Documentary

Penguins

First Hit: Although at times a bit too cutesy, overall it was fun, engaging, and joyful.

This is Disneynature showing why they are the best in how to make a compelling story out of watching the behavior of sentient beings in their natural environment.

In this film, they use “Steve” an Adelie penguin to be our guide to the life cycle of Adelie penguins. If you believe the promos, and I’ve no reason to not believe them, Steve was seen wandering through a group of Emperor penguins finding his way to a rocky spot to make a nest.

Watching this penguin find his way through the Emperors gave the filmmakers a way to tell the story of this sometimes-wayward penguin. They gave him the name Steve and created an account about him, that worked.

The real story is about how the life-cycle of Adelie penguins is filled with struggle and joy. We see how they meet their partners, how they protect the eggs, feed the chicks, teach them some survival fundamentals and then let them go.

There are some out loud funny moments, and my favorite is when Steve while building his rock nest, has to confront a neighbor who is a theft stealing his nest rocks. Watching the thieving Adelie look slyly at Steve’s nest, then swoop in to take a stone the moment Steve turns his back is really funny.

Watch as a Leopard seal make an attempt to kill one of Steve’s chicks; fantastic photography, and even more powerful, the outcome.

I thought the camera work was beyond outstanding and the camera operators need to be acknowledged for doing unique work. The only downside to me was the choice in music was overtly schmaltz, and some of Steve’s dialogue was a bit much. Other than that, this was joyful and educational.

Alistair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson did a great job of directing this documentary film.

Overall: This film was fun and exciting.

Apollo 11

First Hit: Glorious masterpiece on this milestone achievement by human beings.

In July of 1969, I was preparing to head off, for the first time, to Vietnam. I was on a short leave after finishing my training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Right after the astronauts landed on the moon, walked on it, and returned home, I got on a plane to fight in a war. As stunned as I was to be in a war, I can remember sitting on sandbags looking at the moon and merely wondering in total awe what that must have been like, to be one of those astronauts.

That is what this film does, it emotes the feeling of what it was like. There is no narration of this story, but the sublime editing of archival footage gives the audience the full breadth of the story of Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, and flight leader Neil Armstrong’s trip from earth to the moon and back again. Any narration would have only lessened its impact.

The opening scene with the three-hundred-foot-tall Apollo rocket being moved to the launch pad is a shot that ultimately delivers the manifestation of this dream. I was mesmerized by the size of this vehicle and its tracks. Other early shots of the crowds of people aligning Cape Canaveral to witness the launch were fabulous. The editor caught all types of people who were gathered here to see history.

Other early shots of watching the looks on the astronaut’s faces as they suited up — committed to their mission, perfect. The launch room in Florida, command center in Houston, and of course view of both the earth and moon from inside the space capsule, inspiring.

The thousands of people, of which the audience sees just a few hundred, who made this mission possible are not seen, but are equally and powerfully felt while seeing all of the different types of equipment that was built to make this happen.

The readouts of the astronaut’s heartbeats during pre-launch, launch and re-entry, tells the whole story of how well prepared and trained these unique men were.

As the film moves through this fantastic journey, we are treated to the live broadcasts of Walter Cronkite, Johnny Carson, and, VP at the time, Lyndon Johnson. We hear then President Nixon share his congratulatory message, but one of the crowning moments of this film was watching and listening President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech where he challenges the US to put a man on the moon and bring him back in this decade. The country did just that.

Todd Douglas Miller created one of the best documentary films of a single event that I’ve ever seen.

Overall: This is a must-see film, and it has to be on the biggest screen you can see it on.

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.