Everest (2015)

★★★★

Everest PosterDirector: Baltasar Kormákur

Release Date: September 18th, 2015 (UK); September 25th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson

“One in four died.” That’s the first thing we see on screen, a solitary line in a block of informative dialogue detailing the worrisome history of Everest expeditions. It is our dramatic lever, pulled at the inception just in case we’re not already aware of Mount Everest’s indiscriminate harshness. Throughout, numerous avalanches interrupt our viewing but unlike the false threat exhumed from similar-looking shots in the alpine-set Force Majeure, the danger here is very real.

William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay (which may or may not be based on John Krakauer’s Into Thin Airdraw your own conclusions) sheds light and dark on the late-90s mountaineering disaster involving rival trekking companies. Going in bereft of any knowledge probably isn’t much of an advantage; there is a moment at around the forty minute mark that essentially earmarks the film’s ending. It is one of those disaster movie clichés — Titanic’s “You jump, I jump”; any conversation between Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck in Armageddon — that acts as a sentimental forewarning.

Admirably, it is the only instance of pure sentimentality in a film more concerned with truth. Everest is cold, at times freezing, but authentic and gripping and no less emotionally involving as a result. Realising the dangers of a crowded field, opposing expedition leaders Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) — the former is excellent, relaying an exhausting and exhaustive performance — opt to team up during a simple scene bound by numerous layers: it shows two experienced climbers anxiously bowing at the mercy of the mountain, but does so in a manner that provides one of the film’s only junctures of light relief.

Fischer asks who will lead when they near the summit, and both men laugh. There is clarity in his words, an assertion that the need to achieve will always usurp the right to survive. Or, if you like, it’s just a rare chance to giggle. Baltasar Kormákur hones in on the competition between colleagues, a smart move that affords these men and women who are otherwise embroiled in an unrelatable escapade a degree of accessibility.

Invoked from the get-go, this competitive edge mirrors a layer of unsettled snow poised to subside at any moment. At the beginning the banter is weightless — it’s there, but the sly digs between Josh Brolin’s Texas-bred Beck Weathers and the aforementioned journalist John Krakauer carry an ominous undercurrent. The film’s atmosphere is driven by poorly disguised trepidation, and you just know something has to give. “There is competition between every person on this mountain,” says the hippie-esque Fischer, and it is palpable. But any interplay between the climbers is superfluous and Fischer acknowledges this shortly thereafter, declaring the mountain will inevitably have the last word.

In a sense Everest is about the pull of an unavoidable thrill. “Why?” asks Krakauer as he documents the climbers’ journey. “Because it’s there,” is the comically-inclined universal reply, but it is also the best reply the mountaineers can muster. Nobody really has a solid answer — postman Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) talks about his desire to be the everyman who conquered the monster and achieved the impossible. We’re left to ponder whether the reward eclipses the risk, a contemplation that becomes increasingly one-sided the more Hall’s pregnant wife (a game Keira Knightley) appears. Various other members of the group give their reasons: Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) references her need to complete the Seven Summits, having already commandeered the other six.

But each response to Krakauer is admonished with persiflage. It is as if the alpinists know the risk is too great, and they’ve simply given in to the thrill. An unfortunate offshoot of the film’s competition element is a spot about the completion of a celebratory magazine article. Emily Watson, who graciously adds oomph to her fairly thankless role as a glorified receptionist (the actors are very good en masse in generally underfed roles), is stressed about her company receiving a bad review in the midst of the encumbering drama, a whim that feels tonally fake.

Death is an inevitability and when it occurs it is visceral in a non-violent way. Shades of grey don’t exist; the landscape yields either white tundras or black crevasses, and as such when people pass they do so bluntly. Analysing the effectiveness of a death scene in this instance feels egregious and unnecessary, particularly given the victims are real people, but Kormákur does handle said moments with candour and, crucially, without mawkishness. Mass amounts of clothing and equipment make it difficult to differentiate between those on screen, reinforcing the notion that on Everest individuals are merely pawns, merely statistics.

Kormákur’s direction is adroit initially, and it gets better as things get worse. We often see the misty, black peak looming over base camp like a plague. Oxygen masks quickly resemble gas masks. Each second the climbers spend plodding up slopes represents an ounce of life extracted from their bodies. This dangerous aura is complemented by Salvatore Totino’s visual flair — the snow-covered ridges could easily pass for one of The Two Towers’ awe-inspiring New Zealand shots.

Enhanced by booming screening room speakers (Everest is definitely a cinema movie), the sound design frequently jabs at your solar plexus. You instinctively breathe a little more vociferously when things start to go wrong and the outing’s audio power does nothing to ease the tension. There is one tranquil shot that is particularly wonderful; at twilight, camped in the eye of the storm, the camera pans calmly around Hall and co. as they gaze longingly at their lofty goal.

Everest stays true to its subjects in a way that is both compelling and respectful, even if some individuals don’t receive the attention they likely should due to the constraints posed by an excessively large cast. By the end, as the credits paid tribute to many of those involved, I found myself in a morose state of sadness, agitation and admiration. For a ‘big disaster movie’, that’s pretty good going.

Everest

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Begin Again (2014)

★★★★

Begin Again PosterDirector: John Carney

Release Date: July 11th, 2014 (UK & US)

Genre: Drama; Music

Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo

Why do they get nine out of ten of her dollars? Those are the words that spring from the mouth of Keira Knightley’s Gretta, a talented musician with a newfound shrewdness for business economics and life in general. Her question is aimed at record label producer Saul (Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def) who likely knows more about the dials on an Auto-Tune system than he does real musical verve.

But this isn’t a straightforward examination of the successes and failures of the contemporary music landscape. That is an underlying — and at times on the nose — theme, but not the film’s primary prerogative. Begin Again is more tuned into people, and how the relationships between those people unfold within a high intensity city, surrounded by an even higher intensity business.

We begin with an impressive James Corden as best friend Steve, encouraging a reluctant Gretta to get up and play one of her songs in a dingy New York City bar. She’s good, but through the murmurs and glass-smashing nobody takes much notice. Apart from Dan (Mark Ruffalo), who looks a little worse for wear. Dan, as it transpires, is a struggling record producer and former partner of the aforementioned Saul. Differing business models caused the split, a common occurrence in Dan’s life — he is also separated from his wife and bears the brunt of a friction-fuelled relationship with his daughter. Alcohol is his solution, which leads him to a dingy New York City bar.

And then we begin again, only this time our two central characters arrive imbued with backstory. The non-linear storytelling technique used early in the film is one of a few nuances implemented by director John Carney that help to maintain the freshness of what otherwise might be an occasionally dour narrative. When we first meet Gretta and Dan their individual baggage is evident, and because both Knightley and Ruffalo instantly come across empathetically, our affection greatly increases as their bad experiences are unveiled.

Dan is at odds both personally and professionally. He lives alone in a dank apartment that has probably seen more hangovers than clean bed sheets. Much to his ineffectual chagrin, his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) wears attire unsuitable for school. “Jodie Foster from Taxi Driver,” is Dan’s unsavoury description. It’s a good thing Gretta is around to interject as wardrobe advisor in between bouts of album recording.

Gretta used to be outgoing and inspired until she and ex-boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) unceremoniously severed ties. She becomes those things again when in Dan’s company, but their partnership thankfully doesn’t venture down generic romantic channels when you get the feeling it might. Carney, who directed and wrote the screenplay, has form in the genre — he helmed the much lauded indie music-drama Once, and puts the positive expertise gained from that to use here.

Ruffalo and Knightley excel individually and collectively. Ruffalo is particularly full of off-kilter charm as the scruffy music lover trying to maintain originality in an increasingly banal industry. When the actor is in his element — quirky, unfiltered and eccentric — he is really great, and he’s in his element for the duration. In a tough role to get right, Knightley manages to be genuinely likeable. It is a characterisation that can have thankless, mopey elements, however Knightley carries Gretta with realistic ambition — her talent is never really in question, just her own personal desire to work on an album — therefore we don’t have to sit through endless hurdles of self-doubt.

That being said, from a broad perspective the film does exist in a picture perfect world. Even though Dan is no longer with his wife, terrifically portrayed by Catherine Keener, the duo still have a budding relationship (in other words, they get along more than they argue). Gretta, on the day before she is set return to England, somehow finds herself playing her own song in front of the only guy willing to take a punt on her. Despite a quip about possible rainfall, the sun also always seems to be shining. However, any potential misgivings regarding circumstance play second fiddle to engaging performances and otherwise unsentimental storytelling.

Bubbling underneath all the character drama (you could say it is the film’s bassist) is a plot about the commercialisation of the music industry. Dan is the victim of this shift away from ingenuity, a notion captured in a funny yet somewhat overtly glaring scene that sees the song scout try unsuccessfully to remove wall “art” from his record label premises. “We need vision, not gimmicks,” he bemoans having just endured an endless stream of overproduced pop demos.

As an A&R man, there is also a compelling dynamic between Dan and Gretta. In an electric conversation over drinks, we can literally see Dan squirm around on his stool as he talks about compromising in order to, “Get people in [the door] before the music can do its work.” In a way Gretta is more of a purist than he, though that might be expected given she is the artist.

The proverbial ‘bad’ side of modern music is embodied by a bizarre record exec who flaunts that cocky Bradley Cooper vibe from American Hustle. Carney does afford some leeway to the idea that music and money are worst enemies by including the horrendously named Troublegum (CeeLo Green), one of Dan’s prized discoveries who still has his back. This allows for a hilarious impromptu rap scene that probably accurately reflects how CeeLo converses in real life.

The New York setting serenades the film with helping of authenticity — while doing press for the movie, Knightley spoke of how the crew adopted a guerrilla filmmaking style when shooting in back alleys and on rooftops. The songs themselves are woody and energetic, and certainly mirror Dan’s desperation to save the spirit of music. The soundtrack isn’t as earthy as something like Inside Llewyn Davis, or even Crazy Heart, but like in those films, the songs do play a part in ensuring proceedings don’t begin to flounder.

Begin Again balances carefully developed characters and musical intermissions with a somewhat stinging appraisal of how music is produced today. Gretta simply wants to write songs and release them for anyone’s consumption. She would charge as little as a dollar for her album. By the way, you can purchase Begin Again’s year-old soundtrack for £5.99 on iTunes. Huh. At least the film itself sticks to its admirable laurels.

Begin Again - Knightley & Levine

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company

The Imitation Game (2014)

★★★

The Imitation Game PosterDirector: Morten Tyldum

Release Date: November 14th, 2014 (UK); December 25th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Biography; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley

I saw The Imitation Game last year and was too caught up in other work to jot down some thoughts in a semi-coherent manner. This review, then, comes significantly later than it should have and, despite still possessing a few pages of notes designed to jog the memory, I’m now struggling to recall much of the film. That’s the main problem here. The Imitation Game is just unmemorable. It’s not a time issue either — the piece left as much to be desired back in December as it does now. Of course, the story of Alan Turing is an incredibly memorable one but that has nothing to do with this film per se (rather, it’s because his life actually happened and was shocking in and of itself).

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing, a British mathematician and cryptanalyst courted by his country to solve the seemingly impenetrable Nazi Enigma code. The film takes place at the peak of World War II, but you wouldn’t have guessed it if not for the occasional reference. At one point, problem solving team member Peter (Matthew Beard) refers to that big battle thing happening far from the otherwise serene Bletchley Park: “There are actual soldiers out there trying to win an actual war.” We don’t see enough, or at the very least feel enough, of this supposed ongoing war. It’s as if all the events on-screen are unfolding on a remote island as opposed to an island entrenched in a horrendous, deadly human struggle.

Returning to more local matters, we watch as a whole host of obstacles are thrown in front of Turing — those well-known ones related to his private life, but also professional obstacles that simply do not make sense. Charles Dance’s Commander Alistair Denniston, who is overseeing the operation at Bletchley Park, essentially becomes a less brutal version of Tywin Lannister as he dishes out ultimatums to Turing and his team, threatening to shut down their potentially life-saving efforts. “Our patience has expired,” he groans. But why? Surely it’d be wise to keep the process going irrespective of how long success is taking. The film doesn’t address this awkward stance enough, and as such we’re left with a weird sense of internal squabbling that doesn’t chime well given the war climate.

For the most part, emotionally devastating moments — at least, that’s what they should be — are presented in a fairly generic manner. Graham Moore’s screenplay lacks imagination. A ship sinking debate is one of the more morally dubious scenes but you can see the ambiguity coming from a mile off. Since the film is based on a true story it is very possible that parts such as the one referred to above are reflected with genuine truthfulness, their blunt coincidence thus horrible to even consider. However, Moore and director Morten Tyldum set up the majority of these would-be taut interactions too easily. The ship sinking argument feels like a Hollywood moment when it should be the complete antithesis – dirty and righteously murky.

There is a lot fuelling the narrative and as such the film begins to confuse itself as it juggles a number of different layers (any codebreakers around to sort this mess out?). We touch upon the intricacies of gender politics, man versus machine, sexual orientation and the war climate, each with varying impetus. The technological struggle between Turing’s team and the Enigma machine is intriguing, and when Tyldum focuses on the mathematician’s private life the piece flourishes with authenticity and solemn gravitas. To its credit, The Imitation Game does effectively capture the painstaking conclusion to Turing’s life. Perhaps singling out only two elements instead of trying to engage with a handful of themes would’ve yielded something more concise and coherent for Tyldum.

Having said all that, the performances from many of the cast are very good — one or two are particularly noteworthy — and these keep the piece bubbling over (they also undoubtedly had a hand in shooting the film into wide-netted Oscar contention). Cumberbatch bumbles as well as ever playing the intellectually gifted Turing, whilst at the same time empowering the periodically unaccommodating man with increasing resilience and vigour. He is the perfect fit for the role and Cumberbatch really comes into his own when reflecting the weightier points of Turing’s life.

Matthew Goode, Allen Leech and Matthew Beard complete the team of puzzle solvers. The latter duo don’t have as much to do but as Hugh Alexander, Goode carries out the brazen and often unimpressed act to a T. It is Keira Knightley, though, who has the most impact opposite Cumberbatch. She plays Cambridge graduate Joan Clarke who develops a close bond with Turing throughout the film. In lesser hands the role might’ve fallen foul of poor characterisation but Knightley has steel in her eyes, Joan often the person bearing the strongest will.

The film doesn’t really match up to the awards recognition it has been receiving over the past few months, but it does manage to be a suitably uplifting-turned-demoralising piece. I reckon that has more to do with Turing’s real life struggles than how the picture depicts them. Maybe The Imitation Game isn’t as dreary as I recall, but I’m not recalling much.

The Imitation Game - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): StudioCanal, The Weinstein Company