Free Solo

Directed by documentary filmmakers and married couple Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin who are best known for the award-winning 2015 mountain climbing movie Meru, Free Solo is an extremely fascinating and visually arresting documentary that follows the rock climber Alex Honnold as he plans to climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park using the free solo technique. Alex is a thrill-seeker who is regarded as one of the foremost free soloists in which he climbs cliffs by himself and without any ropes or other safety equipment; an extremely dangerous sport in which the smallest slip will result in certain death. Besides showing the actual preparations and the free solo climb that takes place on June 3, 2013, the documentarians, who are skilled climbers and outdoor enthusiasts themselves, also attempt to explore Alex’s personal life and background without really questioning why he pursues such a risky passion. Rather unexpectedly, Alex is a very quiet and somber individual who has difficulty expressing his emotions, and he really does not feel alive except when he is on a mountain. For several years and during most of the film, he lives out of a van and leads a very solitary life without many close friends or family members outside of the climbing community. Even when he talks about the deaths of fellow mountain climbers and free soloists that he knew fairly well, Alex rather nonchalantly brushes off their fates as part of the thrill. The tragic ends of these friends does very little to dissuade him from tackling the seemingly impossible task of making a free solo ascent of the notoriously difficult El Capitan mountain. The only obstacle that he faces is the pressure he feels from his new girlfriend who tries to help Alex transition into a more normal lifestyle and even encourages him to purchase a house in Las Vegas. Despite her trepidations, he goes full steam ahead and, in some rather harrowing sequences, he goes on several practice runs with the traditional safety mechanisms before the climax of the film in which he free solos the almost 3,000-foot sheer cliff. The filmmakers do an excellent job of presenting the spectacular yet terrifying climbs of Alex through the use of skilled mountain climbing cameramen and drones, all giving the thrilling effect that the viewer is actually there alongside Alex. At several points during his final climb, even the documentarians and crew members are petrified that they may be filming the final moments of their new friend Alex and so several of them have to look away. Overall, I found it to be one of the more gripping documentaries I have ever seen as a result of its effective ability to explore the largely unthinkable extreme sport of free solo rock climbing through the mesmerizing and quite frankly scary footage of Alex Honnold as he fulfills his daredevil passions.

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Fahrenheit 11/9

fahrenheit_eleven_nine_xlgDirected by Academy Award-winning documentarian Michael Moore who is best known for 2002’s Bowling for Columbine and 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Fahrenheit 11/9 is an entertaining and provocative documentary that is to be expected from Michael Moore who mixes comedic elements and liberal indignation to primarily criticize President Donald Trump. He delves deep into the current highly toxic political environment of the United States and is not afraid to have a no holds barred portrayal of Trump as a largely negative figure in today’s society. However, I was surprised to discover that the film covers a much larger range of topics that do not necessarily connect to President Trump, including the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the media, the Electoral College, and even President Barack Obama. Definitely preaching to the choir, Moore goes through what led up to the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and its impact on the nation as a whole by interviewing everyday American citizens who either love or despise the rhetoric of Donald Trump. Also, at several points throughout the movie, Michael Moore visits his impoverished hometown of Flint, Michigan where he discusses the water crisis that started in 2014 and expresses anger at the state government, especially Republican Governor Rick Snyder who he believes is responsible for the negligence and apparent lack of caring that resulted in the toxic water supply that continues to this day. In typical Michael Moore fashion, the film includes a stunt in which Moore sprays Governor Snyder’s gubernatorial mansion with the lead-infused water that has come directly from the Flint water supply. At one point, he unexpectedly criticizes President Obama for his visit to Flint where he pretends to drink the water and does not entirely live up to his promise of finally solving the issue. The documentary then returns to what Moore believes is the extremely dangerous and unprecedented current presidential administration and blames the media and the outdated Electoral College for helping Trump get elected despite losing the popular vote and being counted out by the political establishment as a viable candidate. Despite most of the movie painting a rather dire picture of the current political landscape, Michael Moore tries to encourage Americans to stand up through civil discourse and voting. He discusses how ordinary people and activists are running for office, including an outspoken veteran trying to get elected to Congress as a Democrat from West Virginia. Furthermore, there is a glimmer of hope among activists as Moore describes the teacher strikes in West Virginia and its spread throughout the country demanding that public school teachers receive much-needed pay raises. Overall, although I realize that just the mention of Michael Moore will discourage most conservative audience members, I found it to be a well-meaning film that goes after both sides of the aisle, obviously with a more disdainful approach to President Donald Trump, and uses Moore’s techniques to create an effective and enjoyable documentary about today’s divided political discourse.

Eating Animals

eating_animals_xlgAdapted from the critically acclaimed 2009 book of the same name written by well-known author Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals is a powerful and thought-provoking documentary that delves into the issues surrounding large-scale factory farming of animals for human consumption. Narrated by vegan activist and Oscar winner Natalie Portman, the film provides a brief history of the early days of farming and how it evolved into an assembly line production mostly owned by such large corporations as Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms. Unlike many other environmentalist and vegan-promoting exposes, it provides a more nuanced view of the current state of animal farming by presenting interviews with a variety of farmers, including those adversely affected by working in the corporate realm and local conscientious farmers who are trying to bring back the old heritage methods of farming. Furthermore, the movie focuses on all of the implications that the mass production poultry and cattle industries has on humankind: the irresponsible dumping of animal byproducts and fertilizers that harm the environment, the corporate takeover of farms that harm the economic interests of the local farmer, and the public health hazards of consuming animals processed and filled with antibiotics. The documentary also features disturbing footage of the mistreatment of animals living in overcrowded and dangerous conditions and have become deformed as a result of practices promoting rapid growth and mass production. However, the purpose of the film is not just to encourage people to stop eating meat but to help inform the audience about ways to consume meat in a more responsible manner by purchasing from so-called heritage farms who care for the animals in a more traditional, healthy way. Overall, I found it to be an enlightening glimpse into the often unseen world of animal farming and a extremely important film that taught me that there are ways to be a more ethical meat consumer without becoming a vegetarian or vegan.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Directed by Morgan Neville who won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 2013’s 20 Feet from Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is an excellent documentary about the remarkably kind children’s television host Fred Rogers and provides insight into what inspired him to create the iconic television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. When the low-budget family-friendly show debuted on Pittsburgh public television in 1968, nobody could foresee the impact that the soft-spoken ordained minister Fred Rogers would have on children’s programming and the education of young minds through such a new medium as television. The documentary gives an insider’s look into Mister Rogers by interviewing cast and crew members as well as his children and surviving wife who describe his personal life reflective of his on-screen persona as a gentle and patient man who truly cared about children. Because of his profound influence on the millions of people who grew up with his breakthrough show that premiered its last episode in 2001, the film is at times emotional for the audience by bringing back such heartwarming and joyous memories to life. In a day in age in which several iconic personalities have let down audiences after the revelation of egregious moral failings, it is refreshing to see a movie about a honest-to-goodness wonderful human who always presented his true inner self and simply wanted to do what was best for others. As presented by the documentary, there were times when Fred Rogers struggled and felt the obligation to discuss rather depressing topics with his young audience, including the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Overall, I found it to be a truly fascinating glimpse into the life of Fred Rogers and his passion for creating Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and I would highly recommend it to anybody who watched Mister Rogers or simply looking for a heartwarming story about a positive figure during such a divisive time in our country.

Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

Directed by acclaimed German filmmaker Wim Wenders best known for the award-winning 1984 film Paris, Texas, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word is a fascinating documentary that explores the central tenets of Pope Francis and his views on Catholic theology in the context of the ever-evolving modern world. Becoming the pope in 2013 after serving as the Archbishop in his hometown Buenos Aires, Argentina, Pope Francis arose as a remarkable choice for the Catholic Church as a result of being a Jesuit from South America and his unique decision to take the name Francis in honor of Saint Francis. A majority of the film is essentially a wide-ranging sermon given by Pope Francis to the audience through a series of interviews with the filmmaker who also acts as the narrator. The documentary also contains several dramatic reenactments of Saint Francis of Assisi who lived in 13th century Italy to illuminate why Pope Francis was the first pope to choose the name Francis and how Pope Francis’ theology derives from the humble and nature-focused Saint Francis. Interspersed with footage of his many visits to the people around the world, the interviews touch on the most pressing issues of his papacy, including economic inequality, the environment, global peace, and respect for all humanity no matter their religion. It is important to note that the movie is not a biographical documentary about his life but rather has the main purpose of promoting the positive messages of Pope Francis. Unlike almost any other pope in history, Pope Francis is massively popular to his followers and those of all faiths as a result of his progressive ideas on religion and philosophy in today’s chaotic world. Overall, I found it to be a deeply insightful documentary about one of the most powerful religious figures and powerfully illustrates Pope Francis’ radical departure from previous popes to provide a more inclusive and optimistic theology. Even if you are not Catholic or even a Christian, the viewer comes away with a greater appreciation of Pope Francis and his hopeful mission.

RBG

Directed by documentarians Julie Cohen and Betsy West, RBG is an engrossing documentary with unprecedented access that chronicles the truly remarkable life of the 85-year-old Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Especially during today’s trying political climate, the soft-spoken Justice Ginsburg and her still acute legal mind that tends to fall on the liberal side has become a hero for those on the left. As a result of her powerful dissenting opinions championing progressive ideals, she has morphed into a pop culture icon who is even referred to as The Notorious RBG named after the popular rapper The Notorious BIG. The in-depth film does a terrific job of contextualizing Justice Ginsburg by presenting her legal life beginning with being one of only a few women at Harvard Law School, through her largely underappreciated role as an early legal figure for gender equality, and finally her career as a Supreme Court Justice known for her incisive judgments. Not many people know that she argued in front of the Supreme Court and won several cases in favor of women’s rights at the height of the women’s liberation movement. The filmmakers also delve into her personal life, especially her loving relationship with her now deceased husband Martin Ginsburg who always supported her even as he had his own legal career. Especially rare for the publicly reserved members of the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg is herself interviewed throughout the documentary as she gives a first-hand account of her life. She is further humanized as we even get to see her interact with her children and grandchildren. Although it is obviously biased in favor of Justice Ginsburg and her traditionally liberal views, the movie also depicts her as a revered non-partisan legal thinker who generally has the respect of her conservative counterparts. For instance, it touches on her friendly relationship with the recently deceased Justice Antonin Scalia despite their polar opposite views on most legal matters before the Court. Overall, I found it to be a well-crafted documentary that provides important insight into one of the most important political and legal figures of our time and should be viewed even if you do not support Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s clearly liberal positions.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

A follow-up to the 2006 Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is a profound environmental documentary that resonates particularly well now with the current politically divisive debate over global climate change policy. Like the original, it follows former Vice President Al Gore as he sounds the alarm on the increasingly dire effects of global warming largely caused by industrial and energy production pollution. The cameras film Gore as he travels the world giving his famous slideshow about global warming to various climate leadership forums. He also refutes his critics, who say he is exaggerating what’s happening to the Earth, by outlining empirical evidence and actually traveling to Greenland to show the rapidly melting glaciers. In an especially provocative scene, his claim in the original documentary that the World Trade Center site could be flooded in the near future, a statement many critics laughed off, is unfortunately proven true when Superstorm Sandy in 2012 floods the construction site at the new World Trade Center. Much of the movie revolves around the surprisingly riveting and complicated negotiations of the landmark Paris Climate Accord in 2015. For instance, Gore personally deals with the hesitancy of the Indian government who are still relying on dirty energy sources as a result of financial constraints. Eventually, a record deal, in which 195 countries agreed to help reduce carbon emissions and stabilize global temperatures, was reached in April 2015 in Paris. Since I saw an early screening of the film, it did not include the recent decision of the Trump Administration to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. With huge implications for the United States and the world as a whole, this dramatic development has forced the filmmakers to work on a new version of the documentary by fully re-editing the film’s cautiously optimistic conclusion about global warming. Overall, I found it to be important movie that sheds more light on the serious issues surrounding global warming and makes the new political developments much more worrisome.