Everest

September 28, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

Growing up, I had a fascination with Mount Everest. I still have a National Geographic issue that focused on the mountain. I had fantasies of one day ascending and climbing to the summit. Then, I read “Into Thin Air”, Jon Krakauer’s account of what’s now known as the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, and it’s  not really on my to-do list anymore. Not only because of what happens to the climbers, but Krakauer did such a fine job of putting you on that mountain with them that you could feel what they were going through, without having to actually experience it yourself. I swear at one point I may have even developed HAPE.

There was one attempt in the late 1990’s to adapt the book into a film, but it was a low level TV film that was panned and forgotten about. I had always thought the story deserved a big budget, the 5 star treatment, and when I read about this upcoming film, I thought I was finally going to get that.

I’d say what we do get is a 3 star treatment. It’s not wasted time, but it doesn’t capture what Krakauer was able to. He is a master storyteller, but surely there should’ve been someone who could’ve brought his story to life. Then again, “Everest” is not technically based upon his account. He is represented in the film, by actor Michael Kelly, but his perspective is somewhat marginalized. In fact, the flaw in the film is that it compromises the most gripping aspect of the story, which is the personal stories of those involved.

The film focuses on Rob Hall (Jason Clarke, quickly becoming a favorite of mine in recent cinema), a likable and bright expedition leader of a firm called Adventure Consultants. The name sounds like one of Enron’s fictional off shoots that Andrew Fastow would’ve come up with, but nevermind. He is hired commercially and leads somewhat unskilled climbers and regular climbers alike to summit Everest. His 1996 crew includes Krakauer, and Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), who is getting up in age where he won’t be able to climb Everest realistically after that year. There’s a Japanese climber, Yasuko Nambo (Naoko Mori), who is one summit away from completing the Seven Summits, and would be the second Japanese woman to do so. Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) is also along, who has experience climbing but is a doctor by trade.

They are joined at base camp by a rival company, Mountain Madness, led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is a little more of a free spirit than Hall, but likable just the same. Things get testy as too many climbers begin to bottleneck the expedition further up the mountain, and as weather shifts, it becomes dangerous to ascend.

This is all well done in the film, making you feel the tension of the climbers who are getting more annoyed at waiting than they are fearful of the possibility of dying on the mountain. But when the winds pick up and avalanches begin to threaten them, their attitudes change into something more urgent and critical. They look out for each other, try to help one another–they’re all in it together. But the mountain is one cruel mistress. And things start to fall apart once the summit is completed by many of the climbers.

There is so much going on, so much tension, that at times it is hard to bear. You’re gripping your seat in anticipation, hoping they make it. If you don’t know the story, it’s all the more suspenseful. But even as I had known the story and the fates of all the climbers, I still felt captivated by the film’s pace.

Where it somewhat falls apart is after the dust has cleared, and we’re left with some aftermath of what happens to some of these characters. Because we never were able to become invested in them as people, it’s hard to wrap your heart around the concluding scenes, except in the way you would reading a tragic news story. The point of Krakauer’s story was to bring you into these peoples’ conditions and strife through the expedition, so that when you read what happens to them, your heart breaks into a million pieces. Sure, they’re paying a lot of money and are wealthy people; but their aim is true and their ambition is genuine. No one deserves to die just because they want to challenge it. That’s part of the adventure and the allure of climbing Everest. When you arrive at base camp, you’re already about halfway up the mountain. It’s deceptive. It’s mild, there’s no snow, you can wear shorts. Once you make it to Camp One, it’s game on.

The film does bring you onto that mountain, but you still feel like you’re watching something rather than living it, something “Into Thin Air” did brilliantly. The film ultimately treats its characters like throwaways, and that’s a shame. Especially in the case of Beck, who had an incredible story of his own. And not only that, the cast has so much depth you wonder how they put the budget together to get all of these people to play such condensed characters. Keira Knightley (who has the closest performance to something Oscar worthy) as Rob’s wife, helplessly far, far from the mountain, back home. Robin Wright plays Beck’s wife. Sam Worthington plays Guy Cotter, another climber, and sympathetic character. Emily Watson plays Helen Wilton, a dispatcher at base camp. It’s a beautiful cast, and all of them do their best with their meager roles. But ultimately, the mountain wins out, and maybe it has to. Maybe it’s impossible to get that much depth from a 2 hour film. And a mini series may drag out the story too long. In the end, it’s a flawed film, but it is a well done film. It is shot wonderfully, and most of the pace of the film is fine, by director Baltasar Kormakur. It’s just a shame that the narrative gets lost in the storm as well, because it is one amazing story of survival and heartache. I’d recommend seeing this film–but as a companion, I recommend reading “Into Thin Air” even more.

My rating: :-)

Terminator: Genisys

July 8, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

“A straight line. You keep moving forward and never look back.” That’s a line frequently used in the 5th film of the “Terminator” franchise–a franchise that probably didn’t need more than 2 movies (the first two, which were the best). But, here we are, far removed from the era of Cameron’s masterpieces. The ironic thing about that line, though, is that “Terminator: Genisys” hardly moves in a straight line. It’s about as all over the place as you can get. There is so much time travel in this film, it almost borders parody. I thought of “Back to the Future Part II”, in which multiple timelines are crossed and crossed again–but the film always made sense and cleaned up its mess.

Here, director Alan Taylor leaves it to us to clean up the mess. And about halfway through, you are basically the 8 year old kid who decides to go play with his friends and ducks out of the bedroom window, climbing down the tree touching the window. It’s not worth trying to figure out. The question is: do you sit back and enjoy the ride? Or do you pick apart the flaws in the time travel?

The story is basically a sequel, a prequel, and a reboot, all in one. It starts with the war against the Terminators, when John Connor (nicely played by Jason Clarke) sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back to 1984 to protect Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), and mate with her to produce…him. He has to do this because Skynet has invented a way to send Terminators back in time, so that humanity has no chance of ever posing a threat to their domination. But when Reese is sent back, there is a bit of a breach in the nexus while he is being transferred. When he gets to 1984, he finds that Sarah not only knows about Terminators sent to kill her, but she’s already befriended one that was sent to protect her. She calls him “Pops” and he fights a fresh T-800, and has to fight another T-1000. Arnold Schwarzenegger proudly returns as the monotone voiced Terminator, and he fights his younger self in a pretty entertaining early battle scene. While this probably should have been more like the concluding climactic fight, it still works as a shot in the arm to get things going.

The T-1000 is a bit out of place in this film, as its technical effects just don’t seem all that impressive anymore. After all, we’ve seen this in the first two “Terminator” sequels, and I felt that it exhausted its welcome there. Here, it seems just thrown in. But I will always have a hard time arguing against seeing a Lee Byung-hun. Pops takes him down fairly early, indicating that they know the T-1000 is just chump change at this point.

But from there, the story gets more complicated. The issue mainly surrounds John Connor, which is typical in a “Terminator” film. But the time travel element gets extremely liberal in its narrative usage, and your head will probably spin when all of it is thrown at you.

My advice is, don’t worry about it. You aren’t going to need to know the “why” in this film. All you need to do is accept it based on the fact that, well, time travel doesn’t really exist anyway. All the questions you have are too logical for such a thing, and if you start thinking too much about it, you are going to miss a pretty well paced and entertaining action film. And that’s all this is. And it’s basically saved by Arnold’s winning performance. I didn’t care much for Courtney as Kyle Reese, nor Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor. Not because they weren’t played by the original actors (I liked Anton Yelchin as a young Reese in “Salvation” anyway), but because I feel like they were the wrong actors to play the parts. Both are capable actors, both I’ve liked in other things. But here, they just don’t look right to me. But Arnold does, and he really gives an A grade performance that makes this film watchable. I will admit, as decent it is as an action film on its own, there are many flaws in it that I forgave once I saw that forced smile by Arnold. I also liked J.K. Simmons, as usual, turning in an amusing supporting role.

This is not a great film by any means, and I didn’t enjoy the resurrection of the franchise quite as much as I did “Jurassic World” with the “Jurassic Park” franchise. But it did deliver a good enough payload for me to recommend it–mainly because of Schwarzenegger’s trademark charisma and appeal, and because the action sequences size up to the rest of the franchise as well.

No one’s walking in a straight line, but certainly no one’s looking back here, either. For a franchise that should have stopped with “Terminator 2”, you could probably just skip 3 and 4, watch this, and be satisfied enough with a trilogy–even though the first two are in a very different, and superior league.

My rating: :-)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

July 23, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

I was not a big fan of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”; however, I was not averse to the series being rebooted. I was hoping for something a little more brazen and daring, maybe. Like the original Rod Serling-penned film was. I know that Hollywood isn’t what it used to be and it’s harder for mainstream films to have a “message” that isn’t politically correct or sometimes downright cloying; but the “Apes” series was about change, and progression. It was a social commentary about race relations and bigotry–something that still and always will permeate society. “Rise” seemed to fall short on that, and the storyline just felt predictable and easy. That said, I did appreciate Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar. He seems to be right at home as a CGI enhanced character.

Here he returns as Caesar, but things have changed dramatically for planet earth. The virus hinted at in “Rise” has now wiped out a good portion of the human population, and apes are unaffected. They are, however, pretty smart and have evolved (oops, careful) into a healthy society. Caesar is their leader, with his old friend and wingman, Koba (Toby Kebbell) at his side. He also has a son named Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and a newborn with his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer), who is suffering from an illness after the second son is born. The apes seem to be living happy as a tribe, until they are met with a group of humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke). Koba hates all humans, but Caesar isn’t so quick to dismiss them all. He knows there is good in them, he just has a hard time trusting them. When it’s discovered that the humans need to access a dam to give power to their dwellings outside the forest, Caesar has to make a choice to trust them. The dam happens to be in their jurisdiction. The humans are desperate, with only enough fuel at their compound to last another week. The leader, Drefyus (Gary Oldman), doesn’t really have an opinion on the apes, he just considers them animals. But Malcolm has seen their intelligence and isn’t intimidated as much as he is fascinated. He and Caesar strike a bond, with Caesar most likely remembering his younger years as a subject with Will (James Franco, making a cameo appearance in an old video that Caesar stumbles upon when he is in his old abandoned home). Caesar lets the humans do their “human work”–then, Koba reminds him, in a well done scene, that he, too, has had “human work”. He points to his scars, and simply says, “Human work”. The apes can talk, but primitively. They can complete sentences, but they cannot yet talk as well as, say, Dr. Zaius.

The strongest performances come from Serkis and Clarke as Caesar and Malcolm. Director Matt Reeves is wise to allow the film to breathe once in a while and give some time to flesh out the characters. Malcolm has a son, but lost his wife to the virus. His love interest, played well by Keri Russel, lost a child as well, and tries to form a bond with Malcolm’s son, named Alexander. Alexander begins a bit of a friendship with the Orangutan, Maurice (Karin Konoval). But it’s Caesar’s friendship with Malcolm that pushes this story along–although I will also mention that the story of Caesar and his son Blue Eyes is strong as well. Caesar finds that he can trust Malcolm, but not everyone. A member of his crew, Carver, hates the apes and plays one of the unfortunately strawman villains that is simply in there to stir things up. Koba, who is a stronger villain, somewhat dwindles into a stereotypical antagonist by the end as well but he does have some strong earlier scenes. I think the best scene with Koba involves him infiltrating the humans’ military compound where two moronic guys are testing guns. He acts like a dumb circus ape (a bonobo to be exact), and gets the guys to lower their defenses when he suddenly grabs their gun and “accidentally” kills one. The other one, terrified and astounded at the same time, suffers the same fate except Koba shows that he knows exactly what he’s doing this time.

The climactic battle between humans and apes is an exciting one, and impressive for it being almost entirely CG. Nothing looks phony or out of whack (although I wouldn’t recommend wasting the extra money to see it in 3-D, it does absolutely nothing). In the end, both Caesar and Malcolm know that no matter how much they want peace, it’s always the violence that wins out. Finally, we get a bit of that old “Apes” film feel when we know we’re just all doomed. The end certainly sets up another sequel, and I won’t give away how it all unfolds. But it is very strong, and very convincing, something that I just felt was lacking in “Rise”. This is a very well done sequel, and should be considered among the “better than the original” sequels like “The Godfather II”, “Empire Strikes Back”, and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”. It moves at a good pace for a film that’s over two hours, and the performances are all very well done.

If there was a necessary injection to give life into the franchise, this one delivers and is just what it needed, even after a soft origin film.

My rating: :-)