Documentary

Free Solo (IMAX Version)

First Hit: This past year there were two documentary films about climbing El Capitan, and this one, Free Solo, scared me more than the other movie Dawn Wall, and both are worth a watch.

The fear factor in Free Solo is high because Alex Honnold climbs the 3,000 foot El Capitan wall at Yosemite using only his hands and feet, there are no ropes. In Dawn Wall, which I didn’t write a review of because it was a special presentation, was about climbing a part of El Capitan that’s never been scaled.

Alex has a different trigger level for fear than most people. We learn this because of his belief in his abilities, the neverending training schedule, his physical prowess, and the results of his brain MRI. The film does dive into his past, and we get some explanation about his perceived non-engagement with other people and where this fearlessness emanates.

How Alex was raised, and his diving into climbing as a way to engage with the world and express himself is told in flashbacks and interviews by his mother, girlfriend, and a few friends. The closest we get to see under the layer of his polite, engaging, yet perplexing personae is through his conversations with Stephanie McCandless (“Sanni”) who becomes Alex’s girlfriend and one who can stay with Alex’s aloofness and inward self-focus to find her place in his heart.

When the movie begins we learn that Alex has been living in a van for nine years and this lifestyle suits him as we get farther into the film – it is congruent with his personality. We watch him train; we watch him go up, and down El Capitan, with his closest friend Tommy Caldwell (Dawn Wall climber and star) who works with Alex to figure out and understand the pitches he’ll use on the climb.

Of course, we all know he makes it because there wouldn’t be a film about his falling off the mountain, but when he bails on one attempt, we wonder will he make another effort to do the climb. The climbing shots led by Jimmy Chin were fantastic.

Directors Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi directed this film with patience and elegance because it shows in the end product.

Overall: I felt his strength, joy, and fearlessness through my being afraid for him during the journey.

Films that rose above the fray in 2018

This was a particularly good year for films. At first I didn’t think so but after I reviewed the films I watched and wrote about this past year, I was pleasantly surprised. I was entertained by outstanding acting, strong and poignant films about racism, and out loud laughs. My next post will be about the Oscar nominations.

Game Night: This film was funny from the get go and I laughed out loud all the way through.

Leaning Into the Wind: Andrew Goldsworthy: If you liked the film River and Tides, you’ll love Leaning....

The Death of Stalin: There are very funny moments, but I couldn’t help but wonder was his regime filled with that much personal corruptness? Probably.

Flower: The acting lifts this bizarre storyline to funny, engaging and entertaining levels.

Red Sparrow: Although long at 2h 19min, it had enough twists, turns, and detail to keep me fully engaged.

You Were Never Really Here: Beautifully shot scenes, dynamic soundtrack, but this oddly paced film tells a story of redemption, salvation or deeper despair.

Beirut: I really liked the way this film was put together and came to fruition.

A Quiet Place: Well done film and the silence of the actors made all the difference in the world.

Deadpool 2: First Hit: This film is fun, irreverent and filled with out-loud laughs.

RBG: Excellent film about a woman who lives within her strength and defined and changed U.S. law.

Disobedience: Extremely well-acted film about how antiquated thinking can split families and a loving relationship.

Hotel Artemis: Who says Hollywood cannot create a unique and well-acted film.

Blindspotting: Extremely powerful and pointed film and raises the bar for Best Picture of the Year. In my view this unnominated film is by far and away the best film of 2018.

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot: A unhurried film revealing the power of how forgiveness of others and self, can make one’s life different.

Three Identical Strangers: A truly amazing story about how sciences’ curiosity didn't take into account the effects on human beings.

Sorry to Bother You: What I liked about this film is that it is funny, unique, and unlike any other film I’ve seen.

Leave No Trace: Sublimely acted and evenly paced film about a man and his daughter living in a public forest.

Puzzle: I thoroughly enjoyed this poignant film about a woman finding herself through a passion.

BlacKkKlansman: Fantastic film about race relations in the United States while reminding the audience about how far we have to go.

Eighth Grade: Outstanding acting and script gives us an insightful view of what it is like to be in the Eighth Grade today.

Fahrenheit 11/9: Covers a lot of stuff but I think it was mostly about Presidents and people in power managing and acting poorly.

Pick of the Litter: It was an fantastic and interesting way to learn about how guide dogs are taught to be amazing caretakers for the blind.

First Man: Compelling reenactment of an audaciously brave time in the 1960’s where we were challenged by President Kennedy to go to the moon.

The Hate U Give: A fantastic film about the existence of racism and, as indicated here, in our police departments as well.

Green Book: Excellent acting, engaging story, and both funny and thought-provoking make this film fun to sit through.

Boy Erased: Outstanding cast delivers sublime performances in a powerful story about LGBT conversion programs.

A Private War: Rosamund Pike (as Marie Colvin) gives a deeply complex performance of a war correspondent who brought personal stories of war victims to the forefront.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Accurate or not, this film was fun, well-acted, engaging, and joyful.

Can You Ever Forgive Me: Excellent acting about a caustic, friendless author that finally finds her voice.

Mary Queen of Scots: Saoirse Ronan (Mary Stuart) and Margot Robbie (Queen Elizabeth 1) give powerful performances in this adaptation of how Mary Queen of Scots tried to claim her title to the throne of England and Scotland.

Vice: I liked this oddly created film about a powerful yet enigmatic man who really ran our country for a period of time.

Ben is Back: Extremely well-acted story based on 24 hours of a mother and her addicted son’s return for the holidays.

Roma: Outside of the beautiful black and white photography and languid movement of the story, I left the theater with little.

The Favourite: A stark, intense musical score underscores the bizarre and tension filled interrelationships between the queen and her court.

Shoplifters: Wonderfully engaging film about a Japanese family who chose each other while fighting to stay nourished and together.

They Shall Not Grow Old (3D)

First Hit: This is one of the most amazing film restorations ever completed and the story it tells is astounding.

Two things that happened that sandwiched the actual film: 1) Prior to the film we learn that there is no war memorial in the US capital for WWI veterans, who effectively assisted in ending this war with their European counterparts. 2) At the end of this special presentation Director Peter Jackson shared a thirty-minute film about how they rejuvenated and revitalized these historic 100-year-old film prints.

From the opening moments you know this is going to be amazing. There is a small square scene of men marching. The pacing of movement which is usually all over the place in old films isn’t present. The pacing feels real. It is in 3D, but then the frame starts getting larger exposing, ever so slightly, more of the vision. You hear the marching and murmuring. Then voice overs of men who served in this war.

The film voice overs are men from WWI and as the film flashes back to England, we see where these men came from. They talk about how important it was to fight this war. They talk about how young many of the men were. In fact, one soldier was only thirteen, when you had to be nineteen to be eligible to join the army. All the while the images on the screen are of these young men learning and being trained on how to fight.

Slowly the film turns in to color and with the amazing technology of today, we are watching colorized 3D versions of original film shot over 100 years ago. It is utterly sublime and awe inspiring work.

We travel to Europe where we are in the trenches readying to make a final assault on the Germans. We see the first tanks used in wars. But as the film explained, this war was about artillery and how it shaped the battles from in the trenches.

As section chief in an artillery unit overseeing a 105” howitzer in Vietnam, I was entranced with the large guns used in WWI. Not much changed in all those years. The gunner, assistant gunner, primary loader, and how the breach blocks were opened and closed manually. I was transported back to my own experience.

The ending credits are accompanied by a song sung by British soldiers at that time. Mademoiselle from Armentieres is a song which bawdy lyrics were made up on the spot and as a marching song it is fantastic. Using British voices from a group of men in the English consulate their rendition brings joy and a smile as this film ends.

Jackson had many challenges. First to select the story he wanted to tell. There is a ton of footage, but he thought sticking to the British foot soldier would bring home his own heritage. Then finding ways to bring the films pacing to normal speed was challenging. Cameras back then were hand cranked so the film was created at lots of various speeds. Then the question to colorize it was asked. To Jackson credit, he simply asked, if the camera men of 100 years ago had a choice; black and white or color, which would they choose. I agree with Jackson’s choice to colorize it. In this film he worked hard to wonderfully and accurately use the right color. Even using his personal stock of WWI clothing and materials to judge the coloration process. In the film, he occasionally has one of the people in the film talking. Although, back then film did not have a soundtrack, Jackson hired lip readers who figured out what some of the soldiers were saying, then by hiring people from that region of England, had them say the lines. The amount of effort Jackson put into this film is phenomenal and shows up on the screen – perfect.

Overall: When a film moves me from sitting in a seat in a movie theater and takes me to another place, it has done its job. This film does this in spades.

Fahrenheit 11/9

First Hit: Covers a lot of stuff but I think it was mostly about Presidents and people in power managing and acting poorly.

This film seemed all over the place, and I was never quite sure of the primary focus or target of this recent offering by Michael Moore. It includes some of his typical stunts, like an attempted citizen’s arrest of the Michigan Governor Rick Snyder who poisoned the people of Flint, Michigan by changing their community water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. There was also the spraying of Flint water at the Governor’s mansion.

Much ado was made of this in the press and the outcry of the act and Governor’s inaction when poisons were discovered in the water was audible throughout the United States. One of the saddest parts of the film was when, then President Obama came to Flint and pretended to drink water to ensure that the problem was fixed. Instead of coming to help and rescue the people of Flint from an arrogant governor, he placated everyone.

Another part of the film was how Hilary lost the election to our, now, President Trump. This re-telling shares virtually no new information and only reminds us of how an election went wrong.

Then there are his hits on President Trump. There is little new shared here that helps us understand his manipulation of disenchanted, mostly white, people. The disenchanted are rich conservatives that want more money in their pocket and partially educated people who are feel disenfranchised.

The best is his explanation as to how Trump deflects by offering alternatives. For instance his admiration for people who have a lifetime rulership of their country and he laments that he would consider this if offered.

Moore does some things well in this film, like his honoring of the Stoneman Douglas high school kids that are creating change. And other things are more bombastic and overdone without pinpoint clarity of purpose.

Overall: Not one of Moore’s better films.

Pick of the Litter

First Hit: It was an fantastic and interesting way to learn about how guide dogs are taught to be amazing caretakers for the blind.

I’d seen many “guide dog in training” vests on dogs in San Rafael, CA. By seeing this film I learned something about the families that help raise these dogs before they go into their rigorous formal guide dog training. This film takes us all the way through their final testing and assignment to their blind owner.

The film opens with a set of five Labrador Retriever puppies being born to a black lab mother. Two of the puppies are beige in color the other three are black. We follow the dogs as they get farmed out to families who will care for them and record their behavior, before the remaining dogs are given intensive guide dog training.

Each dog in the same litter is named with the same starting letter, and in this film, it is “P”. Patriot, Primrose, Potomac, Poppet, and Phil. We see these cute baby puppies meet their puppy raisers, who in turn, teach them manners, foundational training, and expose them to the world. There are certain criteria the dogs must adhere to if they are to receive final guide dog training. Guide Dogs for the Blind monitors the puppy's progress and keep a detailed spreadsheet of their behaviors, strengths and weaknesses for being a guide dog. If a dog doesn’t meet the required standards, like being too rambunctious and inquisitive and cannot stop exploring the world around them, then they get re-assigned. They will either go to a good home, or be bread to birth more possible puppies.

When the puppies are given to the puppy raisers, the audience gets a chance to learn something about these families. Funny side story, I was recently in Seattle for a writers conference and I saw a cute puppy with the green guide dog in training harness. I told the owner, that I’d seen this great film, and she circled her face with her finger and smiled and, although she'd colored her hair, I realized that she was one of the women puppy raisers in the film. She was there training a new puppy to be mindful in a large conference, with lots of noise and to be quiet in seminar rooms.

After the puppy training, the dogs meeting the criteria will go through intense guide dog training. This will include knowing when to obey or not-obey a command given by their owner. They learn how to keep their chosen person safe while navigating the world around them. How to walk on sidewalks, streets without sidewalks, stop at a corners, know then the light is green, how to avoid a moving car in the street or in a parking lot, how to stop their owner from moving forward into danger, and mostly how to be their owner’s eyes in navigating the world.

There is a final test and it is rigorous and only the Pick of the Litter prevail to become guide dogs.

Dana Nachman and Don Hardy Jr. wrote and directed this amazing and revealing film.

Overall: Having seen the process, when I see a guide dog, my point of view and reference is far more complete and filled with awe.