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Free Solo

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Alex Honnold is fully aware of the risks he takes when he climbs massive rock faces without safety harnesses or any form of support. Just one tiny mistake or mistimed judgement would lead to his sudden demise. This stark potential outcome is always present throughout the film; neither climber nor film crew ever shies away from it.

The process of ‘free-climbing’ and Honnold’s career of sheer drops and intense highs is closely examined in this intimate and frequently terrifying documentary.

The film charts Honnold’s progress as he attempts to become the first person to climb the 3,200 foot El Capitan rock-face in California’s Yosemite National Park. Facing this challenge without a rope or harness, Honnold is realistic about the dangers, but is mostly untroubled by the risk before him.

Why climbers, including Honnold, choose to put their lives at such risk is closely examined during this adrenaline-charged film. Honnold undergoes an MRI scan at one stage, and is found to have a dysfunctional amygdala – the part of the brain that helps to process fear and alarm – which may well have something to do with his choice of career.

Ultimately, free climbers love the buzz and adrenaline rush of climbing ever higher. Pushing themselves to the limit to see the rest of the world down below is a calling that they simply cannot resist.

Part of the film that is well drawn is how the intelligent and sensitive Honnold interacts with others; his new relationship with Sanni – someone with a greater emotional awareness than the self-focused free-climber – is examined sensitively.

An inspiring and rewarding journey through the limits of human endeavour, Free Solo is an exhilarating look at a world of immediate danger and committed athleticism. Managing to capture the technicalities of what it’s like to attempt a scaling of such magnitude, alongside a warmly drawn personal character study, the film is a triumph in both beauty and understanding.

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The Renaissance of DaVinci Resolve

It has been a decade since Melbourne based company Blackmagic Design acquired the high-end colour correction software DaVinci Resolve, which continues to be used by the biggest productions, and is now accessible to emerging filmmakers.
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If you want corrupted power in all its lurid excess then, in the European context, you have to go to Italy which has an almost-proud tradition stretching right back to the barking mad Roman emperors. Paolo Sorrentino takes on the life of such a leader in the jaw-dropping career of Silvio Berlusconi.

If you think this crazy political biopic is overdone, you have to remind yourself that Berlusconi is real and wonder how much of the film is actually an exaggeration. That’s part of the delicious fun because, although the implications for the body politic in Italy are as serious as ever, there is no other way to depict Berlusconi.

Sorrentino is an experienced filmmaker, of course. He has made numerous films (and recently directed the TV series The Young Pope), but is best known outside Italy for The Great Beauty. There too, a lavish style and grand set pieces produced a lush visual experience that was almost overwhelming. If you want austere, go somewhere else.

However, Loro isn’t just an exercise in visual overload, there is also actor Toni Servillo’s complex portrayal to consider. It must have been a role of a lifetime in some ways. Servillo doesn’t succumb to the temptation to settle scores by portraying the man as either evil or a black hair-dyed buffoon. What is impressive about the performance is that he makes Berlusconi a complex, real person.

Perhaps Sorrentino’s final takeaway is that he was above all a great salesman with all the falsity and charm that could imply. There is a wonderful extended scene in the film where we see Berlusconi sell a dodgy investment opportunity to a lonely middled age woman down the phone. As with wooing the nation, he has to go from unknown quantity to trusted friend by saying whatever the hell it takes.

There are many riveting scenes in this long film. There was so much material that Sorrentino made two long films, a part 1 and 2 in the true Godfather tradition, which were screened at the Italian Film Festival, however here, we get a condensed version at 2.5 riveting hours.

Though Berlusconi might like to present himself as a man of the people who got there through sheer will, this is not the whole story. He also, more or less, owned the mainstream Italian media at one point, so was able to carefully project his image. Imagine Trump and Murdoch rolled into one. And then there are the ‘bunga bunga’ parties (sex parties with scores of beautiful call girls in various states of undress) without which no portrait of the Berlusconi era would be complete.

Sorrentino has a pimp-like character here called Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio) who, knowing Berlusconi’s weakness for such pleasures, assembles a small army of ‘girls’ as a way into the political inner circle. The Great Beauties perhaps. These parties in the mansion are loosely choreographed ballets of lust, over which Sorrentino’s camera swoops and whirls. Like the film as a whole, they are highly stylised. But then, as they say, the style is the man. It is certainly a memorable piece of work.

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The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling

Documentary, Home, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Pre-internet, for many people in Australia, Garry Shandling arrived on our shores in 1986 with It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. We hadn’t seen anything like it, as this postmodern take on the sitcom format broke every rule in the book, and the show developed a cult following, with its creator cementing it years later with The Larry Sanders Show between 1992 – 1998.

When Shandling passed away in 2016, there was an outcry from North America, where comedians – through podcasts and online followings – paid their respects to a comedy genius. One of his loudest champions was Judd Apatow, now a comedy industry in his own right, who was given plenty of breaks early on by Shandling, and has now directed this personal, grandiose documentary.

With AAA footage, journals and talent, Apatow has constructed an exhaustive and entertaining film, and unlike his later feature films (This is 40, Funny People), the extraordinary length of the enterprise is actually for the audience’s benefit. When after more than 4 hours, Apatow reveals the secret to Shandling’s being, you would be hard pressed not to tear up at a beautiful but complicated life that you have just had presented before you.

Divided into two eps, the first part charts Shandling’s childhood and family life, the journey to comedy, all the way up until the launch of The Larry Sanders Show. Part two ends with the comedian’s memorial service where anyone who is anyone was moved to laughter and tears in equal measure.

A bunch of talent – Jim Carrey, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jay Leno, etc – is interviewed sitting down in conversation with Apatow, who appears often and makes for a sensational, knowing moderator; whilst others – Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin, Tom Petty, Chris Rock, etc, etc – are captured in intimate behind the scenes footage during Garry’s often filmed career.

The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling fills in a lot of gaps about Shandling’s life and career, especially for Australian audiences, and does it in a dramatic, often hilarious, ultimately profound and highly emotional way. It’s a highly fitting tribute to a comedy genius who touched millions of lives on a macro level, but here we discover the hundreds that he affected daily, and how.

At a minimum, you will be hunting down a DVD copy of The Larry Sanders Show to check out the special features, which this documentary poses was Garry’s final masterpiece.

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The Kid Who Would be King

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With a nod to Rudyard Kipling, his own Attack the Block and the nostalgia of ‘80s Amblin movies (which infiltrates every other family film these days – made by filmmakers who grew up on a diet of Back to the Future and Goonies), writer/director Joe Cornish rewrites Arthurian legend in a kids’ film that offers plenty of delights but doesn’t quite package them together in a way that is wholly satisfying; hello 2 hours running time!

Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis – there are flashes where you think that Andy Serkis is doing more of his acclaimed mocap work due to characteristics inherited from dad) is a nerdy high school kid, living with his single mum, loving science experiments and hanging out with his bullied mate Bedders (Dean Chaumoo). When he is visited by a young Merlin (Imrie stealing every scene he is in; with Patrick Stewart playing the older, seemingly drunker version of the character) and realises that he is the only one that can raise Excalibur, it comes to pass that Alex has 5 days to save the world from Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) by secretly traveling cross country, rallying the troops and winning the day!

The Kid Who Would be King actually starts with a hardly subtle rallying cry that the world is being taken over by dictators; you know, like BlacKkKlansman ended, but for kids…. However, this tangent doesn’t really go anywhere apart from setting up our hero’s journey. Maybe in the sequel Alex will take on Kim Jong-un, Putin and Trump; however, here it is an origin story of a boy in suburban London who discovers that he is heir to the Arthurian legend and literally rewrites the books in the process.

As per his previous film, Attack the Block, Joe Cornish locates the fantastic among the ordinary; in this case suburbia and public schooling with the supernatural/mythological. He casts widely, with all ethnicities and genders covered when it comes to diversity on screen. This results in humour, but unfortunately little wonderment.

Aesthetically, the introduction of magic – both light and dark – into the ordinary world is impressive, but dramatically, Cornish cannot make us care enough in our hero’s journey. For such a simple story, it is narratively too expansive, and at two hours length, it is always 30 minutes behind the audience’s natural pacing for such a tale. The villains are never genuinely threatening either, and there’s a key decapitation scene that plays out falsely, and hardly appropriate for the film’s target audience.

All of that being said, there will be kids in the audience who will find this original material new and exciting, they will relate to our young protagonists, and it will encourage them to read up about Arthurian legends. They may even end up making films in 20 years’ time inspired by seeing The Kid Who Would be King in their youth.