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Posts Tagged ‘2018’

People complaining about not being able to make movies seem to have a diminishing stock of excuses at their disposal. It’s not as if you still need lots of expensive equipment or an army of support staff – there has been at least one fairly recent release shot entirely on a smartphone, not that you’d know that from looking at the film (Soderbergh’s Unsane). Film-making has been democratised along with many other forms of artistic expression in the internet age; the real challenge is getting past the gatekeepers so your film shows in cinemas (or at least on a big-name streaming site), not just on YouTube. Of course, it helps if you have form when it comes to making successful films, either commercially or critically.

Then again, some people have bigger barriers than others, such as the Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who made a career out of films which were quietly critical of the establishment of Iran. This eventually led to his arrest for producing propaganda against his own government, and a ban on making any films for twenty years. I will happily admit that I don’t know as much about Panahi’s case as I perhaps should, but somehow he has managed to carry on making films despite being unable to leave Iran, and they keep turning up in the west (one was apparently smuggled out on a USB stick hidden inside a cake). How is he allowed to do this? Why are there no repercussions? Constant reader, I don’t know: all I can say is that if his latest film (the first I have seen), 3 Faces, is representative of his output, I am not entirely sure what the Iranian government is quite so worried about.

Why is this film called 3 Faces? Good question. No idea. The first face we see is that of a teenage girl named Marziyeh (I should mention that virtually everyone in this film is playing a version of themselves), who lives in a remote village and is not very happy about it. She wants to be an actress, her family disagree, and in her desperation she is sending a message via smartphone to the well-known Iranian movie star (well-known in Iran, anyway) Behnaz Jafari in the hope she will come and help her. The film appears to conclude with Marziyeh doing something rather regrettable.

Well, Jafari receives the message, courtesy of Panahi himself, who is the person it’s actually been sent to. The two of them immediately stop what they’re doing and drive off to Marziyeh’s village to see what’s going on – was Marziyeh telling the truth? What has befallen her? – despite the increasingly irate phone calls coming from the director of a film which Jafari is supposed to be making. Jafari openly wonders – is this all a scam? Is Panahi in on it? Is the message genuine?

Well, I know what you’re probably thinking, I was thinking it myself to begin with: this sounds a bit like a metatextual Iranian odd-couple road movie take on The Wicker Man, updated for the 21st century. However, it is clearly not Jafar Panahi’s style to do something so obvious and hackneyed. Exactly what he did set out to achieve in this movie is a bit less easy to work out. I had originally planned to go and see 3 Faces a few weeks ago, not least because it would give me a chance to hang out socially with the blog’s Anglo-Iranian Affairs consultant but problems at the cinema led to the screening being cancelled. We were quite glad when it popped up again at the UPP, and Anglo-Iranian Affairs seemed delighted when it transpired the credits were in both English and Farsi. At the end of the film I sought his opinion, with uncharacteristic delicacy.

‘Was there some kind of subtle Iranian subtext to that film, that as an outsider I’m just not picking up on? Because it just seemed like two people wandering about with not much happening.’

Anglo-Iranian Affairs looked at me, a gentle smile upon his face. ‘Subtext? No, not really. It’s really interesting to see a film like that one, it’s so unusual these days.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, one without much of an actual story. I kept waiting for something to happen, but…’

Well, if nothing else it looks like Jafar Panahi has made a film that crosses borders and cultural divides: whether you are the product of western civilisation or Iran itself, you can watch 3 Faces and come away convinced you’ve just seen a film about two people sitting in a car, with not much significance beyond that. I think I’m going to stress this again: very little actually happens in this film, in terms of story at least – Panahi and Jafari drive about, occasionally stopping to talk to someone or discuss what they’re doing. Sometimes he has to wait while Jafari signs autographs for the many adoring fans who materialise every time they stop somewhere. An old man tells a long story about his son’s circumcision. The closest thing to a plot twist arrives when their attempts to leave a village are stymied by the presence of the local prize stud bull – an animal with ‘miraculous testicles’ – lying injured in the road.

None of this is actually irksome to watch, but I did find myself becoming rather restive as the film entered its second hour with still only an ambient sense of plot about it. Every now and then it feels like the film is getting ready for something to happen, some grave reversal or development, but… nothing significant actually happens. They stop and have tea somewhere, maybe. It’s not even as if the film is that beautiful to behold – always a useful get-out for arty films without much story – as it looks like big chunks of it were made on Panahi’s phone (presumably a consequence of his ban, which the script itself alludes to). It may possibly be the case that he is trying to make some kind of point about cultural and generational divides in modern Iran – there is something ironic about the contrast between the hostility Marziyeh’s desire to become an actress is met with by her fellow villagers, and the adulation Jafari (herself a performer) encounters during their journey. But it’s all so obliquely done, with the lightest possible of touches, that the point of the film (if it has one) becomes almost imperceptible.

And yet 3 Faces still shared the award for best screenplay at Cannes: if I were the cynical type I would suggest this says more about Cannes’ desire to support a persecuted film-maker. Actually, I am the cynical type: this film winning a screenplay award says more about the bien-pensant folk of Cannes wanting to show solidarity with Panahi than it does about any quality the film actually possesses. I am beginning to see how Jafar Panahi is working around the ban on his making films, because while 3 Faces is not an outright objectionable way of spending 100 minutes, it barely qualifies as a piece of cinema.

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We have clearly reached that point in the year when the major players are starting to bring out their big films, and the etiquette of this situation (influenced, naturally, by enlightened self-interest) means that there’s only likely to be one substantial release in any given week. If, like my regular co-cinema-goer Olinka, you are not the kind of person who enjoys everyday stories of photonic blasts and cats with unusual faculties, this can leave you short of things to go and see, down the local multiplex at least.

So it was that we reconvened for this week’s trip at our local sort-of-an-art-house cinema, to check out Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows (título en español: Todos lo Saben). I’d seen a couple of Farhadi’s earlier movies and was fairly sure this would be a worthwhile investment of time, while the fact the promotional blurb for the film indicated it contained elements from the thriller genre meant it would probably be up Olinka’s alley. Vamanos!

Few directors working in the world today are quite as feted as Asghar Farhadi, whose achievements are all the more remarkable given his background is in Iran, not noted as one of the world’s great film-making nations. For his last few films he has opted to work more internationally, and Everybody Knows continues this trend, being set in Spain and made in Spanish. The themes are universal, though.

As the film begins a large extended family are gathering for a wedding in a small town somewhere in rural Spain. Laura (Penelope Cruz) has just flown in from Argentina with her two children; her wealthy husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) has been unable to accompany her. The reunion with her parents, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, and so on is a happy one, as is another meeting with her old and close friend Paco (Javier Bardem). It seems like there is a strong chance of a very good time being had by all.

This proves not to be the case when Laura’s teenage daughter (Carla Campra), who shows some signs of being a spirited wild child, disappears in the evening following the wedding. To Laura’s horror, she receives a ransom demand by text, along with the instruction not to tell the police – but, rather to her bemusement, the same message is sent to Paco and his wife Bea (Barbara Lennie). What’s going on? Is all quite as it seems?

As usual with Farhadi, the mechanics of the actual plot are basically just a framework around which the director can build an exploration of characters and relationships. Soon enough things long unspoken of are bubbling unpleasantly to the surface, tensions within the family are rising, and apparently strong relationships are placed under severe strain…

So, when the film was finished we emerged from the auditorium and headed back into the city centre and our respective bus stops. Olinka was showing signs, I could tell, of not being entirely satisfied.

‘What have we just watched?’

I wasn’t sure if this was a trick question or not.

‘No, really, what have I just spent two hours of my life watching?’

‘You didn’t like it.’

‘I just found it really frustrating. Was it supposed to be a drama, or a psychological thriller, or what?’

‘Well, I suppose there were elements of a thriller to it, but what you have to remember with Farhadi is that the mechanics of the actual plot are basically just a framework around which the director-‘

‘You’ve already said that.’

‘Sorry.’

‘The thing is, if that was a thriller, it was really slow and lacking in incident, and if it was a drama, it was psychologically simplistic, with no real depth to it and no real message.’

‘I’m sorry you didn’t like it…’

‘Oh, no, there were things I enjoyed about it.’

‘Like what?’

‘I liked the decor in the houses – the furniture, and the wallpaper, and the little trinkets they had everywhere.’

‘Oh. Well, I suppose that’s something.’

Not having Olinka’s ability to multitask, I cannot speak with much authority about the quality of the interior design in Everybody Knows, but I can kind of see where she’s coming from in her criticism of the film. The basic structure of the piece – a group of people come together, only for an unexpected event to expose the underlying tensions between them – is the same as that in other Farhadi films like About Elly…, which I suppose could leave the director open to accusations that he’s simply repeating himself.

Certainly, this is a meaty, actor’s drama, which may explain why he has managed to attract two of the biggest names in Spanish cinema to headline the movie. It almost goes without saying that Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are both extremely good in this film, giving excellent and intelligent performances – this is the kind of story where you see many facets of the characters, and it really demands performers of this kind of calibre.

Of course, a potential downside of this kind of structure is that it does take a while for the story to unfold – there’s a long first act establishing all the characters and their various relationships (I must confess to never being 100% sure about exactly how everyone was related to each other), setting the table before the rest of the plot proceeds to kick it over. The issue, if indeed it is an issue, is that the table-kicking-over happens at an equally leisurely pace.

There was some subdued muttering from Olinka along the lines of ‘what are these people doing?’ when the main characters responded to the kidnap of a girl by, well, standing around and talking a lot. I didn’t personally have as much of an issue with this, but as the film went on I did find the succession of lengthy scenes with characters sitting or standing around articulating their personal baggage or talking about their unfinished emotional business to be a little bit draining (full disclosure: I think I dozed off at one point (blame jet lag from the Manhattan trip), and was a bit startled by the sudden appearance of a character who’d previously been in Argentina).

The drama of the piece is, shall we say, sliced quite thick, and the only thing that keeps me from describing Everybody Knows as a ripe old melodrama is the fact that it is just a bit too well-written and well-performed for this to be entirely fair. The lack of conventional closure to the story will probably just annoy some viewers, though, not without reason. In the end this isn’t really a thriller and shows no signs of wanting to be – but if you enjoy chunky character-based dramas that take their time to unfold their story, the quality of the performances and script mean this will probably be a fairly satisfying experience for you.

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There were just under two hours left before we landed at Heathrow, which I reckoned should give me just enough time to enjoy, or not, Peter Berg’s Mile 22, a thriller starring Marky Mark Wahlberg. Berg and Marky Mark have forged a bit of a partnership in recent years, mostly doing based-on-a-real-life-disaster movies like Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day, although I have to say I much prefer his earlier, sillier films like The Rundown and Hancock. My main interest in Mile 22 stemmed not from the involvement of Berg, nor indeed Wahlberg (who I find I can really take or leave as a performer), but that of Iko Uwais, a brilliant Indonesian actor and martial artist who starred in the Raid duology (he was also in one of the stellar conflict movies for about three seconds, but let’s not worry about that). Any film where Uwais gets to do his stuff has a claim on my attention, even when that film gets unfriendly (and that’s putting it charitably!) notices from legitimate film critics.

(Checking out Mile 22 on the in-flight information system, I was startled to find the entry on this movie ran something like ‘Critics have said very unkind things about Mile 22, but these are the same people who didn’t like The Greatest Showman – so why not give it a try?’ I’m all for people being encouraged to make their own minds up, but on the other hand it doesn’t necessarily follow that The Greatest Showman is not, by any rational standard, a massive cheesy wotsit. It didn’t put me in the best of moods, anyway.)

Hey ho. Anyway, the film gets underway with some shadowy American coves, led by Marky Mark, undertaking a secret operation against – so far as I have been able to find out – some Russian spies operating on the US mainland. (This is one of those films which attempts to generate verisimilitude by having the characters rattle out their dialogue in a very terse fashion, and it’s probably not the best movie to listen to over headphones on a crowded plane, even in the wee small hours around dawn.) Things do not go as planned, but for quite a long time it is really not clear what this has to do with the rest of the plot.

This takes place in the fictitious Asian nation of Indocarr, where some radioactive terror dust has gone missing, and the American government would quite like to get it back before people start melting in the street (at least this is what it’s suggested will happen). Marky Mark, who is playing a version of that character whose brilliant brain function excuses the fact he is somewhat sociopathic, is on the job, and it is made clear to us at some length what a tough job it is keeping Uncle US of Stateside safe. Hey ho.

Anyway, up pops Iwo Uwais playing Li Noor, a rogue cop who knows where the terror dust McGuffins are to be found, but will only reveal the information if he is whisked off to the airport (35.4 kilometres away) and given political asylum in the States. The US government isn’t technically allowed to do this sort of thing under the usual international conventions, and so they activate Marky Mark and his team of plausibly deniable agents, who will theoretically be private citizens for the duration of the mission. Also on the team is Lauren Cohan, playing an agent with a challenging personal life, and Ronda Rousey, playing an agent who can clearly bench-press a lot (finely-drawn characterisation isn’t really Mile 22‘s strong point). Shouting at everyone over the radio is John Malkovich. Off they go in their SUVs, and before long an awful lot of people are shooting at them. This makes up the plot of most of the rest of the film.

Hey, you know what? The Greatest Showman is still a massive cheesy wotsit and this film isn’t much cop either. (I should point out that they are very different beasts and even if you are one of those people who thought that Hugh Jackman organising a diversity barn dance was a profoundly uplifting emotional experience, you still probably won’t enjoy Mile 22.)

I remember the critic and commentator Mark Lawson making the observation that when it really boils down to it, there are two kinds of entertainment: Escapist, which attempts to help you forget how awful the world fundamentally is, and Reminder, which grinds your face into the dismal grit of reality. One of the worst mistakes you can make as a storyteller, he suggested, is to be at all unclear on this point, or be under the impression that you’re doing one when you’re really doing the other.

This is the problem with Mile 22. It has a nice high-concept premise to it – team of guys must transport other guy they don’t particularly trust through hostile urban territory – and basically has cheesy knockabout thriller written all over it. Two prominent characters are played by performers with a martial-arts background, after all. However, after all those gravitas-laden true-life stories, it seems that Berg and Marky Mark have no real interest in doing cheesy crowd-pleasing stuff: they are Serious Film-makers now, even if they are now making a film in which Iko Uwais beats three armed opponents to death in his pants.

Thus, that high-concept premises vanishes under a slew of dour, improbable plot-twists, downbeat character bits, and general complications that just make the film less fun to watch. We’re quite a long way into Mile 22 before they start going those twenty-two miles, and the stuff before that is not especially interesting.

It has to be said that the actual twenty-two miles themselves are not much better, mainly because Berg seems to be one of those people who thinks that the secret of a great action sequence is to cut between cameras every three seconds. This is good for generating incipient nausea, but not so good when it comes to tension and excitement. Needless to say, it favours the actors over the martial artists and stuntmen – what’s the point of hiring someone like Uwais if you never show what he’s capable of doing? (That said, Iko Uwais does deliver an impressive English-language acting performance, though I’m not sure the film is worth watching just for this.)

In the end it is just a frustrating and depressing experience, not just because of the tone of the story, but because it feels like you’re watching people with genuine talent actively setting out to make a bad movie on purpose. And you just wonder what the point of the exercise is, unless this is all supposed to be setting up a sequel. Even if it is, I can’t imagine many people feeling sufficiently motivated to come along and check it out. This is pretty much a thorough-going dud.

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With BlacKkKlansman out of the way, my red-eye odyssey of catch-up cinema continued, somewhere over the Atlantic, with Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath’s Teen Titans Go! To The Movies – something I had actually considered going to see on the big screen when it was originally released, but ultimately decided against based on the somewhat mixed reviews it received – but with the in-flight meal a receding memory and nothing else to do for several hours, this looked like an undemanding way of passing the time.

I’m guessing you either know who and what the Teen Titans are or you don’t (there is admittedly not a lot of room for ambiguity on this sort of point). We are back in the realm of superheroes here, specifically of the DC variety: the Titans (usually Teen but also occasionally New) are the youth wing of the company’s roster, originally composed of the young sidekicks of their most popular adult characters – thus, the early line-up included Robin, Wonder Girl, Aqualad, Kid Flash, Green Arrow’s ward Speedy, and so on. Later incarnations of the book saw more original characters and a definite attempt to replicate the feel (and popularity) of the X-Men. This movie is apparently a spin-off from the most recent of several cartoons based on the comic; the animation is relatively simplistic and the tone is irreverent and knowing.

The team roster for the movie consists of Robin the Boy Wonder (Scott Menville), along with a bunch of other characters not well-known outside the world of comics: Raven, Cyborg, Starfire and Beast Boy (I suppose Cyborg’s profile has risen a bit since he appeared in Justice League). The movie opens with their home city under attack from the nefarious Balloon Man, and as they try to stop him they are horrified to learn the villain has absolutely no idea who they are.

The team (perhaps correctly) assume that nowadays you haven’t made it as a superhero until you’ve been the subject of a big Hollywood movie, and are alarmed to discover that no-one is intending to feature them in this way – there are, however, advanced plans for any number of scraping-the-barrel Batman spin-offs.

The team decide to fix this, even if it means acquiring a proper arch-nemesis. The best candidate is the villain Slade (voiced by Will Arnett; we will return to the odd question of this character’s nomenclature in a short while), even if he doesn’t seem especially keen on the gig. When an important Hollywood producer informs the Titans that she would only make a film about them if they were the only superheroes in the world, this gives them a possibly-regrettable idea involving time machines and a large amount of retroactive continuity…

Well, as I hope you can see, the makers of this movie deserve at least some credit for persuading DC Comics to let them include some fairly barbed material making fun of not only various well-known characters but also the company’s somewhat chequered recent record when it comes to putting its characters on the big screen (this is the third film I’ve seen in the last year taking a hefty swing at the 2011 Green Lantern movie; perhaps it is time to declare a moratorium on cracks at a movie which really wasn’t quite as bad as all that). Are there an awful lot of superhero films being released these days? There certainly are. Are some of these films the result of creative choices perhaps best described as inexplicable? Once again, it is difficult to disagree. Is this therefore fertile ground for a movie affectionately satirising the current situation? Well, absolutely.

The problem is that Teen Titans Go is not that movie – or at least, not entirely. It does benefit considerably from being attached to the DC Comics brand, and makes full use of the company’s extensive back-catalogue of well-known characters. There’s relatively little Batman, presumably because he’s already so heavily used in the somewhat similar Lego movie franchise, but many of the other big names are prominently on display here. (I must confess I did think the succession of fairly cruel jokes about the Challengers of the Unknown was overdoing it a touch, while there’s also an odd moment where it appears to depict the original Captain Marvel having heat vision, which of course was never the case.)

I must confess to being slightly bemused at first by the decision to name the main villain of the movie Slade, but then this is a character who has struggled with naming issues throughout his career: he started off nearly forty years ago with the code-name Terminator, and was then kind of obliged to switch to using Deathstroke following the release of the Schwarzenegger movie. You can’t call a character in a kids’ cartoon Deathstroke, apparently, hence the choice of Slade. There are some fairly good-natured jokes about his (considerable) resemblance to Deadpool, but the film doesn’t really elaborate on the very reasonable point that Deadpool is the knock-off and Deathstroke the original (Slade preceded Wade), presumably to keep Marvel sweet. (Marvel seem to have been fairly indulgent towards this movie, also letting them include a Stan Lee cameo and so on.)

Much of Teen Titans Go is, then, very clever and a lot of fun, in addition to being steeped in the lore of one of the great comic-book universes. The problem is that the bits that are not, are really not very good at all. Some of this will probably be a question of personal taste – I have a bit of an issue with the characterisation of the main characters, as it is so totally unlike the ‘straight’ version, but I am aware that other people won’t have a problem with this. I was also really not impressed by how puerile and bodily-function-obsessed many of the jokes in this film were. However, I suspect that most people would agree that this film isn’t of the same quality as others which it is clearly aiming to duplicate – the songs aren’t as good as the ones in the Lego movies, and it’s not as consistently inventive in its jokes as either of the Deadpools. You can spot moments and whole sequences where the film-makers ran out of inspiration and just decided to go with the first idea that occurred to them, no matter how weird or disconnected it was.

Being brilliant for five minutes at a time is not easy and we should not underestimate how good and timely some parts of Teen Titans Go are. However, the film really does throw into sharp focus just what an achievement it is when a film is consistently brilliant for an hour and a half or two hours. This movie passed the time enjoyably enough, and I was never in danger of falling asleep, but it’s a quirky little satellite to more substantial movies, rather than being really significant itself.

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(Yes, I know that’s a reference to a film by a different director. Stand down.)

I have to confess that I can perhaps be a bit oversensitive about some things: in other words, it occasionally doesn’t take much to put me off a movie, and this can even extend to (what looks like) excessively affected titling. I’ve never been a huge fan of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and I do wonder if that isn’t just because there’s a plus sign in the title where a more conventional conjunction would have done the job just as well.

I suppose the same may partly explain why I didn’t rush to see Spike Lee’s (deep breath, gritted teeth) BlacKkKlansman when it was originally released last autumn. (I think you can see where the issue lies.) Of course, I also had the (reasonably good) excuse of being in the Kyrgyz Republic during most of its UK run, but even so it wasn’t on the list of films I hoovered up as part of my catch-up regimen when I eventually returned.

In the end it turned out that this was the only film on this year’s Best Picture nomination list that I hadn’t actually seen, and this sat even less well with me than the weird styling in the title. So I was quite pleased when it popped up on the in-flight entertainment menu on my flight back from the States the other day. (There were a couple of other films I had meant to see but ended up missing, and so I abandoned my plan of trying to get some sleep on the overnight flight and buckled down to watching three movies back-to-back, which the schedule looked like it would just about accommodate assuming there were no pesky tail-winds or anything like that.)

Lee’s film opens by assuring the audience (using somewhat idiosyncratic language) that it really is based on a true story; ‘based’ being the operative word, of course – the implication throughout is that the film is set in the early 1970s, when the real life events took place some years later, and some elements of the story have been heavily fictionalised too.

John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the first African American to join the Colorado Springs Police Department after a diversity-based recruitment drive. (He is even allowed to keep his beard and Afro.) However, he initially finds himself consigned to the records department and exposed to the casual racism of various fellow cops.

Even when he is allowed out of the filing section, it is to go undercover at a rally being held by ex-Black Panther and civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael (who at this point in time has adopted the name Kwame Tura) and record any especially provocative or inflammatory rhetoric that he may hear. Perhaps inevitably, he finds himself torn between his duty and the way that Tura’s message of black liberation resonates with him.

Shortly afterwards Stallworth is reassigned again, and it is now that he embarks upon the deeply unlikely exploit at the heart of the film: he answers an ad placed by the head of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and declares himself to be an angry white racist, keen on joining the organisation. Obviously, there is one small barrier to the success of this operation, which is that he can’t actually meet up with his new associates face-to-face. Step forward fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who will handle all the face-to-face contact with other KKK members, while Stallworth continues to talk on the phone to them. Soon enough they have managed to reach the upper echelons of the Klan leadership, particularly Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), and come across worrying signs of serious plots being put into motion…

Most of the publicity for BlacKkKlansman has focused on the absurd comedy inherent in the premise of the film: various scenes of Washington on the phone, earnestly making profoundly racist declarations to his KKK contacts (there is, needless to say, a lot of strongly discriminatory language throughout this film). There is also a sense in which some of the KKK members are presented as comic stooges and played for laughs.

However, watching the film makes it clear that for Lee this is a very serious project, shining a light into an important and perhaps too-obscure area of American history and particularly the struggle for civil rights. Ultimately, the threat of the Klan is treated very seriously and the consequences of the philosophy they espouse are addressed head on – one sequence intercuts a clan ritual with personal testimony of a racist lynching (a cameo from Harry Belafonte) to disturbing effect. Questions of just how black Americans should respond to racist social institutions – through active resistance, or trying to change the system from within? – are articulated and seriously considered. It is, and this is not meant to denigrate this year’s Best Picture winner, all considerably more hard-edged and politically sophisticated than anything in Green Book.

That said, the film never completely loses touch with its identity as a thriller, and functions quite well as such – though you are never in doubt that these are just the bones of a different kind of film. It takes a while before the whole infiltrating-the-Klan element of the story gets going; at least as important is the section with Kwame Tura’s speech, which introduces a number of significant themes and characters (not least Laura Harrier as a young activist who becomes Stallworth’s love interest). And while the story seems about to conclude relatively straightforwardly, it – well, it doesn’t, Lee choosing to become openly political in the closing moments.

It is clear that this film is meant to be about America today as much as in the 1970s, and there are moments throughout which reinforce this – the first person on screen is Alec Baldwin, playing a cartoonish Klan mouthpiece, and most people will be aware of Baldwin’s most famous satirical performance of recent years and make the appropriate connection. It doesn’t even stay that subtle – Klan leader Duke speaks of ‘America first’ and ‘making America great again’, while the film concludes with footage from the Charlottesville riots and Donald Trump’s repugnant equivocal non-repudiation of the racist groups involved in them. Perhaps it’s the case that in its closing moments the film sacrifices finesse for raw power, but that doesn’t make this any less effective as an attack on its chosen targets. In the end it manages to be palpably angry and political while still remaining an engaging piece of entertainment, and that’s no small feat.

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Now here’s a movie Netflix is hosting that I can genuinely get enthusiastic about: Daniel J Clark’s Behind the Curve. At first glance it looks almost like this is going to be one of those self-made, slightly suspect ‘documentaries’ which turn up on YouTube and similar sites by the score, but in the end it turns out to be a polished and intelligent, not to mention highly entertaining film.

It’s understandable to be a little concerned, considering the subject of the film, which is – fasten your seatbelts, readers of a nervous disposition – the Flat Earth movement. The last few years have apparently seen a resurgence in the popularity of the belief that the world is not spherical but instead some form of plane, doubtless partly due to the internet and the way that social media allow people to exchange ideas and organise – a quick check of a leading search engine produces 586,000,000 results if you look for ‘flat earth’. (Personally, I’m much more taken with the various theories that particular cities and countries, for example Bielefeld in Germany, or the entirety of Finland, are entirely fictitious.) But is there something else going on here?

Although various astrophysicists and other scientists do contribute to the film, most prominently the physicist Hannalore Gerling-Dunsmore, most of Behind the Curve does not really engage in attempting to debunk the Flat Earthers, either because it’s such a silly idea it doesn’t warrant the effort (if you don’t believe in it), or because the documentary makers are shills for mainstream science and thus incapable of answering the Flat Earthers’ claims (if you’re one of the faithful). Instead it simply spends some time with prominent members of the FE community and allows them to, basically, dig their own holes.

What soon becomes clear is that there is, shall we say, an interesting mixture of different personalities within the FE movement, some of them more – and I am trying hard to be as non-judgemental in my treatment of this as the movie – crazed than others. One very prominent individual apparently refused to participate without receiving a large sum of money, the guarantee he would feature in 25-50% of the film, and the assurance the film would support his claim that a rival Flat Earther is actually a fictitious persona assumed by a movie executive working undercover. (The film-makers declined.) Another comes across as, well, simply obnoxious, haranguing NASA employees in coffee shops, and declaring his views to total strangers in the street. Perhaps it goes without saying that he also doesn’t believe in vaccination, or evolution, or the age of the Earth, and puts about the canard that NASA is actually the Hebrew word for deception.

Probably quite wisely, the film concentrates on two more affable Flat Earthers, mainly Mark Sargent, a ‘former digital pinball champion’ who has apparently become a legendary figure in the community. Sargent seems very sincere and a nice guy, but the thing he seems most keen on other than dismantling heliocentric cosmology is brazen self-publicity – he spends an appreciable chunk of the film in an ‘I AM MARK SARGENT’ T-shirt. To be fair, he also seems quite keen on fellow FE advocate Patricia Steere. Apart from the Flat Earth notion, she is also into cats, September 11th conspiracy theories, anti-vaxing, and Morrissey. Sadly for Mark, she doesn’t seem to be that into him, and one of the more poignant elements of the film is a succession of scenes in which Sargent looks longingly at Steere while she, completely oblivious, chats brightly to the camera.

Between them, Sargent and Steere provide a fascinating window into what it’s like in the Flat Earth community these days. For a movement claiming to espouse the one great truth which is hidden from the masses, they do seem to be very split-prone, and not really able to decide on the details of what it is that they actually believe – if Antarctica, rather than being a continent, is actually an ‘ice wall’ bounding a disc, what’s on the other side of the wall? No-one seems really certain. Sometimes things seem to get nasty – Sargent is, as mentioned, decried as an infiltrator, while Steere is accused of being a government agent tasked with guiding people astray – her name is PatriCIA STEERe, get it? There is a whole warren of rabbit holes here, that one could cheerfully spend a very long time scampering through.

I must be careful to review the film itself rather than the people in it, although the nature of Behind the Curve means that the film-makers don’t really need to do very much to inform and entertain; just pointing the camera at FE advocates and letting them explain their beliefs is sufficient. What soon becomes very clear is that the Flat Earth movement serves these people much as a traditional religion serves its adherents – whether it is true or provable is really secondary to the sense of significance and belonging that it gives them. This is quite touching, but there are also some very funny moments revolving around the various experiments carried out by Flat Earthers attempting to disprove the curvature of the Earth or its rotation. When one of these instead gives pretty good evidence that the world indeed rotates, strenuous mental gymnastics involving vaguely-defined ‘heavenly energies’ ensue to explain away the awkward results.

The film itself plays a pretty straight bat, though, as I said, and takes a humane and thoughtful approach on the whole, especially when it comes to discussing just why it is that the Flat Earth theory has gathered such support in recent years. Obviously, there are connections between Flat Earth and other conspiracy theories; there are also links between this idea and fundamentalist Christian conceptions of cosmology. The thing about the Flat Earth theory is that it is not easily disproved; every child is startled by the notion that people on the other side of the world are effectively upside-down – it sounds ridiculous, until you learn about gravity and centrifugal force, and so on. The film suggests that what we are seeing is a result of a failure in education, as much as anything else.

Experts discuss some of the psychological principles involved, such as confirmation bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect, but what it all appears to boil down to is that people feel a deep distrust of conventional authority and standard sources of information. It almost goes without saying that we are living through the era of ‘fake news’, alternative fact, and so on, and while the film barely mentions politics the resurgence of Flat Earth should not come as a surprise at a time when concepts such as consensus and objective fact are under attack. This is not just a case of a fringe group of charming kooks, but something which directly relates to how we as a society engage with problems such as climate change. Behind the Curve raises these issues clearly and thoughtfully, but also manages to be fascinating and entertaining portrait of its subjects. Well worth a look.

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…anyway, while the distaff members of the family and our patriarch were off enjoying Mary Poppins Returns, in the screen next door Young Nephew, his dad, and your regular correspondent were settling down in front of perhaps the most-directed film of the year, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, from Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay and Rodney Rothman.

This has been an exceptional year at the movies even by Marvel’s standards, and it feels entirely appropriate that it should end with a movie showcasing the company’s most iconic and popular character – all the more so, given that the year has also seen the passing of both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the creators not just of Spider-Man but also of much of the wider Marvel world, the sheer extent of which is perhaps the raison d’etre of the new film.

It opens conventionally enough, with a brisk recap of the career of Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Chris Pine), super-heroic protector of New York City. But then things switch to the perspective of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who is basically just an ordinary kid struggling with fairly typical problems: mainly that he doesn’t get on with his dad (Brian Tyree Henry), who is insisting that he starts a new school, curtails his hobby of making graffiti, and spends less time with his beloved but slightly shady uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). Miles is out with his uncle one night doing something mildly illegal when he is bitten by a rather peculiar spider, and finds his life becoming even more complicated and stressful.

While coming to terms with his new-found wall-adhering powers, Miles finds himself caught up in a battle between Spider-Man and the forces of the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who has constructed an ominously big and complicated gadget with the power to blow holes in the fabric of the universe. Spider-Man charges Miles with helping him to destroy the Kingpin’s machine before – and this is probably quite a shocking moment if you haven’t read the publicity for the movie – he is killed in action battling the supervillain and his henchmen.

The city mourns, naturally – and so does Miles, of course, not least because he’s accidentally broken the gadget Spider-Man gave him to save the day. And then things take another left-field turn, with the appearance of another Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) at the grave of the one Miles originally encountered. It turns out that this new Peter Parker is a slightly gone-to-seed middle-aged Spider-Man from a parallel universe, who has been dragged here by the Kingpin’s machine.

The older Spider-Man basically just wants to leave, before being out of his home universe causes his cells to disintegrate, and initially turns a deaf ear to Miles’ plea that he train him or help in the destruction of the machine before even more damage is done to the fabric of the cosmos. But soon enough that old heroic spirit is rekindled and the duo set out to thwart the villain and save the day. But it seems that the damage to the multiverse is more extensive than anyone has realised, with a bevy of other Spider-People also in the mix…

Now, I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded sort of person, not carrying around too much in the way of prejudice or bias – but I have to say that while it would take hospitalisation or worse to make me miss a live-action Marvel adaptation, I suspect there are a large number of parallel universes where I didn’t see Into the Spider-Verse on the big screen, simply because it’s an animated film. I suppose I can take some comfort from the fact that I’m not alone in this, because this movie is doing appreciably less business than the live-action Aquaman movie, despite being at least as good.

Then again, I say this as a fairly dedicated follower of all things comic-booky, which really puts me into the target audience bracket for this film. I’m pretty sure this is not the greatest Spider-Man movie ever made – that title is still surely held by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, and it will take something very special indeed to dislodge it – but in one very specific way at least, it certainly challenges for the title of greatest comic-book movie.

Up until fairly recently, most comic-book films were rather conservative beasts, largely determined not to appear silly or childish and keep the mainstream audience on board. The stories inevitably lost some of their colour, energy, and inventiveness in translation because of this, and it’s only in the more recent of the Marvel Studios films that the film-makers have become confident enough to let some of the sheer exuberant goofiness and innovation of the comics creep back in. Into the Spider-Verse isn’t a Marvel Studios film, but in the same way it isn’t afraid to trust the audience’s ability to get its head around some new ideas – most obviously, that the whole movie is set in an alternative continuity (or parallel universe, whichever you prefer). This allows the introduction of not just the Miles Morales Spider-Man (a comics presence, initially in Marvel’s Ultimate imprint, since 2011), but also a striking new version of Dr Octopus (voiced by Kathryn Hahn).

At the centre of the film is an origin story for the Miles Morales version of Spidey, which is handled with immaculate deftness and storytelling skill. But going on around it, and really making the film sing, is a very different kind of story, basically just celebrating the boundless imaginative palette of comic-book storytelling in general, and super-hero stories in particular. Miles Morales and the initial pair of Peter Parkers are eventually joined by a parallel-universe Spider-Woman who turns out to be Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), and also a manga-influenced version of the character who’s a teenage Japanese girl from the future, not to mention the anthropomorphic pig Spider-Ham (secret identity Peter Porker). Perhaps most joyously entertaining of all is the appearance of a hard-boiled black-and-white version of Spider-Man from a pulp-inspired universe, who is voiced by Nicolas Cage in his own inimitable style.

The film’s defining visual conceit is to animate each of these extra-dimensional visitors in a different style, even when they’re all in the same scene – Spider-Ham always looks like a Looney Toons character, the Japanese character is presented in an anime style, and the Cage Spider-Man comes from a noir universe where the only colours are black and white (there’s a lovely running gag about him trying to make sense of a Rubik’s cube). The result is a dazzling visual treat, before we even reach the bravura climax where the different dimensions collide with and collapse into one another.

The script manages to do full justice to the potential of the concept, and – unsurprisingly, because this is a project in which Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have had a hand – is also immensely clever and funny. I was still a bit unsure about whether my decision to come and see this film had been the right one as it actually started in front of me, but one of the very first things that happens is a gleeful gag at the expense of Raimi’s somewhat less-than-wholly-beloved Spider-Man 3, which completely disarmed and delighted me.

Into the Spider-Verse is filled with good things and inspired bits of invention; the moment at which Lee and Ditko are given due credit is especially moving, of course. Despite its relatively modest box-office take so far, apparently the film has done well enough for a slate of spin-offs and sequels to already be in development. We have been here before, of course, with Sony’s arguably over-ambitious plans to diversify its Spider-Man series following The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In the end that just led to Spider-Man being leased back to Marvel Studios on a sort of time-share basis, and also the distinctly so-so Venom movie (which doesn’t explicitly mention its links to the parent franchise). Hopefully this time things will be different, for Into the Spider-Verse shows that there is potential for a really interesting series of films just focused on Spider-Man himself.  This is the best non-MCU Marvel movie in ages.

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Christmas! It’s a time for family, for sharing, for massive over-indulgence, for lying around in stupefied torpor. What it’s never been before, in my family at least, is a time for enjoying the latest cinematic offerings, mainly due to all the over-indulgence and stupefied torpidity I just mentioned. Still, one thing about family (mine, at least) is their capacity to change and surprise you, and so it proved this year. It turned out that there were not one but two films on release that my small young relatives were quite keen to see, and it was really just a question of who got roped into going to see what and when.

Now, it transpired that Young Niece was particularly interested in seeing Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns. As I believe I may have mentioned before, catching this particular movie was right there on my list of things to do this Christmas season: very near the bottom, somewhere between transcribing the Queen’s speech and then translating it into Basque and volunteering to have an elective laparotomy, so I ducked out of this one. My Significant Other was very happy to accompany her, along with various other senior members of the tribe. Significant Other drew my attention to the fact that, back in the dim and distant echoes of history, I did occasionally indulge in the odd guest post about films I hadn’t personally seen myself, and dropped some loaded hints that it might be a nice idea to revive this tradition for the Poppins movie. She and Young Niece seemed quite keen on this idea and I found I couldn’t in all good conscience turn them down. So here we go, for the first time in ages I will attempt to post a review of a film which I haven’t actually seen.

I have, of course, seen the original 1964 Mary Poppins, a film which used to be just a fondly-remembered family favourite and near-fixture of the festive TV schedules, but which Disney – particularly since the release of Saving Mr Banks in 2013, perhaps – have worked hard to reposition as some kind of iconic, epochal classic of popular cinema. Disney, whose consolidation of their already iron grip on popular box office has started to cause some consternation even amongst those who like much of their output, have also hit upon a lucrative thing in the shape of retooling and reimagining many of their classic old films – a couple of years ago we had the new CGI version of The Jungle Book, due to be followed in 2019 by freshly computerised remakes of Dumbo and The Lion King. All this considered, the appearance of a Poppins sequel only 54 years after the original – the gap is a bit on the long side, I think you’ll agree – is really not as surprising as it first appears.

The details of the plot, at least, are fairly easy to glean from the trailers and a quick visit to Wikipedia: the Banks children from the first film have grown up and  turned into Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw. Whishaw now has children of his own, although his wife has died (a fairly ruthless swipe of the scriptwriter’s pen); in time-honoured fashion, the now-grown children have become rather stressed and joyless drones, in grave peril of forgetting about The Important Things In Life. The fact that the bank is threatening to foreclose on their home and throw them all out into the street probably isn’t helping much. What better time for someone to dust off an old kite which has been lying about the place and summon, not entirely unlike the Woman in Black, the supernatural dominatrix Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), to sort everything out?

Well, in my case I suspect it would have taken a snootful of pethidine to make this particular load of sugar go down, but Young Niece did seem quite impressed when they came out, as did Significant Other. I asked them to provide a few further details, firstly about what they thought of the film in general. (I should probably mention that Young Niece is a talkative ten years of age while English is not Significant Other’s first language.)

‘It was really good, imaginative and creative – it made a real picture in your mind of reality and it introduced the magic. I think it had sort of the same story as the first one with modern and exciting elements – though I think the first one was more exciting, set in the olden times.

‘It was really clever with the director, how he took the old story and turned it into a new story… the actors played it like they were in the moment. Emily Blunt played Mary Poppins really well – she stepped into Julie Andrew’s shoes. She was really sharp but also a lot of fun.’

Anything else to add about Emily Blunt? (Personally, I’m hoping this film doesn’t mark the point at which we lose Blunt to the clutches of bland global megastardom.) ‘When Mary Poppins arrived she was a little bit bossy, but after the fabulous bath everybody loved her.’ (I believe the ‘fabulous bath’ may be a reference to a big special effects set-piece sequence.)

‘Emily Blunt put a lot of character in… she changed the accent in her voice during some of the songs. It’s a little difficult to be the nanny and also the big showgirl.’ (The only other performers to be singled out for a mention were Angela Lansbury – who seems to mainly be present to encourage my father in his tendency to get the original film mixed up with Bedknobs and Broomsticks – and Meryl Streep, whose appearance as Cousin Topsy drew praise – ‘she looked different, which was good.’)

Thoughts on production values? ‘The costumes were very colourful and looked the part – the lamp-lighters were wearing clothes like they would wear… not so colourful.’ (As an aside, nice to see my niece is so aware of the class divide at such a tender age.) ‘The animation was absolutely fabulous, especially the way they did the lamp-lighters and Mary Poppins on the kite. It was just amazing and it looked really real and joyful.’

Any favourite moments? ‘The best bit was when they were working together to turn time back to get the share certificate.’ (I should probably explain the concept of a plot spoiler to her in a bit more detail, now I think on it.) They also enjoyed ‘the stunt with bikes and the gymnastics, how they got up Big Ben… there were some amazing stunts and acrobatics.’

My suspicion was that this would be another film about getting in touch with your inner child and reconnecting with joy and all the usual waffle like that, so I asked them what they thought the message of the film really was. ‘Nothing is impossible,’ was the answer both of them gave, quite independently, which must mean something I expect. In an attempt to include all the generations of the family, I asked our venerable patriarch the same question and he came back with ‘Money isn’t everything’, which is an interesting moral for a film with a budget of $130 million.

So there you go, a little lighter on the piercing insight than usual, and indeed the pithy one-liners, but you can’t have everything, especially considering I was in the theatre next door enjoying an entirely different film while they were taking all this in. They all seemed to come out smiling, anyway, and I expect that if you enjoyed the original film you’ll probably enjoy this one too. Personally I think I would still much rather feed the birds, fly a kite, or chim-chiminee my chim-chim-cherees than go anywhere near it, but everyone is different, aren’t they? Anyway…

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It’s fairly unusual for a film to show up on my radar and its UK release to then slip by me almost entirely, but this is what happened this year with Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale. I definitely recall seeing a trailer at some point, but then (and this may be partly due to one or other of my trips to the Kyrgyz Republic this autumn) it was suddenly showing as a catch-up movie in one of the out-of-the-centre cinemas in Oxford, apparently barely having troubled the main multiplexes at all. A somewhat plaintive cry of ‘Are you going to see this one?’ from a reader in the US forced me to confront the hard truth that sometimes you just can’t see every film that gets released.

On the other hand, sometimes you find yourself with a spare evening in Berlin with a decent cinema showing movies in die ursprungliche Version only a brisk walk away, and it was a choice between Bad Times at the El Royale and BlacKkKlansman (another film I missed due to my sojourn in Bishkek), and my inner grammar obsessive clearly couldn’t face the prospect of typing that second title too many times [I buckled eventually – A]. So off we went to the Goddard movie.

Things get underway with a prologue set in the late 1950s, as a mystery man checks into a hotel room and proceeds to take up the floorboards and hide a bag in the cavity thus created. Before he can do much else, he is murdered, a development which is both shocking and disappointing (mainly because it means Nick Offerman, who plays him, is obviously going to be in the movie much less than one would hope).

Ten years later, a group of strangers encounter each other at the El Royale, a fading motel with a curious geographical quirk – it’s built squarely on the state line between California and Nevada, meaning (for instance) that you can only buy a drink on the west side of the bar room. Amongst the people checking in are a slightly confused elderly priest (Jeff Bridges), a garrulous vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), an African-American woman with some unusual luggage (Cynthia Erivo), and a young woman (Dakota Johnson) who looks like a hippy but doesn’t seem that interested in peace and love. The boyish desk-clerk (Lewis Pullman) does his best to keep them all satisfied, of course.

Well, and wouldn’t you just know it, it turns out that most of these people are not at all what they initially seem to be, and several of them are dragging around a different sort of baggage entirely. As the night wears on, a peculiar chain of events develops, involving FBI wiretapping, blackmail, dementia and a psychopathic cult leader. Not everyone is going to be checking out alive…

I have to say that my first thought on properly looking at the poster for Bad Times at the El Royale was that this is a movie filled with people currently stuck in an odd twilight zone in terms of their movie career: by which I mean, there are some people who have the ability to open a movie (meaning their presence alone will guarantee the film does healthy business), and there are others who are by any standard appreciably famous, but aren’t able to translate this into consistent box office success under their own steam. Bad Times at the El Royale has Jeff Bridges in it, who is a veteran movie star and a fine actor, and Cynthia Erivo, who is a definite up-and-comer, but also a bunch of people who seem to be in the latter category – Jon Hamm (still best known for TV’s Mad Men), Dakota Johnson (whose high profile is mainly down to appearing in all those big-budget soft porn films), and – perhaps the best current example of the kind of thing I’m talking about – Chris Hemsworth (whose films make literally billions of dollars, but only when he’s playing one particular role).

I am aware that Bad Times is felt to have underperformed somewhat at the US box office, and this may be part of the reason why: it’s certainly a star-studded movie, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into ticket sales. It’s hard to think of another reason, apart from possibly the film’s length (it’s 140 minutes long, and by the end you’re starting to feel every one of them), for this is an engaging example of a type of film which was all the rage a few years ago but not much seen these days – by which I mean that Bad Times belongs to that very odd sub-genre, the Quentin Tarantino pastiche.

How can you possibly pastiche the style of someone who has basically built a career around pastiching other people? Mostly it is a stylistic thing: there are various self-conscious formal quirks here, and a chopped-up non-linear approach to some of the storytelling – one key moment in particular plays out multiple times, viewed from different perspectives. The film isn’t afraid to include some fairly grisly violence, too, and there’s where one sequence in particular where the threat of it hangs in the air and you almost get the sense the director is relishing the prospect. The retro setting also reinforces the idea that this is a film looking to the past rather than the future.

That said, while the movie includes a number of plot elements which are very specific to its setting – there’s a cult of murderous hippies, and a morally-compromised FBI surveillance operation, amongst others – it doesn’t feel like the film has anything particular to say about the sixties or America at that point in time. It’s just a convenient, colourful backdrop – a dressing-up outfit for a film which always seems just a bit more interested in style than in substance.

Nevertheless, this is a very capably assembled piece of entertainment. I must confess that the name Drew Goddard didn’t register with me at all, but it turns out I’ve been watching his work as a writer and director for about fifteen years, on and off, and this film is as polished and effective as his resume (which includes things like The Cabin in the Woods and The Defenders) might lead you to suspect. His script exploits the potential of this kind of set-up (the nature of the film is such that it’s impossible to tell which characters are going to survive to the closing credits) and he’s helped by consistently strong performances from the ensemble cast – I should probably make a special mention of Chris Hemsworth, cast most against type as a cross between Jim Morrison and Charles Manson.

As I say, there is perhaps a bit of a problem with a film that feels like it should be brisk, knockabout entertainment having a running time round about that of the theatrical cut of 2001, and the film’s performance may also have been affected by the lack of a bankable star and the nature of the narrative. However, I had a good time watching it and I’m glad I got the chance to do so on a big screen. I would say Bad Times at the El Royale has a decent chance of a respectable career as either a cult movie or an underappreciated gem.

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I know there’s a sense in which this is comparing apples and oranges, but it is interesting to compare the audience size at the screening I attended of Mortal Engines (when the auditorium was mostly empty on the Friday night of its opening weekend) with that of the lunchtime screening of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Free Solo I went to, which practically sold out a rather bigger venue.

Free Solo is a documentary, made under the auspices of National Geographic, and would therefore usually qualify as counter-programming, showing as it is in a small semi-independent cinema. Yet it manages to be funny, thrilling, thought-provoking and chilling in a way which few films of any stripe manage; no wonder the word of mouth on it is so good.

The subject of the film is Alex Honnold, a reasonably personable young man who has risen (literally) to a sort of celebrity status in the world of climbing. Alex’s speciality, as the title of the film suggests, is a style of ascent known as a free solo, where the climber is alone and unencumbered by all those tedious ropes, harnesses, and other pieces of safety equipment – it’s just hands, feet, and a bag of chalk against the mountain. The major hook of the documentary is that it promises to depict Alex’s attempt to become the first person to free solo a cliff face in Yosemite National Park known as El Capitan – a feat only previously attempted on film by William Shatner at the start of Star Trek V.

What makes this so exceptional is that El Capitan is basically 3200 feet of sheer, almost completely vertical rock. The idea of going up it without a safety rope may sound alarming to you or I, but hardened professional climbers, who fully understand the nature of the challenge, are left pale and shaken by the prospect. The film doesn’t attempt to minimise the dangers involved, observing that most of the world’s great free solo climbers are no longer with us, having met with abrupt vertical demises. Free soloing El Capitan, someone suggests, is an athletic feat of the sort which would normally win someone an Olympic gold medal – with the important addendum that in this case, if you take part in the event but don’t perform perfectly, the result is certain death.

Cracking stuff for a documentary, I think you will agree, and yet what makes Free Solo so utterly engrossing isn’t just the climb itself as its portrait of Alex Honnold and its attempt to discover just what in the world makes someone like him tick. For Alex it seems relatively simple: climbing high objects is what gives his life its greatest moments of pleasure. But it seems like more than that, and wondering if there might be something genuinely different about him, the film-makers send him off for a brain scan. It turns out the amygdala of his brain (basically, the fear centre) is less-than-normally responsive to external stimuli, meaning he just doesn’t get scared in the same way a normal person does.

More telling insights come from the film’s portrait of Alex’s relationship with his girlfriend Sanni, a life coach by profession (according to her website she helps people ‘stop making fear-based decisions’, which doesn’t strike me as a problem for Alex), and a young woman with seemingly almost superhuman reserves of restraint and forbearance – early on Alex says quite matter-of-factly that he would always choose climbing over a relationship, and makes it quite clear that any commitment he may make to a relationship will not make him feel obliged to do fewer insanely dangerous things. This intense level of focus (is monomania too strong a word?) and Alex’s lack of social intelligence makes the relationship challenging – there’s a charming and illuminating sequence where the couple go out to buy a fridge together, while when asked what it’s like to have Sanni visiting him in his van (despite being appreciably wealthy, Alex has lived out of a van for the last decade), he seems initially nonplussed, before offering that ‘she’s cute and small and she livens up the place’. A certain set of flags was already waving for me before the moment when Alex’s mother casually suggests that his late father had Asperger’s syndrome. No-one raises the possibility that Alex may have inherited more from his father than just his complexion, but it’s impossible not to at least consider drawing certain conclusions.

Some of Free Solo is a conventional documentary film, but much of it is not – the climbing sequences are captured by a mixture of drone cameras and cameras operated by professional climbers. This is a technical achievement in and of itself, but more interesting are the film-makers’ own concerns – they have been cautious about doing a film about free soloing in the past, and Chin himself appears on camera to express his worries that it may be the presence of a camera that causes Alex’s concentration to slip, with fatal consequences.

Preparations for the climb are lengthy and do not go smoothly – Alex falls and badly sprains an ankle (the next day he is tackling the climbing wall of a local gym while wearing an orthopaedic boot), and an initial attempt at El Capitan is called off on the grounds that he’s ‘just not feeling it today’. This comes almost as a relief to one of the crew, who suggests that it’s like learning that ‘Spock has nerves after all’ (those Star Trek connections just keep coming).

In the end, though, it’s all systems go for a final assault which Alex seems to thoroughly enjoy from beginning to end, even though some of the cameramen can hardly bear to watch. (Is it a spoiler to reveal that Alex Hannold does not plummet to a gory death at the climax of his own movie? I think you could probably have guessed as much.) I can sort of empathise as there are many, many moments and images in this film to churn the stomach and weaken the knees: the camera may be focused on Alex as he makes his way up the rock face, but your eyes are irresistibly drawn to the immensity of the drop beneath him. (There are also some lighter moments, such as a bizarre encounter with someone camped out on the cliff face in a unicorn costume.) It drives home the fact that the climactic ascent is as close to a superhuman achievement as any I can think of.

Yet the film works as well as it does because it never loses sight of Alex as a human being, albeit one who is wired up a bit differently to most people. He is someone lucky enough to have found that one thing which makes him utterly and perfectly happy – it’s just that this happens to be an insanely dangerous pursuit that kills most people who take it up. Should we envy him, pity him, or just see about getting him therapy? The film stays silent on the questions it raises, content to be a fascinating portrait of Alex and his life. Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan has been called one of the greatest achievements of human athleticism, and Free Solo does both him and it full justice. One of the best films of the year.

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