Riata. Directed by Neil Jordan

 

Isabelle Huppert, with 140 (and counting) films to her credit over a distinguished nearly 40-year career doesn’t appear to be slowing down in either quantity or quality. She elevates what is a fairly typical and predictable thriller into a decent, fun time.

She plays the title character who is befriended by Frances (Moretz), a sweet but naïve young woman trying to make it in New York after the passing of her mother. Greta is similarly alone, her daughter studying overseas in Paris. As time goes by and Greta begins to show signs of possessiveness, Frances makes an unnerving discovery that causes her to try and cut ties with Greta. However the lady won’t take no for an answer and soon the two are involved in a cat and mouse game which just proves the adage that in any cat and mouse game, the mouse is over-matched.

This is the second time Huppert has played a deranged piano teacher (the first was in the aptly-titled The Piano Teacher) and she is no less delicious here. Although Moretz is adequate as the scream queen, Huppert is clearly having fun and with veteran director Jordan behind the camera, we are treated to a visually arresting film in which every sequence seems carefully considered. Oh, and Maika Monroe does surprisingly well with the comic relief best friend role, having done the scream queen thing herself on occasion. She is certainly an actress with great things ahead of her.

The problem is that the script is about as predictable as political diatribes in an election year. Anyone who has watched any horror/suspense film over the past few years is bound to figure out where this is going, even if they haven’t seen or don’t remember the trailer. And as with any thriller that is lazily written, there are way too many jump scares, some predicated on musical cues that become tedious and obvious before too long.

The reason to rent this bad boy is the visual aesthetics of Jordan and the performances of Huppert and Monroe (and to a lesser extent, Moretz who is a fine actress in her own right – just not so much here). You could do worse than renting this one – but you could also do a lot better.

REASONS TO SEE: Huppert is delightful as the villain.
REASONS TO AVOID: An unsurprising, typical potboiler.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence as well as a few disturbing and creepy images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moretz and Monroe previously worked together on The 5th Wave.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Single White Female
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
CRSHD

Beyond Skiing Everest


Mike Marolt ponders the cost of his obsession.

(2018) Sports Documentary (1091Mike Marolt, Steve Marolt, Jim Gile, Jewel Kilcher (narrator), John Callahan. Directed by Mike Marolt and Steve Bellamy

 

High altitude skiing is not for the faint of heart. It combines two disciplines – mountain climbing and skiing – and requires stamina (because the moment you finish your scaling of a peak, you are skiing down it) and courage as mistakes at these heights can be costly. As Gile ruefully puts it, “I don’t want my last word to be ‘Oops’.”

Identical twins Mike and Steve Marolt and their boyhood buddy Jim Gile grew up in Aspen, Colorado, where you learn how to ski almost before you learn how to walk. They previously appeared in the documentary Skiing Everest (2009) which documented their attempt to climb up the world’s tallest and arguably most famous mountain and then ski back down it – without oxygen or Sherpa guides. That attempt proved frustrating as the commercialization of Everest has led to logjams of dilettantes going up the paths which have been set for them by Sherpas who have also thoughtfully provided pre-set ropes. For those attempting to scale the mountain without oxygen, stopping can be deadly.

The trio, all enshrined in the Skiing Hall of Fame, decided that going up mountains that were more remote, more off the beaten path, would suit their purposes better. Therefore their de facto leader Mike began researching peaks above 8,000 meters (a smidge under 26,250 feet) that had good snow and few climbers. They would travel the world, from the Andes to the Himalayas, documenting their attempts. They have skied down more peaks above 8,000 meters than any humans have ever done, and they do it by so-called pure climbing – without the aid of oxygen or guides.

=The documentary combines the footage taken on their many trips which is often impressive indeed, along with interviews with the three men, who are now in their 50s and still finding mountains to climb and ski back down. There is little to no input from anyone else other than the three; the disadvantage to that is that it robs the film of context. We hear the men talk about the various trips like this is a vacation movie they’re showing on super-8 film for friends. While their expertise is undeniable we get little understanding about why they do what they do, why they chose these particular mountains other than the criteria I mentioned above, and what others think of their accomplishments.

Also, in a nearly criminal move, we never hear from their families and loved ones that are left behind for months at a time; only in the last ten minutes do we even realize that they have families and get the sense that their absences are difficult on them. We only hear through the mouths of the three men themselves; their wives and children do not appear to speak for themselves. One suspects that the subjects of the documentary might not like what they hear.

One can’t help but admire the accomplishments of these three men and they seem to be pretty eloquent speakers, but I would have appreciated some other points of view other than theirs. That would make for far more interesting viewing and a less homogeneous documentary.

REASONS TO SEE: Some really extraordinary vistas.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times feels a bit like a home movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: High Altitude skiers, in addition to the mountain climbing gear they must take, add an average of sixty pounds to their packs for their ski equipment.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Himalayan Ice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot

Serenity (2019)


Captains cantankerous.

(2019) Thriller (AvironMatthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, Diane Lane, Jeremy Strong, Charlotte Butler, Rafael Sayegh, Michael Richard, Robert Hobbs, Kenneth Fok, Garion Dowds, John Whiteley, Edeen Bhugeloo, Redd Pepper (voice), Guillaume Silavant, Vinaya Sungkur. Directed by Steven Knight

Serenity is not a great movie. Serenity isn’t even a good movie. I’m not talking about the 2005 Joss Whedon sci-fi epic, which is a terrific movie; this is a 2019 sexy noir-lite set on a Caribbean island incongruously called Plymouth with an even more incongruous zydeco film score. I kid you not.

On said island lives the incongruously named Baker Dill (McConaughey) who is a fisherman who when not chartering his boat for wealthy tourists (and even when he is) is on the hunt for a giant tuna called, most incongruously of all, Justice. Ahab, meet Dill.

He has a fairly laid-back island existence (he IS Matthew McConaughey after all) enjoying a torrid affair with a local cat lady (Lane), but all that goes out the window when his ex-wife Karen (Hathaway) shows up with an indecent proposal; to take her abusive new husband (Clarke) out to see, murder him, and let the sharks take care of the body. What’s an island boy to do?

The movie has a terrific cast full of Oscar winners and nominees as well as Hounsou as Baker’s first mate and Strong as an oddly persistent fishing equipment salesman. This is one of those films that you simply can’t take seriously. Don’t try to inject logic into it, just kind of go with it. There is a twist in the film but I can’t tell you about it without ruining the film, which is a shame because it’s really the best thing about the movie, unless you have a thing for McConaughey’s bare ass, which gets shown off to fair effect several times throughout the flick.

In the end, I couldn’t really get past the ridiculous dialogue, or the movie’s waste of a good cast, although to their credit they do commit to their roles. I suppose you could see this if you own Prime and you’ve binged everything else; it’s not horrible but it’s just not very good.

REASONS TO SEE: The twist is a decent one.
REASONS TO AVOID: The score doesn’t really match the tone of the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some bloody images and a fair amount of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Mauritius where a scandal was created when that country’s Prime Minister was accused of misappropriating funds to support the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews, Metacritic: 37/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Identity
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Return to Hardwick

Murder Death Koreatown


Even the couches are out to get you in Koreatown.

(2020) Found Footage Thriller (Self-Released) Cast unknown. Directed by Unknown

Some movies come to critics with reams of information; pages of publicity notes, director’s quotes, actor and crew bios and so on. Others come to us with much less information to go on. This one came with almost none.

Found footage films are not always received kindly in the critical community and among horror fans in general. There was a time when the market became over-saturated with them and let’s face it, most of them were really bad. The best-known were the original, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, both of which would eventually see sequels made by major studios.

=The film centers around an unemployed man who is shocked to discover that a murder has taken place in a nearby apartment in which a young wife suddenly and without explanation brutally murdered her husband (it is implied although not directly stated that she stabbed her husband to death). The man is seriously shaken by the brutal event so close to home, but there are some things that are troubling him. For one thing, there are blood spatters on the sidewalk away from the crime scene. Also, the arrest of the suspect took place nearly a block away from the crime scene.

He takes out his cell phone and starts talking to people around the neighborhood, filming the interviews. At first, most of the subjects know less than he does. As he looks into it, there are a few people who admit to knowing the slain man and his wife and they are baffled by the event; all of them say that the suspect was a real sweet girl, although a co-worker of the husband noted that he hadn’t been sleeping and he thought that the couple were fighting which was uncharacteristic of them.

=The more that the filmmaker delves into the crime, the more dead ends arise. One theory gets squashed and another one arises, only to be squashed also. Leads don’t pan out; then things get creepy. People he talks to begin to disappear. Mysterious graffiti in Korean begin to appear all around him and the filmmaker begins to get unhinged. His girlfriend begs him to drop the investigation, concerned for his well-being at first and then angry when he ignores her. Strange things begin to happen; he hears voices. He sees things that can’t be real. Is the murder victim trying to contact him from the dead, or is he losing his mind? And who are the mysterious Pastors?

Like most critics, I have grown weary of found footage movies but I was pleasantly surprised by this one. Put simply, it is the best in the genre to come out since the original Blair Witch Project way back in 1999. It’s taut and believable; the interview subjects don’t feel like they’re acting and even though the camera is very shaky (it IS supposed to be cell phone footage), there are some really good cinematic moments of bright blue L.A. skies and the palm trees of Paradise in SoCal.

I give the unknown filmmakers props for having the foresight to keep the story simple and stick with it. Even though the movie leads in unexpected directions, all of those shift changes are organically done and don’t feel forced. It does take a little while to get going and the coda is a bit anti-climactic but there is a powerful payoff in the film’s climax.

Sometimes the best movies come out of left field and this one certainly does. They aren’t re-inventing the wheel here; they’re taking a straightforward story and telling it in a straightforward manner. That’s something Hollywood veterans sometimes have a hard time doing.

The best found footage films make you feel as if you might be watching something real, and this one does. You are left unbalanced; is there something weird happening here? Is there a conspiracy going on? Or is this guy losing his mind? There is a disclaimer in the closing credits (what little there are) that state that “No reasonable person would believe this film or its claims are real…Investigations into this project or its subject is strictly discouraged. There is nothing to find. It’s just a movie.” Even given that disclaimer, I was left wondering if it was real. That’s how the film messes with your head. It truly is creepy AF.

The movie at present has no distribution and has played but once. Hopefully a local film festival near you will find their way clear to show this; ask your local art house to look into it. In the meantime, be aware that this is out there and if it does manage to make its way to a film festival, movie theater that is willing to play indie fare, or a streaming service, for sure check it out. This one is solid gold.

REASONS TO SEE: Maybe the best found footage film since the first one. When clicking it feels very real.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: This is quite a bit of profanity, some gruesome and unsettling images and terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere on Leap Day at the Unnamed Footage Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Disappearance at Clifton Hill

Clara


Clara with stars in her eyes.

(2018) Science Fiction (Screen Media) Patrick J. Adams, Troian Bellisario, Kristin Hager, Ennis Esmer, Jennifer Dale, Will Bowes, R.H. Thomson, Dwight Ireland, Bethanie Ho, Samuel A. Harding, Jillian Katsis, Tammie Sutherland, Pierre Simpson, Gabrielle Graham. Directed by Akash Sherman

For the moment, humanity is all alone in the cosmos. It might be teeming with life out there but we have no way of knowing it…yet. As it turns out, NASA is very keen on answering the question “Are we alone?” and is sending up into space a pair of telescopes that stand a good chance of finding extraterrestrial intelligence.

Equally obsessed is astrophysicist Isaac Bruno (Adams). He teaches a course in the subject at Cal Tech and also works with a scientist who is looking at exoplanets. However, the prickly Bruno – who when confronted by a student regarding the importance of love delivers one of the nastiest scientific debunking of love ever recorded – is far too impatient for his own good and when he hijacks a telescope he was supposed to be using for his boss’ research, he is suspended from the university and denied access to the laboratories in which he was chasing his dream.

Far too driven to be bitter about it, he decides to carry on his research from home with the somewhat tentative encouragement of his pal and fellow scientist Dr. Charles Durant (Esmer), he advertises for an unpaid assistant and the only respondent he gets is Clara (Bellisario), who has no experience with science other than painting a mural of a black hole in the lobby of the Space Sciences building and has nothing other than a few items of clothing and a dog named Eve.

At first Isaac is almost insulted by her lack of experience and expertise but after allowing the dog inside his home for a drink of water, he relents and gives the girl the position which is paid only with room and board. It turns out that Clara has a knack for sifting through data and finding promising exoplanets that might be worth a closer look by the James Webb Telescope which is going to be launched shortly and has the ability to determine if life is present on a planet.

Isaac is also soon smitten by his new lab assistant but both of them are hiding devastating secrets. Can Isaac see the life that’s right in front of him or will his obsession for life elsewhere take precedence in his life?

Readers of science fiction have for years complained about science fiction in the movies and television as being dumbed down space operas and to a real extent they are right, although there has been some very thought-provoking sci-fi in theaters and on TV as of late. Sherman, a second time feature filmmaker whose previous outing The Rocket List was also of a similar bent, is apparently very passionate about the science. There is a good deal of dialogue in which the scientists converse that is going to go pretty much above everyone’s head that isn’t an astrophysicist. While authentic sounding – I don’t have the expertise to really judge if it is or isn’t and I’m afraid I’m fresh out of acquaintances who are also astrophysicists – it can be challenging for the average layman to make heads or tails out of any of it.

The heart of any story should be the human heart and there appears to be at least an attempt on the part of Sherman to look at love versus science as a thematic exercise but sadly he really drops the ball. Adams and Bellisario have plenty of chemistry – they are married in real life, after all – but Isaac is so myopic, so involved with his own obsession that he fails to acknowledge what’s going on inside himself. Yes, Isaac has a very good reason to be so clinical and so unfeeling (and no points if you figure it out before the big reveal) but it doesn’t make for compelling viewing. The title character is vivacious and free-spirited but that’s a currency that’s all too common cinematically speaking these days so Clara ends up not really standing out as much as she might.

The ending is a bit florid for my taste but the rest of the film that precedes it at least has the courage to allow itself to be thoughtful. A lot of films tend to focus thoroughly on the heart and none on the brain to the point that you feel like you’ve lost ten or twelve IQ points after having seen them; you won’t have that problem here. In fact, your IQ might actually go up a little if you are willing to learn. Clara is a very flawed film for sure but it’s at least smart enough to know that it will attract a niche audience of science geeks, academics and cinephiles. If only it’s heart was as well developed.

REASONS TO SEE: Smart, savvy sci-fi that doesn’t apologize for being cerebral.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit overwrought and the love story is given short shrift.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes, some sensuality and minor profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bellisario is the daughter of noted television producer Donald Bellisario whose Belisarius Productions were responsible for, among others, Quantum Leap, Airwolf, Jag and NCIS.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Fandango Now,  iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews: Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark Matter
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Radium Girls

Randy’s Canvas


How much more New England can you get?

(2018) Romance (Vision) Adam Carbone, Michael Emery, Scout Taylor-Compton, Marycarmen Lopez, Richard Riehle, Massi Furlan, Kevin G. Schmidt, Shawn Pyfrom, John Petrella, Ramiro Tavares, Sissy O’Hara, Dick Lebeau, Michael G. Nathan, Stephen O’Neil Martin, Marilyn Baker, Ray Boutin, Christopher L. Ferreira, Sonya Joyner, Courtney Danforth. Directed by Sean Michael Beyer

 

Autism is one of those things that most of us are woefully ignorant of but sort of paint a picture in our minds that is highly inaccurate, generally. Autism doesn’t mean dumb, it doesn’t mean untalented, it doesn’t mean that those afflicted with it can’t lead meaningful lives. Autism means that those who have it process things differently. Yes, some folks with autism are not as smart as other folks with autism. Some can’t handle anything more than the most menial of jobs, although others can excel at high-paying jobs. Like all the rest of us, there are all sorts of people with autism and there are no two alike.

Randy (Carbone) has autism but he is high-functioning. He lives with his brother Henry (Emery), a garbage man in a small town near Providence, Rhode Island. Randy works as a janitor in a small art gallery in town; he likes to spend time talking art with the security guard Bob (Petrella). Randy is an artist himself and one night he forgets his portfolio (which he takes with him wherever he goes apparently) and when Bob looks through it, he realizes the kid is a major talent. Impulsively, Bob hangs one of Randy’s works in the gallery.

That wasn’t a bright idea. The owners of the gallery are furious and they fire the both of them but not before curator Maurizio D’Oro (Furlan) gets a look at Randy’s painting and comes to the conclusion that Bob did – that here was a diamond in the rough. He offers Randy a job in his gallery and an amazing opportunity – to audit an art class at the New England Institute of Technology with the famous Professor Hausdorff (Riehle).

Randy isn’t keen on the idea, although reluctantly gives in when everyone he trusts urges him to go for it. Randy is not known for taking instructions well or following them once they’re given which ends up placing him in an adversarial relationship with his professor. Making matters worse is that he’s in love with Sienna (Lopez) who is the girlfriend of Clinton (Schmidt), a smug entitled scion of the company that employs Henry. Sienna likes hanging out with Henry and Randy (although Clinton’s not at all pleased about it) but has no real romantic inclinations towards Randy. Randy’s classmate, the sunny and outgoing Cassie (Taylor-Compton) tries to help but the bottom line is that Randy is miserable and it’s affecting his art and putting in jeopardy his chance to develop his talent.

To the good: Randy is a fully drawn-out character whose autism is incidental in many ways; it’s not who he is, it’s what he has. He can be a handful to deal with but then again, so can we all. I was surprised to discover that Carbone is not autistic himself; he has all the tics and rapid hand movements down cold.

I was also surprised at Emery who I’ve not heard of but I sincerely hope that changes. He has a great deal of charismatic screen presence and could have a long career ahead of him on film. While Henry isn’t the perfect brother, his heart is in the right place and you get a good sense of that good heart here.

Speaking of heart, this film has plenty of it. You can’t help but root for it to be better. The small town New England locations give the movie a very homey feeling and as you watch you feel like you’re being wrapped in a warm blanket on a cold fall rainy day. Not every movie can make that claim.

To the not-so-good: the score which starts out lovely with a simple piano melody gets overbearing with washes of strings that come straight from a cheesy melodrama of 50 years ago. They also use too many pop-folk songs on the soundtrack to the point where I began to wonder if I was watching a movie or listening to a playlist. Simple is better, folks.

The script also gets a little bit overwrought at times, emphasizing the melodramatic elements which should have been played down. Poor Randy is suffering from his first love and we all can relate to the pain of it and I know that for some folks with autism dealing with strong emotions can be nearly impossible but it did get to the point where I felt like the movie was losing its way. Some of the scenes also end a little too abruptly; there’s not a lot of flow between scenes. A steadier hand in the editing bay might have helped.

Thankfully, the good outweighs the bad but only slightly. This is definitely more of a feel good kind of film and while there was ample room for a teaching moment or two, the filmmakers never choose to go that route and the result is a lightweight romance with a hint of comedy in which the male lead happens to have autism. While the latter is admirable, it’s not enough to make the movie stand on its own essentially. There’s certainly room for improvement but the good news is that I think that those involved with this are capable of better things. Incidentally, check out the trivial pursuit entry in case you need a really good reason to rent or buy this.

REASONS TO GO: I love the New England locations; this film has an awful lot of heart.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie gets overwrought in places and the soundtrack is intrusive (too many songs!)
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence, some partial nudity and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Proceeds from the film are going to benefit the Autism Society.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aspie Seeks Love
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Bikini Moon

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

Beast Stalker (Ching yan)


In Hong Kong action movies, even pedestrian overpasses aren’t safe.

(2008) Crime Drama (Emperor) Nicholas Tse, Nick Cheung, Jing Chu Zhang, Pu Miao, Kai Chi Liu, Ho Man Keung, Jing Hung Kwok, Sherman Chung, He Zhang, Suet Yin Wong, Sum Yin Wong, Kong Lau, Tung Joe Cheung, Simon Lee, Accord Cheung, Ka Leong Chan, Esther Kwan, Si-Man Man, Francis Luk, Sai Tang Yu, Kim Fai Che, June Tam. Directed by Dante Lam

Lives can be changed in the blink of an eye. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have devastating consequences, the effects rippling out like a rock thrown into placid waters. Rarely are those ripples pleasant although in time they can turn out to be beneficial but that isn’t often the case.

Hong Kong police detective Tong Fei (Tse) is ambitious and arrogant. He’s chasing a well-known Triad crime boss and has him in his relentless sights. Working with his team whom he sets very high standards for, he manages to get the criminal arrested – only to learn that the guy’s thugs have managed to break him out of custody. Fei personally leads the chase after him along with longtime friend and mentor Detective Sun (Liu). A violent car crash leads to a terrible tragedy in which an innocent little girl is killed. Fei is devastated.

Months afterwards, the prosecutor for the case, Ann Gau (J.C. Zhang) is getting past the grief of losing a child when her surviving child is kidnapped by Hung (N. Cheung), a half-blind assassin who is caring for a paralyzed wife and needs the dough. The guilt-wracked Fei is obsessed with finding the missing daughter despite Ann’s pleas for him to butt out – she has been warned to not involve the police. She agrees to alter the evidence that will put the crime lord behind bars for a very long time; so Fei goes out looking for the girl on his own. Hung is just as desperate to make sure that the girl isn’t found and both men play a game of cat and mouse with a little girl’s life hanging on the outcome.

Like many Hong Kong crime dramas, the plot hinges around a number of coincidences (some might say improbabilities) that require a whole lot of disbelief suspension. How likely is it that the crook would steal the car of his prosecutor who just happened to stop the car she was driving so she could yell at her ex-husband on the phone? And the coincidences don’t end there.

However if you can unwrap your head around those plot points you’ll be treated to a story with plenty of nice twists and turns, maybe one or two you won’t see coming. Nicholas Tse and Nicky Cheung are two of HK’s  best action stars and they are at their best in this movie. The action sequences, particularly the initial car chase that sets everything up, are extremely well done with the aforementioned chase being literally breathtaking.

The story does get a little bit maudlin in places but again that’s pretty much standard operating procedure for Hong Kong action films – is there a manual for these things? – and anyone who is a fan of that genre won’t mind a bit. Dante Lam is one of Hong Kong’s surest action directors and while this wasn’t his very best work, it was certainly one worth reviving. It played the recent New York Asian Film Festival. While I don’t see it listed on any of the standard streaming services, you can find the DVD and Blu-Ray in a variety of places. If you like Asian action, you won’t want to miss this one.

REASONS TO GO: The action scenes are uniformly excellent. The plot is full of lovely twists and turns.
REASONS TO STAY: The camerawork is so aggressive and kinetic it becomes distracting. The story is a little bit maudlin in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence, some mild profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was nominated for five Hong Kong Film Awards in 2009, winning two.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Infernal Affairs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Looming Storm

Ramen Heads


(


The deliciousness that is ramen.

(2017) Documentary (FilmBuff/Gunpowder & Sky) Osamu Tomita, Shôta Iida, Kumiko Ishida, Katsuya Kobayashi, Yûki Ohnishi, Tom Takahashi, Touka, Hayama, Inoue. Directed by Koki Shigeno

Most of us in the United States know ramen as something that comes pre-packaged and can be made at home in just a few minutes. In Japan, ramen has been around for a long while as a kind of working man’s lunch that was easy and inexpensive that took off in a post-World War II Japan. In recent years there has been a dedicated sub-culture as ramen has been gentrified to a certain extent. Fanatics of the dish have their favorite chefs, each of whom have their own recipe for the broth.

The film concentrates mainly o Osamu Tomita who has been voted the best ramen chef in Japan for four years running. We get to see how obsessed he is with the quality of his ingredients, with boiling the broth for just the right amount of time to get the full range of flavors just right. Shigeno goes into loving detail – maybe a bit too lunch for non-aficionados. Certainly true ramen heads will eat this all up, literally but there may be those who find it a bit too much of a love letter.

The film covers other chefs as well although not in as great detail and things end up with a celebration of the tenth anniversary of Tomita’s restaurant, which has only ten tables, is located in a fairly less-traveled part of Japan and yet lines have already formed by 7am when the restaurant takes reservations for the day. It is necessary because the reservations generally sell out early; it is one of the hardest tables to get in all of Japan.

We then are shown the dizzying array of ramen types, many of which are virtually unknown outside of Japan. I never knew that there were so many; I was aware of tonkatsu but the others? It was to be honest, mind-blowing. I think anyone with an interest in food, especially Japanese cuisine and particularly ramen will find a lot to learn in this doc.

This is very much a man’s world; I didn’t see a single female ramen chef and even the servers were male. I also got the sense that most diehard ramen fans are also men, but this is something not really explored in the film. It should have at least have been mentioned. The fact that this is a Japanese film intended for a Japanese audience leads to them not mentioning that ramen has begun exploding over here in the States, with small ramen shops like the ones depicted here opening up all over the country.

However, there is almost a fawning feel and the voice over narration is a bit florid. Clearly the director is completely enamored of ramen which is all right  but he ascribes to it an almost mystic quality to it, equating it to the first blush of young love. It’s only noodle soup, dude.

REASONS TO GO: These chefs are truly badass! The film lets us into a world of obsession that westerners rarely get to see and are unfamiliar with.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit long and may be too detailed for those who aren’t into ramen.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Metastasized breast cancer is incurable and usually fatal; it also only gets about 8% of research funding despite causing the lion’s share of fatalities among breast cancer patients.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Coming to My Senses

Brigsby Bear


Luke Skywalker trains a young Jedi in the ways of children’s television programming.

(2017) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Kyle Mooney, Mark Hamill, Jane Adams, Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Ryan Simpkins, Christopher Sullivan, Alexa Demie, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Chris Provost, Claire Danes, Chance Crimin, Beck Bennett, Andy Samberg, Kate Lyn Shell, Kiera Milan Hendricks, Ellery Davidson, Ashlyn Brooke Anderson, Marilee Crockett. Directed by Dave McCary

 

We are a product of our upbringing and so much of what we experience as children makes us into the adults we become. Those of us who grew up with certain children’s television shows bear the marks of the lessons they taught us, even if we only got them subconsciously.

James (Mooney) has grown up in an unusual situation. He has been isolated by loving parents (Hamill, Adams) who have encouraged him to watch Brigsby Bear, a sci-fi television show in which the titular character fights alongside the Smiley Sisters against the nefarious Sunstealer. While the lessons are a little unorthodox, James is completely enchanted by the world of Brigsby Bear and has every episode on tape. That is, until his world comes crashing down on him.

He finds himself in a different situation with the knowledge that the world he previously inhabited was not what he was led to believe it was. Even his beloved Brigsby Bear was fake – the show didn’t exist. Alone, rudderless, without any sort of anchor, James remains obsessed with Brigsby Bear. He decides that he alone can finish the show properly and he endeavors to do just that.

There is a lot going on in this movie. Part of it is a commentary on the obsessive fandom that dominates our pop culture at present. Some of it is about the power of imagination to change one’s circumstances. Some of it is a pure nostalgia rush. All of it works.

Mooney, a current cast member on SNL, has an off-beat charm that allows the character of James to be childlike without descending into mawkishness. Mooney manages to surround himself with a terrific cast; Hamill is at his very best in a brief but important role and then there’s Kinnear who plays a sympathetic policeman. Kinnear is one of the very best actors working today especially when it comes to being likable onscreen. I think Hollywood takes him a bit for granted; he hasn’t gotten the role yet that will take him to the next level but he has the capability of getting there.

The bargain basement SFX may look a bit primitive to most viewers but they work in the context of the story. Some critics found that the movie descended into sweetness but I have to disagree; it needed that sweetness, otherwise it becomes just another cynical stab at fandom. I suspect that most critics don’t understand the whole concept behind fandom simply because critics are supposed to be objective. Fans are most assuredly not. Yes, there can be a negative side to obsessive fanboy-ism but there is also a positive side as well. There is nothing wrong with believing in something when there is so little to believe in these days.

This is one of my favorite films of the year. Not everyone will agree with me – it may be a little too out there for some. Others, like the critics I referred to, think it might be a little too light and sweet for their tastes. Me though, this works to perfection. It hits every emotional note dead on. This is one of three films that I think is the best of 2017. Whether it will finish first, second or third will likely depend on my mood when I go to assemble my list. If I’m thinking about this movie however, you can bet my mood will be getting better by the moment.

REASONS TO GO: This is one of those rare movies that hit all the right notes. Those who grew up with 80s children shows will certainly get the warm fuzzies. Mooney has a real offbeat charm. Kinnear is one of the most underrated actors working today.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find it a little too obscure.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some drug usage and teen partying, brief sexuality and some fairly adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McCary is a writer on Saturday Night Live who is making his feature directing debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Death to Smoochy
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power