ITHACA, N.Y. — This week’s additions at Cinemapolis are Grandma and Meru, two films with very different target audiences. Read our reviews below.
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In a world of few sure things, there is still Lily Tomlin. Innumerable late-career laurels, including 2014 Kennedy Center Honors, have not sapped the 76-year-old actress and comedian of any of her wry, dangerous self. Watching Tomlin set deadbeats ablaze, with just her tongue and a wagging finger, is a treat in itself, though Grandma, with its glaring formula and undistinguished direction by Paul Weitz (American Pie), pushes this truth close to — though not past — its breaking point.
Like last year’s Obvious Child, Grandma’s plot circles around an imminent abortion. The person needing it is, naturally, not Tomlin’s character, a poet and academic eons past menopause named Elle Reid, but her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner). Just after splitting with her younger girlfriend (Judy Greer) in a most terse and callous manner, Elle receives Sage, who is just 18 years old, at her front door to hear that she is 10 weeks along and needs the money ($630) to meet her appointment later that day.
Right away the film tells what it’s about and what are its stakes rather than shows, an amateurish crutch that only a professional like Tomlin can gloss. Because she lives and breathes an anti-capitalist, 60s Berkeley cool, sporting a denim jacket and driving a black 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer (Tomlin’s own) without affectation, Elle is, also, broke, so she and Sage prowl Los Angeles in search of friends, or more likely smiling foes, with cash. Confronting Sage’s stoner boyfriend (Nat Wolff), an irritated café owner (Elizabeth Peña) and other easy foils, Elle breaks into caustic, blistering solos, cutting down to size all the human-shaped obstacles in her and Sage’s way.
Elle hands down wisdom to Sage in between the vitriol, which is agreeable if far too safe (after all, it is not only conservatives who pander). Most supporting roles, due to their one-dimensional crudeness, serve to flatter Elle’s far-left, anti-establishment worldview, and Sage is a flustered and inarticulate stand-in for the darn kids these days. She says “philanthropic” when she wants to call Elle “misanthropic,” and her first thought looking at Elle’s first edition of The Feminine Mystique is the X-Men character. Grandma bills itself as a road movie, but Weitz does not invest it with the patience or sense of mutual discovery found in the genre’s exemplary works (e.g., Thelma & Louise, Nebraska).
The film reaches an armistice, of sorts, when Elle and Sage visit an old flame, Karl (Sam Elliott, Lebowski’s “Stranger”). Upon learning Sage’s name, Karl purrs the curious, perhaps intentionally funny line: “Nice name. Pungent. Want some zucchini?” What builds from here is actually a broiling, significant encounter that flashes hot and cold. Elle’s queerness, her history with abortion, and Karl’s conflicted but not intolerant take on the whole matter breach air as the two fiddle with corn, each other’s lips and, oddest of all, a Barbie Jeep.
This sequence stands above the rest, which forgoes such naturalism or, simply, does not know where to find it. Tomlin brings it, sure, but her hands are not crafting the film; they’re not joining one shot with the next. Still, at a crazy trim 78 minutes, Grandma is a welcome showcase for one of our greatest.
Meru does not ask big questions so much as show long, exhausting answers.
In this documentary about three climbers scaling the notorious “Shark’s Fin” leading to Meru Peak, a Himalayan monstrosity towering 20,000 feet above sea level, the fact of the climb never wavers: not after surviving an avalanche, not after dislocating two vertebrae, not after losing your friend. In short, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (himself one of the climbers) have erected a handsome monument to the blinkered drive (what some would just call “stupidity”) it takes to climb an impossible mountain, and film it too.
Deciding that climbing a Himalayan wall that had never before been conquered was not enough, Chin and Renan Ozturk, credited as cinematographer, also lugged up DSLR cameras to capture the views and moments that drove them — Chin, Ozturk and celeb climber Conrad Anker — to the top. Few documentaries have earned their striking landscapes quite like this, when a camera’s shake exposes the ease at which the device, or a body, could meet the sloping white below. Given the ad hoc nature of the shoot, the film flouts continuity but editor Bob Eisenhardt finds a way to feign it, convincingly, anyway.
“The best Alpinists are the ones with the worst memory,” Chin jokes when narrating his team’s decision to ascend Meru again, after near-total disaster their previous trek. Chin, Anker and Ozturk, along with their wives and Into Thin Air author Jon Krakauer, talk for the camera about the details of unbelievable cold, the effect high risk mountaineering has on family life, and so on. Some of the insight approaches self-incrimination, but with Eddie Vedder plaintively howling over timelapse footage of Meru and J. Ralph’s post-rock crescendos soundtracking the rest, the mood remains one of triumph and ragged glory. The film’s import, in the end, may not weigh much more than, “Weeee! Teamwork!” but I, for one, find that a solid, respectable theme.
Judging by how Ithacans stuff Bailey Hall year-after-year for the Banff Mountain Film Festival, a celebration of similarly inspiring and vertiginous videography, Meru should attract an eager, stubbled local audience so long as the word is out. Here’s to hoping they will come, for in this straightforward documentary lies a most rugged route to happiness, one you cannot find at home.
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