Free Solo

⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars

Rated: PG-13 for frightening images and a sprinkling of profanity.

Theater: Lagoon.

 

As anyone familiar with directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s mountaineering documentaries will know, heart-stopping camera angles and crisp, vertigo-inducing vistas are a given. And there’s no shortage of them in this look at free climbing — scaling vertical walls of rock without the use of mountain-climbing gear. But these husband-wife filmmakers also have a knack for exposing, without exploiting, a little of the person beneath the apparent madness, in this case providing an invigorating portrait of climber Alex Honnold braving El Capitan with only his fingers and toes.

Rejecting partners, ropes or pitons (except the occasional strays left behind by more conventional climbers), Honnold has completed more than 1,000 solitary ascents and is reputed to be the greatest surviving free-soloist. Note the word “surviving.” In a sport where a rogue wind or a single, startled bird can send you hurtling to your death, it’s an important distinction.

Despite a somewhat soft middle section, the film is an engaging study of a perfect match between passion and personality. Though resisting psychoanalysis, the directors watch as an MRI of Honnold’s brain, perhaps unsurprisingly, suggests one that requires super-normal levels of stimulation. His concerned mother, Dierdre Wolownick (one of whose favorite sayings is “Almost doesn’t count”), wonders if he has Asperger’s syndrome, but the man himself is unfazed by speculation. “Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cozy,” he says.

Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times

 

Hal

⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars

Rated: Not rated.

Theater: Edina.

 

This documentary fleshes out movie director Hal Ashby’s story. Often squeezed into a group called New Hollywood — Altman, Bogdanovich, Coppola, Friedkin and Scorsese, et al. — Ashby, who died at 59 in 1988 and whose films include “Being There”and “Harold and Maude,” was a mainstay in a movement that stormed the old studios in the late 1960s, changing Hollywood forever.

Using both archival and original material, documentarian Amy Scott fills in Ashby’s past — born in Utah, he was a divorced father by 18 — explores his greatest hits, underscores his singularity and rather too quickly glides over his later-life disappointments. Along the way, she checks in with his friends, lovers and admirers. There’s no shortage of them, from fellow filmmakers (including Allison Anders, David O. Russell and Judd Apatow) to performers (Jane Fonda, Jon Voight and Rosanna Arquette, among them).

Director Norman Jewison, a longtime friend who encouraged Ashby to direct his debut film, 1970’s “The Landlord,” helps Scott sketch in Ashby’s early tenure in Hollywood. It is very pleasant to gather at the knee of legends like Jewison and Robert Towne — who wrote Ashby’s greatest films, “The Last Detail” and “Shampoo” — listening to once-upon-a-studio-time stories. There’s a bit too much vague talk about humanism and individuality, but the overall impact is a powerful reminder that some of his films remain among the finest American works of his era — even if that’s not enough to convince you to see “Harold and Maude” again.

Manohla Dargis, New York Times

 

Bisbee ’17

⋆⋆⋆out of four stars

Rated: Not rated. In English and subtitled Spanish.

Theater: St. Anthony Main.

 

Like more than a few documentaries — even though it is unlike perhaps any documentary — this features a dramatic re-enactment. The events being depicted occurred July 12, 1917, at the height of a bitter labor dispute in the copper-rich town of Bisbee, Ariz. A sheriff and his 2,000-strong posse rounded up 1,200 striking miners — many of whom were of Mexican and Eastern European descent — at gunpoint, forced them into railway cars and abandoned them 200 miles away in New Mexico, warning them they would be killed if they ever dared return to Bisbee. That many of them likely would die in the desert was of little concern to the townspeople.

One of the things that sets this re-enactment apart is that it’s performed by the current residents of Bisbee. In using such casting, director Robert Greene turns a reconstruction into a deconstruction, inviting participants and viewers alike to feel the tension of uncertainty, the weight of the past bearing down on the present. By the time we see the people of Bisbee stepping into their assigned roles — marching or being marched grimly through the streets in period garb, shouting angrily at each other — we have gotten to know several of them and heard their thoughts about the tragedy that has marred their town’s legacy.

The director never wants us to forget that we’re watching a movie, framing his subjects with sly formal detachment and keeping the viewer slightly off-balance. But its experimentation never feels forced or alienating. On the contrary, one of the pleasurable discoveries of this continually surprising movie is that artifice can be the most direct route to the truth. Greene has made a hard movie to argue with, even as he invites you to do exactly that.

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times