REVIEW: “Everest”

EVEREST poster

I said this during a recent review – I have a real weak spot for good, thrilling disaster/survival movies. For decades it has been a genre that has constantly found a place for itself on big screens. No catastrophe is too big and no disaster is beyond cinematic creativity. Now of course some of these films have been nothing short of disasters themselves, but still I often find myself captivated by the melding of large-scale peril with human emotion and survival instinct.

Enter “Everest”, the new movie from Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur based on the true story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. Mount Everest is the world’s highest mountain, ominously standing among Nepal’s Himalayas and armed with some of the most treacherous climbing conditions on planet earth. There is an almost mystic allure that surrounds Mount Everest and it has attracted climbers for years. Documented expeditions dating as far back as 1921 have helped to discover climbing routes as well as shed light on the mountain’s many dangers. Some have resulted in successful summits, but others have ended with disastrous loss of life.


“Everest” assembles a stellar cast to tell the story of two expedition groups and their attempts to conquer and eventually survive Mount Everest in May, 1996. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) is an expedition guide for Adventure Consultants. Among his clients are a lively Texan named Beck (Josh Brolin), a meek and timid mailman Doug (John Hawkes), and an experienced Japanese climber named Tasuko (Naoko Mori). They arrive at the base camp where they meet Rob’s team.

Also at base camp is the spirited Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), a friendly rival of Rob’s who is there to guide a group for Mountain Madness. As conditions deteriorate and the window to ascend to the summit grows smaller, Rob and Scott agree to team up to try and get their groups to the top. But quickly complications mount as the mountain’s wealth of dangers hit the groups head-on. It turns into a man-versus-nature struggle where sheer survival becomes the ultimate goal.

“Everest” is a unique movie with a firm focus. It isn’t a film interested in serving up deep, fully developed characters. Nor is it interested in building layers of drama between its characters. It could be said that this is a weakness. Actually the film does give us tidbits that open up several of the characters albeit ever so slightly. We learn quite a lot about Rob through his reputation and interactions with his clients, co-workers, and especially his wife Jan (Kiera Knightley). There are also interesting glimpses into Beck and Doug’s backstories that help shape how we look at them.

But to my point, none of that is the prime focus of “Everest”. The film sets its sights on the climb. It grants insight into its characters but just enough to help frame its main focus – man versus mountain. The meat and potatoes of “Everest” is strength, endurance, and the human will to live violently clashing with the captivating, beautiful, yet deadly force of nature. Characters talk of accomplishment and fulfillment, but it all ultimately comes down to this conflict. That is what grabbed me and never let me go.


And perhaps most impressive is the sting of realism we get throughout the story. It doesn’t bomb us with big money moments or action-based contrivances. Everything that happens in preparing and especially during the climb feels organic. At times it is slow and methodical. Other times it is stressful and chaotic. And it is all captured with breathtaking awe. The visuals in “Everest” are stunning with several scenes literally causing me to exhale a deserved “wow”. Whether it’s the sheer beauty of the surroundings or capturing the climb itself, cinematographer Salvatore Totino’s mixture of CGI and on location filming is a sight to behold.

In the end “Everest” felt considerably different than I expected. It isn’t a brash, bombastic popcorn flick. It isn’t a by-the-books ‘real events’ movie. Sure, it has its big name ensemble cast and its share of visual ‘wow’ moments. But at the same time it felt small, concise, and restrained. The performances are exceptional throughout with actors filling in the character gaps and never allowing us to forget the human element. It’s harrowing, tragic, thrilling, and exhilarating. It could have easily been yet another disaster flick. For me “Everest” was much, much more.



REVIEW: “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recuit”


It’s rare to find a fun and entertaining film on the front end of the movie year. January is notorious for being the month where studios empty their cupboards of held-over films with low expectations. That’s why “Jack Ryan: Shadow Agent” is a breath of fresh air. It may not have the best title, but it is an able action thriller. It’s a good ‘kick back and have a good time’ movie that is a nice change of pace from the heavier, deeper films we get during awards season.

This is the fifth movie from the Jack Ryan film series but the first since 2002’s “The Sum of All Fears”. It’s a reboot that also serves as an origin story for Jack. Chris Pine takes the lead once played by Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Alec Baldwin. We first see him on the campus of the London School of Economics. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 inspire him to leave college and join the Marines. A series of uncontrollable events soon has him working as a financial intelligence analyst for the CIA. Kevin Costner plays his boss Thomas Harper who in many respects serves as Jack’s mentor.


All of that leads to Jack’s first foray into the world of geopolitics. He uncovers a potential plot by a powerful Russian businessman named Cheverin (Kenneth Branagh). He travels to Moscow and soon finds himself more than just an analyst. The mission soon goes bad and Jack becomes a full-fledged field operative. Harper pops back up and Jack’s fiancé Cathy (Keira Knightley) soon finds herself in the middle of the chaos. It all plays out in a hail of bullets, car crashes, and big booms.

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” follows a pretty familiar blueprint. It doesn’t strive to be original and it certainly doesn’t break any new ground. But it does know exactly what it wants to be and that focus helps make this a really fun ride. Kenneth Branagh also directed the film and he did a fine job of delivering a variety of great scenes. Perhaps my favorite is the first meeting between an undercover Jack and a suspicious Cheverin. It takes place in Cheverin’s ultra-modern Moscow office and you can cut the tension with a knife.

We also get quite a bit of action in this picture but I found it to be the right dosage. The shootouts and car chases are often set to beautiful Moscow and New York City backdrops and they are competently shot with a lot of energy. The fight scenes were filmed ala Paul Greengrass style with loads of quick cuts and herky-jerky hand-held cameras. As is often the case with this frantic style, it made it a little difficult to follow what was going on. Personally that drives me nuts. It’s obviously a popular stylistic choice these days but it doesn’t always work for me.


Chris Pine seems to be getting better and better with each new role. I completely bought into him here because he brings so much more than the normal macho bravado. His Jack Ryan feels like a real person. He is nervous, uncomfortable, and the things happening around him deeply effect him. I appreciated that. But it’s Costner who really steals the show. Now I’ve always been a big Costner fan so I was excited to see his name attached. But he handles this material like the old pro that he is. It’s a great performance despite the few bits of cheesy dialogue. Keira Knightley is another story. She certainly has the American accent down but that’s about it. She has some good moments but there were several times when I had no idea what she was doing. She employs an assortment of weird facial expressions and quasi smiles that were often times distracting. Kate Beckinsale turned down this part when it was offered but I wish she had accepted it. I can see her bringing a lot more to it than Knightley.

Is this a formula that we’ve seen before? Absolutely. But when I’m enjoying myself, I just don’t care. Branagh keeps things rolling at a crisp pace and the time flew by. Some have had problems with the film’s lack of desire to do anything new. I can see that to a point. But when you handle your material well and the results are good, I’m okay with it. This is a straightforward and unapologetic thriller that never tries to be something it isn’t. Most importantly this is good old-fashioned fun and that counts for a lot in my book.


REVIEW: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”


The film “Seeking a Friend for the End of the Earth” has several interesting things going for it aside from its ridiculously long title. Writer and director Lorene Scafaria takes a very familiar movie subject but looks at through a very unique and compelling lens. She tosses some romance and some humor into her story and allows her two lead performers the room to bring it all to life. These cool nuances are what initially drew me to this picture. It’s such a shame that it didn’t work nearly as well as it should have.

The clever and funny opening scene really got my hopes up and it sets an interesting tone. Dodge Peterson (Steve Carell) and his wife Linda (played in the film by his real life wife Nancy Carell) are sitting in their car listening to a news update on the radio. The DJ tells of a failed last-ditch effort to stop a 70 mile wide asteroid from crashing into Earth and ending the world. The two find out that the asteroid (strangely named Matilda) is expected collide with the planet in only three weeks. The DJ ends the report by saying “For your up to the minute coverage of the countdown to the end of days along with all your classic rock favorites, Q107.2”. A Beach Boys tune follows the devastating news and Nancy opens the car door and leaves Dodge on the spot.

From there Dodge is basically a rudderless ship. He’s a man who looks like he’ll spend the final few days of Earth’s existence alone, that is until he sees his neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) crying outside his apartment window. She’s an eccentric girl who left her loser boyfriend Owen (Adam Brody) and has just realized she has missed the last of the flights to England where her family lives. Dodge brings her inside which begins a quirky but appealing little relationship. As the apocalypse nears these two lost souls set out together, each after for something different but neither able to see that what they want is right in front of them.


The movie begins pretty strong, using its unique perspective in several funny and intriguing ways. Unfortunately the comedy flames out as the movie progresses and I couldn’t help but think that Scafaria played all of her cards in the first half. There are some interesting questions and subtle examinations wrapped up in the movie’s hit and miss humor. We see people’s reaction to the impending end of days range from shameless hedonism to rioting and violence. But the movie also tinkers with smaller questions and in many ways these were the better moments for me. There are also funny little mentions of End of the World awareness concert and opportunistic high premium Armageddon insurance packages. But there aren’t enough of these moments as the movie progresses.

But this film isn’t a total write-off mainly due to the unlikely and offbeat chemistry of the two leads. Carell is in familiar territory and his nerdy, square peg Dodge seems right up his alley. But his performance is more subdued which I found to be more effective. The bigger surprise was Knightley who showed a nice comedic side. These two are asked to move back and forth between comedy and deeper drama which they handle beautifully. The drastic shifts in tone don’t always help the film but the performers nail it. Many have criticized the ending which is soaked in sentimentality. For some it’s popular to treat sentiment in movies like a curse word. I don’t agree with that and while it is a little heavy here, I think it does work in the end.

So what do I make of a movie with tone issues, a draggy middle, and inconsistent humor but that still manages to entertain? “Seeking a Friend for the End of the Earth” has its share if flaws but its also has several things that really sold me on what Scafaria was going for. So this was a mixed bag for me. It’s a film worth checking out but you just may leave with the feeling it could have been so much more. I know I did.