Free Solo

Release: Friday, September 28, 2018

→Theater

Directed by: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi; Jimmy Chin

Alex Honnold is a professional rock climber who occupies a very obscure niche within the rock climbing community. As a free soloist responsible for some of the world’s most death-defying ascents sans a rope and any protective gear, he is most alive when climbing hundreds of feet above the deck and often inches from slipping into the yawning mouth of death. Now, with Free Solo, general audiences get a chance to step into his tightly-laced La Sportivas and see the world from his point of view. The results are surprisingly humanizing.

As a (seriously out-of-form) rock climber, I have had for quite some time a philosophical problem with Alex Honnold and others like him — Dan Osman for example (may he rest in peace) — and what they represent of the climbing community. Not everyone has the interest in learning about all the different styles and nuances to the endeavor, though it should be pretty self-evident anything done several hundred feet above the ground without a rope is automatically classified as extreme. Honnold’s goals are ostensibly the same as any other climber — he just has to “make it to the top.” When it comes to Honnold and his increasingly public profile I fear criticisms of him will become appropriated to the whole — that this degree of thrill is what we all seek; that all those who enjoy climbing might just be as callous towards their own lives as he appears to be.

Of course, I am probably not giving the layperson nearly enough credit. I think the majority understand that traditional climbing is done with a rope and a harness (though those same people are really going to shit when I tell them there is a thing called bouldering, too). After all, even if you don’t climb but saw Free Solo, you got a good idea that what he is attempting isn’t normal. That there is a scale of relativity here. I was prepared to write a scathing review for how Free Solo might give people the wrong impression, but I must applaud it for taking the approach that it does — angling for the psychology that makes Honnold a pure climber, yet one that is clearly different than the rest. This movie humanizes an insane human (who, by the way, and as is revealed in what I thought was one of the film’s best scenes in a medical facility where Honnold is getting a scan of his brain, apparently possesses an unusually difficult-to-impress amygdala, the area of the brain involved with how we experience emotion). Getting to know him on a more personal level makes this adventure so much more compelling.

The basis for Free Solo, daringly shot and co-directed by celebrated climbing photographer Jimmy Chin and his wife, documentarian Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Merú), is actually not about the climb but about the climber and his scruples. For the sake of plot synopsizing, the film finds him in pursuit of arguably the most ambitious undertaking in the history of climbing. He aims to free solo the 3,000-foot-tall granite monstrosity of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, one of the premier destinations for airy multi-pitch, traditional gear (or ‘trad’) climbing. It spends a not inconsiderable chunk of its 97-minute run time teasing the featured climb (“Free Rider”) while easing us into the unusual life he leads. We are formally introduced to the cliché first — a perpetually grubby, scrawny guy eating 90 cent dinners in his home-cum-traveling-van parked indefinitely amidst the tall pines of Yosemite. Then there is the enigma, a rather emotionally detached dude for whom the girlfriend thing doesn’t even appear as a blip on the radar.

Enter: Sanni McCandless. She immediately provides Free Solo an accessibility that Honnold’s esoteric obsessions simply cannot. At the very least, she offers perspective, a contrast between how much importance her boyfriend places on solving a particularly challenging climbing sequence versus the more universal challenges of establishing a healthy work-life balance. For Honnold — and this also has been part of what has made me slower to embrace him as an ambassador for the sport compared to someone like Chris Sharma — to work is to rock climb, and to live is the same. McCandless is something of a savior for a dark, tortured soul, though often her inexperience on the rock is a hindrance to his success. The emotional trajectory Honnold goes on as weeks of preparing for Free Rider turn into months and months into years, is something I absolutely did not expect from a climbing documentary.

No, Free Solo isn’t as we call it in our little corner, “climbing porn” (don’t worry, that link is 100% workplace-appropriate). This is a real human story with honest-to-goodness concern for the well-being of its subject. There is a complicated morality not just to what Honnold proposes to his fellow athletes and camera crew — it is really interesting seeing how uncomfortable world-renowned big-wall conqueror Tommy Caldwell is made by all of this — but as well to the fact that the filmmakers are potentially capturing the end of a life on camera. So they get creative, employing drones to get the shots they want without physically or mentally distracting the subject as he moves deliberately and alarmingly quickly up the face of one of the greatest wonders of the natural world. Free Solo offers much more than scenic vistas and heart-pounding thrills. I appreciated its benevolence in making sure we all know how rare a climber and a person Alex Honnold is, and even more importantly, that he knows he isn’t infallible.

What? He smiles?!

Recommendation: Visually stunning to the point of being vertigo-inducing, Free Solo exposes the world to the joys and the dangers of a very particular form of rock climbing. What the climber achieves is breathtaking, but I can’t get over what this must have been like for those filming it. I love how that ethicality becomes as much a part of the experience as the climb, and ditto that to Sanni McCandless. She really keeps things grounded. Ehem. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Let’s hope this is a low-gravity day.”

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

Swiss Army Man

'Swiss Army Man' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Dan Kwan; Daniel Sheinert

Directed by: Dan Kwan; Daniel Sheinert

There are some movies that just simply take your breath away. Ones where you’ll remember what theater you saw it in, where you were sitting, how many people were in there with you when you experienced THIS movie. Swiss Army Man is that kind of movie. It’s not even really a movie, it’s a religious experience . . .

. . . for those who appreciate a good arthouse picture.

I say that not with the slightest bit of remorse but rather with an air of caution. There’s a caveat to enjoying what writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Sheinert (collectively known as ‘Daniels,’ the duo behind DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s 2013 hit music video ‘Turn Down For What’) have conjured here. I say that because the warning label should be clearly on display. When early word pegged their debut feature as the most surreal, offbeat adventure audiences are likely to ever experience it was hardly a hoax. Here is a narrative quite literally powered by flatulence and guided by erections. Absurdity. Madness. Despair. Love. Weird, sweet, de-sexified love.

Shifting the likes of Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry several feet closer to neutral on the Scale of Quirkiness, Swiss Army Man wastes no time as it opens with the striking image of a young man, Hank (Paul Dano), preparing to hang himself on a desolate island. Perched atop a small cooler with the fraying rope running to the top of the small cliff, he’s all but ready to commit to his decision when he suddenly spots a body (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on shore. It looks lifeless but Hank’s curiosity is piqued when he hears it farting. A lot.

Approaching the body with caution he notices, unsure if he’s hallucinating, that the gastric releases are only intensifying. He’s not hallucinating; this thing is literally sputtering to life like an old car. That’s when Hank discovers he can actually use this to his advantage, converting the bloated corpse into a kind of water vessel that will allow him to get back to the mainland. But it turns out methane-powered human jet-ski is only one of the ‘corpse”s many functions. He can also produce clean drinking water, and his seemingly jointless limbs come in handy for slicing and dicing things. He can also be used as a rocket and a grappling gun, and his erection functions as a compass, too — how fun!

Dismissing Swiss Army Man as little more than crass comedy is going to be too easy but that’s the same sword wielded by those who view the indie/arthouse crowd as nothing but hipsters. Or those who presumed everyone who went to see the Harry Potter movies were all bookworms. Despite frequent trips into puerile territory, this movie politely and perhaps all too quietly requests to be taken a little more seriously than the average Adam Sandler fudge pile. (In reality I’d compare this more to Rob Reiner’s timeless buddy-adventure Stand By Me.) Underpinning all this crudeness lies an aching despair to return to normalcy, to reconnect with what most of us would consider civilized society, to feel alive again after inexplicable bouts of being marooned delete you from existence.

The journey to get back home will be fairly easy in physical, practical terms given the endless supply of miracles “Manny” (as he apparently self-identifies) seems to provide. Even though he propelled them both back to shore with his ass, they’re still a far cry from home, and there are more complicated ideologies and dynamics to contend with as well. It doesn’t take long for Manny to question whether Hank is just using him for his own personal gain or if he actually cares about him, and for us to ponder just whether the two are fated for a really awkward fairytale ending, or something . . . darker.

Swiss Army Man is a movie in pain. Dialogue is sparse but it often delivers hard blows from which we take some time to recover. Conversation is often confronting and unnatural, yet it’s this entrenchment in brutal honesty that saves us from pretense. Primitive discussions about why people masturbate eventually find their place in the greater narrative. While conversations may start trending intellectual a little too prematurely for those who view proceedings as a more cut-and-dry buddy adventure, those conversations open up endless avenues for discussions of our own.

Hank is worried he’ll never have the confidence to make an impression on the woman he sees every day on the bus. Manny doesn’t understand why he is so pathetic, but then again, why would he? After all he’s just an undead, farting, bloated, water-logged dummy who washed up on shore, probably on accident. He once had a life too, but he can’t remember it. Presumably it too was filled with glorious tales of how he once masturbated.

As the adventure evolves we’re pulled further into a strikingly intimate world by a pair of mesmerizing performances. Dano is again in top form here but Radcliffe truly soars, creating a character for the ages. It doesn’t exactly announce itself as such, but Manny represents an achievement in acting and the Brit deserves to be considered in the discussion of best performances of the year. Never mind the fact Radcliffe had a stunt dummy doing most of the heavy lifting. The psychological and emotional components far outweigh the physical, and it’s in the quieter moments — around a campfire, up in a tree, face-down near a pile of animal feces — where we see a soul (and the occasional butt-cheek) exposed.

Dano is reliably weird, though his greatness is more expected as the actor continues defining his niche as an off-kilter, often unlikable enigma plagued by social outcastism. For his peculiar acting sensibilities Hank is, in a word, perfect. Much like this gloriously, obstinately, unabashedly strange little film. The farting corpse movie you’ll be telling your children all about years down the road.

swiss-army-man-a24

Recommendation: An absolute must-see movie! Thematically Swiss Army Man isn’t a movie you haven’t seen before, but in execution, I feel pretty confident saying you won’t find a thing like it this or any other year. It’s simply a marvel and a joy to watch unfold, offering up one of the finest performances of the year in Daniel Radcliffe, the poor lad who just can’t ever get away from having to make some comment on his latest role’s relation to his days in Hogwarts. This oddity, however, just might do the trick. For now. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “If you don’t know Jurassic Park, you don’t know shit.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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

The Shallows

'The Shallows' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Anthony Jaswinski

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra 

Blake Lively vs. Huge Shark: The Movie is a pretty sweet little thriller, a self-contained enterprise that seeks to unnerve rather than terrify by tapping into human’s innate fear of deepwater-dwelling beasts like great whites (not to mention horrifyingly large jellyfish).

Jaume Collet-Serra’s tropical-set horror/thriller is a refreshingly slight film set adrift in a sea of complex, bombastic . . . well, I’m not gonna name names or genres but we all know where I’m going with this. The premise is simple, the cast is engaged and the cinematography transports us to ‘Paradise’ with Lively’s big-wave-seeking, medical-school-abandoning Nancy Adams who has been having a rough time since the passing of her mother. Nancy has seemingly inherited her mom’s love for surfing as she finds herself now on the sands of a secluded, nameless cove — apparently the very place her mom claimed as her favorite surf spot.

This really is Lively’s movie — okay, and the shark’s, yes how could I forget — because her interactions with others, including the local with whom she hitches a ride to the beach, are limited to a flurry of brief exchanges, most of which are designed to prove that Nancy doesn’t speak very good Spanish and the locals don’t speak good English. That particular communication barrier doesn’t really matter because no one speaks Shark and that’ll come in handy more than anything later.

The Shallows is indeed an intimate experience, reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s 2011 survival drama 127 Hours at least when it comes to the harrowing quasi-first person perspective. Serra’s vision is certainly fun and exciting, but it hardly effects the emotional and psychological involvement Boyle did when James Franco decided to throw down the performance of a lifetime. In fact, in spirit this shares more in common with the personal trials we endure with Reese Witherspoon as she attempts to reconnect with herself and her family by embarking on a bold solo hike in Wild.

As Cheryl Strayed, Witherspoon’s performance was informed by a mixture of guilt and bitterness as she continued along her journey, strong emotions that only fueled her to keep going. Lively’s Nancy isn’t so much bitter as she is guilt-ridden and still at a loss for words when it comes to talking about the past. We see it in the brief glimpses we get of her sister and father via FaceTime on her phone prior to her hitting the waves. She can barely hold a conversation with her father because the conversation about why she decided to drop out of med school inevitably surfaces.

It’s probably not worth delving into character development at any great depth since that’s pretty much the extent of it. Suffice it to say there’s enough here to actually make us feel something when Nancy finds herself, ironically much like Aron Ralston, stuck between (or in this case on) a rock and a hard place when the shark’s aggressive circling pins her to a small outcrop of rock that appears at low tide. She’s only 200 yards from shore but the shark is much too fast for that to be viable option. There’s a small metallic buoy about 15 yards from the rock she could swim to when high tide reclaims the rock.

Can Nancy out-smart her toothy predator?

Boobs. We’d love to find out the answer if the cameras weren’t constantly fixated on ogling Lively’s lovely beach bod. I had a lot of fun with The Shallows — the increasingly versatile Lively is certainly committed to the material and the movie looks glorious — but some part of me can’t shake the feeling this was kind of a pervy shoot. And that is a thought that somewhat diminishes the enjoyment I got out of a film that was never meant to be taken seriously.

blake lively in 'The Shallows'

Recommendation: More Deep Blue Sea than it is JawsThe Shallows manifests as a silly but ultimately fun bit of summer escapism, one shot confidently enough to ensure those who have a mortal fear of beaches will never go near one again. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 87 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

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

The Revenant

The Revenant movie poster

Release: Friday, January 8, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Alejandro González Iñárritu; Mark L. Smith

Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu

There are some things in The Revenant that you can’t un-see. Like the bloody confrontation between the Arikara tribe and Captain Andrew Henry’s men in the very first scene. Or a human body torn apart by monstrous bear claws. These moments transcend shock value, they go beyond the call of dramatic duty, depicted so authentically so as to become genuinely upsetting.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s follow-up to his Oscar-friendly Birdman doesn’t get any less haggard as it plods onward, but the bloodletting slows just enough for us to catch our breath and get our feet back under us. Through a protracted adventure across harsh winterscapes, one that favors physical over verbal communication, Iñárritu’s epic vision confirms those who tough out the opening half hour will be well-equipped to handle everything Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass must go through in the ensuing two-plus hours.

Acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Alfonso Cuarón’s right-hand man, drops us into the early 1800s. It’s man against nature; us against the sprawling, unforgiving territory of the Louisiana Purchase. Even from a distance and in comfy theater chairs, feeling cold and exposed is an inevitability. Lubezki’s fiercely uncompromising artistry — a refusal to use anything but the natural light a pale sun and dusty, white-washed landscapes provide — ensures that of all the things we are going to feel, safe won’t be one of them. This is his movie as much as it is the director’s (and Leo’s). Iñárritu directs a script he co-wrote with Mark L. Smith, one that tells of a remarkable true story of survival and human courage.

The premise is simple, one of those one-line blurbs that could present a problem to those who weren’t enthralled by the chase in Mad Max: Fury Road; this is an all-out crawl against the odds as Glass hunts down the man responsible for killing his son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) after Glass is mauled by a bear and left for dead by Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and his men. The Revenant isn’t interested in making things complicated because society at this stage isn’t exactly what you’d call civilized. People get by on raw bison liver and don the skin of bears they’ve just killed for protection from the elements.

Yet, there is a reward for enduring, not just in terms of its occasionally stomach-turning imagery. The bulk of the narrative pivots around Glass’ interactions with the great outdoors, the pace often slowing to a literal crawl but not once does it become lethargic. Of course, come the end we still hope the wait has been worthwhile — will we get that ultimate showdown between good and evil? How will justice be meted out? As much as we want to shield our eyes from the next confrontation, the trifecta of superior directing, acting and photography simply doesn’t allow it.

In a film like this, the protagonist is only as good as the villain he must face. While nature is in itself a force to be reckoned with, The Revenant has been gifted Tom Hardy, who plays John Fitzgerald, a thoroughly despicable fur trapper whose ideological differences with Glass’ headstrong explorer type drive the narrative forward. The tension between them can at times be unbearable, the look in Hardy’s eyes frightening and proof that Charles Bronson was merely practice for the big leagues. But the hostility of Native American tribes might well take the cake in terms of driving home the tragedy of what America once was.

So, what of Leo then? And why have I put off discussing him for so long? It should come as no surprise that some of the film’s best-kept secrets — many thankfully avoid ruination by not featuring in the overplayed trailers — hinge on what Leo does and does not do with his body. Imagining a role where an actor must do more to convey the physicality of early American life is nigh on impossible. As he inches his way from one life-threatening obstacle to the next, his Quaalude-induced spasms in The Wolf of Wall Street become a far crawl from true greatness. But Leo’s not just another decomposing body in a picture filled with death and decay.

Glass is a fiercely protective father. His paternal instinct is his trump card, a tenderness and passion for rearing his child the right way offering balance to a character with great potential to come across all too heroic and mythological. Whatever distances we try to put between ourselves and the brutes we face here, there’s no denying little has changed about the fact parents are willing to do anything to protect  their children from the indiscriminate terribleness of the world. DiCaprio is nothing less than incredible here. (I won’t say Oscar-winning lest I jinx the whole damn thing.)

It’s well-known The Revenant was a very difficult movie to make, though not for financial reasons. The cast and crew suffered brutal conditions. The shoot was described as “hellish.” If the actors look like they’re very uncomfortable in their respective scenes, that’s probably because they are. Many of the original staff didn’t see the project to its end. Shot on location in the Canadian Rockies and in Argentina, the film pulses with a vitality that’s impossible to stage. Natural beauty brilliantly disguises the film’s black heart. Every time I had to shield my eyes — I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but yeah, I did — I then reminded myself what a thing of beauty it was that I was witnessing.

things start getting hectic in 'The Revenant'

Recommendation: This film is not for the squeamish. Raw power, visceral imagery and blunt honesty combine with legendary performances to create a film that will be impossible to forget, much less imitate. I haven’t seen the Mexican auteur’s full filmography yet, but I have this nagging feeling he might have just hit a career high with this stripped-back and naturalistic production. A must-see for fans of DiCaprio. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 156 mins.

Quoted: “You came all this way just for your revenge, huh? Did you enjoy it, Glass? . . . ‘Cause there ain’t nothin’ gon’ bring your boy back.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

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

The Road Within

Release: Friday, April 17, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Gren Wells

Directed by: Gren Wells

The Road Within is far from a realistic take on how mental illness affects one’s ability to socially interact but I’d be lying if I said it isn’t incredibly uplifting and heartwarming. Gren Wells has created a wonderful pick-me-up and that’s all you really need to know.

I suppose I could go into more detail, else this would be the shortest film review ever.

The schmaltzy-titled film follows a trio of teens who break out of a mental health facility and embark on a three-day expedition during which they bond, sharing in their anguish and collective suppressed emotions. The goal of the journey is for Vincent (the emerald-eyed Robert Sheehan), who has Tourette’s, to reach the ocean and scatter the ashes of his recently passed mother. He is joined by his roommate Alex (Dev Patel), a boy of similar age who is perpetually overwhelmed by his obsessive compulsive disorder, and a girl sporting purple-dyed hair played by Zoë Kravitz. Her name is Marie and she’s battling anorexia.

Vincent’s father (T-1000 Robert Patrick), unable to cope with his son’s turbulent behavior in the wake of the tragedy, sends him away to this facility run by Kyra Sedgwick’s Dr. Rose, a counselor who means well but is fairly incompetent. Given her hands-off approach and Vincent’s determination, the mechanism for the story’s development still feels a bit too clumsy: all it takes for Vincent’s wishes to come true is for Marie to stumble upon his room one day, flirt ever so slightly with him, and then steal doc’s car keys. It’s fairytale-esque how easily they are able to break from their shackles (and a tiny bit naughty — she stole car keys, thief . . . THIEF!)

The Road Within doesn’t play out as something that would happen in real life yet the adventure is too much fun to dismiss altogether. It features an incredible performance from the young Sheehan, who I was convinced actually had Tourette syndrome. His brown curly hair a perpetual mess and his face beset with worry, Sheehan’s Vincent is hugely empathetic despite his inability to control his temper when his tics have subsided. The 27-year-old actor masterfully steers his teenaged character through emotional turmoil that’s in addition to his literal knee-jerk reactions and spasms. That it becomes difficult to watch on occasion (and listen to — be prepared for a stream of profanities in the early going) is a credit to how committed Sheehan is to inhabiting this head space. It’s easily the crowning achievement of the film.

Less effective, but affecting nonetheless, are Patel’s Alex, whose crippling paranoias have him constantly wearing latex gloves and render him unable to slap his newfound friends a high-five in a brief celebratory moment, and Kravitz’s headstrong yet visibly physically unhealthy Marie. Over the course of their adventure, one which finds the actors juxtaposed against the breathtaking backdrop of Yosemite Valley, their precarious states begin to act as a galvanizing agent — “we’re all sick so we aren’t that different from each other” — though frequently the development rings hollow. I simply couldn’t buy into how quickly the characters moved past their severe illnesses, shedding symptoms as if they were layers of clothing.

The story isn’t completely lacking in validity. Vincent finds himself attracted to Marie (naturally), a development that only compounds Alex’s sense of loneliness and frustration over his condition. While romance is hinted at, it’s wisely handled with vulnerability and even an air of distrust. And while the melting of Vincent’s father’s icy exterior over the course of the story as he and the doctor set off in pursuit of her stolen car and the three renegades similarly sends up red flags, Robert Patrick has the acting pedigree to make the sudden shift somewhat legitimate.

One need look no further than The Road Within‘s emotional conclusion to find everything that’s wrong, and right, with Wells’ handling of the material. It tidies up much too quickly and leaves viewers with the impression that the hellish travails prior to the kids’ rebellion will no longer exist; this is a happily-ever-after for people who sadly do not travel down such a finite road. Mental illness, like an addiction, is permanent. It’s inescapable. It’s infuriating. However, none of these shortcomings are enough to drown the piece. It may be sentimental and unrealistic but The Road Within is immensely enjoyable. It’s optimistic and upbeat, easy to embrace. This is the kind of film you’ll want to reach for when you find yourself enduring a particularly rough stretch, even if you may not suffer from any kind of ailment at all.

Recommendation: The film has its flaws — and quite a few of them — but this is a winning road trip comedy that I recommend on the backs of an incredible performance from Robert Sheehan (as well as Dev Patel and Zoë Kravitz). Upbeat and entirely inoffensive (save for the litany of swear words in the opening third), The Road Within offers something for all but the most cynical of viewers. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “You know, there’s a clown in my head and he shits in between my thoughts and he forces me to do the most inappropriate thing at the most inappropriate moment. So relaxing is pretty much the one thing I cannot do.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.shaanig.org

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 

TBT: Stand By Me (1986)

So since I couldn’t get my act together and decide on a theme for this month’s TBT reviews, we’re going to have another one of those random picks months, and that’s okay I guess because it’s only September. Plenty of time before the year’s out to make good on coming up with a scheduled list of films to watch and review for this feature. Today we have a good one. . . if you like movies about kids walking down railroad tracks, that is. (I do. I like those kinds of movies.) 

Today’s food for thought: Stand By Me.

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Looking for a dead body since: Friday, August 22, 1986

[Netflix]

Rob Reiner, channeling his strongest nostalgic tendencies, created a wonderful coming-of-age drama with the tale of four boys set out on their own to find the body of a missing local teen. As was the case with his masterpiece The Princess Bride, Stand By Me yearns for a simpler time when kids could just be free to roam, and other than worrying about the dropping of the nuclear bomb, adults had a slightly less pessimistic worldview.

Of course, his adaptation of the Stephen King novel — the most feel-good of all the King adaptations — wasn’t about the grown-ups. In fact, with the exception of the framing device of an older Gordie Lachance (Richard Dreyfuss) reflecting back on his childhood adventures after seeing a newspaper article about the death of one of his friends, a few short clips of Gordie’s parents and an old, crusty junkyard owner the film was essentially driven by child actors. An impressive feat, given how good the acting is; how deep the camaraderie between this ragtag group of boys goes.

We meet all four in a treehouse, where Gordie (Wil Wheaton), his best bud Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), the outspoken Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman), and the chubby, nervous and generally irritating Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell) are discussing the possibility of going out to find the body of a kid who went missing from their town of Castle Rock some time recently. Vern, having broached the subject, claims he got the idea after overhearing his older brother and his obnoxious friend talking about it. It takes these kids but a few minutes to decide that they want to be the ones who uncover the body. After all, they could become local heroes because of it. Over the next two days, they embark on a journey down a railroad line, an adventure that encompasses their collective past, present and future.

Stand By Me is aggressively enjoyable. From astute performances from such young actors to the simplistic yet creative setting, Reiner found a perfect mixture of tone and tempo in his lamenting over the fact that childhood is a bubble that pops far too easily. The film had to rely heavily on the camaraderie of our explorers in order to overcome the monotony of sticking to a never-ending railroad track while also depending on precise editing and a variety of scene changes so that the whole enterprise didn’t feel experimental. It’s pretty successful on all fronts.

Reiner’s use of the railroad linking the boys to a destiny marked by danger and loss of innocence was a stroke of genius. Rather than manifesting as an obligatory check list of items that needed to be ticked because of preconceived notions of what a coming-of-age drama is (or was), the events that come to define Stand By Me occur naturally and as close to extemporaneously as the most polished version of a script could possibly allow. The scrapyard break-in, the bridge crossing debacle, the leech-infested swamp — none of these eye-opening moments would have been possible if the story were told after-the-fact in that treehouse, or from any quaint locale in Castle Rock for that matter.

The film isn’t free of cliches of course. Personal fears of a mostly familial nature run the gamut from being unable to escape the past — the Chambers being widely known for their alcoholism and criminal activity — to being inadequate in a family (Gordie considers the loss of his older brother Denny to be the last time he felt any kind of attention from his parents) and to being psychologically and emotionally traumatized in an abusive household, as was the case for Teddy whose father was a war vet suffering from PTSD. It’s all stuff we’ve encountered before in these movies but familiar ground does not contribute to an overly familiar expedition.

Ultimately the film has the advantage of being even more interesting if we put ourselves in these kids’ shoes. If given the opportunity as a child to see a dead body, would we? At what age does the sanctity of a human life strike someone, and is it the same for everyone? What would a weekend trip like this do to us? If we were in their shoes, would we be tempted to kick Kiefer Sutherland’s ass? Stand By Me may have offered Sutherland one of his most ridiculous roles as a punk teenager on the hunt for the same kind of infamy as these boys, though it is far more memorable because of its investment in the preciousness of childhood, and being able to pinpoint the precise moment at which boys are no longer boys.

Recommendation: Stand By Me is a classic coming-of-ager, told through Rob Reiner’s sensitivity and deft humor. It’s also highly nostalgic for the years where not much seemed to matter apart from getting into trouble with your friends in the summer. Oh yeah, I guess this was set in the 50’s so you always had to keep an eye out for that dreaded nuclear bomb. I guess there was that. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 89 mins.

Quoted: “At the beginning of the school year, Vern had buried a quart jar of pennies underneath his house. He drew a treasure map so he could find them again. A week later, his mom cleaned out his room and threw away the map. Vern had been trying to find those pennies for nine months. Nine months, man. You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

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

Wild

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Release: Wednesday, December 3, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Nick Hornby 

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée 

In Wild Reese Witherspoon is desperate to escape her home life. Does she succeed?

I could spoil the movie right from the get-go and answer that question but I actually do have a heart, so I won’t. (Plus, I’m fairly sure anyone should be able to guess the outcome anyway.) With a narrative as surprisingly complex as that of Wild, ruining a movie about a woman who is ostensibly getting away from it all for the sake of getting away from it all is kind of hard to do.

The director of last year’s Dallas Buyer’s Club returns with an offering that refuses to be undermined by cliché, of which there could be a decent amount given that the movie does not begin well in that department. The rocky start to her epic journey seems to be pulled from a textbook on how to make hiking/camping look like a pain in the ass. Things like figuring out how to set up a tent, learning how to preserve fuel, trimming down one’s pack load. Of course, this is an adaptation of the real Cheryl Strayed’s written account of her 90+ days in the great outdoors, ‘Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.’ In that regard the film is accurate, but for experienced backpackers the potential for eye-rolling might seem alarmingly high in the opening sequences.

For all of the premature panic a certain subgroup of the general moviegoing masses might experience, Vallée’s picturesque drama still opens with quite the attention-grabber. It’s Cheryl atop a razor-sharp ridge, overlooking the vast expanse of wilderness that sprawls out before her ad infinitum. She has stopped to nurse a badly bruised and bloodied toe, an ailment she appears to have been dealing with for some time. In a fit of frustration she loses both hiking boots down the mountainside and with the fade-to-black we end up back in civilization in the next scene. What is this girl doing out here? Why is she doing this alone? What’s the end game here?

In the beginning we know two things about Cheryl: 1) she doesn’t seem happy. Presumably she will be hiking to get away from something negative ongoing in her domestic life; and 2) she is quite stubborn. That’s a trait that carries as many positive connotations as it does negative: in the earlygoing we are treated to a humorous scene in which the first-timer is attempting to mount her external frame in her hotel room, a pack that looks like it could easily outweigh its carrier. It doesn’t exactly go as planned but she makes it work. Foreshadowing? Yes, yes that is foreshadowing I smell.

Over the course of an unexpectedly engaging and semi-non-linear two hour timeline — you’d be surprised how effective cutting between segments of the PCT and her life back in Minneapolis can be — these questions, among many others, are addressed but they aren’t answered in the manner in which you might expect. No solution is presented without complication or having to sacrifice something else; no weed is killed completely unless the roots themselves are cut, and this is precisely what Vallée is hoping to convey by flashing back and forth between the two timelines — that of her past and of her present predicament on the trail.

Wild is fundamentally a psychological journey into the heart and soul of this daring, if inexperienced explorer. In fact the inexperience is what helps elevate the stakes considerably. Witherspoon delivers a performance that affects viscerally and consistently. She’s strong-willed, defiant even; stubborn, yes but eventually even that character flaw develops into something more useful — determination. It’s compelling stuff witnessing the transformation of this previously doomed character. (Is doomed too strong a word?)

Around Witherspoon gathers a small cast that delivers big. Laura Dern plays Cheryl’s eternally upbeat mother Bobbi, who has raised her and her brother (there were three siblings, if you want to get technical, but the film decides to pair it down to a more simple family dynamic) on her own for as long as she has been divorced from her abusive ex-husband, whom she still loves dearly. Dern is wonderful in the role. There’s also Gabby Hoffman who puts in quality, albeit limited screen time as a friend of Cheryl’s still living in Minneapolis. And Thomas Sadoski plays Paul, Cheryl’s ex-husband. He’s not in it much but he also makes his moments count, powerfully reporting back to us the state his life has become in the absence of his wife who thought it wise to go hiking on a trail for months at a time on her own.

In short, Wild is a movie that continually surprises with its thoughtful, provocative introspection, spectacular vistas (that part isn’t so much surprising) and keen sense of direction. It’s not a predictable movie, even despite a few sign postings. Witherspoon’s determination to overcome her haunted past is akin to the bold vision Emile Hirsch’s Chris McCandless had of a future without material possession. I urge you to get your ticket and lose yourself in this well-acted drama.

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3-5Recommendation: Despite reservations, Wild is a unique experience. Its only shopworn elements are how it initially presents the challenge of hiking and camping. Of course, even if this was cliched through-and-through, the performances are still enough to make this film soar aloft. The outdoors-oriented should really give this a go. In a way it is an odd blend of mainstream acting talent with the intimacy of exploring nature on a solo backpacking trip but I find the combination to work to great effect. This is now the second extremely well-made film I’ve seen from Jean-Marc Vallée in as many years. I think Dallas Buyers Club is the superior film, but really, not by much.

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Finish that sentence. Why do I have to walk a thousand miles. . .?”

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

TBT: The Descent (2006)

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There is no shortage of horrors I could have/might have gone with here. But I decided to ultimately pick something a bit more. . .random out of the hat, as I think more obvious choices like Halloween, or Psycho, or even Friday the 13th would be a little more difficult to say something original about. I turned instead to a film that really, really gave me the heebie-jeebies on the first viewing. As someone who loves rock climbing, it’s pretty ironic that caving (or ‘spelunking,’ if you want to get technical) is terrifying to me. Much like people who are averse to scaling heights outdoors, dropping one’s self into dark, cramped spaces beneath the surface of the earth seems like such a bad idea. I wonder if that in any way might be related to my experience with 

Today’s food for thought: The Descent.

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Descending into chaos since: August 4, 2006

[DVD]

Few horrors have managed to consistently thrill me the way writer/director Neil Marshall’s impossibly claustrophobic tale of a cave-diving trip gone awry has. Time and again, the heady vibrations of the blood-soaked, tenebrous The Descent leave me exhausted come the end, and in a genre where first impressions are critical I find it unusual to exit a film on the tenth go-around in such a manner. It’s like watching it for the very first time again. . .and again.

I feed off of adrenaline, and certain installments offer a mainline shot of it. This chaotic and brutal journey into what might reasonably be described as hell has been like taking one to the carotid. For the uninitiated: a group of young outdoor enthusiasts reunite a year after a tragic car accident involving some of their friends and decide to get a secluded cabin in the backwoods of North Carolina. On their itinerary is an exploration of a massive cave system close by. Of course, things don’t go according to plan and they are left fighting for survival when they find living creatures inside the tunnels. What begins as a routine exploration ends in an epic battle for the surface when they realize the inhabitants don’t take kindly to visitors.

In a refreshing twist, the group’s presented as an all-female cast determined to not be pinned down by the horror tropes of yesterday. (Hooray for climbing/rappeling gear!) Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Beth (Alex Reid), Sam (MyAnna Buring), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and the most recent addition to the group, Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), are all given sufficient, if not wholly original introductions. It’s not likely you’ll remember these names after watching but what’s more memorable is the tension between them even before the film dives into the deep end.

The Descent has been most successful in drawing upon the decay of its hopelessly confusing confines. The labyrinthine setting forever remains frighteningly unique — a character unto itself — and Marshall even took the time to stuff it full with plenty of gruesome surprises. (I’m left wondering how many films have been based upon the amazing Carlsbad Caverns?) The Descent has earned a reputation from the speed with which an innocent day trip transitions into a situation darker than the stuff of nightmares. Marshall is less concerned with the minutiae of spelunking in all its spectacular danger in the same way he’s not as bothered with bringing out award-worthy performances from his relatively unknown cast. What comes front-and-center in this wonderfully under-lit production is emotion, energy, a need to survive.

If this all sounds rather familiar, it should. Less familiar is the effectiveness of the atmosphere. You’d never guess this was filmed in the comforts of the Pinewood Studios near London. Or, you know. Maybe you might. You might’ve naturally assumed that filming within an actual cave is simply too dangerous and/or impractical to achieve the desired effect. (Or you could have been perusing Wikipedia, like I just was. . .) Either way, the bloodcurdling screams echoing off these walls have this tendency to trick the mind into thinking we are where we really aren’t. The lack of light, the pools of blood. The pickax and the neck. The crevasses. Interpersonal tensions resulting from last year’s car accident boiling over at the worst times. All of this adds up to a stressful experience that’s difficult to put into the back of one’s mind.

The Descent doesn’t exactly escape unscathed, as its gender-uniform cast at times struggles to reach the gravitas necessary to sell the moment. There are the usual jump-scares lurking around many a dripping stalactite that pass by rather forgettably. There are cringe-worthy lines sprinkled in here and there. Fortunately these issues constitute a small enough percentage of the run time to not overwhelm.

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3-5

Recommendation: There are many aspects to this spelunking expedition that are likely to turn many outdoors-oriented types away. Personally, I find the exhibition of passion for the outdoors often goofily exaggerated in films — not even Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is immune — as if the industry feels it ought to confront those who don’t quite ‘get’ what it’s like to be an adventurous, outdoors type. But to get caught up in frivolous details like that is to overlook the pure adrenaline rush and psychological torment that the film provides. The Descent is taut, exciting, bloody and brutal and if those are the requirements you would list for a good horror, you should avoid this film no more.

Rated: 

Running Time: 99 mins. 

TBTrivia: This film had a working title of ‘Chicks with Picks’ during production. That conjures up an entirely different image now, doesn’t it?

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Hiking in the Cascades (2009)

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The first Thursday in September is here at our doorsteps and here I am with my hands in my pockets in terms of coming up with a new concept for TBT. Well, actually, I’m feeling a little itch to do something different. I’ve been toying with the notion of promoting this video that I made for a long time now and I feel like the timing’s right now. It’s been approximately five years since I was first taken out to Seattle, Washington with my dad (who now lives there) and shown an entirely new world of outdoors adventures I couldn’t have pictured in my head if I had tried. My trip was in August of 2009. . .so, this is a bit past the month-date itself but I feel it should still count. 🙂 There’s a second impetus for my posting this today. I unfortunately got wind of the passing of one of my English professors from the University of Tennessee today. Even more sadly the event had actually happened some time ago and I had not known until today. I consider Steve Sparks one of my mentors from the university, as well as incredible inspiration for me to keep up my pursuit of writing. He was also a gentle soul and widely-respected by his peers at the university. He was one of the first to give me feedback on this blog so I’d like to honor him by posting 

Today’s food for thought: Hiking in the Cascades

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The edit below features some footage I collected from the Seattle area from the five days I spent there with my dad. I had a very basic idea of just documenting the whole thing and waiting until getting back to Knoxville later to sort through what I had and see if there was anything worth doing, but I became too excited and threw something together while I was still there. (Please be kind, this is edited together with the experience of someone using iMovie and Garage Band. haha!)

We spent most of our time in the Cascade Mountain Range hiking and tiring ourselves out on some massive elevation gain, and when weather didn’t cooperate at times we sought to do other things. Like explore waterfalls that were in town. Because waterfalls indeed just pop up all over towns in the northern Seattle area (those who are familiar with Bothell at all know what’s up).

I also happened to be in the right place at the right time for a Sounders game, and that was just an absolutely crazy experience. You want to hear a passionate fan base? You don’t need to go to Europe. Fly to Seattle and cheer on their boys from the MLS, holy crap. I didn’t get too much media around that event as it was just nice to sip on some beers with dad and then force our way back into the mass exodus flooding the streets in neon greens and blues, all bound for one purpose, one place: Century Link Field.

On another rest day away from the jaggedness of the Cascades we ventured into the city and we checked out the incredible Paul Allen-funded Experience Music Project (EMP) Museum downtown. An overwhelming amount of music and film collections were to be discovered inside, and honestly there was just too much stuff to take in so my photo sessions had to be brief. They were also kinda blurry and dark, so I apologize but here are some of the things that stood out to me:

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The infamous Guitar Tower. Two stories tall.

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Probably one of the worst photos of Alien you’ll see. . . I was too afraid to get near it.

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Photo credits: Tom Little