Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Why Watch "Everest"? Because It's There!


Every few years disaster strikes on Mount Everest and multiple debates about climbing the tallest mountain in the world begin. The most basic question that is always at the heart of Everest is, “Why?” The film, Everest, directly posits this question as well, and the characters, in unison, shout George Mallory’s famous line: “Because it’s there!” The characters give serious answers afterward, but that line gets to the root of most reasons why people climb and also why the film exists. Everest is there, and such an imposing example of nature will always fascinate climbers and viewers alike.

There is no shortage of disaster stories from Everest’s deadly history, but the 1996 climbing season was possibly the most documented making it the obvious choice for source material. Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is the most famous account of the climb, but Everest went with a more broad scope in an attempt to present more viewpoints of the event. This makes Everest more accessible, but the lack of focus also leads to some characters receiving short shrift. That said, enough character building is done to make the human drama a very effective counterbalance to the visual spectacle of the film.

The draw of Everest is definitely the spectacle, though. Any film about Everest needs to be about the beauty of the deadly mountain and the general experience of climbing it. In that regard, Everest is extremely successful. The shots of the mountain are stunning, but, more importantly, the actors seem to be truly struggling as they make their way higher and higher. The film shows how brutal the climb truly is, even when climbers are paying to be shepherded up the mountain. The climbers are basically dying the last few thousand feet since humans aren’t meant to survive at such altitudes. Director Baltasar Korm├íkur said in an interview that he’s “fine” with putting actors through “a little bit of pain” and it definitely shows.

It’s important for the film to hammer home the difficulty of the climb to make the major question of the film more pertinent. Why put yourself through this? Why risk your life? This question is doubly relevant when you add in the weather conditions that led to the 1996 disaster. Is it worth losing your life for the glory of reaching the top? Everest does not presume to answer this question, but the characters obviously think that it is very much worth it. It’s important that the film ultimately leaves the answer up to the viewer since it is a real world question that is still relevant, especially since Everest’s deadliest day occurred this past April. The bigger question then becomes about commercial climbing. In other words, should less-experienced climbers be allowed to pay professional guides to get them to the top? Multiple times in the film, money is mentioned, and the guides clearly want to get people to the top so they can stay in business. Would the disaster of 1996 have happened if the guides didn’t feel that pressure to get more people to the top, especially with a journalist in two who was going to write about it? The film’s screenwriters (William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy) wisely stop short of blatantly demonizing the practice of guided climbing, leaving it ultimately up to the viewer.

The question of Everest then becomes, “Why recreate these terrible events?” That is difficult to answer. Much like any film based on real, tragic events, there is a tricky line that is toed between reverence and exploitation. “Everest” does not come across as exploitative, but there are moments near the end (which did actually happen) that felt too personal to be recreated, much less witnessed by millions of viewers. (This is a slight SPOILER so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t know the true story and don’t want any part of the film spoiled.) Near the end of the film, one of the main characters, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), has a conversation with his pregnant wife via a walkie-talkie/satellite phone hook-up as he is dying. It felt too personal to read about it in Into Thin Air, and it felt even more personal watching it recreated. The film seems aware of this, however, as there are multiple reaction shots of characters listening in on the interaction. Everyone is crying, and most people watching the film will be crying as well. This moment is so important because this is where the film might lose the audience. It feels a bit too manipulative, but it actually did happen this way. It’s hard to fault a movie for being melodramatic when it’s based on a real moment. The scene proved to be a double-edged sword for me. It made the film much more emotional and powerful than I expected it to be, but it also convinced me that I never wanted to watch it again.

Any emotion created in a scene is also the product of the actors involved. Clarke is great throughout, but he is truly heartbreaking at the end of the film. Keira Knightley, as Hall’s wife, gives an effective performance as well, especially considering that her scenes were just her talking on the phone. The rest of the cast of Everest is equally impressive: Jake Gyllenhaal, Robin Wright, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Michael Kelly, Sam Worthington, and Emily Watson. Brolin is given the meatiest role as Beck Weathers, a man whose experiences could have been a movie on its own. The rest have their moments, but the only weak point of the film is that some of the cast is underutilized, specifically Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal portrays Scott Fischer, who was known as kind of a rock star mountain climber. This reputation leads to a slightly strange performance as Fischer seems to be constantly drunk and/or angry, but it’s never explained completely. It seems that once Gyllenhaal was cast, the screenwriters wanted to beef up the role, but couldn’t devote enough time to create a fully fleshed out character. That said, Gyllenhaal brings enough charisma to the role to justify his appearance; you’re just left wanting more.

If anything, the main issue with Everest is that you’re left wanting more. It’s a true story with so many characters it’s impossible to feel like the full story has been told in two hours. Thankfully, there are multiple books and articles that delve deeply into the individual experiences. So Everest is more of a snapshot of Everest and all the human drama that comes with it. It is a very effective film that makes you appreciate (and question) the struggle people go through to achieve their dreams. As a short glimpse into the world of commercial climbing and the tragedy it can bring, Everest works on every important level. It won’t (and can’t) answer the question of why people climb Everest, but it does present a fascinating example of people who took up the challenge and paid the ultimate price.

Everest receives a:

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Plot of "Black Mass" Has Been Told Before ("The Departed"), but This Time, Johnny Depp Is in It, and He Isn't Playing Jack Sparrow, but He Does Resemble a Vampire...

Black Mass

Gangster movies have tended to glorify (intentionally or not) their subjects since the creation of the genre, but it is rare when there is a film that actively tries to make you hate the gangster. In the rare film in which the gangster is truly the antagonist, it is the law enforcement agent(s) that then get glorified (Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables comes to mind). Black Mass goes the extra mile making both the gangster and the main FBI agent terrible people.

Black Mass is based on the true story of Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) and an FBI agent, John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), who formed an unholy alliance with him. The true story is extremely complicated, mainly because nearly everyone involved is still alive, and nearly all of the gangsters have testified against each other. It is hard to tell who is being honest in reality, which adds an extra layer of confusion to the film. But Black Mass is a movie, not a historical document. While there will be detractors who bemoan it as pure “fantasy” (as former Bulger confidante Kevin Weeks labeled it), it’s hard to deny that director Scott Cooper has crafted a dark, atmospheric gangster film that features Depp’s most interesting performance in years.

Depp is the true draw with this film because it marks a return of sorts for the actor. After a serious of bombs intermingled with increasingly boring Jack Sparrow joints, Depp returns looking just as crazy but definitely changing things up a bit with a truly effective performance. Depp, who looks nothing like Bulger in reality (though at this point, it’s hard to tell what Depp’s natural look is), features white blond hair receding into a slicked back helmet, piercing blue contact lenses, and a dead front tooth. The appearance is so jarring that it’s distracting at worst, menacing at best. At times, Depp would not have looked out of place in a vampire film. Oddly enough, it works for the film.

Black Mass is just as much Joel Edgerton’s film as it is Depp’s. In fact, the focus is arguably more on Edgerton’s Connelly character than on Bulger. This actually makes the film more interesting as Connelly is the more complex character. Bulger is not very complicated; it is painfully clear that he is a terrible person, and he is okay with that. Connelly, on the other hand, is pretty awful, morally speaking, but appears to be a bit delusional about it. You get the sense that he truly believes he is doing a good deed by protecting Bulger. Depp is the draw that gets you to the movie, but Edgerton anchors the film.

The supporting cast is nothing short of amazing, featuring the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson, W. Earl Brown. They each have their moments, making this one of the most impressive casts of the year.

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) takes a close up approach that gives the film a more intimate, grimy feel that fits with the time setting. That setting is what also makes Black Mass unique. Bulger comes across as the least glamorous gangster of all time, which adds to the character. He seems to simply enjoy the things he does. The money is inconsequential. In fact, Connelly seems to be enjoying the money more than Bulger.

Gangsters, crooked cops, murder, etc. is familiar territory, though, even if much of the approach is unique. It doesn’t help that Bulger’s story was the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, making the plot something many viewers have literally seen before. Some might be exhausted by this particular story even if it has not technically been told yet. If that is the case, Black Mass might not be unique enough to garner your interest. But if you are always up for a gangster movie (like me), and you yearn for another great performance from Johnny Depp (like me again) then you will find plenty to keep you interested in Black Mass. Just don’t expect to end up rooting for the bad guys, because this time, they’re actually bad.

Black Mass receives a: