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: :-)

Avatar

December 28, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

James Cameron had this film in his mind for over 15 years, and it had been in the making for about 4. He wanted to create a world, a race of people, all designed through CGI. In 1994, this would have been considered groundbreaking. Indeed, when he was on “60 Minutes” this past fall, he kept using that word. But it wasn’t just the CGI. He invented his own camera to do the 3-D work. 3-D is something that I’ve always been very reluctant to sit through in a movie theatre. It can be overhyped and overrated, and sometimes it is just bad. But this entire movie was going to be filmed in 3-D, and that was going to be quite an accomplishment. Cameron even waited throughout the years, claiming that he wanted the technology to be ready for him when he made it.

I guess the wait was worth it. “Avatar” is one of the best visual achievements I’ve ever seen. The 3-D, while taxing on the eyes due to its 160 minute running length, is exhilarating and breathtaking at certain sequences when you actually feel like you’re on the planet with these creatures. The depth of the world is incredible, nearly on par with “The Lord of the Rings”–although some of the species of creatures are just a little too familiar and uninspired.

And speaking of that, the plot of the film can be criticized for being that as well. While the visuals will impress enough to get you through the film, it’s a shame that the narrative is drawn out and somewhat boring because the characters are extremely bland. Cameron brought a world to life, but he didn’t include a cast of characters to help it along. It is also needlessly complex. Cameron had said he wanted to make a film of “every science fiction story he ever saw growing up”. I guess he pulled that off, but there has to be a point where the creative process takes over. This has “Dances With Wolves”, “Last of the Mohicans”, “Pocahontas”, written all over it.

Although the characters are uninteresting, I do have to say that the performance by Sam Worthington, as Jake Sully, was exceptional. I think that at times the CGI took away from an emotional connection as well. Yes, we do see some impressive things–but we do still see that it’s CGI. And because some of the animation is just too computer generated, something is lost.

Cameron sometimes can really benefit, however, with some script doctoring; it’s a shame he doesn’t have a co-writer. Even George Lucas sought the help of people like Tom Stoppard when he hit a wall. Cameron’s dialog is on par with throwback comic book writing of the 50’s and 60’s. It’s just painful sometimes to listen to. This plagued “Titanic” at times as well. The main villain in this film is about as bad and one dimensional as I’ve seen Cameron create. He made Bennett in “Commando” look more realistic.

I will say that Cameron deserves credit for delivering where it mattered most, and that’s visually. But the film is still a film, and a film needs a great narrative in order to be considered a great film. It’s a great spectacle, but not a great movie. It is wonderful to look at, which makes it a worthwhile film to watch.

But it could have been one of our great epics with a great storyline and characters to aid it. It’d be interesting to see what a person thinks of this film while watching it on the small screen, with no 3-D. I think it’s pretty easy to determine that this film loses a lot of luster that way. And a great film is not something that should depend on what kind of technology in which you watch it.

My rating: :-)

Terminator Salvation

May 31, 2009 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

The “Terminator” franchise is one that I’ve never really been able to fully wrap myself around. I’m not exactly sure why that is. I liked all of the films (yes, I did enjoy T3 even though it was horribly cheesy), and I still think “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” is one of the most spectacular sci-fi action films ever made. Maybe that’s why I don’t look at this franchise with as much affection as, say, the Aliens franchise for example. “Terminator 2” just seemed to blow all of the other films away, as much as “The Terminator” was a good film. Cameron really outdid himself with the sequel. It was not only a visual achievement, it was a well told story; and, besides Edward Furlong, it was well acted. The story of the rise of SkyNet is interesting, and in “Terminator Salvation”, it comes to fruition.

So let’s go ahead and hop into the latest sequel, directed by McG, and starring Christian Bale and Sam Worthington as both protagonist and in some ways, antagonists of the narrative. The year is 2018, and SkyNet has enslaved mankind, and is running the world with machines–with the exception of a small group of people that are The Resistance, headed by John Connor (Bale). But since this film series has had a bunch of time warps and all kinds of time continuum conundrums, we are introduced to another aspect we weren’t aware of before. This is the both the convenience and the problem with time travel used in films as a device–it can’t help but be a deux ex machina. In this film, though, it doesn’t rely heavily on the time travel aspect–but it does realign things a bit in the canon(not to the extent that the new “Star Trek” film did, though).

We are first introduced to Marcus Wright, a convict who is on death row and is given a “second chance” by SkyNet to come with them and give his body “for science”. Now we all know what happens when we give into science. Everything. Works. Out. Of course! And in Marcus’s case, he is suddenly transported to the future, in 2018, and in the middle of the Resistance–and gets introduced fairly quickly with another familiar name in the Terminator series–Kyle Reese (this time played by Anton Yelchin, who for the second time in a row is playing the Young Version of a Character, and does a pretty good job doing his best Michael Biehn). Reese is just a teenager, which is set up already because when Connor is listening to his mother’s tapes she left behind for him, she mentions that Reese is a part of the resistance, but is just a kid at the time. Now, the fact that Connor is his son, and he would end up meeting him at a time when he’s actually older than him–I mean, aren’t we talking massive quakes in space and time? Again, time travel rule. Actually, there aren’t any. Forget it.

Marcus eventually meets up with Connor, because he’s on his way to SkyNet to settle a score–trying to find out what in fact happened to him. But there’s a slight snag–see, he’s a terminator too. He doesn’t know it, but he is only half human. What SkyNet did to him was use him as a prototype (I’m guessing) for the T-800 (otherwise known as The Governator). Bonding human skin with machine was their project, and Marcus was part of it. At this point you’d think that would make Connor like the cut of this guy’s jib–but it’s the complete opposite. Connor actually somewhat becomes a “villain” in the sense that, in this film’s narrative, Marcus is the main character and Connor stands in his way because of the fact that he doesn’t trust him since he’s a terminator, and thinks that Marcus has been sent to kill him. This obviously means they’re done professionally.

But that’s all I will give away about the plot. And I didn’t give away much–in fact, the trailer blew the twist. But basically, it becomes a rescue mission for Kyle Reese (who is the MacGuffin, for you film students out there) since he’s captured by the machines and sent to…I don’t know, something like a chicken coop for humans. I still don’t understand what SkyNet needed humans for, except to be real jerks about keeping them alive just to make them do labor. As I’ve learned in life, I would actually rather have robots do labor. Especially construction on the Dan Ryan.

In any event, this is probably the darkest and bleakest of the films, and I did actually like it for what it was. While Bale’s performance was amateur, and he kind of walks around going “Lat-da-da-da-dada-ahh”, the guy that steals the show is Sam Worthington as Marcus. As far as the film’s dark atmosphere, I will say it got to me–there is just something very unsettling about SkyNet as a computer-based empire that just illustrates the coldness and sterility of what life has become for earth. It’s an obvious metaphor for the ubiquitous technology that we depend so much on, and become more and more dependant on as we grow deeper into the Computer Age. The machines in some ways are like insects, and I actually was reminded of “Aliens” at times.

McG’s not all that creative with the storyline and doesn’t really bring anything too original to the table, but he manages a decent script and allows the story to breathe enough to get through. There are loads of references to the earlier Terminator films–some of them work, some of them don’t. Overall, the film is a solid entry into the Terminator series; however, I don’t know how much life this franchise has left in the tank. I don’t know what else I need to see, honestly. The film’s conclusion is good enough to end the series with–then again, I thought the same thing about the first “Matrix” movie and then there were 2 unnecessary and awful sequels to turn it into a “trilogy”. But that’s another story.

Despite some scenes that really depend on you to suspend disbelief (Sci-Fi Action Film 101, people), and some clunkiness in the first act, overall it’s a solid film. Oh, and the film was extremely well shot, by the way. The director of photography was amazing. It was not distracting at all. He should certainly get an award recognition.

My rating: :-)