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September 12, 2018

FREE SOLO

Free_soloTerrifying, invigorating, and heart-pounding describe this unforgettable documentary about free climber Alex Honnold and his efforts to climb Yosemite’s daunting 3,200 foot El Capitan Wall.

Co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“Meru”) delve into Alex’s guarded personality as he prepares for the treacherous climb that will define his life, whether or not he lives or dies attempting it.

We get a sense of the childhood elements that contributed to Alex’s obsession with free climbing even as he enters into a romantic relationship that threatens to derail the strict focus and discipline essential for him to accomplish his goals. Every millimeter of Honnold's mind and body must be diamond-sharp to execute the climb.

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Significant is the filmmakers’ willingness to delve into Alex’s meticulous rehearsal process using ropes and the help of master climber Tommy Caldwell to prepare for the solo climb. As Caldwell puts it, “Imagine an Olympic gold medal-level achievement where if you don’t get that gold medal, you’re going to die.”

Placing cameras along various places on Alex’s path up the behemoth mountain allow him to climb without being distracted by buzzing drones or cameramen.

Alex Honnold

With his large dilated brown eyes and wiry frame, Honnold resembles a young Iggy Pop at the height of his powers circa the Bowie-produced “Lust for Life” era. Honnold’s easy charisma masks onion layers of emotional armor that his doting girlfriend Sanni McCandless pokes and prods at to varying levels of guarded verbal responses from our brave protagonist.

El Capitan

Alex Honnold carries the spirit if a samurai warrior with him. Hearing him describe the grips, holds, and complex maneuvers necessary to climb El Capitan’s sheer face, convince the viewer of his amazing climbing abilities that most of humanity hasn’t the first clue about. Here is a man who knows his limitations and how to push them right to the edge of existence.

To watch “Free Solo” is to take a journey into an incredibly dangerous if joyful world of free physical expression. Go on the adventure of a lifetime. The rewards are enormous.

Not rated. 97 mins. (A+) 

Five Stars

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August 19, 2018

BLINDSPOTTING

Blindspotting“Blindspotting” carries the burden of associating itself with Danny Boyle’s 1996 mind-blower “Trainspotting.” The slang term blindspotting refers to “a situation or image” that is interpreted in two different ways. If you’ve seen the picture that resembles either a vase or two faces, then you’ll know it when you see it referenced in the film. It’s a fair enough title to pin your movie on even if it comes off as derivative, overwrought, and a little precious. Accordingly, these are all terms that apply to “Blindspotting,” an amateurish effort at addressing the plight of young blacks, and their similarly hip-hop culture-informed white compatriots, in and around socially troubled, and trigger-happily policed Oakland, California.

Collin (co-writer/actor Daveed Diggs) is finishing up his final days living in a probation house after serving a term in the pokey for an incident that occurred at a bar where Collin’s childhood best friend Miles (Rafael Casal) was the bouncer. The wardrobe department puts too fine a point on the film’s regional location with Collin wearing so many shirts that say, "Oakland" that you’ll never want to visit the East Bay wearing any other such attire.

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Collin is black, Miles is white. Collin doesn’t have enough common sense, or character judgement, to recognize Miles as the biggest threat to his reentering free society. Miles is this film’s antagonist, as much as local cops who treat Oakland like minority hunting ground, although most audiences won’t pick up on it. The pals drive trucks for a moving company. On his way home Collin witnesses a cop shoot and kill an innocent civilian. Needless to say, he can’t get the violent memory out of his head. Oh tourism. 

The movie hits cliché rut whenever female characters come into the picture. Dialogue gets downright cheesy when the boys talk to girls. Collin is still hung up on the girlfriend who never once visited him in the slammer. Miles lives with his baby mama and child even as he recklessly carries a gun around for safety. The longtime buddies speak in hip-hop lingo as they help rich white folk move into their gentrifying neighborhood.  Bromance is good, tech yuppies are evil.  

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Form is another of this film’s weaknesses. The movie jolts in fits and starts with scenes that don’t always move the story along, or provide character motivation. There is a better movie hiding somewhere inside of this one, but this is the one we’re stuck with.

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Inspiration is the main thing “Blindspotting” has going for it. The film is energized by two young (relatively unknown) actors putting skin in a film they believe in. Newcomer director Carlos López Estrada doesn’t possess the skills necessary to make every scene work, or to excise crumby dialogue, but “Blindspotting” is nonetheless fascinating from a social perspective. America’s ever-festering boil of racism continues to claim the lives of minorities and those unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when guns are drawn. “Blindspotting” plays it safe; who can blame it for that?

Rated R. 95 min. (C) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)

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August 14, 2018

BlacKkKLansman

BlackkklansmanSpike Lee’s latest failure “BlacKkKLansman” is all the more disappointing for its squandered potential bite as a satirical take on modern race relations between whites and blacks in America (see “new boss same as the old boss”). Lee creates a safe pastiche of commercial embraces that include a 1972 approved “Soul Train” vision of [dancing] black activists, and a storyline without a dramatic arc. Lee ends up equating black activists (read radicals) with David Duke’s motley crew of Klansmen (a group that does not always exclude women). These insults are exacerbated by an overlong running time that turns the movie into a dead-end marathon. Things get tedious. 

Spike Lee’s dramatic sins are many in this picture. Stylistically, “BlacKkKLansman” has a cliché riddled design that reads as mundane when Lee manages to properly light the shot. Thematically, the film is preachy without ever throwing down on its ostensible political agenda.

However the hairstyle that Lee’s lead actor John David Washington wears (courtesy of Shaun Perkins and La Wanda M. Pierre), for his character Ron Stallworth, is exquisite. Washington works his fro with a deadpan delivery that borders on cartoonish but stays firmly tongue-in-cheek. Still, Washington never gets the chance to run with the story due to a by-committee script (with four credited screenwriters) based on Ron Stallworth’s autobiography. 

Audiences will always fall for the old “based on a true story” ploy. Don’t believe the hype.

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Newbie police officer Ron Stallworth is a lucky guy. Not only is he Colorado Springs' first black cop, but he moves up from file clerk to undercover detective overnight. Stallworth strikes up a groovy romance with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), president of the local Black Rights group. The group’s message of “all power to all people” hits home when Stallworth attends a rally featuring keynote speaker Kwame Ture (a.k.a. Stokely Carmichael) in fine form.

Ron keeps Patrice in the dark about his occupation, which involves teaming up with his police partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, i.e. “the organization.” The movie could potentially go in an entertaining direction, but it does not.

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Stallworth and Zimmerman make a pass at matching their voices to avoid suspicion since their ruse relies on Stallworth’s ability to sound immaculately white while talking on the (police precinct) phone to various Ku Klux Klansmen, including David Duke himself (as played blankly by Topher Grace). Did no one on Lee’s team consider that using the police precinct desk phone might not be the best way for an “undercover” officer to remain undercover. What happens when David Duke calls Ron Stallworth, and the voice on the line says, “89th police precinct”? Busted. Yet these screenwriters got paid.

Still, plot holes are sadly the least of this film’s worries. Spike Lee and his band of merry writers never settle on this film’s genre. “BlacKkKLansman” sounds like a social satire, think Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” It could be a true crime biopic (see "Serpico"). On paper it should be a buddy flick a la “Lethal Weapon.” It could also be a black comedy, which would must needs involve a murder or three (think “Fargo”).

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Instead we get a mediocre, [politically] middle-of-the-road movie that shows its tell card at the film's end when Spike Lee editorializes over the closing credits with violent scenes from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia where Heather Heyer was the victim of a car attack. Lee’s effort at commentary is ham-fisted as it is naive. Lee only  points out what this film needed to be if it was going to address America's ongoing incremental genocide of black people in any meaningful way.

What would it have taken for Spike Lee to go balls to the walls like he did on his best film "Do The Right Thing"? We'll never know.  

 Rated R (135 mins) (C-) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)

Footnote: If you want to check out a movie that handles the complexities and prejudices of race relations in America, see "Six Degrees of Separation," it's currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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August 03, 2018

NICO 1988

Nico 1988Writer-director Susanna Nicchiarelli crafts a brief biopic about Velvet Underground legend Nico that is at turns inspired, frustrating, thrilling, and inchoate. Trine Dryholm’s unvarnished performance holds the film together with a weathered beauty teetering on the edge of an abyss that only her drug-addled character can see. One element missing from the film is any regard for the stunning beauty of Nico’s youth — she worked as a model — who captured the hearts, minds, and libidos of Jackson Browne, Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, Brian Jones, Jimmy Page, and notably Alain Delon with whom she had a son named Ari. Never mind that Delon never claimed the child who Nico abandoned when he was four-years-old.

Dryholm embodies the tone-deaf chanteuse with the same nihilistic charisma that Lou Reed freely exhibited for most of his career. Nico clearly copped Reed’s heroin habit and refused to ever let it go. Her fascination with death comes through in the songs of her later career as featured in the film.

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Audiences unfamiliar with Nico’s ‘60s era collaborations with Reed and The Velvet Underground, under the guidance of Andy Warhol, receive no hand-holding in this film. If you don’t already know the haunting sound of Nico’s baritone European accented voice on the songs “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “Femme Fatal,” or “Sunday Morning,” then you’ve got some homework to do.

Living a junkie existence with a band of amateur musicians, save a classically trained violinist, Nico (real name Christa Päffgen) performs for small audiences around Eastern Europe. Border crossings pose imminent danger. She hates the communist youths that risk jail to host her performance. She also loathes her fans, especially if they appear in the guise of naïve young women.  

Nico-1988

We get that Nico was a child of war; she carries around a portable recorder to capture source sounds from the environments she visits, in the hope of rediscovering the sound of Berlin being bombed when she was a tyke. Nico longs for annihilation.

Ultimately, “Nico 1988” fails because it never convinces the audience as to why we should empathize with this brutal person. That Nicchiarelli omits the moment of Nico’s lonely death on a bicycle in Ibiza, comes across as laziness on the part of the filmmaker. “Nico 1988” is a solid showcase for Trine Dryholm but it doesn’t make a case for Nico’s music.  

Rated R. 99 mins. (C+) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)

July 25, 2018

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — FALLOUT

Mission_impossible__falloutMI6 fulfills everything the Mission: Impossible franchise has to offer if not much more. Tom Cruise’s frequent directorial collaborator and “Fallout” co-screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (“Jack Reacher,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” and “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation”) orchestrates the film’s overblown action with meticulous attention to detail, perhaps a little too much.

The car chase sequences, while impressive, don’t come near the unpredictable nature of the one William Friedkin filmed for “To Live and Die in L.A.” Still, there is plenty of splashy gravity defying spectacle to wash over you as you watch a movie that was clearly made with an IMAX screen in mind. The stunts are gut wrenching, and the helicopter stunts are out of this world.

You need every inch of that 80’ by 100’ IMAX screen to experience what the filmmakers have in mind, which is to blow yours. Another trip through the editing process would have helped tighten the pace but no one is coming out of this film not feeling like they didn’t get their money’s worth.

Fallout

The politics of the MacGuffin-laden plot are sufficiently bland so that no audience member feels left out or put upon regardless of their political leanings. Even anarchists should feel right at home with this film’s cartoonish narrative design since the villain here is a Ted Kaczynski knock off. Bad guy number one has a crew of “Apostles” helping him destroy world order. Don’t worry, there’s only one bloody scene in the whole movie, and the rest of the violence is strictly of the cartoon variety. Our height-challenged action man Ethan Hunt (Cruise) still receives his mission assignments in the same old-school method of a self-destructing reel-to-reel tape.

MI6

Considering the franchise landscape at hand, what surprises most are the casting choices that fail. Alec Baldwin’s IMF character Alan Hunley (Ethan’s boss) seems like he walked onto the wrong set on the day he needed to shoot the handful of scenes he’s in. However, Baldwin does deliver one primo piece of acting while performing one of dramaturgy’s most traditional tropes. No plot spoiler here; you’ll know it when you see it. Angela Bassett also falls flat, regardless of her ageless beauty, as CIA director Erica Sloan. Bassett’s tempo and tone don’t match with the movie as a whole.

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What does work in the character department is the reliable chemistry between Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, and Tom Cruise. Here is an onscreen friendship that feels like an old pair of slip-on house shoes. Michelle Monaghan is as perfect as it gets for onscreen romance. No shortage of mask disguises provides a series of nods to the original “Mission: Impossible” television show, while providing the movie with some nifty plot twists that register with an added amount of humor. And yes the super-action men's room fistfight is a hoot.

“Mission: Impossible” is the closest thing Hollywood has to a James Bond franchise it’s got going, and going it is. Tom Cruise will soon be too old to play the part of a stunt-happy super spy. Get it while you can on the biggest IMAX screen you can find.  

Not rated. 147 mins. (A-) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

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July 24, 2018

AMERICAN ANIMALS

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July 03, 2018

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO

Sicario_day_of_the_soldadoScreenwriter Taylor Sheridan cut his teeth on this film’s unimpressive prequel but his slack effort with a mucky melodramatic sequel is still no bueno.

Anyone looking for an equal amount of truth as you get from an episode of Hugh Laurie’s television-pleaser “House,” will be disappointed. This is agitprop junk politics in the interest of normalizing hellishly violent acts, frequently involving children, in the context of America’s raging border war against immigrant refugees. Exploitation is the genre at play, but not the cool one (see "Faster, Pussycat Kill! Kill!" for that). 

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Soldado is Spanish for soldier. You can guess which of this film’s four ostensible leading characters (Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Elijah Rodriguez) is the subject of the title. Keep in mind that two of the four are teenaged children.

Naturally, it is Josh Brolin’s square-jawed mercenary Matt Graver whose “day” involves kidnapping a teenage girl (Isabela Moner), dragging her through a series of grotesque episodes of war violence because that’s just how Matt rolls, deadly style. Never mind that the poor girl will probably never be able to speak again. That’s normal. Or so this movie wants you to believe.

Don’t go looking for continuity between this movie and the first film. Any matching details are purely coincidental. In this nightmare view of the ongoing real-life nightmare of America’s self-imposed border crisis, U.S. President James Riley (Matthew Modine) is a warmonger nut job. President Riley has a sit-down with Josh Brolin’s roid-rager mercenary Matt Graver that births a plan to kidnap the teenage daughter of a prominent Mexican drug lord, sticking the blame on another cartel, and letting shite hit the fan. Stupid is as stupid does. War is the goal, endless wars and the fat military, mercenary, and prison price tags that come with it.

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We’re in an age where it’s a given that the U.S. Government deals strictly in corrupt activities. Suicidal body-bomb terrorists from New Jersey are rebranded as Cartel terrorists so the U.S. military can have carte blanch, as if they didn’t already have it before. Just to be clear, Mexican drug cartels are supposedly transporting Islamic terrorists across the border to the country that Mexico’s desperate immigrants are seeking safety within.

Graver and his team (including Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro) kidnap Isabela Reyes in the false flag operation.

Miguel, a start-up teen gangster (played by Elijah Rodriguez) is looking to come up fast in the local cartel when he spots Alejandro after nearly being run over. Miguel’s memory later sparks a shark-jumping double climax that lets its audience know this drawn-out melodrama of lawyers, guns, and money has its tongue firmly in cheek. Sure, there’s even a bloody hole in the cheek, just to prove it.

Rated R. 122 mins. (D) (One star — out of five / no halves)

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