Comprised solely of contemporaneous archival footage updated via high resolution digital scans, there is no commentary or exposition for this documentary of the moon landing mission. It is contemplative and, at times, spellbinding, but can also be somewhat sterile. Still, rather than the standard commentators whinging on about the greater significance, I’ll take it. HBO is currently running a two part documentary on Muhammad Ali that is similar in approach – all archival footage and no commentary – and it too is very good. I hope this is a trend.
The subject of free soloing (climbing sheer face of rock with no rope) is compelling, more so for me because I didn’t even know it was a thing until I saw this movie. You travel with Alex Sonnold as he attempts the greatest climb of his life, the 900 meter El Capitan in Yellowstone, which seems particularly reckless in that he’s just weeks off a sprained ankle.
The climb is gripping. The psychological portrait of the climber less so. He appears to be a bit disassociative, almost numb, which lessens your investment in him. For example, he has the cutest damn girlfriend you’ve ever seen, and she’s clearly crazy about him. As such, his risks in the face of such riches would seem casually cruel if he weren’t a bit of a deadened weirdo.
Indeed, the film is about Alex doing something that may well kill him (free soloists die pretty regularly) and voluntarily having it filmed. The pre-bout navel-gazing (his family never hugged or used the word “love”) and awkward, searching exchanges with his documentarians feel like artificial injections to elicit empathy. They are only so effective.
Would this be tolerable if he was more human, more flesh and bone? Should that matter? Should I feel bad that the movie feels long when it has offered me a “he lives or he dies” finale?
My ethical quandaries aside, watch this on the biggest TV you have. The visuals are stunning and the achievement monumental.
What to make of this film? It starts off medium cool, with Vince Vaughn playing a rigid, introverted ex-addict and drug dealer trying to stay on the straight-and-arrow. His temper is volcanic yet weirdly controlled – when he wants to kill his cheating wife (Jennifer Carpenter), he distances himself from her, maintaining an almost chivalric honoring of her being, and then dismantles her car with his bare hands. He then comes into the house and they have a believably fruitful and mature discussion about where their relationship is headed.
When circumstances force him back into dealing, things go south, and he has to do a stretch in prison, leaving the pregnant Carpenter and their unborn daughter behind. And then shit gets nuts, as the film shifts from sober prison fare to gonzo 70s grindhouse slaughter-fest. Vaughn is transferred from a medium security facility, where he meets his mentor and counselor in what threatens to be a film about his therapeutic journey from there on out, to a maximum security haunted house run by Don Johnson, a cheroot chewing warden straight out of the most lurid of comic books.
The dissonance is jarring, but it doesn’t turn you off. You stay on the ride, happily, as it gets crazier and crazier.
Vaughn is really quite good, but people forget that before he took on the comic galoot character, he was trotted out as a believable villain (Psycho, Domestic Disturbance). He has done mainly straight drama of late, from the execrably written Season 2 of True Detective to the stock sergeant in Hacksaw Ridge to the recent Dragged Across Concrete (written and directed by the writer-director of this picture, S. Craig Zahler). Here, he’s in total command and damn chilling.
Zahler knows what he’s doing behind the camera, but one wonders – to what end? I hope he rises above his pulpy material before he gets lost in it.
Currently on Amazon.
Writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ (The Savages, Slums of Beverly Hills) story of a driven couple (Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) struggling to have a child of their own is alternately heartbreaking and frustrating. We see the two put through the wringer of in-vitro fertilization and surrogate scams, poked and prodded in clinics while investigated as to suitability for placement, and all of it voluntary, a critical focus of the film, because rather than a “poor us” weeper, we see them as in many ways masochistic.
The couple is often unsympathetic, as their singular desire creates a fair amount of collateral damage. They also suffer bouts of self-loathing as the fabric of their relationship is torn (a scene where Giamatti broaches whether he even wants a baby is piercing). But when it gets bad for the two, Jenkins gives us a glimpse of who they were – and perhaps still can be – before their primal quest.
Eventually, the intercession of a sweet and guileless niece (Kayli Carter, who has the same commanding presence as Shailene Woodley in The Descendants and Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone) helps to remind them of the wages of their desperation.
Sometimes a tad talky and quaint, but for the most part, very strong. On Netflix.