Free Solo

Release: Friday, September 28, 2018

→Theater

Directed by: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi; Jimmy Chin

Alex Honnold is a professional rock climber who occupies a very obscure niche within the rock climbing community. As a free soloist responsible for some of the world’s most death-defying ascents sans a rope and any protective gear, he is most alive when climbing hundreds of feet above the deck and often inches from slipping into the yawning mouth of death. Now, with Free Solo, general audiences get a chance to step into his tightly-laced La Sportivas and see the world from his point of view. The results are surprisingly humanizing.

As a (seriously out-of-form) rock climber, I have had for quite some time a philosophical problem with Alex Honnold and others like him — Dan Osman for example (may he rest in peace) — and what they represent of the climbing community. Not everyone has the interest in learning about all the different styles and nuances to the endeavor, though it should be pretty self-evident anything done several hundred feet above the ground without a rope is automatically classified as extreme. Honnold’s goals are ostensibly the same as any other climber — he just has to “make it to the top.” When it comes to Honnold and his increasingly public profile I fear criticisms of him will become appropriated to the whole — that this degree of thrill is what we all seek; that all those who enjoy climbing might just be as callous towards their own lives as he appears to be.

Of course, I am probably not giving the layperson nearly enough credit. I think the majority understand that traditional climbing is done with a rope and a harness (though those same people are really going to shit when I tell them there is a thing called bouldering, too). After all, even if you don’t climb but saw Free Solo, you got a good idea that what he is attempting isn’t normal. That there is a scale of relativity here. I was prepared to write a scathing review for how Free Solo might give people the wrong impression, but I must applaud it for taking the approach that it does — angling for the psychology that makes Honnold a pure climber, yet one that is clearly different than the rest. This movie humanizes an insane human (who, by the way, and as is revealed in what I thought was one of the film’s best scenes in a medical facility where Honnold is getting a scan of his brain, apparently possesses an unusually difficult-to-impress amygdala, the area of the brain involved with how we experience emotion). Getting to know him on a more personal level makes this adventure so much more compelling.

The basis for Free Solo, daringly shot and co-directed by celebrated climbing photographer Jimmy Chin and his wife, documentarian Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Merú), is actually not about the climb but about the climber and his scruples. For the sake of plot synopsizing, the film finds him in pursuit of arguably the most ambitious undertaking in the history of climbing. He aims to free solo the 3,000-foot-tall granite monstrosity of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, one of the premier destinations for airy multi-pitch, traditional gear (or ‘trad’) climbing. It spends a not inconsiderable chunk of its 97-minute run time teasing the featured climb (“Free Rider”) while easing us into the unusual life he leads. We are formally introduced to the cliché first — a perpetually grubby, scrawny guy eating 90 cent dinners in his home-cum-traveling-van parked indefinitely amidst the tall pines of Yosemite. Then there is the enigma, a rather emotionally detached dude for whom the girlfriend thing doesn’t even appear as a blip on the radar.

Enter: Sanni McCandless. She immediately provides Free Solo an accessibility that Honnold’s esoteric obsessions simply cannot. At the very least, she offers perspective, a contrast between how much importance her boyfriend places on solving a particularly challenging climbing sequence versus the more universal challenges of establishing a healthy work-life balance. For Honnold — and this also has been part of what has made me slower to embrace him as an ambassador for the sport compared to someone like Chris Sharma — to work is to rock climb, and to live is the same. McCandless is something of a savior for a dark, tortured soul, though often her inexperience on the rock is a hindrance to his success. The emotional trajectory Honnold goes on as weeks of preparing for Free Rider turn into months and months into years, is something I absolutely did not expect from a climbing documentary.

No, Free Solo isn’t as we call it in our little corner, “climbing porn” (don’t worry, that link is 100% workplace-appropriate). This is a real human story with honest-to-goodness concern for the well-being of its subject. There is a complicated morality not just to what Honnold proposes to his fellow athletes and camera crew — it is really interesting seeing how uncomfortable world-renowned big-wall conqueror Tommy Caldwell is made by all of this — but as well to the fact that the filmmakers are potentially capturing the end of a life on camera. So they get creative, employing drones to get the shots they want without physically or mentally distracting the subject as he moves deliberately and alarmingly quickly up the face of one of the greatest wonders of the natural world. Free Solo offers much more than scenic vistas and heart-pounding thrills. I appreciated its benevolence in making sure we all know how rare a climber and a person Alex Honnold is, and even more importantly, that he knows he isn’t infallible.

What? He smiles?!

Recommendation: Visually stunning to the point of being vertigo-inducing, Free Solo exposes the world to the joys and the dangers of a very particular form of rock climbing. What the climber achieves is breathtaking, but I can’t get over what this must have been like for those filming it. I love how that ethicality becomes as much a part of the experience as the climb, and ditto that to Sanni McCandless. She really keeps things grounded. Ehem. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Let’s hope this is a low-gravity day.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.indiewire.com

Paul G — #9

Paul G logo

Last time we were here, Paul was brought in as a psychological consultant on a top-secret government project involving an artificially intelligent being named Morgan. All two of us who saw that movie know how that turned out. Now this month we’re going to find out what happens when you take Paul and shove him into a movie about comic books, and no, we’re not going to be talking his contribution to the spectacle of disappointment that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2. This month we’re going to be discussing a role with a little bit more substance and nuance than his admittedly terrible Aleksei Sytsevich.

paul-giamatti-in-american-splendor

Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar in Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor.

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Biopic/comedy/drama

Plot Synopsis: An original mix of fiction and reality illuminates the life of comic book hero everyman Harvey Pekar.

Character Profile: Harvey Pekar was an underground comic book writer who developed a unique style and voice by creating the ‘American Splendor’ comics, stories that were autobiographical in nature and that seemed to elevate his everyman status to that of a quasi-hero as he set about dealing with his mundane struggles in a harsh, unforgiving world.  But if you asked him, Harvey was just another guy, another depressed fellow living in a depressing city working a depressing job. Naturally his work reflected a rather dim outlook on life. Born of Polish immigrants, Harvey was one of the few white kids to grow up on his block in a Cleveland suburb and as a result, found himself often being beaten up and without friends. An unhappy childhood seemed to bleed into adulthood. He attended college for a year before dropping out, enlisted in the armed forces but was soon discharged — allegedly for personal hygiene-related reasons. After shuffling through a series of miserable jobs he finally became a file clerk at Cleveland’s Veteran’s Administration Hospital. His friends circle was limited to those with whom he worked, and his romantic life was defined by a series of hastily made decisions that ended in two divorces, though in 1984 he met Joyce Brabner, a writer and comic book shop owner from Delaware. She had written a letter to him seeking a way to obtain a single copy of his latest comic since her store had already sold out. The 2003 film American Splendor divulges much of this, as well as the time the two spent collaborating on ‘Our Cancer Year,’ a graphic novel based upon Harvey’s diagnosis and survival of lymphoma, employing a thoroughly unique format — a hybrid of documentary and dramatic/comedic elements — to bring his personal tales to life. And Harvey may have staked a reputation through his ability to convey mundane struggles in comic form but he never quit his job as a file clerk until he retired. He was also a prolific record collector and dabbled in music and literary critiques. He passed away in Cleveland Heights in 2010 at the age of 73 after an accidental overdose on anti-depression medication having been diagnosed a third time with cancer.

Why he’s the man: Paul Giamatti very well could be at a career-best with this fascinating character, one who teeters on the edge of being sympathetic due to his relentless pessimism and iconoclastic tendencies. There’s something that Giamatti does that seems very small but that which very nearly ultimately defines the creator of American Splendor as a person. Apparently Harvey had a tendency to yell whenever he became frustrated or upset, and Giamatti milks it for all its worth, sounding in some early scenes as though he’s just rubbed his vocal chords against sandpaper for an hour. A memorable (read: hilarious) scene in a diner when he receives the good news that a fellow comic would be willing to illustrate his creations finds the actor shouting out with glee, causing a scene. His voice cracks like a high schooler going through The Puberty. His vocal issues come into play a couple of other times, and while they’re certainly not the only thing to take away from this performance, these moments are excellent touches. The tenor of his voice, when not breaking, is mildly saddening,  Giamatti powerfully channeling a sense of hopelessness and fatigue. Rest assured, though, the actor manages to effect a spectrum of emotions on his journey from a nobody to a relatively obscure somebody. In spite of himself, Harvey remains a compelling presence, a certifiable Average Joe with an unusual gift for creating. This is outstanding work from the actor and quite possibly my favorite role of his.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):


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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com

Janis: Little Girl Blue

'Janis - Little Girl Blue' movie poster

Release: Friday, November 27, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Amy J. Berg

Directed by: Amy J. Berg

Janis: Little Girl Blue isn’t the whole puzzle but it offers up a lot of significant pieces in its exploration of the life of iconic blues rocker Janis Joplin. The account offers a celebration of a life cut tragically short, packing in as much fascinating archived footage and interviews with famous faces as a 100-minute treatment can afford. Driven by a narrative that entwines tour/concert/backstage footage with letters she wrote to her family about her experiences, the film earns an emotional heft that also makes an otherwise broad documentary feel more intimate.

It’s a travesty that Joplin’s story feels so familiar. Her succumbing to a powerful drug addiction becomes downright surreal when you consider the company she keeps. Jimi Hendrix. Jim Morrison. Alan Wilson — all gone at 27. And that was just the ’70s. You would think a sense of inevitability would actually ruin the experience, and at times the knowledge of the tragedy and that this has happened so many times before (and since) does indeed loom larger than what’s taking place in front of you. Perhaps it is better, then, to think of the overdose in the motel room not so much as a destination but as just another terrible thing that happened to her. (Lest we forget her being voted ‘Ugliest Man’ in a local college paper before Janis Joplin became Janis Joplin.) Of course, it would be callous to write off her death as a footnote. The point is that this life, as writer-director Amy J. Berg thankfully recognizes, represents much more than a statistic.

Because it doesn’t focus on her passing or use the documentary format as yet another platform for stigmatizing drug abuse (though it certainly doesn’t support it), Little Girl Blue is more often than not upbeat. The singer is larger than life both in personality and reputation, her presence exuberant and ubiquitous. People surround her, if not fellow musicians and bandmates then strangers hoping some of her rubs off on them. Whenever there’s a chance for her to mug for the camera, she does. In frame she’s alluring, a rebellious spark of energy that betrays her small-town-Texas upbringing. Out of frame of course, she’s an entirely different story. When reflected upon, she’s a character in a Shakespearian tragedy.

We start by walking through her high school days where she became a target of vicious bullying not only for her physical appearance — Joplin never was the poster child for femininity but the antithetical nature of her image is partly why the world fell in love with her in the first place — but for her advocacy for racial integration in schools as well. Interviews with younger siblings provide some color to her home life and what motivated the future industrial icon to break free of her Port Arthur roots.

From there it’s a jump into Joplin’s first experiences in San Francisco. We head to North Beach and then to the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets, a hippie hot spot, where she’d hook up with many likeminded individuals who took notice of her natural inclination to hang out with the guys rather than the pretty Californian women. Her first stint on the west coast wasn’t great. She became heavily involved with drugs and ended up on a bus back to Texas where she’d vow to overhaul her life and adopt a lifestyle more befitting of her parents’ expectations. As history would have it, that wasn’t meant to be either.

More anticipated chapters unfold soon hereafter. We chat with members of Big Brother and the Holding Company, a psychedelic rock group on the rise (at least as far as the local counterculture of the mid-60s was concerned) and to whom Joplin fully committed herself having gained recognition for the power in her voice and the pain with which she expressed herself having endured a tortured and confusing adolescence. The story then tackles head-on the turbulence of the following years with grace and dignity: the post-BBHC fall-out, the press surrounding her decision to form a new back-up band (who remembers the Kozmic Blues Band?), flirtations with Dick Cavett, the Woodstock gig and fleeting female lovers. The ebb and flow of an infatuation with drugs and alcohol becomes more flow than ebb as romantic prospects similarly come and go.

Away from her personal troubles, mounting pressure within the industry generated by speculation over what Joplin should do with her career continued to drive the nail deeper. What is a girl to do when she becomes bigger than the band she is a part of? One might naturally assume cultural evolution would eventually create an atmosphere of acceptance and comfort. Someone with talent of this magnitude should never have to feel alone but time and again we are reminded of Joplin’s sense of isolation and helplessness as she, as some interviewees put it, grew into a caricature of herself. How much imitation is considered flattery? Was she trying too hard to be the next Aretha Franklin? Should she have stayed with BBHC?

If Joplin were any less interesting an individual Little Girl Blue would suffer from its cookie-cutter design. Along with her spunky personality it’s the little things that help set it apart. Contemporary American singer-songwriter Cat Power gives voice to Joplin’s telegrams. A view from the back of a train as it winds through California hills becomes a motif. And of course the interviews are (mostly) unique to this production. In truth, it just wouldn’t be a bonafide rock-and-roll documentary without a few well-worn edges. Almost obligatorily we have to explore beyond what’s captured on camera. Misery as a motivator. The irony and general strangeness of fame and popularity. Like with a great many acts, Joplin had a serious problem with the post-show comedown. Walking onstage is a totally different experience than walking off of it.

Berg’s efforts shouldn’t be taken as the definitive account of such a pioneering woman, but she has created mandatory viewing for anyone looking for a way to get to know the person behind the music a little bit better. The regular rhythms of a documentary based on the life of a famous person are always present but here they are as powerful as the subject is empowering.

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Recommendation: Documentary takes viewers on a tour of the many ups and downs of the life and career of one Janis Joplin. While doubtful there’s anything here that long standing fans of the blues/folk rock singer haven’t already been exposed to but the film will be a good crash course for anyone who doesn’t have much history of her. Highlights: loads of archived footage including concert performances and awkward talk-show appearances; great interviews. Lowlights: very little about the overarching narrative comes as a shock. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that this is a retrospective, not a fluff piece. Nor is it a hagiography.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 103 mins. 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.nerdgeist.com 

30-for-30: The ’85 Bears

'The 85 Bears' movie poster

Release: Thursday, February 4, 2016

[Netflix]

Directed by: Jason Hehir 

There will never be another quite like the 1985 Chicago Bears defense. Or their offense. Or their coach(es). Or their cult of personality. If you’re from the area you probably don’t need the reminding, but Jason Hehir’s surprisingly moving documentary makes it abundantly clear to the outside observer that times have certainly changed.

Today fans are expected to embrace quarterback Jay Cutler, a Vanderbilt alum who looks like he might cry at any given moment. Sure, the guy’s built Ford tough but I’m convinced neither he nor the cast that surrounds him is as entertaining as the freak show the mid-80s spawned. Granted, Cutler is also no Doug Flutie. Under the thumb of head coach Mike Ditka and his defensive coordinator, the late Buddy Ryan, the Bears were less of a sports team than they were a hit squad powered by a trifecta of brute athleticism, mental tenacity and celebrity swagger. There was no pretense about them; they were the real deal, asserting their dominance throughout an historic regular season campaign and an even scarier post-season run that netted the great city of Chicago its first and so far only Superbowl victory.

The ’85 Bears, narrated by Vince Vaughn (who also executive-produced), is a love letter to those glory days, gathering together the surviving members of the team (may Sweetness rest in peace) for a candid chat about how they viewed themselves as young, emerging stars as well as their thoughts on the legacy they ultimately shaped. There’s a lot of the banter and inside joking that one expects from former players reliving their heyday — the way Hehir’s able to cozy up to a group of guys who have never seemed so vulnerable is a major factor in the film’s appeal — but undoubtedly one of the most intriguing aspects is the running discussion about the Bears’ unique coaching situation. What happens when you have two alpha males jockeying for a position of authority?

One would naturally assume nothing but dysfunction. In this case you’d assume incorrectly. In this case you get the formula for establishing a championship caliber team. And yeah, okay, a little dysfunction as well. Ditka vs. Ryan: a heavyweight bout, a battle of contrasts forged out of the former’s gruff, urban machismo and the latter’s rural southern roots, one that resulted in an oft-icy tension between the two on and off the field. Players recall Ditka becoming irked by Ryan’s insistence that weekly practices assume the same level of physical intensity actual games demanded. Ditka didn’t deem it necessary for players to sustain injuries during practice, a point of view that is as understandable as Ryan’s, who believed the only way to victory is through militaristic discipline and routine. (After all, his ’76 – ’77 Minnesota Vikings didn’t earn the nickname ‘Purple People Eaters’ because they stood around crocheting during scrimmages.)

The ’85 Bears feels more like a family reunion than a sports documentary. Relationships trump all, be they ones characterized by conflicting egotism or remembered for their controversial nature. If you’ve never met Jim MacMahon, the successor to Walter Payton (according to some, the greatest Bear that ever lived) and a BYU alum, wait until you get a load of him here. MacMahon’s infamous appearances at press conferences with a beer in hand or his off-hand comments about how people in New Orleans are all ugly and dumb may have earned him a certain reputation, but his contributions on the field spoke for themselves . . . even if his habit of improvising plays routinely frustrated Ditka.

Then of course there’s Mike Singletary, who now finds himself shouldering assistant coaching duties for the recently relocated Los Angeles Rams. Many of the interviews are information-dense and insightful enough on their own but it’s Singletary’s recounting of a once-turbulent relationship with Ryan that gives the film a beating heart. Watching him visit Ryan at home as he deals with increasing health problems is both touching and a reminder that football is more than a game. It is family. And good luck keeping a dry eye when Hehir exposes the handwritten letter Ryan wrote to his players. We also meet William “The Fridge” Perry, who remains to this day one of the largest men to ever don a football uniform at 6′ 2″ and 335 pounds. Well-spoken and extremely amiable, Perry’s demeanor is the epitome of, in MacMahon’s own words, the “big, happy fat guy.”

The ’85 Bears makes it clear no opponent looked forward to dealing with them. If other rivals — namely Bill Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers and the Windy City’s BFFs the Green Bay Packers — claimed they happily embraced the challenge of solving Ryan’s smothering defense or MacMahon’s ability to change plays at will while maintaining a high completion percentage, they were lying. Few, if any, teams looked forward to getting broken the way the Bears broke people. Their physical brutality all but locks the narrative in a time capsule, particularly as the league today continues to feign a stronger interest in advocating for the well-being of its players, both active and retired. One can’t help but think that such an evolution has naturally come about as a direct result of this epic chapter in Chicago’s storied football history.

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Buddy Ryan and Mike Singletary share a moment

Recommendation: Thoroughly entertaining and moving in equal measure, The ’85 Bears is much more than a film about a rare collection of football talent. It is about legacy, about pride and about how sports bring people together. I absolutely love this one. One of the best ESPN films has to offer. Definitely seek this out if you come to the realization that this chunk of NFL history is one of your blind spots.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “You know when there’s a pack of wild dogs, if one of them is mean, they’re all going to be mean. Guys are getting their asses handed to them out there.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.usa.newonnetflix.info; http://www.chicagotribune.com 

The Wolfpack

The Wolfpack movie poster

Release: Friday, June 12, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Directed by: Crystal Moselle

Short film director Crystal Moselle’s first feature-length documentary probably would have never happened if she weren’t on the right street corner at the right time of day. Her chance encounter with the Angulo brothers on the streets of New York one afternoon would seem like serendipity had it not been for the director and the boys sharing one major interest: a love of movies. For the subjects of this incredible film, maybe the statistical improbability of their run-in is more like karma.

Six young men with long-flowing, dark hair, dressed to the nines á la the guys from Reservoir Dogs and running down a New York avenue would probably seem to many a cause for concern, a group with only mischief on their minds. But Moselle wasn’t intimidated as much as she was fascinated by their presence. Four years later and their life story — or the story as it had been controlled up until that point — would serve as the basis for one of 2015’s most intriguing and unique documentary films.

The Wolfpack captures the Angulo family as they go about living in a cramped four-bedroom apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. At film’s open the family dynamic reveals nothing untoward: boys are being boys and re-enacting their favorite scenes from their favorite Scorsese, Tarantino and Nolan movies (albeit with a creative fervor that should have them nominated for best home-made costumes). Mom and dad are elsewhere. Their young sister is separated, less interested in the collective cinematic obsession.

Fairly early on it’s difficult to ignore a crushing sense of stagnation, though. This isn’t a home of hoarding nor of physical abuse leading to the complete dissolution of the family unit. Rather, the Angulos have been living a hermitic lifestyle because of their father, Oscar. The Peruvian immigrant fundamentally disagrees with the way in which American society runs. Intensely afraid the dangers and influences of the outside world would have a negative impact on his family, he has rarely allowed them to leave the building. He keeps the only key to the apartment and monitors his wife’s weekly grocery trips. We’re not talking about a situation where the boys are restricted to socializing only on the weekends. This is total isolation.

This was a situation that had been ongoing for 14 years prior to the director stumbling upon them on the street. One of the older brothers informs us that a good year might have yielded a half dozen trips outside, while during a particularly bad year they never got out at all. Ventures outdoors were more likely when the season’s right. The same applied to their sister and their mother, who had been homeschooling her children while collecting on welfare. (Oscar also fundamentally disagreed with the concept of holding down a job.)

Moselle’s work isn’t the most tightly focused documentary you’ll see, but that’s because she’s aiming at extracting the essence of the Angulo’s personal relationships and how film has shaped and informed their lives. She’s there for the good times as much as she is for the bad; even though interviews remain fairly casual and lighthearted, a lingering look in an eye or a reluctant smile tells another story. There are moments where anger and bitterness surface, though the Angulo boys are, with these extreme conditions considered, remarkably well-adjusted. Polite, well-spoken and each intelligent and thoughtful, it’s often difficult reconciling their potential with the sheer number of opportunities that they’ve been denied.

The Wolfpack offers a fairly disturbing story but it’s never confronting. It’s intimate and honest; moving and at times absurdly comical. I’m left wondering, after viewing the footage themselves, if any of these brothers would end up owning this on DVD. They strike me more as the action/thriller/crime-drama crowd but after all they’ve been through together, re-watches of their own history could prove to be both a powerful reminder of history and a reinvigorating push forward into the future.

Recommendation: An inspiration for cinephiles everywhere, if there ever were one. Er, . . . one not named Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This quietly powerful documentary serves as a testament to the power of film and of brotherhood. Undoubtedly one of the year’s most memorable stories. Highly el-recommended-o.

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com