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.

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“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.

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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.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

The Public Movie Defender – “Clash of the Titans” (2010)

MOVIE DEFENDER

The idea behind The Public Movie Defender is to take up the cause of a particular movie that I believe is better than the majority of reviews it has received. These are movies which I feel are worth either a second look or at least a more open examination considering the predominantly negative opinions of them. The films chosen are ones that I like so therefore I’m taking their case and defending them before the court of negative opinion. Let the trial begin…

DEFENDANT #3 – “Clash of the Titans” (2010)

CLASH POSTERWhen I first came up with the idea for this fun little thing called The Public Movie Defender there were several movies that immediately came to mind for inclusion. Some are personal favorites that I am deeply passionate about and others are simply movies that I feel are good yet that get pounded a bit unfairly. Some aren’t that difficult to defend while others are a REALLY hard sell. 2010’s remake of “Clash of the Titans” is one of those hard sells. And while I wouldn’t categorize it as a personal favorite, I do think it’s a good movie that doesn’t deserve the level of disdain it has received.

“Clash of the Titans” had its work cut out for it. It’s a remake of a cult classic from 1981 that featured a wonderful fantasy adventure as well as the final work of stop-motion special effects master Ray Harryhausen. This time advanced makeup and a ton of CGI would serve to bring the world to life and that in itself was quite the task. While my deep affection for Harryhausen’s brilliance trumps the new computer effects, this “Clash of the Titans” features some fantastic effects that easily overshadows the few visual hiccups that we get.

And then there’s the story. There were two different approaches that the remake could have taken. The film could have taken a grittier and more serious look at the material or it could try and capture many of the nostalgic elements of the original. By that I mean the over-the-top language, the massive cheese, the classic fantasy movie plot dynamics. The filmmakers made a deliberate choice to modernize the story a bit but also tip their hat and incorporate a lot of these late 1970’s and 1980’s approaches to fantasy storytelling.

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I think this is what alienated some people. I think this clashed with people’s familiarity with modern filmmaking and current cinematic storytelling that we get today. Personally I ate it up. The stilted and uber cheesy dialogue along with several old school plot mechanics brought back memories of the “Sinbad” films, “Ice Pirates”, “Conan”, and “Kull”. These are films that I grew up watching and I clearly see how the movie uses and embraces them. The great actors Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes ham it up as Zeus and Hades. Are they cheesy? Yes, more so than a pizza. But they are supposed to be. I completely understand if that doesn’t work for some people, but I don’t see it as a deep flaw in the movie itself. I responded to it with a nostalgic smile and appreciation.

Now it’s not like everything in the movie imitates the original. A tightly shorn Sam Worthington replaces a mop headed Harry Hamlin as Perseus. Some have had issue with Worthington’s character and performance. Not me. I like this grittier and more solemn turn. Considering all that his character faces I can understand him being a bit angry and coarse. I think Worthington brings a toughness and physicality to the role that I welcomed. Add to that an interesting and fun supporting cast of traditional survival-fantasy characters (again a tip of the hat to those old-school flicks). None are better than the great Mads Mikkelsen as the gruff and tough Draco, captain of the King’s Guard.

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The movie features the classic fantasy tale. A quest is in place which takes Perseus and crew on a ‘who will survive’ adventure. Along the way they face threats such as witches, Medusa, and of course giant scorpions. And what a scene it is when the giant scorpions appear. Incredible visuals and a beautifully filmed sequence. And then there’s the Kraken. There’s perhaps nothing in this film ridiculed more than Liam Neeson’s command to “Release the Kraken”. And while I wouldn’t call it the equivalent of a great thespian’s oration, it’s not that bad of a line. Sure it’s absolute cheese, but the mockery was really fueled by the the line’s use in the trailers and TV spots. The Kraken itself looks cool and Neeson’s over-the-top unleashing fits in perfectly.

I believe that your opinion of this film will be dictated by expectations and preferences. It’s worth recognizing what the filmmakers are doing and the type of movie they’re making. I think they set a cool nostalgic target and hit it dead center. Now to be clear, I’m not saying this is a perfect film. But I really like what they did. It took me right back to those movies that I would lay in the floor and watch on Saturday afternoons. That made this a fun and entertaining experience and when considering the film in that light I see it as a success. The sequel was a massive disappointment, but for my money “Clash of the Titans” was a blast.

VERDICT: “CLASH OF THE TITANS” – 4 STARS

The Public Movie Defender – “Terminator Salvation”

DEFENDER TERMINATOR

The idea behind The Public Movie Defender is to take up the cause of a particular movie that I believe is better than the majority of reviews it has received. These are movies which I feel are worth either a second look or at least a more open examination considering the predominantly negative opinions of them. The films chosen are ones that I like so therefore I’m taking their case and defending them before the court of negative opinion. Let the trial begin…

DEFENDANT #2 – “TERMINATOR SALVATION”

TERM SALVFor some reason I’ve had this weird and unexplainable urge to write a review about a movie that I really like but most others don’t. Is it my pointless sense of duty to defend a film largely maligned by critics and my fellow movie fans? Is it some twisted pleasure I’ll take in the heat received from my fellow movie blogging pals? Whatever the reason I’m going to make my case for “Terminator Salvation”.

This 2009 sci-fi action flick was the fourth installment in the widely popular “Terminator” series. It was also a film of many firsts for the franchise. It’s the first “Terminator” picture that didn’t star Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s the first film in the franchise that received a PG-13 rating. It’s also the first film that takes place in the post-Judgement Day future. I suppose these things played into the disdain some people felt towards this film but it has also received a variety of other criticisms. It has been called soulless, humorless, joyless, and brainless. In fact the overwhelming consensus is that “Terminator Salvation” glaringly fails to capture any of the magic of the previous three movies. Obviously I disagree.

Now let me be clear, “Terminator Salvation” is not a 5 star movie. In fact it’s the third or fourth best film in the franchise. But I still found it to be a fun, action-fueled experience and a worthy installment to the series. The time travel element is gone making the entire ‘future versus present’ dynamic that was a big part of the other movies nonexistent. I have to admit that I missed that. That was one of the coolest things about this series. But that doesn’t mean that “Terminator Salvation” can’t stand on its own merit. It’s a grittier and more militaristic story and the humor, while definitely there, is much more restrained mainly due to the more serious tone of this film.

So the story goes like this, It’s 2018. Skynet has been activated and Judgement Day has wiped out a massive number of earth’s population. Christian Bale plays the third version of John Connor. This time he’s a key member of the human race’s resistance against the machines. Small pockets of the resistance are scattered everywhere including in the ruins of Los Angeles where Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) struggles to survive. Kyle and a young girl named Star (Jadagrace Perry) call themselves the L.A. branch of the resistance but they’re mainly just kids in hiding. They latch onto a mysterious stranger named Marcus (Sam Worthington) who knows nothing about the war with the machines.

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After hearing a radio message from John Connor, the three set out to find the resistance headquarters – Kyle in hopes of joining the fight and Marcus in hopes of finding answers. But things don’t workout that well and Kyle and Star and captured during an attack by the machines. Marcus makes his way to the resistance base with the help of downed pilot Blair (Moon Bloodgood) but his story takes a crazy turn after John Connor and company find out exactly who he is. This whole twist may not be all that surprising but I really liked what it added to the story and to Marcus’ character. There are some interesting moral questions that are tossed around and some tricky decisions that the characters have to make.

But those things are small pieces in a bigger puzzle put together by director McG (I roll my eyes every time I say his name). This is first and foremost a sci-fi action picture and McG frames some pretty spectacular action sequences. The special effects can be pretty stunning such as during an attack by a giant machine on a small group of survivors hiding at a gas station. It and the wild chase that follows was fantastic. McG also tries to throw in several little things to connect the movie to the previous ones. I admit that they can feel a little forced such as when the cool Guns n’ Roses tune “You Could Be Mine” from T2 pops up. But I also have to admit I responded to the nostalgic bits regardless of how cheap they may have felt. And when a certain familiar CGI face pops up later in the film, I still let out a child-like squeal.

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I also like the performances. There’s nothing award worthy from any of the performers but they all feel grounded in the world we see. Bale is as solid as always although he is asked to do a little more shouting than I would have liked. I also liked Yelchin as a young Kyle Reese. He certainly doesn’t look anything like Michael Biehn from the first “Terminator” flick but did Edward Furlong and Nick Stahl resemble at all? But I really liked Sam Worthington here. This is the first film I saw him in and here he’s one tough cookie. I know he hasn’t shown a bit of range since and his acting chops are in question, but I thought he was a perfect fit for this part.

“Terminator Salvation” is a very different movie in the Terminator catalog. It’s not about the future invading our present. It’s about the war the other three movies were trying to prevent. That jolt alone was too much for some people to take. I also understand the absence of Schwarzenegger is a big deal. I mean these were his movies. But for me, those things don’t make this a bad film. The humor is toned down because the times are bad but the action and special effects are mighty good. It has its share of conveniences and head-scratching moments but doesn’t every movie in this franchise? I liked “Terminator Salvation” and while it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I think it has a place in the series.

VERDICT : “TERMINATOR SALVATION” – 4 STARS

5 PHENOMENAL MOVIES THAT I LIKE BUT NO ONE ELSE DOES

movie_theatre - Phenom 5

Ok, I’m opening myself up to tons of mockery and ridicule but that’s the nature of the Phenomenal 5 right? After a break for the holidays I thought it would be fun to start the Phenomenal 5 back up with a list that should have people letting me know how nutty my taste in movies can sometimes be. I’m listing five phenomenal movies that I really like and enjoy but that few others seem to care for (ok “phenomenal” may be a stretch but just go with it). There have been a few movies over the years that I (and apparently I alone) have really liked that simply wasn’t liked by anyone else. In fact, I bet we all have some of those films in the backs of our minds. I mean just here recently I took some good ribbing over my positive review of “Snow White and the Huntsman”. Well you won’t find it on this list but I’m offering up five flicks that I’ve seen multiple times and still thoroughly enjoy even if no one else does.

#5 – “WATERWORLD”

Waterworld

It’s not that “Waterworld” is hated, but it’s safe to say that few people really appreciate the movie as much as I do. Everyone knows the story. At the time, “Waterworld” was the most expensive movie ever made and it never actually made a profit until well into it’s home video release. I’ve always believed this played into the reason why this this film never impressed a lot of people. It’s certainly not the most polished movie but as for creative post-apocolpyptic sci-fi goes, I found it to be a lot of fun. It didn’t do Kevin Costner’s career any favors and it’s still laughed at by some and deemed utterly forgettable by others. But I still feel “Waterworld” is clever and unique and I can watch it today and still have a good time.

#4 – “JOHN CARTER”

John Carter

I honestly still struggle in understanding the backlash against this year’s “John Carter”. Like “Waterworld”, it wasn’t the most even and polished movie that you’ll see, but it was far from being a terrible film. And to be honest, I had a great time watching “John Carter” on the big screen with my son and it held up after a second viewing. This isn’t a movie that has any chance of making it on my top 10 of 2012, but I thought it to be a visual feast of cool effects and futuristic creativity. I also found myself interested in the story throughout even though there were a few rough patches. This movie was slammed by critics and moviegoers alike but it’s a movie that I liked and that I can appreciate despite its few flaws.

#3 – “STAR WARS EPISODE 1: THE PHANTOM MENACE”

STAR WARS

Okay, it’s probably safe to say that not everyone hates this movie. But it’s also safe to say that millions of Star Wars fan boys, a group that I proudly consider myself a part, took great issue with this movie. In fact, many people still blast this film as a devilish plot to kill the Star Wars franchise. I certainly don’t consider this movie to be as good as any of the three films in the original trilogy. But it does feel like a Star Wars movie to me and it has its own special moments that set it apart. Yes, I hate Jar-Jar and yes, midichlorians are absurd. But the space sequences never looked better and it probably gave us the best light saber duel in the entire franchise. It was a no win situation for Lucas, but for me he pulls it off.

#2 – “CLASH OF THE TITANS”

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Talk about a movie that I spent a lot of time to defending! With the exception of my lovely wife and 10-year old son, I don’t think I found another person that I know who liked this movie. It was criticized for everything from the cheesy dialogue to Sam Worthington’s haircut. But I still think people completely missed what this movie was aiming for. I grew up adoring the “Sinbad” movies, “Jason and the Argonauts”, and of course “Clash of the Titans”. This remake was a simple tip of the hat to that past movie genre. It wasn’t trying to be new or groundbreaking. It was a fun, creature-filled action romp that took me back to my childhood. It’s sequel is utter crap, but I still proudly stand by this one, and I still thinks is does more things right than it’s given credit for.

#1 – “THE TIME MACHINE”

TIME MACHINE

I really like every movie that I’ve mentioned, but this is the one film on the list that I truly love. It’s hard to explain especially because I recognize that this film has several flaws. It’s a shining example of how a movie with a great lead performance and a handful of wonderful scenes can be a genuinely memorable experience. Look, I admit the special effects are sometimes laughable and it flies a little off the rails in the second half. But I love Guy Pearce’s performance and I buy into everything his character is doing and feeling. It’s authentic and heartfelt from the opening sequence to the beautiful final shot. And while most people have dismissed this movie, it still moves me each time I watch it.

So go ahead, get your verbal guns ready. I’ve made myself an easy target. Which of these movies have I lost my mind defending? How about you? What are some movies that others hate but you adore? Please share your thoughts and please….go easy on me.

“MAN ON A LEDGE” – 2 1/2 STARS

Some movies can take a pretty preposterous concept and still make a fun and entertaining film out of it. There’s no denying that “Man on a Ledge” has a pretty preposterous concept. The question is, is “Man on a Ledge” a fun and entertaining movie? Well…kinda. Underneath the surface the movie has a fairly interesting premise. But it gets bogged down in it’s occasionally lame dialogue, it’s run-of-the-mill characters, and some truly head-scratching moments.

Sam Worthington plays Nick Cassady, an ex-New York City Policeman who is serving a 25-year prison sentence for stealing a $40 million diamond from a shrewd and unscrupulous businessman named Dave Englander (played by an alarmingly thin Ed Harris). After being notified of his father’s death, Nick is allowed to attend the funeral where he evades the guards and sets out to prove his innocence. His plan? To check into the Roosevelt Hotel, have a final meal, then climb out on the ledge of the building prepared to jump. It’s certainly not the normal approach one would take in trying to prove their innocence. Officer Marcus (Titus Welliver) arrives and takes charge of the scene and, at the request of Nick, calls in negotiator Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks).

Now it’s clear that there is more going on than just a man about to jump to his death. Nick has a bigger plan in motion that hinges on Lydia’s cooperation, the craftiness of his brother Joey (Jaimie Bell) and Joey’s girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez), and the rabid crowd that has gathered below. The story takes several different turns and throws a few twists at the audience, but it’s hard to fully invest in them. Things get a little outlandish and it’s pretty hard to believe at times. Now in the defense of director Asger Leth, he’s well aware that he’s working with some wild material. He keep things moving at a crisp pace and he doesn’t drag the movie out longer that it needs to be. Also, Leth really uses the camera well and I had read where they filmed several scenes with Worthington actually out on the ledge. Unfortunately the good looks of the film isn’t enough to save it from it’s glaring flaws.

There are numerous instances where the writing left me scratching my head. Some scenes will leave the audience asking themselves “Can the NYPD really be this inept?” and “Is the movie making fun of New Yorkers or are we really to believe that 99% of them are bloodthirsty animals?”. There are also several cheesy exchanges between characters that either feel out-of-place or are just plain goofy. The film also features some of the same character types that we’ve seen in so many other movies. We have the wicked, wealthy corporate businessman. We get the typical corrupt cop. We even have the self-serving reporter who is more interested in getting the story that public safety. We’ve seen them all before.

You have to be impressed just looking at the movie’s strong cast. I like Sam Worthington even though he’s yet to really show much range in his performances. He’s actually quite good here even though the role doesn’t require as much from him as you might think. His New York accent does give way to his natural Australian accent in some scenes but he still gives a solid performance. Banks is also pretty good as is Edward Burns as a fellow negotiator. But the biggest problem is none of these performers can truly rise above the material which lets them down on numerous occasions. The always strong Ed Harris and Anthony Mackie as Nick’s former partner are terribly underused and should have been given more to do.

If you can put aside the flaws and suspend disbelief, there is some enjoyment to be found in “Man on a Ledge”. It’s impossible to take seriously and I have no doubt you’ll be shaking your head more than once. But “Man on a Ledge” is a harmless film with some cool action and fun moments. And while it’s a decent little afternoon diversion, it’s an action thriller that’s ultimately forgettable. Check it out if you have some free time. Otherwise, you can probably find something better to watch.

“WRATH OF THE TITANS” – 2 1/2 STARS

Apparently I was one of the few who liked 2010’s “Clash of the Titans”, a remake of the 1981 mythological action film. In fact, one of my biggest disagreements with critics centered around their brutal reviews of that movie. I like the remake because it never pretended to be anything other than what it was. It was a fantasy monster picture in the same vein as the first “Clash of the Titans”, “Jason and the Argonauts”, and the “Sinbad” films. In many ways the remake was an homage to that old genre, replacing the classic stop motion animation with computer-generated imagery. The movie wasn’t a deep, intellectual exercise nor was it intended to be. It was a fun popcorn action flick that reminded me of those old films I grew up with.

That brings us to “Wrath of the Titans”, an original sequel that tries to strike the same chords as the first film but ends up falling short. The sequel starts at least 10 years after the ending of the first movie. Perseus (Sam Worthington) has settled down in a small village where he fishes and raises his son Helius (John Bell). Zeus (Liam Neeson) pays him a visit and tells him that the walls of Tartarus are falling and the God’s powers to stop them is limited due to the lack of prayers from the humans. Zeus’ brief words are really the only introduction we get to story. There’s practically no setup at all. Perseus first refuses to get involved choosing to stay and raise his son instead. But when the walls of Tartarus fall, monsters are unleashed across the earth and one attacks Perseus’ village. Of course this gets him immediately involved.

Much like the first film, “Wrath of the Titans” turns into quest movie. Perseus teams up with Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike), Agenor (Toby Kebbell), Poseidon’s demigod son, and several token tagalongs to stop the fire monster Kronos from being freed from Tartarus. To do that they will need three weapons that will join together to form the Spear of Triam. Much like “Clash”, the journey takes them to several locations and they encounter several different creatures. But unlike “Clash” the creatures and the battles with them just aren’t that impressive. I still remember the extremely cool scorpion battle sequence and the fight with Medusa from “Clash”. There isn’t a single creature battle here that I’ll even remember a year from now.

It’s not that the creatures look bad. In fact, the CGI special effects are very well done. The creatures look amazing, feature fluid movements, and they blend in perfectly with the environments. The camera often times turns away or jerks at just the right moments to help the scenes look more realistic. The problem is the scenes aren’t choreographed that well. Another problem is that there really weren’t that many new creatures. Every creature in the film was shown in the trailers and I was disappointed that I wasn’t surprised with a few others. But the CGI is exceptional in creating some wonderful environments and landscapes. The group has to make their way through a rubik’s cube-like labyrinth that looks fantastic. Tartarus also looks great and I was really impressed by some of the sweeping overhead shots of some of the battle sequences.

While the story lacks a good introduction, some of the characters lack development. Neither Andromeda or Agenor are developed to the point of feeling like important characters. I think back to Perseus’ fellow journeymen from the first film. There were several of those characters that I liked despite their limited screen time. That’s not the case here. But the movie does ease up on the cheesy lines especially between gods. Ralph Fiennes is back as Hades and his conversations with Zeus as considerably less corny that before. Fiennes and Neeson are actually quite good and I did enjoy the powerless gods angle.

“Wrath of the Titans” does capture some of what I liked in the first film. It’s still a straightforward popcorn action picture that doesn’t try to be anything else. The story is simple but it still manages to provide some fun. The creatures look amazing even if their fight sequences aren’t as exciting as they should be. This Perseus is a kinder and gentler Perseus and in many ways this feels like a kinder and gentler movie. It has some nice eye candy and a few pretty cool moments but it lacks the kick and the grit of the first film. Even with its fun scenes and shiny coat of paint, I just can’t help but see “Wrath of the Titans” as a disappointment.