Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Free Solo * Can You Ever Forgive Me? * Fantastic Beasts

Free Solo -- review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Most rock climbers believed the sheer rock face of El Capitan's Dawn Wall was the ultimate challenge.  To attempt the sheer, nearly vertical climb at all seemed attainable by only a few of the very few experts, to do so without ropes or any safety equipment seemed folly.  And yet that is the goal of  Alex Honnold in this National Geographic documentary by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and Jimmy Chin.  This film shows the minute details that go into planning a climb in which one false move means certain death, but its focus in on the man himself, even though it provides precious few insights into what drives Hannold's particular passion.  Perhaps it is simply in the study of his brain, which shows his amygdala--the part of the brain that detects fear and responds to it--seems "dead" to normal stimuli.  Some hints could also be derived from Hannold's upbringing in a family almost pathologically bereft of affection (attachment issues?).  His educator mother expects nothing less than perfection, and his father, who may have had Asperger's Syndrome left the family and died within a year of his departure.  Wherever the answers may lie, Hannold is a quiet, inward individual who leads an ascetic life (he lives out of a van and eats chili out of a can with a spatula as his utensil) and whose sole raison d'etre is to free solo ever more challenging rock precipices.

This simple, if risky, life becomes complicated when Sanni McCandless enters the picture.  They met at one of his book signings, and through sheer force of will she has become part of his life.  Despite  Hannold's protests that she is not as important as his quests, not to mention his fear that she is a distraction that could lead to his literal downfall, McCandless perseveres.  To be fair, Hannold is just as concerned about the distraction that a film crew provides, but Chin and his crew, as well as other climbers like Tommy Caldwell, do not provide the existential threat to his self-actualization that McCandless does.  For, to Hannold himself, he IS what he does, no more no less.  Sanni McCandless wants him to be more, and embace his humanity in the little pleasures that a house and buying their own furnishings can bring.  But can he respond to domestication?  We don't yet know, but just like Hannold, we really want what we came to the theater for: his free solo climb of the dawn wall, and after all of that set-up, we care very much whether or not he makes it.
8.5 out of 10

Can You Ever Forgive Me? -- review by FilmZ

Biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) has fallen from the New York Times bestseller list to the bargain rack, and as her fortunes have declined so have her earnings.  With troubles deepening and no friends to turn to, the reclusive writer relies increasingly on the bottle to cope, which in turn kills her initiative to write.  Even her cat, the only creature with whom she has a connection, has fallen ill.  Desperate, she begins to sell personal possessions, including a signed celebrity letter.  Later, while  researching a biography of Fanny Brice, Lee comes upon two signed letters from the vaudevillienne. She sells them, too, and the idea strikes that a formidable career can be had by using her writing skills to dupe memorabilia collectors with forged celebrity letters.  Along her path to crime, she meets roguish Englishman Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a match made in Hell: his love of drink matches hers and his scruples are even lower.  Together, their basest natures multiply, and success leads to greed and greed to ruination.

The movie itself is not be the mad romp one might have expected, given the stars and the tone of the trailers.  Director Marielle Heller sees the morality tale at the core of Israel's autobiography, and she refuses to take the easy path, much to her credit.  Although the film has humor, Heller refuses to romaticize the crimes and unflinchingly shows how addiction greases the skid onto depravity and ruination.  And along the way, she coaxes possible Oscar nominations from McCarthy and (especially) Grant, exposes the live wire of the adapted screenplay, and makes herself a slight possibility for a directorial nomination.
8.0 out of 10

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald -- review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling’s follow-up to her world-wide phenomenon Harry Potter series, had big shoes to fill.  And it didn't.  That film's sequel continues the slide--not to say the ongoing story of “magizoologist” Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is bad.  It's just that, considering the lofty standard, an ordinary fantasy no matter how dazzling to the eye, is still ordinary.  It's New York in 1926; Newt he and Ministry auror (think marshal), Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), have captured dark wizard, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), a "pure-blood" Hitlerian wannabe.  The Crimes of Grindelwald opens with his escape, Tina in parts unknown, and Newt recruited by a younger Dumbledore (Jude Law), to bring him to justice.  Dumbledore cannot deal with Grundelwald himself, you see.  Of course, none of this could be set in motion without the machinations of interspecies lovebirds, baker-extraordinaire Muggle Jacob (Dan Fogler) and mind-reading Witch Queenie (Alison Sudol).  The action takes us from New York to London to Paris with much sturm und drang, part of which is a muddled subplot that includes Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) whom we learn through flashbacks held Newts heart while they were Hogwarts schoolmates.  But the slowly revealed main plot concerns the true identity of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a powerful but troubled young wizard whom some want to kill and others long to embrace.

All of the tricks and eye-candy are present in The Crimes of Grindelwald, and it valiantly tries to mke connections with the mother series: spells, portkeys, Prof McGonigle, help always available to those who ask for it, and of course magical creatures.  Director David Yates' roots go back to the original series, and we have to hope he and Rowling have a master-plan in the current five-film series that approaches the magic of the original.  But, truth be told, episode two, at 134 minutes feels too long by a half-hour, and try as it might to tie into the mythology and drive the story forward, it feels like a place-holder.
6.0 out of 10


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