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Friday Flicks: A Marvelous Feat and a Marvel Film

Written by M.V. Moorhead Category: Visual Arts Issue: October 2018
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What's on the silver screen this weekend.

Free Solo--This one isn't a sequel to the Star Wars prequel, but rather a documentary about Alex Honnold, who rock-climbs "free solo" style. This means with no rope or pitons or helmets or whatever, nothing but his hands, Free Solohis feet and his disregard for his own safety and the feelings of his loved ones.

In June of last year Honnold became [spoiler alert!] the first person to free solo the face of El Capitan, a forbidding wall of granite in Yosemite National Park that looks like a huge unhealthy tooth. The last twenty minutes or so of the movie, produced and directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, gruelingly chronicles this astounding ascent.

Prior to that, this National Geographic production quite naturally indulges in psychological study. We learn about Honnold's family background, with its lack of emotional communication, and we see his quiet, often funny, sometimes rather chilly stoicism toward the dangers of the sport he single-mindedly pursues. We even see him get a CAT scan to see if his brain works differently than ours.

Free Solo is also to some extent a poignant love story. Honnold's devoted girlfriend Sanni McCandless would really prefer that Honnold not put himself at extreme risk of plummeting to a gruesome death, but he bluntly states "I will always choose climbing over a lady, at least so far."

I'm not great with heights, so this movie was hardship duty for me, and this may be part of why I found its hero so exasperating. I'm sure this is unfair; there can be no doubt of the singularity of Honnold's feat, or the amazing, almost superhuman degree of both physical and mental prowess required to achieve it. Of course it's one of those "because it is there" achievements; it's not a cure for cancer or a clean energy source.

But so what? Somebody who writes movie reviews is hardly in a position to criticize the triviality of other people's goals.

I couldn't help it, though--the movie made me wonder about the degree to which the "extreme sports" ethos might be a thinly-disguised middle-class nihilism. I kept wondering, is there nothing more useful in this day and age, not one thing, that this dude could find to direct his formidable abilities toward, including his gift for a level-headed handling of risk?

In any case, it should be said that this isn't just a document of an incredible athletic accomplishment; it's also a remarkable piece of filmmaking that dissects the technical side of the climb with impressive lucidity and without losing its epic visual scope. Here too, though, the movie runs into moral ambiguity--at one point Honnold starts the climb, then aborts it after a short distance, nervous because of the presence of the camera crew. We're shown the filmmakers, who are friends of Honnold's, discussing it, and they're unmistakably conflicted, not wanting him make the climb if he doesn't want to, but also clearly worried about the fate of their movie.

They got what they needed in the end. But I wonder how many viewers may, like me, feel more queasy relief than uplift at seeing an insanely unnecessary task, methodically completed. I was gripped and fascinated by Free Solo, certainly, but I can't say I felt deeply inspired by it.

Opening this weekend at Harkins Camelview.

Venom--Going into this latest Marvel movie, I realized that I might not know Tom Hardy if he passed me on the street. It had been a while since I'd gotten a good look at him in a movie. He was a memorable presence as BaneVenom poster in The Dark Knight Rises and as the short-on-fuel pilot in Dunkirk, but he didn't get a lot of face time in either, and his voice was distorted in both.

He shows his face as investigative TV journalist Eddie Brock in Venom, and uses sort of an Al Pacino Yank accent. But as the story progresses, Eddie gets biologically merged with the amorphous alien "symbiote" of the title, and sure enough, his face gets enclosed in an inky, fanged visage with a lashing tongue that Gene Simmons would envy. And, once again, his voice turns into a sinister rumbling growl.

The character originated in Spider-Man comics in the late '80s--Todd McFarlane was a co-creator--and eventually headlined his own title. The film feels less of a piece with the other Marvel flicks; though the story is open-ended in case of sequels, it's essentially a free-standing sci-fi horror tale, with a plot similar to 1987's The Hidden.

The hits have kept on coming for Marvel over the last few years. If Venom is maybe more of an infield single than a homer like, say, Dr. Strange or Avengers: Infinity War, much less a grand-slam like Black Panther, that's not to say it isn't entertaining.

Michelle Williams, as Eddie's estranged love interest, has her usual distinctive and touching sweetness. The villain, Riz Ahmed as a biotech kingpin, is properly odious but seems a bit lightweight, and his henchmen are routine. The movie really does belong to Hardy--the charge is in the grotesquely comic dynamic between the human hero and the monster he's hosting, and in its allegory for the the internal struggle that many of us have with our appetites.

There's charm in the idea that Venom, with his taste for mayhem, human flesh and tater tots, also has a streak of decency, even integrity. Watching Eddie and Venom bicker like a long-married couple turns this film into one of the weirdest buddy pictures ever.

Opening wide.