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Film Review: A Quiet Place

January 17, 2019 Leave a comment

A Quiet Place (2018; Directed by John Krasinski)

A family-under-siege horror-thriller, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place pits a familial unit of savvy survivalists against sharp-eared monsters that pounce and kill viciously at the smallest sound and have thus devastated human civilization. This simple and potent premise provides ample fodder for a series of taut and sometimes ingenious sequences of tension and nervous peril, as one might reasonably expect from the genre. But it also fuels clever “what if?” world-building, canny visual storytelling, and themes of nuclear-family unity, sacrifice, and reproductive determination that might have been dubbed “conservative values” in some halcyon time before that political/cultural movement’s collective embrace of the glaring embodiment of everything they were supposed to be fighting against exposed the blinding hypocrisy at the heart of that buzz phrase.

A Quiet Place is mostly but not entirely wordless, in light of the predicament facing the family of characters that feature in it. Though some words are mouthed and full-volume speech enabled by masking sounds like a cascading waterfall, most of the information in the film is communicated either visually or through the use of American Sign Language (ASL), which the Abbott family is fortunate enough to know in this situation due to their teenage daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) being congenitally deaf. Although the ASL gestures were subtitled upon the film’s theatrical release, the version I streamed did not have any, but very little information was lost without them. For those familiar with ASL, A Quiet Place must be especially rewarding, like silent films would have been to expert lip readers: full of nuance and peculiarities of expression (much of which was developed for the film by Simmonds, who is herself hearing-impaired and fluent in ASL) that would not be evident to non-ASL-sign-speakers.

Holed up in their farmhouse and rural environs, the Abbotts maintain some measure of semi-normality amidst elaborately cautious practices that keep the sounds that the living of their lives generate to an absolute minimum to avoid attracting the blind but acutely-hearing monsters that dwell in their vicinity. Father Lee (Krasinski) has an engineering/techie background, and spends his time scanning shortwave radio for morse-code word of other survivors, maintaining sophisticated early-warning systems and crisis failsafes, fashioning cochlear implants for Regan (which will prove important in ways he could not have imagined), and teaching his jumpy son Marcus (Noah Jupe) rules and practices of survival, life, and manhood. Mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt, Krasinski’s real-life wife too) cooks dinner in an oven in the floorboards, quietly does laundry, maintains the family medical supplies (she was once a doctor), gives Marcus a measure of school-like education, and prepares for the arrival of the child that she carries inside her and will soon deliver into a dangerous milieu that will instantly and aggressively seek to strangle its cries. Regan acts out like a rebellious teenager whose angst is compounded by her inability to throw vocal tantrums and slam doors, but she is also just more haunted and self-flagellatory than the others about the trauma that looms large in the family’s past and that they blame themselves for in their own ways: the loss of their youngest son Beau (Cade Woodward) to a monster, as depicted in the film’s opening sequence.

The Abbotts move around barefoot along marked paths – by sand outdoors, by paint on the creaky wood-floored farmhouse – to avoid making noise, have strung lightbulb chains around the surrounding fields that turn from white to red by the flick of a switch if danger is near, and even play Monopoly with cloth boardgame pieces to dampen even the slightest sound. But circumstances will nonetheless conspire to alert the creatures to their presence despite all of their care: namely Evelyn’s inconveniently-timed labour contractions and a pesky nail on the basement stairs.

A Quiet Place is an expert example of a bottled thriller, surprisingly so given that it’s in the hands of genre neophyte and previously undistinguished director Krasinski. He benefits greatly from the intelligent foundations provided by the script by Brian Woods and Scott Beck (which Krasinski rewrote), and even more from Marco Beltrami’s pulse-quickening score and Blunt’s showcase performance mixing petrification with dogged, competent determination (she was nominated for that ultimate horror-acting honour, the MTV Movie Award for Most Frightened Performance, formerly and wonderfully known as Best Scared-as-Shit Performance; MTV’s cultural relevance has dwindled away to next to nothing over the past decade, but their shamelessly goofball movie awards will always be a highlight of the entertainment calendar). Her final moment in the film’s closing shot is pure, triumphant badassery. Fuck ’em up, Mary Poppins.

Truly, though, A Quiet Place is a wonder of sound design, which Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn (an Oscar winner for the sound on The Lord of the Rings and King Kong) use dynamically and keenly to build tension, reveal character perspective, and amplify moments of terror and catharsis, pressure and release. The muffled sounds of the Abbotts’ movements demonstrates their tiptoeing existence; the total silence of deaf Regan’s perception places the audience into her head and sensory world; the emergence of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” when Evelyn shares her earbud and a slow dance with Lee is a comforting embrace of sonics in a sometimes unsettling dome of quiet. The harsh sharpness of loud, sudden sonic intrusions into the Abbott’s secure soundproofing of their lives instantly communicates the immediate danger those sounds represent, the catastrophe they portend.

A Quiet Place mostly presents as a straightforward and engaging potboiler, but political implications are never too far away. Krasinski himself (a Democratic Party donor) conceived of the premise as a metaphor of sorts for the importance of moral acts in the face of persistent horrors and injustices in America’s Age of Trump, an argument against keeping your head down and hoping merely to survive the chaos around you. There is a certain resonance to this effect in A Quiet Place, an echo of our unpredictable and often dangerous reality that compels silent compliance and avoidance of drawing notice rather than confronting the horrors that lurk in the margins, always waiting to pounce on the vulnerable.

But A Quiet Place is hard to pigeonhole politically and likewise features definite conservative themes. Perhaps due to his B-level film career trajectory or perhaps due to certain old-fashioned centrist ideological convictions, Krasinski has sometimes gravitated towards nominally right-wing or at least more traditionally-themed productions: romantic comedies, family dramas, even a pulpy, militaristic dramatization of the 2012 attack by Islamic militants on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya (which became a cause célèbre on the conspiracy-minded, rabidly anti-Clinton American Right) that was directed by glistening pop-art USA-chant propagandist Michael Bay (one of A Quiet Place‘s producers). A Quiet Place is certainly no MAGA affair, but it does focus on a white rural nuclear family with demonstrated religious faith, gestures at traditional monastic asceticism (they are surnamed the Abbotts, after all), and even nods at pro-life sentiments with Evelyn’s pregnancy and labour in spite of the extremely obvious dangers that a wailing infant presents in a situation where any sound summons instant-eviscerating hunters.

Like a lot of genre films that present building, consecutive scenarios of frightening peril, A Quiet Place features at least a half dozen moments that could be nitpicked. “Why are you doing that?” and “That is NOT a good idea” escapes the mouths of the audience as surely as nervous gasps or constricted breaths, no doubt. But these moments of perceived, detached enlightened perspective (we know what to do even if the characters don’t) are part of the fun of horror-thrillers like A Quiet Place, too, especially when they are as well-conceived and executed as this movie ultimately is.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Incredibles 2

January 4, 2019 Leave a comment

The Incredibles 2 (2018; Directed by Brad Bird)

14 years may have passed in our world since the release of Brad Bird’s expert Pixar-produced animated superhero film The Incredibles, but for the titular family of semi-secret Supers (as superheroes are known in this world), not even five minutes have elapsed. The Incredibles 2 picks up exactly where the first film left off, as the Parrs suit up to battle the massive burrowing machines of the villainous Underminer (voiced by Pixar lucky charm John Ratzenberger) which threaten their city of Metroville. But the film also picks up on other teased threads at the conclusion of that much-praised prior installment: awkward eldest daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) getting up the nerve to ask out her classmate Tony Rydinger (Michael Bird), the unpredictably emerging superpowers of baby boy Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), and the passage of laws outlawing Supers from using their powers openly, for the safety of society.

The confrontation with the Underminer does not exactly go swimmingly, with more than a little architectural collateral damage resulting despite the best efforts of matriarch Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Violet and her speedster brother Dash (Huckleberry Milner), and ice-blasting family friend Lucius Best/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). The mole-ish villain also manages to escape after a fight with super-strong patriarch Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson). The whole costly affair simply confirms for government officials and law enforcement that Supers must remain illegal, lest further catastrophes follow.

But in its aftermath, the Parrs are approached by corporate telecommunications heirs and tycoon siblings Winston and Evelyn Deavor (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener), who in tribute to their late superhero-supporting father want to fit the generally less-destructive Elastigirl (studies have been done and data compiled to support that conclusion, to Bob’s ego-disappointment) with a body-camera and record her heroic acts as part of a PR campaign to rehabilitate the image of Supers and get them legalized again. In an inversion of The Incredibles, then, Helen goes out to recapture her youth and don the supersuit while Bob holds down the fort in their well-appointed DevTech-provided home (only the tip of the iceberg of the film’s flashy Mid-Century futurist design). They each face challenges, Helen from a mind-hypnotizing terrorist called the Screenslaver who may be more than he seems to be, and Bob from Violet’s boy problems, Dash’s math homework, and Jack-Jack’s barely-manageable explosion of super-abilities.

Like its predecessor, The Incredibles 2 builds both its conflict and its humour on this contrast of the concerns of domestic family life with the elaborate Super fantasies of its action sequences. Conceived and executed by the masterful Brad Bird, these latter scenes are of course prodigiously exciting (heightened immensely by Michael Giacchino’s pulse-quickening Bond-esque score), dense with furiously clever details and gags; the focus on Elastigirl and her far more, well, elastic abilities jacks up the speed and dynamism, especially during a motorbike pursuit of a runaway monorail. The portal-opening powers of a supporting Super (and nervous Elastigirl fangirl) named Voyd (Sophia Bush) also open up possibilities of movement and change that Bird takes full advantage of during the climactic sequence on a runaway yacht.

That said, the best action scene (certainly the funniest, at least) in The Incredibles 2 might well be Jack-Jack’s running battle in the family’s backyard with a feisty raccoon. Jack-Jack’s emerging powers also draw in one of the first film’s truest oddball delights, the inspired, eccentric fashion designer to Supers Edna Mode (voiced by Brad Bird himself), who babysits him and fashions a suit and supporting tech to allow the increasingly harried Bob to handle his little ball of (sometimes quite literal) explosiveness. One is left feeling that there is too little of Edna Mode, but whether the character would work so well in larger doses is debatable.

Other elements of The Incredibles 2 are worthy of positive note. There are numerous fine voice performance moments, not only from the long-underrated Hunter as the to-the-forefront Helen, but also from the historian and public radio broadcaster Vowell‘s distinctive and more-layered work with Violet to Nelson’s hilarious insomniac readings of baby-calming talk to Isabella Rossellini as a Supers-friendly ambassador. Keener is always good, but especially notable is Bob Odenkirk as her character’s sales-pitching brother, his persuasion-talking gestures and mannerisms (so familiar to fans of his work as Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) so lovingly and accurately rendered into CG animation by the world-class Pixar animators.

Still, despite its copious entertainments and fine craftsmanship displaying the technological advancement in computer animation since 2004’s The Incredibles, one is left feeling that this sequel is a lesser product in comparison to that species of modern classic. The Incredibles rendered the Parrs’ relatable human anxieties into their thematic struggle with a fanboy-turned-resentful-supervillain and expanded those ideas into larger political questions (which some critics read as reflecting Nietzschean principles or even Randian Objectivism) about the place of the individual in relation to society. The Incredibles 2‘s political ideas are instead expressed most notably in a single soapbox-ascending dinner table argument between Bob and Helen: should they teach their kids that they ought to obey laws, no matter how unjust they may find them to be, or to resist and even break those laws if they think it right to do so?

If this is Bird’s core political dilemma this time around, however, it is not productively or effectively incorporated into the film’s narrative or thematic development. Supers are outlawed, but Elastigirl’s heroism slowly wears down public opinion until it comes to support repeal of their ban, with a twist in the villainous plot to uphold that ban to be overcome by family superpower collaboration. Bird stabs fitfully in other directions, too, as Helen and Evelyn discuss the glass ceilings of sexism in their respective professions. Most egregiously out-of-touch on Bird’s part is a rant from the Screenslaver villain (ultimately a fake-out figure, but I shan’t go and spoil) about our contemporary society’s hypnotic enslavement to digital screens, which comes across as not only a bit of a fuddy-duddy old man complaint but also a fairly hypocritical one coming from a crafter of intelligently-crafted but fundamentally diversionary entertainment that will, by design, itself play on millions of those bemoaned screens.

The Incredibles 2 is supremely, even occasionally transcendentally, diversionary, but unlike its predecessor never really rises above that level. Following a commercial and artistic dip in Tomorrowland, Brad Bird returns to the totalizing visual and motion control of animation, and The Incredibles 2 is frequently an impressive demonstration of his confident and sometimes even audacious mastery of that medium. But Tomorrowland also displayed a grandstanding pedantry that wore thin very quickly and bogged down Bird’s clockwork inventiveness and big-dreamer optimism. The Incredibles 2 overcompensates on the ideas score, megaphoning a political argument or two but consigning the content of those arguments to background colour rather than enfolding them productively into the story’s core conflicts. This is quite often an extremely fun and unquestionably well-made movie, but recent, real blockbuster high-points (especially in the artistically expanding superhero genre) are more adept at trojan-horsing more resonant ideological and emotional concepts into that carnival-ride package. The Incredibles 2 is set in a fashionably old-fashioned fantasy world, but it’s also subtly old-fashioned in relation to our real world, and it shows.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Decalogue: Top 10 Films of 2018

January 1, 2019 Leave a comment

The best films of 2018 grappled with the unsettling valences of an uncertain and sometimes hostile world, and found empathy, solidarity, progress, and tempered hope in cinematic art. The pinnacle highlights of the filmic year are a varied bunch, reflecting majoritarian trends in big-budget blockbusters and arthouse film as well as singular curios.

The new African-American film renaissance continued and strengthened in breadth and commercial and artistic power this year, following from 2017’s Best Picture Moonlight and surprise hit (and my top film of that year) Get Out. The year’s highest-grossing film in the U.S. and Canada (and second highest-grossing worldwide) was written and directed by an African-American, featured an almost exclusively African-American cast, and thought compellingly about contemporary and historical issues facing black people globally. It is hardly alone on this list, either, with an enervating animated superhero movie and a hyper-inventive, politically-conscious comedic debut joining it (to say nothing of other important African-American films released this year, like Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, to name just a couple).

Superhero movies continued to dominate the box office and the Hollywood release schedule, but these films continued to expand in new creative directions that portended a brighter future for an oft-artistically-maligned genre. The streaming revolution proceeded apace, with format giant Netflix bypassing traditional theatres by releasing a dizzying variety of new original films, including no less than four of this year’s top ten films below. In between, there were varied glories: a fingernail-biting documentary about a death-defying rock climber; an animated picaresque about the destabilizing madness of the internet and maintaining healthy relationships in the face of separation and division; a viciously black-comic satire of screwball authoritarian power struggles; an aborted anthology western series turned into wonderful anthology western movie; a belatedly completed and released final film from one of movie history’s true masters. And standing above them all, a poetic black-and-white masterpiece about family and togetherness under pressure in 1970s Mexico City from one of our greatest living film artists. A fine year at the movies, and these are its finest moments.

 

1. Roma (Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)

“[Roma] is one of the year’s truly remarkable films, but it would be so in any year, at any point in the career of a filmmaker who, if he is not the world’s best at the moment, has vanishingly few challengers. […] Roma may be shot in only two colours, but it feels like a rainbow. It is also a masterclass in the application of film technique and its constituent elements in anticipating, elevating, and amplifying emotional beats. […] For Alfonso Cuarón, film is a rocket-ship of immersive perspective, hurling his captive audience into a reality unlike their own but entirely familiar and sympathetic too, with every measure of distance and time on the journey a vivid, moving landscape of fleeting eternity. Given this, Roma is his magnum opus, and a great, soulful machine of film.”

Review – 30 December 2018

 

2. Sorry to Bother You (Directed by Boots Riley)

Sorry to Bother You is an incredible film. This is meant in more than one sense of the word: the writing/directing debut from rapper/political activist Boots Riley is a work of dazzling quality and of originality and imagination, a film that announces itself confidently as one of the best of its year before it’s even done being viewed. But it’s also incredible, an audacious fever-dream of contemporary American capitalist culture, society, race relations, and labour economy that must be seen to be believed. […] [Sorry to Bother You] is far wilder and stranger and greater a movie than is really possible to summarize[…]. To simply call it a satire of American capitalism, labour, and race, of media and art and activism, is likewise inadequate. It absolutely is that, and is frequently uproariously hilarious in that role. But Riley cultivates and grows a world altogether bizarre and fantastical, a portrait of lively, humane urban depression which might be labelled magic realism if not for the hard edge of perfunctory absurdism and vicious political commentary that comes with it.”

Review – 1 December 2018

 

3. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman)

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an out-of-left-field triumph. It is unquestionably the best animated film of the year, likely the best comic-book superhero movie of the year, and maybe the best comedy of the year, too. Frankly, this exciting, innovative, hilarious, and moving film ought to be in the conversation for one of the best films of the year, period. […] If Into the Spider-Verse was only saturated with visual astonishments, dotted with breathless action sequences, and consistently blessed with impeccable comic timing, it would be a fun and noteworthy rainbow-candy trifle that would still earn plaudits for its sheer energy and joy. But what makes it a great cinematic experience is how it tells an involving, potent story with beautifully-pitched emotional beats for even its minor characters, all while acting as an effluent visual summary of the Spider-Man character and of comic book history alike. […] This movie acts on the the superhero genre, on feature animation, and indeed on Hollywood movies as a whole like the bite of a radioactive spider: it injects them with new powers and possibilities, and if we’re lucky, none of them will ever be the same.”

Review – 17 December 2018

 

4. Free Solo (Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin)

“Imagine, if you will, a remarkable, history-making, trailblazing human physical achievement, like the moon landing or the climbing of Mount Everest or flying across the Atlantic. Now imagine that achievement, this feat that no living person has done before, being filmed in real time, from numerous angles visual, emotional, and psychological. […] Free Solo is an impeccably crafted documentary narrative, giving a rounded perspective on [free climber Alex] Honnold’s peculiar history and personality and how it relates to his nigh-on suicidal free climbling goals. In doing so, the film provides some of the best insight one could ask for into the psychology and mental processes of high-achievement athletes. […] This film details, with skill and intelligence and finally with transcendent spectacle, how and why Alex Honnold could do this remarkable thing. Free Solo shows us what it means to him to free climb El Capitan, and that gives us some idea of what it should mean to us.”

Review – 23 December 2018

 

5. Annihilation (Directed by Alex Garland)

“Writer/director Alex Garland’s Annihilation […] picks up the great science fiction tradition of utilizing a fantasy encounter with an utterly alien form of life to shed harsh and revealing light on flaws in the human condition. […] Annihilation is ambiguous about the errors of human natures, however, presenting their self-sabotaging stasis as both a danger to people and a resistant, protective armour, especially in contrast to the unpredictable and threatening constancy of change represented by the film’s mysterious alien presence. […] What makes Annihilation special beyond its expert refraction of genre tropes and visual imaginings, however, is also what made Garland’s previous film special: it renders complex and difficult moral and existential questions about human choice and intent in simple, resonant terms without surrending their inherent complexity and difficulty.”

Review – 20 October 2018

 

6. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen)

“The Coen Brothers’ Netflix streaming-series-turned-anthology-film is at once a deconstruction of the Hollywood western and a sincere homage to the genre, all while remaining indelibly and profoundly Coens. […] These vignettes range from wacky send-ups of generic tropes to exquisitely-wrought parables of human want and drive to wordy chamber pieces to cause-and-effect escalations with tragic dimensions. But they always retain an internal logic of momentum and direction, a force and counter-force progression of choices and events unmoored from moral consequences and judgements of cosmic justice; indeed, they often brazenly thumb their collective noses at the sense of a moral order. […] They are all entertaining, involving, amusing, or moving in some way or other; we as viewers are always engaged and trusted, never condescended to but forever respected and given space to consider, to interpret, maybe to understand.”

Review – 23 November 2018

 

7. Black Panther (Directed by Ryan Coogler)

“The triumph of Black Panther is that it’s […] an exciting action-adventure movie, a visually and politically detailed and compelling demonstration of onscreen world-building, and above all a nuanced and conflicted exploration of black experience, black unity, and the spirited debate about the best path of correction for the uniquely terrible legacy of colonialism, slavery, and oppression faced by people of African descent, from the centre of their (of all of our) continent of origin to the poverty-stricken housing projects of America. […] Black Panther is a muscular and potent blockbuster that confidently and firmly claims a position of great strength for African-derived peoples without sacrificing a thoughtful, nuanced, and ultimately hopeful vision of the complexities of their society, culture, and civilization(s).”

Review – 18 February 2018

 

8. The Other Side of the Wind (Directed by Orson Welles)

The Other Side of the Wind is probably Orson Welles’ most famous unfinished film, and was conceived and semi-executed by Welles self-reflexively and self-reflectively as a celluloid metaphor for the the themes and frustrations of his career, for his bemusement at his place in film history and at film history itself, and for the magic and the deceit of the movies. […] The resulting finished product is part dated time capsule, part living, electrifying reclaimed masterwork, and all Orson Welles. The Other Side of the Wind takes Welles’ trademarked winking masked-autobiographical artistic themes and runs them to dizzying extremes. […] This film is a deceptively ambitious closing statement on a remarkable, turbulent career in filmmaking, a masterpiece about reaching your end with your self-critical faculties firing at all cylinders but with your legacy in doubt and ultimately in the hands of others, who will inevitably betray you in ways both small and large, unintentional and malicious, sadly unjust and entirely deserved. It’s a film about failure and tragedy, and it’s a gigantic, inspiring success.”

Review – 26 December 2018

 

9. The Death of Stalin (Directed by Armando Iannucci)

“Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a raucously funny but quietly vicious extrapolation on the banality of evil with a far keener eye for the ridiculous, but no less ghastly, fundaments of oppressive totalitarianism. Call it a comic treatise on the absurdity of evil, if you will, a farcical satire about the frantic power struggle for primacy at the top of government of the Soviet Union after the demise of the iron-willed tyrant Joseph Stalin. Despite the sharp-tongued banter, selfish scheming, and copious bumbling on the part of the succeeding members of the Central Committee, however, horrors take place, crimes against humanity are committed, lives are altered, destroyed, or brutally ended, even within the rarified heights of the Politburo. We laugh while the blood flows, and perhaps the oxygen from the laughter makes its sick colour all the more vivid.”

Review – 5 December 2018

 

10. Ralph Breaks the Internet (Directed by Rich Moore & Phil Johnston)

“[Ralph Breaks the Internet‘s] surprisingly powerful climax blends emotional and thematic arcs with notable visual invention in the animation in an impressively cohesive manner. In this way, Ralph Breaks the Internet makes a strong point about unhealthy behaviour in relationships, about how poisonous possessiveness is driven by insecurity and fear of change and uncertainty. […] Crucially, the resolution in the conflict at the heart of Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship in this movie is achieved not through accommodation and sacrifice on the female side of the equation, but through behaviour adjustments and psychological checks on the part of the male side, through the acceptance, albeit one tinged with melancholy, of uncertainty, lack of security, and separation from the ones you love.”

Review – 28 December 2018

 

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Roma

December 30, 2018 Leave a comment

Roma (2018; Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)

What is film for? For Academy Award-winning Mexican writer-director Alfonso Cuarón, it is a medium for complete sensory immersion, a complex machine for empathy, an ever-unspooling canvas for galvanizing, soul-shaking images. This is the form that the extraordinary, semi-autobiographical Roma takes, a technical wonder and a moving narrative of pain and healing, loss and love, confusion and despair and chaos and still silence (the kind that can be comforting, unsettling, terrifying, or all three at once). It is one of the year’s truly remarkable films, but it would be so in any year, at any point in the career of a filmmaker who, if he is not the world’s best at the moment, has vanishingly few challengers.

Shot in stunningly beautiful and tonally communicative black and white (Cuarón himself is the cinematographer), Roma is a slice-of-life story about Cleo (Yalitzia Aparicio), a live-in housekeeper for an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma neighbourhood at the start of the 1970s. Cleo witnesses the quotidian struggles of the family that employs and loves her, and suffers her own tribulations and small joys alongside them. She watches as the family’s medical doctor patriarch (Fernando Gradiaga) leaves his wife (Marina de Tavira) and four children (Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta), joins the remaining family unit on vacations, and deals with her own crisis as an unplanned pregnancy coincides with the infamous El Halconazo (a.k.a. the Corpus Christi Massacre) of June 1971.

Roma is named for the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City in which the family’s home is situated, but the tentative cinephile can’t help but speculate that the title might also nod to Federico Fellini’s 1972 film also called Roma. Cuarón isn’t quite one for Fellini’s Grand Guignol carnivalesque flair, but both the contemporaneous era and the aesthetic voyeurism of his camera lingering over tableaux of memory-soaked street and domestic settings suggests that Fellini’s work is intended as a reference point of artistic context. Roma is also largely constructed of Cuarón’s trademarked long takes, but the sequences of single-take cinematic bravado in Children of Men or Y Tu Mamá También or Gravity are here imbued with organic warmth and seemingly improvised (though no doubt minutely choreographed) naturalism.

Quiet interiors, bustling streetscapes, lively celebrations, buzzing countrysides and beaches all ache with visual poetry, given a varnish of historical shimmer by Cuarón’s own monochrome cinematography and his fundamental technique of foreground/background contrast. The director/DoP demonstrates with stunning simplicity how gorgeous and varied his colourless palate can be in the film’s first sustained shot during the opening credits: a fixed close-up of floor tiles in different grades of grey develops to include the reflection of a skylight in the puddle of water, undulating mop-pushed soap suds, and even the silhouette of a passing airplane. Roma may be shot in only two colours, but it feels like a rainbow.

It is also a masterclass in the application of film technique and its constituent elements in anticipating, elevating, and amplifying emotional beats. When oft-absent father Antonio returns home, his eager family must wait while he parks his too-big Ford Galaxie with exacting precision in the house’s carport; Cuarón shoots this everyday task with quick-cutting tension and humming sound to establish a picture of a man who cares deeply about things other than his loved ones. When Antonio leaves on another claimed work trip, his wife Sofia watches him drive away from their home (for the last time, as it turns out) as a cacophonous brass band marches disruptively past her on the street. A climactic moment of danger on a beach is teased through childish imaginative patter, and the potential fatal enormity of the event is imparted by the huge, flattening sound of the crashing ocean waves.

Film history and intertextuality, too, is employed by Cuarón in telling his story and giving it emotional contour. Cleo tells her martial arts enthusiast boyfriend Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) that she is pregnant by him in the back row of a movie theatre showing a screwy German war comedy; when he leaves, ostensibly to use the bathroom, the finality of his departure from her life (though they have two later meetings of a far more terse nature) is suggested by a fighter plane plunging through the sky on the movie screen. The family later attends another movie, 1969’s Marooned (which Cuarón has spoken about watching obsessively as a child, and an obvious influence on Gravity), and that film’s shots of astronauts adrift in the cold vastness of space approximates the existential uncertainty felt by Cleo as a future single mother and by the family in the absence of their father figure. Cuarón even references his own past work, namely a moment of both underlining and predicting during the El Halconazo sequence that recreates the imagery of maternal mourning of a dead, beloved son of Michelangelo’s La Pietà, much like a scene in Children of Men does.

This species of imaginative travel, for Alfonso Cuarón in Roma as much as (if not more than) anywhere else in his distinguished career, is what film is for. Critics toss terms of praise at any number of overwrought cinematic fantasies like “sweeps you up” and “transports you”, but Roma really does these things, only in a context of heightened realist fidelity. You are there in Mexico City in 1971, tracking past truckloads of bored riot cops ordered to sit on their hands and let paramilitary strike squads murder leftist protestors. You are there at an opulent hacienda haunted by the mounted heads of dead animals on New Year’s Eve, watching party guests and their children hurl buckets of water at a small forest fire while a costumed monster remove his false head and sings a mournful song (a moment of Bergman-esque art-film panache). And above all, you are there seeing the world through the eyes of a meek, ordinary housekeeper, the drudgery of her days but the love and the hurt of them, too. For Alfonso Cuarón, film is a rocket-ship of immersive perspective, hurling his captive audience into a reality unlike their own but entirely familiar and sympathetic too, with every measure of distance and time on the journey a vivid, moving landscape of fleeting eternity. Given this, Roma is his magnum opus, and a great, soulful machine of film.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Ralph Breaks the Internet

December 28, 2018 Leave a comment

Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018; Directed by Rich Moore & Phil Johnston)

When we last saw that big lovable lug Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) six years ago, he seemed to have found his place in the world at last. Once a stereotyped and excluded building-smashing arcade game villain, Ralph earned the respect of his coded-as-good peers in his home game of Fix-It Felix Jr. and across the rest of Litwak’s Arcade by heroic and selflessly helping another pariah, the cutesy but spunky Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), overcome a recurring nervous glitch and usurping monarch to regain her rightful place as the top performer in the candy-themed racing game Sugar Rush. Now Ralph and Vanellope are best friends, spending their off-hours together in Game Central Station, the main commuting hub of the arcade for video-game characters, sipping root beer in the bar from Tapper and watching the sun come up through the plug holes of their familiar power-bar terminal.

Ralph is loyal and big-hearted but a bit simple, so the repetition of life in the arcade suits him more than it does the bright, restless, and competitive Vanellope. When she expresses boredom at the prospect of racing along the same three track in Sugar Rush indefinitely, Ralph comes to her aid by punching a new course through the game’s saccharine landscape. Vanellope is thrilled at the new challenge, but her freewheeling navigation of Ralph’s course frustrates her human player outside in the arcade and leads to a broken part on the Sugar Rush machine that cannot be cheaply replaced. Sugar Rush is shut down, leaving Vanellope, her fellow racers, and the supporting characters in the game homeless, and Ralph feeling that he is to blame.

Moving through this surprisingly deft pixelated analogy for contemporary refugee crises (the other racer girls are adopted by Fix-It Felix Jr. and his tough-talking alien-shooting-game partner Calhoun, voiced by Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch respectively, in a parenthetical subplot consisting of a few parenting jokes), Ralph and Vanellope decide to try to save Sugar Rush by venturing through the arcade’s new Wifi router into the vast gleaming city-of-the-future of the Internet, where they hope to purchase the last available replacement steering wheel for Sugar Rush from eBay before the machine is sold off for parts and Vanellope and her fellow racers are left permanently homeless. But their quest will lead to an irrevocable change in their friendship when Vanellope comes across a tantalizing, challenging online open-world driving game called Slaughter Race and Ralph proves reluctant to let his friend follow her dreams there when they appear likely to separate her from him.

If Wreck-It Ralph peppered its narrative of outcasts overcoming exclusionary labels with vintage video game references and character cameos, then its sequel colours its story about accepting change and space in human relationships with a cascade of nods and winks to online culture, internet memes, major websites, and tech companies. The gags are imaginative and rapid-fire: web surfers are personified as squarish avatars which zip along in flying-car-like pods on information superhighways; Twitter is a twisting, towering tree forest, with thousands of tiny blue birds literally re-tweeting each other’s utterances; Instagram is envisioned as a huge art museum, with avatars gazing thoughtfully at snaps of plated food; motormouthed hustlers bustle about with their garish pop-up ads, only to be knocked away by g-man-like adblockers; down at street level is the dimly-lit, seedy Dark Web, with disreputable shops selling viruses and other not-exactly-legal goods and services are for sale; not far from there is a graveyard of past computer networking mainstays like public chatrooms and phone-line dial-up.

Some Internet locations are more detailed than others, as they play a key role in the plot. Google-esque search engine Knowmore features a professorial librarian (Alan Tudyk, who voiced a character in the first film too) who breathless attempts to autocomplete surfers’ hesitant searches. eBay is a vast series of physical auctions booths. Slaughter Race is a tough-as-nails, skull-tattoo-emblazoned, semi-post-apocalyptic urban wasteland gamescape, a Grand Theft Auto-like MMORPG presided over by master wheelwoman and gang queen Shank (Gal Gadot). Vanellope and Ralph try to earn the eBay auction payment money for the Sugar Rush part by stealing Shank’s car; they do not succeed, but the kid’s driving skills impress Shank and the unpredictable setting appeals to Vanellope, precipitating her ambition to move to the game and the pending friendship schism with a clingy Ralph.

Ralph then becomes a viral star at YouTube-like video upload site BuzzzTube with the help of Shank’s hip and savvy bud Yes (Taraji P. Henson) in an effort to raise the necessary funds to pay for their eBay bid, hoovering up heart-shaped likes with ghost-pepper challenges and photoshopped screaming goats and bee puns. But Vanellope, trawling for hits and likes for Ralph’s videos, ventures into the gigantic castle-shaped website of the film’s producing and distributing studio, Disney. In between cartoon cameos from the studio’s many properties from classic animated characters to Marvel superheroes (I Am Groot jokes, ahoy!) and a pursuit by Star Wars stormtroopers, Vanellope happens upon a dressing room full of Disney princesses (many of whom are voiced by the actresses who played them in their original films).

There follows a pretty funny and sharp critical analysis (over the first minute of the linked clip only) of the studio’s common princess tropes: “Do animals talk to you?” the princesses ask Vanellope. “Were you poisoned? Cursed? Kidnapped and enslaved? Did people assume all of your problems got solved because a big, strong man showed up?” The princesses share with Vanellope their favoured method of self-reflection and dream-fulfillment: gaze thoughtfully into a body of water (“IMPORTANT water!”) and sing about their heart’s desire. After a false start or two, Vanellope pours out her yearning to explore an exciting new game realm in a hilarious showpiece musical number, “A Place Called Slaughter Race” (lyrics by Disney musical maven Alan Menken, no less!). This sequence’s humour largely stems from the incongruity of the visual and aural language of Disney Animation musical aspiration being applied to a hardcore car-battle game set in an atmosphere of gritty, lawless urban decay (dumpster fires, clouds of mace, a pigeon with one foot, a dollar store, etc.). Wreck-It Ralph showed a keener eye than its sequel for American class subtext, but this sequence at least gestures with a softened satirical glance towards the consequences of socioeconomic inequality and to its exploitative caricaturing in media like Rockstar’s GTA games.

Vanellope’s big strong man is not sufficiently supportive of her dreams, however, and Ralph’s insecure and possessive behaviour towards his friend drives Ralph Breaks the Internet to its narrative, emotional and thematic climax (the following discussion of which will spoil the rest of the film, FYI). In between its arcade-classic shout-outs and candy-coated whimsy, Wreck-It Ralph included resonant themes about the powerful and the marginalized, about the dangers of stereotypes, about sacrificing individuality for order, liberty for security, along the terms of what we call the social contract (and by “we”, I of course mean “Thomas Hobbes”). Ralph Breaks the Internet pivots with surprising emotional clarity and power to issues of psychological insecurity. Vanellope’s scrambled-code “glitch” now manifests when she feels anxious, a deft visual marker of the emotional condition.

But it’s Ralph’s masculine insecurities, his anxiety at losing his new best friend and being left alone again (understandable to an extent, given his outcast history in his game home), that predominate. It leads him to hijack Vanellope’s move to Slaughter Race with a virus named Arthur (provided to him by a Dark Web underworld blob creature given a Cockney gangster voice by Alfred Molina) that preys on and endlessly copies insecurities in programs, which first crashes Slaughter Race by replicating Vanellope’s glitch and then threatens the entirety of the Internet by producing hordes of needy, clingy Ralph clones. They swarm to topple monolithic buildings/sites like Amazon and then combine to form a King Kong-ish Big Ralph made up of Little Ralphs whose rampaging sparks a final emotional reckoning in Vanellope and Ralph’s friendship.

This surprisingly powerful climax blends emotional and thematic arcs with notable visual invention in the animation in an impressively cohesive manner. In this way, Ralph Breaks the Internet makes a strong point about unhealthy behaviour in relationships, about how poisonous possessiveness is driven by insecurity and fear of change and uncertainty. Although these themes and ideas are not connected directly and openly to displays of online toxic masculinity (Ralph does have a sad moment when he stumbles upon the mean comments about his BuzzzTube videos, but these are not gendered particularly) and their more broad effects, this is after all a movie with “Internet” in its title that suggests rather pointedly that poorly-coped-with male insecurity can be catastrophic at the micro and macro levels. Crucially, the resolution in the conflict at the heart of Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship in this movie is achieved not through accommodation and sacrifice on the female side of the equation, but through behaviour adjustments and psychological checks on the part of the male side, through the acceptance, albeit one tinged with melancholy, of uncertainty, lack of security, and separation from the ones you love.

Animated features are often manifested didactically, and cynical observers might even label them forms of ideological brainwashing of impressionable youth. However one approaches them, the best and most thought-out among them are not merely entertainment but texts of education, embedding emotional and ideological messages of worth to their young audience. Taken in this way, Ralph Breaks the Internet contains vital and potently expressed ideas about problematic behaviour in friendships and, by extension though not in this text itself about the connection between an adult man and a female child, in more adult relationships and social interactions as well.

The movie also contains many hallmarks of kid-focused entertainment: the script includes numerous re-orientating restatements of plot goals, launches with abandon into its many adventurous picaresque episodes at the expense of narrative pacing, and leaves aside or simply forgets some introduced elements. Its brand-name saturation and corporate synergy feels right for our contemporary post-capitalist reality but might honestly be a bit too much, especially with the relative lack of critique in that regard. There are also some burping jokes which I suppose children will love. Ralph Breaks the Internet is hardly perfect, but it features the considered sophistication and deeply-workshopped strength of narrative, thematic, and visual elements that one has come to expect from big-budget, high-level animated features, especially those under the Disney aegis. And if it teaches even one male child to avoid the emotional and social pitfalls of Disney’s numerous toxic, chauvinistic MRA-adjacent online critics, then it has provided an important service beyond a couple hours’ worth of solid diversion and entertainment.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Other Side of the Wind

December 26, 2018 Leave a comment

The Other Side of the Wind (2018; Directed by Orson Welles)

The filmic ouevre of Orson Welles was made to be written about, obsessively, rapturously, and above all inconclusively. Few other filmmakers have imbued their movies with so much of themselves, their ideas and beliefs and humour and pathos and tragedy and impossibly grandiose spirit. Welles balked at the thought of observers analyzing him through his films, but if he really felt that way, then he ought not to have poured so much of himself into them, filling them up like empty jars with kerosene and dropping in a lit match just to see what happens. Ultimately, even if he did not intend to make every film an extension of and commentary on his own richly-lived life, he couldn’t help himself. Orson Welles made movies as he lived: with all-consuming abandon and a completely voracious and unquenchable appetite.

When he finished those films, they were full to the brim with his boundless perfectionist energy, and thus were usually boundless, energetic perfectionist masterpieces. But he often did not finish them, for myriad reasons that tended to run towards the financial, practical, and even legal but were forever psychoanalytically diagnosed as deriving from the flaws of his own genius-level ambition or by-products of his enigmatic personality. Though a product of his times in a way that no film artist of our own era could possible be in the same way (one can just barely imagine a millennial Orson Welles today making a couple of brilliant Sundance-circuit indies before being signed on to make a Marvel movie; he’d make a pretty good one, too, probably, though might not get a chance to make a second), Welles’ epoch between the late 1930s and the start of the 1980s was in many ways the absolute wrong one for a filmmaker of his artistic predilections and methods. These decades comprised the golden age of Hollywood’s studio system, the rise of the European New Wave, then American film’s stunning metamorphosis under the influence of those works and of domestic social, cultural, artistic, and commercial forces. At every step, Welles found himself outside of not only the predominant trends and practices of the film mainstream but of its alternative, independent strands as well: his ambitions were too marginal for big-budget, profit-centric studio films and too grand for small, patchily-funded indies.

The Other Side of the Wind is probably Orson Welles’ most famous unfinished film, and was conceived and semi-executed by Welles self-reflexively and self-reflectively as a celluloid metaphor for the the themes and frustrations of his career, for his bemusement at his place in film history and at film history itself, and for the magic and the deceit of the movies. Conceived through the 1960s and filmed off and on from 1970 to 1976, The Other Side of the Wind has been mired in financial and legal disputes for 40 years which have involved unreliable producers, restrictions of French law, and the Iranian Revolution (the deposed Shah’s brother-in-law provided funding for the film, believe it or not). Now, finally, those issues have been sorted out, an edit and sound mix of the film completed, and Orson Welles’ final film, uncompleted and unreleased upon his death in 1985, can be streamed on Netflix alongside that Sabrina the Teenage Witch show, just as its creator intended.

The resulting finished product is part dated time capsule, part living, electrifying reclaimed masterwork, and all Orson Welles. The Other Side of the Wind takes Welles’ trademarked winking masked-autobiographical artistic themes and runs them to dizzying extremes. It’s the story of the final day of the life of a great, celebrated film director, J.J. “Jake” Hannaford (the magnificently craggy, stone-hewn John Huston). Hannaford, who made some classic films years ago in Hollywood but has built his reputation among cinephiles during creative exile in Europe before his swan-song return to the American cinema stage, is an obvious metaphorical stand-in for Welles himself, combined with the aggressive performative masculinity of Welles’ old Spanish-bullfight-enthusiast buddy Ernest Hemingway, whose death in 1961 was the spark that lit the film’s creative fuse in Welles’ tinder-dry mind.

The Other Side of the Wind introduces a dizzying array of characters (most of them based on then-current Hollywood figures that Welles knew and feuded with) who are travelling between the Paramount backlot and Hannaford’s desert home for a party celebrating the great auteur’s 70th birthday party, after which we are told that the man dies in a car crash that might be suicidal and might be accidental. These include Hannaford’s “mafia” of crew members, actors, and sundry hangers-on, other filmmakers (including cameos from French New Wave director Claude Chabrol, a stoned Dennis Hopper, now-disgraced CBS head exec Les Moonves, and a young Cameron Crowe), critics (including one based on Welles antagonist Pauline Kael, played by Susan Strasberg), and a gaggle of “film-freak” cineastes craving even the slightest snippet of brilliance from the great man (and dropping bitingly funny over-educated observations on his work like “the ontology of his iconography is so facile”).

Many of these film freaks are filming Hannaford and his entourage with handheld cameras, and therefore the party section of the film is presented as a mockumentary, furiously, energetically quick-cut between different lengths and grains of film. Like much of what Welles did in his films, this stylistic technique is now common practice but must have seemed, in the 1970s, revolutionary and strange. This mockumentary part of the film is contrasted with footage from Hannaford’s final film, a film-within-the-film also called “The Other Side of the Wind”, which is first screened for a dismissive Hollywood exec (Geoffrey Land, based on then-head of Paramount Robert Evans) and then shown in snippets during the party at Hannaford’s manse.

“The Other Side of the Wind” (the film inside The Other Side of the Wind, that is) is an aimlessly plotless experimental art film, a conscious parody of European New Wave movies about a young male drifter, played by Hannaford’s hand-picked lead John Dale (Robert Random), who desirously follows a sensuous, exotic, barely-clothed woman (referred to as a “Red Indian” by characters at the party, she is played by Croatian artist Oja Kadar, then Welles’ lover and partner) through blasted, post-apocalyptic locations and ruined backlot sets. Dale is conspicuously absent at Hannaford’s party (it’s suggested, with latent homoerotic whispers, that the director has used up and discarded many leading men in his time), and is replaced instead by a couple dozen dummies in the actor’s likeness perched on rocks above the pool like ravens of repressed reminder. Huston and Kadar shoot holes in the dummies with guns late in the film. The New Wave send-ups elsewhere in the film range from an unseen production in-joke (the Arizona home where most of Hannaford’s party was shot stood right next to a house blown up at the end of New Waver Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point) to openly droll mockery (a tangent of punchlines and puns name-dropping Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, and other luminaries of the movement).

If The Other Side of the Wind already sounds mind-bogglingly meta, rest assured that we have barely scratched the surface of how meta it is. Hannaford’s more-successful directorial protégé Brooks Otterlake is played by Peter Bogdanovich, who was, in the early 1970s, Welles’ more-successful directorial protégé. The character was originally played by impressionist Rich Little doing a Bogdanovich impersonation, but scheduling conflicts led to Little’s scenes being scrapped and Bogdanovich playing his own barely-fictionalized proxy. Welles plucked a blond waitress (Cathy Lucas) who couldn’t act to play a thinly-veiled version of Bogdanovich’s then-girlfriend Cybill Shepherd, and ends the party with a moment of betrayal between Hannaford and Otterlake that presaged a public falling-out between Welles and Bogdanovich (though Bogdanovich executive produces the finished film, and was instrumental in its eventual release). The scene in which Hannaford’s candy-sucking toady Billy Boyle (Norman Foster, in an apparent reference to aged-out former child star Mickey Rooney) screens footage from the unfinished “The Other Side of the Wind” for the doubtful studio exec in an attempt to secure the funding to finish it was shown by Welles himself at his American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award event in an attempt to secure funding to finish The Other Side of the Wind. Neither showcase worked. One nearly requires a flowchart to keep track of it all.

If The Other Side of the Wind sounds like an impenetrable thicket of inside references, art-film winks and nods, and intellectual navel-gazing, it’s not (only) that. This is the most kinetic, lively film that Welles ever made, largely because his chosen satirical targets required him to depart from from his usual style of directing, shot-making, and editing to either ape styles unlike his own (the New Wave stuff) or innovate entire new ones (the constantly intercutting, immediate mockumentary style) to achieve what he needed to. The Hannaford party scenes are a stunning flood of bon mots about Hannaford’s (and thus Welles’) life and work and about movies and Hollywood and humanity in general, each one cleverer than even the cleverest snatch of dialogue in a dozen other movies and also presented by Welles as taking the piss out of people impressed by such bon mots.

And even if “The Other Side of the Wind” is intended as a film-within-a-film send-up of Bergman-esque experiential art films, it’s better than all but the best of those films at being that. Its shots are wondrously composed, each frame a pure artistic creation by Welles and his cameraman/cinematographer Gary Graver (who shot B-movies and even porn films to make enough money to allow him to keep working with Welles on this movie). There are many beguiling reflection, mirror, and window shots of Dale’s pursuit of the woman (again, for a director who resisted the suggestion that his movies were mirrors on his own life, Welles constantly used and indeed mastered the symbolically charged use of mirrors in cinematography). There’s a bathroom orgy sequence, and an erotically impressionistic sex scene in a car on a rainy night (an incredible, gorgeous sequence which was among the AV Club’s film scenes of the year). Welles was a bit of a prude with his films, and considered sexuality and nudity to be unnecessary distractions from the fundaments of the narrative, but in copying the explicit content of New Wave film, he opens the floodgates on a rampant sensuality that was previously compressed into his camera’s voyeuristic gaze. “Is cinema a phallus?” one of the film freaks asks Hannaford at one point, and for Welles, it certainly is in this scene.

Most of all, The Other Side of the Wind sounds like a mess, but it isn’t. Or it is, but in a focused, intentional way that always makes perfect sense and always has its well-considered reasons. As is demonstrated (along with many of the other details of the production and Welles’ thinking about the film) in Morgan Neville’s documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead which accompanied the film’s Netflix release, Welles worked in a manner that often seemed haphazard or improvised (a criticism also levelled at Hannaford in the film), preferring to leave room for serendipitous moments of magic that were the heart of filmmaker for him (which he called “divine accidents”). He could also be cryptic or poetically vague when describing what his films were to be about: “This film is about the love of death”, he said of The Other Side of the Wind (the title itself is entirely cryptic, too), not exactly a pitch finely-tuned to appeal to a studio suit concerned with box office grosses.

But Welles always had a clear idea in his own capacious brain of what the final film should look like, even if his inability or (more likely) unwillingness to share the entirety of that vision with his collaborators could prove damagingly frustrating. Is this final, released version of The Other Side of the Wind, based on some of the master’s own rough assemblies and surviving instructions and guidelines, the film Orson Welles had in his head before he died? Of course we can’t know. But as a document of a master filmmaker’s obsessions and frustrations, of his craft and his humour and his aesthetic prankster’s energy, The Other Side of the Wind is tremendous.

This film might have come to life as a tiresome inside joke about the Hollywood glitterati who showered him with praise and awards for his past work but wouldn’t pony up for his future work, the talented young filmmakers who worshipped him while borrowing his techniques and style and surpassing his commercial success, the cinephiles who embalmed his achievements with self-serving treatises but did not create films of their own (Bogdanovich did the first before doing the second, typifying Welles’ appreciation and resentment of his young acolyte). But instead this film is a deceptively ambitious closing statement on a remarkable, turbulent career in filmmaking, a masterpiece about reaching your end with your self-critical faculties firing at all cylinders but with your legacy in doubt and ultimately in the hands of others, who will inevitably betray you in ways both small and large, unintentional and malicious, sadly unjust and entirely deserved. It’s a film about failure and tragedy, and it’s a gigantic, inspiring success. Whatever the particulars, that much had to be the intent of Orson Welles with The Other Side of the Wind, at the very least.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Free Solo

December 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Free Solo (2018; Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin)

Imagine, if you will, a remarkable, history-making, trailblazing human physical achievement, like the moon landing or the climbing of Mount Everest or flying across the Atlantic. Now imagine that achievement, this feat that no living person has done before, being filmed in real time, from numerous angles visual, emotional, and psychological. No matter how little one may know or comprehend about the chosen athletic discipline, marginal and niche-ish as it may be, it is possible from the filmed document to recognize the tremendous expertise, skill, effort, and mental focus required to do what none believed to be possible to achieve nor even remotely advisable to try, and, furthermore, why the document’s subject was the one to achieve it.

Free Solo is that document, Alex Honnold is that subject, and his free solo climb (ie. ascension alone, without the support of ropes, harnesses, other climbers, or any safety equipment whatsoever) of the iconic 3,000-foot granite rock face of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park is that achievement. Had Free Solo‘s directors, married couple and climbing film vets Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, simply filmed Honnold’s incredible climb (though even that wouldn’t have been simple in any way, in technical terms), this would be a remarkable film. But Free Solo is an impeccably crafted documentary narrative, giving a rounded perspective on Honnold’s peculiar history and personality and how it relates to his nigh-on suicidal free climbling goals. In doing so, the film provides some of the best insight one could ask for into the psychology and mental processes of high-achievement athletes.

Honnold performed his climb in June of 2017 (and if you think that knowing that he survives and succeeds spoils the vertiginous tension of his climactic assault on El Cap in the film, you would not be correct). Before showing us the fateful climb itself, Free Solo details Honnold’s preparations, his rope-assisted practice climbs, his injuries and false-start tribulations, his personal history and predilections, and his relationships. His girlfriend Sanni, his friend and climbing partner Tommy Caldwell (who has free-climbed alternate routes on El Cap in tandem with other climbers, including with Honnold earlier this year), and his acquaintances in Chin’s film crew all speak about the mortal danger attending free solo climbing, and how they all cope with the knowledge and emotional baggage of Honnold potentially falling to his death at any moment before their eyes (and lenses). For Chin and the film crew, the life-and-death stakes add a heavy new dimension to the standard wall-breaking post-modern thematic dilemma of the documentary filmmaker whose use of the camera interferes with the life of the subject. Chin and the others worry that if their climbing cameramen, remote cameras, and drones even slightly disrupt Honnold’s mental concentration or physical control, it could cost him his life.

That single-minded focus and control that Alex Honnold possesses, he tells the documentarians and other people appearing in the film, derive from his youth as a brainy loner with maladjusted, emotionally uncommunicative parents (he talks revealingly about how he had to teach himself to hug at age 23 or so). Both the mental capacity to focus on the herculean task of free solo climbing sheer rock walls (which involves rehearsing, taking detailed notes on, and memorizing grips, holds, and body shifts along every inch of the climbing route) and the psychological contortions required to compartmentalize the imminent threat of death should even the slightest thing go wrong are understood by Honnold to be essential to achieving his El Cap ascent.

But they are also personality flaws that interfere with his life and relationships when not climbing, a lifestyle which, although at his high level of the sport provides him with an income that he compares to that of “a moderately successful dentist”, involves constant travel and little in the way of settling down (he lives out of a van, and we see him eating straight out of a frying pan or a pot on a few occasions). Sanni is Honnold’s first steady girlfriend for some time, if not ever, and Free Solo is very honest in showing her struggles with his social difficulties and with the decently strong chance that he will one day die while climbing. This idea that what makes a person great at a certain sporting pursuit also renders them ill-equipped to live healthily in the real world is reminiscent of a similar contention in Bobby Fischer vs. the World (discussed in my review of the lesser fictionalized film version of his story, Pawn Sacrifice), but gives Free Solo a depth of insight that goes unlooked-for in niche extreme-sport films of this sort, and really in most documentaries in general.

But Free Solo is ultimately a spectacular, visceral document of an astounding physical feat and it never forgets that. Honnold’s climactic climb is shot from vertiginous angles gazing down past his body clinging to the rock, with thousands of feet of empty space between him and the ground (it might be a bit late in its release to make it happen, but Free Solo is the rare documentary that demands a big cinema screen). Marco Beltrami’s pulse-quickening score and anxious reaction shots from the ground heighten the tension to an almost unbearable pitch, as Honnold carefully, methodically, powerfully moves across and up the Nose of El Capitan. Especially anxious acrophobes should be warned away entirely, but even those who think themselves reasonably secure with precarious heights will find their palms growing sweaty watching Honnold work quite literally without a net. The effect is similar to that caused by the 3D simulated views over the upper edge of the World Trade Center towers in Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, only Alex Honnold’s gravity-defying feat had no CG assist as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s did.

Free Solo also has some superb elements of editing and construction, making not only the larger stakes but also the specific challenges and geography of El Capitan clear and obvious even to rock climbing neophytes. It heightens what is a highly specific feat in a niche sport into something far grander by demonstrating just how it is grand. But more than anything, this film details, with skill and intelligence and finally with transcendent spectacle, how and why Alex Honnold could do this remarkable thing. Free Solo shows us what it means to him to free climb El Capitan, and that gives us some idea of what it should mean to us.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports