Everest

Everest is big. Appropriately so. It’s a big story with a big cast of characters and, of course, a big mountain. The biggest mountain, actually. The film is best viewed on a big screen.

In 1996, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) led expeditions to Mount Everest. Other groups were also at base camp, all set to make a final ascent on May 10. Everest shows Hall to be a conscientious, detail-oriented leader, a “hand holder” as Fischer calls him. Fischer is a more casual leader with his climbers.

Among those in Hall’s group are Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a big, boisterous Texan; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mailman of more modest means than most climbers; Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a quiet Japanese woman; and Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), a journalist who plans to do a cover story on the trek for Outside magazine.

Emily Watson and Elizabeth Debicki are Hall’s base camp support team. Hall’s pregnant wife Jan (Kiera Knightley), who had climbed Everest with him in ‘93, is at home in New Zealand where she communicates with him by phone. Robin Wright plays Weathers’ wife, back home in Texas.

If you are unfamiliar with the story you may want to avoid plot synopses and remain unaware of the challenges the climbers encountered on May 10, 1996.

Though the story of the May 1996 expedition to Everest has been told before, most notably in Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, this new movie provides thrilling visuals and recreates the real-life peril of an Everest climb. Director Baltasar Kormakur brings the tale to life with realistic location shots in hazardous weather conditions. The cast and crew are to be congratulated for what one would presume to have been a tough shoot.

For those who have read Krakauer’s book (which I, incidentally, consider to be the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read), there are slight differences in the story told in the film. Most significantly, the logjam that occurs at the Hillary Step just below the summit plays a bigger role in the book than in the movie.

Last year’s Wild has led to more traffic on the Pacific Crest Trail this year and the recent A Walk In The Woods is expected to send more hikers to the Appalachian Trail in 2016. Will Everest result in even more climbers attempting to ascend to the top of the world? Probably, even though the danger of an Everest climb far outweighs than that of a trail hike. The difficulties chronicled in Everest will, for many, likely be outweighed by the lust for adventure and the glory of reaching the summit.

If you prefer to experience an Everest climb vicariously (as do I) and enjoy a good story about people who climb, the best way is to see Everest. And remember, this is one to see on a big movie screen.

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Ant-Man

Another Marvel Comics character comes to life in Ant-Man and has apparently birthed a new movie franchise.

Paul Rudd is a pretty boy actor from rom-coms and buddy movies—not your typical action hero. Rudd plays Scott Lang, just sprung from San Quentin where he did time for burglary.

When he can’t keep a job at Baskin-Robbins because of his felon past, his friend Luis (Michael Pena) guides him to a break-in gig. It turns out to have been a setup, arranged by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). When Pym sees that Scott is crafty enough to have busted into his safe, he drafts Scott to put the technology he developed into play and become Ant-Man.

With a press of one button he becomes ant size, with the press of another, he returns to full size. Ant-Man has a mission: to derail the work being done by Pym’s successor, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Pym developed the tech that made Ant-Man work. Now Cross is working to perfect his version of that tech to deliver a similar shrinking man he calls Yellowjacket, which he promises would allow its owner to control the world.

Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) is Pym’s daughter who continues to work with Cross. As the film begins, it’s not exactly clear whose side she’s on, but it soon becomes clear that she’s daddy’s girl. Her sparring with Scott creates some low boil sexual tension.

Ant-Man takes its time getting to the real action while Scott’s family situation is examined. He’s a divorced dad who wants to see his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). His ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her boyfriend Jim (Bobby Cannavale) want him to stay away until he becomes solvent.

When Scott begins training as Ant-Man, the fun begins. He learns to run and leap through keyholes, timing his shrink/expand buttons to allow smooth passage. The film’s climax takes place in and around the lab that produced the technology and at the home where daughter Cassie lives.

Ant-Man is a fun film, thanks to script revisions by Adam McKay and Rudd. Ant-Man is notably lighter, less serious than your typical Marvel film. A highlight is a brief encounter with another character from the Marvel universe. Ant-Man is directed by Peyton Reed.

(FYI, Should a shot or two in Ant-Man trigger a memory of the 1989 film Honey I Shrunk The Kids, take note that Ant-Man first appeared in Marvel comic books in 1962.)

Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland should be a slam dunk. It’s Disney. It’s George Clooney. It’s Brad Bird (director). It’s nostalgia. It’s the future. But, like an errant jet pack, it goes off course.

Not to say that Tomorrowland isn’t entertaining. It is. But it could’ve been great. And, sadly, it’s just okay.

The concept has merit, but there’s just too much “business” going on and not quite enough real meat on the bones of this message movie. And, in case you don’t get the message, it is pounded into you: Yes, we have big problems in our world. But rather than complain about them, you should get busy solving those problems.

Frank Walker (George Clooney, with stubble) opens the film by talking about the future and how attitudes toward the future have changed since he was a kid.

A young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) is shown attending the 1964 New York World’s Fair and showing off the jet pack he’s invented. Nix (Hugh Laurie) nixes the device but young Athena (Raffey Cassidy) helps deliver him (and the jetpack) into Oz, um, I mean, Tomorrowland.

Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is busted while trying to sneak onto the grounds at Cape Canaveral. She finds a cool pin among her personal effects when her rocket scientist dad (Tim McGraw) bails her out. The pin takes her to Tomorrowland.

Upon her return, she visits a collectables store and asks the clerks (Keegan-Michael Key and Katherine Hahn) about the pin, thereby setting in motion a sequence that echoes Men In Black.

With guidance from Athena, Casey meets up with Frank Walker and they begin their mission to get back to where they once belonged.

Tomorrowland bogs down on more than one occasion in preachy dialogue. And for a PG-rated movie, there are a couple of things that might freak out a small fry—such as when a little girl is hit by a speeding truck. Oh, she bounces right up, but the shock resonates.

For those of us who’ve made a few journeys around the sun, Tomorrowland comes off as idealistic pap. We’ve rolled our eyes at futuristic visions for decades.

For the younger, bright-eyed optimists of the world, this great big beautiful Tomorrowland is manna from Disney heaven. If your cynicism level is zero, you’ll eat Tomorrowland up like warm gooey butter cake.

Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is a loud, violent, angry film that assaults the senses with adrenaline-fueled vehicle chases, fiery crashes and painful death. It is a masterful piece of filmmaking.

In a future wasteland, the scenario is ripe for revolt. A tyrannical leader King Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) rules a population that receives water only sparingly. Within the mountainside lair called the Citadel, where women produce breast milk to sustain the ruler and his minions, Max (Tom Hardy) is imprisoned.

Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is selected to pilot a tanker to Gastown along the straight and narrow Fury Road. When she heads off course into unpaved desert, King Joe and his convoy pursue, with Max secured to a lead truck like a human hood ornament. On one vehicle, a guitar player provides a rockin’ accompaniment to the mission (with a guitar that is a flame throwing weapon).

After Max escapes and joins forces with Furiosa, he finds that she is ferrying five gorgeous babes, the mountainside leader’s sex slaves, to her intended destination, a land of vegetation where she was born. The chase continues until… they all head back to the Citadel.

Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the best action/adventure films I’ve ever seen. Because of its fantastic settings, its distinctive characters, its primal story, its savage spirit, its forceful soundtrack and its high energy level. The film starts at a sprint and doesn’t slow down until 30 minutes in.

Hardy is a brilliant choice to play a hero who saves his own skin first, then becomes part of a bigger effort to help others. Theron, in her non-glam buzz cut, is all business as her character asserts her own will and proves to be just as tough as any man.

Director Miller may be guilty of overkill, but the unrelenting intensity of Mad Max: Fury Road will satisfy audiences who are ready to have their minds blown. For action movie fans, Mad Max: Fury Road is a must-see!

Fury

 

Fury is a beautifully constructed WWII movie. The story, the script, the characters, the acting, the tanks, the effects are all top-notch. But is it special? That’s the big question about Fury. It’s a truly entertaining film, and maybe that’s enough.

Fury is a tank, commanded by “Wardaddy” (Brad Pitt). He’s fought Germans in Africa, France and, now, on the Krauts’ home turf. The film is set in spring 1945, just weeks before the war’s end. Germany is reeling, but the bloody battles continue.

When any war movie introduces its characters, you know: some will die; some will survive. Wardaddy’s group includes the religious Swan (Shia LeBoeuf), Latino “Gordo” (Michael Pena) and redneck “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal).

The most interesting character in Fury is Norman, a callow youth played by Logan Lerman. Norman is a pencil pusher, just 8 weeks into his Army career, when he’s somehow assigned to Wardaddy’s crew. He is unprepared for witnessing death and certainly not ready to kill people.

A couple of battle scenes set up the final showdown. The faceoff between Fury (and other American tanks) against a bigger, stronger German tank depicts the intense effort of those inside the tank and the constant movement of the tanks for strategic positioning. (A note at the movie’s opening notes that American tanks did not quite measure up to German tanks.)

A sequence that follows the takeover of a German town shows Wardaddy and Norman enjoying a cordial visit with 2 German women. It’s a moment of quiet humanity amidst the horror of war. Later, the other 3 tank men crash the party and behave uncouthly until Wardaddy takes control.

When Fury is assigned to go it alone and defend a key rural intersection, they sit and wait for German activity. Norman scouts from a hillside and spots hundreds of Germans on their way for the film’s climactic battle, which is loud, intense and furious.

Writer/director David Ayer frames the film with memorable opening and closing shots and his overhead shots of the tank positioning are cleverly shot. In Fury, though most of the action occurs during daytime, the days are gray and dismal—appropriate for the grim business of war.

As Fury depicts it, war is hell. WWII, particularly so.

 

 

 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

 

In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Andrew Garfield seems incredibly comfortable in the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Also, his version of Peter Parker enjoys being Spider-Man more than did Tobey McGuire’s. The Spidey angst here is more about his relationship with Gwen.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 pivots back and forth between Peter’s romance with Gwen (Emma Stone) and Spider-Man’s efforts to save the world from evil. Will the couple stay apart? Can they resist the attraction? And will Spider-Man be able to contain bad guys who bring new terror to the screen?

As usual, something catastrophic happens to turn a normal person into a creature bent on doing bad things. This time it’s nerdy Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) who, thanks to powerful electrical current, becomes Electro.

Honestly, I didn’t care for Electro as a villain. His powers seemed poorly defined though almost limitless. Jamie Foxx, as usual, is great but the character lacks qualities that would make him more memorable.

Harry Osborn (Dean DeHaan) is heir to the Oscorp organization and is about to segue into his Green Goblin identity. Like Foxx, DeHaan is a talented actor. But the evolution of the Green Goblin is less than satisfying.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 launches with Spider-Man trying to rein in a terrorist in a truck, Aleksei (Paul Giamatti), while also trying to make his way to a graduation ceremony where Gwen will be speaking. Giamatti’s character looks and acts like a refugee from The Road Warrior and the role fails to take advantage of Giamatti’s acting prowess.

Sally Field returns as Aunt May and, although she’s still pretty at age 67, in one shot her neck looks just awful. (Pardon my being catty.)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has action galore. The sequences with Spidey using his web spinning to move rapidly through a cityscape are, to me, more enjoyable than the scenes showing Spider-Man trying to neutralize the villains.

Director Mark Webb delivers one of my favorite shots of the year in this film. It shows Gwen falling, in very slow motion. The contrast from the high energy pace of the rest of the movie is stark.

This is not a must-see film unless you feel a personal need to catch all the tent-pole movies this spring-summer in order to keep tabs on the super heroes. TAS-M2 delivers all the movie stuff that goes well with popcorn, and it entertains, but it has shortcomings that cause it to fall short of greatness.

 

 

 

 

Captain Phillips

I agree with the blurb on the TV spots—Captain Phillips IS one of 2013’s best films. Tom Hanks turns in his usual strong portrayal, but it’s the guys who play the Somali pirates who help give the film its realism.

Captain Phillips has the three elements that make a good movie: a compelling story, compelling characters and an interesting way of telling of that story.

Captain Phillips is based on a true story, though some of the actual crew members claim that they didn’t get the love they deserved and blame the real-life Captain Phillips. Also: a movie, even one based on real events, takes liberties with characters, timelines and minor details in its storytelling.

Having issued those disclaimers, I can assure you that Captain Phillips sometimes feels like TV news coverage. (Although, unlike many films based on recent real-life occurrences, we do not see clips of TV news reports of the incident.) With many handheld camera shots, plus scenes filmed in close quarters, Captain Phillips has an air of reality that many similar films do not have.

Phillips (Tom Hanks) is a regular guy from Vermont who happens to have a job as a sea captain. As the film opens, we see him riding to the airport with his wife (Catherine Keener) who sends him off to his next trip. He runs a cargo vessel that has to sail in open waters near Somalia. Hanks has great range as an actor, but playing everyman is his sweet spot.

Admirably, director Paul Greengrass also shares the Somali pirates’ backstory. He shows them gathering on the beach, choosing a team and constructing a longer ladder to enable them to board large vessels. During their takeover of the ship and all that follows, the audience comes to know these guys and their motivations. They are not sympathetic characters, but they are not just a bunch of faceless thugs.

Native Somali Barkhad Abdi (now a U.S. resident) plays Muse, the rail-thin leader of the pirate takeover. His machine gun allows him to display some swagger, but his cool helps him calm dissension within his gang of four. Could this unknown be 2013’s version of Quvenzhané Wallis, last year’s awards season darling?

Although you as a moviegoer know in advance that Phillips made it out alive, as with Titanic and Apollo 13, discovering the outcome is not the reason to see Captain Phillips. It’s the journey that each of the characters takes that keeps the tension building right up to the film’s climax. Also, it’s rather cool to see the way U.S. military involvement in the event is depicted.

Sometimes a big star promotes a movie with maximum gusto to generate a decent opening weekend, before ticket buyers figure out that it is not a very good movie. Hanks has been flogging Captain Phillips like crazy in recent weeks. In this case, it is not to salvage a mediocre film but to generate long-term box office. The guess here is that Captain Phillips will have “legs” and that Tom Hanks is in line to get a large percentage of those ticket sales.

In mid-summer, I had only a couple of films on my 2013 “must see” list. Happily, the list has grown in recent weeks. My latest “must see” movie is Captain Phillips.

 

 

Gravity

And you thought George Clooney was up in the air in 2009!

How good is Gravity? It’s pretty darn good, but it falls way short of greatness. Still, it’s a movie to see because (1) it’s a complete, competent movie with only two onscreen actors and (2) it has some spectacular images.

Is every special effect awesome? No, a few are fakey, obviously done with miniatures. But many do look terrific.

The title has two meanings here. Gravity is the force that pulls us to the earth. And gravity describes a tense, serious life situation.

George Clooney, as astronaut Matt Kowalski, defies gravity—both kinds. As a veteran of the space program, he has escaped earth’s gravity numerous times. And in a time of looming danger, he wants to tell stories of a trip to Mardi Gras in the 80’s and flirt with space chum Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock).

Astronauts (especially those from the Right Stuff era) are a different breed but Kowalski seems more like a typical earthbound Clooney charmer than a NASA space cowboy. His almost flip attitude is balanced by his deep fascination with the views he sees, even after many trips to the sky.

Stone, on the other hand, is all business. She’s an engineer and has a stoic, let’s-stick-to-the-task disposition.

Their spacewalk is interrupted by orbiting space debris. The flying flotsam wreaks significant havoc on its first go-around. The experienced Kowalski points out that the next orbit of space junk could be worse.

Interestingly, when Stone takes refuge inside a space station, the first thing she does is strip down to her shorts and t-shirt. Sure, it’s less bulky than a spacesuit, but it also serves to add a bit of sex appeal when she “swims” weightlessly through the facility. This setting renders a memorable shot when the camera backfocuses on a floating tear.

Gravity is essentially a story of survival, one where human instincts merge with technical knowledge and skill. To be sure, we haven’t seen this many narrow escapes since Indy Jones hung up his fedora. But the intensity starts early and keeps going to the end. Enjoy the ride!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elysium

Elysium looks great. Director Neill Blomkamp who delivered the excellent sci-fi District 9 in ’09 impresses us again with settings and characters that illustrate an extreme political/economic division.

But, while District 9 had a distinctive, creative visual style and delivered numerous surprises, as soon as Elysium sets up its story, it is easy to guess how it will likely end. Getting from start to finish should’ve been a better ride.

Matt Damon plays Max who is lucky to have his tedious factory gig in Los Angeles in 2154. The city resembles present day third world slums in places like Rio or Mumbai. When his industrial machine malfunctions, he steps inside to undo a glitch. He is trapped and exposed to radiation. When his robotic doc tells him he has cancer and will die in five days, he takes action.

While the poor schlubs labor on earth, the planet’s wealthy have taken refuge on Elysium, a giant space station. The pristine mansions and verdant landscapes look like those you might see in Palm Beach or certain wealthy Arab enclaves, such as Dubai. The real attraction of Elysium to the earthbound is access to healing machines that vanquish all diseases.

Max’s childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) has a daughter with leukemia who could benefit from a ride up to Elysium. Flashbacks reveal Max and Frey’s early bonding.

Meanwhile on Elysium, government operative Delacourt (Jodie Foster) monitors situations on earth (and keeps out the earthly lowlifes) while participating in political maneuverings at the space place. Foster has succeeded in the past playing fierce femmes, but her performance in Elysium is distractingly flat.

Sharlto Copley who was amazing in District 9 is passable here as violent government agent Kruger, who does everything he can to keep Max from making it to Elysium.

Director Blomkamp has stated in interviews that Elysium depicts not just the future, but also the present. The movie’s message is about as subtle as a 2X4 to the head. Yes, we do currently have those economic extremes presented in the movie, but most of the world’s citizens are somewhere in between.

After a spring and summer of good but not outstanding sci-fi films, I was hopeful that Elysium might be the one that would be outstanding. Sadly, it is not. But it looks great!

 

 

The Wolverine

The Wolverine has everything a summer blockbuster needs to have: Epic battles! Cool effects! Menacing villains! Triumphant (despite flaws) heroes! Asian characters! Robots! 3-D!

Bonus points to The Wolverine for also having arrow-wielding Ninja warriors!

The Wolverine has a relatively complex plot involving a Japanese family’s internal rivalries. Logan, the Wolverine himself (Hugh Jackman, in a non-singing role), meanwhile, is fraught with haunting memories of past horrors and of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), fellow mutant and former squeeze.

The film opens with the Nagasaki A-bomb explosion in 1945. As the bomb’s fireball approaches, prisoner Logan takes Japanese soldier Yashida into the hole where he has been confined. In so doing, he saves the soldier’s life.

Decades later, as Yashida, now a wealthy industrialist, lies on his deathbed, he summons Logan to Tokyo to thank him for saving his life. (The elder Yashida is played by Hal Yamanouchi.) Logan is delivered there by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a feisty woman with unnaturally bright red hair, who seems to pop up at opportune times throughout the movie.

Yashida has willed his empire not to his son but to his granddaughter Makiro (Tao Okamoto). Yashida asks Logan to protect Makiro from her father and his henchmen.

Among Yashida’s employees is another mutant, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) whose intentions are not always clear. Hers is not the only character whose motives and allegiances seem to shift during the course of the movie.

The Wolverine has one of its epic battles atop a bullet train. Train top face-offs are nothing new, but this one is memorable, in part because of the train’s apparent high speed.

The ultimate epic showdown happens within a multi-story mountainside lair, where a shiny metal creature jumps into the fray. Is it a robot or is this a spectacular suit of knightly armor?

The Wolverine meets all the requirements listed above. It features (according to many) the most popular of the X-Men. Hugh Jackman is excellent in the role, as usual.

But the movie has some pacing issues. It gets a bit bogged down in the middle, only to provide an awesome payoff with first, the Ninjas, and then, the finale. In a summer full of action blockbusters, The Wolverine ranks near the top of the heap.