REVIEW: Everest

16 09 2015

EverestTowards the end of the lengthy expository section of “Everest,” journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) asks the question on everyone’s mind: “Why Everest?”  The film recounts a harrowing climb under the tutelage of mountain guide Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), who leads a group that does not necessarily look a typical band of sport climbers.  Knowing what exactly motivates them to reach the planet’s highest peak is a reasonable thing for an audience to wonder.

In this one moment perfectly set up for characters to bare their souls – the writer makes for a reasonable excuse to pose such an inquiry – “Everest” pretty much whiffs.  When accomplished scripters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy cannot deliver on an obvious occasion to answer what deeper meaning this mountain has, it cannot help but disappoint.

So, in the absence of a satisfactory answer to Krakauer’s question, I would like to pose it myself – albeit with slightly different punctuation and inflection.  Why, “Everest?”

Why, “Everest,” must you include a maudlin, manipulative score that tells us exactly how to feel when we should feel it?  Granted, at least they got Dario Marianelli, so it sounds pretty.  But as I watched the film, my mind often drifted to thinking about how much more intense and visceral the experience would be with the score for “Gravity.”  Such impressionistic sounds and frightening dissonances could make the environment seem dauntingly alien.  The music meant to represent climbing the world’s tallest mountain should not resemble the score for any old drama.

Why, “Everest,” must you stubbornly insist on just portraying things that happen to people?  As Hall’s group summits, they face treacherous weather conditions that put their lives in peril.  But the snowstorm is just a snowstorm.  The film lacks any sort of overarching structure of conflict, like man vs. nature or man vs. man, to imbue the challenges with deeper meaning in the mold of “127 Hours.”  The struggles remain in the realm of the personal, not tapping some greater sense of collective fear.  It’s danger without any sense of dread for the audience.
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TELLURIDE TALKS: Morten Tyldum, director of “The Imitation Game”

27 11 2014

Morten TyldumEarlier this year, I had the distinct pleasure to attend the Student Symposium at the Telluride Film Festival.  As a part of this program, I had the privilege to partake in small group discussions with filmmakers at the festival.  The “Telluride Talks” series is a way for me to share their thoughts, ideas, and insights with everyone.  First up, Morten Tyldum, director of “The Imitation Game.”

There was a Friday evening screening of “The Imitation Game” on our schedule.  This meant that, so long as we arrived in a timely manner, there should have been tickets blocked off for us.  Yet as I hopped off the gondola – required to get to the theater on the other side of the mountain – all I saw were my fellow students walking the other way.  We somehow got boxed out.

It is standard operating procedure that when talent is to talk to anyone about their film, those people need to have actually seen that film.  So, needless to say, it was suitably awkward when Morten Tyldum walked in the next day for a rousing discussion of his movie … and no one in the group had seen it.

All things considered, however, the conversation was still quite lively and informative.  Tyldum remained in good spirits and obliged our requests not to say too much about the content of “The Imitation Game.”  Most of the conversation centered around his filmmaking philosophy and career – an interesting topic given that he is now making the jump to American cinema.

Tyldum, 47, began making films in his native Norway about a decade ago.  He came to most people’s attention with the 2011 action-thriller “Headhunters,” which is available to stream through Netflix and definitely worth a watch.  The film garnered a BAFTA nomination for Tyldum, but it more importantly opened the door for him to make movies on a grander scale.

_TIG2664.NEFThere are many people who romanticize the European model of making films, and Tyldum is not one of them.  He admitted to favoring the honesty of Hollywood filmmaking over the pretentiousness of the Scandinavian system.  Tyldum also lamented the way it was suspicious to make a commercially successful film in his home country, so no wonder he wanted to get out – “Headhunters” is the highest grossing Norwegian film to date.

He was initially set to hop across the pond for his English language debut with “Bastille Day.”  At the time, Ben Affleck was attached, but the film fell through when “Argo” became such a smashing success.  (“Bastille Day” is now filming with Idris Elba as the lead and British director James Watkins at the helm.)  Tyldum quickly landed on his feet, though, by scoring the gig to direct “The Imitation Game.”

The project was a hotly coveted property from the Black List, a registry of the best unproduced screenplays, ranking #1 in their 2011.  “The Imitation Game” initially attracted attention from Warner Bros. to set up as a star vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio, who wanted to play the leading role of brilliant yet troubled mathematician Alan Turing.  Ultimately, it fell to Tyldum and Internet sensation Benedict Cumberbatch.  (Which is quite an ironic role for him to play, considering that Turing essentially invented the computer.)

Turing’s tale is one of incredible highs, such as when he cracked the German cipher in World War II, as well as extreme lows, namely a chemical castration as a result of his homosexuality.  He definitely lived an eventful life, that much is for certain.  But like Bennett Miller and Jon Stewart, two other with films at Telluride about real-life subjects, Tyldum said it was more important to honor the spirit of the story than to get every factual detail correct.

Cumberbatch Turing Imitation GameAnd critics of “The Imitation Game” have been quick to take the filmmakers to task for whitewashing or downplaying Turing’s sexuality.  Seemingly in response to these criticisms, Tyldum highlighted the richness of the story and just how many distinct angles and interpretations that different filmmakers could extrapolate from it.  While some might see it as an opportunity for a LGBTQ message or a lesson on science and math, Tyldum stated that he saw the movie as “about how important it is to listen to people who are different.”

“I like shaded, flawed characters more,” as he put it, and Tyldum certainly dwells in the ambiguities of Turing’s character.  I can say so because, on the final day of the festival, I darted across Telluride on my bike to catch the final screening after a required event.  I was panting to catch my breath for the first thirty minutes, but at least I had the chance to see that “The Imitation Game” lived up to Tyldum’s expressed vision.

“The Imitation Game” opens in limited release on November 28 and will gradually expand throughout the month of December.





REVIEW: Laggies

15 11 2014

LaggiesTwo years ago, I placed my money on Lynn Shelton to lead the charge of brining the mumblecore movement to the mainstream.  After seeing “Laggies,” however, I may want to switch my bet to Joe Swanberg.

That is not to imply Shelton’s latest feature indicates a decline in the quality of her output; “Laggies” is certainly a recovery since she sputtered last year with the deservedly little-seen “Touchy Feely.”  Moreover, it is probably her most accessible (or marketable) film to date.  But in order to achieve that, Shelton has not adapted or modified the movement from which she arose.  She has essentially dispersed of it all together.

The only part of “Laggies” that remains in the mumblecore tradition is its protagonist, Keira Knightley’s Megan.  She’s a spiritual cousin of Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha and Lena Dunham’s Aura from “Tiny Furniture,” a confused and commitment-phobic upper-middle-class millennial twentysomething ambling haplessly through the best years of her life.  She clearly does not love her boyfriend (Mark Webber, yet she lacks the decisiveness to reject his advances towards marriage.  She invested in post-graduate education, but she prefers the lack of responsibility that comes from sign-twirling for her father (Jeff Garlin).

Knightley nails the generational milieu of indirection and indecision, so it is too bad that the rest of “Laggies” could not be nearly as interesting as her.  Shelton, working from a screenplay by Andrea Seigel, steers the film quickly into the realm of standard-issue chick flicks and rom-coms.  Once she lays the cards on the table, it becomes pretty clear where the film will go – although I did hold out hope that there might be a subversive or original twist to spruce things up a bit.

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REVIEW: The Imitation Game

8 09 2014

Telluride Film Festival

As if the subject of “The Imitation Game” – a tender British soul misunderstood as an incompetent and bumbling fool – weren’t enough to draw comparisons to “The King’s Speech,” the film seemingly invites the parallel in its opening credits.  It’s only faintly discernible, but audio from none other than King George’s climactic speech at the dawn of World War II plays diegetically in the background.

To those who might recognize the snippet, it serves as a perfect barometer for the ambitions of “The Imitation Game.”  With maybe a dash of brash mathematical genius of “A Beautiful Mind,” Morten Tyldum’s film is very much this year’s “The King’s Speech.”  For those unaware of the construed meaning of 2010’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, that means the film is an engaging and entertaining biopic made with high production values all around yet does not aspire to anything groundbreaking.

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

Maybe I can only give such an unabashed endorsement of the film from my privileged subject position of being one of the first audiences to see the film or because I saw it before the glut of prestige films later in the fall.  Indeed, I can already see myself holding truly great movies against “The Imitation Game” and wondering how on earth anyone could think so highly of it.  At least for the moment, however, I choose to see the film as it is: a quality piece of cinema that is not trying to reinvent the wheel.  It’s simply trying to turn some wheels in my head, and I thoroughly enjoyed it on those terms.

Certainly a film has some merit if it can collapse a two-hour act of viewing into feeling like an experience lasting half that duration.  “The Imitation Game” flew by, largely because of how engrossed in the story and the characters I became.  Benedict Cumberbatch turns in inspired work bringing the film’s subject, Alan Turing, to life.  His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

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REVIEW: Begin Again

2 07 2014

Begin AgainJohn Carney’s “Begin Again” was first screened for audiences under the title “Can A Song Save Your Life?”  An interesting question, to be sure, but perhaps not the right one … or at least not the one preoccupying most viewers.  Their biggest question is (or ought to be), can these songs save this movie?

The answer is, well, not exactly.  “Begin Again” flaunts some pleasant ditties, including a few from Maroon 5’s Adam Levine (great for boosting soundtrack sales) and several from the surprisingly smooth pipes of Keira Kinghtley.  But they are rather breezy and generic tunes, not quite the game-changing classics Carney and his film make them out to be.

While I’m not a music critic (and do not intend to masquerade as one), I do feel that I can comment on how the tracks are incorporated into the film with relative authority.  And in “Begin Again,” the songs play out rather like music videos, with the one exception of Knightley’s strikingly beautiful opening number about isolation in the Big Apple.  Furthermore, they never reveal anything about the characters participating in their creation (see the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” for a masterclass).

These songs reflect the larger issue with “Begin Again,” which is that it provides a surface-level treatment of just about everything it touches.  Carney occasionally proffers a profound musing on music, both its art and its commerce, but never really explores them fully.

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REVIEW: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

20 01 2014

Economics majors may be get some major wish fulfillment through “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” the latest reboot and recasting of Tom Clancy’s paperback protagonist. As the CIA’s best “analyst” on Wall Street, he’s a compliance officer with a badge! Ryan gets to audit some assets in Russia and uncovers a terrorist plot that’s being developed in tandem with an orchestrated economic meltdown.

While this may sound exciting, it’s far more appealing as a synopsis than as the actual movie that plays out. Kenneth Branagh’s take on Jack Ryan feels like a feature-length first act of a great film. Nothing ever seems to escalate to levels where we feel the need to engage and maybe worry. The action is drawn out rather than reigned in, and as a result, it feels like seeing an incomplete movie. The problem is reminiscent to those that plagued Branagh’s last outing, the first film of the “Thor” series.

Even scarier than Branagh’s directing of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” is his acting in it. Playing the villainous Russian banker Cheverin with a heinously slapdash accent, he’s hardly menacing or intimidating. I found myself pining for a Philip Seymour Hoffman, a revelation in “Mission: Impossible III,” to put Branagh out of his misery.

Perhaps more troubling, though, than not having an antagonist to root against is the lack of a protagonist to root for. Chris Pine’s Jack Ryan feels copied and posted from his work as Captain Kirk in the “Star Trek” franchise. That’s not to say that one star cannot be at the helm of two series. But to be pulled off successfully, the two characters need to be distinct. For example, no one would mistake Robert Downey Jr’s smug Tony Stark from “Iron Man” for his cunning detective in “Sherlock Holmes.”

Pine’s bland acting brings nothing new to the Jack Ryan universe. His acting feels like it could be just any old script; he’s not creating a character that will really endure. As such, the only successful case that “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” makes is that its titular character should just be left behind in the ‘90s.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Anna Karenina

25 11 2012

Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” is a cinematic version of Tolstoy’s treasure meant for people who love “Anna Karenina.”  In other words, if you haven’t read it or spent time with other film adaptations, this film will be as lost on you as it was on me.  It’s a stylized take on the classic that leaves those watching the film trying to decipher the plot in the dust.  (Recommendation: read a plot summary beforehand.)

Wright is trying to do a master class on “Anna Karenina” by doing something unconventional with the staging: that is, to literally set it on a stage.  The setting works well as a clever metaphor for Russian high society and breathes some new life into the dusty tale.  And kudos to Wright for trying to break out of his doldrums of conventionality that have led to a string of mediocre films that have fallen ever so short of success.

However, the extended metaphor is quickly revealed to be incredibly quixotic; that is, idealistic but not practical.  If you’ve ever seen a copy of Tolstoy’s book in print, you would certainly notice it’s a hefty volume that is sure to have quite a sprawling narrative.  The story of “Anna Karenina” takes us to all sorts of locales, many of which simply don’t work inside of a theatre or stage setting.

So rather than try to make it work, Wright hits us over the head with it in the first act … and then essentially discards it when no longer expedient.  With a little more thought, it could have yielded all sorts of revelations about the story.  But as it appears on screen in his final version, the metaphor is unfulfilled.

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