Free Solo, directed by Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, 2018.

With Alex Honnold, Jimmy Chin.

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National Geographic photographs of natural phenomena are going to astound you, so no matter what you think of this movie’s characters, or the dialogue, or the story line, the photography is going to keep you glued to your seat.

Several narrative threads are carefully developed.   Besides the suspense of whether Honnold can complete what no one has ever done, a climb up an almost sheer granite mountain in Yosemite National Park called El Capitan, there is the conflict of the filmmakers, the ethical risk they face if they interfere with or distract the climber on his perilous trek and contribute to a fatal fall.

The emotional attachment of his girlfriend, Sanni, complicates his previous monomania about the climb, and chips away at his dedication to complete a climb, regardless of all risk.  Before he had a girlfriend, only his mother would not be informed that he was about to climb a treacherous mountain. Now there is more at stake.   A woman you love, who has taught you to hug does not want you to die, so by extension, does not want you to risk your life, which taken to its logical conclusion means she severely inhibits your goals tied to risking your life every time you climb a mountain solo, without ropes.

Another climber compares what Alex is doing to an Olympic athlete.  There are two possible outcomes.  He either wins a gold medal and sets an unprecedented record.  Alternatively, he falls to his death.

Some of the scenes are intimate, and gripping.  Sanna, the girlfriend, attractive as she is, is a bit of a buzzkill.   She confronts Alex about the real risk, and he answers honestly, that he cannot give up what he loves best, not her, but climbing.

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Sanna gives Alex a haircut before his climb

Another remarkable scene takes place in the hospital when he has his brain scanned.  Alex’s supreme dedication to climbing has come at the cost of developing relationships. He lives in his van, and eats one-pan meals with his hands.  One person thought he had a personality disorder; his mother suggests Aspergers.   The MRI of his brain reveals his amygdala, part of the temporal lobes that detect emotional highs and lows, as very calm and resistant to sensation.  This might explain Alex’s desire for the thrill of climbing under dangerous if not suicidal conditions.  His brain does not register the fear that others with a normal amygdala might.

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Alex sweeps his home/van

We learn about other climbers losing their lives.  One climber mentions knowing 50 or 60 climbers who have died in the act.   Just before Alex attempts his climb of El Capitan, news of Ueli Steck‘s death in a fall in the Himalayas breaks in the papers.   Alex defies gravity and ascends the sheer side of the mountain with his extremely strong feet and hands.  That he must train rigorously goes without saying.  The climb lasts over three hours, in which time he must often haul his whole body up and across a flat rock where there is no margin for error.

looking downThe team of cameramen, led by Jimmy Chin, all of them also climbers,  are brilliant, performing heroically, sensitive to the fact that Alex may be making his last climb.  One of the men blurts out, I don’t see how you can watch.  I have to look away.

And sometimes I too found myself covering my eyes, the feeling of danger was so extreme.  This is one of the most harrowing movies I have ever seen.  It beats action movies, superhero movies with special effects, chase scenes up and down dangerous streets.  One human being proves to himself and the world that he is capable of doing something that humans were not meant to do, and he does it flawlessly.

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A Star Is Born, directed by Bradley Cooper, 2018.

with Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chapelle, Rafi Gavron.

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Bradley Cooper has directed his first movie.  His beautiful face is in many many shots.  The story justifies it, as the star of the title must be born of her marriage to Jackson Maine who is already a star, a Lynrd Skynrd kind of country blues musician with a loyal following.  Jackson has a drinking and a drug problem.  We learn that his father was his drinking buddy at age 13.  When he meets Ally (Lady Gaga) at a drag club where she sings La Vie en Rose in an exaggerated staging the gay men love, he is there because he needs a drink, not because he wants to hear the music.  But he does listen, and is impressed by the singing and Ally’s commitment to her art. Then he teases out that she writes her own songs too.  The love story percolates along, slowly.

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When the two finally get married, a whole wedding with all the trimmings is produced in the space of one day, and I just wanted to say,  Hollywood, take it easy.  Can this really be done?  Dave Chapelle shows up as Jack’s old buddy, but we get no back story to speak of, and it doesn’t ring true.  The rhythm of the movie is glacial, with many starts and stops. The movie is about a half an hour too long.  When Sam Elliott turns up as Jack’s much older brother, the melodrama takes on some gravitas.  The inevitable rehab scenes are a bit slow and cliche.  There is a pro forma feeling to the movie, except when you watch Bradley Cooper genuinely act in awe of Lady Gaga’s talent.  She is a genuine star who commands whatever stage she happens to be on.

There are other things I liked about the movie.  The duet with Cooper and Gaga that starts their partnership in music is musical and touching.  The scenes with Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father strike home.  Here is a man who makes a living driving limousines but still covets Frank Sinatra’s career, and thinks of his daughter’s promise like his own, doomed to failure.  Jack and his brother fight and then reconcile like real brothers.  Cooper is devoted to making a genuine musical movie about real musicians.   Jack can not stand watching his authentic wife made into something more palatable to the pop culture machine, complete with orange hair and different eye makeup.

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A Star Is Born has been made four times now, and each time it depends on a guilty survivor, whose suicidal husband launched her career, sing a beautiful love song at the end, and declare herself the wife of that man.  I still think Judy Garland did it best, but I liked the music better– “The Man that Got Away” can move me to tears when she sings it.   What Lady Gaga and her co-writers have composed in music is just as heartfelt.  I keep hearing certain songs in my head. They just don’t go away, especially “Maybe It’s Time to Let the Old Ways Die,” which Cooper sings beautifully.  “The Shallow” moved everyone to think that this was a genuine love story.  What Lady Gaga has in common with Judy Garland are the three talents on view here:  she can sing, she can dance, and she can act.  I look forward to her next role.

janetgaynorversion                 gardlandversion                      streisandversion

 

 

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Learning to Drive, directed by Isabel Coixet, 2014.

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with Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley and Grace Gummer and Samantha Bee.

A woman whose husband leaves her for a younger woman, whose daughter has just left for college in a remote state, whose living depends on being brainy and clever and good with words, wants to learn to drive.  She thinks it will be easier to get to see her daughter that way.

Wendy and Darwan, her driving instructor, are both from Queens. He is a Sikh, with strict religious customs, while she denies her middle class background.  Her sister (Samantha Bee) sets her up with a man who wants to please her.  The movie is slightly muddled, veering toward traditional romantic comedy.   Kinglsey’s taxi driver/ driving instructor who has just embarked on an arranged marriage, falling for Wendy, hopelessly out of his league, is obvious, and annoying.

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It is too conventional.  And the dialogue written for Clarkson requires her to whine and cry a lot in the opening scenes when divorce is in its beginning phase.  Grace Gummer is not convincing as a daughter. Other things I did not believe: How do literary critics afford such expensive real estate in Manhattan?  Just wondering.  Why can’t we learn how she got to have this huge apartment in the first place?

I read the essay by Katha Pollitt that the movie is based on.  It had little to do with the author’s marital status.  The driving instructor was Filipino, and had a sense of humor.  The essay is better than the movie, which has some affecting scenes with Clarkson truly exhibiting fear which eventually melts into skill as she learns to drive.  When the movie sticks to its subject about learning to drive,  and by implication finding her freedom, it succeeds.

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The Old Man and the Gun, directed by David Lowery, 2018.

With Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Casey Affleck, Tika Sumpter.

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The movie has a great story to tell.  Forrest Tucker, a masterly thief, was a real person.   Robert Redford as Forrest Tucker is first seen when he is in his 70s, robbing a bank in a very polite manner, striding out of the building with the cash in a beat up  brief case.  He then steals a car which he soon switches to presumably his own car.  He dresses nicely, wears a fedora hat, and shows respect for everyone he deals with including the bank managers he shows his gun to.

During the time period of the movie, Tucker was extremely productive, robbing around 60 banks in the space of three months.  People begin to notice the advanced age of the perpetrators– and with his accomplices not much younger, they are dubbed the “Over the Hill Gang.”  An Austin detective,  John Hunt (Casey Affleck), makes it his mission to solve the case; the two men have in common the need to do their jobs well, and both succeed.

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With the thief, it comes from practice and dedication to the point of dangerous compulsion.  Even after he is released from prison, and can live comfortably with his loving wife, he is drawn to the work he does best.   In the New Yorker profile the movie is based on, John Hunt of the police says, “Just as a welder gets good at welding, or a writer gets good over the years by writing, these guys learned from their mistakes.”  Or as Tucker says, “No one can teach you the craft.  You can only learn by doing.”

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Casey Affleck with the two actors who play his children: Ari Johnson and Teagon Johnson

With the police detective, it is his children who steal the show (Ari Elizabeth Johnson and Teagon Johnson, siblings in real life ).  I do not know how much this part of the story is fabricated.  (The movie opens with the caution, “This is mostly true.”)  Hunt’s daughter says to him how sad it will be to catch the thief because then the chase will be over.  The admiration the thief and the cop have for each other is one of the more winning parts of the story along with the accomplices, played by Waits and Glover, two old pros who bring a certain finesse to the film.

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However, the movie’s cinematography is intrusive with so many extreme close ups of Redford’s face.  Sudden gaps in the narrative keep the viewer wondering what just happened, and make the story more jagged than it should be considering the smoothness of its subject.  It is hard to believe that Sissy Spacek’s character would fall for a man with such a mysterious biography.  The facts of the real story are much more interesting, but the screenplay does not bother to plot them out.

I wish there had been more about the escapes Tucker pulled off which are shown quickly in a list format, and then demonstrated just as quickly.  That could be a whole movie by itself.  There is enough material for many movies about Forrest Tucker’s life.  There is his relationship with his children, and with women. Here’s an idea for someone: Thirteen ways of looking at Tucker.  Just as they looked at his sixteen escapes from prisons, reform school, etc.  you could look at the many ways he pulled off his life.

But the movie focuses on the meaning of work for men who have found their vocations.  Unlike Whitey Bulgher, another legendary criminal who just died a horrible death, whose work was characterized by brutality and murder, Tucker used his gun as a prop, as a signal of his bona fides.  So he was a gentleman thief.  How many of those are there out there, that aren’t desperate, but just need to exercise their “craft?” Even though I didn’t love the movie, I loved the story that it told, or just one of them, the main one to the subject, that is, how to be excellent in robbing.

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Compare some facts with the movie

The New Yorker article  The Old Man and the Gun

Slate article comparing facts with fiction

 

 

 

 

 

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Wildlife, directed by Paul Dano, 2018.

Screenplay by Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan.

With Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould.

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Joe Brinson is fourteen years old when his parents begin to show signs of wear and tear in their marriage.  His mother does not act worried when his father loses his job as a golf pro in a rural Montana club.  The feeling that this has happened before is not stated but implied in the superbly crafted script which merely has Joe ask, “Do we have to move again?”

The supremely confident Jeanette Binson (Carey Mulligan) decides to get a job, and in the process, meets another man perhaps more suited to taking care of all her needs.  Joe, left in the middle, longs for his father who has gone to fight the forest fires that seem to be a regular part of the landscape.  Joe observes closely the signs that his world is unraveling.

Joe has also found work for himself at a photo studio in the small town where they live.  There he hears the owner explain that people come to be photographed as they want to be remembered, so it is the photographer’s job to make them look as good as possible.  These still images form some of the most memorable scenes in the movie, visualizing the idea of what it is to have a good life.

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There are poignant moments in the movie.  Gyllenahaal, playing the errant father, kisses his son good bye before he is taken away to fight the wild fires, and cautions him that grown men can show love for each other.  This scene reminded me of an important role Gyllenhaal played years ago in Brokeback Mountain, but you do not need to hear its echo to be moved by the acting.

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Oxenbould ‘s eyes take in every sign of the breakdown of his parents’ marriage.  Joe’s  endurance and fortitude are riveting. He shares certain physical features  of  Paul Dano, the director.  We are far more used to seeing Paul Dano in front of the camera, so Oxenbould’s slight resemblance is not exactly like a stand in, but a reminder of the director’s acting presence.

edoxenbold .    dano

The cinematography is excellent of  the Montana landscape, the attention to weather and the details in the modest house where the Binsons live, capturing the stark beauty of living near the mountains.

I thought the title of the movie was Wildfires since the opening scenes show the smoky landscape, and the difficulty of extinguishing such massive forest fires.  But Wildlife is about more than the metaphor of burning, fires burning in people that cause internal lifelong suffering in the lives of those they think they love best.

Carey Mulligan has the thankless task of turning a woman who starts out seeing to all of her family’s needs into a reckless wanton.  While her performance is never less than convincing, it is a jolt at times to watch how she ropes her son into witnessing the seduction of her new lover.

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Joe does not have much dialogue, putting pressure on the young actor to convey his feelings with his eyes, his gestures, his attitude.  He rises to the task.   By the end of the movie, the boy’s desire to keep his family intact is hopeless.  Just as the movie threatens to become melodramatic, its bittersweet heart comes to the fore, and makes you appreciate how deeply a good movie can make you feel.

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Can you ever forgive me? Directed by Marielle Heller, 2018.

with Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, 0canyouever4giveme

When Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) finds herself down on her luck, unable to pay for her beloved cat’s health care, or even the rent for her apartment, she comes upon a letter from Fanny Brice inside a library book.  Knowing the value of original manuscripts, she takes the letter and sells it, and so embarks on a life of crime.  She begins selling stolen letters by the literary giants.

In her alcoholic wanderings, Israel finds an accomplice who has an even better idea, borrowed from his shoplifting escapades in drug stores.  Leave the original toothpaste box there, but just remove the contents, and replace with your used up tube.  So Israel who is used to showing her credentials as a writer of biographies, visits research libraries where the original documents are, and replaces them with her hand crafted forgeries.

Though it is illegal, was there ever a more inventive crime,  as Israel begins imitating the style of famous writers, finding typewriters that are the same models as used by Dorothy Parker, et al, and  composing the letter contents herself, Even when she is found out, the purchasers of the false letters admire her writing style.  How much more interesting to sell letters with creative content than to rely on some boring exchange between William Faulkner and his accountant.

In this movie, based on the nonfiction account by Israel, her accomplice, Jack (Richard E. Grant), is much more pleasant company.  He has charm, and an outsize personality.  Compared to the curmudgeonly author, Jack exudes a winning personality.  As Israel’s agent (Jane Curtin) suggests to her, in order for her fix her situation she needs to do three things.  First, be more pleasant.  Say please and thank you.  Act as if you are glad to see people when you walk in a room.  Second, stop drinking.  Three, find another line of work.

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Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant

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Jane Curtin

We never do get to hear the author say thank you no matter how many kindnesses are thrown her way.  Melissa McCarthy plays the part with a suitable lack of charm which can wear on the viewer.  Richard E. Grant as Jack has an easier time of it, but the real standouts of the movie are the dealers eager to receive such plummy manuscripts.  Included in this group is Ben Falcone as Alan Schmidt, a dealer Lee Israel is warned about, as well she might have,  and Dolly Wells as Anna, a lonely book dealer with a crush on Lee, who may have ambitions to be a writer herself.    I also appreciated the sudden appearance of Anna Deveare Smith as Israel’s ex girlfriend who tells Israel off.  By then I think I was ready to tell her off myself.

Even though there is a dour, sour tone to the story, two things lift it up. One is the author’s relationship with her cat.  This is something we have all probably seen, a person unable to relate to other people but who is completely won over by animals.  There is a communication that takes place between an animal and a human that does not need words, and so avoids misunderstandings.

There is also a winning quality to the setting.  New York in the 1990s, just after the AIDS epidemic, before everyone was connected to the internet and their cell phones, seems so innocent and grungy yet glamorous.    And Melissa McCarthy does convince you that even though Lee Israel is a  creep, she has a talent for imitating people she loved, in words, as a writer.  For book lovers, and New Yorkers who love to wander these book stores and manuscript show rooms, the movie has enormous appeal.  It doesn’t hurt that the spirit of Dorothy Parker hovers over the whole enterprise.  Her phrase became the title of the movie.

 

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Tea with Dames (directed by Michell, 2018).

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With Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright, all distinguished British actors recognized by the royal family with the designated title of Dame.  Some had already been “ladies” when the new title was awarded them.  These actresses are all in their eighties now, and Smith and Dench are still working.  Roger Michell, the director, has gathered the four of them at Plowright’s very plummy cottage in the country for tea, where we hear them discuss their lives and careers and husbands.

Plowright is rather frail, shepherded by several caregivers whenever she has to walk, and wearing very dark glasses even though it is not sunny, and revealing that she can’t see, or hear.  When the conversation turns to aging,  we expect her to contribute more, but alas, she cannot always hear enough to participate fully.

Maggie Smith has a quick wit and a sharp tongue, which can make Judi Dench collapse into fits of giggles.  This kind of repartee makes the movie worth watching.  Eileen Atkins’ steely voice and intelligent gaze make me wonder what she will say next, her delivery quiet but surprising.  This is the woman who co-created Upstairs Downstairs, and still knows how to discuss class differences.  Plowright was married to Laurence Olivier, and we learn about the beginning of that romance in a series of touching scenes that took place during the stage production of The Entertainer, a John Osbourne play.

All of the women were married to actors, not just Plowright, though her husband was most renowned.  Olivier’s work as a major theatre director drew the actresses together through mutual work on the stage.  Maggie Smith’s first husband, Robert Stephens, had an important part in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  Eileen Atkins’ first husband, Julian Glover, is an important British actor, and Michael Williams co-starred with Dench in their British comedy, A Fine Romance, for four seasons in the 1980s.  We learn just enough to understand how their husbands’ careers meshed with their own.

The movie shows how each woman got started, what key roles they took, with filmed fragments of their performances.  There is an especially poignant look at Dench’s performance, shown in old video footage, in a mystery play when she was 18 years old.  You can feel her joy at discovering this since her parents were still alive.

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We get to watch each actress receive her title, with the medal, and the royal family, usually Prince Charles, doing the honors.  Maggie Smith was so glad that her father was alive when her honor was bestowed, because she says graciously, that is what it is for, really, not for the people receiving it, but for all those who helped along the way.

inside plowright's house

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