REVIEW: “Free Solo”

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“If you’re seeking perfection free-soloing is as close as you can get.” That statement from 33-year-old American rock climber Alex Honnold is one of many from the documentary “Free Solo” that gets us into the head of a man who does something so terrifying and dangerous yet at the same time utterly remarkable.

For those who don’t know, free-soloing is rock climbing with no protective gear – no ropes, no harnesses, no nothing. It’s an undertaking with a margin of error next to zero. It’s something that’s easy for some to dismiss as ‘crazy’ (the movie even explores that possibility from a medical point of view). But “Free Solo” attempts to challenge that perspective by putting as much of its focus on the man who is Alex Honnold as it does his magnificent and unfathomable feats.

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The film documents Honnald’s physical and mental preparation leading up to his attempt at free-soloing El Capitan, a menacing yet beautiful rock formation standing at 3,000 feet in Yosemite National Park. Husband and wife co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (who also did the excellent 2015 climbing doc “Meru”) follow Honnald through his excitement, trepidations, and insecurities.

Honnald grew up a loner by his own admission who was effected by his parents divorce despite noting they were both happier afterwards. What impacted him more was the death of his father who was a big supporter of his climbing. You get the sense that this pushed Honnald to challenge himself even more, often losing himself in free-soloing. It didn’t allow for many long-lasting relationships. The exception was Sanni McCandless, a self-proclaimed patient person but with self-respect. We see that tested as the El Capitan climb draws closer.

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As Chin and Vasarhelyi showed in “Meru” they have a knack for capturing both the beauty and danger of the climb. Here the risk is intensified and the consequences are evident in ever stunning and at times dizzying shot. And the camera puts a heavy emphasis on the precarious nature of the climb (sometimes a foothold is on nothing more than the tiniest dent in the rock face). It’s exhilarating, terrifying and it begs to be watched on the largest screen possible.

Alex Honnald is as fascinating as he is enigmatic and soaking up his story proves to be a satisfying experience. Yet despite the amount of time we spend with him it’s hard to get into his headspace. I never had a good grasp of how he thinks and of what makes the guy tick. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe “Free Solo” isn’t trying to get us to understand Honnald. Maybe it just wants us to respect him and the daring choices he makes. But I guess I am as unsure of that as I am the man himself.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Fighting With My Family”

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Seasoned wrestling fans probably remember the industry-shaking WWE debut of Paige. It was 2014 and the night after the company’s biggest event Wrestlemania. Paige, just 21 at the time, won the Women’s Chapionship (then called the Diva’s title) in her very first match becoming the youngest women’s champion in WWE history.

Paige’s career has since been marked by some enormous highs, unfortunate controversies, and a heartbreaking early retirement due to a severe neck injury. “Fighting With My Family” tells the remarkable underdog story of the young woman from Norwich, England, her eccentric blue-collar family, and her improbable rise to WWE Superstardom.

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Florence Pugh plays Paige whose real name is Saraya-Jade Bevis. She was born and raised in and around wrestling. Her parents (played by Nick Frost and Lena Headey in a crafty bit of casting) ran their own one-horse family wrestling outfit. Paige was closest to her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) and both dreamt of becoming professional wrestlers in the WWE.

While wrestling was the family business it was far from a lucrative one. Yet despite the deck being stacked against them, Paige and Zak push towards their dream with their loving and peculiar parents supporting them along the way. They finally get the call they’ve been waiting for – a chance for brother and sister to try out for the WWE. It leads to Paige being invited to go to the United States to compete for a roster spot. Zak doesn’t make the cut.

Writer-director Stephen Merchant does a good job balancing the wrestling aspect of the story with the family elements. That’s important because, as the title suggests, family is very much a fundamental part of Paige’s life. From having to leave her folks behind in England to the stress on her relationship with her heartbroken and envious brother. Merchant makes it a crucial part of his storytelling which is a steady blend of comedy and drama.

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A lot of credit should go to Pugh as well. She’s one of several young actresses working today who have shown immense talent and an understanding of their craft that goes beyond their age. Pugh effortlessly falls into a world she has admitted to knowing nothing about. You would never know it. We also get a really good Vince Vaughn performance. He plays the fictional character Hutch Morgan, a developmental trainer and talent scout who gives Paige her shot.

“Fighting With My Family” was quite the surprise. It actually packs far more heart and more character depth than I was expecting. It is a little predictable and at times you can see it needlessly stretching itself to be as crass as its PG-13 rating will allow. But it does go to show how well things can come together when you have a strong cast and a good story to tell.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Five Feet Apart”

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While some people push back on these things (and I understand why), movie history has shown there is an audience for teen illness flicks. I find it hard to be dismissive of them. They can serve to enlighten people as well as speak to those who have experienced the diseases or know someone who has. At the same time there is a thin line between informing and exploiting.

“Five Feet Apart” walks that thin line at times leaning precariously towards the exploitative. But thankfully the film never falls over to that side mainly due to a deeply serious approach to cystic fibrosis as well as an authentic and fiercely committed performance from Haley Lu Richardson.

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Richardson plays Stella who is back in the hospital for another series of treatments. She’s sprightly OCD and admits to having control issues, but she remains positive sometimes above what her health seems to allow. She documents her journey with CF through her YouTube blog called “My Daily Breath”. It helps her cope as well as share her experience.

Down the hall is a childhood friend and fellow CF patient Poe (Moises Arias in a tempered down gay sidekick role). Oh, and there’s the new guy, the hunky and brooding Will (Cole Sprouse) who’s channeling as much early Johnny Depp as he can muster. He’s there for an experimental drug trial. While Stella and Will may share the same disease, otherwise they couldn’t be more opposite. Of course that changes and a mutual attraction begins.

From there the movie operates under the same rules as most of these things do – a bittersweet romance, the looming threat of disease-related death, and a bathtub filled to the rim with tears. The tension here is that Stella and Will must remain six feet apart to keep from sharing potentially fatal bacteria. As their relationship intensifies so does the longing to be closer. But their heartbreaking reality is the real antagonist of the film.

In his feature film debut director Justin Baldoni gets several things right. Teen romances can be hard to digest but his is easy to buy into. It forms and grows naturally despite a few missteps by the script. And Baldoni definitely sells the setting. Practically the entire film takes place in a hospital ward and a lot of detail is put into making it as realistic as possible.

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It’s the final 15 minutes that sees the movie nosedive into melodramatic overkill. It’s as if the filmmakers lost faith in both their story and their storytelling and turned to a sappy Nicholas Sparks-ish ending. It still gets to you and your eyes are sure to well up. But unlike earlier in the film, I could feel the tug of manipulation throughout the final leg.

A part of me really appreciates the sheer education value of “Five Feet Apart”. It drops a ton of information and provides an earnest depiction of cystic fibrosis which can be eye-opening for people like me. It’s also great that it offers another opportunity for Haley Lu Richardson to show why she’s one of the best young actresses working today. But that ending. It doesn’t quite kill the good that comes before it, but it comes mighty close.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Favourite”

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With a good sample size of movies to go by, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has shown himself to be an acquired taste. His films tend to operate on their own quirky wavelengths often within the punishing boundaries of his harsh worldview. His characters take the brunt, but he can be just as tough on his audience especially when he muddies the line between heartbreaking and nihilistic.

“The Favourite” features many of the same Lanthimos signatures but this time with a bigger foot in the real world. Set in early 18th century Britain and taking place almost exclusively on the grounds of the Royal Palace, the story follows a sickly Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her conniving court of opportunists.

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At the movie’s core is the toxic trinity of the Queen, the Duchess of Marlborough Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s ambitious cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). To no surprise Lanthimos chose the more salacious (and generally discredited) interpretation of Anne’s relationship with both Sarah and Abigail. But to be fair he’s not going for an accurate depiction. It’s the framework he wants for his bitter and twisted tale.

As England wars with the French so to does Sarah and Abigail for the Queen’s affection (because along with the Queen’s affection comes position, power and influence). Nothing is too devious or too vile for these lovely human beings. Backstabbing, deception, sexual devilry – it’s all fair game. And this is the rest of the movie in a nutshell, two ruthless vipers duking it out for their own self-absorbed reasons. The only suspense is in which one will be left standing.

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This is the first time Lanthimos hasn’t directed his own script. Instead Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara pen this verbally volatile period romp. Your enjoyment may hinge on your tolerance level for nasty behavior. It can be tough finding some level of heart but we do get a taste of it in Queen Anne. She’s a sad and pitiful woman plagued by crippling gout, unbearable grief, and a ton of insecurities. While Weisz and Stone are very good at peddling malevolence, Colman offers an occasional yet welcomed breather.

There are a handful of men scattered throughout the story. All of them are more or less pawns who the women manipulate for their good pleasure. It’s fun to watch. The best of the lot is Nicholas Hoult who is a hoot playing the slimy and subtly conniving Harley. He’s a politician with an agenda and I swear his wigs get bigger and more absurd with each new scene he’s in.

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While I found plenty in the story to push back on, I certainly can’t argue against Lanthimos’ incredible sense of craft. His camera employs all sorts of intriguing perspectives, interesting lens tricks, and funky angles. Sometimes it’s tough to see what he’s trying to convey but it always looks fantastic. Chipping in are some gorgeous set designs and Sandy Powell’s exquisite costumes which Lanthimos definitely takes advantage of.

“The Favourite” shines brightest through its top-notch performances across the board and in the sheer beauty of the filmmaking. That light fades when you get down to the meat of the storytelling. The bitterness wore on me, it can be pointlessly coarse, and I didn’t laugh much at all (except at Hoult). Not good for a blue-blooded black comedy. So I end up where I often do with Yorgos Lanthimos films – somewhere in the middle between impressed and frustrated.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “First Man”

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As “La La Land” showed us Ryan Gosling and Damien Chazelle have a pretty strong actor/director chemistry. They attempt to tap into it once again with “First Man”, a biopic of the late Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. The film has received critical acclaim throughout the festival circuit but also faced a bit of undeserved controversy over the decision to not show the iconic planting of the American flag on the moon’s surface.

The film is an adaptation of James Hanson’s 2005 biography “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong”. Clint Eastwood was the first to show interest in making the movie, planning to both produce and direct the film for Warner Bros. But it soon fell into ‘development hell’ before being resuscitated by Universal and Dreamworks. Screenwriter Josh Singer (who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “Spotlight”) writes the script with Chazelle directing. Talk about an exciting combination.

 

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“First Man” comes at Neil Armstrong’s life from an interesting angle. It covers roughly 8 years, from his time as a NASA test pilot to his historic Apollo 11 moon landing. But the film’s main focus is on the man himself and it views most things through a very personal lens. And even though we get a look into Armstrong’s life, by the end of the film he remains a bit of an enigma although an intensely sympathetic one. I loved that about the movie.

I’ve always found there to be a dryness to Ryan Gosling’s acting and it’s the material that often dictates the effectiveness of his performances. He turns out to be a perfect fit for Neil Armstrong, portrayed here as a humble man of few words who feels as distant and unexplored as the space outside our atmosphere. Gosling’s consistent restraint only adds to his character’s complexity. It’s through Chazelle’s camera (often in tight closeups of Gosling’s face) that we get clues to what Armstrong is feeling. Meaningful subtleties in Gosling’s expressions portray grief, fear, determination, even exhilaration.

Chazelle has shown a fascination with the idea of obsession. In “Whiplash” it was with drumming. In “La La Land” is was with jazz. Armstrong’s obsession is with his work but it’s rooted in something deeper. Very early in the film Neil and his wife Janet (a terrific Claire Foy) lose their 2-year-old daughter Karen to cancer. That shadow looms over the entire film as Neil buries himself in his work to keep from dealing with his loss. It’s what drives his determination.

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At the same time it adds an undeserved burden on Janet. A huge chunk of the film looks at the domestic side of Armstrong’s life. These scenes are far more than emotional filler. They show us the flip-side of Neil’s sorrow-fueled obsession. Foy is nothing short of superb here – showing Janet as supportive of her husband but slowly losing patience with his detachment. At the same time she lives under the constant fear that her husband could die on any given day.

In one of my favorite choices, Chazelle shoots the space sequences almost exclusively from the astronaut’s perspectives, avoiding the grand effects-driven spectacles we might expect. These scenes are sensory experiences, relying on movement, sound, and a camera that is mostly inside the tight confined cockpits with the astronauts. These scenes are intensely claustrophobic and relay the sense of tension and danger.

Look no further than the incredible opening sequence. During a test flight Neil finds his X-15 “bouncing off the earth’s atmosphere” before bursting back through and landing in the Mojave Desert. It’s a pulse-pounding scene of roaring engines, whirling gauges and fiercely vibrating metal. The mix of sound and close-quartered cameras is a good primer for the bigger sequences to come.

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Of course one of those scenes the film’s big finale. In one of the biggest non-spoiler spoilers Neil Armstrong does indeed walk on the moon. The brilliant final 20 minutes features the same stressful ferocity but also a striking use of silence. The scene is the closest the film comes to giving us an emotional release and offers new meaning to Neil’s iconic first steps on the moon. Chazelle doesn’t romanticize these moments. They are intimate and personal which I believe invalidates the entire flag “controversy”. But for those still unconvinced, we do get shots of the flag on the moon and in numerous other places around the movie.

While Gosling and Foy are the stars there is a wonderful supporting cast that help fill out their story – Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Ciarán Hinds and a host of other recognizable faces and good performances.

There are so many other things I love about “First Man”. I love Chazelle faithful Justin Hurwitz’s score which truly came alive after a second viewing. I love that the film doesn’t feel the need to hold our hand and explain every detail of the science or technology. I love that this reluctant hero is portrayed as a human being and not a pop culture icon. I love its apolitical focus which seems consistent with the astronauts who isolated themselves from the culture to focus on their missions. But most of all I love that it makes its own rules when it comes to storytelling. This is what happens when a biopic doesn’t cater to formula or expectations. The results are magnificent.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “First Reformed”

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“A world without hope”. It’s an idea wrestled with (in some form or another) by several characters and it’s one of many things on the mind of “First Reformed”, the latest film from writer-director Paul Schrader. This hopelessness feeds a lingering despair that is mirrored in the lives of several key players and is woven into the very fabric of this hypnotic exploration.

I realize that may not be the most upbeat way to introduce a movie, but when honestly dealing with themes of guilt, obsession, self-destruction, and despair the rays of light should be just as difficult for us to find as it is for the characters. And much like the ‘Crisis of Faith’ classics it follows, “First Reformed” is more interested in the spiritual and emotional struggle as well as the toll it takes on the human psyche.

Giving the performance of his career, Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller. He pastors a Dutch Colonial church is upstate New York known more as a historical landmark than a place of worship. First Reformed Church gets by thanks to its parent megachurch, ironically named Abundant Life. It’s ran with a businesslike prowess by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer). Jeffers preaches to packed houses and has big community connections. Toller sees more sightseers than parishioners and struggles in his alone time to reconnect with God.

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After a Sunday service Toller is approached by one of his few faithful church members, a pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried). She implores him to meet with and counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) whose environmental fanaticism has driven him into a deep state of depression. Michael questions the “sanctioning” of bringing a child into a world he believes to be doomed and he poses a question that haunts Reverend Toller for the duration of the film, “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”

Always a solid actor, Hawke dials back from the type of performances he’s known for. It’s a quiet and reserved portrayal allowing much to be told through expression and even appearance. Deep wrinkles etched in his brow held up by tired, forlorn eyes. You truly get a vision of a man who as Schrader himself put it “has lived a life”. In his case it hasn’t been an easy one. Harboring guilt from his past, unable to connect with God through prayer, and sickly due to a worsening stomach ailment. You can’t help but see shades of the struggling young priest from Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest”.

The great French auteur wasn’t the only influence for Schrader. Hints of Carl Dreyer’s “Ordet”, Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light”, Tarkovsky, Ozu and Rossellini are everywhere. You even see him pulling from the same thematic toolkit he used in his acclaimed collaborations with Martin Scorsese (“Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”).

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The cracks in Reverend Toller’s psyche begin to show after an especially troubling tragedy. Add to that pressures from his church’s upcoming 250th anniversary reconsecration ceremony. During his daily duties Toller puts up a good front. But it’s at night, alone with his thoughts and journal, when we see the gravity of his dark inner turmoil. He’s a man mired in self-destruction and self-contradictions, yet at the same time he is yearning for the voice of God. He’s a good man who has lost his way.

The mood of the film is nailed down via Alexander Dynan’s stellar cinematography. The cold gray tones and deep shadows are only occasionally washed with color and those instances aren’t without meaning. There is also the stillness of Dynan’s camera offering very little motion at all. But in the rare scenes where the camera does move, you can be sure the movements are rich with purpose. Add to it the intensely effective score from Welsh composer Brian Williams, minimal yet undeniably foreboding.

In the 27th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus cries out “My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?” It’s a cry of anguish from the Son of God calling out to His Father but hearing no response. To an obviously lesser degree, you can imagine the same cry burning in the heart of Reverend Toller. It all builds up to an ending that feels slightly out of tune with the rest of the film (or does it?). And while fascinating to watch and contemplate, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. At the same time I love how I’m still wrestling with it. And when complimented by a bracing career-best turn from Hawke, strong supporting work throughout, and an auteurist presentation, you have a film that I can’t help but love.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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