Free Solo

RATING: [B|🍅]

The prologue to Free Solo is Mountain: beginning appropriately with William Dafoe narrating over a solo climb of Hannold asking what is this “siren-song of the summit” that beckons man upward. A Malick-esque documentary that dives into the human drive to challenge the expanses of nature and the consequences therein of nature’s sound & fury. A dive into the psychology of fear that drives our inner beings into not only striving to sit at the summit, but also reaching the corners of our fears to lay atop the rock of  Sisyphus. As Dafoe narrates: “the mountains we climb are the mountains of the mind.”

And so, it begins…

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Free Solo is a mesmerizing feat behind the still-walls of Alex Honnold’s resolve to conquer Yosemite’s 3,000 foot El Capitan Wall through the glaze of surrounding concerns and dangers with a brain uniquely tasked for the challenge. Certainly nothing as impressive as this will likely be achieved in my lifetime and what really makes Free Solo special is the serendipitous moments along the way that build suspense and curiosity despite the end being preordained. Here was a man dedicated to mastering the massive rock, inch-by-inch. A manic, on the edge of the precipice, reminiscent of those words of G.K. Chesterton on doctrine:

I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing.

What makes this film even more special is the quirky character of Hannold whose dedication and personality complex makes his dry, at times, callous aloofness to the surrounding humanity, instrumental to becoming the indifference of Nature in order to overcome Nature’s veritable relics. There was a moment where Hannold returns to the domesticated day-to-day monotony of existence and almost seems to surrender to the void of safety. And yet, he returns, in an almost brilliant anti-climactic assault with The Wall as a fitting reminder that in most great battles, it is the anticipation that often shatters our resolve.

But not this day.

Free Solo

RATING: B

 

Venom

RATING: [D+|👎]

There seems to be an unspoken rule about “superhero” films and other comic-to-film adaptations that the main character(s) cannot be upstaged. This makes sense in the regard that those characters are the reason audiences are excited to watch the films in the first place, but sometimes the concept limits the overall film. This is sadly the case with Venom as Tom Hardy gives an excellent performance as Eddie Brock, as well as providing an excellent voice to the titular symbiote.

For those who aren’t familiar with the anti-hero and the subsequent host, Eddie Brock is an investigative journalist who will do just about anything to get a lead that justifies his gut feelings of a story. This makes him the quintessential “that guy” who’s pretty much just out for himself. Hardy’s presentation of the character is understandably self-loathing, yet oddly endearing as most audience members can at least recognize someone who can’t seem to get out of their own way to personal development. Then as Venom merges with Brock, those character traits are magnified as both characters find themselves wrestling with similar issues and insecurities.

The film seems to adopt this same characteristic, though. Hardy’s performance is the only one that seems to carry any weight and depth as all the other characters are as two-dimensional as the comics that spawned the story. The showing from the supporting cast was so weak that it would seem insulting to include them in this critique. I sincerely hope that Todd McFarlane wasn’t using this film as a test run for how to make a passable film adaptation of Spawn, as so many of his stories are driven by a host of characters; not just one (or would it be “two” in this case?). Sadly, this wasn’t the only draw-back to the film.

One thing that is inherent with Venom’s character is violence that’s just shy of the likes of Deadpool. Venom seems like the victim of last-minute cutting floor edits to make it fit in with a PG-13 rating. This is baffling in an industry that already knows an R-rated anti-hero film can be successful. It seems that McFarlane is already frustrated with creative differences over his creations, so perhaps there’s a chance for future iterations of his tales. Some potential saving graces for Venom include the rumour that an R-rated cut will be available in some edition of the BluRay release, and that there is plenty of room for a sequel with more unhinged characters in the Symbiote story-line.

All that said, I think fans of the character will ultimately be disappointed with this first stand-alone appearance of Venom, even though it is a vast improvement on the last time the character was on-screen. It’s exciting to see the character get a chance to establish himself on his own merits, but this only shows potential for what a Venom film could be outside of Spiderman. Die-hard fans of the character are understandably excited about this, but that lustre will likely tarnish over time if this is his only solo film outing.

RATING: D+

Blaze

RATING: [B|🍅]

“It’s more than 20 years since Townes died, nearly 30 years for Blaze. To this day, some people maintain that Townes Van Zandt was the worst thing to happen to Blaze Foley. Some say the opposite. Every tragedy needs a villain, I suppose.”

[Sybil Rosen]

A finely entangled tapestry of blues and biographical piece-writing, Blaze finds itself among the best recent films (e.g. Born to be Blue, Inside Llewyn Davis) that tells the story of a musician on his road to the heights and lows. A musician who, described by his “muse,” Sybil Rosen, “fell into a tree house in the woods, gleefully poor and frequently mind-altered, and there . . . began to dream up the legend of Blaze Foley.” A musician who loved to make music but refused to become the industry manufactured product so many entertainers today become. And, oh yea, a musician who loved to drink himself into self-sabotage.

Based on the biographical work of Rosen, Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foleythe film “which runs on heartbreak and bad decisions” is an unsteady and relentless drawing of deep water that forces the audience to forfeit their own self-awareness and become engrossed with the life on-screen. As Bill Goodykoontz (AZ Central) writes, “the kind of movie that, if you give yourself to it, you’ll love.” There is an uncanny parallel with La La Land in the way that Blaze (musician) and Sybil (actress) sharpen one another, as Brian Tallerico (Roger Ebert) notes, a “dynamic in which one person helps bring out the artistic dimensions of another.”

Bleak and unapologetic, with moments of deep self-reflection in the pursuit of a complimentary depiction of the music that made the man and the man who made the music. Ethan Hawke does a brilliant job weaving together the three-fold narrative between the storytelling of Townes Van Zandt (played by Charlie Sexton), the storytelling by Blaze Foley (played by Ben Dickey) in his songwriting, and the actual events being pieced together from the two fabrics. A challenging editing project that works wonders in its impeccable capacity to tell a story that I suspect, in less capable hands, could have been a serious bore.

There is also something that needs to be said about the seriously impressive first time performance from Ben Dickey. With so much hype around Richie Merritt (White Boy Rick), it’s really Dickey — alongside Helena Howard (Madeline’s Madeline) — who deserve the recognition for this years break-out performances.

Go see it!

RATING: B

Mandy

RATING: [B-|🍅]

“When I die, bury me deep”

[Douglas Roberts]

Behind the veil of its absurdity and violence is a beautiful landscape of psychedilic sound and color driven by the maniac desire for revenge no matter the cost. Nicholas Cage returns in a big way as only Nicholas Cage can return: drinking vodka on the toilet wearing tighty whities in eager anticipation for a death match with Hellraiser bikers and killing religious sociopaths with self-forged weapons. A “fantasy feature awash in physical and emotional violence.” A film entrapped between the coalescence of the familial grounding of isolation and the capacity of man to exhibits itself in the evils of the occult. Alone and debased, Cage, in the immemorial words of Denzel Washington in Man on Fire, has just one more life to take. Summarized best by Eric Kohn (Indie Wire):

Panos Cosmatos’ followup to his wacky debut, “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” is another stunning dose of psychedelia and derangement, this one folded into the constraints of a woodsy revenge thriller, but that’s mainly an excuse for Cage to unleash his most psychotic extremes. Cosmatos gives him plenty of opportunities in this hypnotic midnight movie, which veers from astonishing, expressionistic exchanges to gory mayhem without an iota of compromise

Not to be outdone is Andrea Riseborough — “lending a lysergic nervousness to her heroine” — and continuing to impress with her haunting depictions of female characters ready to take an emotional chainsaw to the face of the audience with impunity (see also Nancy). If you’re looking for an acid trip inside a madhouse while questioning the nature of your reality to the sound of King Crimson and Jóhann Jóhannsson, you’ve come to the right place.

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RATING: B-

Hold the Dark

RATING: [C-|👎]

You like to think you’re devoted to your child. And you tell people this, “I’d do anything for ’em, anything.” And…it feels correct in your mouth when you say it, and you just go ahead with your life.

Russell Core

Hold the Dark is an interesting film, to say the least. It touches on profound topics such as grief and mourning, justice, and “closure.” The film attempts to deal with these topics, but they tend to get lost in the theme. The primary theme has to deal with wolves, both literal and metaphorical. Both the “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and the “sheepdog metaphor” can be seen at play in their contrasting juxtaposition.

Since this page is more focused on the technical aspects of film making and not the nuances of story telling and thematic arches, I’ll digress from the latter point. That in mind, please forgive me if I mention distinctions between the two metaphors from this point forward. The reason for that is simply because so much of the sordid story has those elements finely engrained.

Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) is an author who has dedicated his work to the study of wolves, and has been asked to investigate the death of a young boy in a rural Yup’ik village by the boy’s mother, Medora Slone (Riley Keough). Medora believes her son was taken and killed by a pack of wolves, and wants Russell to find evidence of this as well as cull one of the suspected animals before her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), returns from his deployment. Vernon is sent home due to a battlefield injury, and finds his wife missing and his son deceased.

From that summary alone, know that antidepressants will compliment your viewing snacks. Russell figures out his real part to play in the story in the beginning of the second act, stating that he thinks he needs to “tell her story.” In that sense, and without giving spoilers, that’s where the concept of “closure” comes in to play.

As expected from Wright, he delivers the same quality of performance that audiences have come to expect from him. Keough performs her role in a manner that is jarring yet oddly convincing, whereas Skarsgård plays a rigid role that is quite telling of his character’s overly controlled nature.

There’s a clear line between people who fall in the category of sheepdogs, and those that more closely resemble a wolf in sheep’s clothing (and sometimes in sheepdog’s clothing). This is visually presented to great effect in the film! While this is used for foreshadowing, it’s more frequently used for distinguishing the proper archetypes of the characters.

As a whole, Hold the Dark is a decent film with a story that is reminiscent of Eastern European classics, that is to say simple and melancholy. However, this doesn’t tend to bode well in film, and is sparsely delivered to give the audience a point of reflection. For example, The Brothers Bloom excelled with this style of ending in the fact that is delivered a clear happiness wrapped in the more depressing aspects. Hold the Dark on the other hand only presents a slimmer of happiness that is so vague it’s lost in the darker elements.

I’ve voiced my concerns about Netflix Originals before, and this is an improvement. But only just. Quality actors, quality directing, and a good story are all great elements of a film, but they don’t mean much if the whole of the story leaves the audience confused and conflicted.

RATING: C-

October

Here is what we’re excited to see this month

IN THEATRES

VENOM – October 5

Venom

When Eddie Brock acquires the powers of a symbiote, he will have to release his alter-ego “Venom” to save his life. Wouldn’t be on my radar but for Tom Hardy.

Trailer.

A STAR IS BORN – October 5

star is born

A musician helps a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral. Major buzz for this movie after it picked up momentum at the Venice Film Festival.

Trailer.

THE GREAT BUSTER – October 5

Buster

Documentary from Pete Bogdonavich about the great silent era comedian and innovator, Buster Keaton.

Trailer.

FIRST MAN – October 12

First Man

A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969. From the young director of Whiplash and La La Land. Overheard someone at Telluride Film Festival saying that Damien Chazelle told them that the movie needs to be seen in IMAX, so if you’ve got the money, go do that.

Trailer.

BEAUTIFUL BOY – October 12

Beautiful Boy

Based on the best-selling pair of memoirs from father and son David and Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy chronicles the heartbreaking and inspiring experience of survival, relapse, and recovery in a family coping with addiction over many years. I’d trust this more if it was from Linklater, but could be immensely impactful.

Trailer.

WILDLIFE – October 19

Wildlife

In 1960, a boy watches his parents’ marriage fall apart after the three of them move to Montana and his mother falls in love with another man. Directed by Paul Dano.

Trailer.

HALLOWEEN – October 19

Halloween

Laurie Strode comes to her final confrontation with Michael Myers, the masked figure who has haunted her since she narrowly escaped his killing spree on Halloween night four decades ago.

Trailer.

SERENITY – October 19

Serenity

The mysterious past of a fishing boat captain comes back to haunt him, when his ex-wife tracks him down with a desperate plea for help, ensnaring his life in a new reality that may not be all that it seems. I like Steven Knight as a writer (Locke, Peaky Blinders) so anything he does, I will consider.

Trailer.

MID90s – October 19

mid90s

Follows Stevie, a thirteen-year-old in 90s-era LA who spends his summer navigating between his troubled home life and a group of new friends that he meets at a Motor Avenue skate shop.

Trailer.

BURNING – October 26

Burning

Jong-su, a part-time worker, bumps into Hae-mi while delivering, who used to live in the same neighborhood. Hae-mi asks him to look after her cat while she’s on a trip to Africa. When Hae-mi comes back, she introduces Ben, a mysterious guy she met in Africa, to Jong-su. One day, Ben visits Jong-su’s with Hae-mi and confesses his own secret hobby. Very excited for this film.

Trailer.

SUSPIRIA – October 26

Suspiria

A darkness swirls at the center of a world-renowned dance company, one that will engulf the artistic director, an ambitious young dancer, and a grieving psychotherapist. Some will succumb to the nightmare. Others will finally wake up.

Trailer.

STREAMING

Making A Murderer: Part 2 – October 19 On Netflix

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We know it has been a few years since the 10 episode of this first season came on the scene, and maybe you have forgotten some things. Here is a link to a Forbes article with some great reminders. Netflix will release another 10 episodes this month, that will focus on what has happened after the conviction.

Trailer.

Netflix:

  • Mystic River (October 1) (88% RT 🍎) (8.0 IMDb) – Clint Eastwood (director)
  • V for Vendetta (October 1) (73% RT 🍎) (8.2 IMDb) – The Wachowskis (writers)
  • The Shining (October 1) (86% RT 🍎) (8.4 IMDb) – Stanley Kubrick (director)

Amazon Prime

  • The Illusionist (October 1) (73% RT 🍎) (7.6 IMDb)
  • The Man In The High Castle Season 3 (October 5) (8.1 IMDb)
  • Mr. Robot Season 3 (October 11) (8.6 IMDb)
  • The Romanoffs Season 1 (October 12) (NA IMDb) – creators of Mad Men

Hulu

  • Raging Bull (October 1) (95% RT 🍎) (8.2 IMDb) – Martin Scorsese (director)
  • Mulholland Drive (October 1) (83% RT 🍎) (8.0 IMDb) – David Lynch (director)
  • Ace Ventura Pet Detective (October 1) (46% RT) (6.9 IMDb)
  • Ace Ventura When Nature Calls (October 1) (33% RT) (6.3 IMDb)
  • RBG (October 3) (94% RT 🍎) (7.5 IMDb) – Ruth Bader Ginsburg as herself

HBO

  • Fantastic Mr. Fox (October 1) (92% RT 🍎) (7.8 IMDb) – Wes Anderson (director)
  • Dances With Wolves (October 1) (82% RT 🍎) (8.0 IMDb) – Kevin Costner (director)
  • Man On Fire (October 1) (39% RT ) (7.7 IMDb) – Tony Scott (director)
  • Inherent Vice (October 1) (73% RT) (6.7 IMDb) – Paul Thomas Anderson (director)

A Simple Favor

RATING: [C|👎]

I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.”

[Rainer Maria Rilke]

A mildly entertaining crime noir mystery that reduces itself to the usual legerdemain, but not before creating a fascinating female character (Blake Lively) driven by a few choice lines that adds unique character depth to an already flawless presence. A Simple Favor is a about an opportune encounter between an involved mother (Anna Kendrick) who makes the time to raise her son and another (Lively) who, despite having a semblance of parenting, is mostly aloof and unfiltered in her drinking, sexuality, and unapologetic misanthropy. When Lively goes missing, Kendrick is forced to uncover the mystery by using her more than competent investigative skills of cunning deceit and personality that she strangely couldn’t employ to be less awkward socially. I won’t bore you with the details because the movie will do that for me if you decide to watch  it on your next international flight. As Katie Walsh (LA TIMES) puts it: “about as deep as a champagne coupe, but the performers, slick execution and pop-art style make it a delightfully fun and kitschy ride.” Or Josephine Livingstone (New Republic):

As each bizarre revelation layers over the last, it becomes clear that the problem with A Simple Favor is not really the inconsistent styling (sixties cool, but make it … YouTube?) or the TV-paced humor, but the poor plot underpinning it all. This story makes no sense, and Feig has packaged it inside a patchwork of styles that amplifies rather than conceals the movie’s problems.

No offense to Manohla Dargis (NY TIMES) who takes to the bland exhibitionism and incestual impiety of Kendrick (“the movie belongs to Ms. Kendrick”) with feverish incompetence, missing wholly that the character is little more than an impetuous grow-up stuck with a need for adult attention and infants ability to resist temptation (in any form, even babysitting for free). Her transformation is wholly manufactured, left to little more than a stand-in relief for saying “brother-f*ck**r.”

Lively, on the other hand, is special. Certainly not Oscar worthy, as David Ehrlich has suggested (I guess we shouldn’t expect much when he put the Phantom Thread below The Post in his year-end top 25). She embodies the Serena van der Woodsen who grew up, became successful, utterly jaded and fed up with the world — a rare combination matched with capable and balanced writing that is usually not seen in films that don’t involve Jessica Chastain.

simple favor 2

The writer Jessica Sharzer manages to create in Lively an almost perfect blend of dry comedy and self-destructive vainglory that could have been a fascinating character study into the power and allure of the modern-day feminist expression without the usual preachy license that accompanies films of the same breed (e.g. Blockers). Sure the critics did their usual predictable adulation for an otherwise average film because it preached the progressive mantra of female empowerment and sexual liberation, but there was something beyond the pale imitations that struck at the core of sheer competence and the accompanying sense of self-loathing. Take a Lively and mix her with the likes of Gillian Anderson in The Fall and you’ve got a recipe for an all female True Detective spin-off without the pomp and circumstance of Scandal. This theme is only marginally exploited as Paul Feig takes the film straight into the ground with sheer predictability and ridiculous end game balloons, but it was enough to entice in hopes some semblance of Lively’s former self returns.

And while it never does, the early images are indelible.

RATING: C