30-for-30: Angry Sky

30-for-30 Angry Sky movie poster

Release: Thursday, July 30, 2015

[Netflix]

Directed by: Jeff Tremaine

Tom Petty wrote a song once called “Learning to Fly.” One lyric in particular stands out: ‘Coming down is the hardest thing.’ The song’s harmless of course, but that part of the chorus seems hauntingly apt for the experiences of one Nick Piantanida, amateur parachute jumper and all-around daredevil in the 1960s.

Angry Sky features the New Jersey chutist’s three attempts to break the world record for highest sky dive, using a manned balloon that would achieve a height of 123, 500 feet (20+ miles) above the Earth. On each attempt something would go wrong and, tragically, the problems only became more complex and life-threatening with each effort.

Because of the malfunctions, Piantanida never technically accomplished his goal of becoming the first person to jump from the stratosphere. However he did set the standard for highest manned balloon flight, a record that stood until October 2012, when Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner, backed by Red Bull in an event that has to be seen to be believed, successfully broke the sound barrier by falling 24 vertical miles.

Jeff Tremaine is once again on hand to deliver a story about sensational extreme sports enthusiasts, constructing an adrenaline-spiking piece that, while never revolutionary in its delivery, puts a very human spin on a story and subject matter that seems alien to anyone else not caught up in the culture and science of this kind of boundary-pushing thrill seeking. Tremaine interviews family, friends and colleagues who reflect back on the life of a man who could never be convinced not to do the thing he was trying to accomplish.

In some senses Piantanida could be viewed as a selfish individual. Attempting such a jump, not once but three times over the course of a year, necessarily carried with it the implication that he may be saying goodbye to his wife and three children on each occasion. The drama builds in such a way that it’s impossible to ignore a sense of egotism and impatience over becoming world famous.

Angry Sky has little interest in demonizing anyone. Its purpose doesn’t amount to calling someone crazy (even if he is). Like any documentary with its head in the right place, it aims to explore the things that make a person complex. You could make the argument he is a man of simple pleasures, always seeking the most powerful adrenaline rush possible.

But we’re also introduced to a guy who never quite grasped the concept of team sports. He could have been a great basketball player but he had to do things his own way. He joined the Armed Forces after high school and earned the rank of corporal. Afterwards he got into rock climbing, and with a friend established a route up the north side of the 3,000-foot Auyántepui, the mighty Venezuelan plateau over which Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall, spills.

Tremaine manages to straddle the line between being specific with the information he chooses to keep and appealing to a broad audience. Skydiving is a rather obscure sport yet he knows it’s a pool well worth wading into. Piantanida’s story may be the first (and it may ever be the only) documentary on the sport in this film series, but that question, the one we’re all thinking — what makes a person want to put themselves at such a risk? — more than justifies the film’s existence. Why so high, Nick? Why so high?

Baumgartner also briefly features, and though he doesn’t say much, he offers some context for the ambitions of this young man. If his iconic free fall a mere two years ago was enough to take away the world’s collective breath — and it really was quite the incredible thing to watch — remember some guy had tried to do this with much less technology nearly a half century ago. Yeah, that was Nick Piantanida.

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Nick Piantanida about to attempt a world-record skydiving jump

Recommendation: Obscure, but fascinating. Story may well appeal to more extreme sports junkies than any other group but it’s one of the more interesting stories detailing how a strong personality and danger-courting pursuits often go hand-in-hand. Well worth a watch if you’re into action sports. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 77 mins.

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Everest

Release: Friday, September 18, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: William Nicholson; Simon Beaufoy

Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur

There are a great many A-list names attached to this cinematic treatment of a particularly dark chapter in the history of Mt. Everest, yet the only one that really matters is the one given to the mountain. As a climber forebodingly notes in the earlygoing, “Everest will always have the last word.” She certainly did on May 10, 1996 when eight climbers lost their lives on her unforgiving slopes, but even after that debacle the restless have remained steadfast in their beliefs that their time would soon be coming.

Ah, the hubris of the human race. We have to conquer every summit. Mine every depth, or die trying. And if not that, we find ourselves stringing wire between the world’s tallest buildings and walking across it as an act of rebellion in the face of monotonous existence. Nineteenth century environmental activist and outdoor enthusiast John Muir is famously quoted saying that “when mountains call, wise men listen.” I find it an incomplete thought, for the wisest of men also listen when mountains warn them not to do something. But in the case of the world’s tallest, most notorious peak, the allure has proven time and again to be too great. When out of oxygen just below a summit that is finally in sight, all one has left to burn is ego. Very rarely is that sufficient fuel. Everest, the concept, seems reckless and irresponsible, but then again it’s all part of a world I probably will never understand.

My perspective is irrelevant though, and so too are those of pretty much all climbers involved in Baltasar Kormákur’s new movie. Everest is an inevitability, the culmination of years’ worth of obscure documentary footage about the numerous (occasionally groundbreaking) ascents that have simultaneously claimed and inspired lives within the climbing community and even outside of it (after all, Mt. Everest tends to attract anyone with deep enough pockets and the determination to put their bodies through hell for a few months out of the year). This film is, more specifically, the product of a few written accounts from the 1996 expedition, including that of Jon Krakaeur, whose take (Into Thin Air) I still can’t help but feel ought to have been the point of view supplied.

Unfortunately I can’t review a movie that doesn’t exist so here goes this. Kormákur inexplicably attracts one of the most impressive casts of the year — actually, it does make sense: he needed a talented group to elevate a dire script, people who could lend gravitas to dialogue kindergarten kids might have written — to flesh out this bird’s eye view on a disastrous weekend on the mountain. Everest is a story about many individual stories and experiences, of loss and failure resulting from decisions that were made in the name of achieving once-in-a-lifetime success. It plays out like a ‘Best of’ Everest, but really it’s a ‘worst of’ because what happened to the expeditions led by the Kiwi Rob Hall (Jason Clarke, standing out from the pack) and American go-getter Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) was nothing short of tragic.

If the movie focuses on anyone or anything in particular it’s Clarke’s indomitable spirit, and I suppose in some morbid way that’s the most effective use of our time when witnessing a disaster that claimed multiple lives. Hall’s the most developed character, he was an expedition leader, he’s portrayed by the incredibly affable Clarke and his fate marks Everest‘s gut-wrenching emotional crux. Everyone remembers that heartbreaking radio call he made to his wife Jan Arnold (an emotional Keira Knightley) after being left alone high up on the mountain in the wake of the storm that turned the expedition’s descent into an all-out dog fight against the extreme elements. Quite likely it’s the bit that will end up defining Kormákur’s otherwise bland adventure epic. It’s what I’m remembering the most now a couple days after the fact and it’s a painful memory to say the least.

Everest may not work particularly well as a human drama — there are simply too many individuals, prominent ones, for the story to devote equal time to — but as a visual spectacle and a testament to the power of nature, crown the film a victor. The mountain has never looked better, and of course by ‘better’ I mean terrifying, menacing, a specter of suffering and voluntary torture. The Lhotse Face, the Khumbu icefall, the Hilary Step — all of the infamous challenges are present and accounted for. Memories of Krakaeur’s personal and physical struggle as he slowly ticked off these landmarks on his way to the top come flooding back. Along with them, the more nagging thoughts: why is a great actor like Michael Kelly sidelined with such a peripheral role here? Why is his role ever-so-subtly antagonistic? But then Salvatore Torino’s sweeping camerawork distracts once again, lifting us high into the Himalayas in a way only the literal interpretation of the visual medium can.

With the exception of a few obvious props and set pieces, Everest succeeds in putting us there on the mountain with these groups. While it’s not difficult to empathize with these climbers — Josh Brolin’s Beck Weathers being the most challenging initially — the hodgepodge of sources create a film that’s unfocused and underdeveloped. It all becomes a bit numbing, and unfortunately not the kind brought on by bone-chilling temperatures and hurricane-force winds.

Recommendation: Unfocused and too broad in scope, Everest means well in its attempts to bring one of the most notorious days on the mountain to the big screen but it unfortunately doesn’t gain much elevation beyond summarizing all of the accounts we’ve either read about or heard about on Discovery Channel and History Channel specials. The visuals are a real treat, though I have no idea why this whole 3D thing is being so forcefully recommended as of late. I watched it in regular format and had no issues of feeling immersed in the physical experience. I just wish I could have gotten more out of it psychologically.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “Human beings simply aren’t built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

30-for-30: The Birth of Big Air


Release: Thursday, July 29, 2010

[Netflix]

Directed by: Jeff Tremaine

In my high school days I picked up an unreasonably heavy, gold-framed Mongoose flatland bike, thinking that I was going to get into this whole BMX thing, unaware that it was going to be just a phase. Unaware that the kind of bike I had wasn’t really meant for going down ramps and off of jumps. Unaware that within a few months’ time I would switch over to rollerblades. And ultimately unaware of who Mat ‘The Condor’ Hoffman was.

I guess you could call me a poser. I don’t know if people still do that, since I haven’t stepped foot inside a skate park for years now and it seems like such a ’90s term, but I pretty much have no problem being called that. I couldn’t do anything on a bike, except balance it long enough not to crash, and I was extremely skilled in not going over the handlebars (which basically means I never tried anything crazy enough to put me in that situation). When it came right down to it, I simply wasn’t prepared to put myself through the gnar that other people who were far more dedicated to riding seemingly were; I was the kind who got phased whenever his foot slipped the pedal and had it swing back around and smack him right in the shin. Forget about trying to throw down a 720 on a jump box or going inverted on a 10-foot tall vert ramp.

The Birth of Big Air, directed by Jackass‘ very own Jeff Tremaine and produced by several familiar names — Tremaine, Johnny Knoxville, Spike Jonze and Mat Hoffman himself — represents somewhat of a surface-level examination of Hoffman’s journey from teenage prodigy to becoming a staple of the industry. Tremaine packs a lot of information into his hour-long feature, though if you’ve been a follower of the sport for a couple of years you’re not likely to find too many revelations here. For anyone else however, The Birth of Big Air should prove insightful in its characterizing of one of the most radical personalities in the game, one that’s been around since the late ’80s.

Documentary tracks his development as a world-renowned athlete, beginning just before his turning pro in 1991. Archived footage shows a young Mat with an affinity for blasting big airs out of tall ramps, going higher above the deck of the ramp than anyone else was willing to go, or maybe even able to. Things don’t become really interesting — and forgive me for sounding a little more enthusiastic than I should, this film reminded me of how fascinating BMX really is — until his obsession with building larger vert ramps to obtain greater heights, an obsession that would result in him and his friends constructing a 24-foot-tall ramp just outside of his Oklahoma City home.

The ambition was less about getting into the record books as it was about embracing the spirit of his idol, legendary stuntman Evel Knievel. The repeated defiance of death necessarily made the pair synonymous. While some find enjoyment in riding bikes down quiet country lanes or around public parks or competing in races, Hoffman felt most comfortable being towed behind a motorcycle in order to rip off a 25-foot air above his home-made mega ramp. But it was less the motorcycle’s speed that got him there as it was his attitude — an intriguing mix of nonchalance and imperturbable confidence. Of course, the debate will never end over whether obstination is to be the undoing of any action sports competitor, and it’s completely understandable why some would (and have) shamed this guy for putting his family through such stress time and again. (His wife Jaci is as solid as a rock when she interviews, especially considering the sorts of things she openly talks about).

Hoffman’s comparable to an NFL player in terms of injuries sustained: he’s reportedly suffered over 100 concussions and has had 23 major surgeries. Some of the head injuries, apparently a weekly occurrence for him — well, in his prime . . . he has had the foresight to put his serious biking days behind him now — are not so concerning, but others, like the time he crashed and spent the better part of a year with amnesia or another incident where he was rendered unable to taste food for about seven years are enough to make any person shake their head in bewilderment. How and why would a person put themselves through anything like that?

That question is all too easy to ask if you’re not involved in the sport . . . and if you’re not ‘The Condor.’ Thankfully, The Birth of Big Air refuses to climb onto a soap box and start spouting out the pro’s and con’s of becoming a professional BMX rider. Instead Tremaine allows the disturbing facts (and the Hoffmans) speak for themselves. There’s little judgment, and crucially, little flinching away from some of the uglier realities of Hoffman’s ambition.

The physical sacrifices may factor in prominently, but they aren’t the sum total of the story Tremaine is telling. One of the most impressive highlights of a career filled with them is Hoffman’s ability to continue a career in a sport that hasn’t always been financially rewarding. When money and sponsorships dried up without warning in the early ’90s many professional riders were prompted to quit and find more reliable jobs. Hoffman, of course, wasn’t one of those riders. When BMX hit its recession, Hoffman started up his own biking company, which eventually led to free, public competitions in which he finally debuted his massive vert ramp. These events gradually reestablished how bikes would and could be ridden, and Hoffman’s company was largely to thank for the sport’s resuscitation, coupled with the advent of the X-Games (the Olympics of the action sports community) in 1995.

The story of Mat Hoffman is essentially the story of how BMX has become the industry it is today, and The Birth of Big Air can confirm. I don’t know when it was when I became aware of his name but it was sometime after I had transitioned from the bike and onto rollerblades, where I actually managed to avoid breaking too many bones. It was ironic that I had left one sport and started identifying with the culture and lifestyle of another (for reasons now unknown to me, as rollerblading has long been a dying industry), only to start finding myself obsessed with the picture of Mat far above the coping of that behemoth of a vert ramp. Mat lost in the sky and suspended in real time. Inspiring an entire generation of riders to dare to do the impossible.

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Recommendation: The Birth of Big Air plays to a fairly small audience but for anyone who has heard the name Mat Hoffman and is curious to learn a bit more about him, Jeff Tremaine’s documentary is a pretty great place to start. It might have gone into some more detail about the particularly stressful and turbulent period of the early ’90s as the sport died out, but then a much longer final cut would have been necessary. I personally wouldn’t have complained, but as it stands, there’s plenty to marvel at.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 60 mins.

Quoted: “I’m thinking . . . I don’t know, what the hell am I thinking? Oh my god . . . is that really possible? Or am I just completely an idiot?”

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