Thursday, November 01, 2018

Catch-up on Screen 5: The Sisters Brothers & Free Solo

Man, if I were still trying to make Multiplex Yahtzee a thing, seeing two movies in different theaters' Screen 5s would be a great start to the week.

I would have liked to see both of these earlier - both of them had preview screenings, and I wound up seeing Sisters just before it left town, as it was only playing at the Somerville, and when they needed the big room for something else, this was absolutely what got booted - but between baseball, travel, the IFFBoston Fall Focus, and a few other things that I really can't complain about, they got pushed out. I'm still trying to figure out whether or not I would have been better off missing The Sisters Brothers because it wasn't what I was expecting. That's fine - try and judge things on what they are rather than what you want them to be - but I'm not sure whether it's actually good at what it's trying to be.

I was actually pretty impressed with the audience that turned out for Free Solo, though - it's been hanging around the Boston area for nearly a month even if you discount the week that the Coolidge got it early because they had guests (and you shouldn't ignore the Coolidge for any reason), but there were enough people there and close to the front that I wound up sitting a little closer than usual. Honestly, though, I was probably going to do that anyway, and was just glad that the projectionist (or someone) saw that it was improperly matted and fixed it, which is good, because this is one you very much want to see tall rather than wide.

The Sisters Brothers

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 October 2018 in Somerville Theatre #5 (first-run, DCP)

The Sisters Brothers is not even a quarter as playful as you might expect it to be from its title, but at times it seems like it's trying to be, a set of eccentric characters guided by a script whose every attempt to be darkly comic only winds up making everything more sad. But even taking that as the filmmakers' true intent or a beneficial side-effect, perhaps the most unfortunate thing to happen is that it's not even a powerful, affecting sadness very often.

The Brothers (or Sisterses, if you prefer) are Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), both talented with their guns, which they put to service for The Commodore (Rutger Hauer), a businessman in Oregon with far-flung interests, his latest a formula developed by chemist Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed) that will allow prospectors to find gold in much simpler fashion. Warm is already being tracked by the Commodore's man John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), but Morris is squeamish, so Eli and Charlie are being sent to finish the job. Truth be told, older brother Eli is also starting to sour on this line of work, which is why the far more enthusiastically violent Charlie has been made the head man.

There's something wonderfully misshapen about the four main performances in this movie, starting with John C. Reilly as Eli. There are scenes where one is reminded of his more comic performances, whether he's wide-eyed in awe at whatever new creation 1851 has to offer, from the toothbrush to the flush toilet, or displaying some perfectly-executed irritation at what his reckless brother has gotten them into. He'd be like both halves of a vaudeville comedy team, except that he's consumed by guilt and melancholy. It's kind of amazing to watch Reilly make all of that into facets of a single character - the hopeful fascination he has for the new and his self-loathing combine in the almost guileless way he begs a saloon girl to recreate the last time he felt loved and worthy, and there's an edge to Eli's sometimes-fussy arguments with Charlie because he's too human to treat that bickering lightly and make a joke about how they're just like us except their petty arguments are about murder. It doesn't always come together perfectly, but it's sort of a miracle that it comes together at all.

Full review at EFC.

The Sisters Brothers

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 October 2018 in AMC Boston Common #5 (first-run, DCP)

There's a program of adventure sport movies playing a local theater in a week or two - there always seems to be some compilation of movies about people climbing, skiing, surfing, biking, or the like grabbing a screen for a few shows here, if you know where to look - and I'm tempted to catch it not just for the promised thrills but so I have a baseline for what makes movies like Free Solo (and the filmmakers' last feature, Meru) make the jump to the multiplexes. Is it just more grandiose accomplishments, more artistically sophisticated choices by the filmmakers, a better human story, or some combination of them? Free Solo certainly belongs on the biggest and best screen one can find for all those reasons - it delivers on the astonishing climax it promises and finds a worthy film in the lead-up.

The promise of the last act is that Alex Honnold, a young alpinist who has devoted his life to his craft, will free-solo the face of El Capitan in California's Yosemite National Park - that is, climb the nearly-3,000-foot sheer cliff without ropes or a partner, an achievement nobody has ever achieved, and which few if any have even attempted. It is insanely dangerous, even for one as familiar with the territory as Honnold (he has climbed the cliff in more conventional manner dozens of times), and one sort of has to wonder about the mindset of the person who would make the attempt, especially since Alex has just met a nice girl who seems to be sticking with him more than the many others who have been attracted to the handsome daredevil only to realize that they will likely never eclipse climbing as his first priority.

Though the audience's initial introduction to Honnold highlights that he's a genial fellow with simple needs, there are also plenty of moments that make him look like he's some sort of psychopath, and what makes Free Solo interesting is that it's not a conclusion that the filmmakers are trying to avoid. It's easy and expected in some ways to talk about how being a bit of an odd fellow is the natural result of being driven to do exception things, but filmmakers Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi will let him keep talking until he says something eyebrow-raisingly detached, eventually circling back to how he was brought up or shooting a group of neuroscientists scanning his brain to see what activates his amygdala. There's a strong thread in the film about Alex and his girlfriend Sanni figuring out how their relationship can work, and exploring what it's like to deal with the sort of clear but sometimes diminishing focus of such a guy. It's not something Vasarhelyi & Chin can necessarily drill too deep on without affecting it, but they do manage to present an intriguing ambivalence about the mentality that allows them to get the film's incredible footage.

Full review at EFC.

No comments: