Local cinemas this week

Spoiler alert: He makes it to the top! And in the Deep South, two men become unlikely best buddies

Free Solo

Well really, that’s not telling you anything. If nutty Alex Honnold’s attempt to scale the 900m sheer vertical climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes or harness hadn’t succeeded, this would have been another movie altogether – and marketed as something very different… That’s something one of the film’s directors Jimmy Chin – an experienced climbing mate of Alex himself – addresses direct to the camera. He says before the climb that he had to come to terms with the fact that he may be filming (and by extension, encouraging) the death of his friend.

I don’t how others experience this, but whenever I get too close to the edge of a sheer drop I get a strange tingling all over my body, from my brain to my genitals. Maybe that’s fear talking, but it’s not exactly an unpleasant sensation either. Usually it tells me (and most people I guess – just not Alex) to get the hell out of there. And it’s the feeling that came in a rush during the nerve shredding opening scenes of this stunning National Geographic doco (co-directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) showing Alex clinging to barely perceptible crevices of the rock faces and painstakingly creeping upwards, the camera revealing in no uncertain terms just what the slightest miscalculation would mean. It’s stunning footage, captured by drones and other climbers (with ropes and harness, themselves taking incredible risks). What sort of person does this?

A pretty damn strange one, it has to be said. Honnold is a rangy man with big bug eyes in his mid 30s living alone (for most of the film) in a van, eating his meals straight out the frying pan with the spatula he cooks with. His entire life is spend preparing, practising for and obsessing about such feats, and he’s been able to make a good living out of them (this film will surely help). At one stage he acquires a girlfriend, a vibrant and supportive woman called Sanni McCandless, but its clear she’s no priority. For the big climb he banishes her from the scene days before as a “distraction.” That and so many of his other moves are the actions of a completely self-centred man, someone so obsessional as to risk his life for no apparent reason – one which in all the film’s 100 minutes, he can barely articulate. Maybe it’s for that sensation I experience? Better than sex? Could be, but whatever, this is a thrilling, incredibly visceral film – getting a way-too limited cinema release. Sure it will turn up on a streaming service soon, but this is a big screen film. You know this: There’s no, “Oh what a feeling” sitting comatose in front of a TV. M Sessions in the inner west this Australia Day weekend at Palace Norton St, Central Broadway, Burwood and Dendy Newtown.  ★★★★

Green Book

You’d have to be brave to make a heartwarming movie about US race relations nowadays – especially one which invests its sympathies with a white man. Let’s just say, the times don’t seem right. And, at first glance, writer/director Peter Farrelly (of the once notorious Farrelly brothers, who made movies like Dumb and Dumber and that one where Cameron Diaz got a blob of human sperm in her hair) wouldn’t appear to be the obvious person to try. Fortunately there’s nothing quite so icky here, although there is one misbegotten scene where Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali messily eat greasy fried chicken and casually chuck the bones out of a car window that is almost as uncomfortable… For the most part though, Green Book is a sentimental, upbeat and relentlessly tasteful interracial buddy movie with a redemptive arc (everyone overcomes their prejudices, common humanity is affirmed) that is so unfashionable today, that it’s hard to understand why its getting so much acclaim. Sure it has its knockers, but amazingly, it also has five Oscar nominations.

And they’re far from undeserved, everyone involved worked hard to make a pleasant crowd-pleasing movie that is – despite the occasional cringe-worth scenes – an enjoyable, if lightweight experience. It hits its beats a little too predictably, but the trip the refined and elegant black gay musician Don Shirley (Ali) and rough-as-guts (and initially racist) Italian nightclub bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, (Mortensen) make together as they tour the prejudiced deep south in the late 50s and get to know and like one another, is definitely one worth going on. Both men are great company, though it’s Mortensen who had to work the hardest. He pumps so much greasy fried food down his gullet (usually while chain-smoking at the same time) that the actor ends up looking as fat and unhealthy as the slab of pepperoni pizza that, in one notorious scene, he eats in a single mouthful. Not a slice – the whole pizza! Give this man his Oscar now! 

It’s based on a autobiographical account by Vallelonga, so naturally, the story is told through his eyes. Which is the where the problem lies. Shirley’s family have disputed the version of events told here – with his younger brother calling it, especially the friendship part, “a tissue of lies.” BlacKkKlansman’s director Spike Lee has labelled the Shirley character as written as an “illusionary magical negro” – a noble figure who exists solely to help the white protagonist become a better person. And he has a point, the musician is given little background or depth compared to Vallelonga. Be that as it may, what’s wrong with becoming a better person? Some people, especially knucklehead Italians with bad diets, need all the help they can get. M from Jan 24. Inner west cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central, Broadway, Burwood, Rhodes, Auburn and Dendy Newtown. ★★★★

Also opening this week

The only other notable release stars Clint Eastwood as a 90-year-old drug mule. Incredibly, the cranky old bugger directed The Mule himself. Unpreviewed, but David Stratton gave it ★★★★

Reviews – Russell Edwards